Former starters thriving in Pirates' bullpen
CHICAGO -- In their first Draft after reuniting in Chicago, the Boston Red Sox diaspora of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod grabbed outfielder Albert Almora with their first pick, then took pitchers in each of the next eight rounds.
That was 2012, and they followed that plan even longer last summer. After taking power hitter Kris Bryant with the second overall pick in the Draft, the Cubs grabbed pitchers with 11 of their next 14 picks.
They were hoping to spot the proverbial diamond in the rough after the big names were gone -- as usual, in the first half of the first round -- and won't mind if one of those guys emerges as a front-end starter down the road. But the purpose of the process, as they explained afterward, was to stock the farm systems with power arms who could, a few years down the road, transform their bullpen into something like the ones in St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
That's smart thinking.
The Pirates and Cardinals blow opponents away with power arms, bringing them into games one after another until an opponent flinches. It's a huge edge for Clint Hurdle and Mike Matheny, who feel like they're consistently going to have a pitching edge in the late innings.
Hurdle credits Pirates general manager Neal Huntington for prioritizing his bullpen.
"It's unique," Hurdle said at Wrigley Field. "One thing Neal has had tremendous consistency with since he's been here is building a bullpen, the way he's gone about it, before I even showed up. The three years I've been here, now the fourth year, our ability to grow our own in a couple cases [has been huge]. Basically, we took starters and turned 'em into relievers, added externally in a couple spots, other starters who we turned into relievers. There's a comfort to it. There's always a comfort for a manager when that bullpen door swings open and you know what you're getting. … I've been in some places where because of injury, attrition, every time that door opens you just [hide your eyes]. You just don't know. Bless their heart, you just don't know."
When Hurdle was a Major League player, back in the 1970s and '80s, most relief pitchers were failed starters or specialists with unusual pitches. But more and more, teams are identifying pitching prospects who they think can make a transition from starter to reliever late in the development process.
That's how the Pirates put together the group of relievers behind Jason Grilli, who fits the old-school model of a guy who moved to the bullpen after taking lumps as a starter.
Setup man Mark Melancon, acquired in a trade from Boston after the 2012 season, was a ninth-round pick of the Yankees after being a standout reliever at the University of Arizona. He's a career reliever.
But right-hander Bryan Morris, a first-round pick of the Dodgers in 2006 who was involved in the three-team Manny Ramirez trade two years later, started throughout his Minor League career until being switched to the bullpen in Triple-A. An injury to Jose Contreras created a chance for him to join the Pirates' bullpen early in 2013, and he ran with it. Left-hander Tony Watson, a ninth-round pick from Nebraska, was moved to the bullpen in Double-A.
Lefty Justin Wilson had never seen himself as anything except a starter before he was moved into the bullpen late in the 2012 season. The 26-year-old had helped Fresno State win the College World Series in 2008, was selected in the fifth round and climbed the ladder in Pittsburgh's farm system. He had worked the first 7 1/3 innings of a combined no-hitter in Triple-A early in '12, a few months before his role was changed.
"I don't think I was actually too happy about it at first," Wilson said. "But I'm really enjoying my time down there. I enjoyed it last year. I got my first taste of it in my first year in Triple-A, at the end of the year. It was fun at the time, going out there for an inning. I never had any bullpen experience. It was a little different at first. I enjoy it now."
Teams are often open minded about considering young pitchers for the rotation after they've succeeded in the bullpen. The best example in recent decades is Pedro Martinez, who spent the first year and a half of his career pitching relief for Tommy Lasorda before being traded to the Expos, where his career took off. Chris Sale spent about that long as a White Sox reliever before moving into the rotation in 2011.
Hurdle was the Rangers' hitting coach when C.J. Wilson pushed for a chance to start in 2010 after averaging 60 appearances out of the bullpen the previous four years. He signed a five-year, $77.5 million contract with the Angels two years later.
"I got to see the perfect [example] in Texas," Hurdle said. "C.J. Wilson, [after] years of relief and all of a sudden that winter he talked about [starting]. I'm listening and I'm thinking, 'I've never seen this before. I'm just looking forward to seeing how this plays out.' It has played out dramatically well. It has given legs to some other guys. We actually talked to a couple of our guys about it over the winter, letting them know that this year we thought we were best served with them in the bullpen but it could be something based on where our starting pitching goes next year that we might need to revisit."
Justin Wilson says he throws a lot fewer changeups out of the bullpen than he did when he was a starter. But just in case, he throws a lot of them on flat ground. He wants to have that pitch, along with the others, if he is ever again facing hitters three or four times in a game. But he knows that's not his job now.
"As for as this spring, this season, I knew I was going to be in the bullpen," he said. "That's what I'm concentrating on -- just go through the season and try to be the best I can be down there, help those guys out. When you go into the offseason, that can be something that's brought up. Other than that, you take it one day at a time and move forward."
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.