On separate sides of Chicago, two converted relievers have mowed down opposing hitters as starting pitchers this season. In Texas, a former closer counted upon to emerge as a top of the rotation arm underwent Tommy John surgery on Wednesday.
Boston’s one-time closer-in-waiting struggled so much in his first year as a starter that he was optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket, returned to a relief role and is finally showing signs of regaining his confidence and mechanics.
Just as every starter can’t transition into a relief role, moving a dominant reliever into the rotation is not a guarantee for success.
Last season, when the Rangers were one strike away from a World Series title, Neftali Feliz stood on the mound, having saved 32 games with a 2.74 ERA in the regular season.
When left-hander C.J. Wilson departed in the off-season for the Angels, Texas decided to fill the rotation void with Feliz knowing that it had previous success moving Wilson from the closer’s role to a starter in 2010 and Alexi Ogando from a set-up role into the rotation in 2011.
Feliz pitched well during his short tenure as a starter this year. In seven starts, he was 3-1 with a 3.02 ERA, allowing 27 hits in 41.2 innings and limiting hitters to a .185 average. Yet his last outing of the season was on May 18, and now he will likely not return to the active roster until August 2013.
Like Texas did with Feliz, the Red Sox envisioned Bard as a low-cost, high-reward option for the starting rotation in 2012 and beyond.
For three seasons (2009-2011), it was apparent that the 2006 first round draft pick out of the University of North Carolina was Boston’s future closer as he overpowered hitters with a fast ball that touched 100 and a nasty slider in a set-up role to Jonathan Papelbon.
Though Papelbon signed with Philadelphia last off-season, the Red Sox opted to make Bard a starter, and the results were not pretty.
In 11 games, 10 of which were starts, he was 5-6 with a 5.24 ERA, but those numbers don’t tell the full story. Though his batting average against was a respectable .259 and he allowed 52 hits in 55 innings, Bard lacked command.
He logged an atrocious 1.62 WHIP, had more walks (37) than strikeouts (34) and hit eight batters. In his final start on June 3 against Toronto, Bard lasted 1.2 innings, allowing five runs on just one hit.
He recorded that unusual stat line because he walked six batters and hit two more.
Bard’s velocity dropped more than the Red Sox expected as his fast ball routinely remained around 92-93 as a starter compared to 95-98 as a reliever.
When he was sent to Pawtucket, Bard continued to struggle with his command, but it appears he has ironed out his issues. Over his last 10 appearances, he has a 2.70 ERA, and in his last five games, he has four strikeouts and two walks in five innings.
Bard will likely rejoin the Red Sox in August when the team also expects the return of Andrew Bailey, a closer who undoubtedly will be kept in a relief role.
While the transition from reliever to starter did not work out as anticipated for Feliz and Bard, the results have been stellar for Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox and Jeff Samardzija of the Chicago Cubs.
Their rotation depleted when Mark Buehrle signed with Miami in the off-season, the White Sox have seen left-hander John Danks spend much of the year on the disabled list. Righties Gavin Floyd and Philip Humber have battled health issues, and their performances when on the mound have been lackluster.
Enter Sale, the 23-year-old left-hander who had a 2.79 ERA and eight saves last year in 58 appearances, all in relief. This season, he is 12-3 with a 2.61 ERA in 19 games, including 18 starts.
Currently, Sale is in the midst of a 10-day rest because of a tired arm, but the White Sox will count on him for the remainder of the season as they try to win the American League Central title.
The Cubs are no threat for a post-season spot, but the 27-year-old Samardzija is now the starter that first-year president Theo Epstein is building his rotation around. The power righty had a 2.75 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 88 innings and 75 games as a reliever in 2011.
This season, he is 7-8 with a 4.19 ERA in 20 starts for a woeful Cubs team. Samardzija has allowed 111 hits in 120.1 innings, and he has held opposing hitters to a .246 average.
The former Notre Dame baseball and football standout has scuffled a bit over his last 10 starts, going 2-5 with a 5.43 ERA. He coughed up eight runs against Minnesota and had back-to-back appearances when he surrendered five runs to the Diamondbacks and nine runs against the Mets.
Overall, though, Samardzija has shown that he is capable of providing the rebuilding Cubs with a top of the rotation arm.
Since free agent starting pitchers can be costly, and not worth the investment (see John Lackey in Boston), and acquiring premium starters via trade can be prohibitive in terms of the prospects that must be surrendered, it is understandable why some contenders might move relievers into the rotation as the pennant races heat up.
Texas acquired Ryan Dempster from the Cubs to fortify the rotation, but since Colby Lewis is out for the season and Roy Oswalt has battled back stiffness and ineffectiveness, the Rangers could stretch out Ogando and use him as a starter.
The Red Sox have seen Aaron Cook allow 12 runs over his last two starts and Josh Beckett leave his last start with back spasms, so they are thinking about returning 26-year-old left-hander Franklin Morales to the rotation.
Morales recorded a 3.42 ERA in five starts earlier this season, and Boston acquired left-handed reliever Craig Breslow from Arizona at the trade deadline to give Bobby Valentine the flexibility to use Morales as a starter.