It is time for Part 4 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 4:
Eight Arms to Watch in the NL Central
Erik Bedard (PIT) - It could be hard to remember how good Bedard was a few years ago, before the injuries derailed his career. Still, there were a lot of things to like about his return during 2011. He is not quite so overpowering these days, however, the trademark curve was generating plenty of strikeouts as hitters routinely had trouble picking it up and timing their swings. It's too soon to forget about his health woes, but he looked comfortable, and that's always a good sign. Bedard has never been about pinpoint command, and his only real Achilles heel last year was struggling, especially early in games, to find the strike zone. That's rust, and it is not unexpected given his long layoff. The corresponding high pitch counts shortened his outings, but those should become less frequent as he gets it all back together. Pittsburgh is not generally considered a favorable landing place for pitchers, but in Bedard's case, it could be just what the doctor ordered. I like this scenario, and I like this opportunity - a low stress, low visibility assignment could put Bedard squarely back in the fantasy picture.
Jameson Taillon (PIT) - The Pirates made Gerrit Cole the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft, and that obviously generated a lot of speculation regarding his ceiling. Cole certainly has a very live arm, but I would still rank him behind another arm in their system. Quite simply, Taillon is one of the most intriguing prospects I have seen. Before you run to the draft boards, understand he is probably about two years away - but the wait will be worth it. He was a second overall pick out of high school, and the Pirates had him ranked ahead of the guy who went first overall that year - a guy named Bryce Harper. The organization has strictly limited the youngster's workload, and will gradually begin to extend his pitch counts and innings this season. He has the physical build and an assortment of high quality offerings including a heavy fastball with movement that can get into the high 90s and a devastating curve that baffles hitters. The slider has plenty of bite and the change is coming. It's the full package. It's very unlikely he will see Pittsburgh this year, but get him on the radar and if you are in a keeper league, start looking for a way to stash him on your roster. The time to reach for high ceiling talent is before everyone else realizes its out there. Don't miss out on this guy, as he won't turn 21 until November.
Adam Wainwright (STL) - I love drafting guys like Wainwright. In fact, I loved drafting guys like Wainwright before he got hurt prior to last season. For whatever reason, he has been significantly undervalued throughout his career, and was consistently providing a lot of quality innings with excellent peripherals despite going later in drafts when compared to other arms with similar production. Over 200 innings, over 200 strikeouts, a WHIP in the 1.10-1.20 range and a mid-2.00's ERA - doesn't that make him an ace? In my book it does. He lost all of 2011 to Tommy John surgery, but all signs point to him being ready to go on Opening Day. There may be a bit of rust early on, and it would be difficult to project 230 innings in his first year back, but plenty of owners will list those as reasons to avoid him - or at least move him well down in the draft rankings - in 2012. There is opportunity here. If you only get 160-170 innings, so be it. The innings from Wainwright will likely be far better than those you could get from a less effective starting pitcher. That could make him less appealing in a head-to-head format, but in roto, those innings contribute to your title run whenever they occur. Certainly watch his progress this spring, but be prepared to jump in on draft day.
Shelby Miller (STL) - The NL Central has a couple of young arms at or near the top of my elite prospects list - guys like Taillon and Miller. The huge difference here is, Miller is likely to show up in St. Louis this year. He could come north with the team out of spring training, but it's more likely he will arrive this summer. Miller is a bit more advanced than Taillon even though he is only about a year older. He has a fastball that ranks comparably, and while his breaking pitches might be a small notch behind, he has a more refined feel for them and that gives him better command. One of the highlights of Miller's package is a very free and easy delivery (that certainly contributes to his command), however, another factor that sets him apart from many other quality arms is his tenacity. He trusts his stuff, and he challenges hitters. That is a big plus for young guys on their way up. With his array of pitches, he wins those challenges with a high degree of consistency. With Strasburg and Moore having graduated from the list, Miller grabs my top spot. Get him now.
Shaun Marcum (MIL) - Marcum was cruising along through most of last season before hitting a wall in September that carried over into the playoffs. After some time with relatively light workloads due to injury, this was the first time he was asked to produce at or near 200 innings in back-to-back years, and indications were, he simply ran out of gas. His pitches drifted up in the zone, and his strikeout rate dipped as he failed to finish off his pitches. That said, there might be quite a few fantasy owners who most vividly recall the tough times at the end of the season and will shy away on draft day because of that. Marcum is a solid pitcher when he's healthy, and he should be stronger this year so he might be worth a pick for the middle or back of your rotation. He generally gives owners a good WHIP with a so-so ERA (he allows a few too many home runs) and just fair strikeout totals. Those peripherals can usually fit nicely into the middle to back spots of a fantasy rotation, depending on how strong your frontline guys are in strikeouts. It would be a good idea to check on his spring usage to make certain there was no injury limiting him down the stretch.
Bud Norris (HOU) - While there are at least a few arms the Astros would like to peddle (Wandy Rodriquez likely at the top of the list), Norris isn't likely to go anywhere. He took a nice step forward last season, reducing his WHIP and ERA while striking out just under a batter an inning. In fact, the word is generally out on him having a reasonably bright future so any chance of value would be based on the lowly Astros not providing him with much run support. He was 6-11 last season so he could pick up a couple more wins with a little luck this year. He has the potential to slide up to near the top of a fantasy rotation, but probably not this year, and probably not with this version of the Astros. That said, he makes good solid rotation filler with decent peripherals and quite a few strikeouts. Just be careful not to overpay - he still walks a few too many and while chasing wins isn't always a prudent tactic, it is nice to have some arms who figure to get their share.
Matt Garza (CHC) - Regular readers know I have a few teams I like to avoid when targeting pitchers, and the Cubs are right at the top of that list. However, every now and then even they come up with a pitcher who deserves attention. The team has been looking for a rotation anchor for quite a long time, and it looks like they found him. Garza has an exceptionally live arm (he can approach 100 mph), rings up plenty of strikeouts, and he keeps the damage to a minimum which lead to an solid ERA in his first year in Chicago. Not unlike Norris, his win total (he was 10-10) suffers from the Cubs' lackluster performance as a team, but subtracting Pujols and Fielder from the NL Central can only help his cause. I don't think Garza fits as a No. 1 on a fantasy team, at least not pitching for the Cubs, but he could be a very competent No. 2 if you can sneak him onto your roster in that position. There have been rumors of Garza being dealt, which could boost his value somewhat depending on his destination, but don't be afraid to add him (even as a Cub) and enjoy the ride.
Homer Bailey (CIN) - Bailey is another of those hard to project guys for me. Does he have the skill set to be successful? It would appear he does. Has he been able to consistently produce quality results at the major league level? Not really. Bailey has actually developed something of a pattern. Pitch well for a few games, begin to decline in performance, spend some time on the DL with some minor injury, come back and pitch well, then another decline, and the story goes on and on. Is he fragile - in other words, do the sharp declines have a direct correlation to injury, or is he somehow lacking in the focus and confidence needed to do the job over and over again? When he is on, he is generally very good - the talent to produce is there. But when he has a rough outing, you have to get him out of your lineup. Those bad outings tend to come in bunches. A late-round flier, given his upside, is not a bad move, but the clock is ticking and his days as a great prospect are fading away.
The Endgame Odyssey:
Remember when Carlos Marmol was the strikeout phenom? He's still the Cubs' closer but lack of command bordering on wildness is not promising. Some Cubs fans might love to see more of Kerry Wood. We still think Aroldis Chapman is a better fit in the bullpen but the Ryan Madson signing likely takes him out of the closer picture. What a surprise in Houston...with seemingly many less than outstanding candidates, it appears Brett Myers will move from the rotation to the closer's role. It would seem John Axford is now locked in with the Brewers, and Francisco Rodriquez is his insurance policy. In Pittsburgh, steady Joel Hanrahan still doesn't get much respect, but he does get the job done. And, it looks like the musical closer music has ended in St. Louis with last year's end of the season choice, Jason Motte getting the gig. He really is their best option although Fernando Salas could challenge if he struggles.
Next week we'll look at Eight Arms to Watch in the AL West...
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