Matthew Taylor: Reliever-to-rotation move used to be a baseball norm

Nowadays, it seems unusual for a reliever to take the mound as a starter. You typically don't serve shutdown sauce as a first course. Nevertheless, that's exactly what the Orioles are doing as Alfredo Simon, the 2010 team leader in saves, has recorded consecutive quality starts with 13.2 innings pitched and four runs allowed against the Indians and Angels. Meanwhile, there continues to be talk of Jim Johnson following Simon into the rotation.

The reliever-turned-starter model speaks to the patchwork nature of the Birds' rotation this season. To borrow a popular NFL phrase, it's become "next man up" for Baltimore pitchers. This all-hands-on-deck approach in 2011 was once the norm in Baltimore and the sport generally, but for different reasons.

Jim Palmer, the greatest pitcher in Orioles history and a vocal proponent of Johnson's potential as a starter, began his career in 1965 as a 19-year-old reliever and spot starter. Palmer appeared in 27 games that season, only six of which were starts. He finished more games as a rookie (seven) than he started. Palmer then started 30 games in his second season, posting a 15-10 record and a 3.46 ERA.

A decade later, in 1976, 24-year-old O's lefty Mike Flanagan started half of the 20 games in which he appeared. Flanagan, like Palmer, finished seven games. One season after splitting time between the starting rotation and the bullpen, Flanagan again mirrored Palmer with an identical 15-10 record in his second full season alongside a 3.64 ERA.

This is a far cry from the current system where pitchers are groomed to be starters - if not from birth than at least from the moment they demonstrate arm strength while shaking their baby rattle. It's reflective of the changing nature of baseball philosophy that many of the Orioles' greatest pitchers had to prove their stuff in a relief role before getting the starting nod.

Palmer is the Orioles' all-time wins leader with 268 while Flanagan is fifth with 141 victories. The two Orioles legends are surrounded in the top 10 list for wins by guys who likewise spent time in the bullpen before taking on a full-time starter's role.

Dave McNally, who is second overall with 181 wins, started 20 of the 29 games in which he appeared for the O's in 1963; Mike Cuellar, fourth with 143 wins, made only seven starts in 32 games for St. Louis in 1964 and finished six games; Scott McGregor, sixth with 138 wins, made 29 appearances for the Birds in 1977 and finished more than twice as many games as he started (11 to 5); Milt Pappas, ninth with 110 wins, started 21 of the 31 games he pitched as a 19-year-old O's rookie in 1958; and Dennis Martinez, 10th with 108 wins, started 13 games while finishing 19 of them during his 42 appearances in 1977.

It's easy to watch the O's cast about for starters this season and conclude that the reliever-turned-starter model is a desperate gamble. It used to be a natural step on the path to greatness.

Matthew Taylor blogs about the Orioles at Roar from 34. His ruminations about the Birds appear as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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