A theme emerged from the publication of the various prospect rankings last week: the Yankees were consistently represented by three players, namely Jasson Dominguez, Clarke Schmidt, and Deivi Garcia.
Schmidt and Garcia stand out as two quality arms who have worked their way through the minor leagues as starting pitchers. They both have good chances to make their major-league debuts in 2020. Depending on the circumstances. the Yankees could call upon these pitchers to work out of the bullpen. While some may express concerns that moving a starter to the bullpen could hurt their development, numerous pitchers have embraced this path to launch their careers.
In 1975, the Yankees promoted Ron Guidry to the major leagues on the recommendation of his Triple-A manager, Bobby Cox. Guidry recalled in his book, Gator: My life in Pinstripes, that Cox dialed the front office and said “Look, I got this kid- he does not belong here. You have to bring him up, okay?” This call helped Guidry reach the big-league club in the middle of 1975.
Relegated to mop-up duty, Guidry didm’t pitch in a single game that the Yankees won that season. He still credits his time sitting in the bullpen next to Sparky Lyle and Dick Tidrow as being an advanced class in the art of pitching. Despite only throwing 15.2 innings, Guidry considered himself a much improved pitcher based on the experience he gained in the Yankees’ bullpen. Those results played out, too. After Guidry returned to the minors in 1976, he dominated the lower level, posting an 0.68 ERA in 22 games out of the bullpen before getting called back to the majors for good.
As an inexperienced arm with no track record, Guidry found himself out of favor with manager Billy Martin. Guidry endured something that would not happen in today’s MLB, as he sat in the bullpen for 47 straight days without seeing game action. Upon learning that he would be sent down to the minor leagues again, he almost quit the sport.
Once recalled, Guidry began to establish himself in the bullpen, even as he struggled through the 1976 season. With lessons learned in the relief role, Guidry received Cy Young votes in each of the next three seasons, including winning the award in 1978. A decade after Guidry finished his bullpen apprenticeship, a future Yankee began his in a similar situation.
David Cone was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1981 out of high school. He was converted to the bullpen in 1986, working as a closer at the Triple-A level and earning his promotion to the majors. Like Guidry, Cone was used in a mop-up role, only pitching in 11 games that ended in Kansas City losses.
Much like Guidry before him, Cone found guidance from experienced players he sat with in the bullpen. Kansas City’s star closer Dan Quisenberry took the time to pull Cone aside after witnessing his immaturity to impart lessons on what it would take to succeed in the major league. Cone said in his book Full Count: The Education of a Pitcher that Quisenberry was “the first player at the major league level who significantly impacted my career with a lesson I absolutely needed.”
Cone’s catcher with the Royals, Jaime Quirk was able to convince Cone to trust his splitter down and in to righties. This was something he had been discouraged from doing on his way through the minors, but it now opened up a new weapon for the young pitcher. Cone was traded to the Mets before he could finish his transition to the starting rotation, but he carried with him lessons from his time in the bullpen.
These two great Yankees pitchers are far from the only pitchers to open their careers working out the bullpen. Pedro Martinez only made one start in his first 63 career games, working nearly a full season out of the ‘pen for the Dodgers. Once traded to the Montreal Expos, he blossomed into a future Hall of Famer.
Other players like Adam Wainwright have gone on to outstanding careers as a starting after spending over a full season working out of the bullpen. One of the best recent examples is Chris Sale. After being drafted 13th overall in the 2010, he only pitched in 11 minor-league games, all as a reliever, before getting promoted to the big leagues in early August. Sale pitched in 21 games in relief for the White Sox that season, and followed it up with 58 appearances the next year all out of the bullpen. In 2012, Sale moved to the rotation, and he placed in the top six of the American League Cy Young voting up until 2019.
This coming season, Deivi Garcia, Mike King, Clarke Schmidt, and Nick Nelson are names likely to grace the Yankees 26-man roster at some point. If their destination is the bullpen, they will have the opportunity to rub shoulders with one of the best bullpens in baseball as they learn what it takes to succeed at the highest level of the sport. Breaking in as a part of the bullpen can be a tremendous blessing for these young arms if they capitalize on the experience that it provides.