Former 'pen pitchers out to write new stories
Chapman, Bard, Sale, Feliz moving from relief to rotation in '12
PHOENIX -- Oakland's resident ace heading into 2012, Brandon McCarthy, was a member of Texas' rotation the first time he saw a strapping prospect named Neftali Feliz ease into a smooth delivery and unleash his fastball.
He didn't have a bat in his hands, but McCarthy was blown away.
"There are only so many guys you get around who can do something that's truly unique," McCarthy said. "Him throwing a baseball is kind of like Josh [Hamilton] hitting a baseball. There's just something different about it."
Feliz, Daniel Bard, Aroldis Chapman and Chris Sale are four of a kind this spring: power pitchers with size, looking to make the transition from short relief to the multiple demands of starting.
With the right tools -- no problem with these guys -- and the proper physical and mental preparation, it can be done. In most cases it's a matter of regaining the endurance and swagger almost all pitchers develop as kids when they're better than everyone in town and rarely even consider relieving.
"Everything's both -- mental and physical -- in this game," said C.J. Wilson, who made the move so successfully he became the Rangers' ace in 2011 and drew a $77.5 million free-agent deal from the Angels in December. "It's not like a pitcher never started before.
"Physically, you have to do much more starting in terms of volume. Mentally, you keep yourself calm. I can give up a run starting and still win a baseball game. As a closer or setup guy, you give up a run and it's over."
He impressively reached 204 innings in the Texas heat, going 15-8 with a 3.35 ERA. He was even better last season, replacing Cliff Lee as the Rangers' ace. Stretching it out to 223 1/3 innings in an American League-high 34 starts, he went 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA.
The trick in making the transition click, Wilson found, was creating a closing mind-set for the duration of a start. In his early professional seasons as a starter, he'd focus on the whole game, holding something in reserve. When he was moved to the bullpen, he understood the urgency in making every pitch count.
"Now," he said, "I feel like a reliever for eight or nine innings. It's taking that same approach pitch by pitch."
The physical demands of starting can be daunting. Feliz, Bard, Chapman and Sale all have great stuff, meaning that innings will be extended by foul balls. Duress placed on the lower body mounts, in addition to unavoidable arm stress.
If starting pitchers often seem to be in bad moods during Spring Training, there's a good reason. It takes energy and mental discipline to get up early in the morning and prepare a balking body for all the tasks ahead.
There is no guarantee that any of the big four will open the season in his team's rotation. Each could return to the bullpen if the transition doesn't go as smoothly as hoped and others emerge as viable starting options for their club.
Following is a look at the quartet facing a microscope -- along with hitters -- as they take on this new challenge in Arizona and Florida.
Neftali Feliz, Rangers
Feliz's move is the most dramatic of the four, given that he closed for AL championship teams the past two seasons. But in one sense, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound right-hander faces less severe pressure than the others.
Having signed Yu Darvish to replace Wilson, Texas remains rich in starting candidates. Alexi Ogando, who flourished in the rotation in 2011, could return to a setup role to accommodate Feliz. But Ogando also is bringing a starter's mentality to camp should Feliz, 23, falter. The veteran Scott Feldman also is in the wings.
The big question with Feliz -- a Pedro Martinez fan, like most kids growing up in the Dominican Republic -- is whether he can expand his repertoire, a la Pedro. In 2011, Feliz threw 80 percent fastballs -- averaging 96.3 mph -- while mixing in occasional curves, sliders and changeups.
He'll need a better balance as a starter.
"It's a lot better knowing I don't have to worry about that," Feliz said, referring to the closer's role, which has been transferred to the veteran Joe Nathan. "It's a lot easier knowing I'm coming in as a starter. The hardest part will just be getting used to the innings and the higher pitch counts."
Feliz was a starter in the Minor Leagues, with a high of 127 1/3 innings in 2008. He has 74 saves as a closer over the past two-plus seasons.
Felix and Martinez met for the first time this winter over dinner and had a lengthy conversation.
"He gave me advice about mental things and toughness," Feliz said. "He was sincere with me. He said, 'Be patient and don't get anxious. You'll get adjusted to it.'"
Feliz's emphasis this spring will be on refining his changeup and gaining more trust in his offspeed stuff.
"He'll probably need a third pitch to go with the fastball and change," McCarthy said, "but if your two pitches are good enough, you can do it. [Roy] Halladay and Lee can rely on a fastball and get through a whole game. It comes down to locating it."
Best-case scenario: Feliz graduates to between 160 and 180 innings in 2012 and becomes a full-service, front-end starter in '13. If that doesn't happen, he gives manager Ron Washington the luxury of two established ninth-inning options.
Daniel Bard, Red Sox
The primary setup man for Jonathan Papelbon the past two seasons, Bard also could end up back in the bullpen if that's where he's needed.
Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine clearly loves Bard's potential as a starter but will remain flexible about where the 26-year-old right-hander will make the most impact on the staff.
"Daniel Bard, I can tell you right off from the get-go, is drawing a lot of attention," Valentine said this week in Boston's camp in Fort Myers, Fla. "[I] love what we see and love what we're thinking about."
What Valentine and his staff see is an arm that unleashed fastballs averaging 97.3 mph in 2011, accompanied by a biting slider and changeup. The full assortment is there, but Bard -- like the three others -- hasn't made a start in the Major Leagues. He expressed a willingness to take whichever role Valentine carves out for him.
Valentine appreciates Bard's "team first" attitude, adding, "He's going to get innings as a starter would in Spring Training. He's going to be penciled in to be one of those guys who works going from his bullpen to pitching two innings to pitching four innings to pitching six innings."
Drafted in the first round in 2006 out of the University of North Carolina, Bard, who carries 215 pounds on a 6-foot-4 frame, had serious control issues (78 walks in 75 innings) in his first professional season at two Class A stops in '07. Moved to the bullpen, he found his groove and jumped on the fast track to Fenway Park, arriving in '09.
Best-case scenario: Bard holds his overpowering stuff and gives the Sox a much-needed rotation force. If that doesn't happen, he returns to the bullpen, setting up for new closer Andrew Bailey.
Aroldis Chapman, Reds
Chapman is the wild card. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound lefty from Cuba has struggled commanding his electric stuff with consistency in the Reds' bullpen. The hope is that a return to a starting role will restore his mojo and enable him to approach his potential with that triple-digit heater.
"I am mentally and physically prepared to be a starter," Chapman said through interpreter Tomas Vera this week. "I feel I've worked real hard to do this. I am thinking like a starter, and feel like I will be able to pitch all the innings they want me to pitch here in Spring Training."
A setup man in 2011, Chapman will need to show he can dislodge someone from a rotation featuring Mat Latos and Johnny Cueto, an all-right-handed rotation with Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey filling it out. Chapman would bring balance from the left side.
It's rare that a five-man rotation stays intact for a season. Sometimes it doesn't even enter the season as a group, with lingering springtime ailments not uncommon.
"We are going to stretch him out to see, and to see if there is time," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "If there is not time, or not quality, then you can always put the guy back in the bullpen."
Shoulder stiffness prevented Chapman from getting an early start in the Arizona Fall League, and he was shut down after 2 2/3 innings.
Chapman resumed a throwing program in South Florida and arrived in camp 2 1/2 weeks early. The Reds are hoping to get dividends on the six-year, $30 million contract he signed in January 2010, months after he defected from Cuba.
He made 13 starts for Triple-A Louisville and has been a reliever since. He broke in with a bang and a 2.03 ERA in 15 appearances in 2010 and went 4-1 with a 3.60 ERA in 54 games last season.
In terms of raw talent, Chapman is in the class of Stephen Strasburg. A higher comfort level, both personally and in a starting role, could help iron out a few command kinks.
"There's nothing I can do in my mind except to prove I can be a starter," Chapman said. "But if they make the decision at the end that I can't, I will be ready to be in the bullpen and continue to work hard to prove I can be a starter."
Best-case scenario: Chapman puts it together and gives the rising Reds a dominant starter. If he can't crack the rotation, he can either return to Triple-A to build stamina or serve as a bullpen option.
Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
Sale is basically in the same position as Bard -- without the inflated pressures of New England. Not much is expected of the White Sox this season, which gives the southpaw with the live arm space to develop at his pace.
The issue with Sale is concern over "too much too soon." At 22, he's 6-foot-6 and 180 pounds, still filling out. He doesn't have the solid physical foundation of the other three -- yet.
New White Sox manager Robin Ventura and pitching coach Don Cooper will monitor Sale closely. In 2011, his first full season, Sale threw 71 innings in 58 appearances, converting eight saves in 10 opportunities, with 16 holds.
"We're going to give this kid just enough work experience, let him go," Cooper said. "And as the season's going ... we'll continue to assess where he's at. We'll sit and talk about him.
"What's the worst thing that could happen to Chris Sale? He gets hurt. So we're going to do everything in our power not to let that happen. We have control over that to a large degree. We'll make sure -- throwing in-between starts, innings and pitches in a game -- how many innings he has as the season goes. It's going to be a continuing assessment. The No. 1 goal for all of our players is stay healthy. If they do stay healthy, then they're going to go out there and do the things we envision them doing."
Sale has made no secret of his desire to start. He hasn't been in that role since the spring of 2010 at Florida Gulf Coast University, where 101 of his 103 innings came as a starter, and he posted a 2.05 ERA. Taken by the White Sox in the first round of the First-Year Player Draft, he made it to Chicago later that summer after two Minor League stops and a total of 11 relief appearances.
"There's going to be uncertainty in any guy's first year starting in the big leagues, because it's a huge challenge," Cooper said. "But he has pitched as a starter his whole career."
Sale, who has taken to swimming to build endurance, is being welcomed with open arms -- and loads of wisdom -- by veteran starters Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd and John Danks.
"I'm excited to see Sale in particular," Danks said. "If he can be half of what he was out of the bullpen, we are in pretty good shape."
Best-case scenario: Sale holds up for 160 to 180 innings, gaining the experience needed to emerge as a front-end starter. Like Chapman, he can fall back comfortably to the bullpen or gain more stamina at the Triple-A level.
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.