What to make of Chase Johnson moving to bullpen

On Wednesday, Richmond Flying Squirrels announcer Jay Burnham announced a surprising move within the team's pitching construct. Right-handers Chase Johnson and Dan Slania, both selections by the Giants during the 2013 draft, would be switching positions. Starting pitcher Johnson would be moving to the bullpen, to be replaced by Slania, a career reliever.

Without comment from Giants' personnel, what are we to make of this change-up? First, it's important to note that Johnson was a full-time reliever at Cal Poly, where he collected eight saves as a sophomore, before being drafted by San Francisco. Immediately, he was converted into a starter, making 67 career appearances with 60 total starts. After three middle relief outings with the AZL Giants in 2013, Johnson was transferred to Salem-Keizer where he made 10 starts, and he has been in the starting rotation with each successive team since.

Slania was another full-time collegiate reliever. He led the Cape Cod League with 10 saves the summer between his sophomore and junior seasons at Notre Dame, and like Johnson, never started a single game in college. But Slania transitioned into his pro career holding onto the reliever role. He had 141 career appearances with four different Giants' affiliates, all of which were out of the bullpen mostly in late innings.

So it came as quite a shocker when Slania was listed as Wednesday's starter for Richmond — a game that was Johnson's slot in the rotation. Experiment or not, Slania quickly quieted any potential naysayers, absolutely dealing in five scoreless, two-hit innings in which he struck out eight. He was a strike-throwing machine, throwing 48 strikes, 10 of which were swing-throughs, among a total of 65 pitches. Johnson, meanwhile, pitched the eighth inning, hitting a batter and striking out another to go along with a ground out and a fly out.

Johnson had quietly made his way through the Giants' system, bursting into the spotlight toward the end of the 2015 season with a six-inning, 14-strikeout performance against Lancaster. He reportedly touched 100 in that game, something he came close to doing at Cal Poly but had never really displayed while building stamina to be a starter with San Francisco. The move, if permanent, appears to be an attempt to utilize Johnson's upper-90s fastball in a reliever role, where he can really reach back without worrying about maintaining arm strength for future innings.

And it's not even a matter of Johnson struggling as a starter. In seven starts this year, he owned a 3.57 ERA and a 1.309 WHIP, which are almost identical to his career numbers (3.67 ERA, 1.274 WHIP). One noticeable difference for Johnson in 2016 is his decreased strikeout rate, sitting at 5.3 per nine innings after his previous season low was 7.7 in Augusta during the 2014 season.

The starter/reliever debate has been present with Johnson ever since his third-round selection, with many scouts continuing to suggest his major-league ceiling was as a late-inning guy due to his increased fastball velocity within shorter spurts, as well as a doubt of his secondary material.

Now, in regards to Slania? Seems crazy to think that a guy who has never started a game since at least his high school days (his senior year was 2009-2010) would be thrown into that role, especially in the middle of the season. Maybe it's something Slania and coaches have been talking about or working on during instructs or spring training throughout the years, but at this point that's just speculation. Overall, the starter-to-reliever move is more common, and seemingly easier than the opposite. So kudos to Slania for handling it, at least statistically speaking, with such ease in his first attempt.

And again, like Johnson, Slania had been solid in his previous role. So there was no obvious, glaring problem that would make it look like a change needed to be made. He strikes out 9.4 hitters per nine innings, including an 11.4 mark in San Jose last season, and walks only 2.3 batters per nine. His 5.32 ERA entering Wednesday's start doesn't necessarily reflect how well he's been pitching this year, considering his WHIP was hovering right near 1.000, with a K/9 rate above 11 and a stellar 9.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. When hits come in bunches, or with runners in scoring position, the ERA tends to skyrocket. 

This will be an interesting development moving forward over the next few weeks. Will Johnson's average fastball velocity climb, like I'm sure Giants personnel are expecting? Can Slania build upon his 64-pitch starting debut and get stretched out to near 80-90 pitches? And will it improve Johnson's stock as a prospect? It's possible he's more valuable, trade wise, as a reliever who can easily sit high-90s with a quickly-improving breaking ball. Barring a trade, and a successful re-transition back to relief work, Johnson could see major league action as early as this September. Giants staffers really like his stuff. As for Slania, that's a massive unknown. But certainly a fascinating one.

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