John Fay had an article this morning in the Enquirer going over some things from Cincinnati Reds spring training. In it he notes that the veteran signings for the bullpen is going to keep top prospect starting pitchers out of the bullpen.
Every team does it,” Price said. “Sometimes, you’re forced to use your younger, less-prepared players. We talked a lot about Donald Lutz over the last year or two, the fact that we had him on the team, but he hasn’t gotten a lot of playing time. That probably hasn’t helped his development in any way. We also brought up (Aroldis) Chapman, who we thought was going to be a good starter. But he was so good in relief we didn’t put him in the rotation.
Without jumping down the “Aroldis Chapman should have been tried as a starter” debate too much, the idea that someone who you believe could start doesn’t get that chance because he first went to the bullpen and found success is mind numbing. Nearly every starting pitcher could go to the bullpen and post better numbers (ERA/K Rates/WHIP) than they would as a starter. That’s just how it works. Their flaws are less exposed and they can just go out there and go full force for 15-20 pitches without worrying about saving something for later.
The Reds fell into the trap with Chapman of placing a guy into the bullpen for a short term need and never truly veering back to the rotation because he was so good as a reliever. Every team needs relievers, and very few in the history of the game have been as dominant as Chapman has been in the role, but he still only throws 60 innings a season. A less dominant Chapman as a starter could be far more valuable simply because of the additional innings he would throw, assuming he were still effective in that role (which isn’t guaranteed).
Robert Stephenson, Michael Lorenzen and Nick Howard (those mentioned by Fay in the article) are all able to hit high numbers on the radar gun. Howard and Lorenzen both have plenty of experience as relievers as both spent time in college as relievers at times, as well as in their first professional seasons after being drafted. Stephenson has never really worked as a reliever. His lone relief appearance in his career was simply him following up a rehabbing pitcher on his normal start day and he threw a starters number of innings.
Stephenson and Lorenzen have both shown that they can start. They’ve carried stuff over 120 innings in minor league seasons. Tossing them into the bullpen for a short term need would be a bad move.
Howard started in college at Virginia in his first two seasons, but his stuff wasn’t the same as it was in 2014 as a reliever in college or as a starter in the pros after being drafted. He will need to do what Lorenzen did in 2014 and show that he can keep that stuff over the long haul of 100+ innings. Placing him into the bullpen would be a little short-sighted as well, since the team believes that he can start, but it would make more sense because unlike the other two he hasn’t shown that starter workload yet. Of course, he’s also yet to pitch above Low-A and that would be an enormous jump on it’s own.
While it wasn’t ever too likely that any of the three made the team as a reliever, it’s nice to see manager Bryan Price actually say it out loud. Starters are far more valuable than relievers. Don’t waste starting pitching talent in the bullpen so they can throw 2-3 innings a week. If a guy has shown an ability to start, keep them in the rotation. The bullpen should always be a fallback option, not the first option.