Opening Day is just a blink away so it's time for Part 6, the final installment in this series on some key arms to watch in each of baseball's six divisions. We've covered some interesting possibilities so be sure to look back at the previous editions if you missed them. If you can build your staff using a combination of the 48 arms we have covered, there's a good chance 2012 might be a very good year for you.
Eight Arms to Watch in the NL West
Clayton Kershaw (LAD) - Value pick? Kershaw? He won the NL Cy Young, he is one of the most familiar pitchers in the game, and his 2011 stats were exceptional. How can he be on this list? It's simple - Kershaw still has upside and has actually been somewhat undervalued in some auctions. For example, in the LABR NL-Only, he went for $26 when I would have anticipated a lower to mid $30 range price tag. However, the really important thing to factor into a draft slot or price for Kershaw is ceiling. I don't think he's there yet. And, with his walk rate now in the very good range, his strikeout rate among the best in the business, and his ERA and WHIP right at the top of the list, I really don't know where that improvement will come from, but at age 24, he could find more. If he goes for even a small discount, grab him. Maybe owners aren't convinced someone can be this good at his age? Trust me, there was nothing fluky about his 2011 performance.
Chris Capuano (LAD) - Still in Dodgertown, but at the other end of the spectrum from Kershaw resides this lefty acquired during the offseason to fill in the back of their 2012 rotation. He has suffered through a long list of injuries, including two TJ surgeries, but held together pretty well last year and was able to put up 186 innings for the Mets. Not surprisingly he was a bit rusty pitching more than he has since 2006, and somewhat inconsistent last season, but he posted a solid strikeout rate (168 punch outs in those 186 innings), and didn't have the best luck. Luck aside, he also served up 27 home runs in 2011, but that should come down a bit - he is now in an even more flyball-friendly pitcher's park. The best part of the deal is his 1.35 WHIP and 4.55 ERA which, when coupled with an injury history, should keep the price tag low. I liked a lot of what I saw last year, and I think the environment in pitching-focused LA will be a boost. He's 33 now so there isn't a huge breakout coming, but he is a good fantasy option at a price.
Tim Lincecum (SF) - Another premier pitcher makes the watch list for draft day 2012. Lincecum was the Kershaw of a couple of years ago, often going as high as the late first round in some drafts - sacrilege for the "only spend on sticks" crowd! His numbers the past couple of seasons have not been as dominating - at least not Lincecum dominating - so the luster is off the Freak these days. He has made some adjustments, in many ways becoming more of a well-rounded pitcher rather than an overpowering thrower, and that will serve him well as his career progresses. On the plus side, he again notched over 200 innings with more than a strikeout an inning, his velocity was back up after dipping a bit in 2010, his WHIP was back to a more Lincecum-like level, and he still baffled hitters when he really needed to. In many early 2012 drafts, Lincecum was being selected or purchased as a Tier 2 pitcher - well behind the Kershaws, Verlanders, and Halladays - but don't let him get too far down the list at your draft, he still has the tools to match the best in the game, and a lot of what we saw in the latter part of last season suggests he will do just that.
Dan Runzler (SF) - Strictly a $1 flier, Runzler is admittedly a long shot to produce serviceable stats for your fantasy team in 2012. There is no question, he has the right stuff, he just doesn't often find the strike zone with it - think Jonathan Sanchez with a bit less consistent command. Okay, that's probably not a resounding endorsement for those who are frustration averse, but there is the chance he could get his mechanics settled enough to produce a more repeatable delivery and that would pay dividends. In the minor leagues, he has averaged over 11 strikeouts per nine innings, and he has been up and down for bullpen looks at the major league level, but hasn't been able to stick because of his ugly walk rate. The Giants feel he could be better as a starter, and they have been working in that direction. He aggravated a shoulder muscle early in the spring so he probably won't be pitching until mid-April, but he could be a deep sleeper for those with the bench depth to stash him away. Barry Zito is not the best fifth starter candidate, and any injuries or ineffectiveness on the Giants' staff could give Runzler a chance to see how far he has come.
Trevor Bauer (ARZ) - This is a tough one to analyze, not because he doesn't belong on the list, but because the Diamondbacks are likely torn about how to handle him in 2012. Bauer thrives on a heavy workload, and in some ways, like Giants ace Tim Lincecum, he overshadows his slight build with extremely efficient use of his physical tools. His fastball sits in the mid 90's and can hit 98 at times, his 12-to-6 curve with a sharp down plane is probably his best pitch, he has a plus slider, and his change is adequate and improving. That translates to ace-like upside. If he has a flaw, it's a tendency to focus too much on strikeouts - he led NCAA Division I schools the past two seasons. Once he learns to balance quality pitches to contact with swings and misses, he will likely be more effective while minimizing pitch counts. Bauer signed quickly after being drafted and overwhelmed hitters in High-A ball before jumping up to Double-A. In both cases the strikeouts were there - 43 in just 26 innings combined. It all comes down to how quickly the D'Backs want to throw him into the major league fire. It will no doubt be this year, maybe even Opening Day, and while he will probably have a few bumps in the road as he learns on the job, his repertoire and work ethic practically guarantee success relatively soon.
Tyler Skaggs (ARZ) - Skaggs has been in pro ball for about three seasons even though he is just six months younger than Bauer. He was drafted out of high school, and was the key component of the deal that sent Dan Haren to the Angels in 2010. A southpaw, he doesn't have quite the velocity of Bauer, but he does have a wipeout curve as his most devastating pitch, and he has a similar tenacity and work ethic. There is a pattern here, and organizational philosophy is something you need to be aware of. Like Kennedy, Hudson, Bauer, and probably Cahill once he acclimates, Skaggs is a focused strike thrower with a lot of skill and the confidence to pick the zone apart. He is not quite so ready to face MLB hitters on a regular basis, but he's close, and at some point this season, the Diamondbacks are probably not going to be able to resist getting both Bauer and Skaggs regular work with their more established young arms. He is not as hyped as Bauer, and being less likely to make the team out of spring training, he could come at more of a discount. I make his ceiling slightly lower than Bauer's, but he too has the skill set to be an impact pitcher right away.
Cory Luebke (SD) - The Padres resisted inserting Luebke into the rotation until near midseason in 2011, mostly because he was the only lefty in the bullpen. I touted him as an arm to own all season, and he did nothing to disappoint after being given the chance to take a regular turn. He has a wicked slider to compliment his quality fastball so he misses a lot of bats (154 strikeouts in 140 innings), and when you can ring up that many punchouts while pitching at PETCO, there is a good chance you will enjoy ongoing success. However, in Luebke's case, his numbers were actually better on the road. How many Padres pitchers can make that claim? He has a nice fluid motion that allows him to spot his pitches effectively, and given those unusual home/road splits, he gets a mention here as someone who might be slightly undervalued on draft day 2012 with some improvement in his overall performance a realistic possibility. An excellent WHIP and ERA with around 200 strikeouts would seem reasonable, but the Padres offense could restrict his wins potential.
Juan Nicasio (COL) - I wanted to include at least one pitcher from each team on the arms to watch list, but it was tough given the Rockies' staff. Jhoulys Chacin has some upside but isn't likely to provide much value, they are very high on Drew Pomeranz, but I am not quite sold on him, at least not yet, so Nicasio gets the call. He was successful at Double-A last year, and earned a promotion to Colorado where he was adjusting well despite his limited pro experience before a comebacker ended his season with a broken neck. Thankfully, he has supposedly recovered from a very scary sounding injury, and he will try to build on his 2011 success this season. Nicasio has solid stuff, and he appears to be learning quickly how to best use what he has. Don't expect fantasy ace numbers, especially pitching at Coors, but he could be a productive addition.
The Endgame Odyssey:
Without question, one the year's most intriguing endgame decisions will take place in the NL West. Kenley Jansen is the best option to close in Los Angeles - the Dodgers know it, you know it, and even incumbent closer Javy Guerra probably knows it. The problem is, Guerra hasn't done anything to lose the job. It's only a matter of time. Take this as a brief opportunity to get Jansen at a discount. Brian Wilson should be back to 100% in San Francisco, but just in case he isn't the Wilson of old, they have a very competent insurance policy in Sergio Romo. In Arizona and San Diego the scenarios are similar - J.J. Putz (Diamondbacks) and Huston Street (Padres) are about as reliable as they come - when healthy. Good health is not always a given here, so David Hernandez might be a consideration in Arizona, while Street owners might want to think about a couple of dark horse possibilities - Andrew Cashner or Ernesto Frieri. In Colorado, Rafael Betancourt will get a fulltime shot, and although he has done well over stretches in the past, his career save conversion rate is below 50% so it might be prudent to have Rex Brothers on standby.
There you have it - 48 arms to watch across the six divisions. Next week, we'll dive into one of my favorite pools - the best one buck ($) pitchers for 2012.
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