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The Starter/Reliever Debate

The fact that Aaron Crow has made the Royals Opening Day roster began circling around the internet yesterday, and it looks like barring some injuries that he’ll be starting out of the bullpen. That is true for at least the beginning of the season, but could be a permanent thing. There are some people who believe Crow’s future is in the bullpen because he has two fantastic pitches and not a ton else. There are some who believe his future is in the bullpen because he has the mentality of a reliever more than he does that of a starter. I guess there are two prongs to this debate. One is whether or not Crow is a reliever long-term and the other is whether or not it is beneficial to put a starter in the bullpen at the beginning of his career.

We’ll start by looking at the latter. Starting pitchers used to very often begin their careers in the bullpen as a way of getting acclimated to the Major Leagues. Earl Weaver of the Orioles used to love to get a pitcher’s feet wet with his technique and let him learn the intricacies of the Majors. I think this is a great way of seasoning certain pitchers, but not others. For guys who simply need innings to work on things and need set schedules, then I think this method of developing a pitcher is a waste of time and will do nothing more than stunt their development. A guy like Mike Montgomery, for example, needs innings and starts in order to get the most out of his development. Had he not gotten hurt last year, I probably would have been okay with him in the bullpen, but he just didn’t get enough innings last year to limit his innings this year.

The pitches who do well with this sort of development are guys who don’t have a ton to learn in the minors and don’t need to have their arms stretched out in the minors. Even though there’s not much left for them in the farm system, they’re still not exactly ready to start in the Majors. I think Aaron Crow actually fits this description perfectly. His mindset is not quite there to be a top of the rotation starter in the big leagues, but his stuff is already big league ready. Not only will pitching out of the Royals bullpen give him the opportunity to get acclimated to Major League life, but it should give him the chance to have success at the top level, so if the Royals put him into the rotation at some point he will know what success tastes like.

The other side of the argument with Crow is one that many associated with the Royals are familiar with, but you have to change the name from Aaron Crow to Joakim Soria. There are some obvious difference such as the fact that Soria is a bona fide star as a closer at the big league level. Still, though, the debate has raged about whether or not Soria should be moved to the rotation. His long-term contract with the Royals has done nothing to quell those arguments as his incentives are listed in both games finished and games started in case the move is made. I think after some of his injuries in 2009, his fate was sealed as a closer, but there are still some who can’t understand why the Royals don’t make the transition with him.

The Rangers are going through the same thing right now with their second year pitcher, Neftali Feliz. As you probably know, Feliz was very good as the Rangers closer last year, but he had come through the minors as a starter. The thought was that he would pitch out of the bullpen as a way of getting him used to the Major Leagues. Well, ineffectiveness of others and injuries pushed him into the closer’s role last season and he took the reigns and made it his role. Coming into spring training this year, it was widely expected that he would make the move from the closer’s role to the starting rotation and he was beginning to embrace that change when Ron Washington decided that he needed an established closer too badly. At the point of the spring that he made that declaration it was too late to find one, so Feliz is back in the closer’s role for one more season at least.

Both of these situations aren’t quite the same as Crow, who has done nothing to prove anything, but they do bring up the point of how much more valuable a starter is than a reliever. It’s pretty simple. A starter gives you 180-220 innings while a reliever gives you 60-80.  That alone is reason enough that if a pitcher can start, he should. Of course it’s not quite as cut and dry as that, but with a guy like Crow who has not tasted success anywhere but spring training, it really is. I think that Aaron Crow should be a starter until he proves beyond a reasonable doubt that he can’t. I wouldn’t even have a problem if the Royals came to that conclusion by late May, but I feel that he should get one more shot at the rotation.

I’m not trying to make excuses for Crow last season, but he had to have been rusty after essentially sitting out in 2009. His numbers do not resemble anything close to a two-time first round draft pick, but you could tell that the stuff was there based on his strikeout numbers and all his other peripherals. I’d like to see if after being back on the mound for an entire year if he can start in 2011. It shouldn’t take long to figure out. If he goes out in the first two months and posts a 5.22 ERA, then you convert him to the bullpen. It’s just that it is much easier to go that way than to go the other way and have to stretch his arm back out. I sort of like the idea that Crow is going to be a Royal when the season begins on Thursday. I also sort of believe that his future is in the bullpen no matter what, but in a season that is basically lost before it starts why not give the guy two months to find out if all those people are right. I’d just hate to lose out on a number three starter in order to fill the role of the seventh or eighth inning guy.

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