MLB: Struggling Starters Who Would Thrive in the Bullpen

Oct 10, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; The Washington Nationals bullpen watches during the ninth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game three of the 2016 NLDS playoff baseball series at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Transitioning from starting to relieving can reignite an MLB pitcher’s career, and some starters could benefit from this change as soon as next season.

Coming out of the 2016 MLB postseason, the bullpen seems more important than ever before. Closers coming in during the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings was absolutely unheard of until Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, and Andrew Miller did it. Now more than ever the value of the bullpen is extremely high. During an offseason where elite closers are available, teams will be looking to bolster their bullpens.

One way to strengthen the bullpen is by transitioning struggling starters into middle and long relievers. Older guys like Joe Blanton and Vidal Nuno have reignited their careers with this transition. Younger guys like Ross Stripling and Mike Montgomery have benefited from bullpen experience to prepare for a future starting pitching role. Whatever the reason may be, both teams and pitchers can benefit from this change of pace.

No longer do guys have to stress themselves in starting games and lasting long enough to avoid burning too many arms. Instead, they can go out for a couple of innings at most and worry solely on pitching. It’s much easier to throw for more quality when you don’t have to focus on quantity. Also, the versatility of these moves are a huge plus because these bullpen guys can fill in for five or six innings if need be.

That leaves the question: which pitchers should make this transition heading into the 2017 season? There are some young arms and grizzled vets that can help not only themselves but their ball clubs. Some pitchers must swallow their pride and embrace the role of reliever. Entering the 2017 season, here are some struggling starting pitchers that should transition into the bullpen.

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James Shields

Former ace “Big Game James” has certainly fallen from grace since leaving the Kansas City Royals. Once a man who was feared for his dominance, James Shields struggled in 2016 with a 5.85 earned run average. Shields was traded from the Padres to the White Sox last season and failed to really contribute to either team. Shields sported a 6-19 record, with his last performance being on the wrong end of a 6-0 loss. That same 6-0 loss should very well be his last start in MLB.

Although his stuff isn’t what it used to be, Shields still manages to show the upside of his pitching potential. Shields’ second to last start of the season resulted in a 7-1 victory in which Shields allowed only one run in six innings. As a matter of fact, in every one of Shields’ victories he only allowed two runs or fewer. The potential is certainly there for Shields; the problem is that the consistency is not.

Shields definitely would give the White Sox bullpen a much-needed jolt. Chicago ranked 17th in bullpen ERA, and second to last in total innings pitched. Not only is the bullpen mediocre, but Chicago used it far less frequently than other MLB teams. Not only would Shields help the bullpen, but the bullpen would be the perfect place to showcase his potential.

According to Baseball-Reference, hitters bat only .207 against Shields in high leverage situations. Compare that to the .331 batting average in medium leverage situations, and it’s apparent Shields pitches far better when it’s really important. Yes, it is completely subjective on which situation is deemed high or medium leverage. However, Shields is still a good talent that is owed a large amount of money, so Chicago should utilize his talents in the bullpen.

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Jered Weaver

In 2009 through 2014, Jered Weaver was incredible. There is no denying that. Often, Weaver even gets overlooked in favor of some of the bigger names as one of the best pitchers of this period. During that span, Weaver compiled 96 wins and 50 loses. His 96 wins ranked second for this time behind only Justin Verlander, and his 3.12 ERA was 12th best. Weaver was up there with the best, and sometimes fans forget his incredible run.

The problem is, since 2014 Weaver hasn’t been at all great. In 2015 and 2016, Weaver posted a combined 5.40 ERAAlthough he had a respectable 12 wins last season, the strikeouts are diminishing and so is the quality. The biggest factor in this is that Weaver has lost all the velocity he once had. Once a guy who threw in the high 80s and low 90s, he now has an average fastball velocity of 84 miles per hour. The only starting pitcher that throws a slower fastball is 42-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

Although Weaver has lost all his velocity and his numbers have taken a hit, it doesn’t mean he can’t be successful in the bullpen. Weaver could utilize his breaking stuff in the way Joe Blanton does, relying heavily on his curve and slider. Especially being a free agent, teams may find more value in Weaver being a situational reliever, rather than continuing his career as a starting pitcher.

Teams such as the Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Reds could all benefit from Weaver’s veteran presence. Even the Angels, who had one of the worst bullpens in the league, should consider re-signing Weaver to help their bullpen.

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Shelby Miller

Shelby Miller in a Diamondbacks uniform has not gone as expected. Arizona, who gave up number-one overall pick Dansby Swanson, brought Miller in as part of their offseason splash last year. Miller had posted good numbers at a relatively young age and seemed destined to succeed behind Zack Greinke. Although that potential is still present, the future of Miller as a starter in Arizona seems bleak.

Moving Miller to the bullpen shouldn’t be a permanent move, but it should definitely be one the Diamondbacks consider heading into 2017. Putting Miller into the bullpen not only would take the workload off their young arms, it could also help him regain his confidence. Arizona has nothing but time with Miller, as he is locked in until 2020. Therefore, they have time to experiment with him, allowing him to pitch more freely in the bullpen.

This is all the more important to Arizona because last season their bullpen was very underwhelming. Arizona’s bullpen ranked not only 27th in ERA, but ranked 28th in total walks. Before joining Arizona, Miller’s walk rate was fairly low, and that production could rekindle itself in the bullpen. Sure, putting Miller in the bullpen may be a tough pill to swallow for both Miller and Arizona. This would mean they gave up the highly touted Swanson for a bullpen arm. However, unless Miller regains his old form and then some during Spring Training, the bullpen should be the place he calls home to start the season.

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Anibal Sanchez

Anibal Sanchez has never really been an outstanding pitcher. The man has talent and certainly can contribute to a ball club, but he has never been regarded as great. Personally, he reminds me of Joe Blanton, a decent starter who with age has gradually declined. Sanchez should follow Blanton’s path into the bullpen to create the same success.

Last season, Sanchez actually came out of the bullpen nine times for the Detroit Tigers. The seeds are already planted for Sanchez to be primarily a reliever, especially if the right starting pitching pieces are found in Detroit. If guys like Jordan Zimmermann can return to form from injury and Detroit signs new pitching talent, Sanchez may lose his place in the starting rotation anyway. Instead of sending him down or trading him, they should simply utilize him in the bullpen. Instead of putting him in mop-up roles, like during the Tigers’ 16-5 loss against the Royals on June 18, they could place him in more important scenarios.

Taking Sanchez’s role more seriously as a reliever would allow Sanchez to pitch with more intent. This would help improve a Tigers bullpen that ranked 24th in ERA last season. Yes, Sanchez could assume a long relief role like he did on June 18, coming into games early; but he could also add a transition arm from starting pitcher to set up man and closer.

These four pitchers could all benefit from a move to the bullpen. Instead of clinging to the belief that they have to be starters, they should embrace bullpen roles to rejuvenate their careers. Whether it’s due to declining production because of age, or as an attempt to regain confidence, transitioning to a relief role can benefit not only these struggling starting pitchers but their respective teams as well.

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