One of my favorite Royals people to talk to is pitching coach Bob McClure. Every time we converse, whether it be for an interview or informally, “Mac” usually teaches me something I didn’t know and/or tells me a great story about his playing days (when you play for seven teams in a 19-year big league career, you tend to have a few good tales).
Today, McClure and I chatted about handling young pitchers, something he’ll have to do a lot of over the next few years. I asked him about Aaron Crow, the Royals 2009 first-round pick, who’s been a starter most of his life, but is currently competing for a bullpen role, a role he has a very good chance of getting. What if Crow is lights-out as a reliever this season? Do you still try to use him as a starter in 2012 or do you leave him in the bullpen? Crow doesn’t throw quite as hard as Joba Chamberlain of the Yankees or Neftali Feliz of Texas, two top-flight starting pitching prospects who began their Major League careers with tremendous success out of the bullpen, starting a debate as to whether they should ever return to starting. There was a time when many starting pitching prospects began their careers as long relievers, allowing them to learn how to pitch and to work out the kinks with minimal pressure.
McClure says he isn’t worried about whether Crow having success out of the ‘pen will create a debate about his role as a starter or a reliever. I’ve heard other members of the Royals brass echo McClure’s sentiments when it comes to handling young starting pitching and getting them acclimated to the Major Leagues. It’s a stance I find encouraging.
Like in so many other areas, money and the media have changed the way teams handle their pitching prospects. Instead of focusing on whether they’re doing all they can to get better and to be effective at the Major League level, very often, it’s about minimizing risk. At times, things like strict pitch counts and regimented workouts have become less about development and more about reducing the chances of injury. If a young pitcher gets hurt, teams want to be able to say they did all they could to protect him and reduce the media and fan backlash. There is certainly more that can be done now than ever before to keep pitchers healthy, but it’s important to remember that pitching’s an unnatural motion, some guys are better suited for it than others and the main goal of development is to prepare players for the Majors. You never want to lose sight of this goal, even as you’re trying to keep young pitchers healthy.
Because they have so much pitching talent in their system, the Royals will be watched rather closely the next few years to see how they handle their young arms. Some of those youngsters will be successful. Some will struggle to stay healthy. Others won’t pan out at all. Regardless, it will be important for the Royals to remember that every pitcher is a little different and they shouldn’t all be treated exactly the same. Some will be able to pitch out of the bullpen before moving into a starting role. Others may need to adhere to a rigid pitch count. Still others will move to the bullpen and stay there for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, it will be important not to lose sight of the fact you should be preparing guys for Major League roles. After all, if you keep a young pitcher healthy but he isn’t ready to help you in the Majors, what’s the point?