There have been plenty of successful starting pitchers that have broken into the big leagues as relievers. Chris Sale of the Red Sox and Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals are two prominent examples of active players that have succeeded by taking that avenue, and both Kenny Rogers and David Wells enjoyed highly successful runs as starters after spending a few seasons in the bullpen to begin their careers. We are seeing the Milwaukee Brewers take that route currently with flame-throwing lefty Josh Hader, who has made five scoreless relief appearances in the MLB so far after spending the last five years as a starter in the minor leagues. It now appears as though the Brewers may be preparing another one of their highly-touted young arms to get a shot at the big leagues in a similar capacity.
Two seasons ago, Jorge Lopez was considered the top pitching prospect that the Milwaukee Brewers possessed. Coming off a season that saw him produce a 2.26 ERA/2.88 DRA across 143.1 innings with AA Biloxi, Lopez was widely praised as a top-100 prospect with the upside of a #3 starter or better once he reached the majors for good. He was even rewarded with a couple of September starts for the Brewers during that stellar 2015 season, allowing 6 earned runs in 10.0 innings with 10 strikeouts against 5 walks. Many assumed that the former 2nd-round draft pick was well on his way to seizing a role in Milwaukee’s rotation by the summer of 2016, following a brief assignment to the AAA Pacific Coast League with Colorado Springs.
Unfortunately, prospect development is rarely linear, and the 2016 season represented a significant step back for Jorge Lopez. The right-hander struggled mightily in the thin air of Colorado Springs, losing feel for his curveball and battling issues with his mechanics and subsequently his command en route to posting a 6.81 ERA/6.65 DRA in 17 appearances (16 starts) covering 79.1 innings pitched. Lopez saw his strikeout rate plummet while he walked more than 6 batters per 9 innings and coughed up 12 home runs before getting demoted to back to AA Biloxi. He was able to salvage things a bit back in the familiar confines of MGM Park, authoring a 3.97 ERA and 47:16 K/BB ratio in 45.1 innings to close out the season.
Lopez reported to fall instructional league last October in order to work with Brewer coaches to fix some of the mechanical issues that plagued him last season, and had an excellent showing in winter ball before arriving to Spring Training in February. It appears as though Lopez may have lowered his arm slot as a part of the mechanical improvements he worked on during the offseason:
Data from Brooks Baseball confirmed my suspicions:
The organization avoided another assignment to Colorado Springs by sending Lopez back to Mississippi to begin the season, and the successes he experienced this past winter have largely carried over into the 2017 regular season.
Lopez’s current ERA with the Shuckers sits at an ugly 5.04 through 69.2 innings, but a good portion of that is due to one blowup outing on May 25th where he yielded 5 earned runs while recording only one out against the Cubs’ AA affiliate. He has, however, struck out 25.3% of the batters he’s faced this year (75 punchouts in total) while keeping his walk rate at a manageable 3.62 BB/9. Both DRA (4.29) and FIP (3.42) feel that his ERA doesn’t accurately depict how solid Lopez has been in bouncing back from his nightmarish 2016 season.
The Brewers have shuffled things around with their minor league pitching staffs recently and promoted two other well-regarded arms, Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes, to the AA level from high-A Carolina. Perhaps as a result, Lopez’s last two outings have come out of the bullpen: 2 scoreless innings on June 23rd followed by a scoreless inning just two days later on June 25th. Lopez has been the starter in 118 out of his 131 minor league appearances, and he had never before made two relief appearances in a span of 3 days while in Milwaukee’s farm system. That doesn’t exactly jive with the “conserving innings” theory, in my opinion.
Given his current profile, Lopez looks like an arm with a great chance to succeed in a bullpen role. At his best, the 24 year old boasts a plus mid-90s fastball with plenty of movement as well as a plus curveball with sharp downward action. He’s shown the ability to dominate hitters using those two offerings, but can run into problems when trying to navigate through a lineup multiple times due to his still-developing changeup and the command issues that have plagued him on-and-off throughout his time as a professional. Like Hader, promoting Lopez to a bullpen role would allow him to ease into life as a major leaguer in a role best suited for his current strengths. A return to the starting rotation could then be revisited later on down the road.
The thought of Lopez joining the big league bullpen is something I’ve been suggesting for a little while now, including here and here back in May, as well as here in June and on Twitter shortly after the promotion of Josh Hader:
Now that Hader is up, I think the next prospect I want to see come up to the bullpen is Jorge Lopez. Fastball/curve could be pretty nasty.— Kyle L. (@brewerfan28) June 10, 2017
If the Brewers are truly preparing Jorge Lopez for a relief role, they should have no trouble finding a spot for him in their beleaguered bullpen. His ability to work multiple innings would benefit a heavily-taxed relief corps and his high-octane stuff makes him a much more compelling candidate to be an impact reliever than either Brent Suter or Paolo Espino, two soft-tossers that are currently the 12th and 13th men on the pitching staff. The club could also opt at some point to move on from embattled arms like Carlos Torres or Oliver Drake, who have fought inconsistency this season while struggling to prevent runs at a league-average rate.
If the first-place Milwaukee Nine can continue their current level of play for another month or so leading up to the trade deadline, they may very well become buyers for bullpen help as was argued in this space last month and as Jon Heyman of Fanrag Sports recently suggested. Before we get to that point, however, expect Milwaukee to take stock of the potential internal upgrades that they already have in their system. We are seeing that play out with Josh Hader at the big league level, and it now appears as though we may soon see Jorge Lopez, too.
According to Adam McCalvy of Brewers.com, the organization has indeed elected to move Jorge Lopez to the bullpen. From Adam’s mailbag post this morning:
Josh Hader made it to the Majors because the Brewers had a bullpen need. I'm told Jorge Lopez's two recent relief outings for Double-A Biloxi are something different -- a more permanent move to the bullpen.
Here's what Brewers farm director Tom Flanagan had to say:
"The starting rotation at Biloxi is filled with some pitchers that have really thrown well, and Jorge hasn't been able to show the consistency that we wanted to see in that role.
"Jorge has all the weapons to become a successful Major League starting pitcher, and we are not closing any doors on that. But by moving Jorge to the 'pen, and getting him on the mound more often, we feel it will be helpful step in his development."
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus