It's time for Part 3 of this six-part series on some key arms to watch in each of baseball's six divisions. Remember, it's rarely the high profile aces that win leagues, it's the discoveries deep in the draft that make the difference. These guys may be primed for a breakout or they might be dangling on the precipice - as in 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 3:
Eight Arms to Watch in the AL Central
Rick Porcello (DET) - Porcello continues to post uninspiring numbers, yet every time I watch him I see more signs of progress and things to keep him on the radar. His velocity is creeping up on all his pitches, he is notably becoming more comfortable with his whole arsenal, and his command of the strike zone is also improving. He still doesn't miss enough bats, but hitters appear fooled on a higher percentage of his pitches. If that continues, and I think there is a good chance that it will, you could see a modest rise in strikeouts, and a corresponding dip in walks. A WHIP below 1.30 and a sub-4.00 ERA is not beyond his reach this year. While the defense behind him could be a bit porous, the run support he receives could be better than last season (and it was extremely generous then). There is certainly some risk having Porcello in your rotation, but he is still just 24 and with the Tigers practice of bringing young arms to the majors very early, it's not surprising most will take some lumps during their on-the-job training. In fact, don't be surprised if their next hot arm, Jacob Turner, follows a similar path. I'll be trying to steal Porcello in drafts this year, and will hope for more progress.
Chris Sale (CWS) - He was the first pitcher in his draft class to make the major leagues, and he did it in style, closing games for the Sox in late 2010. Last season, there was some talk of moving him to the rotation, but the team opted to leave him in the bullpen to gain more experience. He pitched as both a set-up guy and a closer, but the clock was ticking. And, now it's time for him to reach his ultimate baseball destination, the rotation. There has never been much doubt that he was destined to start. Sale is the total package with an electric arm, a full array of quality pitches, reasonable command of the strike zone for his experience level, and the ability to miss a lot of bats. He reminds me a bit of Derek Holland in Texas and that equates to a very high ceiling. Granted, there are other similarities - expectation of some inconsistency as he settles into his starting role, and a dangerous home ballpark that can turn mistakes into a lot of runs in short order. He has all the tools to move to the head of the Sox rotation - perhaps not this year, but relatively soon, and the numbers you can expect in 2012 are likely to help your team right away, especially in the strikeout category. His ADP has been surprisingly soft early on so he might even come at a bargain price.
Jake Peavy (CWS) - Two things consistently play against Peavy when owners slot him into their draft order. First, he has been pretty brittle these past few seasons, making him a risky pick, and secondly, many have had a hard time adjusting their expectations from his numbers during the golden years in San Diego's pitcher heaven PETCO Park to realistic projections in his much more dangerous home park in Chicago. Combined, and now firmly engrained in the minds of your opponents, those factors could make him an appealing play in 2012. When you think about it, nothing dampens a player's price like widespread disappointment in his recent performances. "I'll NEVER have him on my team again." or "He suxs ... argh!" are commonplace comments when a draftee fails to exceed or even meet expectations. And every time you hear it, you can also hear the meter slowly regressing to a very reasonable price on draft day. Sure, there is further injury risk, and no, you cannot expect the same numbers he provided in San Diego, but he may have dropped enough in the eyes of the masses to provide a nice risk/reward opportunity this season.
Luke Hochevar (KC) - This one is definitely not for the risk averse. Hochevar was very highly regarded when the Royals chose him at the top of the 2006 draft - that's right, the Tim Lincecum draft. He had the arm and he had the resume, but he hasn't produced the results even though the arm is still there. Watching him, you can see why he was so well thought of on draft day. A lively fastball, good breaking pitches, and a respectable change up all look good. However, for whatever reason, they might be working for a few innings before deserting him. The result, the wheels come off, and a quality outing becomes an ugly smudge on the box score. So why is here listed here? Because it's there, and because there were signs that he was going to be more consistent from the beginning to the end of each start. In the second half, his velocity was up, his slider had more snap, his WHIP dropped down to about 1.13, and his ERA settled in at 3.52. Those aren't #1 overall pick stats, but they do suggest he is getting it in synch. Watch him.
Aaron Crow (KC) - Crow is a more speculative play, only because he has an undefined role at this time. Similar to Sale, he was drafted in the first round (although he went unsigned and pitched in independent ball initially), then came up to the big leagues in less than a year to pitch in a relief role. The Royals want him in the rotation, and they would probably like to see it happen this season, however they have other options so they may not feel compelled to rush the situation. The plan is to stretch him out this spring, and wait to see how the rotation shakes out. He might even spend some time at Triple-A until things fall into place. If he does start right away, having only pitched about 60 innings in 2011, he could be facing an innings limitation, but he has the stuff to deliver when he is on the mound. His command needs some work so the WHIP could be on the high side, but he should generate plenty of strikeouts. He might be better suited to keeper/dynasty leagues, but he could be productive if things go his way in a redraft.
Scott Baker (MIN) - Overall, the Twins look like a potential train wreck in 2012, but that sometimes provides shrewd owners with bargain-priced talent. Baker is currently the best pitcher in the Twins rotation. Sorry Francisco Liriano, your recent performance has left much to be desired. Injuries postponed Baker's breakout season - or what could have been a breakout season if it hadn't been for a strained elbow until age 30. That's not such a ringing endorsement. A breakout at age 30 and a long injury history that delayed things that long usually signals problems. That said, when Baker was on the mound last year, he was one of the more reliable starters in the game. A 1.17 WHIP, a 3.14 ERA, and almost a strikeout an inning over 134 frames is quality. Even with a struggling team, those numbers can create some opportunities for wins, and contribute to a fantasy team's peripherals. Because he is not a household name, and having had some injury history while playing in a less visible market, he might be had for a very reasonable price. Take a chance on him staying healthy and have a go.
Liam Hendriks (MIN) - This one is a one buck Bogfella special. I watched this guy a few times as he wound his way (rather quickly) through the Twins minor league system, and I loved what I saw. He had knee surgery, back troubles, and an appendectomy early in his professional career, but none of that appears to be a lingering concern. He has four quality pitches with a decent fastball that tops out at about 93 mph, a tight slider, a tantalizing curve, and a deceptive change up. But, the best part, he pounds the zone down with all of them at any time, and in any count. In 2010, he walked only 12 in 109 innings, then walked just 18 in 90 innings last year at Double-A before coming up with the Twins later in the season. He is not likely to become an ace (even though I actually like him better than the Twins top pitching prospect, Kyle Gibson, who is currently recovering from arm surgery), but he could be a reliable middle of the rotation innings eater in the future. He's only 23, and he will no doubt have some adjustments to make, but I believe he could surprise a lot of people if he can make a spot for himself in the Twins rather shaky rotation.
Ubaldo Jimenez (CLE) - Do you remember the show put on by Jimenez during the first half of the 2010 season? Then with Rockies (to make it even more amazing) he literally dismantled opponent after opponent, but then abruptly faded in the second half. His overall numbers were still very good, but his draft price went through the roof last spring. Unfortunately, those second half struggles were magnified last season, and he was eventually dealt to Cleveland where he was better, but not close to the 2010 first half. So what's next? The Indians paid a premium for him (including two highly regarded pitching prospects Drew Pomeranz and Alex White) which suggests they firmly believe they can fix him. Pitching away from Coors Field is an obvious boost. Will we see a repeat of early 2010? Probably not. Can he be a productive member of a fantasy rotation? It's probably worth taking a chance as long as someone else isn't still bidding on that half season.
The Endgame Odyssey:
Last spring, the White Sox were talking up Matt Thornton as their new closer. Just into the season, Sergio Santos had taken the job. It could be much the same this year except the closer in waiting is Addison Reed - Stephen Strasburg's closer at San Diego State. He's got a bright future so grab him. Chris Perez scuffled through much of 2011, but he's likely to get the first call. If the tough times continue, watch for Vinnie Pestano to start garnering opportunities. Jose Valverde is again the guy in Detroit following a stellar year. There will be a lot of wins and a lot of saves there. An interesting scenario in Kansas City where one of the best, Joakim Soria, despite some tough stretches in 2011 is safe - at least until the Royals deal their valuable commodity which would open the door for Greg Holland or maybe Jonathon Broxton, although he is at least as likely as Soria to be dealt to someone desperate for a closer. Matt Capps is the guy again in Minnesota with the departure of Joe Nathan. Capps is a weak option but there isn't much available. Maybe Brian Duensing, or dare I say, Joel Zumaya?
Next week we'll look at Eight Arms to Watch in the NL Central.
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