The latest Mariners blogosphere firestorm? GM Jack Zduriencik indicates that top pitching prospect Phillipe Aumont was moved to the bullpen to fast-track him to the bigs as a reliever. The Mariners originally moved Aumont to the pen to start 2009 as a 'rest' move to limit his workload. Only during a conversation with Geoff Baker did Zduriencik elaborate on the move.
It turns out the organization met with Aumont roughly a week ago to hash out this plan after top team officials did an evaluation of where things stood with a lot of the minor-league prospects. In Aumont's case, it was decided that his becoming a reliever might be the best thing for him and the organization.
"Nothing is carved in stone," Zduriencik said. "This is an experiment we're doing to see if we can get him to the big leagues quicker."
And, of course, in a role he could be better suited for.
'You look at his size," Zduriencik said, "he's a big, aggressive kid. He was throwing 97 mph at the WBC and we think he has a chance of duplicating that at the big-league level. We think he has a chance to be one of the big bullpen arms in this game."
So... let's say this wasn't just innocuous commentary from the GM in an informal, friendly chat with a beat reporter. Let's say Jack Zduriencik is absolutely serious about converting Phillipe Aumont into a power reliever. What would lead him to take a top starting prospect and put him in the bullpen?
It probably began with the WBC. Phillipe Aumont won a spot on Team Canada, then had his now infamous relief appearance against Team USA, where he loaded the bases before mowing down, in order, David Wright, Kevin Youkilis and Curis Granderson.
This is a 19 year old kid with less than 100 innings of pro experience at any level, and not a single pitch above A ball... putting down three of the top American players at their respective positions. Sure, Granderson's a speedy, powerful hack machine with the patience of a t-ball player and striking him out isn't exactly a rare feat. But Wright is one of the league's best hitters and few in MLB are better than Youkilis at working a count. These are not guys that get easily overwhelmed by any pitcher, and yet Aumont calmly worked out of a bases loaded, no out jam (that he had worked himself into) by systematically mowing all three of them down.
Now, imagine you're the new GM of the Seattle Mariners, and basically all you know about this kid is that the team drafted him with their 1st pick in 2007. You see him mix a 97 mph fastball with a swerving breaking ball and the imposing angle his 6 foot 7 frame provides opposing batters. You see him mow down three of MLB's best American hitters after loading the bases.
You realize how far Aumont is from bringing that brilliance to a rotation. He's a pure project who came out of Quebec with little real instruction and little real experience. This kid has yet to pitch more than a few starts in a row, let alone start for an entire season, and in those starts he took baby step, 70-80 pitch outings that went 3-5 innings. The team, in fact, shut him down in midseason for no other reason than to rest him after what was easily the biggest workload he's ever faced. And that was only half a season of A ball, not even making full 90-100 pitch starts!
You realize that he is a long way from being even a regular pro starter at any level, let alone in MLB, let alone becoming a reliable 30-32 start, 180-200 inning workhorse with 3-4 plus pitches. As the Mariners have found out the hard way time and time again, a lot can happen to a pitching prospect between his first pro pitch and the bigs.
Many don't get there: many get hurt and wash out of baseball well short of the majors. Many wear down from the workload and wash out of baseball. Many get derailed as they struggle with higher AA and AAA level competition and can't adjust... or tinker with their delivery and suddenly lose a consistent feel for their stuff. Phillipe Aumont is 2-3 pitches, the development of the necessary endurance to throw 100-120 pitches every 5 days for six months and a lot of learning away from being an MLB starter, let alone a top MLB starter.
Meanwhile, you're Jack Zduriencik and you see what he can do now over 20-30 pitches. You realize that relievers only need one or two out pitches to succeed in MLB, due to their limited exposure to hitters, coming in fresh and at max energy and the ability to use a pitcher situationally. Aumont mowed down three good MLB hitters, so you know he CAN get MLB hitters out. You know he can work under pressure, because he loaded the bases with nobody out before locking down and getting out of the jam.
You realize that Phillipe Aumont, his imposing size and his blazing stuff are a long, long, long way from helping you as a starter, if he ever can... but he's not too far away from helping you as a reliever.
Yes, you already permaconverted Brandon Morrow to relief. You already have a closer. You drafted a reliever last year. Building a bullpen is easy because decent relievers are a dime a dozen.
But you're not permanently shoehorning Phillipe Aumont. You're taking an existing plan, to start him in the bullpen in 2009, and seeing if he can fast-track to the majors from there. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe over a larger sample, whether 10-20 appearances or two seasons, he struggles as AA and AAA hitters take advantage of his shaky control or his predictable arsenal. Even minor league hitters see swerving sliders and 95-98 mph heaters on a regular enough basis that the decent ones aren't helpless against it.
If Aumont can't break through, then you can say screw fast-tracking him, and work him back into a starting role as long as upside remains. Hell, as we saw the Mariners do with Morrow, even if Aumont reaches the bigs and pitches lights out from the pen... if Aumont learns a 3rd pitch and learns how to pitch wisely, you can develop him as a starter anyway. You can learn a lot from pitching to big league hitters who punish far more of your mistakes than a Cal Leaguer would.
Phillipe Aumont is 20 years old. He's got plenty of time to show you what he can do and can't do. Even if you decide right now to pen him and try to fast-track him to the bigs, as he grows and gives you more information to work with, and as the composition of the team changes (which it usually does on a dramatic scale every season), you can change your plans as needed.
Of course, all this assumes Zduriencik was dead serious about Aumont's long term potential role in the pen. Maybe Geoff Baker quoted what was more or less a passing thought in a friendly chat between a GM and a beat reporter the day before Opening Day.
Maybe Jack Zduriencik will actually do what every baseball fan does when the season starts: Wait and see. Aumont will start working out of the pen in AA West Tennessee. What happens next is anyone's guess.