Entering this season, several teams took the risk of transitioning a young, dominant reliever from the bullpen to the rotation. To put it mildly, the results have been mixed, ranging from smashing success to unmitigated disaster even thought he season is only halfway done.
The high profile nature of these pitcher conversions are sure to draw the attention of other front offices who wil face similar decisions in future seasons. Depending on which case they put the most stock in, their willingness to convert a pitcher could be wildly different.
The Good – Chris Sale
Chris Sale is the example all front offices and coaching staffs will point to when they make a case for converting one of their young relievers to a starter. He never even started in the minors and had already established himself as a potentially dominant closer in his first season and a half in the majors. The White Sox could have played it safe. They had an obvious need at closer but they still went through with the conversion and their risk averse nature was well-rewarded. Not even an early season twinge in his elbow could scare them off (though it came awfully close). Sale developed into a legitimate ace, made the All-Star team and is in the forefront of the AL Cy Young conversation. This is why teams make this kind of move because 200+ innings of a number one starter is far more valuable than 65 innings even an elite closer.
The Bad – Neftali Feliz
For years, the Rangers toyed with the idea of converting Feliz, their All-Star closer, into a starting pitcher. Before this season, they finally bit the bullet. To start the season, it looked like they made the right decision. Feliz was inconsistent, but showed that he had what it took to at least be a mid-rotation starter. In just seven starts he was already halfway to replicating his 2011 fWAR as the Rangers' closer. Then it happened. In late-May, Feliz started having problems with his elbow and has been on the disabled list ever since. Moreso than poor performance, this is what teams are scared of the most when moving a reliever to the rotation. The risk of injury is a major reason talented arms are shifted into a relief role in the first place and that was definitely the case with Feliz. Now Texas is without a high quality reliever and stuck trying to fill a hole in their rotation and likely second-guessing their decision to make Feliz a starter.
The Ugly – Daniel Bard
Injury is a concern for sure, but what happened with Daniel Bard is worst case scenario for converting a pitcher into a starter. Boston never fully committed to the move from the start with the front office and coaching staff reportedly arguing over whether or not Bard was suited for such a move all spring long. In the end, they reluctantly went through with it. From the start, the experiment seemed destined for failure. Bard fought his command in his first two starts only to be returned to the bullpen for a few days to help out a beleaguered Boston bullpen. After that, his command continued to erode as did the velocity that made him such a potent bullpen weapon. Every pitcher is expected to drop some velocity when starting versus relieving, but Bard lost a full 4 MPH and it was only getting worse and worse with each additional start. Finally, with Bard's performance in the tank and his confidence badly damaged, the Sox pulled the plug on the experiment. But so bad was the damage that they had to demote Bard to the minors to "help convert him back to relief" even though it was a role he had been familiar and comfortable with. Alas, even that decision has worked out poorly as Bard is currently the proud owner of an 8.78 ERA at Triple-A. Once seen as the heir apparent to Jonathan Papelbon as the Red Sox closer, Bard might now be a completely lost cause all because of the attempted transtition to starting pitching.
Often the idea of moving a player from the bullpen to the rotation is oversimplified as a low-risk endeavor since the pitcher can always return to the bullpen if he flops in the rotation. No harm, no foul. But as Feliz and Bard have shown, there is a rather significant risk since both assets could now be permanently damaged or even lost. But on the flip side, the case of Chris Sale continues to provide the incentive to put those assets at risk since frontline starters are so hard to come by.