Learning From the Past
Many don't recall but Russ Ortiz was used mainly as a closer when he was a minor leaguer initially, for 1995 and 1996. It turns out that he was mainly a reliever in college (though he did start a handful of games in his last year in college) as well, then the Giants switched him to starting in 1997 and he was up in the majors just before mid-season in 1998 as a starter/reliever and he has been a horse since then until last season, he pitched over 200 IP for 5 of 6 seasons, averaging over 208 IP for those 6 seasons.
Based on this example, they needed to give him only one full season, when he was 23, to get him ready to be a starter in the majors, after he hadn't pitched regularly as a starter since he was in high school, at minimum. He started his age 24 season in the minors then came up just before mid-season, probably around late May/early June, and has been a starter since then, for the most part, until this past week, where he got thrown in the bullpen (appears he is the D-backs Alfonzo albatross).
For a more recent example of going the other way, the Phillies had a pro career-long starter in Ryan Madson who they made into a reliever the past two seasons, but then switched him back to starting again this season, with no prep for getting his arm strength ready for the majors other than spring training. He was 23 when the switch was made; Sanchez is currently 23. So it appears that arm strength for starting can be established by age 23 - at least for Madson - and he can be and has been switched back and forth between roles.
So where is the sturm und drang over building stamina where Russ Ortiz was involved? The Giants only had him starting for one season and a part before he became a starter in the majors in the season he turned 24 years old, full-time when he was 25. And how was Ryan Madson adversely harmed by being switched to relieving? The Phillies had no problem switching him back to starting without building up his stamina, other than spring training.
Sabean's Modus Operandi
I think we need to see the move in context of how far the Giants have grown with their farm system. The Giants M.O. during the Sabean era has been to ask, How Soon is Now, in regards to winning. The starting staff is looking like it will be Morris, Lowry, Cain, Wright, and Hennessey in 2007, with Correia as first runner up and whoever else can reach up there, like Griffin and Martis - Foppert stands as an example of a starter who can suddenly vault into the team's MLB options within a season, maybe they think they can get a good pitcher with their 10th pick (though I'm hoping for a position player; I once thought Evan Longeria but I think he may have moved himself up higher).
So there is currently no foreseen need for starters at the MLB ranks in 2007. And as I showed in a recent post at my blog, the starting pitchers have done OK thus far this year in term of quality starts. They have had 38% Dominating starts (and it would have been 44% had that ump not blow that call at 1B with Wright). Which is OK, not great, but good. Particularly since the number of Disaster starts have been limited. Hence how the Giants can have a winning record despite the bullpen misfires.
Speaking of the bullpen problems, we have all seen how the state of the bullpen can go up and down over the past season and a part, how volatile that has been and probably will continue to be. I thought that Sabean did a good job of constructing the bullpen going into this season but everyone has been willy-nilly so far except for Kline, with Walker being DFAed and Taschner being sent down already, bringing up Brian Wilson and Jeremy Accardo. And I wouldn't be surprised to see Valdez come up at some point later in the season as well.
The Giants and Sabean's M.O. for pitcher development has been thus: develop them and how, the more the merrier, can't ever have enough of them, and they can be starters and relievers, interchangeably, depending on need. The current need is for relievers, as much as we might salivate over another power starter as Sanchez appears to be. And that's a sign of a possible tipping point of the Giants farm system going from bad to good, that a good looking starting prospect like Sanchez is seen to be more valuable to the team's future as a reliever because of better prospects.
Reading the Tea Leaves
I'm interpreting all this, but here's how I see it. The rotation is pretty set for 2007 with Correia as backup, and probably one or two other, yet to be determined, prospects ready or close to being ready by then. The Giants staff has chosen who they think are closest/best for becoming a starter in 2007. So that would mean that everyone else gets to be relievers, including Brian Wilson, with whom they toyed with the thought of putting him back into a starting role, at the end of last season.
Some complained about the loss of trade value for Sanchez. Will a team be turned off because a starter is now a reliever? Possibly, but given how short a time (one season) Russ Ortiz needed to become a starter (he pitched 141.2 IP in his first full season as a starter, which is good enough to be the #5 starter with a strict pitch and IP count) and how the Phillies switched Ryan Madson back to starting again, I think the other team will see a pitcher who can still start for them in a #5 role and more probably see that he is so young that he could spend one season building his arm in AAA, then be brought up, if they want a starter, or a usable reliever, if that is their need.
We are not trading developed pitchers here, we are giving up prospects, other teams will know what's up, they won't think it's a shell game, they have their scouts who can see what each pitcher has in terms of abilities to throw pitches and stuff. If they think he has the stuff to be a starter, him being used in a relief role won't deter them. And if they think that's he's only a reliever, leaving him in a starter's role won't make them think that they are getting a starter. And if they really do just look at whether a pitcher is a starter or reliever to set the value of that player, we should just put any old position player who isn't hacking it in as a starting pitcher and trade him to that team for their best prospects if he has a little success, they are a sheep waiting to be fleeced.
Angst Over Nothing?
In addition, from the info that has been given in the McCovey Chronicle discussion linked above, by the same poster as quoted above, it sounds like it is not a fait accompli yet that Sanchez will be a reliever. They are trying him out to see if he can handle the pressures and rhythm of being a reliever and will reassess after a few outings. Maybe he can't handle it. And maybe he can. And even if he can, they might still leave him in as a starter, they just appear to be seeing what their options with Sanchez is. That could just be an option later if necessary. All this worry seem to be a knee jerk reaction, based on the points I've outlined above.
But the net-net for me is that it appears that they see that his path to the majors is potentially blocked by better prospects and want to see if they can use him as a reliever first and get value from him sooner, than keep him as a starter and hope to trade him later or use him as a starter later. The A.J. fiasco notwithstanding, Sabean's policy has generally been to keep the prospects he thinks he can still use at the MLB level and trade away the ones he thinks he cannot work with anymore, whether temperment or physical problems. Apparently, they think Sanchez is good enough to keep, but just not as good as the other current options for starting pitchers. That is a good sign for our farm system, that a pitcher who appears to be as good as Sanchez is, could be pushed aside by better prospects.