How Phils spell relief: C-o-n-v-e-r-t a s-t-a-r-t-e-r

Posted: February 23, 2011

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Long before the Phillies had the Four Aces, Michael Stutes was summoned to a meeting with minor-league pitching coordinator Gorman Heimueller. The team wanted the righthander to become a reliever after starting games his whole life.

That was last spring. Now with a Phillies starting rotation unparalleled in talent and hype, the path of any starting pitching prospect in the system is blocked for at least two seasons while the Four Aces are under contract.

"When they switched me, I was fine with it," said Stutes, 24. "They've made a living by scouting and developing players. They know what they're doing. Now I feel even better. I'm looking around, it's like, 'At least I've got a shot.' "

Stutes is just one of a handful of pitchers the Phillies have converted from starters to relievers. Justin De Fratus, a highly regarded prospect, is another. Antonio Bastardo, Phillippe Aumont, and, most recently, Andrew Carpenter are others.

But, assistant general manager Chuck LaMar says, it's not because of the quality of starting pitching the Phillies have at the major-league level. It just so happens the team has a set rotation without any prospects close to the majors and a bullpen that could require a complete revamping in 2012 with more than a few potential young arms ready to step in.

"It has nothing to do with anything but doing what's best for them and their individual development," LaMar said. "That's just where they fit."

Still, the Phillies do have the luxury of taking chances. This spring, there are just three starting pitchers in camp 25 or younger - Vance Worley, J.C. Ramirez, and Drew Naylor. And even Worley could relieve if the Phillies see enough out of him this spring to merit a roster spot.

Of course, there are three young former Phillies prospects who most likely will begin the season in major-league rotations: J.A. Happ (Houston), Carlos Carrasco (Cleveland), and Kyle Drabek (Toronto).

But mostly, the starting depth in the Phillies' system lies in the lower levels. Single-A Clearwater will have a starting rotation littered with top prospects such as Jarred Cosart, Brody Colvin, and Trevor May.

"It's sort of the next wave," LaMar said.

At double and triple A, the Phillies decided some of their more promising arms were better suited for the bullpen. LaMar insisted those pitchers would have been moved even if there was a need for young, major-league-ready starting pitching.

He said the team typically looks at a host of factors when deciding a move, from the pitcher's velocity to his stamina, pitch repertoire, and demeanor.

"Some young men can handle that four days in between starts," LaMar said. "Others, it drives them crazy."

De Fratus fits that category. He had his meeting with Heimueller before the 2009 season.

"At the moment when they told me, I didn't understand it quite fully," De Fratus said. "But afterward, I realized this role is better for me. I'm not sitting down four games out of the week. It helped my focus. It helped everything."

Almost every decent pitching prospect will begin his professional career as a starter. That allows for time and more innings to develop secondary pitches.

The classic Phillies example of the transition working to perfection is Ryan Madson, who started all through his minor-league career but made the shift in the majors. Bastardo has also had major-league success after the move.

With Jose Contreras as the only reliever under contract for 2012 (Brad Lidge has a $12.5 million team option), the Phillies may be able to test their conversions soon. De Fratus believes in what the team has done.

"It was more identifying personalities and how are they going to be successful for us," De Fratus said. "That's what I interpret the Phillies were doing. They're giving each player the best chance to be successful for themselves.

"It's clearly going to be working for us. You'll see it in the next couple of years."


Contact staff writer Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/magelb

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