Teams plot the path of their minor league pitching prospects carefully for good reason. Free agent pitchers are getting more expensive and fewer elite arms are hitting the open market, which puts pressure on teams to develop their own starters.
Once an organization decides to promote a prospect to the big leagues, a second question presents itself: should the player debut as a starter or out of the bullpen? Teams typically ask starters to begin their careers in the rotation, which is what makes the Toronto Blue Jays’ decision to assign Marcus Stroman to the bullpen stand out.
Stroman has embraced the relief assignment even though he succeeded as a starter in five triple-A starts with a 1.69 ERA. He has compared notes with the likes of Brett Cecil and Sergio Santos, who have both navigated significant role changes of their own in recent years.
“I’ve had experience in the bullpen before,” Stroman said. “It’s not that difficult a transition for me. I feel really comfortable down there.”
But the situation he finds himself in wasn’t always the exception. Earl Weaver, the Hall of Fame Baltimore Orioles manager, said the best place for a rookie pitcher is long relief.
“If you have a good club, the prime objective is to win the pennant, and a manager doesn't experiment with kids,” Weaver and co-author Terry Pluto explained in the classic book Weaver on Strategy. “Not only is this first year a learning process for the pitcher, it's a learning process for the manager.”
While it’s generally uncommon for top prospects to debut in the bullpen now, Johan Santana, Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija and David Price all had stints in the bullpen before becoming frontline starters.
And one team in particular has followed Weaver's advice and eased rookie pitchers in as relievers -- the defending National League Champion St. Louis Cardinals. Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn each pitched in the bullpen as rookies, and Michael Wacha, a friend of Stroman’s from their Team USA days and a fellow 2012 first round pick, also appeared in relief last year.
The St. Louis rotation now ranks second in MLB with a 2.71 ERA thanks to the work of those starters. General manager John Mozeliak says it’s no coincidence that they started in the bullpen.
“We have been a very competitive team for the last ten years and we typically have had strong rotations,” Mozeliak says. “Getting pitchers to begin their careers in the bullpen allows them to experience the major league hitters, ballparks, and experience.”
Mozeliak points out that teams don’t want to over-use starters early in their careers, and adds that the Cardinals aren’t done yet. Current members of the St. Louis bullpen including Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness could move to the rotation eventually, according to the general manager.
It's tough to argue with the success of a club that has made the post-season in 10 of the last 14 years thanks to its homegrown starters. That’s part of the reason Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos felt confident placing Stroman in the bullpen.
Anthopoulos explained on Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet 590 The Fan that he's encouraged by the success teams such as the Cardinals have had. He reasoned that a starting pitcher can get his 'feet wet' in the bullpen before returning to the rotation.
Anthopoulos said he’s confident in his current rotation, and while J.A. Happ and Dustin McGowan have had their ups and downs in the last couple of months, there’s no denying Toronto’s bullpen benefits from Stroman’s help.
“I like where he’s at right now,” manager John Gibbons says. “The rotation’s doing pretty good, so we’ll see where it goes.”
There’s no doubting Stroman’s readiness for the big leagues after three impressive relief outings and all of his minor league success.
“He's like a new toy, really” Gibbons says. "He's a young arm, but you can't get carried away."
Starters typically experience an uptick in effectiveness when they're pitching for one inning as opposed to six or seven. Los Angeles Angels left-hander C.J. Wilson experienced that first-hand when he transitioned between the starting rotation and bullpen earlier in his professional career.
“You’re going to get a boost in your stuff going to the bullpen," Wilson says. "You’re able to focus on one inning instead of pacing yourself for an entire game.”
Wilson agrees with Stroman's pitching coach, Pete Walker, who explains that the transition isn't easy. Walker started and pitched out of the bullpen during his big league career, and learned that a pitcher needs two different modes depending on his role. For now that means Stroman must focus on a few batters as opposed to an entire game (Walker noted that the Blue Jays will decide on a case by case basis whether to initiate the likes of Aaron Sanchez in the bullpen).
Pitching out of the 'pen is nothing new for Stroman, who got his first chance at relief work while in college at Duke. He continued pitching out of the bullpen for Team USA and in the Arizona Fall League as recently as last fall. That should help him sustain his success.
But there are reasons that so few teams ask prospects to debut in the bullpen. For one, relievers throw fewer innings than starters and have a diminished impact on the outcome of the game as a result. Jose Fernandez could no doubt be a good reliever, but the Miami Marlins are surely glad he’s starting. Teams run the risk of missing out on valuable innings by assigning top young arms to the ‘pen.
Plus, while a starter can shift to the bullpen without any notice, the reverse does not hold true. The Blue Jays have acknowledged that it could take some time to build Stroman’s pitch count up if he spends long enough in the bullpen. They run the risk that they’ll be short-handed at a time they need starting depth.
The Blue Jays have made their decision.
Stroman will pitch in relief, providing the Blue Jays with a late-inning option while Happ and McGowan continue starting. And while there's no guarantee the plan will continue succeeding, the Blue Jays can take solace in the fact that it has worked for one of MLB’s model franchises.