Quickly, guess how many Opening Day starters from the past two years are no longer holding down a starting job? Would you believe that it’s only one? Would you believe that one is Carlos Zambrano, the fallen ace of the Chicago Cubs?
Now, I won’t go into the whole Zambrano situation much. It’s abundantly clear that he’s one of Chicago’s five best starters, and the move is likely to be one that the Cubs regret in the coming months. Maybe Lou got his big-boned Carloses mixed up, maybe he actually thinks this improves the team. But while Zambrano didn’t deserve his demotion, in the coming weeks we’ll see numerous guys who do deserve to lose their rotation spot. With that in mind, here are five good reasons to relegate a starter to relief status. Those reasons, along with suggestions for pitchers who fit the bill, follow.
1. They’re simply not good
Many of these guys manage to sneak into a rotation with a nice spring, or some other sort of baseball-related trickery. I’ve been trying to be optimistic about Detroit’s Dontrelle Willis, but at this point, he’s the poster child for a befallen starter who’s still running on name value. The ZiPS projection system, created by TMI contributor Dan Szymborski and updated based on in-season 2010 statistics, has Willis finishing the year with a 6.05 ERA and more walks than strikeouts. There isn’t a starter in baseball with a strikeout-to-walk ratio below 1.0. At this point, he's most valuable as a mop-up man.
2. There’s someone better on the way
Is there anyone in baseball who doesn’t consider Stephen Strasburg the best pitcher in the Nationals organization right now? With Strasburg barreling toward D.C. on the heels of a dominant minor league career thus far, Scott Olsen would seem to be on his way out of the rotation. ZiPS has Olsen finishing the year with a 5.90 ERA, and, well, I think we can comfortably say that Mr. Strasburg will outperform that. As a bonus, lefties hit just .248 against Olsen, and he has a 2.84 K/BB ratio against them. That has value in the pen.
3. Their stuff will play up in relief and the bullpen needs help
Nate Silver once did research showing that starters with high walk totals but low isolated powers allowed (slugging minus batting average) make the most improvement when moving to the bullpen. Orioles starter David Hernandez fits that bill nicely, as a flamethrower with command issues and a minor league track record of keeping the ball in the park (0.79 HR/9). Without a quality third offering, moving him to the bullpen, which would free up a spot for prospect Chris Tillman, makes a good deal of sense.
4. They face an innings limit due to age and/or inexperience
We’ve all seen what an excessive workload can do to a young pitcher and the Padres presumably don’t want the same to happen to the electric Mat Latos. One of the game’s most talented young pitchers, Latos has pitched just 176 innings since going pro in 2007. Latos isn’t likely to leave the rotation soon, but at some point it would make sense for San Diego to move him to the bullpen to limit his innings this season. The Twins did this successfully with Johan Santana in 2003; the Yankees did this less successfully with Joba Chamberlain.
5. They may not be able to stay healthy pitching every fifth day
Sometimes, after years of trying, a team may just decide that a pitcher isn’t capable of taking the ball 30-plus times a year. We saw it with Kerry Wood, and the Rangers may think the same thing about Neftali Feliz. Feliz probably deserves another shot to start, but Daisuke Matsuzaka is one guy who could benefit from a move to Boston’s bullpen. He’s reached 200 innings pitched just three times in his 11 professional seasons, and totaled 248 innings over the past two years. And his performance has been nothing short of spotty, having posted ERAs of 4.40, 2.90 and 5.76 in each of his three MLB seasons. Dice-K could benefit from getting less exposure; hitters have progressively done better against him the more they face him. As a reliever he could potentially be healthier and perform better, making him a good candidate to move to the bullpen.
Satchel Price is writer for Beyond the Box Score.