Prospects and minor leaguers are willing to do just about anything to be able to reach the big leagues, and that certainly includes starting over from scratch and attempting an entirely new position. Teams suggest players in their systems switch positions with relative frequency in order to squeeze the most value out of their prospects, and in many cases this strategy has worked out quite well. As it relates specifically to position players who were converted to pitchers, there are many instances in which the switch led to a very successful and long professional career.
Trevor Hoffman, once the all-time saves leader, is a prime example. Hoffman was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 11th round after playing shortstop for the University of Arizona. His bat was not good enough for the bigs and he was ultimately moved to the pitching role in which he thrived. The converted shortstop now has a legitimate chance at election to the Hall of Fame once he becomes eligible in 2016.
There are other examples of successful conversions, as Tim Wakefield (first baseman), Dave Stieb (outfield) and Troy Percival (catcher) all went on to have long and notable careers in Major League Baseball. There are a number of pitchers currently in the majors who began their professional careers as position players before switching to pitching full-time, and what follows are 10 of the best converted pitchers in baseball today.
10 Jason Lane – Outfield
Lane’s story is as incredible as it is unlikely. Lane began his pro career as an outfielder, and he is one of the few players on this list who actually made it to the big leagues as a position player before converting to pitcher. Lane spent six seasons with the Houston Astros, starting in right field for Houston during their 2005 run to the World Series. From 2008 to 2013, Lane did not see major league action, but in 2014 he was called up to spot start for the injured Ian Kennedy. He went six innings and only allowed one run. Entering his age-38 season, Lane has a minor-league deal with San Diego, owing to his switch to pitching full-time in 2012.
9 Chris Hatcher – Catcher
Like Lane, Hatcher also made it to the majors as a position player before switching to the mound in the minors. That was back in 2010, when Hatcher started two games at catcher and appeared in three others. His path back to the bigs was much quicker than Lane’s, as Hatcher appeared as a reliever in 11 games for the Miami Marlins the following year. Now with the Los Angeles Dodgers following the trade that sent Dee Gordon to the Marlins, Hatcher is expected to be an important component of a revamped bullpen for 2015. Even though the Dodgers have Hatcher slated to be in the bullpen, Hatcher still jokingly lists himself in his Twitter profile as the “backup to the backup catcher if need be.”
8 Alexi Ogando – Outfielder
Ogando has dealt with injury-plagued seasons over the past few years, owing to shoulder trouble (2013) and elbow inflammation (2014), leading the Texas Rangers to non-tender him this offseason. Before the injuries limited his appearances, Ogando was an All-Star while starting 29 games for the Rangers in 2011. He pitched to a 3.5q ERA and went 13-8 while striking out 126 batters in his 169 innings of work that season.
Long before his All-Star campaign, Ogando was an outfielder in the Oakland A’s organization. Fortunately for Ogando, he was spotted by A.J. Preller, then the director of player personnel for the Rangers, who saw something in Ogando's arm. Preller pushed Jon Daniels, the Rangers general manager, to take Ogando in the Rule 5 draft so they could convert Ogando from an outfielder to a pitcher. His first pitch off of a mound with the Rangers was thrown at 94 mph, and by the end of his first season as a pitcher Ogando was hitting 97 mph on the radar gun. He's currently unsigned, but it seems likely that he will still draw a fair amount of interest on the free-agent market.
7 Sergio Santos – Shortstop
Santos went through five different organizations before landing with the Chicago White Sox in 2009. The team gave him an ultimatum that year: be traded or released, or try a conversion to pitcher. The light-hitting shortstop, once a first-round draft pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks, opted for the latter, ultimately reaching the majors as a reliever in 2010. He saved 30 games for the Sox in 2011, posting a 3.55 ERA and 2.69 xFIP while striking out 92 batters in 63.1 innings. Injuries have limited him significantly over the past three seasons, and he will try to earn a spot in the Dodgers bullpen this year out of Spring Training.
6 Jason Motte - Catcher
Coming up through the St. Louis Cardinals organization, Jason Motte finally reached the bigs in 2008 as a reliever. Just two years prior to that, he was toiling in the minors as a catcher. Though the Cardinals reportedly “toyed with the idea” of making Motte a reliever for quite some time, they kept him as a catcher until 2006, and it was only two seasons later that he made his Major League debut. His best season with the Cardinals was in 2012, when he compiled 42 saves as the team’s closer while striking out 86 in 72 innings worth of work and tying for the NL lead in saves. Elbow surgery derailed his 2013 season and 2014 saw him pitch only 25 innings, but the Chicago Cubs have signed the converted catcher to a one-year deal that includes incentives should he become the team’s closer.
5 Carlos Marmol – Catcher/Outfield
Marmol is best known for his years as a closer with the Chicago Cubs, and it was the Cubs organization that signed Marmol out of the Dominican Republic in 1999. When he was signed, however, it was as an outfielder and catcher, not as a pitcher. He slashed .295/.355/.380 in rookie ball in 2001, but struggled when he reached the Lansing Lugnuts of the Midwest League. Marmol converted to pitcher in 2002, and he would eventually make his MLB debut in 2006, serving as the Cubs’ closer and posting 92 saves over a three-year period from 2010 to 2012. He was an All-Star in 2008 and even -- however improbably -- garnered an MVP vote in 2007, but he has bounced around a bit as of late, with stops in Los Angeles and Miami in each of the last two years. Marmol appeared in 15 games with the Miami Marlins in 2014, but is currently a free agent.
4 Rafael Soriano – Outfield
Soriano, like Marmol, was signed out of the Dominican Republic at a young age and at a position other than pitcher. A scout with the Seattle Mariners -- who had heard of Soriano through an acquaintance -- only needed 12 minutes to decide that the young outfielder was worth signing and offered Soriano a contract with a signing bonus of $5,000. Soriano struggled in rookie ball, and in his last year as an outfielder he slashed .167/.250/.204 over 122 plate appearances. Fortunately for Soriano, the Mariners saw his live arm and moved to convert him to a reliever, a position in which he has shined. He made his MLB debut in 2002 and earned an All-Star berth in 2010 with the Tampa Bay Rays, a season in which he also finished 8th in the Cy Young voting and 12th in the MVP voting. After 13 seasons with the Mariners, Braves, Rays, Yankees and Nationals, Soriano is a free agent entering his age-35 season.
3 Joe Nathan – Shortstop
Joe Nathan has enjoyed a highly successful 14-year career in the bigs as a reliever, making six All-Star teams while racking up 376 career saves to go with a 2.89 ERA. Nathan’s career could have taken a decidedly different turn, however, as the 6th-round draftee joined the Class-A Bellingham Giants as a shortstop, not as a pitcher. Though Nathan had pitched on occasion during his career at Stony Brook University, he was reluctant to convert to pitching when the Giants approached him about the change during his first year of professional baseball. He took a year off from baseball to finish his degree before agreeing to return to the Giants as a pitcher, a wise move given the way his career has ultimately worked out. Currently with the Detroit Tigers, Nathan has one year remaining on a 2-year, $20 million deal.
2 Sean Doolittle – First Base
Doolittle has had a great deal of success early in his big-league career, most recently being named to an All-Star team in 2014, a season in which he notched 22 saves while pitching to a 2.73 ERA and 2.25 xFIP across 62.2 innings in 2014. Doolittle was something of a baseball Renaissance man while playing for the University of Virginia, playing in the field at first base, then acting as the setup man before returning to his position in the field when the closer came on. The A’s drafted Doolittle as a position player, but injuries eventually forced Doolittle’s hand and he returned to pitching. Following three years in the minors as a first baseman, Doolittle made his MLB debut after just 26 innings pitched in the minors.
1 Kenley Jansen - Catcher
Jansen’s conversion from catching to pitching came back in 2009 when the Dodgers had to move the big righty to the 40-man roster or risk losing him in the Rule 5 Draft. The Dodgers moved him there conditionally, as the light-hitting catcher did not warrant such protection unless he agreed to a move to the mound. Jansen, though reluctant, agreed, and was demoted from Triple-A Albuquerque to Single-A Inland Empire to work with pitching coach Charlie Hough and become acquainted with the mound. The conversion worked, and now Jansen is the Dodgers' closer, having piled up 97 saves in three seasons in the closing role. On his career, he has averaged an obscene 14 strikeouts per nine innings and possesses a cut fastball that often draws comparisons to the cutter thrown by the great Mariano Rivera. Suffice it to say that the pitching conversion was a wise move for Jansen.
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