RotoWire Partners

Joe Sheehan's Pitching Picks: Special Excerpt For RotoWire

Joe Sheehan

Joe Sheehan

Joe Sheehan writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

Joe Sheehan has been a frequent guest star at RotoWire.com. He currently hangs his hat at Sports Illustrated. But he also has his own newsletter at JoeSheehan.com, which we highly recommend subscribing to. Here's an excerpt from his recent work highlighting the pitchers he expects to exceed their lower expectations.

------
Here are some guys I think could be newsmakers during the season:

Felipe Paulino, Rockies. The single biggest steal of the winter, Paulino was acquired for nothing, a 32-year-old utility infielder likely to be non-tendered. For that meager price, the Rockies got a pitcher who has struck out just shy of 20% of the batters he has faced in the majors, with a better than 2:1 K/BB, and who had the third-best fastball of any starting pitcher in the majors last year. Pauiino's heater averaged 95.5 mph, behind only Ubaldo Jimenez and Stephen Strasburg. Velocity isn't everything, but when you look at the starters had the best fastballs in the majors, it's clear that it is something: Paulino was the only starting pitcher in the majors to average 94 mph on his fastball and not have a good year.

Paulino's season-ending ERA of 5.11 is misleading, inflated by five outings out of the bullpen, two disastrous, at the end of the season when he was working his way back from a strained rotator cuff. Through June 20, when he went on the DL, he had a 4.40 mark with seven quality starts in his previous nine outings. Paulino seemed be finding his way when the injury hit, although his 1-8 win-loss mark -- which eventually went to 1-9, and a career 6-21 tally -- hid the progress.

Despite his skills, Paulino isn't guaranteed a rotation job with the Rockies. He starts camp as the #6 starter, waiting out injury or ineffectiveness for an opportunity to get back to where he was in June, If you squint, you can see in Paulino some of the same raw material that Jorge de la Rosa had when he arrived in Colorado, raw material that Bob Apodaca has been able to nurse into a strong #3 starter and a whole lot of money. Similarly, Ubaldo Jimenez represents the extreme upside of Paulino, a pitcher with a terrific fastball who needs to improve his command to make the leap. Expecting Paulino to have Jimenez's peak is a a bit much, but the combination of a pitcher with his talent and a pitching coach with a demonstrated ability to develop it makes Paulino, for me, what Trevor Cahill was a year ago: the guy I'm targeting in every league, every format.

James McDonald, Pirates. The Dodgers screwed up McDonald's career, essentially giving up on the lanky right-hander when he opened the 2009 season with awful command issues. McDonald walked 14 men in 13 1/3 innings in four April starts, and made just one start with the team after that before being dealt away for about 11 minutes of Octavio Dotel's time last August. Immediately plugged into the rotation by the Pirates, McDonald was erratic -- just five quality starts in 11 outings -- but the highs were very high, and both his velocity and movement were impressive. If there's a concern, it's that a lot of his success came against lesser offenses, particularly in September, so you want to take his 3.52 ERA and 22.7% strikeout rate with at least a half-grain of salt. Like all Pirates pitchers, McDonald will be hamstrung by a poor infield defense that will inflate his hits allowed and ERA; of the group, though, he is best-equipped to work around the problem because he does miss bats.

Rick Porcello, Tigers. 2011's top post-hype sleeper, Porcello did not take the projected step forward in 2010, striking out just 12% of the batters he faced, a tick less than he whiffed as a 20-year-old rookie. He suffered a June demotion thanks to both his own issues as well as some bad luck -- a .345 BA allowed on balls in play, which was a bit high for his batted-ball distribution. When you're striking out one of every ten men you face and running a 6.14 ERA, it's hard to complain about BABIP.

Porcello was better after his return, as much for his complete elimination of walks as for any improvement in missing bats. Porcello issued just 14 unintentional walks in 92 1/3 innings in his 14 post-demotion starts, leading to a .294 OBP allowed and a 4.00 ERA. He allowed fewer line drives and more ground balls, but he still wasn't striking out enough hitters: 51/374, 13.6%. His ERA was helped by very low BABIP and HR/FB numbers.

Despite the mixed statistical bag, I'm buying on Porcello. He's still heavily reliant on his fastball -- he throws it more than 70% of the time, one of just six starters above that number -- which is the right move developmentally for a 21-year-old, but may be hindering his effectiveness. Porcello throws 90-91, which isn't hard enough to get by throwing as many fastballs as he does. (The only MLB starter to throw more than 2/3 fastballs at a lower average velocity was Doug Fister.) We should see him continue to work a breaking ball, and an improving changeup, into his repertoire this year, which should enable him to get more swinging strikes -- a real problem for him so far in his career. Given that we've seen him take a step forward with his command, and the Tigers have been good about managing his workload, some consolidation should become evident in his stat line this year.

Carlos Zambrano, Cubs. No, really. Do you know he's just 29 years old (he'll be 30 in June)? That he's never had an ERA above 3.95? That his strikeout rate is essentially the same as it was when everyone loved him in 2004 and 2007? As with McDonald, the perception of Zambrano is in no small part a function of managerial malpractice, this time the ridiculous decision by Lou Piniella to move Zambrano, his best starter, to the bullpen last April to solve a too-many-starters issue. There was a perception that Zambrano was pitching poorly, when in fact he'd had one brutal start on Opening Day and three middling ones -- two of them quality starts -- afterwards. His 7.45 ERA made it seem like he was pitching worse than he was, and the decision to move him to the pen was one of the worst uses of early-season stats I have ever seen.

Zambrano threw just 228 pitches over 13 innings in the six weeks following the move, a complete waste of his ability. It wasn't just that he was a reliever -- he was a low-leverage reliever, pitching frequently with the Cubs trailing or up significantly. To his credit -- and to everyone's surprise -- he handled the situation well. It wasn't until he returned to the rotation that his famous temper got the best of him. Zambrano exploded in the dugout during a June 25 game, apparently upset with Derrek Lee's defense, and earned himself a suspension that lasted five weeks. When he returned, he made three low-leverage relief appearances and was finally put back in the rotation, for good, on August 9. While he posted a 1.41 ERA in his last 11 starts, he was not remotely that good: a .236 BABIP and just one homer allowed were way out of line, and he walked 40 men in 70 1/3 innings.

The lesson I take from Zambrano's 2010, all of it, is that he's the same pitcher he's been his entire career. He gets a lower groundball rate than he used to, and he strikes out a couple fewer men than he did at his peak, and he's someone who has to be managed a bit as a person. His low innings total last season wasn't about health, it was about mismanagement and a temper tantrum. If you just project his work as a starter to a full season, you get a 3.18 ERA in 180 innings, with 164 strikeouts. What I expect is a higher ERA -- but still below average -- and more innings with more strikeouts. Expect Zambrano to be one of the true pitching bargains in 2011.

Four other names to remember heading to your draft tables this month:

Michael Pineda, Mariners. The best pitcher the Ms have developed since Felix Hernandez, Pineda will benefit from Safeco and the Mariners' strong outfield defense. Even if he gets just a half-season of work, he'll have an impact.

Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals. Before Stephen Strasburg, there was Zimmermann, who like Strasburg suffered an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. He struck out 20% of the batters he faced in his return late last season, and slots in as the team's #1 starter until Strasburg comes back. The wins won't be there, but everything else will.

Bud Norris, Astros. A slightly smaller version of Felipe Paulino, Norris has 212 strikeouts in 209 1/3 career innings (22.7% rate). After spending a month on the DL with tendinitis, Norris closed the year with a 4.17 ERA in his last 18 starts, and seven quality starts in his last ten. I'd rather have Paulino, but there's some upside to Norris.

Travis Wood, Reds. Mostly listed so I can point out that the failure to start Wood in the NLDS was a huge mistake by Dusty Baker, one of the few he made during a very good year. Wood puts a ton of balls in the air and needs to be protected by a strong outfield defense (the Reds have two great gloves in center and right) and preferably a good pitchers' park (not so much). Wood's 3.51 ERA last year may not be reparable, as he was a bit lucky on contact, but there's a good pitcher here who is worth rostering not so much for 2011 but for what he could end up as two years down the road.

If you liked this story, we highly recommend you sign up for Sheehan's newsletter at JoeSheehan.com.