Let's haul out the crystal ball this week to see if we can uncover some pitchers likely to post a big second half, and then next week, I will look at the flip side, and discuss those hurlers who started off strong, but figure to cool off as the summer heats up.
There are many reasons a pitcher can turn things around, and turn a very mundane season into a sparkling finish. It could be an experience factor as a young pitcher learns the ropes at the major league level, it could be the recovery from an injury, a trade to a better situation, adjustments in mechanics or pitch selection, or a combination of any of these. The important thing is you want to identify the arms most likely to step it up, both for the rest of this season, if you are in the hunt, and for future seasons, if you are in a keeper/dynasty league or are looking to rebuild for next year.
Twelve arms I feel could make a BIG difference in the second half:
Brandon Morrow (TOR)
Upside:You probably needed to jump on him before he started hinting at what could come as the season progressed, but if you can still get him at a reasonable price, now is the time. His motion is more refined this year, and he looks both healthy and hungry. While he does pitch in the ever-dangerous AL East, he is one of a handful of pitchers with the stuff to dominate even the best opposition. The paramount strikeout pitcher, he is an "ace" in the making.
Downside: The very high strikeout rate and wicked stuff come with a tendency to run up higher pitch counts. That can lead to shorter outings, more exposure to a shaky bullpen, and occasionally a few too many base runners if the walks increase. He will still have the odd blow up, but his stuff allows him to get out of most trouble spots.
Derek Holland (TEX)
Upside: He has the potential to be a left-handed Morrow, but Holland is not for the faint of heart right now. He has some of the best stuff in the American League, but he also pitches half his starts in the Arlington band box, and he can be prone to explosions when he isn't on his game. There is awesome upside here, and he is hinting that he could be locking in. He's a good risk now and a potential goldmine for future seasons.
Downside: Holland still struggles with consistency and that has allowed him to frustrate fantasy owners who always seem to have him reserved when he throws a gem and active when he has one of those nights to forget. Be prepared for a bad outing, but it will become increasingly difficult to sit him and risk missing the dominating performances.
Jordan Zimmermann (WAS)
Upside: Zimmermann is just warming up to what promises to be a lethal 1-2 punch in the Nats 2012 rotation when Stephen Strasburg returns. With each 2011 start he gets more comfortable, and the surgery becomes more of a distant memory. With his electric stuff, he benefits from a pitcher-friendly park and a team that is young and very enthusiastic which actually seems to feed his intensity level.
Downside: The only downside for 2011 is the likelihood of an innings limit. Zimmermann is returning from Tommy John surgery, and the Nationals are probably not going to take unnecessary chances with a big piece of the franchise's future. It's likely he won't pitch far into September given the innings he has already accumulated this season.
Jair Jurrjens (ATL)
Upside: I touted him all spring as a big comeback candidate, but even I didn't expect the performance he has put on in the first half. Most impressively Jurrjens is well beyond his age and experience level regarding the fine art of finesse pitching. He works the corners, mixes his pitches exceptionally well, and is very calm and collected on the mound.
Downside: Obviously he is something of a longshot to keep up his early season pace. He doesn't miss enough bats to always get out of jams (although he does seem to make the great pitches when he needs them most) or provide fantasy owners with a plus contribution to the strikeout column so he does have a somewhat reduced value.
Chris Carpenter (STL)
Upside: He really struggled early on, but made some adjustments that have helped quite a bit. His velocity is still there and now that he is using the overhand curve more and the cutter less, hitters are finding it more difficult to pick him up. This wily veteran is far too good to scuffle all season, so expect a much better second half. His most recent starts suggest he may be picking up momentum and that makes him even more attractive.
Downside: Being a "wily veteran" also means you are getting older. At some point, the years of strain on the arm will result in reduced ability, even when otherwise healthy. Carpenter could be entering the stage of his career where he has to evolve from a power pitcher to a pitcher who relies as much on mound savvy. That can be a difficult time for many pitchers, but he appears to have the necessary make-up to accomplish it.
Michael Pineda (SEA)
Upside: Some young starters come up and enjoy success until the league figures them out. Those with more refined tools, and they are a clear minority, come up and pitch effectively long term. Pineda appears to fall into that latter category. His stuff is clearly good enough, but his ability to hold something back, to keep hitters off balance with so many speed variations and location changes is what sets him apart. And, playing in his home ballpark only underscores the likelihood of a bright future.
Downside: The Mariners do not have the most prolific offense. While they are a solid defensive team, they won't score many runs and that could cost Pineda some wins. Further, while he profiles as an innings eater with his strength and stamina, it is always a challenge for a young pitcher to survive the grind of a full major league season, and he will of course have to continue adjusting as hitters adjust to him.
Hiroki Kuroda (LAD)
Upside: He's one of the best pitchers no one ever talks about and he might get a chance to be more fantasy valuable. Like several other solid arms, Kuroda has been mentioned in trade talks (Detroit?). He remains a good ERA, WHIP and strikeout pitcher, but he could be even better with a more productive offense behind him. He is a "quiet" asset in that he is not flashy so he is often undervalued. He would be a trade target since you will get good numbers if nothing changes, and it could be better if his surrounding change.
Downside: If a trade becomes a reality, it can be good and/or bad. Several teams who might be shopping for additional pitching play in hitter-friendly ballparks, and while the added offense could add to his wins, the less favorable park could inflate his ERA a bit. Still, the wins would be nice, and his WHIP and strikeout rate could remain stable or even improve if the new team offers a better defense.
Phil Hughes (NYY)
Upside: A horrendous start with a significant drop in velocity scared many fantasy owners away from Hughes. However, a stint on the disabled list allowed him to recapture that lost velocity, and his first start back showed that he can probably again be a very solid starting pitcher for a very good team. That makes him a very good second half risk. He has a track record of wearing down later in the year, but the amount of time he spent out of the rotation might make that a non-factor this season.
Downside: Rust might be the most obvious concern, even if he is past the dead arm problems that plagued him through the first half. In essence he is now getting his spring training work on the job and it could take him awhile to get back in the groove. It does appear he is healthy and mechanically sound so hopefully shaking off any accumulated rust will be a reasonably quick process.
Matt Garza (CHC)
Upside: A few bad innings/starts have really darkened his 2011 stat line, but he is ringing up a lot of strikeouts, and even the Cubs might not be able to keep him down all year. Add some trade rumors that could potentially send him to a contender and Garza might become a pretty attractive target. I would be surprised if he is traded since he was billed as such an important acquisition prior to this season, but it's still reasonable to expect a better second half from the talented right-hander.
Downside: He pitches for the Cubs. Alright, I admit to a negative bias against Cubs in general and Cubs pitchers in particular. Wrigley Field has its own set of challenges for pitchers on any given day, and the Cubs find a lot of ways to lose games - and some of them aren't very pretty. Overcoming those concerns takes a special talent, and I am hoping Garza can rise to the occasion.
Rick Porcello (DET)
Upside: He's a much more speculative pick. He has had severe ups and downs all season, but Detroit recently changed pitching coaches and a new approach or outlook can sometimes have a profound effect on the pitching staff. Given that potential impact, you might also want to include Max Scherzer on this list as a name to watch, just in case Tiger turnarounds are imminent. As for Porcello, he is a very young pitcher trying to find his way in a pressure-filled world and he is constantly adjusting to new challenges. He is capable of going on a nice run if it all comes together.
Downside: Just relist all of the upside points. He may have trouble adjusting to the new pitching coach (early results suggest that won't be the case) and he is still a starting pitcher who was rushed to the major leagues. As talented as he is, there are plenty of things he would have learned if allowed to progress through the minor league system that he now has to pick up on the fly. Still, he has the talent to warrant consideration.
Cory Luebke (SD)
Upside: I don't normally bump a pitcher way up just because he toils in the pitcher's paradise that is Petco Park, but Luebke qualifies for a look based on both the home field and because of his skill set. He was probably held back earlier because of the Padres desperate need for a southpaw in the bullpen, but he's in the rotation now, and he is likely to stay there. He can be relatively successful if a fantasy owner asks him to take a regular turn, and he could be a huge boost for teams able to spot his favorable/home starts.
Downside: He is relatively inexperienced, but as long as he keeps the ball down and commands the zone, he should be a consistently productive starter. There is some chance the Padres could opt to move him back to the pen, but the longer he manages to stay in the rotation, the less likely that would become.
Dustin McGowan (TOR)
Upside: Do you get a rush when you pick up a player or draft a guy, and all your fellow owners look at you like you are crazy? Here's your guy. McGowan was a pure stud in the making before all the injuries. His velocity is back (95-97 mph) and the devastating slider is coming. He is currently on a rehab assignment and if all goes well, he could be a huge boost to the Toronto (and your) rotation in August and September. When right, he is a power pitcher with high strikeout rate upside and the ability to dominate a game.
Downside: He hasn't pitched in a major league game since mid-2008, but always keep in mind, he was a rapidly rising star before the shoulder and elbow problems sidelined him. The Jays are building him up slowly - his last rehab start ended with two outs in the third when he reached a hard cap 45 pitches. He is obviously at risk for a setback in his recovery, there is likely to be some rust when he does make it back, and he will likely be handled cautiously, but oh the potential to make a huge splash!
Some short takes:
Jonathan Sanchez (SF)- He is one of the most dominant pitchers in the game when he is throwing strikes, and that almost bought him a spot on the second half upside starters listed above. Barry Zito is predictably not maintaining the hot start he had when returning the disabled list so Sanchez could get back in the saddle soon.
Brian Matusz (BAL)- The enigma that is the Baltimore pitching staff these days. He entered the season as the "ace" and after an injury, rehab and a hugely disappointing return he was sent to Triple-A to get it back. His most recent start there suggests he may gradually be returning to form. Don't write him off just yet.
Ted Lilly (LAD)- I have never been huge Lilly fan, but he is a lot better than he has shown so far. Dodger stadium is a bonus, and he has been hinting that better days could be ahead. With the Dodgers lineup he might not be quite the boost you would hope for, but he could be a decent buy low candidate for the back of your rotation.
Ublado Jimenez (COL)- Revisiting our theme of trade candidates, a move out of Coors Field could really boost his value. He also started off very slowly this year and his recent performance suggests he could be a viable target even if he stays with Colorado, but if you can acquire him, any move to a more pitcher-friendly home would be a bonus.
Erik Bedard (SEA)- He should return from the disabled list soon, possibly as early as the end of this week. Don't forget about him. Even though a start this weekend would come against Boston, he was really sharp before hitting the disabled list, and the injury was a minor knee injury, not elbow or shoulder related.
Andrew Miller (BOS)- He had some great prospect-like numbers in the minors before the Red Sox called him up for yet another trial. He ran off three wins, but the peripherals suggested it was mostly smoke and mirrors. He then broke the mirror last Friday. Miller still can't throw strikes, and he should fade from view again soon.
Wade Davis (TB)- There are quite a few naysayers popping up after he struggled a bit following his promising debut. However, you can put me in the believers column. I think the forearm problems he recently experienced could have slowed his progress, and in fact, he too almost made the 12 to watch list. He should be back soon.
Joe Nathan (MIN)- He might not be quite 100% yet, but the Twins couldn't wait any longer with Matt Capps going up in flames with some regularity. Nathan looks steady enough to do a good job although they may not want to overwork him. If he needs a day off, Glen Perkins would likely fill in, Welcome back, Joe.
Jason Isringhausen (NYM)- The swan song has officially begun. One of the best closers in history (with my admitted bias for Izzy) might now get his chance to rekindle the magic, at least long enough to clear the 300 career save mark. Bobby Parnell is likely the long term guy but will probably share saves with Izzy over the short term.
Koji Uehara (BAL) - Don't the Orioles have to admit soon that Kevin Gregg is not the answer as an end gamer? Uehara is an infinitely better option even though he is a bit fragile. The Baltimore rotation is in such disarray they might not have too many opportunities to choose between Uehara and Gregg, but hope for the right choice.
Carlos Marmol (CHC) -Few closers have the devastating impact of Marmol when he is going good, and few can approach his capacity for monumental blow ups when things aren't quite in synch. It's likely he will soon get every chance to regain his closer's job, but he is at the bottom of his performance graph right now.
Brandon League (SEA)- David Aardsma is making some progress in his rehab - wait, that was last week. It was just revealed that Aardsma needs Tommy John surgery which would put him out for this year and most if not all of 2012. If there were any doubts about League keeping the job all season, those would appear to be gone.
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