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For some, conversion spells relief
08/09/2005 2:24 PM ET
Guillermo Mota is one. So is Yhency Brazoban. All-Star Joe Nathan might be the poster child.

The next generation includes the likes of Chad Orvella, Chris Resop and Jeremy Accardo. By now, you've likely figured out that they're all relief pitchers. But how many out there knew it hasn't always been that way for these power arms, that everyone on the aforementioned list used to be position players who had converted to the mound at varying points of their career?

"In conversions, the first thing you look for is arm strength," said Marlins vice president of player development and scouting Jim Fleming. "We changed Mota over when we were with the Expos. He was playing shortstop in the Mets organization, became a free agent, we signed him and put him on the mound."

While Mota has faltered somewhat this season, he was just a .250 hitter as an infielder. He's now in his seventh season as a Major League reliever.

"You look for arm strength and if he has the body type for the mound," Fleming said. "Then you have to look into who they are, whether they have the makeup to handle it."

You want me to do what?!

Sometimes, it takes a player a little while to realize he has that makekup. Just ask Nathan.

Signed as a shortstop, the Twins closer spent just one half of a season as an infielder in the Giants organization. The Giants remembered having seen him pitch a couple of innings in college and when he continued to struggle the spring after he was drafted, they approached Nathan about giving the mound a try.

"His first reaction was to quit," Giants farm director Jack Hiatt recalled. "He went home for about a year and a half. He called back and said he'd like to try pitching. He went to the Northwest League and was immediately outstanding.

"We protected him after only a half a year of pitching. That's how good his stuff was."

Nathan was shipped with Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano to the Twins for catcher A.J. Pierzynski before the 2004 season. Rochester's Liriano, not so coincidentally, was a former outfielder who converted shortly after signing with the Giants and is now perhaps the top left-handed pitching prospect in the game.

A conversion factory

The Giants, it seems, have a knack for the conversion thing. Brad Hennessey was originally a shortstop in college. So was Jesse Foppert, now with the Mariners. While both had some pitching experience in college, it was the Giants who made sure they were on the mound full-time.

"I think the key to this thing is [Giants vice president of player personnel] Dick Tidrow," Hiatt said. "He pitched for many years, and he doesn't miss much. He won't let an athlete at our Minor League complex leave without seeing what he looks like on the mound, especially if he's left-handed.

 Who's who of the converted
Chris Resop and Jeremy Accardo aren't the only converted position players trying out a new craft in the Minor Leagues. Here's a partial list of some others who hope a switch to the mound will mean a ticket to the bigs:

Joselo Diaz, Devil Rays: The other arm the Rays got from the Mets in the Zambrano deal, Diaz hasn't pitched this year, but the converted catcher possesses a mid-90s fastball and deadly changeup when healthy.

Chris Jaile, Rangers: A former catcher taken by the Rangers in 2001, Jaile has a 3.16 ERA and 71 K's in 79 2/3 innings pitched between the Midwest and California Leagues.

Franciso Liriano, Twins: The cream of the converted -- and perhaps any -- prospect crop. One of the few starters in this list, he draws comparisons to fellow Twins lefty Johan Santana. He's been putting up numbers in Triple-A to warrant such a comparison.

Colin Mahoney, Tigers: Mahoney began his transformation in college, moving from backup catcher to short reliever at Clemson. He can throw in the upper 90s when everything is working right and reminds people of fellow Tiger (and converted catcher) Troy Percival.

Jason Quarles, Pirates: Like Mahoney, Quarles converted in college. An outfielder who couldn't crack Southern University's lineup, Quarles was hitting 98 mph on the radar gun in 2004, causing the Pirates to take him in the seventh round. He's got a long way to go to live up to Tom Gordon comparisons (he throws a big curve, too), but in 20 1/3 innings with Hickory, he does have 25 K's and a 2.66 ERA.

Ferdin Tejeda, Yankees: The one-time shortstop has made the switch despite a .279 career average and having been traded away once (and brought back) as an infielder. In 18 total innings, Tejeda has 16 strikeouts against just three walks in the Gulf Coast and South Atlantic Leagues.

--Jonathan Mayo
"It's Dick Tidrow's vision. If a kid shows arm strength in right field, or he shows he's an athlete at shortstop, but can't hit, we say, 'Wait a minute, let's see what he looks like on the mound.'"

Tidrow and his charges haven't stopped to rest on their laurels. Converts, the next generation, are coming to a ballpark near you. Exhibit A is Jon Coutlangus. The South Carolina product was a center fielder for a College World Series team and was drafted in the 19th round of the 2003 draft as such.

His first taste of pro ball was a good one, as the lefty hit .301 in 51 games. The next year, however, he hit .194 in full-season ball, and that's when the Giants went to work.

"He'd been a regular, but he hit a wall," Hiatt said. "We put him on the mound, and he took to it like a duck to water."

Pitching for the Class A Advanced San Jose Giants this year, Coutlangus is 4-0 with a 3.42 ERA in the hitter-friendly California League. The southpaw has struck out 58 in 55 1/3 innings.

"We're concerned we'll have to protect him," Hiatt said.

As good as that story is, fellow Giant reliever Jeremy Accardo's might be even more astounding. Accardo had done some pitching in college, but only because they had a hole to fill in the bullpen at Illinois State. Accardo became the team's closer with just one pitch, a fastball.

In 2003, Accardo hit .333 and didn't pitch all that well. Fifty rounds came and went in the draft, and Accardo did not hear his name called. He headed to the Alaskan Summer League, presumably to work on his pitching, as Accardo sensed that if he were to have any future, it'd have to be on the mound.

But when he got to Alaska, his club installed him as the everyday shortstop. He only threw about 10 innings all summer, but three of them came during the heavily attended wood bat tournament at the end of the season. The Giants, who had seen Accardo pitch in college, noticed and, since he had been undrafted, were able to sign him on the spot.

Last year, Accardo saved 27 games for San Jose in his first season as a pro. He began the 2005 season with Double-A Norwich and then, less than two years after being "discovered" in Alaska, he got the call to the big leagues.

"We had a rainout, and one of the guys from the Giants organization called me," Accardo said. "I thought it was a joke. He told me they were sending me to Arizona.

"I thought, 'Ok, I'm going to Extended Spring Training. I wonder Why?' He said, 'The Giants are playing the Diamondbacks, and you're going to the big club.' My heart dropped."

Accardo, an Arizona native, was able to make his Major League debut in front of family and friends. He's pitched in 10 games over two stints with the Giants, all while pitching exceptionally well in Double- and Triple-A whenever he's been back down.

"We've had good luck," Hiatt said. "And it's not just been ordinary arms. It's been special arms."

Learning from past successes

When Jim Fleming and crew came to Florida from the Expos, they brought with them countless scouting and player-development triumphs. Guillermo Mota's switch to pitching was likely high on the list.

Prior to their arrival, the Marlins drafted high school outfielder Chris Resop in the fourth round of the 2001 draft. Unlike some of the other players mentioned, Resop had a bit of a pitching resume, having been a two-way player in high school. The Marlins signed him away from the University of Miami to do only one thing: play the outfield.

"Nothing was brought up at the time [about pitching]," Resop said. "It was a no-brainer. I had some raw power. It was 100 percent, I was an outfielder. Going to the mound didn't cross anybody's mind then."

Not everyone thought of Resop as an outfielder. In Montreal, Fleming and his staff had a different evaluation, one that came into play when they came to the Marlins at a time when Resop had hit a wall with the bat.

"In our draft room, we liked him as a pitcher," Fleming said. "It was something in the back of my mind. When he was struggling with the bat, he was still showing the arm strength.

"In Chris' case, he pitched in high school. We knew we could push him a little faster, once he got acclimated to the relief role."

The acclimation process was a short one. Resop was throwing 95 mph in his first shot on the mound at the end of the 2003 season. He had a 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2004 with Greensboro and is now topping out at 98 mph. Pitching for Double-A Carolina, Resop is tied for the league lead with 20 saves, posting a 2.83 ERA and more than a strikeout an inning. Like Accardo, Resop's performance earned him a trip to the parent club. The 22-year-old right-hander appeared in seven games with the Marlins.

"It's been my dream my whole life," Resop said. "I never expected the opportunity to come as soon as it did. It was an awesome experience. I'll do whatever it takes to make it to the big leagues."

Conversion spells relief

While not 100 percent -- Hennessy, Foppert and Liriano are starters -- almost all conversions take place in the bullpen.

"I don't know what their mindset is," Resop said. "It seems every time a position player makes a transition into a pitcher, that's what happens. Why? That's how it works out. For me, I've always had pretty good arm strength."

Resop hits the nail on the head. With arm strength being the first thing player-development folks look for when deciding to convert a position player, it makes sense it would be to a role that teams crave hard throwers.

That's not the only reason, of course. Combine it with the fact that you typically need less stuff to succeed as a reliever and the conversion time is shorter, it becomes clear why teams take strong-armed shortstops and outfielders and make them into short relievers.

"You're building off arm strenth, and teams are looking for arm strength coming out of the pen," Fleming said. "It's easier. As a starter you want three pitches. As a reliever, you want power and a second pitch.

"You can catch a guy up faster in a bullpen role. A lot of times, a guy is older, and you don't want to start him all over again to build him up."

As Resop, Accardo and many others have shown, starting all over again in the bullpen can be a very quick ticket to the big leagues, proving that, sometimes, change can be a very good thing.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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