Padres’ Starting Pitching Prospects Could Succeed in the Bullpen

Credit: USA Today Sports

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:

Andrew Miller

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?

Edwin Diaz

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.

Credit: USA Today

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.

Wade Davis

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.

Zach Britton

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?

Brad Hand

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.

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Nick Lee
Native of Escondido, CA. Lived in San Diego area for 20 years. Padres fan since childhood (mid-90s). I have been writing since 2014. I currently live near Seattle, WA and am married to a Seattle sports girl. I wore #19 on my high school baseball team for Tony Gwynn. I am a stats and sports history nerd. I attended BYU on the Idaho campus. I also love Star Wars.

This article has 9 Comments

  1. Tre Turner = partial shortstop

    I’m good with a full time shortstop like Freddy Galvis and the number two SS prospect in baseball.

    The article is about top prospects finding their way to the majors and being successful in other capacities then their original role as starting pitchers.

    As a former college baseball player I know it’s hard as hell to make it to the show. So for any prospect in the Padres system to find their niche on the major league roster is a win for the city of San Diego.

    Mark my words we will be World Series Champions! Fernando Tatis Jr and Luis Urias said so!

  2. This article was not meant to suggest that they won’t reach their potential. I was just suggesting that some prospects won’t work out the way we all expect, but lots of stud relievers have started that way. I hope they all work out. Just something to think about and have fun with.

  3. I am not sure where we are going with ALL of these articles. We get 3 or 4 articles about High Ceiling Prospects and how good of farm system the Padres have. Now we jump to complete other side and talk about what we could salvage out of this crop of youngsters. All of this before we actually start to let a few of them try what they were brought here to do. Instead we do stupid moves like take a flyer on a below average pitcher (Mitchell) that forces us to take on a $13 mill contract on Headley who has created a log jam at 3B. We need to play Headley if we ever are going to be able to trade him by the deadline. We keep 3 Rule 5 guys on the roster last season to get 3 possible bench guys going forward. We bring in has been’s to start every 5th day because they will eat innings and post a 4+ ERA. Most of the guys in our system were acquired by making trades and not our own direct drafting or scouting. Our ability to get these toolsy kids to the majors and ready to make an impact is still something that eludes us at this point. All we hear about is signing a slightly above average 1B for a huge contract, and trade some of our top prospects for a average starter in another deal but we have to take on another big contract to make that work. In the meantime our best prospect we have drafted in years at a very premium position in Trea Turner is playing for the Nats, he has averaged 3.1 WAR over partial seasons the last 2 years.

    1. Chill Don. You sound like my grandpa.
      It’s a slow off-season, these guys are doing their best to give us something to enjoy.

      Even if we eat 8 mil of Headley’s contract, 4 years if control of Mitchell at 5 mil for a #4 starter w a 4.5 era is a steal. Plus we can get a prospect or two out of Headley.
      Signing Hosmer who has a career obp of .350 and .280 hitter, plus defender, Left handed bat who is a leader, champion, bilingual, young and athletic, is someone we should sign. It makes 2 positions better. 1B and OF where we move Myers. Preller has done absolute wonders w our farm. Has he made a bad trade w Turner and signing Shields and Kemp, yes. But that was more management going for it all in 2015 and his first year as a GM. Our draft, international signings, and trades have been 90% home runs. This ownership and GM are way better than anything we’ve had in the past 10 years, 3 owners and GM’s. We can’t afford any of the top free agents next year, take advantage this year. Hosmer will probably sign for 7/126 which will be a steal.

      1. Well I am 57, went to my first Padre game in ’69 at 8 years old. Mark my words we will get nothing of value out of Headley. We might need to give up a prospect just to save $5 Mill. I don’t like Meyers at all, I have the right to my opinion. As far as Home Runs on all of our guys we have brought in that is not true yet. Right now they are singles and doubles at best. I am not all negative, I think Renfroe, Margot, and Cordero could be a 12 WAR OF for the next decade if we give them a real shot. Kind of like the OF we had in 2003 when we had Bay, Mathews Jr., Nady, and Victorino. But we got rid of them all over the next year or so. Left us with B. Giles and some other has been’s. I don’t like doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.

        1. I would like to believe this is a different era of management. We extended Myers. We could have traded him when 2015 failed. We extended Hand. That stuff never used to happen. I believe this is an unprecedented time in Padres history. Give it some time and some faith.

          1. Nick are you really going to tell me you don’t feel Meyers is B. Giles 2.0. By giving Meyers a back loaded deal to include his arbitration years was a smart move, I totally disagree. Meyers was drafted as a catcher, played OF for the Rays and Royals and the first year here. Then he moved to 1B, where he had one decent season and one Horrific season last year. He is a RH batter playing a position where we need a LH bat. Now this year we added Headley to get a marginal starting pitcher. We had Solarte who is the player we got when we traded Headley years ago. He was a leader on this team, could play SS in a pinch. Now we plan to start the season with Dusty Coleman as our backup SS and take a 25 man roster spot away from a real ML baseball player. I read an article on another site this morning, about the projected lineup for this season, it started out with Follow The Money and mentioned Meyers, Headley, and Galvis. Instead of Coleman, Javier Guerra is already on the 40 man roster and hits LH, we were told by this same group that he was the jewel of the Kimbrel Trade. I am glad they turned out wrong. Let’s look at the LF situation last season and how these great minds finally got some production out of that spot last season. We started with the incumbant Dickerson back up by Jankowski. Both got hurt. We played an IF in Spangy and a Rule 5 SS (Cordoba). we traded for Szczur, who flashed then went downhill. Finally as a last ditch effort we brought a non-prospect Jose Pirela up from the minors and he played well overall. At first he was a butcher in LF as he mainly played 2B prior to that. He even played some SS in his early minor league career. If Dickerson gets back, why not platoon the two in LF. If Cordero is able to take the spot full time then why not have Pirela split time at 2B with one of our LH hitters there. I don’t like how these youngsters are prepared once they get to the majors, I don’t like the decisions being made without a big enough sample size once they get here. We got lucky with Pirela, who was the 6th choice last season. I am behind these youngsters, waiting for the pitchers to get to the big leagues. I hope Tatis turns out to be similar player to Manny Machado. AJP and his staff need to form a plan and just stick to it. They try to be too cute at times. Winning a few more games this season should not be in the Top 10 on their list of goals for this season.

        2. Wow, you handled that petulance impressively. I am sorry you were treated so disrespectfully. Yes, you more than have the right to your opinion, and it is a very good and accurate one : )

  4. I would rather not talk about the Padres prospects not reaching their potential quite yet. Lets hold out a little hope that the Padres can develop most of this talent that Preller and Co. have amassed.

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