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MLB Analysis: When Relievers Become Starters

I think if I were a relief pitcher, I would want to be a starter. They make more money. They have to pitch only once every four to five days. You get fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse between innings—major props Boston Red Sox. Most of all, I want to win. Saves are great and everything, but I’m not that honorable and way too competitive. Seeing as I’ve never been a starting pitcher—or relief pitcher for that matter—I will have to accept my role as an observer.

It has become the “en vogue” thing to turn talented relievers into starting pitchers. Whether that was the intention from the beginning for their careers or not, more and more prospects are taking this path to the big leagues. For fantasy purposes, it can be a source of gold mining for cheap production.

During the 2011 season, we saw two pitchers in particular make the transition from reliever to starter without missing a beat. Alexi Ogando posted a very respectable 3.51 ERA and showed flashes of brilliance during stretches. As with all reliever-to-starter prospects, there’s always the fatigue due to the increase in innings pitched.

Philip Humber was another youthful pitcher who pitched very well for the White Sox when tasked with the change over to starter. He managed to decrease his walks and maintain a solid strikeout rate above six per nine innings.

Two other notable relievers turned starters in 2011 are Kyle McClellan and Josh Collmenter, both of whom had both some success and some failure.

First and foremost, please do not build your draft strategy around a transitioning pitcher. There is much risk involved, and as Steve Treder wrote in "Examining the relief of relieving," relief pitching is significantly easier than starting. Not only should you anticipate regression from a reliever turning starter, you should plan around it. That being said, a find like Ogando or Humber could have been a real jewel of a draft, especially in a AL- or NL-only league.

I play in a very high-stakes weekly league where a reliever who accumulates starter innings loads is extremely valuable. I was able to manipulate this to my advantage, as none of my other 14 leaguemates has realized this strategy, and it’s become a staple in my draft plans.

If any of you find yourselves in a similar situation, please enjoy my research below. If you do not, then you should still note this as an interesting way to find cheap starting pitcher help. Additionally, I don't think there's been a season with a more intriguing list of relievers making the jump to starter. Let's get this party started.

Neftali Feliz, Texas;- Last year, we all held our collective breaths as ol' Nolan Ryan and company lured us into the tantalizing possibility of the young Feliz as a future ace of the Ranger staff. We were led to believe that Feliz would find himself in this role as soon as 2011. Well, here we are a year later, and it feels as though we will finally get our wish.

The departure of C.J. Wilson has left a huge hole for the Rangers rotation. Ryan and the other front office personnel have been linked to several big-name free agents, including the Japanese sensation, Yu Darvish. Most interesting, however, was the signing of Joe Nathan, which not only opened the door for Feliz in the rotation, but flung it wide open.

Feliz brings a youth and skill set that the Rangers haven’t had in several years. if ever. He has an upper 90s fastball that should sit around the mid 90s as a starter. He complements that with a very solid curveball. It’ll be interesting to see if he starts to refine his change-up and slider as he figures out how to effectively manage a baseball game as a starter.

Feliz will only be 24 as the 2012 season begins, and his talent level has long been admired. Once a centerpiece of the Mark Teixeira deal with Atlanta, he will now slide into a role that we should all be excited about. Feliz offers all the things fantasy managers want out of a high-upside play. He has youth, talent, opportunity and, even more impressively, experience.

Feliz will be a solid middle-round draft pick as a starter. He should at least deliver that much to his owners as a return on investment. I will be watching in spring training to see how his arm reacts to the innings increase, though I’m not worried. I will be drafting him in all leagues where he has that No. 4 starter value.

Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox— I don’t think there’s anybody on this list that I’m more excited about seeing as a starter than Sale. He has everything you would want from a starter and was used solely out of the bullpen in Chi-town because of the sub-par relief corps there. Sale could be drafted as a mid-to-late-round pick. If you are lucky enough to nab him in these later rounds, you will find a sneaky talent who will deliver.

I don’t know if he’ll be as cheap in super-competitive fantasy leagues, but I will spend to secure Sale's talent in my lineup. He's a skilled lefty with an unknown ceiling on his talent, and I don’t think there will be a more fascinating starter as we enter draft season for 2012.

Sale can strike out batters above that nine-per-nine-innings benchmark. He could struggle with control, but I believe that we might end the 2012 season talking about a reliever turned starter who could also be in the Cy Young discussion. I am that confident in his skills. This is coming from the guy who told you to believe in Jose Bautista and that Curtis Granderson could hit 50 home runs as a Yankee. I’m just saying.

Aaron Crow, Kansas City—Crow could be boom or bust for Kansas City in 2012. He was an All-Star as a reliever in 2011. One should wonder why he’s been moved to the rotation when he had such success as a reliever. Part of the reason he was moved to the bullpen in the first place was his mediocre performance in the minors as a starting pitcher. The Royals threw him into the pen as a see-what-sticks maneuver with a young pitcher they planned to move back to starter eventually.

Crow walks a lot of batters, and I don’t think that will change as a starter. Furthermore, I think he’s as risky a guy as there is on this list. Sure, he could strike out a ton of batters and have a sub-3.50 ERA, but the smart money has him slated to have serious growing pains.

Take the strikeouts out of the equation, and you see a pitcher who will kill your WHIP, and that lack of control could lead to a high ERA amid a load of bad pitching performances. I don’t see a lot of wins, either. While I do like Crow as a pitcher, and I also think he could make a great starter one day, I just don’t think he’ll come anywhere close to that in 2012. If you’re an AL-only leaguer looking to speculate, Crow is the perfect guy for you. All others should stay away.

Jim Johnson, Baltimore— You might wonder, “Who is Jim Johnson?” I don’t blame you. This guy could be the find of the year for a fantasy team. He could be one of those guys that goes undrafted or is had for a dollar. Don’t let the cheap price tag fool you. Johnson is a very respected pitcher in his relatively short career. The 2011 season saw him mature as a pitcher and has essentially pushed management to moving him into the Orioles rotation.

Johnson brings a three-pitch repertoire to the table. His fastball is a good pitch that sits in the mid 90s, but watch to see how much velocity he loses as the innings begin to increase. His best pitch is a curveball he uses effectively to both righties and lefties.

Johnson's transition to starter could be very smooth. I don’t know if anybody can get excited about most AL East pitchers, but I definitely would target Johnson in AL-only leagues, and he should be owned in 12-team leagues as a late-round flier. If there’s anybody who fits a “C.J. Wilson” mold, it would be Johnson. You heard it here first.

Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati— This guy is the most interesting player on this list. He may be over-hyped leading into draft day, and thus should be left for others to bid up his price. He should, however, be discussed.

Chapman's shoulder discomfort, brought on while stretching out in the Arizona Fall League, has led to some speculation that he’ll remain in the bullpen during the 2012 season. The Reds also have traded for Mat Latos to solidify their rotation as a front-line starter, so the necessity of Chapman starting has waned.

That being said, Chapman has a world-renowned fastball that we all love to talk about and salivate over, but past that there isn't much else I would want out of a starter. He gets lost on the mound sometimes, and he’s not as overpowering as some of the other young flame throwers (see Kenley Jansen).

Chapman will strike out batters, but he could walk a ton of them as well. I don’t think I’ve ever been a “buyer” on this guy, and you won’t find me doing that now. I like him as a setup man or closer who will get loads of strikeouts. If he’s that, draft him late in deeper leagues. If he’s a starter, definitely pass and let someone else buy the hype.

Rumored relievers to starters:

Joakim Soria, Kansas City— Soria struggled for the first time in his career in 2011. He was a little unlucky and gave up a lot more long balls than he ever had. Nobody would argue that Soria doesn’t have the skills to bounce back to his stellar reliever self, though the A's addition of Jonathan Broxton has caused many to question if Soria could jump into the rotation.

Reports are that Broxton will simply be the setup man in Kansas City, but some—myself included—wonder if the Broxton insurance policy is indicative of Soria having some mental adjustment problems that are all too common to dominant closers who fail. We’ll see, but it’s at least something to monitor going forward.

Daniel Bard, Boston— Bard is rumored to be entering 2012 as a starter for the Red Sox. Some believe he will end up as the closer. I’m not sure which way to go and how to accurately rank him. I like him better as a closer, obviously, but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you how glued I’m going to be to Bard’s “situation.” Boston's acquisition of Mark Melancon seems to preclude Bard as the closer, but Melancon is far from an experienced stopper, so the job still could be up for grabs.`

Bard's stats were really solid last year. He didn’t walk too many people, and nobody—I mean nobody—hit him. He has such a nasty fast fastball and knee-buckling slider.

I wonder if we’ll see Bard develop that change-up further. He’ll have to if he expects to get major league hitters out the second time through the order. Basically, I love Bard as a closer, and I could love him as a starter. I need to see more, but I think we should all be willing to pay the price to find out.

To recap, I love Sale and Feliz. I’m fascinated by Johnson and Bard. I’m staying away from Crow, Chapman and Soria.

Thanks, everybody, for your continued support of The Hardball Times, and especially the fantasy guys as we continue to try to provide you with the best fantasy information and advice available on the web. Merry Christmas to all.

Ben Pritchett can be reached for questions, comments, gripes, or considerations at or you could follow his whims on twitter @pritchettclan.

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