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The case for putting Brandon Finnegan in the Royals bullpen

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What is the best way to develop the first round pick?

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals face a bit of a dilemma when it comes to pitching prospect Brandon Finnegan, who wowed Royals fans with his performance out of the pen last fall. Should the Royals send Finnegan to the minor leagues to develop as a starting pitcher, or should they let him get his feet wet at the Major League level as a reliever?

Finnegan was impressive last year out of the bullpen, but the organization has vowed to develop him as a starting pitcher long-term. However, with Tim Collins injured, Finnegan could very likely be the best left-handed reliever the Royals have right now. Beat writer Andy McCullough suggests the front office is split on what to do with Finnegan, with McCullough arguing that Finnegan would be better served starting in the minors rather than pitching the sixth inning in the Majors. Columnist Vahe Gregorian seems to agree, writing:

Finnegan, their top draft pick a year ago and a key cog in their American League championship, is a gaudy neon temptation to start the season in the Royals bullpen — particularly if lefty Tim Collins’ ligament injury announced on Friday proves to be season-ending.

Surrendering to that enticing impulse would be exactly the wrong thing to do … and counter to the most fundamental principle that got the Royals back on track. The reason they’ve been able to reap what they’ve sown is because they’ve had the discipline, even courage, to let it grow first.

But would putting Finnegan in the bullpen hurt his long-term prospects?

The reason to send Finnegan to the minors would be two-fold - first to develop his secondary pitches, second to stretch out his arm for the workload of a Major League starting pitcher. Finnegan has pretty polished secondary pitches - in very limited data, his slider and changeup both graded positively in big league action last year. The feeling seems to be he could use some work on his change-up, but it has already been able to get Major League hitters out.

Earl Weaver was known for developing his pitchers through the pen, having Jim Palmer, Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez, Doyle Alexander, and Scott McGregor all spending much of their first year in the big leagues coming in relief work. Michael Baumann of Grantland writes why this strategy has fallen out of favor, but many modern sabermetric followers have praised that progressive strategy.

"I'll tell you one thing he did that we all learned from," [former] Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein says. "He would develop arms on the big league level by bringing up a young pitcher and putting him in the bullpen, mostly out of long relief. Once he got some experience he could move into the rotation. The Twins did it with [Johan] Santana to perfection."

Indeed, Johan Santana is the shining recent example of a pitcher developing in the bullpen. Santana made 76 relief appearances in his first four seasons, sprinkling in 41 starts over that time until he was a full-time starter in his fifth season. However, Santana was a Rule 5 pick, meaning he had to be hidden in the pen his rookie season, and he spent much of his second season in the minor leagues as a starting pitcher.

Another success story is St. Louis pitcher Adam Wainwright. Wainwright pitched exclusively out of the bullpen in his rookie season, and like Finnegan, he garnered national attention for his post-season performance as the Cardinals took the championship in 2006. Despite his glittery bullpen numbers, the Cardinals made him a starting pitcher the next season, and Wainwright went onto finish in the top five in Cy Young voting four times over the next seven seasons. The Cardinals handling of Wainwright appears to be a franchise strategy, with General Manager John Mozeliak stating

"I think one thing we try to be is flexible," says Cardinal GM John Mozeliak. "We don’t say there is one way to do things. But we have had success bringing good young arms up to St. Louis and using them in situations. We think about it as they move up from A to AA. The original intent is to groom them as starters in the low minors, then evolve. Think about it this way—when you bring your best young hitters to the majors, in our case it could be an Oscar Taveras or Stephen Piscotty, where are they going to bat in the lineup? Not third or fourth, probably seventh, or sixth. That’s similar to the way pitchers can be moved into the major leagues."

More recently, the White Sox developed Chris Sale through the bullpen with very little minor leagues experience. Sale was a first round pick in 2010, and was in the Major League bullpen later that year. He would spend the entire 2011 season coming out of the bullpen to great success. The White Sox then made him a starting pitcher and he won 17 games the very next season, making the first of three consecutive All-Star appearances. Jim Margalus at our sister site South Side Sox writes:

I don't think it could've worked out any better. His adjustment period lasted about the first month and a half of 2011, as he stumbled out of the gate with control problems and had an ERA over 6.00 early on. Then he was pretty much lights-out over the last four months. He was mainly fastball-slider, but he did start playing with his changeup more. When he jumped to starting, he doubled the use, and now it's his second pitch.

I'd say the only drawback was that it might've affected his effectiveness at the end of 2012. He looked like an ordinary MLB starter (although an MLB starter nevertheless) over the last 1½ months of that season, and fatigue probably played a part.

There are other success stories of pitchers beginning their careers in the bullpen like C.J. Wilson, Phil Hughes, Justin Masterson, and Brandon McCarthy. There are, of course, pitchers who began in the bullpen with the intent of moving to the rotation who never made it, like Joba Chamberlain, Jonathan Papelbon, Neftali Feliz, Daniel Bard, and Aroldis Chapman.

There is the fear that if Finnegan excels in the pen, the Royals will be loathe to move him back to the rotation like they stubbornly refused to do with Joakim Soria and Aaron Crow. However, that is a criticism to be leveled once that bridge has been crossed. At this point, with all the reports the Royals are committed to Finnegan as a starter long-term, those fears seem unjustified for now.

It is tempting to build a dichotomy that either the Royals are looking out for the long-term interests of Brandon Finnegan, or they are sacrificing his prospects in order to win now. However, we don't know that to be the case. The case against developing future starting pitchers through the pen seems unclear at best, and with the Royals finally in "win-now" mode, it seems much more probable that Finnegan can help the Royals win ballgames this year, than relief work would hurt his long-term prospects. Putting Finnegan in the pen might be the best of both worlds - have Finnegan learn to retire Major League hitters, and win games now.