From Joe Nathan to Carlos Marmol to Sergio Santos, Major League Baseball pitching staffs are littered with conversion projects: players that took unusual routes to their big league careers by switching roles early in their careers from position players to pitchers.
The minor leagues will feature a number of interesting stories this season as a strong group of newly-minted pitchers attempt to realize their dreams of playing in The Show.
Kyler Burke | Chicago Cubs | CF to LHP
Burke teased clubs for years with his raw athleticism but he was never able to put it all together with the bat. His strong left arm finally convinced the Cubs organization to take a flyer on him as a pitcher. The former two-way player was originally a supplemental first round pick of the Padres back in 2006 out of a Tennessee high school as an outfielder. He was traded to the Cubs in ‘07 (along with Rob Bowen) for veteran catcher Michael Barrett. He hit just .244 in his five year position player career; he topped out at high-A ball where he hit just .212 with 131 strikeouts in 515 at-bats in 2010. Burke spent ‘11 in short-season ball while making the conversion to the mound and he allowed 36 hits and 18 walks in 44.0 innings of work. He struck out an impressive number of batters: 47. He features a two-pitch repertoire that features an 89-94 mph fastball and a solid curveball.
Sean Doolittle | Oakland A’s | 1B/LF to LHP
Taken with the 41st overall pick in the 2007 draft as a smooth-swinging first baseman out of the University of Virginia, Doolittle zoomed through the minors and reached triple-A in his second full season in pro ball. Unfortunately he played just 28 games in 2009 before injuries wiped out the rest of that season, as well as all of ’10 and ’11. In total he suffered two knee injuries and the right wrist injury that effectively ended his position playing days. Unlike a lot of hitter-to-pitcher conversions, though, Doolittle pitched at a high level as recently as ’07 as he spent his collegiate career performing as a two-way player. The southpaw features a low-90s fastball and a promising changeup. His third pitch is a slider that still needs a fair bit of work. Doolittle is in the right organization to move quickly in his new role. The A’s organization has very little left-handed pitching depth in the minors and its big league bullpen features a lot of question marks. Doolittle’s brother, Ryan Doolittle, also pitches in the A’s system.
Chris Hatcher | Miami Marlins | C to RHP
Hatcher actually showed enough during his conversion to the mound in 2011 that he made my Marlins Top 15 prospect list. You can read his writeup by clicking the link. Hatcher’s poor spring training likely means a trip back to triple-A where he’ll await an opening in the rotation.
Jason Lane | Arizona Diamondbacks | LF to LHP
Lane is definitely the most interesting name on this list. The former outfielder was drafted in the sixth round out of the University of Southern California by the Houston Astros in… 1999. Now 36 years old, the California native is attempting to reinvent himself as a pitcher. He appeared in almost 500 big league games as a hitter (and another 960 games in the minors). Lane hasn’t appeared in the Majors since 2007 and has spent the majority of the past three seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays system at triple-A Las Vegas. During that span he pitched in 11 mop-up games. He threw 13.0 innings in 2011 and struck out 12 batters with just two walks issued. This past off-season Lane announced that he intended to focus solely on pitching in 2012 and signed a minor league contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks organization.
Robert Stock | St. Louis Cardinals | C to RHP
Stock was a highly-regarded amateur two-way player who actually enrolled in college early and was drafted out of the University of Southern California as a teenager. He pitched and caught for the Trojans and actually garnered more attention as a hurler but preferred to play everyday and the Cardinals obliged when they signed him to a contract for more than $500,000. In three years as a pro, the right-hander posted an OPS of just .667 and failed to get out of A-ball. In his college days, when he performed both as a starter and a reliever, Stock showcased a solid 88-92 mph fastball as well as an above-average changeup. His third pitch was a curveball.
Matt West | Texas Rangers | 3B to RHP
A former second round draft pick out of Texas, West was a talented prep prospect who could not get out of low-A ball after hitting just .241 in four minor league seasons. Moved to the mound in 2011, the right-hander immediately became a contender for the Rangers’ Top 15 prospects list after flashing mid-90s heat and an innate ability to control the ball. His success as a hurler in pro ball should come as no surprise when considering his Baseball America scouting report prior to the 2007 draft stated: “West was known mostly for his arm strength coming into 2007…” Unfortunately he recently suffered a sprain elbow ligament that he is now trying to treat with rest and rehab. More often than not, though, pitchers suffering from this injury end up having Tommy John surgery. West, 23, has the ceiling of a high-leverage reliever.
This is by no means a complete list. There are many more conversion experiments occurring at the minor league level and you’re more than welcome to list some of the other names in the comment section below. I’ll monitor their progress and update this article later in the season.