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Michael Lorenzen: Starter or Reliever?

His chances of breaking spring training with the Reds are improving, but is it too much too soon?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Die hard Reds fans and prospect nerds have known about Michael Lorenzen for a while now.  The former 38th overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Cal State Fullerton has only impressed since joining the Reds organization.  Most impressive is his high 90's fastball (clocked at 98 this spring) and a plus slider/curve/slurvy kind of thing.  Lorenzen has also grabbed significant attention with his work ethic and general demeanor on and off the field. Obviously, Lorenzen has piqued the interest of his manager, Bryan Price.  If you'd like, you can read what Price and Lorenzen have to say about the whole situation about Michael joining the Red's bullpen.

Michael Lorenzen is 23 years old and the world is his oyster.  He has a ton of talent and ability, and as it stands right now he is looking at a prominent Major League career.  In most circles Lorenzen has been rated as a top five Reds' prospect and as high as third.  The Reds drafted and have developed Lorezen as a starter, as per their strategy of converting top college relievers into starting pitchers.  What Lorenzen has is a world of talent.  What he doesn't have is much experience.

Lorenzen was a full time center fielder in college who would come in from the outfield in the 9th inning and close the games.  He was about as raw as you can get as a pitcher when he was drafted.  Despite his inexperience the Reds didn't use the kid gloves when developing him, pushing him to AA his first season and then letting him pitch 120 innings at the same level in 2014.  They were a very good 120 innings, by the way.

The prospect of Lorenzen breaking camp with the Reds is exciting  It's exciting for Michael Lorenzen, the Reds, and the fans.  It's exciting for me because I want to see him pitch live.  Whenever you are adding a 98 MPH arm to the club there is obvious buzz to that.  However, if Lorenzen makes the club it will most likely be in the bullpen with DeSclafani and Cingrani predicted to win the #4 and #5 spots and Marquis, Maholm, and Holmberg knocking on the door.  That's not the worst thing ever, but is it the right thing for Lorenzen's development?

Plenty of starting pitchers have spent time in the bullpen while working to be starting pitchers.  Players such as Roy Oswalt, Johan Santana, Andrew Cashner, Francisco Liriano, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, Gio Gonzalez, yada yada, etc, etc.  Now, I don't know exactly what the Reds have planned for Lorenzen in the bullpen, but a starting prospect usually finds himself in the bullpen for few reasons.

  1. Starting the season to keep innings low.
  2. Ending the season to anchor a bullpen during a playoff run and to keep innings low
  3. Control problems, stuff, or a combination of things keeping them from being an effective starter.
  4. There is a hole in the bullpen and the parent club is desperate.
You'll notice one and two are good things and they have the same thing.   Number three is basically saying you don't think the prospect can hack it as a starter, and number four is just stupid.

I'm hoping if Lorenzen makes the team it's because of reason #1.  If the Reds keep Lorenzen on his development path he should be looking at around 150-160 innings for 2015.  If they want to limit his innings starting him in the bullpen would be a solid plan. Towards the end of 2014, Lorenzen was only throwing three to four innings a start because he was reaching his innings cap.  It's difficult to move a young man that is excelling, and what if Chapman is traded and Lorenzen is made the closer?  If Lorenzen spends the whole season in the Red's bullpen I'm worried we'll have another Chapman situation on our hands, especially if Lorenzen is killing it out of the pen.

Mainly, I'm worried that if Lorenzen spends the 2015 season in the Reds' bullpen it will drastically delay his development as a starter or he'll spend the rest of his career in the bullpen.  Is it worth that for 60+ innings of good or even great relief pitching and that's being generous?  In 2016, Michael would be ready to throw 180-200 innings, and what if he is able to put up a league average season?  I know these are a lot of ifs, but I think they are pretty serious questions.

Lorenzen, even with the good 2014, is a very raw pitcher.  He doesn't have a lot of innings on his arm.  There are still secondary pitches he is trying to perfect, especially a change up that is very crucial to starting.  Throwing 10-20 pitches every time out doesn't give him the opportunity to work on that.  Maybe, Price will be creative and give Lorenzen 3-4 innings an appearance.  That would be totally sweet, and something I would be on board with.

If Lorenzen spends 2015 in the bullpen there are a few other things that could hurt his development.  We'll skip talking about the innings progressions, but talk about how the Reds would spend a year of service time on Lorenzen the reliever instead of Lorenzen the starter.  This could cost the Reds millions of dollars down the line, which is something we all know they don't need.  The Reds should be trying to maximize the amount of time and money they spend on Lorenzen, not decreasing it.

I'm biased.  I admit it.  However, I also believe teams shouldn't play around with the development of a prospect, especially a starting prospect.  They're fragile like little baby birds.  Obviously, there are unexpected things that can pop up.  There are injuries and there are promotions for a playoff push, etc.  However, I'm of the belief that you develop prospects until they are ready.  You don't flip flop them around.  You give them attainable goals and promote them when you think they're ready.  An organization shouldn't let the faults of their major league team change the philosophy of their minor league system.

I know I've painted a rather bleak picture of what could happen if Lorenzen spends the whole 2015 season in the bullpen.  Hopefully, if he makes the team he'll spend a month in Cincinnati, letting him get his feet wet, and then spend the rest of the year in AAA starting.  Maybe, we'll get to see Lorenzen come back to strengthen the bullpen in September for the playoff push.  I remember Adam Wainwright doing that once and becoming a pretty good starting pitcher.  David Price and many others have done it before, but they were a different kind of prospect compared to Michael Lorenzen.

Those pitchers didn't spend their entire college career playing center field 95% of the time.