Hey, Bogwatchers, welcome to the 2012 fantasy baseball season! I'm kicking 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. Let's get to it with part 2:
Eight Arms to Watch in the NL East
Jordan Zimmermann (WAS) - Stephen Strasburg is probably about the only reason you don't hear more about Zimmermann. Last year, he returned following Tommy John surgery in late 2009, and only seven starts at the end of 2010. Many observers were anxious to see how that injury might impact a rather promising MLB beginning. Initially, he looked good with some predictable rust, but then he looked better, and better, and before long he wasn't just turning heads, he was snapping them into focus. Those who knew what to look for last summer saw countless indicators that suggest he could be on his was to star status, and he may be in the express lane. The Nationals were cautious, limiting his innings, but he appeared completely healthy and its likely they will turn him loose in 2012. Now is the time to grab him. Unfortunately, he was far too obvious about his visible progress, and there wasn't much there to mask his potential going forward. Therefore, he may not be much of a secret on draft day. He had a losing record (8-11), pitched only 161 innings, recorded just a fair amount of strikeouts (124), and his 3.18 ERA was good but not great. Maybe owners in your league weren't paying attention to all the discreet positive signs? Well, you can only hope, as you add his name to the top of your target list for 2012 and beyond.
Ross Detwiler (WAS) - Here's another Nats arm to track, but this one may be a little less known. Strasburg and Zimmermann will lead the mound corps, followed by live-armed newcomers Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. That leaves one rotation spot for Chien-Ming Wang, John Lannan, and Detwiler. Barring a big spring, Detwiler could even be third in the food chain, however he probably has quite a bit more upside than the competition, and his performance last year suggests he is developing the skills he displayed to warrant a first round pick in the 2007 draft. Remember, southpaws often develop more slowly, so his path to success is not unusual. It's possible Lannan could be dealt - they have been shopping him since signing Jackson - so Detwiler could already be closer to landing that fifth spot, and this is a team where a starting gig could pay off handsomely. They should contend this year, and be even better in years to come if all their talent produces as expected. Detwiler lost some zip on his fastball prior to last season, but it appears to have returned, and his command was notably better in a late season audition in 2011. At some point in 2012, probably sooner rather than later, he should claim a regular turn in the rotation, and he might be a very inexpensive flier on draft day in the majority of leagues.
Cole Hamels (PHI) - I have a feeling that Hamels might be the top pitcher on the Phillies staff in 2012. If he pitched for almost any other team, that would probably be a "yeah, tell me something I don't know" statement. However, in his case, that would mean outperforming both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee - a monumental task to be sure. Hamels has fought through a couple of early career injuries, and he has developed a full arsenal of pitches that grade well above average. His command is exceptional, he keeps the ball in the ballpark, and he is no longer prone to mental lapses that raised questions about his ability to shake off adversity earlier in his career. The Phillies offense may not be what it has been, especially if Ryan Howard's rehab extends far into the season, but with a microscopic WHIP, an outstanding ERA, and plenty of strikeouts, Hamels could be a rather nice value pick if the other owners in your league look past him to the somewhat more visible Halladay and Lee. He won't come cheap, but he could still outperform his draft slot/price.
R.A. Dickey (NYM) - The Mets moved the fences in and lowered them to help the offense. A lot of owners might rightfully be concerned about the impact that might have on their pitching staff, but it may not be a big deal for the knuckleballer Dickey. Perhaps Jonathon Niesse will also fare well with the new dimensions, but Mike Pelfrey could really struggle so an innings eater like Dickey seems like a logical pick for a back of the rotation fantasy starter. Despite a weak W/L record, Dickey put up very respectable numbers last year, especially in the second half. He's not a big strikeout guy (the primary factor keeping him from being a good option as a middle of your rotation starter), but plug and play pitchers like this are always useful as the season grinds on and you find† yourself looking for a guy that is likely to give you something useful week after week. He'll be 37 this year, so he won't be a glamour pick and that should further restrict his price on draft day. I generally defer to high upside guys when drafting, but sometimes a cheap but reliable known quantity guy can be helpful too.
Josh Johnson (MIA) - The NL East features a couple of the highest ceiling pitchers in the game when they are healthy, and Johnson is near the top of that list (more on another a little later in this column). Through the first six weeks of 2011, Johnson was nearly untouchable. In nine starts he held opponents to a .185 batting average, posted a 0.98 WHIP, flashed a 1.64 ERA, and struck out 56 batters in 60 innings. Unfortunately, it was all over by mid-May as he was shelved, yet again, with arm problems - a lingering shoulder injury. He's already been through Tommy John surgery, so this latest malady could legitimately be seen as an indicator of too much wear and tear. Elbow problems hurt, and they can and do take pitchers out for a year or so. However, more often than not, the pitcher returns and doesn't present a significantly higher risk of further problems. That's not the case with shoulder problems. They may return, but it's almost impossible to predict when, and for how long. I love Johnson's stuff - but then again I loved Rich Harden's stuff too (I see he's out for the year again). Johnson said he was 100% last fall, but you never really know. I'd like to have him, but I'll need a big discount to jump.
Carlos Zambrano (MIA) - I have been an outspoken Zambrano basher for years, and now for 2012 he joins another of my favorite perennial underperformers in south Florida - Ricky Nolasco. That should be enough to get him scratched off the list, right? Maybe, but maybe not. For Zambrano, the analysis is a mixed bag. He has to benefit from the change in latitude, but it's yet to be seen whether that will result in a change in attitude. It's never been about his physical ability. He has the skill set to succeed at the major league level, however he has had a low-A mindset for most of his career. Over the years you could have done pretty well using a "draft ex-Cubs pitchers" approach to draft day so there is some hope. Last season, in Chicago, even before his latest tantrum, he walked too many, allowed too many hits, and let too many balls fly out of the yard. That's a recipe for pass. However, a change in scenery, especially for someone with his considerable baggage, could make a huge difference. I don't think I am ready to drink the Zambrano Kool-Aid just yet, but it's only fair to warn readers that he might surprise.
Jair Jurrjens (ATL) - Like some of the others we have discussed, Jurrjens is building a case for being labeled an injury risk. Unlike the others though, most of his problems have been related to his legs/knees. I suppose many would say that's good news, but you have to remember how important the legs are to a pitcher. That's where the drive is initiated, where most of the velocity resides, and where the mechanics come together to generate either quality pitches or cupcakes. When the knee issues surfaced last year, his hot start - he was on fire for two months - quickly faded in conjunction with his velocity and his strikeout rate. His command was showing marked improvement and his ability to pitch deeper into games was a big bonus before things started to unravel. He had come off a disappointing 2010 after an equally promising 2009 so last year's tale of two seasons only muddles projection process. Will the real Jair Jurrjens, please step up?† I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt. He's only 26 so you could argue his best is still ahead - assuming he can lose that injury risk tag. List me as a buyer as long as his price tag offers value based on a solid if not spectacular season.
Tommy Hanson (ATL) - Scribble in all of the comments we made about Josh Johnson above, and then put a rather large asterisk next to "even higher ceiling" when you fill out your draft day cheat sheets for 2012. Hanson is the definition of dominating monster being coupled with a somewhat violent motion that puts considerable strain on his right shoulder. There's that bad word again - shoulder. He was cruising through the first half of 2011 before the shoulder aches materialized. And, this wasn't the first time in his career. The key to his value is obviously health, and that's where we have some very encouraging news. Hanson has revamped his delivery. He now has a much smoother motion, and he reportedly uses his legs far more than he did in the past (remember how important those legs are) which will also likely reduce the strain on his shoulder. The Braves are very encouraged, and I can buy into that. An optimistic outlook with a ceiling like his deserves a bid.
The Endgame Odyssey:
Overall, the NL East is one of the stronger divisions for endgame options. Craig Kimbrel of Atlanta has deservedly been the first closer off the board in many drafts and he and set up man Jonny Venters will likely provide excellent numbers again. Heath Bell moves to south Florida and will handle closing duties for the Marlins while the Mets may have the most unsettled endgame situation in the division. Frank Francisco is the early favorite, but he has been inconsistent so both Bobby Parnell and Jon Rauch should probably be monitored. Jonathon Papelbon is another top NL East closer after moving over from Boston, but keep an eye on youngster Phillippe Aumont who might be a sleeper option if Paps runs into any injury problems. The Nationals are improving by leaps and bounds and their closer Drew Storen is a big piece of that. The only concern here is their quest for a true center fielder, and their willingness to discuss Storen in talks with other teams. If they move Storen, the likely benefactor would be Tyler Clippard.
Next week we'll look at Eight Arms to Watch in the AL Central.
For the most in-depth coverage of all things pitching, be sure to follow @bogfella on Twitter.