What should we expect from Stephen Strasburg?
The biggest story on the pitching side and perhaps the biggest story in the game right now, other than the pennant races, is the impending return of Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg, of course, underwent Tommy John surgery in early September of last year and is on track to return right around the one-year anniversary of the operation. Strasburg lasted five innings in his last rehab start and overall has a 25:3 K:BB in 14.1 innings. He'll get one more rehab start this week, and assuming all goes well, his return is slated for Sept. 6 against the Dodgers. Assuming he stays on a regular schedule, Strasburg's 2011 sets up as follows:
Sept. 6 - vs. Dodgers
Sept. 11 - vs. Astros
Sept. 16 - vs. Marlins
Sept. 21 - at Phillies
Sept. 26 - at Florida
It wouldn't be a shock to see the Nationals push back his Phillies start so he can pitch another home game (Braves), but for now this is the expected schedule. Strasburg likely will be limited to 70-80 pitches for his first three starts (my speculation), perhaps getting up to 90 by year's end. A reasonable projection for what goes on his 2012 Topps card?:
24 innings, 2.75 ERA, 38 strikeouts, 10 walks, 1.05 WHIP, 2-1 record
Bringin' the Heat
I've always been a huge velocity proponent, as while movement and secondary offerings are critical, it's easier to learn those things than learn how to increase your velocity from 88 mph to 94. Here are a few pitchers throwing hard but not getting the results of some of the other top pitchers:
(MPH rates come from Fangraphs' last 30 days pitches.)
Felipe Paulino, KC (95.3) - No starting pitcher in baseball is throwing harder than Paulino in the last 30 days. He could stand to further develop his secondary offerings and generate a few more groundballs, but other than Danny Duffy, I'd take Paulino over all other current K.C. Starters.
Alfredo Simon, BAL (94.5) - I still expect Simon to ultimately wind up in the bullpen and don't have him on my radar as a possible future mid-rotation starter.
Esmil Rogers, COL (94.0) - A 4.8 BB/9 isn't good, but Rogers generates a fair share of groundballs, so he could be a future No. 4 type.
Brad Penny, DET (93.5) - If you're going to go all-in on Penny, good luck.
Luke Hochevar, KC (93.2) - There have been worse No. 1 overall picks, but he's best-suited to a No. 5 starter slot.
Henry Sosa, HOU (93.1) - Former Giants prospect has allowed two runs in his last 12 innings. Ceiling is No. 4 starter.
James McDonald, PIT (92.9) - 27 starts, 4.11 ERA. If he can cut his walks, McDonald has No. 3 upside.
John Lackey, BOS (92.4) - 92.4 mph isn't overly fast for an average fastball, but this is notable because Lackey before the All-Star break was throwing about two mph less than that on average. His results have improved from a 6.84 ERA to 4.71 after the break, though walks and home runs continue to threaten to push that number higher. Lackey is still a risky play in 12-team mixed leagues, but the additional velocity at least is encouraging.
2012 Closer Sleepers
Unless your league has holds or saves-plus-holds as a category, fantasy value for relievers is all about relative proximity to the closer role. Let's look at a few situations that are unsettled heading into the offseason. Upon further review, this is a longer list than I initially anticipated.
Orioles - Mike Gonzalez has been traded to Texas, and with Jim Johnson likely headed to the rotation next year, Kevin Gregg has a clear path to the 2012 closer role. Then again, he's Kevin Gregg, so look for the O's to bring in additional help this winter.
White Sox - Sergio Santos has been great, bad and good lately, but manager Ozzie Guillen has endorsed Santos as his 2012 closer. That said, it's no given that Guillen returns to Chicago next season, and Santos has yet to last a full year as a big-league closer. With Chris Sale likely headed to the rotation, Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain and whomever else is brought in next year could have a spirited battle for the job next spring.
Reds - The Reds have a $12 million option on Francisco Cordero next year that, despite his solid 2011, is likely to be declined. Perhaps they offer him a 2/15-type deal, but we could have a new close in the form of Aroldis Chapman should the Reds decide to keep him in the bullpen again.
Indians - Chris Perez has 30 saves, a 2.79 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, but his 34:24 K:BB (51.2 innings) is far from ideal for a closer. Tony Sipp and Vinny Pestano are relievers to watch for 2012 saves.
Marlins - Leo Nunez is likely looking at a salary in the $5 million range next year. This despite a 4.55 ERA. Nunez, though, does have a 52:18 K:BB in 57.1 innings, and with the Marlins set to move into a new ballpark, the revenue could be there to keep him. If, as I expect, Nunez is gone next year, Steve Cishek is a candidate to take over (three saves and a 2.79 ERA), but for now, Nunez appears to still be the closer for whatever reason. Confused? Me too. Edward Mujica could factor into the 2012 mix as well, but if you have to pick one guy for next year, go with Cishek.
Astros - Mark Melancon has a leg up on the 2012 closer job, but Wilton Lopez could factor in as well. A sleeper I like is David Carpenter, who averages nearly 94 mph with his fastball and who has a 53:16 K:BB in 50 innings over three levels this year.
L.A. Angels - Jordan Walden has both a great fastball and the league lead in blown saves. Still, the Angels are much more likely to spend big on another starting pitcher rather than a closer, so expect Walden back closing in 2012.
L.A. Dodgers - Javy Guerra has a huge leg up on this job, but the team could also bring back injured ex-closer Jonathan Broxton if he agrees to an incentive-laden deal (unlikely). If not Guerra or Broxton, Kenley Jansen has a 14.4 K/9 this year and represents a big threat to Guerra's closer-of-the-future possibilities.
Twins - I'm guessing free agent-to-be Joe Nathan returns on an incentive-laden deal. If not Nathan, look for the Twins to pursue a closer via free agency. There really isn't anyone internal pitching well enough to deserve the nod.
Mets - This one is Bobby Parnell's to lose, as he has the tools (upper-90s heat) and the results (10.5 K/9) to be a top closer. With Parnell, though, his consistency is in question, and if the Mets really follow through with their plan to try Jason Bay in center field, this could get ugly.
Phillies - Ryan Madson is a free agent this winter, and if the Phillies exercise Brad Lidge's $12.5 million option for 2012, I'll donate my Clayton Kershaw rookie card collection to the first 12 readers who email me. I don't know how high the Phillies payroll can go, but can they really afford a guy like Jonathan Papelbon or Heath Bell? Maybe, but expect Madson and Lidge to return on affordable deals and compete for the job in spring training.
Cardinals - Fernando Salas and Jason Motte look to be in line to share save opportunities down the road, with each having an equal chance at the job next year. The Cardinals' payroll resources are going to be focused on retaining Albert Pujols and/or Lance Berkman, so don't look for an expensive Heath Bell type to be brought in. I think 2012 is Motte time.
Rangers - Neftali Feliz has had a disappointing year, and his role for 2012 is very much up in the air. Look for Feliz to convert to the rotation next year with Mike Adams in the closer role.
Blue Jays - Frank Francisco is a free agent, and while Jon Rauch's $3.75 million option could be exercised, don't expect either guy to close games for Toronto next year. I'm not seeing much in the way of internal options, so with a rumored larger 2012 budget, the Jays could be players in the Papelbon/Bell sweepstakes.
A few lists that I found interesting ...
Hardest throwing relievers:
1. Henry Rodriguez, WAS - 97.9 - His control issues (7.1 BB/9) are nothing new, but with this sort of heat and a few adjustments, Rodriguez could be a future closer.
2. Jordan Walden, LAA - 97.6 - Leads the league in blown saves, but certainly profiles as a closer.
3. Dan Bard, BOS - 97.4 - Covered above, but this is just a reminder how fast he brings it.
4. Joel Hanrahan, WAS - 97.2 - K/9 decline is well-documented, but he's locked in 2012 closer slot.
5. Bobby Parnell, NYN - 97.1 - 1 ER in last 7 IP and a lead in 2012 closer job.
35 or more K's and fewer than 10 BB's in August:
1. CC Sabathia - 45:5
2. Javier Vasquez - 40:7
3. Roy Halladay - 39:6
4. James Shields - 39:9
5. Matt Cain - 37:9
6. Brandon Beachy - 37:5
Here's a look at the 2012 prospects of a handful of players who made their big-league debuts since July 1. Despite this being a pitching column, I might actually mention a few bats.
J.D. Martinez, HOU - 28 RBI in August and has looked far better than minor league stats suggested. Even better, I have him for $2 in an NL-only keeper league.
Jose Altuve, HOU - Will hit for average and steal bases. Not much pop.
Chance Ruffin, SEA - Brandon League is the man in 2012, but Ruffin's first-round status leaves him as a possible future closer.
Jason Kipnis, CLE - Could easily see him as a top-five second baseman next year.
Collin Cowgill, ARI - Loved seeing him here in Reno and think he could surpass Gerardo Parra with a strong spring.
Jose Constanza, ATL - Coming back down to Earth and doing the opposite of what he was doing a couple weeks ago.
Jacob Turner, DET - Should win a 2012 rotation spot next spring. Better long-term than Rick Porcello.
Robinson Chirinos, TB - Might be backup material at best, but has some upside.
Mike Trout, LAA - Yeah he's good all-time Angels good.
Kyle Seager, SEA - On a tear lately and should eventually be hitting in the two-hole behind Dustin Ackley.
Zack Cozart, CIN - TJ surgery on non-throwing shoulder but should get most of the shortstop at-bats next year.
Chris Marrero, WAS - Starting first base next year, with LaRoche traded maybe.
Eric Surkamp, SF - Could lead to Barry Zito's release a la Tejada/Rowand.
Wade Miley, ARI - Like him a lot, but the D-Backs have a TON of pitching talent coming up through the system.
Justin Sellers, LAD - Jamey Carroll-lite.
Ryan Lavarnway, BOS - 2012 starting catcher. .304 through first 23 at-bats.
Henry Sosa, HOU - Throws hard, but probably destined for the bullpen.
Paul Goldschmidt, ARI - He's going to hit 40 HR in a season someday.
Brett Lawrie, TOR - Top-five 3B next year.
Henderson Alvarez, TOR - Great start Wednesday and could be a future No. 3.
Jimmy Paredes, HOU - Not much power for a third baseman, but could be a 10/30 guy if given the chance. He should have that chance next year.
Johnny Giavotella, KC - Making former top-five pick Christian Colon an afterthought after .871 OPS in Triple-A, but just .237 so far in the majors.
Nathan Eovaldi, LAD - Impressive except in his last start and should have a leg up on a 2012 rotation spot with a decent finish.
Garrett Richards, LAA - Jury is still out. May need to spend most of 2012 in Triple-A. Long term he's probably a No. 4 type.
Arodys Vizcaino, ATL - So many arms, just five rotation spots. It's an open competition.
James Darnell, SD - Pujols-like numbers in Double-A, meh in Triple-A and 4-for-20 in the big leagues. Not sure where he winds up next year, but left field for the Padres on Opening Day is possible, though Kyle Blanks may disagree.
Trayvon Robinson, SEA - Pains me to type SEA there as a Dodgers fan. Will have to compete for 2012 starting job next spring, but I expect him to win it and threaten a 15 HR/25 SB season.
Salvador Perez, KC - Already supposedly set to be next year's starter and could be a .280-10-60 guy, though that's probably his 2012 ceiling.
Regan, a four-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.
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