Quick relief: Pitchers groomed for 'pen duty early
Relievers being identified, developed at amateur levels in some cases
If Nolan Ryan were pitching today, he'd probably be a reliever.
In the modern game, there is such an emphasis on bullpen specialization and such a financial incentive to fill Major League needs with cost-controlled talent that it seems doubtful an organization would have the patience to watch a kid with a 100-mph fastball and control issues (Ryan walked more than six batters per nine innings in his Minor League career) slowly find his way as a starter.
More likely, Ryan, who actually did pitch relief in the nascent days of his 27-year career, would have taken the fast track to the big leagues, applied that heat to the late innings and, inevitably, latched onto the closer's role. Undoubtedly, he would have been as intimidating a presence in the ninth as the likes of Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel are today, but all that starting potential -- the 324 wins, the 5,714 strikeouts, the seven no-hitters and the spot in Cooperstown, N.Y. -- would have gone untapped.
"It would have been unfortunate," Reds pitching coach Bryan Price said. "And I think that was the argument for Chapman starting. It was, 'This guy could be one of the better starting pitchers in baseball.'"
The Reds haven't felt the need to find out. Not for a sustained stretch outside of Spring Training, anyway. And their experience with Chapman is somewhat illustrative of a larger trend in the game today.
Relievers are being identified and developed earlier than ever before, sometimes even at the amateur level. And while this trend might very well be stunting the potential starting strengths of some of the more high-velocity arms in the baseball world, it's made for some particularly bullish bullpens in the big leagues.
Ask hitters the primary reason behind the increasingly anemic offenses at the Major League level -- the dip in batting averages and the ridiculous rise in strikeout totals -- and the specialization in the late innings is oft-cited. After all, the average relief WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) mark thus far in 2013 is 1.29, the lowest it's been in 47 years. Teams seem to be churning out lockdown late-inning arms like never before.
Maybe the cost of these early developmental decisions is a would-be ace here or there; maybe not. The Ryan example is merely a hypothesis -- and an admittedly extreme one, at that.
But as team's prepare for next week's First-Year Player Draft, they are doing so with a very good idea of which available arms will be given a long leash, from a starting standpoint, and which will be relegated to relief.
"Colleges are starting to use their bullpens and marry them toward the Major League approach," said Brad Grant, the amateur scouting director for the Indians. "Sometimes the best arms are placed in the back end of the bullpen. And scouts have gotten better at identifying the separation between starters and relievers."
Scouts look at stuff. They look at mechanics. They look at mindset. They look at body type. They'll recommend that their club draft and develop a kid as a reliever if they have concerns about his durability.
Maybe they'll spot a delivery tendency that leaves him at long-term risk for injury or innings limitations. Or maybe it will be a simple observation that the guy only has one or two workable pitches and the inability to develop a third and turn a lineup over.
"Years ago, your best prospects were in the starting rotation in the Minor Leagues, and you kept them there until they couldn't compete as a starter," Price said. "Nowadays, I think teams can earmark players that fill an immediate need, and I think you can do that with relievers."
Sometimes the decision isn't even in the hands of a professional club. At the Draft next week, there are at least two full-time closers -- Arkansas' Colby Suggs and Texas' Corey Knebel -- likely to land late in the first round or early in the second.
Indeed, the college closer or setup guy with Major League potential is not a rare species, even if some Major League executives wonder whether there are developmental downsides to the situation.
"I'm not sold on that," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "That might be a little bit early. But I think there's a lot of pressure everywhere, even for college coaches. There's a lot of money invested in the college programs, so a lot of college coaches want to win right away. A lot of them make very nice salaries. So even though it's a different level, the College World Series is a big thing, the Regionals and Super Regionals are big things. So sometimes you do the thing that's best for your team and not necessarily what's best for that individual."
Let's face it: Big league ballclubs do it all the time.
When you consider the investments made in post-Draft signing bonuses, the always-increasing dollars tossed around in free agency (particularly given the way television dollars have influenced revenues) and the way the dual Wild Cards have enticed teams to be more opportunistic in the immediate, you can understand why clubs would want to infuse their Major League roster with as much young talent with as much immediate upside as possible.
Starting arms will forever be the most valuable commodity in the game. But if a guy has raw heat and inherent tenacity but there is some question about his ability to succeed as a starter, the bullpen possibility can be awfully enticing to a team.
Of course, it helps if the player himself is on board.
"That's one thing I've always thought was weird, personally," said Tigers lefty Phil Coke. "They say, 'I'm drafting you as a reliever.' Well, I don't want to be drafted as a reliever. I want to be drafted as a baseball player. I don't care about the title. You can either hone the skills they have or you can't."
Coke followed a more traditional path to the big league bullpen, in that he pitched primarily as a starter in the Yankees' system before a Major League need prompted a 2008 shift. The Tigers stretched him back out at the start of 2011, but his tenure in the rotation was brief and unfulfilling. He's remained in the 'pen ever since.
"I still feel I have the ability to go either way whenever needed," Coke insisted. "In '08, I started to get asked, 'What do you think about making the move to the bullpen for the big league club if that's what they need?' I thought, 'If that's going to get me to The Show? Fine. But at the same time, I wanted to start until I couldn't start anymore."
That's a fairly typical sentiment.
"I think there's disappointment with going from being a starter to going in the bullpen," Price said. "I think the initial feeling is one of failure. You've been relegated to bullpen duty. But what I've found, in my experience, is that shortly thereafter, these guys that transition to the bullpen love it, and there's no going back."
There is a catch, and it's a big one: Money. To understand the dollars at stake, one need only remember that the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, has never made more than $15 million in a season in his career. For the sake of comparison, Hiroki Kuroda -- a good pitcher but one nowhere near as accomplished as Rivera -- is making that very amount this season.
The value equation is one reason why several clubs have tried to work backward after the fact, stretching out their impact relievers to see if they can succeed as starters. The Rangers did it with C.J. Wilson, and he became the ace of a club that reached consecutive World Series. Guys like Wilson and Chris Sale are more exception than rule, though, as Neftali Feliz, Aaron Crow, Daniel Bard and many others can attest.
When the Reds considered it -- twice -- with Chapman, they did so with that nagging worry in the back of their mind: Were they wasting an impact arm? What if Chapman is an ace-in-waiting?
What if he's -- gulp -- the next Nolan Ryan?
It appears the Reds and the rest of us will never know. But like a number of teams in the game today, they'll take the risk, because they had their reasons for making him a reliever in the first place, and the immediate returns are comfort enough.