Over the offseason the Mariners signed George Sherrill to serve as the bullpen’s go-to left-hander. I wrote about this a few weeks ago because I have a bad habit of writing about the Mariners bullpen, and caring about the Mariners bullpen. Bullpens are so much less of a big deal than any other part of a baseball team. But really, seriously. Have you ever thought about how easy it is to scrap together a bullpen? Teams do this all the time. The 2010 Diamondbacks had one of the worst bullpens of all time, then shortly thereafter had a good bullpen. The Rays had a fantastic bullpen in 2010, then had a completely different bullpen the next year that was perfectly passable. As well as being easily replaceable, relief pitchers are amongst earth’s most volatile, inconsistent creatures. A great reliever can become a terrible reliever just as quickly as a terrible left fielder can become a great reliever. Bullpens shouldn’t be of particular interest to anyone, but I guess I’m special.
Charlie Furbush is also special, in that he is (currently) a very good relief pitcher for the Seattle Mariners. This year’s bullpen has featured no shortage of interesting arms, thanks in large part to the early flameouts of Sherrill and fellow aging southpaw Hong-Shi Kuo. The Mariners had a lot of lefties in the mix during the early-going, but quickly were rid of those two veterans due to one’s injury and the other’s ineffectiveness. Regardless, the team quickly found itself carrying Charlie Furbush, LHP and Lucas Luetge, LHP. At the time, Oliver Perez was still a forgotten minor-league punchline but now, all of a sudden, Oliver Perez is a major leaguer again. A major leaguer with renewed velocity and the apparent potential for immediate success. Oliver Perez is also a left-hander, which brings us back to Furbush.
As far as names go, Fister-for-Furbush was the trade of the century. Fister-for-Furbush, of course, was the swap of a young starter for a package that included a young reliever who was immediately inserted into the starting rotation in Seattle. Furbush and Casper Wells were the immediate major league returns from the Doug Fister swap, and both were moderately effective over stretches in 2011. Just for stretches, however, and certainly not for the whole season. Furbush-as-a-starter was a replacement level baseball player who yielded a fairly ridiculous 1.82 HR/9, almost all of which were pulled. To be fair he did post a BABIP of .333, but that came far from excusing his 5.15 FIP. At the start of this season he was a reliever in AAA and nobody seemed to mind. Charlie Furbush, ladies and gentlemen. Now you remember.
Fast forward to the present day and Charlie Furbush is still a lefty and still a reliever, but now he’s amazing. Furbush has been in the majors ever since George Sherrill went down early on and has worked exclusively out of the pen. A few weeks ago I noted his fantastic rate stats but cautioned that the sample size was still small. That sample has more than doubled since then, and Furbush has only improved. After striking out the side while walking two last night, Furbush’s K/BB is an even 6.00. Six. Not only is that Furbush’s K/BB ratio, it’s the number of relievers in MLB who have bested him in that regard so far this year. In 32.1 innings this year, Furbush has posted 0.9 WAR. Furbush has provided as much value this year as Tom Wilhelmsen. Furbush has been infinitely more valuable than Erasmo Ramirez + Jason Vargas + Hector Noesi + Blake Beavan, since those four have combined to be worth nothing.
So in short, Oliver Perez and Lucas Luetge look like perfectly competent bullpen lefty relievers while Charlie Furbush simply looks like one of the best lefty relievers in baseball. Most of the rotation has been awful, and Furbush used to be a starter. See where this is going?
There are a couple of reasons to think the team might be better off keeping Furbush in the bullpen. First of all, he’s already a lights-out reliever. While obviously a good starter is more valuable than a good reliever, or even a great reliever, there’s no guarantee that Furbush would thrive in the rotation. Of course there’s also no guarantee he’ll continue to thrive in the bullpen, since nothing in this world is to be taken for granted. You know how the sky is blue? Tomorrow that could change. Nothing, I tell you. Nothing.
Also, Furbush has been a starter before, and as a starter, he was bad. Then again he was a bad reliever last year too, and like I said earlier, pitchers are all over the place in terms of maintaining their performance levels. Even if the team wanted to give him a rotation trial, he’d have to be stretched out. Furbush has gone multiple innings many a time this year, but that’s not enough to prepare for a spot in the five-man rotation. Stretching a pitcher out takes time, and even in a season like this [READ: a losing season], it might not make sense to disrupt a guy in a groove. Right now, King Charles Furbush is most definitely a guy in a groove.
But oh, the reasons to start him. He’s redundant in the bullpen. A lot of people view him as a starter currently forced into relief work. He throws hard. He throws accurate. He’s left-handed. The rotation is awful, and Kevin Millwood hurt himself as I was typing this, no, literally, he really did. The rotation might have an immediate opening, and unless the Mariners all of a sudden fall in love with Hisashi Iwakuma or decide that Blake Beavan isn’t bad [note: Blake Beavan is bad], Furbush would seem like the obvious choice for a rotation spot. He certainly deserves it, given how he’s pitched in 2012.
Charlie Furbush has been one of the highlights of a dismal Mariners pitching staff this season despite working out of the bullpen. He’s been a complete revelation, and has earned an opportunity to contribute even more. Hector Noesi is on thin ice and Kevin Millwood is a constant injury risk, so one’d think that Furbush will soon get his shot. Here’s to hoping that it actually happens.