Friday, May 3, 2024

2024 in Relievers-Turned Starters


If it weren't for Logan Webb, Jordan Hicks would be the most talked about starter in San Francisco. Through 6 starts, the former Cardinals wunderkind has been electric, with a 2-0 record, a 1.59 ERA and 27 strikeouts. He's not as overpowering and showoffish as he was in 2018, and he's learned to rein it in a bit while still dominating opposing offenses. 

What's wild about Hicks' 2024 is that it's an approach that the Giants weren't expected to take with Hicks. Upon his call-up in 2018, Hicks has primarily been used as a middle-reliever, and was only given some starts in 2022 when the Cards needed options. Last season, his middle-relief work was so strong that the Blue Jays traded for him and used him to bulk up their bullpen. But even with Hicks looking like a great fit for the Giants' already-strong 'pen, the team decided to use him as a starter, and plug him in with Webb, Kyle Harrison and Keaton Winn. And it worked. That foursome has been strong as ever, and is a big reason why the Giants are still embedded in the race for the NL West.

Hicks, however, isn't the only big story this season involving a former relief piece spun into a starting option. There's actually a handful hanging around, and I'll go through some of the more intriguing ones.

Braves: I talked about him a little a few days ago, but Reynaldo Lopez. Lopez not only spent the 2023 season as a relief piece, he spent it getting beat up in relief. Yet something about Atlanta has caused him to turn things around and lead things off with a 1.50 ERA and 32 Ks. Lopez might have carved out a new niche for himself, and the Braves are certainly grateful.

Marlins: Eyebrows were raised around the league when it was announced that the Marlins would be using A.J. Puk, a career reliever with Oakland and Miami, in the rotation. Puk had been a starter before being called up by the A's, but was kept in the 'pen to conserve his innings and arm strength. However, considering how often Puk got injured with the A's, that didn't work. Puk did his best in a starting role for a team with no run support, but after 4 starts he had a 9.22 ERA and 4 losses. It's been chalked up to an injury, so we'll see if that helps, but certainly not a good first impression as a starter.

Padres: Before he was traded to the Yankees, Michael King was mainly used as a long reliever, a swiss army knife bullpen option. King started 9 games with the Yanks last year, but was more relied upon as a reliever. So far in his new team, King has 6 starts and one extra relief appearance, proving that his versatility is swinging towards helping the snakebitten rotation at the moment. King has a 5 ERA , but with a very impressive 40 strikeouts. He'll probably even out as he goes, as the Padres will give him much more of an opportunity to start than the Yankees could.

Rangers: After the Angels switched him to the rotation in 2022, Michael Lorenzen hasn't gone back, and has been a pro as a starter, despite finding fame as a reliever with Cincinnati. Lorenzen's Rangers era is already being seen as a comeback after his rocky finish with the Phils last year, and so far his 2-1 record and 4.24 ERA have been seen as promising by Rangers fans hoping not to lose anymore starters. 

Rays: It should not surprise you that the Rays are in this post, given their track record of flexible pitching. Zach Littell is the big one this year, he was primarily used as a relief piece by the Twins and Giants before the Rays picked him up last year and plugged him in for some starts. This year he made the Opening Day rotation and has been a very trustworthy presence there, with a 3.27 ERA and 35 Ks already. Tyler Alexander, another flexible pitcher with uses in many categories, is also on this pitching staff and could be relied upon to start in the future.

Red Sox: The Sox are honestly the king of this strategy, this current regime. We've seen Garrett Whitlock and Tanner Houck go from bullpen pieces to rotation royalty. Houck especially has been wonderful this year, with a 1.60 ERA and 41 Ks. And then we have Cooper Criswell, former Rays reliever who's been thrust into the rotation amidst the injuries, and HE'S been wonderful, going 2-1 with a 1.65 ERA in 4 appearances. The era of the Sox mega-rotation may be over, but they're getting a ton done economically with this strategy, and I'm here for it.

Royals: Seth Lugo was one of the most reliable relievers the Mets had during the late 2010s, and while he never got many starts due to the glut of starting pitching they had, he was certainly primed for it, to the point where he was being sold to teams last year as a starter rather than a reliever. The Padres bit, and Lugo gave them excellent material last year. The Royals signed him to a longer deal and Lugo's been rewarding them so far, with a 5-1 record, a 1.60 ERA and 31 Ks. He's already leading the leagues in innings pitched and batters faced, and after being a solid enough set-up man for years he's proving he can go 6 odd innings whenever it's needed.

So yeah, Hicks is just one of the many that's working out as a starter, and it's a trend I hope continues on all fronts. 

Coming Tonight: I wasn't initially following Bryan Cashman's logic when he traded for this guy, but I think I am now. 

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