Rescued from what he considered bullpen purgatory, Arizona Diamondbacks righthander Byung-Hyun Kim is a starter this spring—and thriving. Despite a 2002 season that cemented the 24-year-old Korean's reputation as one of the National League's toughest closers—36 of 42 save chances converted and a 2.04 ERA—Kim has been moved into the rotation, as has long been his wish. To those who witnessed Kim's lightning-strikes-twice meltdowns in the 2001 World Series, which cost Arizona wins in Games 4 and 5, that's an understandable impulse, but those white-knuckle ninths weren't the only reason. "Part of it was a cultural thing," says manager Bob Brenly. "If you were in the bullpen in Korea, it's because you weren't good enough to be a starter. Even though he was one of the best in the game, he didn't like being a closer. He wants to start. Because of Matt Mantei's [improved] health, now's the time."
Mantei, 29, is fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery that cost him most of the last two seasons. This spring he's been gunning his high-90s fastball with the same effectiveness that enabled him to save 41 of 48 career chances for the Diamondbacks, and no one's happier about his comeback than Kim.
Besides having the mental makeup of a starter, Kim possesses a rubber arm, a necessity given his penchant for nibbling at batters with an average of 16.1 pitches per inning. On game days last season he'd play lengthy games of catch with batboys, throwing a variety of pitches at near-full strength, then retreat to Bank One Ballpark's indoor cages and continue throwing, winging balls off the backstop by himself if he couldn't find a partner. Still, durability is a concern. "He has to cut down on his pitch counts," Brenly says. "As a starting pitcher you cannot afford to have a 25-or 30-pitch inning early in the game and expect to be in there long enough to get a decision. The role change will help. As a closer a lot of times he came in with the game on the line, and there were certain hitters he just refused to give in to."
The early returns are positive: In his last two starts through Monday, Kim had thrown eight shutout innings, striking out seven and using only 95 pitches. In addition to his fastball and the looping, submarine slider with which he mowed down righthanders last season (they had a .198 batting average against him), Kim is working on a changeup to throw at lefties. "If he has done as well as he has the last few years in a role that he did not like," Brenly says, "I'm anxious to see what he is going to do in a role that he wants."
The Cincinnati Reds are conducting a similar experiment, but not at their closer's request. Righthander Danny Graves, who averaged 30 saves over the last four seasons, is being tried in the third slot of the rotation because the club believes that hard-throwing Scott Williamson has more typical closer's stuff. Graves is optimistic about the switch—he was 1-0 with a 1.89 ERA in four starts late last year—but he struggled out of the gate. In three spring starts he allowed 19 hits and nine runs over 9? innings, with an 8.68 ERA, and was not expected to make Wednesday's start because of inflammation in his right knee. Because a starter has a greater margin for error and can afford to scatter hits, Graves is using his slider and changeup more, rather than sticking solely with the sinker he predominantly threw out of the pen. "All of his pitches will get better as he uses them more," says manager Bob Boone. "It will make him more efficient as a starter."