Buchholz to Be a Reliever?

Could a stint in the bullpen help lead to a career more like this?

In an interview with Boston pitching coach John Farrell, he was asked:

How will you use Justin Masterson and Clay Buchholz?
We view Clay as a starter, but the potential to use him as a reliever has not been ruled out. If we feel that using Clay as a reliever makes us a better pitching staff, I’m sure we’ll discuss and consider it.”

After signing Brad Penny and John Smoltz, the rotation consists of six experienced possibilities in Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jon Lester, Tim Wakefield, Brad Penny, and John Smoltz. Therefore, the two pitchers left that are major-league ready starting prospects that have little experience are Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson, and there is no room for them in the rotation. Masterson was used as a reliever last season, and most consider him a set-up man or closer anyway. Buchholz, however, is seen as an ace-potential pitcher, and most would see his use as a reliever as a waste. In all likelihood, he’ll probably be sent down to AAA so the team can monitor and control his innings, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be a better idea to keep him in the bullpen. One reason is simply that if he’s good enough for the MLB, there’s no reason to really put him in AAA. Another is that they could use him as a long relief/spot starter to give Penny and Smoltz some time off and also cover them in case of an inevitable injury (that controls his innings while giving him enough to not waste him by making him pitch 40 innings next season) while still throwing plenty of innings to be valuable. Another is that he could be a Joba clone, pitching in the seventh and eighth innings occassionally to rest other relievers while still bridging the gap between the starter and Jonathan Papelbon. The last reason has more to do with history, and that is there have been a few pitchers who have succeeded with this method.

Nolan Ryan
Swing pitcher from 1968 to 1970 –> limits innings to 131-134, ERA’s around mid-3’s, never really learned control
The rest –> Strikeout king, Hall of Fame pitcher, 7 no-hitters, but, oddly, no Cy Youngs

Curt Schilling
Relief pitcher from 1990-1992 (swing in 1992) –> 46 to 75.2 to 226.1 IP, ERA’s in the mid-2’s for 2 seasons and high 3 for the other (1991), learns control (3.72 to 4.64 to 2.35)
The rest –> Not quite a Hall of Fame pitcher but was dominant from 1995 to 2004

Johan Santana
Swing pitcher in 2002 and 2003 –> 266.2 IP combined, ERA’s around 3, learns to improve control (4.07 BB/9 to 2.67)
The rest –> Becomes dominant pitcher and arguably the best pitcher in baseball for the past 5 seasons

Chad Billingsley
Swing pitcher in 2007 –> got to 147.2 IP, ERA of 3.31, improved BB/9 from 5.80 to 3.92
The rest –> Only one season, but what a brilliant season it was

Obviously, I cherry-picked a little bit, but history shows it isn’t the worst idea in the world. These very good to excellent pitchers started their careers splitting time between starting and relieving. They improved their control while still pitching a healthy number of innings. Buchholz really struggled with his control (4.86 BB/9) last season. A season of pitching in relatively low-stress situations could help him focus on his command as well as give him confidence for the future. And if he pitches well (Spring Training should prove if he’s improved), then those are good innings for the big club. It’s something I wish the Braves would do/would have done with Jo-Jo Reyes, Charlie Morton, and/or Tommy Hanson this upcoming season. It doesn’t always work out, but it isn’t a bad idea.

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