Aaron Crow to the Royals’ Bullpen–Right or Wrong?


Of all the controversial moves made as teams set their rosters a few days ago, few inspired more debate than Kansas City installing Aaron Crow as a major league reliever.

A highly touted draftee who was selected high in the first round twice (he didn’t sign with the Nationals in 2008), Crow had just started for one season in the minors. His results were rather poor, but his stuff was still good, and many people are scratching their heads as to why the Royals would pull the plug on Crow’s starting so soon.

One could argue that he’ll be moved back to the rotation later, but it doesn’t seem likely, as recent starter-to-shutdown reliever conversions (Joba Chamberlain, Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria, Jon Papelbon, etc.) have tended to be permanent. There’s always the chance Crow bucks the trend, but for the sake of this piece, I’m going to disregard that possibility and assume Crow stays in relief forever. Is that the right move?

Crow, it should be noted, has immediately dominated in the big leagues. He’s whiffed five batters in three scoreless innings, with a FIP of just 0.78. Working with two pitches–a 93-96 mph fastball and hard slider–he’s clearly got the prototypical late-game reliever’s repertoire.

It’s startling, then, to look at the numbers he put up last year as a starter. In Double-A, Crow had a 90/59 K/BB in 119 1/3 innings, showing neither impressive strikeout ability nor impressive control. You can excuse the wildness, but the lack of strikeouts is quite puzzling considering Crow’s stuff and draft status.

Since he was almost 23 when he signed, and nearly 23 1/2 by the time he made his pro debut, Crow wasn’t a young prospect–he’ll turn 25 shortly after this year’s World Series. He was so poor last year that he wound up demoted to A-ball, where he put up a 5.93 ERA (albeit with far better peripherals), and likely would’ve started this year back in Double-A had he remained a starter. Given his very unrefined changeup and curve (it’s telling that he has yet to throw either pitch in the majors even once), he likely would have needed a fair bit of development in that role, and would’ve been 25 or 26 before being ready to make a contribution as an MLB starter, if ever.

Of course, this guy’s got a good arm, and there’s a reason why he was picked in the top 12 in successive drafts. It certainly could’ve worked out–after all, plenty of 24-year-olds have improved their changeups, and Crow’s fastball/slider combination is so good that the change would never need to be any sort of strikeout pitch for him to succeed.

Ordinarily, the sabermetric argument (and one I’m almost always behind) is that you have to give pitchers the chance to start until they prove they can’t handle it. 120 innings in Double-A, straight out of college/independent ball, doesn’t really count as proof, at least not in my book.

But still, I can’t help but agree with this move.

The Kansas City Royals need things to break correctly to contend. They’re counting on their vaunted farm system to produce a big wave of talent, and it very well might. But these things don’t always work out–prospect packages can fizzle rather quickly. Just look at what happened to Dexter Carter and Aaron Poreda, who comprised half of the Padres’ return for Jake Peavy. Carter was out of the Padres’ organization just over a year later, and Poreda’s wildness sent him immediately backward as well. Adam Russell was a throw-in in another trade, so 3/4 of the Padres’ return for an ace pitcher (the other quarter was the solid but unspectacular Clayton Richard) was basically nonexistent just 16 months later. And don’t even get me started on the A’s return for Tim Hudson a decade ago.

Kansas City needs to win with their young guys, and to do so, they need to make sure as many of them pan out as possible. With Tim Collins and Crow now locked in as a deadly setup combo, and Joakim Soria still around (although he may be expendable if Crow keeps dominating), the bullpen is pretty much taken care of.

Of course, removing Crow from the rotation picture creates more questions there, and Kansas City’s current setup in the rotation is pretty terrible, but the Royals already had many better rotation prospects than Crow. In fact, they run five deep, with Jake Odorizzi, John Lamb, Chris Dwyer, Mike Montgomery, and Danny Duffy. Crow wasn’t even in the team’s top five SP prospects, and one could make a good case for even more pitchers (Robinson Yambati, Yordano Ventura, etc.) over him as a starter as well.

So Kansas City saw Crow excel in relief in the spring and decided that he could help them now in that role. In another small-market organization with less pitching depth (say, Houston), it’d be a pretty terrible decision (or, see Mejia, Jenrry), but in KC? They weren’t even relying on Crow to be in the rotation at all later on, since there are so many other highly-rated pitchers, many of whom were going to reach the majors before Crow as starters anyway.

Moving Crow, therefore, does basically no harm to the organizational depth in starting pitchers, and it also gives the team a chance to hand one of their 25 roster spots over to one of these touted prospects. Now, the Royals have Billy Butler, Kila Ka’aihue, Alex Gordon, Crow, Collins, and Soria–that’s six spots taken up by guys who look like they could still be a part of the 2014-15 Royals. The more of these guys Kansas City evaluates now, the more they know what they have in later years where they’ll make a run at contending. That’s not to say, of course, that every prospect should be rushed up right now, but simply to say that it makes perfect sense to not hold a guy back once he’s ready. Heck, Collins is three years younger than Crow, and he’s been even more dominant at age 21.

But really, the driving factor behind the correctness (in my opinion) in this decision is that Kansas City is in the enviable position of having so many good arms vying for future starting spots that they can take a guy like Crow and move him to relief without hurting the rotation picture. Most playoff teams don’t even have a good back of the rotation, so all Kansas City needs is to get a good 1-2-3 punch out of their ridiculous pitching depth. It was far from clear that Crow was going to be that sort of guy himself, so this isn’t a Neftali Feliz situation where they’re taking a top-20 prospect and moving him. Crow’s advanced age is also a significant factor–even after all the yo-yoing, Joba Chamberlain‘s just a year older than Crow, after all.

While it’s certainly a worrisome trend that potentially valuable starters are often being put in roles where they throw far fewer innings, this is a special case–Aaron Crow‘s move to relief should help the Royals in both the short and long term.