A 2016 Blue Jays bullpen featuring Conner Greene

Conner Greene has been in the media spotlight for a variety of reasons during his time as a professional since the Jays drafted him in the 7th round of the 2013 draft. Reasons that range from being friends with the colourful Hollywood actor, Charlie Sheen, to his fastball that can reach the upper 90’s. These reasons have made him one of the more polarizing prospects in the Blue Jays’ system.

Greene’s 2015 season landed him on top prospect lists as he chewed through three levels in the Jays’ minor league system, and his rise through the organization came with plenty of positive scouting reports.

That 2015 season, Greene managed to start the year in low-A Lansing and finish in double-A New Hampshire. He put up ERA totals of 3.88 and 2.25 at Lansing and Dunedin respectively, with strong K and BB totals. His numbers at double-A regressed, but it was a small sample size, and his considering it was his age-20 season, there weren’t any scouting reports suggesting this was a concern.

What went right for Greene in 2015 seemed to go wrong in 2016. He was initially sent to high-A Dunedin after he made a couple appearances at major league spring training, and it was seen as a conservative assignment considering he surpassed that level the prior season because of his strong performance. Although, he only pitched 40 innings at that level, so the new management team could have wanted to see him pitch at that level again.

The expectation was that he would have success while repeating a level he already had success at, but he struggled to replicate his strong numbers. Perhaps, the root of the issue is the level of expectations in the first place; however, that’s a different discussion altogether that’s not worth discussing in this piece.

The reality is that Greene failed to improve, or even replicate, the kind of success that he had in 2015. Furthermore, his second stint in AA didn’t net any significant signs of growth. Through 93.2 IP in double-A over those two stints, he’s posted a 4.32 ERA with FIPs of 4.15 and 4.48 respectively, including a 6.1 K/9, 4.3 BB/9, and 1.40 K/BB ratio.

His 2016 time in double-A was arguably worse, not something you want to see from a young player repeating a level. Following the season, he really struggled in the Arizona Fall League in four starts with a 11/5 BB/K ratio in 10 IP.

In fairness, the 2016 season was his age-21 campaign, so it’s foolish to give up on the right hander; conversely, I don’t think it’s foolish to consider his role as a pitcher. Making Greene a reliever wouldn’t be giving up on him, it would be utilizing his strengths in order to make him as successful as possible at the major league level. Here’s why I think, at the very least, this is something worth considering.

Philosophical Standpoint

It’s tough to predict what Ross Atkins, Mark Shapiro and co. will do in this regard because they haven’t been with the Jays long enough to know what kind of  philosophy they use when it comes to young arms. Alex Anthopoulos and his team weren’t afraid to turn young prospects into relievers, as we saw with both Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna in the spring of 2015 and Aaron Sanchez prior to that.

If I had to guess, I would imagine this current group would tend to keep young pitchers as starters as long as possible. This is legitimately a guess, but they seem like the type of management team that would try to create as much value out of their assets as possible. Turning pitching prospects into major league starters long term as opposed to relievers short term in order to fill a need on the MLB team is doing exactly that.

I agree that keeping prospects as starters long term is typically the right way to manage the development of young arms, but with relief pitching becoming such an important aspect of a team’s success, I don’t think it’s necessary to force a pitcher into being a starter when their upside as a reliever is high.

The Blue Jays’ bullpen is a clear need this offseason, and getting a productive reliever at league minimum would be huge gain for that area of the team. So, philosophically speaking, I’m not sure the management group gives this is a go, but due to team needs, and considering the importance relievers carry for a winning club and the borderline ridiculous free agent and trade market, I believe this is something that needs to be considered.

Baseball & Performance Standpoint

Greene has a very promising array of pitches. He can run his fastball into the upper 90s and shows an average change with a developing breaking pitch. Greene flashed his plus stuff and velocity in a couple of appearances at the Jays major league spring training camp in 2016, and gave a glimpse of his potential when he can use his power stuff in short bursts. He only made two single inning appearances, but he managed to strike out three hitters and grab a lot of headlines.

He was ranked fourth on Baseball America’s latest Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects, one spot behind Sean Red-Foley, and in front of fellow right-handers T.J. Zeuch and Jon Harris. John Manuel, editor of Baseball America magazine, briefly discussed Greene and compared him to Reid-Foley in the Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects Chat: “I still think it will click for Conner Greene. Greene has a higher ceiling because he’s looser and throws harder, but Reid-Foley is the better pitcher and has plenty of stuff in his own right.”

In my view, this comparison of the two prospects lends me to believe that Reid-Foley has a much higher chance of succeeding as a starter. His pitchability is much better, his off-speed stuff is more advanced, his results are very good and improving as he moves upp, and his control issues have seen a huge improvement. His 6.11 and 6.61 BB/9 rates in 2015 at Lansing and Dunedin turned into 3.41 and 2.51 this year at the same levels. Combine that with his extremely positive K/9 rates, and you have a pretty good future for the young pitcher.

Greene on the other hand, while he may throw harder, has seen his control fade, his strikeout ability decrease, and he put up average numbers with a very low BABIP. I haven’t had the opportunity to watch him live with enough regularity, but this type of profile from a guy with a big fastball suggests that his secondary stuff isn’t where it needs to be.

If it clicks for Greene, as Manuel of BA predicts, then his ability to start will obviously get a huge boost, but the percentage that it “clicks” is much higher in a relieving role. Putting him as a reliever would allow that fastball to sit at a much higher velocity, and he could hone in on one off-speed pitch instead of trying to develop multiple off-speed offerings he would need in a starting role.

When a pitcher is having trouble putting it all together, and I believe Greene’s 2016 season was an indication of that, then simplifying the process could pay big dividends.

Relevant Examples

Many critics of this plan will cite the fact that he’s entering his 2017 season as a 22-year-old, and that there’s no reason to rush him to the MLB as a reliever. Furthermore, they’ll probably refer to the fact that the value of a starter is a lot higher than a reliever, which is true, but that becomes moot if that pitcher can’t be a successful starter.

Of course, if Greene ultimately fails as a starter two or three years down the road, you can move him into a bullpen role then, but considering the current Jays bullpen and the premium that relievers are costing in both free agency and trade, it would be a worthwhile proposition to consider Greene for a bullpen role.

Look at Biagini, a starter all of his career in the minor leagues, put up a 1.2 fWAR mark in his first season as a reliever (I know, he’s older and more experienced, but it’s a relevant example nonetheless). Another example is Carl Edwards Jr. He was a starter in the minor leagues, put up much better numbers than Greene, was consistently included in top prospect lists, yet he was moved into a bullpen role and put up a 0.6 fWAR this season is only 36 games. He became one of Joe Maddon’s most trusted relievers on the Cubs playoff run.

The final example I’ll use is one Jays fans will be very familiar with in Osuna. He was reverted into a reliever at an age two years younger than what Greene will be this upcoming year, and arguably, he was a higher rated prospect with a brighter future ahead of him.

We’ve seen the dividends pay off the last two years with Osuna, and while I personally believe that he should be moved into a starting role at some point because he’s shown the ability to throw three above average to plus pitches, something that might not be a reality for Greene, it’s hard to argue with how he’s changed the bullpen.

There’s no guarantee that Greene will be able to post anything near Osuna’s 3.1 WAR in his first two years, but his pitching profile and his arsenal combined with the Jays need for high leverage innings from a power arm and the current reliever market makes it an interesting idea that shouldn’t be ignored.

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