Nolan Ryan: Converting relievers to rotation ‘very valuable’
|12.06.11 at 12:09 pm ET|
DALLAS — No team in the majors has been more aggressive in pursuing the conversion of relievers to the rotation than the Texas Rangers, and no team has benefited more from that strategy.
In the last two years, the team has seen C.J. Wilson go from a setup man to a top-of-the-rotation starter (now on the cusp of cashing in on a huge payday) who has gone 31-15 with a 3.14 ERA while making 67 starts. Last year, after free-agent Bobby Jenks declined an Offer to convert from closing to starting, the team moved Alexi Ogando from a setup role to the rotation, where he went 13-8 with a 3.51 ERA in 169 innings, earning an All-Star berth in the process. And now, the Rangers plan on moving closer Neftali Feliz to the rotation in 2012.
Despite pitching in a ballpark that is typically brutal for pitchers, the Rangers managed to craft a rotation that finished third in the American League with a 3.65 mark, the lowest by the organization in decades. In the process, the Rangers continued to create something of a blueprint for a cost-effective way to build a talented rotation.
When spurned by top-of-the-market options such as Cliff Lee, rather than paying huge salaries to free-agent starters whose career peaks may have passed (John Lackey, A.J. Burnett, etc.), the Rangers have looked to their own pool of pitchers with electric stuff and explored whether they had starting solutions within.
It is a model that other teams now seem intent on copying. Several clubs are exploring conversions of relievers to the rotation, including the Sox, who are keeping open the possibility of shifting Alfredo Aceves and/or Daniel Bard from the bullpen to the rotation.
It is a move that carries with it uncertainty because there is an element of the unknown. Teams typically take a very valuable known commodity (a late-innings reliever) and instead open themselves to uncertainty with a new role. But the reward can be tremendous, according to Rangers team president Nolan Ryan.
“If you have the right talent to come in and fill that role and eat innings — that’s what you’re talking about, just people giving you innings — people in your organization that can do that, then it’s very valuable,” said Ryan. “Could we have predicted what happened with Ogando last year? No, we couldn’t have predicted that. We liked what we saw with him. We were in a situation where we had to make a decision. We were very pleased with the year that he had, the workload that he gave us.
“What you do is do the best you can as far as evaluating the potential people have. Until you put them in that role, you really don’t know what you have. You have to physically prepare them, you have to get them mentally prepared for that and they have to want to do it. If they don’t want to do it, then it’s not going to be successful.”
For the Sox, Aceves has made clear his preference to start on several occasions. He is preparing this offseason for a starter’s workload, and he almost surely will compete this spring for a spot in the rotation. The team has yet to define the expectations for Bard entering spring training, but will do so later this offseason once the market takes shape. Given the success of the Rangers, the potential value of the conversion becomes more clear.
Of course, beyond the uncertainty that comes with a change of role, there is also overall risk that comes to a pitching staff. It is difficult, Ryan noted, to convert a reliever if there is not an obvious candidate to take his place in the bullpen. It was for that reason that Feliz, who entered last spring as a starter, eventually reclaimed his role as Rangers closer. Undoubtedly, the Sox would have to find an alternative to Bard to handle ninth-inning duties if they wanted to explore the idea of having him start.
There is a possibility of, as Orioles manager Buck Showalter described it on Monday, “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” But given the cost and difficulty of finding starters on the open market, Ryan understands why an old tenet of Earl Weaver‘s philosophy — having young pitchers break into the majors as relievers and then converting them to the rotation — is fast becoming an industry trend.
“There’s a lot of variables that come into play,” Ryan said. “I think a club has to have a need, and they have to feel like if they do that, they don’t leave a hole somewhere else in their pitching staff. We chose not to do it with Feliz last year because of what it would do to the back end of our bullpen. But also, we feel like with a lot of our young pitchers, when we bring them up, we bring them up through the bullpen first. We’re just more comfortable doing that then putting them straight into the rotation. I think that’s a pattern that we’re seeing developing in baseball.”
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