LAS VEGAS -- There is a reason why pitcher Johan Yan found himself spending the weekend in Las Vegas and getting a chance to watch Alexi Ogando pitch in person."I couldn't hit very well," Yan admitted. Yan has been showing lately that he can pitch, and the Rangers brought him here as one of a handful of Minor League pitchers to be called upon "just in case." Yan is also a former infielder with an excellent arm whom the Rangers have converted to a pitcher in their endless quest to build their cache of strong young arms and find the next Ogando. Rangers fans are familiar with Ogando's story, and so is Yan. Ogando was an outfielder in the Athletics organization and wasn't going anywhere as a hitter. But A.J. Preller, scouting for the Rangers in the Dominican Republic back in 2005, liked Ogando's arm in the outfield and envisioned him as a pitcher.
The Rangers took Ogando in the Minor League phase of the 2005 Rule 5 Draft and six years later, after resolving some personal problems, Ogando was pitching in an All-Star Game and a World Series."[Ogando] is somebody I look up to," Yan said. "That's a guy I watch and think of as an example." Ogando may have been "lightning in a bottle," but he is not the only one who has made a successful transition from position player to pitcher. The Giants drafted Joe Nathan in the sixth round of the 1995 Draft as a shortstop out of SUNY-Stony Brook and made him a pitcher. Blue Jays closer Sergio Santos was cut by two teams as a shortstop before turning to the mound. Cardinals reliever Jason Motte is a former catcher. "Alexi has a very unique story," general manager Jon Daniels said. "But our guys talk about it a lot on the scouting and player-development side. There are things you look for, not just arm strength but arm action, athleticism, makeup, anything that might factor into it. Our guys keep a whole list of guys, not only in our organization but other organizations, who might do it. But not everybody fits the bill or is willing to try it." Yan did so in 2009. The Rangers, after signing Yan out of the Dominican Republic in 2005, had high expectations for him as an offensive player, but when he hit .233 in the 2008 Arizona Rookie League, the decision was made to try him as a pitcher. Yan took to it quickly. The right-hander with a three-quarters sidearm delivery has a fastball that can hit 90 mph, a slider and a split-fingered fastball that can neutralize left-handed hitters. He had a breakthrough season in 2011, going 5-3 with a 1.52 ERA and 10 saves in 26 games at Class A Myrtle Beach. He was promoted to Double-A Frisco late in the year and pitched in 19 games, with a 0.34 ERA and two saves. "He was great," Myrtle Beach manager Jason Wood said. "He made great strides over the course of the season. By the end of the season, he was my go-to guy. The stuff he had was exciting. He's really effective against left-handers, even with his arm slot." Yan was exceptionally tough on right-handed hitters, holding them to a .183 average last year. But left-handers only hit .246 off him. "A lot of sidearm guys throw in the mid-80s," Daniels said. "He's got more arm strength. He throws with the same action but throws a lot harder. He has great makeup, and he's a good athlete who fields his position well. He has a chance to pitch in the big leagues if he continues to progress." So does Matt West, an infielder taken in the second round of the 2007 Draft out of high school who never developed as a hitter. So the Rangers asked him to switch to pitcher last season, and so far it has been a success. West, who hits 98 to 99 mph on the radar gun and has made progress with his secondary pitches, appeared in 23 games at Class A Spokane and went 1-2 with a 3.12 ERA. In 26 innings he allowed 23 hits and a walk while striking out 35. But not all switches work out. The Rangers acquired catcher Michael Thomas from the Red Sox on July 31 as one of three players in the Jarrod Saltalamacchia trade in the hopes of making him a pitcher. It did not work out. Catcher Leonel de los Santos has also struggled in the transition. "Sometimes the arm strength translates, and sometimes it doesn't," Daniels said. "The first thing we do is let it play out at [the player's] natural position. But when you've got a guy who has the arm, is athletic and has the right makeup for it, we certainly believe in putting him on the mound before making other decisions."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.