Hey, Bogwatchers, welcome to the 2012 fantasy baseball season! I'm going to kick off this year with a six-part series on some key arms to watch in each of baseball's six divisions. They may be primed for a breakout, ready to take a significant step forward, or they might be on the precipice, and be more likely to tumble into the abyss. In either case, you will want to be very aware of these hurlers on draft day 2012.
Eight Arms to Watch in the AL East
Matt Moore (TB) - For several years now, Moore has been near the top of my pitchers to own list. In fact, since Stephen Strasburg moved to the major leagues, he has been my top pitching prospect. Late last year he made his MLB debut, and the whole world is jumping on his rather crowded bandwagon. Unfortunately, if you don't already own him, his price tag might be on the high side on draft day - at least in leagues where prospects are aggressively pursued, or in keeper leagues. If you are in a redraft, absolutely get him if he is still available in the late-early to middle rounds. However, if you are in a keeper, he is worth paying a premium to own. I don't say that too often, but even with a somewhat inflated price this spring, you could be looking at your last opportunity to get him at anything below an "ace" price tag. You can expect a few bumps in the road, but he should settle in with a very respectable WHIP and ERA. The bonus is the potential to collect 200+ strikeouts year after year. Those guys aren't too easy to find. He looks like a solid middle of the fantasy rotation guy now, but he could move right to the head of the Rays' class - as in a higher fantasy ceiling than David Price - in the projectable future.
Dustin McGowan (TOR) - Let's set the way back machine to 2006 and 2007. For those of you too young to remember the "way back machine" you can just write that comment off to the ramblings of an old guy, and move on to the just of this analysis. I was a huge believer in McGowan back then. He had incredible potential, but 2008 saw the arrival of arm and shoulder problems, and he drifted away from the fantasy spotlight. I am always leery of injuries, especially shoulder woes, but McGowan is worth a late, late flier. His command was predictably spotty when he returned last season, but the velocity was there, and his pitches had a lot of their pre-injury movement. The Jays want him back in the rotation, and while they will be cautious as he completes his long-awaited comeback, he will get every chance to take a regular turn. Watch his usage in spring training. Make sure he is gradually increasing his workload as they get him in shape for the regular season. McGowan is an ideal risk. Many in your league may have forgotten about him, and others will be averse to drafting a guy with his injury history, so he should come relatively cheap on draft day. That means you won't lose very much if he suffers any setbacks, but he has that highly desirable upside. If he makes it all the way back, this is the kind of pitcher who wins leagues.
Brandon Morrow (TOR) - Those of you who have followed me over the past couple of years know the routine regarding Morrow. Yes, I still think he has an exceptionally high ceiling, I am aware of his inconsistency, and I know he is risky on any given day with his on again - off again command. It would be easy to say I am bullish on him, but it might be as accurate to say I am bulldoggish on the guy. I plead guilty. I am stubborn, and I still believe he will one day soon, lead the league in strikeouts while dominating in the vast majority of his outings. It can be frustrating to see that kind of talent always on the edge of greatness without taking the last step, but it's even more frustrating to watch him take that next step on someone else's roster. So when do you give up on your guy? I would suggest a graded approach to that question; the higher the ceiling (benefit), the more patient you should be. I have seen quite a few pitchers added to my list, and then scratched off when the anticipated potential was not realized. Morrow is special enough to continue waiting. It will be worth it.
Jake Arrieta (BAL) - I was fairly high on Arrieta last year and he showed me enough to justify another look in 2012. There is an added bonus here - he was shut down with a bone spur later in the season and his overall numbers (a 5.05 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP) weren't likely to create a great deal of hype heading into this year. Always keep in mind that most young pitchers show glimpses of ability as they mature, not full length feature films of what they might become. There is considerable potential here despite pitching in the always challenging AL East, and he might be off the radar in your league, making him an excellent late round value pick. Hey, I generally pick up a few spring draft guide magazines, just to see where the values might be headed, and he wasn't even listed in a couple of these. I like that! I don't think he is ready to step in as a leader of your fantasy rotation; however he can be a very competent back of the rotation guy, or a handy spot starter when he has a favorable matchup.
Brian Matusz (BAL) - This is a tough one, and my best advice is to watch Matusz very closely in spring training. I drafted him in most of my leagues a couple of years ago after watching him progress in the minor leagues. Everything pointed in a positive direction. Then, after a very encouraging 2010, the wheels came off last year. He started the season on the DL with an oblique injury, it lingered longer than anticipated, and when he finally came back, his velocity was down significantly, his movement and command (likely from trying to overthrow to get the velocity back) was diminished, and the results were predictably horrendous. Hopefully he was just pitching hurt, and the problems will subside as we head into 2012, but there are no guarantees. Right now, at best, he is a huge question mark. If you draft very early and have a deep bench, he might be worth stashing to see how it shakes out - there was considerable upside there - but it would be best to wait and see. If the velocity is back this spring, and the Orioles get him into a normal stamina building program, he might be a nice pickup. Just beware.
Clay Buchholz (BOS) - If you've ever had a back problem, you know how the pain can affect almost everything you do. It hurts to stand, it hurts to sit, and it hurts to sleep. For a major league pitcher, it can sap virtually every ounce of strength and make it almost impossible to perform at the optimum level. Enter Mr. Buchholz. He made just 14 starts last year, and while the results weren't awful, it was evident he wasn't the pitcher he had been before the back problems flared up. I hate these types of injuries because they can often become chronic. The Red Sox have to hope that won't be the case with their potential ace. Buchholz is another guy with so much talent, it would be risky to let him fall too far on draft day, so make sure he is on your list. If he is drafted as a #1, you can probably be safe in letting him go. However, if he is reasonably healthy this spring, and he drops into the middle of the rotation pick range, it might be wise to snap him up - just have a Plan B in mind.
Michael Pineda (NYY) - I will admit that although Pineda was a pitcher I had been tracking, he wasn't at the very top of my prospect list. He has changed my mind. His performance in his first big league season was actually better than the numbers would suggest, and the numbers were pretty good. He did wear down a bit as the season moved along, but he was still dominating in stretches, and his tenacity never wavered. That is the key to Pineda - dominating stuff + tenacity. He had the focus of a seasoned veteran at the age of 22, and now, following a deal to the Yankees, he might even get a few runs to support his outstanding performances on the mound. There is no question he will miss the pitcher-friendly environment of Seattle, and a lot of pitchers have reacted negatively to the media spotlight of the Big Apple, but there is just so much to like about Pineda going forward. I don't think he quite has the ceiling of say Verlander or Kershaw, but he could very easily slot into that next tier as a top 20-25 pitcher. If you can get him at even a modest discount, buy with enthusiasm.
Phil Hughes (NYY) - Here is another guy who entered 2011 with considerable fanfare following a very encouraging 2010 campaign, and then promptly fell flat on his face. He came to camp somewhat out of shape, suffered through an extended dead arm period that spanned much of the season, and even had a bout with back spasms late in the year. With Hughes' body composition, excellent conditioning is a must. It's not unusual for a young guy to enjoy success, and then get a little complacent in doing the things that made that success possible. Some would call the results of that complacency a "sophomore slump." The real pros recognize that very quickly and will rededicate themselves to the success formula. I have a hunch Hughes is at that stage of his maturity and development right now. I would look for him to bounce back and have a reasonably productive, not great, but productive 2012.
The Endgame Odyssey:
Here we'll cover some notes and observations on the closer scenarios across baseball.
It looks like Jim Johnson has the inside track to enter the season as Baltimore's closer. He should be a significant step up from Kevin Gregg, but if the O's decide to try Johnson in the rotation, newly acquired Matt Lindstrom could be a factor, and be sure to keep an eye on dark horse Pedro Strop down the road. Boston has their pen primed with the acquisition of the very talented Andrew Bailey, but he has a history of being pretty fragile so those with deeper rosters might want to grab Mark Melancon as a handcuff. In New York, barring injury, it will be business as usual with the ageless Mariano Rivera. Tampa Bay offered Kyle Farnsworth around all winter, but he returns to close, at least for the time being. I still think they would like to see Jake McGee step up at some point, but he has to show he can handle it. And in Toronto, newly acquired Sergio Santos should have a firm grip on the Jays' closer role even with the aging Francisco Cordero now in town as an insurance policy.
Next week we'll look at Eight Arms to Watch in the NL East.
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