The concept is hardly novel. Earl Weaver and the Orioles brought Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor and Dennis Martinez to Baltimore in the late Seventies and indoctrinated them to the American League East out of the bullpen. Halfway through his first full season, Flanagan went into the rotation, started 10 games, and the next three years threw 235, 288 1/3 and 265 2/3 innings, the third season winning the Cy Young Award.
“Just getting the opportunity to get my feet wet in non-leveraged situations helped me realize that I had the stuff to win in the major leagues,” the late Flanagan once said. “Earl (Weaver) understood those things.”
Adam Wainwright got to St. Louis in 2005 as a minor league starter. He pitched two games in relief that September, then when Jason Isringhausen went down in 2006 he became Tony La Russa’s closer, making 61 appearances for 75 appearances in relief, then closed out the NLCS and World Series throwing 9 2/3 innings with seven hits, no runs, two walks and 15 strikeouts.
The following spring, Wainwright moved into the rotation. Ever since, he leads the National League in wins, number two behind Clayton Kershaw in earned run average, sixth in the league in innings pitched.
Four decades later, the Cardinals, who have won four pennants in the last ten seasons, have become the Orioles redux, a similar model for teams using and developing young pitchers. “You have to look at what they’ve done and take it seriously,” says Mets general manager Sandy Alderson. “They develop young starting pitchers, bring them up and use them in lower-leverage relief situations. It gives them good arms in those situations, and it allows the pitchers to get a feel for major league hitters. We’ve talked about it with both (Jake) deGrom and (Rafael) Montero. We haven’t made decisions, per say. Montero isn’t on the 40-man roster, so something would have to be done to make room. But it’s something to think about.” Especially with a team that on May 2 is on pace to win 90 games, rebuilding with a limited payroll and coming off five consecutive losing seasons, and in the next couple of years could have Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, Jon Niese and Jenrry Mejia in the rotation.
“I think one thing we try to be is flexible,” says Cardinal GM John Mozeliak. “We don’t say there is one way to do things. But we have had success bringing good young arms up to St. Louis and using them in situations. We think about it as they move up from A to AA. The original intent is to groom them as starters in the low minors, then evolve. Think about it this way—when you bring your best young hitters to the majors, in our case it could be an Oscar Taveras or Stephen Piscotty, where are they going to bat in the lineup? Not third or fourth, probably seventh, or sixth. That’s similar to the way pitchers can be moved into the major leagues.”
Even Michael Wacha went back and forth last season; he started three times from May 30 to June 11, went back to the minors, and after an August 10 start made five relief appearances before becoming the dominant September/October star. It worked with Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal.
“Rosenthal actually started in A ball as a reliever, moved to starter, then went to the pen when he first came up,” says Mozeliak. “To be frank, someone had to close after some injuries, and he’s been great in the role. But he could probably eventually go back to starting. Kevin Siegrist is another good example. He went from 92 as a starter in A ball, we decided to groom him in double-A for the bullpen and he shot up to 97. They were all stretched out as starters, then made the move.
“But we do not live by a formula. We evolve given individual situations. We are always open to change.”
The Cardinal model for several generations has been built on stability, area scouts and the sport’s model development program, modeled from the late, great George Kissell and passed on to current director Gary LaRocque, who many feel should be a general manager. “We’ve tried each season to look at how close a pitcher may be to the major leagues and the role that may help us in the majors from a projection standpoint,” says LaRocque. “We place importance on creating a plan for each with an eye on their future impact.” Hence, when Carlos Martinez was building innings and experience last season in double-A, they had an eye on him eventually filling his current role in the bullpen.
The Rangers have had some success breaking pitchers in as relievers, as moving them forward. C.J. Wilson spent four-and-a-half years with 258 appearances as a reliever, and has moved on to being a highly-successful starter. Alex Wood followed the pattern with the Braves last season, and now is a significant starter. Justin Masterson. Tyson Ross. The White Sox moved Chris Sale first into the closer role, then into the rotation, but Don Cooper says “he could just pitch, period. He was good at whatever he was asked to do.”
Boston did it last season with Brandon Workman, who went from a minor league starting role to working the middle right down to pitching the eighth inning of the sixth and clinching game of the World Series. They used lefthander Drake Britton in the same role. Now they have a triple-A staff of potential major league pitchers—Workman, Britton, Matt Barnes, Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster. Like the Cardinals, the Red Sox maintain flexibility. “It depends on our situation here, as well as the individual pitcher,” says John Farrell, whose perspective is built on being a major league pitcher, farm director, pitching coach and manager. “I think it can be a good way to let a young pitcher get his feet wet in the majors, but, again, situations change and every individual is different.”
Buck Showalter may use Kevin Gausman in a relief role when and if he moves up to Baltimore, but, then Gausman could push his way into the rotation. The evolution of Zach Britton is a good example of someone whose stuff has ticked upwards and gained confidence out of the pen, which could make him a viable future starter. Showalter thinks the same may be true of T.J. McFarland. And if Dylan Bundy isn’t far enough off Tommy John Surgery come September, he could be used in short stints.
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has usually tried to build pitchers with innings in the minors, which allows them experience using all their pitches while not eating up major league service time. Miami, which has a warehouse of big arms up and down the organization, will likely keep Andrew Heaney in a starting role if and when he’s ready for the majors, but in the next month will have to roll out a game plan on how best to utilize Anthony DeSclafani, Justin Nicolino, Adam Conley, Jose Urena, et al between now and the end of the 2015 season. Two different division rival general managers this week stated that they thought with Jose Fernandez emerging as the best righthander in the league and their young pitchers, the Marlins are a team whose future seems very strong.
“The National League East is becoming the power arm division,” says one American League general manager. “How the Nationals, Braves, Mets and Marlins develop their pitching in the next year is going to go a long way towards determining a balance of power in the National League.”
Gone are the days when the seventh and eighth innings were being entrusted to 30-somethings whose starting dreams had long since drifted into the night. We could be looking at a deGrom in the eighth inning of an important game in the final week of the season. Or a Carlos Martinez. Or a J.R. Graham pitching the eighth for the Braves, Dylan Bundy for the Orioles, maybe Barnes for the Red Sox, who had Workman pitching the eighth inning of the clinching game of the World Series.
“Stuff plays, especially in short windows,” says one scout. “And there’s as much stuff coming along as I can ever remember. The good organizations are trying to measure how best to utilize it in the short and long terms.”
And, as Mozeliak says, that measure will be subject to change and flexibility and individual arms, situations and heads.