As humans -- which if you're reading this I'm going to assume you are one -- we tend to focus more on the negatives and base our decisions too heavily on bad outcomes in the past. A prime example of this in my life dates back to second grade when a friend of mine had a birthday party that included a wheel that determined something bad you'd have to eat. When it was my turn, I landed on brussel sprouts, and hated it from the first bite I took. Since that time, I still haven't eaten another one, for that one reason alone. I bring this up in regards to the Daniel Bard fiasco last year. Though his conversion from relief ace to starting pitcher went poorly, that shouldn't make people wary of trying it again.
In Rubby De La Rosa, the Red Sox have a pitcher who may be a more immediate help in the bullpen, but a shift back to the rotation later on could maximize his potential value. As has become abundantly clear this season, no arm on a pitching staff is a guarantee. At the moment, Boston finds themselves missing their top-2 on the closer depth chart in Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, and are still waiting for Franklin Morales to make his first appearance of the season.
With where he is right now, the bullpen seems like the perfect place for De La Rosa to start his Red Sox career. For one thing, his stuff outmatches the majority of his competition, which includes the likes of Alex Wilson, Pedro Beato, and Jose De La Torre, among others. In six starts for Pawtucket this season, he has struck out 26 percent of the batters he has faced. Additionally, since he's started the year in a rotation, he is already in the process of stretching out. This leads to some nice versatility that would allow him to pitch multiple innings to protect the increasingly fragile bullpen.
That being said, De La Rosa doesn't have a clean health record himself. He is coming off Tommy John surgery, and a stint in the bullpen this year would make it easier for the team to manage his workload while not causing him to sit out for the end of the season. Finally, he's been dealing with some control issues throughout his professional career. Walks can be much more manageable out of the bullpen, as his 11 percent walk-rate in AAA likely wouldn't look pretty against major-league hitters.
In the somewhat near future, though, switching him back to the rotation would probably be advantageous, despite what we saw from Bard. Unless you have a relief ace like Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman, it's very rare for a bullpen arm to provide more value than a starter. Looking around the league, there have been plenty of successes with bullpen-to-rotation conversions.
The most recent success that tends to stand out due to his dominance would be Chris Sale. He was great in the bullpen in his first two seasons, pitching to a 169 ERA+ over 94-1/3 innings of work with a K/BB ratio of 3. Then, the White Sox moved him to the rotation, and he picked up right where he left off. Since the start of last season, he has 239-1/3 innings over 36 starts (with one relief appearance mixed in there) with a 139 ERA+, a 3.71 K/BB ratio, an All-Star Game invite and a sixth place finish in last year's Cy Young voting. Clearly, this would be the ideal scenario for De La Rosa.
Another interesting success is Jeff Samardzija, who spent four seasons in the bullpen before being shifted the rotation last season. Upon the shift, the former Notre Dame football standout actually increased his strikeout-rate after becoming a starter, and is striking out more than a batter an inning this season. He's gone from sporting a 1.4 K/BB ratio in the bullpen to a 3.2 ratio as a starter, and has a 111 ERA+ to boot.
One more encouraging case is a lot longer ago, but I think you guys have heard of him, and he coincidentally has a close relationship with De La Rosa. I refer to Pedro Martinez, who pitched primarily out of the bullpen in his first full season with the Dodgers way back in 1993. All he did after that was shift back to the rotation and become one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever seen. Obviously, one can't expect Boston's prospect to reach those levels, but it goes to show a shift from starter-to-reliever-to-starter can still lead to great things.
Photo credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
This isn't to say that it's been all positive stories, though. One example from last season is actually quite worrisome in the context of De La Rosa. In Texas, the Rangers tried to convert their closer Neftali Feliz to the rotation. He was looking good early on, boasting a 143 ERA+ through his first 42-2/3 innings pitched. However, he then blew out his elbow and required Tommy John surgery. He has yet to throw a pitch this season, and likely won't for at least a couple more months. With De La Rosa already having an injury history, this is a scary scenario that is at least worth keeping in the back of our minds.
This season, though, it makes more sense for him to be in the bullpen. This is a team that wasn't expected to be anything too impressive in 2013, but currently find themselves tied atop the AL East with the Orioles. There is no reason to not have the best arms on the active roster helping push this team into the playoffs. Between Allen Webster, Alfredo Aceves*, Franklin Morales, and possibly even Anthony Ranaudo at some point later in the year, this team has a decent amount of spot starter options without De La Rosa. And that's before considering who could be brought in at the deadline.
* I know, I know. Everyone hates him. He can still make spot-starts if he's needed, though.
What they don't have is a lot of high-upside depth for their bullpen, which is exactly what De La Rosa would provide. When healthy, the back of the bullpen is very strong between Bailey, Hanrahan, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara. However, three of those four guys have had injury problems in the past, and the relief corps could find themselves short on impact arms in the snap of a finger. Everyone still has the Daniel Bard situation fresh on their minds, and messing with young pitchers' roles can be a scary proposition. However, recent and not-so-recent past shows that it's not all disaster. With the position the Red Sox currently find themselves in, this may just be the best way to handle Rubby De La Rosa's future while still making a push for the playoffs and beyond.
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