The last two-point-something seasons can only be described as a whirlwind for Bradley Peacock. In 2011, he turned from a nondescript ex-41st round pick into a near-consensus top 75 prospect by striking out 177 hitters in 146 and 2/3 innings across AA and AAA and keeping his free pass rates in check. He debuted with the Nationals that September and held his own, and was expected to compete for a spot in Washington's starting rotation in the spring of 2012. However, as is often the case with prospects, things did not go according to plan.
Peacock was traded that winter in the blockbuster deal that brought Cy Young runner-up Gio Gonzalez to Washington, and a package of four high end prospects- Derek Norris, Tom Milone, A.J. Cole and Peacock- to Oakland. Norris has since locked himself into a share of the starting catcher job for the Athletics. Milone has been a rotation staple, and Cole was traded back to Washington in the three-team swap involving Michael Morse after an up-and-down year on the farm. Peacock struggled mightily in the Oakland system. In a full year at AAA Sacramento, he could not find the plate and his trademark plus curveball did not show the same sharpness it had in 2011. Dissatisfied, Billy Beane shipped the struggling starter to Houston as part of the return for Jed Lowrie, a decision he likely has not had second thoughts about to this point.
At the start of Houston's spring training, few picked Peacock to assume fifth starter duties. The role was presumed to be Jordan Lyles's to lose- but he did. Alex White, another leading contender, fell victim to a severe arm injury. John Ely, a dark horse candidate in his own right, could not get his feet under him in the Grapefruit League and was sent to AAA. Peacock, who had a solid spring, was the last man standing, but he remained an enigma. He looked better than he had in 2012 with Oakland, but he still struggled to find the plate. He registered 93s on radar guns with his heater and his curveball had regained the harsh, tumbling break that once made AA hitters look silly, but he racked up bases-on-balls in droves.
Finally a big league starter in 2013, Peacock rose to the occasion early and strung together some good lines despite struggling to remain in games into the later innings. He flashed brilliance, but in his last few outings his weaknesses have caught up with him. His lack of fastball command or a viable third pitch have left him exposed by big league hitters who are less apt to chase a two-strike curveball out of the zone, and his low nineties velocity cannot play up when paired with his fringy changeup. During the majority of his 2013 innings, Brad Peacock has not quite looked like a major league caliber starting pitcher. But, that is not to say that he has not looked like a major league quality pitcher- he has.
In any given prospect class, there are polarizing young pitchers that split the scouting community. Prospectors will always have Chris Archers and Carlos Martinezes to debate on- where one man sees a future number two starter with two dominant pitches and a future-average third offering, another sees a reliever who is "a thrower not a pitcher." For now, Brad Peacock might be a bit more of a thrower. He is truly a two-pitch guy, but in the bullpen, players have reached great heights with even less.
Peacock being transitioned to relief should not be seen as damning to his stock as a major leaguer, and there is plenty of reason to believe he can flourish in that role. His velocity should see an uptick, and his curveball will be even more ferocious when hitters only get to see him once. The traits of an excellent late-inning man are in place with Peacock, and the Astros should be comfortable throwing him into the fire, especially given the current state of the bullpen. Plus, there is always the possibility that Peacock finds his command as a reliever and proves ready for another starting opportunity in the future.
With the decision to move Peacock to a new role, another choice arises. A fifth starter is still needed, and there is no immediate answer as to who that might be. The two names that come to mind initially are Paul Clemens and Travis Blackley, a righty and a lefty, both of whom the Astros have entrusted with throwing 3-4 innings in relief this season. Clemens last pitched on Friday and Blackley on Saturday, so both would be well-rested by the time Peacock's old spot in the rotation comes around on May 2nd.
Other options could be Jarred Cosart and Nick Tropeano, two of the more highly regarded arms in the Astros' farm system who are both enjoying highly successful minor league campaigns so far. By bringing either up this early in the year the club would sacrifice a season of team control, but they did the same with Robbie Grossman so it is not outside the realm of possibility. That said, both could likely use a bit more seasoning before being given big league trials- especially when there are capable arms already on the 25-man roster.
Paul Clemens has built a fan-favorite reputation since arriving in the big leagues, thanks in equal parts to his mustache and his gutsy dislocated pinky performance, and should be considered the odds-on favorite to take Peacock's spot in the short term, if for no other reason than that giving him the role comes with minimal opportunity cost. Using Blackley deprives the pen of one of its best lefties, and Cosart and Tropeano both have arbitration clocks to consider. Piecing together a capable rotation in Houston this season is an ongoing adventure, and this is just the next chapter.