From starter to reliever — it’s not for everyone

JUPITER, Fla. — The Twins looked like a contending team to me going into the spring, but they have a big problem now if closer Joe Nathan has to miss the entire year because of potential Tommy John surgery. For now, Nathan will give it a go and see if he can pitch through it. But if he can’t — the likely scenario, from what I’m hearing — the Twins will need a new ninth-inning man.

One of those could be Francisco Liriano, the one-time can’t-miss prospect who’s been ravaged by left arm issues but is starting to show signs of his old self. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire hasn’t really mentioned him specifically as an option, but he said anybody except the four guaranteed starters (Liriano is competing for the fifth spot right now) would be get consideration.
If closing is in the future for Liriano, he will be yet another starter who transitions into a short-inning reliever role. But that’s not what he wants. Liriano told me and several other reporters at Roger Dean Stadium on Monday (after giving up three runs in three innings to move his spring ERA to 3.86), “I want to be a starter,” though he also added that he’d do whatever the team needs.
Liriano is not alone at all in preferring to start. Most pitchers are creatures of habit — they love knowing their schedule is the same every five days, and they hate going into a game not knowing if and when they’ll get called to the mound. It’s also a lot more convenient to start a game clean and potentially see it through, as opposed to inheriting somebody else’s mess and stepping into the most crucial part of the game cold.
(Note: I had a quick chat with ex-manager Bobby Valentine, who was here doing research for his new gig at ESPN, and he pointed out that it would probably be best for Liriano’s arm — he battled “arm fatigue” last year — if he were to remain a starter. He said that although you don’t throw nearly as many innings as a closer than you do as a starter, there’s a greater wear and tear on your arm because you have to get up to throw so many times and you have to pitch a lot on back-to-back days. Liriano, by the way, has never once pitched in consecutive days in his Major League career.)
Some, like John Smoltz, made the transition from starter to reliever successfully. Others, like Joba Chamberlain, never really figured it out or are still struggling to. But not many of them actually preferred to be a reliever after always starting.
I found one that does.
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His name is Alex Burnett (pictured, left). He’s a 22-year-old right-hander out of California that the Twins took in the 12th round in 2005, and he’s in big-league camp this year. In 2007, he put up a 3.02 ERA in 27 starts for Class A. Then he finished with a 3.76 ERA in 25 starts for high A the following year. But after that season, he was converted to a reliever, and he excelled even greater in that role — finishing the ’09 season with a slim 1.85 ERA in 58 games for high A and Double-A.
Here’s a Q&A on my chat with him on the subject …
What’s the biggest difference between starting and relieving?

The preparation is a lot different because you don’t really know when you’re going to throw. You can just be sitting there in the bullpen, chilling with the guys, and then all of a sudden your name’s called, and you have to be ready in an instant. So, that’s one of the transitions that you have to make. The other one is you have to get the mentality to be a bullpen pitcher. It’s just a different style of pitching once you go out there and there’s runners on base. You don’t start every inning with nobody on. So, that’s a transition you have to make.

Why do you like it better?

I like the bullpen better because I like the adrenaline that you get when you’re down there. Coming in with runners on base, being the last line of defense. If you don’t do your job, the game’s over. So, I kind of like that. I kind of like going and being able to shut down the game and finish it up.

It seems like it takes a special type of personality to do the job of a reliever. 

I definitely like the pressure situation. Going in, runners on base and just being able to do that. 

How is it different with managing pitches?

You have to go into the game ready to throw a first-pitch slider or curveball, because you know they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, new guy is going to come in and throw a straight fastball.’ So, you have to be ready to throw your offspeed pitches right away. As opposed to when you’re a starter, you can work off your fastball mostly.

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Headlines …
Alden Gonzalez

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