Let’s be real here. Not 100% of the Padres’ top prospects will work out like we think. We all picture Mackenzie Gore as the team ace before 2021. We all expect Fernando Tatis Jr. and Luis Urias to be a double play combo for the next decade in San Diego. Cal Quantrill will be a top-of-the-rotation guy. Michel Baez, the next Luis Tiant. It just doesn’t always work out how we expect. I don’t need to preach to the Friar faithful on that one.
That being said, is it a total disaster and state of emergency if one of these prized pitching prospects only works out as a reliever? In this era of flame-throwing, strikeout-machine bullpens, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Anyone who watched the 2016 and 2017 MLB playoffs would know how valuable it is to have as many reliable arms in the bullpen as possible-and also how crushing it can be if you don’t.
Here is a list of some stud relievers that started out as starting pitching prospects:
Miller has been one of the faces of the last two postseasons, both with the Cleveland Indians. He has been an All-Star in two straight seasons. He has a 1.45 ERA and a ridiculous 311 ERA+ in that same time frame. In those two playoff runs, he posted a 1.48 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 24 innings. Would you like the Padres to have a guy like that looming late in the game? He actually started out as a starter in the Detroit Tigers’ system, though he wasn’t long for the minor leagues as he was drafted 6th overall in 2006 and made his debut later that season.
For the first five seasons of his career, he was trying to make it work as a starter. From 2007 to 2011, he made 66 starts and had a rough go at it, with a 5.78 ERA. He was one of the top starting pitching prospects in baseball, a tall lefty. Sound familiar? Mackenzie Gore is on the same track as a top 10 pick. It wasn’t until Miller’s seventh season in the league that he established himself as a back-end bullpen guy. In 381 appearances as a reliever, he has a 2.43 ERA with 13.6 strikeouts per nine innings. He also has posted a 7.0 WAR in the last two years, the highest among relievers.
Would Padres fans be OK if Gore turned into an Andrew Miller?
Before Diaz became the Mariners flame-throwing, electric closer, he was a starting prospect trying to make it work in Double-A. He started his pro career in 2012 and made 71 career starts in the minors in just under four full seasons. Then, with the Mariners having bullpen issues, yet still in the playoff hunt in 2016, they called him up. He made a relief appearance and blew the Indians away with a fastball averaging 99 MPH in his debut. He is now the full-time closer, having saved 52 games in one and a half seasons.
He has an ERA+ of 137 in 115 appearances in relief for Seattle, plus a 2.3 WAR. He has a career 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings. He will only be 24 next month and his ceiling is high. Many Mariners fans were excited to see him as a starter, but they have gotten behind Diaz as the closer of the present and future.
Diaz and Cal Quantrill have similar frames, although Diaz might throw a bit harder. Quantrill has the stuff to be a late-game reliever if need be, especially if he can’t take a starter’s workload after Tommy John surgery.
Davis appeared on multiple Top 100 lists as a starting pitcher after being drafted in the third round by Tampa Bay in 2004. He broke into the big leagues as a starter in 2009. He was an average starter for four of his first five seasons. In 2012, the Rays moved him to the bullpen where he thrived with a 159 ERA+ and 2.43 ERA. He was then traded to the Royals, who tried him out as a starter again, but quickly learned the bullpen was where he belonged.
All he has done since then is appear in three All-Star games, amass 79 saves, and he has a 260 ERA+ in the last three seasons. He also led the Royals to the 2015 World Series championship. A guy like Jacob Nix has similar measurables. I doubt anyone would complain if Nix, who made 16 starts last year, ends up being a bullpen guy if he turns out like Wade Davis.
Britton was drafted in the third round by Baltimore in 2006. He reached as high as the 28th-best prospect in all of baseball in 2010, as a starting pitcher. He made 139 career starts in the minor leagues. He even started 28 games for the Orioles in 2011 with a 4.61 ERA and 92 ERA+. Not exactly major league rotation material. He would start at least seven games in the next two seasons in the big leagues while bouncing up and down the organization.
In 2014, they gave him a chance in the bullpen. He made them look like geniuses. In his first season as a reliever, he had a 240 ERA+ in 71 games. That’s 140% better than an average pitcher. He instantly became one of the elite relievers in the game. He saved an American League-high 47 games in 2016, earning his second straight All-Star selection. Injuries have hampered him recently, but when he’s healthy, he is one of the nastiest lefties in baseball. Joey Lucchesi might not have the wipe-out slider that Britton does, but he is a lefty with a similar physique with the stuff to get people out. He is gaining traction and could emerge as one of the better left-handed starters in the minors. Could he thrive in a future bullpen role?
Oh yeah, the Padres have one of the best relievers in baseball and he, too, started his career in a starting rotation. He wasn’t a Top 100 prospect like Gore or Quantrill, but he rose up the Marlins’ list and was as high as their sixth-best prospect. He made 132 career starts over his seven seasons in the minors. He even made 12 starts for the Marlins back in 2011. He was up and down in the system for the next two seasons and came back in 2014 to make another 16 starts. He was an average to slightly-below-average starter. In 2015, the Marlins moved him to the bullpen.
After the 2015 season, he was placed on waivers and the Padres claimed him. We know the rest of the story. He is now an All-Star with a 158 ERA+ since his arrival in San Diego. What if the Padres had tried, like the Marlins, to make him a starter and given up when he didn’t pan out?
The Padres drafted Eric Lauer 25th overall in 2016. Hand is 6’3”, 228 pounds and Lauer is listed at 6’3”, 205. With a plus slider, like Hand, Lauer could end up like the Padres closer? He made 21 starts last season and was certainly serviceable. In 31 career starts over two seasons, he has a 3.05 ERA. I am sure the Padres would be more than happy if they found the next Hand in Lauer if being a starter doesn’t work out.
Obviously, we want the top prospects to pan out as aces for the Padres rotation. I imagine many would be bummed if Mackenzie Gore becomes a reliever, even if he put up similar numbers as Miller. However, we must be realistic in the fact that not every single one of these guys will be quality starting pitchers. Some may have to make it work in the bullpen. But that’s baseball. That’s how we have found some of the best relievers in the game, like the ones listed above. Just because a prospect doesn’t work out the way we expect doesn’t mean he is a bust. I don’t think anyone views Andrew Miller or Wade Davis a bust.