Every spring training there will be a few pitchers who seemingly over-perform, and therefore often become hot items on draft day. While I tend to discount exceptionally bad numbers from generally reliable, proven pitchers (unless there is a significant injury attached), you have to evaluate the positive surprises to decide whether or not the small sample of March will continue on into April and beyond. In most cases, with someone who already has a track record, the outlier statistics can be discounted - if there isn't something significantly different, why expect a major uptick in performance during the regular season? However, there are cases where the improvement is validated by a change in mechanics, development, or even better health. This week I'll take a look at some spring surprises and try to sort out the real from the imaginary.
Some Arms Who Opened Eyes in Spring 2012:
Luke Hochevar (KC) - Sometimes extremely talented pitchers just take a while to start reaching their ceiling. I have always been intrigued by Hochevar - he shows innings, and sometimes games of quality pitching, but then the wheels would come off. Too many hits, too many walks, and too many home runs following them made a shambles of his WHIP and ERA. But the second half of last year was different. He showed more maturity, he was actually spotting his pitches in the strike zone, and that has carried over to this spring. Hochevar has the pedigree (he was the first overall selection in his draft class), so there is plenty of upside there. You certainly have to consider it a leap of faith and hope there is no regression, but the arrows point upward. Verdict: Pursue
Mike Minor (ATL) - He's been around a little while, and his results at the major league level have been mixed, but he always shows enough to keep me interested. While his young teammates like Julio Teheran and to a lesser extent Randall Delgado, get more attention, Minor might actually be the better bet, at least for 2012. Teheran has struggled this spring - including an ugly outing where he served up six home runs- and Delgado doesn't appear to be the answer so Minor looks ljke the guy who could be asked to fill in for Tim Hudson as he rehabs from injury. Minor pitched well in Gwinnett and Atlanta last year, and he has had an impressive spring. Although he could use a bit better command, the lefty has the tools to stick if he performs well. Verdict: Pursue
Francisco Liriano (MIN) - Mention a wipe out slider and the discussion is bound to get to Liriano within the next few sentences. There is no question, when the slider works, Liriano succeeds. Unfortunately, he also often ends up on the disabled list. Over the past few seasons, Liriano has sometimes cut back on the usage of his best pitch but the results have generally been ugly. When he adds the pitch back in, the results improve dramatically, but his injury clock starts ticking. He continues to try ways to alter his motion to reduce stress on his shoulder, and his velocity has come back this spring so he may be healthy right now. The question is, for how long? Verdict: Pass
Felix Doubront (BOS) - The Boston rotation was supposed to be pretty set going into this spring with the biggest news being the conversion of fireballer Daniel Bard from the bullpen to a starting role. It looks like the Red Sox are close to deciding that Bard's limited, albeit impressive arsenal may not be well suited to facing hitters several times a game. Enter Doubront. He's something of a middling prospect, with a decent sinking fastball and average to good off speed stuff so don't expect miracles, but with Boston's offense behind him, he could be a consideration in deep or only leagues. Verdict: Pass
Adam Wainwright (STL) I have always felt that Wainwright was a bit overlooked in most leagues, even before he went under the knife for Tommy John surgery last spring. When healthy, he is a tier one pitcher - right there with the very best. Understandably, arm injuries make fantasy owners skittish. However, there is a distinct difference between elbow problems requiring Tommy John surgery and shoulder problems. The former is now relatively routine; have the surgery, do the rehab, and a year later you're back. With shoulders, the process can drag on forever, it may never be totally resolved (see Liriano above) and predicting performance after is difficult to say the least. Wainwright has looked good this spring, he may face an innings limit, but otherwise it wouldn't be out of line to expect his normal contribution. Verdict: Pursue
Jake Westbrook (STL) - Now I'll look at another Cardinals' hurler. This is the truth - someone just recently told me Westbrook has been "lights out" this spring and they think he could have a "breakout" season. At 34 and with no distinct change in his approach, it would be extremely unlikely for Westbrook to post a monster season. He has had an excellent spring, and I have always liked him, but he is still a sinkerball specialist with good control, he doesn't miss a lot of bats, and he is probably not going to be a big asset to any teams outside of NL only or very deep leagues. Verdict: Pass
Andy Oliver (DET) - The Tigers find themselves in the position of being the heavy favorite in their division for a trip to the playoffs, and that doesn't lend itself particularly well to their tendency to give young pitchers on-the-job training at the major league level. That said, they have some decisions to make regarding the back of their rotation and some kids figure into that decision. Oliver has posted a solid ERA this spring and could get a crack at the #5 slot, but scroll across his stat line to walks allowed and it is pretty safe to say he would be a very risky play in fantasy circles. There is some upside, but he is probably not ready for a regular spot. Verdict: Pass
Blake Beavan (SEA) - Seattle is a little like San Diego, American League style - it's an excellent pitcher's park and there are some other pitching friendly venues in that division. Therefore, a Mariners pitcher with a solid spring can draw some attention on draft day, and Beavan fits that description. He has a respectable arsenal including a fastball with sink, a nice slider and a passable changeup, but he's not overpowering and he projects as back of the rotation option as his likely ceiling. He's a better bet than Kevin Millwood early on this season, but he's more likely to just be a placeholder until the M's very talented prospects like Danny Hultzen and James Paxton are deemed ready - probably later in 2012. Verdict: Pass
Chris Capuano (LAD) I watched him again Saturday, and again I saw some positive signs from the veteran southpaw. He was on last week's $1 Pitching Staff, and he makes this list too with his improving command and quality of pitches. His career has been a long list of injuries detours away from consistency, but he put up over 180 innings last season for the Mets and now moves to an organization where pitching is a way of life. He's not going to be Clayton Kershaw, but there is a very good chance he could help a lot of fantasy teams in 2012 if he stays healthy. Verdict: Pursue
Carlos Zambrano (MIA) I am often drawn to pitchers with reasonably good stuff who change organizations after failing to advance with their previous team. It's the changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes stuff that movies are made of. Big Z has been on the fantasy radar for years and he has piled up a huge amount of disappointment among fantasy owners. His numbers this spring have been somewhat encouraging, especially his strikeout rate, and there has been considerable talk about his new mental approach, but there is just too much baggage here for my taste. It may all work out for him in South Florida, but I'm going to let someone else take the chance. Verdict: Pass
Brian Matusz (BAL) This is not a questionable role situation. In 2010, Matusz was the top name on the O's pitching prospect list and everything he did that year suggested he would fulfill his considerable promise. Last season was a disaster by every definition of the word - his velocity was down, his command was non-existent, and his stats were ugly. This spring he has pitched well and the velocity is returning. Is he all the way back? Not quite, but he could be getting there, and if he does get it all back together, he could be special, again. Verdict: Pursue
Luis Mendoza (KC) Despite losing their closer, Joakim Soria, for the season, the Royals have a traffic jam in their rotation and it could get worse as some of their young arms push harder for spots. Mendoza has had an excellent spring and could claim a spot in the early season rotation, but he actually projects a bit better as a reliever, and his future could very well be down that path. Given his unclear role, it's difficult to make a call on his fantasy value. He could be useful if he does get a regular turn, at least for a while, but it's an evolving scenario that should be monitored. Verdict: Undecided
The Endgame Odyssey:
The pending closer questions entering spring training only multiplied recently with the announcements that both Joakim Soria (KC) and Ryan Madson (CIN) will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss all of 2012. In Kansas City, I would lean slightly to Jonathan Broxton as a showcase project over the actual better choice Greg Holland, at least early on. In Cincinnati, Sean Marshall is the most likely benefactor, but this is the perfect excuse to try Aroldis Chapman. Oakland has named Grant Balfour, not a bad pickup, and the White Sox might be leaning to either Jesse Crain or Matt Thornton while I would still rather own Addison Reed long term. The Nationals aren't really sure if Drew Storen will be ready for opening day, but they have indicated that either Brad Lidge or Henry Rodriquez, rather than Tyler Clippard, would fill in over the short term. Finally, Baltimore insists Jim Johnson will be ready for Opening Day, but if he's not, or he struggles, a dark horse candidate might be entering the picture - Chris Tillman.
Next week we'll apply this famous quote to the art of scouting pitchers in this amazing game of pro baseball: "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." - Albert Einstein. You won't want to miss this Notebook as it uncovers some of the most dynamic applications involved in going well beyond analyzing the past and into an exercise for rationally predicting the future.
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