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August 28, 2013

The Lineup Card

Ten Position Players We Would Like to See Pitch

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Christian Bethancourt
Austin Hedges is the best all-around catcher I’ve had the privilege of watching at the minor league level, but even the magical unicorn that is Hedges can’t match the raw physical gifts of Christian Bethancourt. With a stopwatch in hand, it’s quite common to clock the 21-year-old backstop with sub-1.75 pop times to second base, and if you listen closely, you might be able to hear the cover man whimper in pain as the 80-grade arm delivers the ball into the glove with purpose. However, the shortcomings with his bat could limit his ultimate ceiling, thus marginalizing the elite nature of his catch-and-throw skills.

Developmentally speaking, I think it's time to remove the stick from the equation and allow Bethancourt to focus on those delicious pop times and to encourage the growth of his standout skill. It’s time to make Bethancourt the first catch-and-throw pitcher in baseball. The delivery will appear a bit unorthodox, especially since he will start in a crouched position a few inches behind the rubber, weight shifted to the toes, holding the ball behind his back as he eagerly awaits the sign, which he gives himself by removing the glove from his left hand and signaling to his battery twin. When the pitch is agreed upon, Bethancourt pops to his feet and fires the ball towards the plate, working his fastball in the mid-90s and locating down in the zone. Every once in a while he will sail the ball into center field the netting behind the plate, but the combination of deception in the delivery and power of the heater will allow us to overlook a few of the quirks involved.

Instead of visits to the mound, Bethancourt can just have a conversation with himself, and when runners reach base, he will most likely balk them all away around to score, which will be incredibly frustrating to watch. But when the bags are empty, Bethancourt will make a fantastic one-pitch reliever who can not only blow smoke from a noisy delivery and a deceptive uniform/equipment situation (once a catcher, always a catcher), but offer the type of roster flexibility seldom found in the modern game. —Jason Parks

2. Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro’s accomplishments with his 80-grade arm are well documented—this hosing of Terrance Long in Ichiro’s first month in the big leagues remains my favorite and a must in any Ichiro throwing-porn canon.

You can imagine what this arm, even 12 years later, would look like if you made him a right-handed pitcher for one inning. Except you don’t really have to imagine. Five years before the aforementioned spectacle, Ichiro—already a fifth-year professional in Japan—was brought in to pitch as somewhat of a stunt in an All-Star game.

He reached 141 km/hour (between 87 and 88 mph) in inducing a final ground out. It would be fun to see how close to that 22-year-old number he could get as a 39-year–old. But mostly I would like to see this for the volume of smiles that it would bring. It would probably be a major-league record for most smiling to the point where catchers, hitters, and umpires would all be calling time to control their smiling. It would be wonderful. —Zachary Levine

3. Jeff Francoeur
Jeff Francoeur was granted his second release of the season a few days ago, this time by a last-place team. “Granted his release” makes it sound as if Francoeur requested his freedom, and the Giants— begging him to reconsider—reluctantly complied with his wishes, but that’s not quite the way it down. The reality is that Francoeur doesn’t want to be out of work. He just can’t help it.

Francoeur has hit .226/.272/.354 over his past two seasons and 859 plate appearances, with a line against lefties—whom he used to hit—that’s barely any better. And he’s pushing 30, so his best days as a batter are behind him. Francoeur’s best-in-class chemistry matters and might make him an NRI next year, but his story would end the same way. What’s the point of playing out the string? The “Jeff Francoeur, position player” experiment has come close to running its course.

So why not change course completely? Francoeur’s arm is the best thing about him. He’s very close to taking over the active lead in outfield assists, and he pitched out of the bullpen in high school. All this time, we’ve been thinking that Francoeur’s greatest flaw was his poor plate discipline, but maybe it was his refusal to heed his true calling. He should’ve been a pitcher in the first place.

Between his off-the-charts makeup and his unhinged eyes, Francoeur has the closer mentality covered. And while his secondary stuff might be a mystery, we know he has the arm strength to succeed. It probably won’t work, of course. But after a five-season, five-franchise tour that ended in unemployment, Francoeur has little to lose by finding out whether his OBP-suppressing powers at the plate would translate to the mound. —Ben Lindbergh

4. Craig Albernaz
Albernaz is the ultimate organizational soldier. He's 30 and has not received 200 or more plate appearances in a season, partially because he's always switching between the inactive and active lists. Along the way, Albernaz has pitched in 14 games, and though the results aren't pretty, it would be amusing (and appropriate) if his only big-league appearance came in relief. After all, he's spent the rest of his career doing whatever the team needs. Why stop at the game's highest level? —R.J. Anderson

5. Yasiel Puig
A conspiracy theory: Yasiel Puig is a rookie sensation playing for the Dodgers. He's taken the team on his shoulders and may push them all the way to the World Series. With all the Puig Mania all over SoCal, I find it a little suspicious that there don't seem to be any pictures of Yasiel Puig and Fernando Valenzuela standing together. I think that Yasiel Puig might just be Fernando in disguise. There's only one way to prove it. Have Puig take the mound and tell him to throw a screwball. Now, you sit there and say, "The two men look nothing alike, Fernando is a lefty while Puig is a righty, and Fernando is 52." If it's good enough for a tortured sports column analogy, it must be true! (That is, after all, how we treat the rest of our understandings of baseball.)

Okay, so maybe Puig isn't actually Fernando Valenzuela in disguise. But wouldn't seeing him pitch be fun? He obviously has a pretty good arm, and while throwing from right field isn't the same as throwing from the mound, it would be interesting to see how that translates. I don't even want to see Puig pitching for the purposes of seeing if he would be a good pitcher (probably not). I'm much more interested in the cultural impact of it. Puig is already something of a mythos surrounding him, and I have to wonder what rapturous proclamations would await a scoreless inning of relief in garbage time. Or what a third of an inning giving up five runs would do. Would Twitter survive? What's worse is that Puig would probably be revealed to be an athletically talented guy who had not spent years and years honing the craft of pitching. There's no shame in that, but for some reason I think it would actually hurt the general opinion of his considerable talents. Because he can't magically do everything right. I guess #ThereIsNoUnicorn. —Russell A. Carleton

6. Yadier Molina This is a very specific fantasy. Yadier Molina and Jose Molina are on the same team. Or maybe St. Louis signs Bengie Molina for a day. I am not picky, so long as it's two Molinas playing catch with one another. One Molina wearing catching gear. The other Molina wearing catching gear. They're both wearing catching gear, just mowing down batters and striking out the world as fans look on in horror. Baseball was never the same again. —Matt Sussman

7. Bryce Harper: Recreating "The Posey"
It is not uncommon for amateur position players to spend time on the mound. Often times the top position player on a high school roster will also be the best overall arm on the team, doubling as either an occasional starter or, more frequently, serving as closer. That trend is not quite as prevalent at the collegiate ranks, but it does happen. Buster Posey served as a closer for the Florida State Seminoles in 2008, notching six saves over 7 2/3 innings of work. While this is not in and of itself noteworthy, what Posey did on May 12, 2008, is (box score here).

Posey began the game behind the plate but returned to the field in the second inning with a first baseman’s mitt and headed to the three spot. The third inning Posey spent at second, the fourth at short, and the fifth at the hot corner. The sixth inning saw Posey spend two outs in left field and one in center field. In the seventh Posey took to the bump and recorded two outs prior to heading out to right field for the remainder of the final inning (the game was shortened to seven innings due to the mercy rule then in place). It was a showcase of Posey’s athleticism for the benefit of evaluators (Posey was draft eligible that year), and one of the coolest gimmicks I’ve seen performed at the amateur ranks.

I would love to see something like this recreated at the major-league level, though with Posey now five years older and with a major knee surgery under his belt I am not sure he would be the best candidate for such an undertaking. No, my vote would go to the 20-year-old outfielder in Washington, whose age and background would seem to make him a perfect fit for such an exercise.

Harper is just three years removed from his final amateur season, which he spent with the College of Southern Nevada. As a 17-year-old freshman Harper logged innings behind the plate, in the infield, in the outfield, and yes even on the mound (if you missed Doug Thornburn’s piece back in April, breaking down Harper’s pitching mechanics, check it out). It would be a treat to get to see Harp once again don the tools of ignorance and flash his sub-2.0 pop times, or perhaps to watch him range deep in the hole on the left side of the infield and show off the “80” arm as he so often does when patrolling the grass in DC. The real prize, however, would be to see Harper put the cannon to work on the mound. His aggressive on-field demeanor and max effort delivery would fit in perfectly in the closer role, and there’s little question he’d light up the radar gun.

Honestly, can you think of anything more fun than watching one of the game’s brightest young talents spend an inning at each position over the course of a game? Harper has the resume to pull it off—if anyone in the DC front office is reading this, please hook it up. Bonus points if you do this during an interleague game with the Angels and send Harper to the mound for a shot at Trout. —Nick J. Faleris

8. Rick Ankiel
Hear me out. Rick Ankiel is nearing the end of his career as an outfielder. His raw power isn’t enough anymore to compensate for his low contact rate—thus, ended up hitting .188 for the Astros and Mets this year. He’s currently a free agent and may not find a big-league roster again.

Unless, that is, he comes in to pitch in junk time. We know the guy still has a cannon, and I’ll bet he’s gotten over the control issues that plagued him mentally as a young man. Hell, he can find the strike zone from 250 feet away, let alone 60.

Come September, when the rosters expand to 40 men, what’s to stop the Astros from re-signing Ankiel? And when they inevitably are down by eight runs or more late in a game, what’s to stop them from having Ankiel dust off that old wipeout curveball? Re-re-inventing himself as a pitcher might be his last “last shot” at staying in the majors, so what’s there to lose in testing it out in a low-stress environment. Come on, this guy started the MLB Futures game for the U.S. team in 1999. Make it happen, Astros management. —Dan Rozenson

9. Ryan Zimmerman
Zimmerman may not have the biggest cannon at the hot corner, but his propensity to drop down on nearly every throw has me salivating at the thought of a big-league position player guiding a submarine on the mound.

Zimm's experience with cross-diamond throws (however inaccurate many of them might be) could translate to adequate arm strength when he toes the rubber. He may not receive high marks for balance on his mechanics report card, but the loopy trajectories that are produced by a down-under arm slot could lead to a lot of groundballs, in the vein of Brad Ziegler or Chad Bradford. The Shyamalan twist is that Zimmerman himself would typically field those extra grounders from the five-spot, and it would be worth the price of admission to watch him pounce off the mound like a cat to chase the balls of yarn bouncing past. Plus, the Nats would earn bonus points if they let him relieve Jordan Zimmermann, particularly on the road, thus causing mass confusion for the PA announcer, the scoreboard operator, and the fans in attendance. The Nats would never allow their star third baseman and his history of shoulder injuries near the mound, but Zimmerman qualifies for my top spot, if only to distract the Washington faithful from their collective angst when the team is on the cusp of playoff elimination. —Doug Thorburn

10. Mitch Moreland
In my years around the back fields, having seen countless position-to-pitcher conversions, I’ve learned that an elite arm in the field doesn’t always translate into big velocity on the mound. I’ve seen catchers with borderline 80-grade arms struggle to top 90 mph on the bump. On the flip side, I’ve seen a third baseman with just decent arm strength but a fluid arm action (Matt West) sit 95-98 mph within a month of converting. The underrated factors are natural mechanics, durability, feel for pitching, and the like.

One of those perhaps surprising arms is Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland. When Moreland entered the professional ranks as a 17th-round pick in 2007, he did so as an accomplished collegiate slugger, posting standout numbers in three years at Mississippi State. Despite the big results, teams preferred Moreland’s intriguing left arm. While Moreland flashed good raw power in college, he did so as a front-foot hitter with an metal bat-friendly uppercut swing. But the Mississippi native insisted on hitting, so the Rangers selected him late with an eye on an eventual conversion to the mound.

To Moreland’s credit, he quickly overhauled his swing. The ugly front-foot uppercut became a quiet, balanced line-drive stroke with an advanced approach and discipline. The adjustments were evident during his first full season at Single-A Clinton, where he put himself on the prospect radar by hitting .324/.400/.536

The Rangers weren’t ready to rule out pitching, however. Following that 2008 campaign, Moreland didn’t pick up a bat at fall instructional league; he spent it on the mound. The southpaw seriously impressed, pounding the strike zone with a 90-93 mph fastball and intriguing slider. But Moreland returned to first base in 2009, hit .326 at Double-A, and was Texas’ most productive hitter in the 2010 World Series.

As we all know, Moreland has developed into a fine––though unspectacular––major leaguer. He’s a career .258/.321/.446 hitter and a second-division regular. The Rangers made the wise call, as Moreland likely wasn’t more than a lefty relief arm. But I think he was a big-league-quality arm, and that leaves me wondering what could have been. —Jason Cole

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Premium Article Minor League Update: G... (08/28)
<< Previous Column
The Lineup Card: 11 Pl... (08/22)
Next Column >>
The Lineup Card: Ten T... (09/05)
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Reworking WARP: The Ov... (08/28)

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