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Saving Starters

Step right up, Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls. See ringmaster Ozzie Guillen and drum major Don Cooper present the Greatest Show on the South Side. Oz and Coop have six - you heard me right, not five, but six! - starting pitchers, and this is no freak show. It may be the real thing!

Jake Peavy's spectacular return has forced Ozzie's hand. Simply spelling latissimus dorsi is a challenge. Coming back less than a year after detaching the big L.D. is off the charts. Yet there was Jake in total command last Wednesday with a complete-game shutout against the hard-hitting Indians.

The other five - Danks, Buehrle, Floyd, Jackson, and newcomer Phil Humber - all have looked sharp at times this season, so our ringmaster didn't pull the trigger and send Humber to Charlotte or designate anyone for a relief role.

Assuming this arrangement will be with us for a while, what are the ramifications?

For one, each of the starters obviously has an extra day of rest and preparation. One might assume that they would be stronger with the extra time, and come September they might be fresher with fewer innings pitched.

On the other hand, the five veterans - when healthy - are accustomed to getting 30 to 33 starts a season, pitching approximately 200 innings. Will the diminished workload affect their routine and rhythm? How adaptable will they be?

And the bullpen - evenly split with three lefties and three righties - now has one less body. With the surplus of starters, what are the chances that one of them could develop into an effective relief pitcher? Don't scoff. It's happened before.

Take Dennis Eckersley, who after 12 seasons and 151 wins as a starter, switched to the bullpen and became the game's premier closer for another 12 years. This was Tony LaRussa's idea after Eckersley was traded to Tony's Oakland ball club in 1987.

(Okay, I can't resist. After going 6-11 as a starter for the Cubs in 1986, they sent him to Oakland for three minor leaguers, none of whom every played on the North Side.)

In 1992 Eckersley won not only the Cy Young Award but also was MVP! Eck pitched until he was 43 years old, and today he's a Hall of Famer.

Then there's John Smoltz. Fans know the history. Smoltz was among the top starting pitchers in baseball with the Braves from 1988 to 1999. He didn't pitch at all in 2000. Nothing as titillating as a detached latissimus dorsi. It was just your run-of-the-mill Tommy John surgery. But Smoltzie did return - as a closer - and notched 144 saves in three seasons, 2002 to 2004.

For good measure, Smoltz switched back to a starting role, won 44 games in 2005 to 2007, and retired at age 42.

Couldn't you see, say, Edwin Jackson copying these guys? He throws hard, records lots of strikeouts, is just wild enough to be intimidating, and seems to have the makeup for pressure situations. He just might be very effective for an inning for two whereas he tends to have a blow-up inning as a starter.

Wilbur Wood was the last Sox pitcher to have success both as a starter and reliever. He's not in the same genre with Eckersley and Smoltz since Wilbur threw the knuckleball, had an ample belly, and no one could recall ever having seen him run.

But he had a rubber arm so that when manager Chuck Tanner brought him out of the bullpen in the early 70's, Wilbur often pitched on two or three days' rest - or whatever he was doing between starts.

Managers make a big deal today if a pitcher can give them 200 innings in a season. In 1972 Wood pitched 376 innings and followed that up the next year with 359. I'm not making this up. He won 24 games both seasons, but he also lost 17 and 20.

wood.jpgWilbur Wood/Chicago White Sox

Wood might still be pitching today, but his left knee was shattered by a line drive at age 34, and he never was very effective after that. One thing's for sure: Neither his rotator cuff nor his latissimus dorsi ever were in any danger.

Then there are starting pitchers who also took their turn out of the bullpen in the same season. Ozzie already has indicated that he will use pitchers solely as starters or relievers. Nevertheless, Yankee manager Casey Stengel employed this strategy with outstanding success in the 1950's with ace righthander Allie Reynolds.

Sol Gittleman, a professor of literature and history at Tufts University, also is a knowledgeable and avid baseball fan. He wrote a book, Reynolds, Raschi and Lopat: New York's Big Three and the Great Yankee Dynasty of 1949-1953, which is both interesting and revealing.

Reynolds, who was part Creek Indian, was used in crucial situations out of the bullpen - both in the regular season and the World Series - even though he was one of the top starting pitchers in the American League.

Sol writes, "Stengel said Reynolds was 'the best going two ways, starting and relieving, and I seen [Christy] Mathewson, [Walter] Johnson and Cy Young. Nobody was as good as my Indian.'

"Reynolds temperamentally was that kind of player; Stengel never asked him [to relieve]. Reynolds would just get up and go down to the bullpen. Stengel would look around and ask, 'Where's the Indian?' and [Ed] Lopat would point down to the bullpen."

Reynolds did all this with floating bone chips in his elbow most of his career. I'm not suggesting that he could have pitched through a detached L.D. - torn rotator cuff maybe - but this guy was courageous and, in today's parlance, he took one for the team on a regular basis.

reynolds.JPGAllie Reynolds/Courtesy of Sol Gittleman

"What made Allie unique was his ability to chalk up saves in between starts, a real throwback," Gittleman told me in an e-mail. "He was finished at 39 because of an injury to his back, not his arm. Probably Smoltz had the same makeup."

Maybe Jake Peavy has it as well. Certainly looked that way last week.


Comments welcome.


1. From Noel Lammers:

How about Quentin in left and Lillibridge in right, leading off?

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