The foremost question plaguing the Brian Cashman era in New York remains, “Are the Yankees any good at developing pitchers?” Any real answer to that question means considering not only players on the current roster, but those who have moved on to greener pastures (or grayer ones), as well as current prospects like Banuelos and Betances, who could quickly make us forget mistakes of the past. But, the fact is, the question might never even get asked if not for the tortured career arcs of Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, the last pair of premier prospects to emerge from the Yankee farm system. Both reached the big leagues in their early twenties, but now, though still a rather tender age, after half a decade of injury and inconsistency, both are facing uncertain futures. Part of what makes their development so frustrating is that, superficially at least, it seems as though the organization either never had a plan, or couldn’t stick to it, as Chamberlain and Hughes bounced back and forth between the bullpen and the starting rotation, never given time to fully adapt and adjust to the challenges of either role.
In reference to similar indecisiveness by the Red Sox (most recently concerning Daniel Bard, but also with Justin Masterson and Jonathan Papelbon in recent memory), Michael Schur postulates that “John Smoltz kind of screwed everything up” by making it easier to believe “that pitchers can just kind of flip back and forth.” But, of course, veteran pitchers like Smoltz have been changing roles with considerable success throughout the history of the game. Dennis Eckersley went one way. Derek Lowe went the other. Brett Myers will, this coming season, be asked to change roles for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Tim Wakefield did it that many times in a single year. What distinguishes Bard, Chamberlain, Hughes, et al is the multiple conversions happening so early in their careers. The 23-year-old pitcher is already facing the challenge of adapting to a longer season, heavier workload, and tougher competition, why should we believe that he can also handle the changes in approach, routine, and stress entailed in moving from starter to reliever, or vice versa?
Tangotiger asked last week, “Is there a Red Sox/Yankees variable in bullpen-to-starter moves?” Specifically, he speculated, “Can we blame the media scrutiny?” I find this to be an interesting question, but before we could identify that variable we’d need to prove either that a.) there is a “control group” of other organizations who don’t exist in such a fishbowl, but have recognizably different (and likely better) track records in making the bullpen-to-starter transition work, or b.) other organizations don’t even bother with bouncing their young starters between such roles. The latter is clearly not the case. The strategy of getting a 20-year-old’s feet wet in the bullpen is one which is increasingly common. I’m not convinced, however, that the results justify this strategy. It might surprise Yankees fans to know that of the 31 pitchers from the last decade who have made at least 35 starts and 35 relief appearances before the age of 27, Chamberlain and Hughes rank 3rd and 4th respectively in rWAR (despite their thoroughly mediocre totals).
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I blame Johan Santana. Though Santana was always groomed as a starter and although he threw as many as 160 innings in his final year in the minors, the Twins bounced him back and forth between relieving and starting for each of his first four seasons in the majors. When he finally entered the rotation full-time at the age of 24, he rewarded the Twins “strategy” by giving them four seasons during which he averaged 228 IP, 18 W, 2.89 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, and 6.3 rWAR. Over that stretch he won two Cy Youngs, never finished lower than fifth in the voting, and made three excellent postseason starts (although the Twins never made it out of the first round).
Following Santana, the Twins made this “variable-role development” a common organizational model for introducing top prospects. Carlos Silva spent two full seasons in the ‘pen before graduating to the rotation at the age of 24. Francisco Liriano spent his first full season, 2006, being shuffled back and forth on much the same schedule as Santana (and spent the following season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery). Former first-rounder, Glen Perkins, started his Twins career in the bullpen and has since been moved back to it. Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey, Brian Duensing, and the supposed fruit of the Santana trade, Anthony Swarzak, have all done time in both the Minnesota ‘pen and the Twins rotation. While the jury may still be out on several of them, it’s safe to say that, much like the Yankees, the Twins are now far more renowned for grooming relievers than starters.
The second greatest bullpen-to-starter success story of the last decade is that of Adam Wainwright. Wainwright was promoted as a reliever in 2006, at the age of 24. He was excellent in relief, famously closing out the Cardinals World Series win over the Tigers, and was converted to a starter the following spring. He looked like a perennial Cy Young candidate until he missed all of 2011.
After Santana and Wainwright, the evidence justifying variable-role development gets really thin. Zack Greinke spent much of 2007 in the bullpen, when he was still in his early 20s, but Kansas City only resorted to making him a reliever as a means of working him back from the emotional issues that cost him all of 2006. Last year, Alexi Ogando (who reached the majors somewhat late, at age 26) made the All-Star team for Texas in his first season as a starter. However, he fell apart after the break (5.11 ERA in last 13 games) and appears to be headed back to the bullpen in 2012.
As you can see, there aren’t that many success stories, but that doesn’t mean teams have given up on the strategy. This season could be critical to its long-term viability. The Red Sox will likely begin the year with either Bard or Alfredo Aceves in the rotation. Both were starters in the minors and have not been since. Cory Luebke in San Diego and Hector Noesi in Seattle, both having opened their careers as relievers, will move to being full-time starters. The Rangers rotation will feature three players under the age of 27 – Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison – who spent substantial portions of their early careers in the bullpen. Hughes, Masterson, Brandon McCarthy, and Brandon Morrow head a group of variable-role graduates with the potential to shrug off previous inadequacies now that they’ve reached their late twenties. Will there be another Santana or Wainwright among this group? Maybe, maybe not. But so long as they aren’t all Yusmeiro Petit‘s, it will probably be considered a successful year for variable-role development.