As most of you probably know, I play almost exclusively in keeper leagues. With my feeling that building a team over time is nearly as rewarding as blowing away your competition in any given year, and my passion for uncovering top tier pitching talent before other owners even have the guy on their radars, I focus heavily on both winning now, and compiling an overwhelming display of young pitching talent. This edition of the Notebook is called "The Pipeline Principle" and it provides some thoughts on building a long term pitching staff capable of winning now, and in the future. In most of my leagues, and particularly in my 15-team mixed deep keeper, the trading deadlines have passed, and access to the waiver wire has come to an end. Therefore, what I have right now is what I will get to choose from when I turn in my protections this winter. I think the best test of an analyst's commitment when asking who they value most, equates to who they would protect when the time comes to take a stand. Further, I will give a very early glimpse into my auction strategy for next spring. Let's get started:
Gone, But Not Forgotten:
Cole Hamels - The league has a five year maximum on keepers, and Hamels contract expires at the end of this season. I purchased him at a discount ($21) after his off season a couple of years ago, and he has been a big contributor, but he goes back into the draft pool for 2013, and I am doubtful he will be available at the deeply discounted prices I want to spend on pitchers each year. Hamels is just coming into his prime actually, and I expect him to be a high-priced top tier arm for the next few years, so I don't really question his future value, I just prefer to buy the guys who aren't selling for their top value right now.
Tim Lincecum - I traded for him a couple of months ago, but he has an exorbitant salary ($29), and I never seriously considered keeping him beyond this year's pennant run. It was strange, having Lincecum on another team this season after five years on my squad. His contract expired at the end of last season, and I knew he would go for more than I wanted to spend, so I waved goodbye. After such a horrible start to 2012, I acquired him hoping for better in the second half. I got better, but still not the Lincecum of old. I will be keeping a close eye on him at next year's draft, hoping the other owners have written him off. I'm hopeful, but not very confident that will happen.
The Keeper Rotation Nucleus:
Stephen Strasburg ($11) - When I purchased Strasburg, he was still pitching at San Diego State (the college, not the Padres), and I was convinced he was the best young pitcher to come along in several years. I bought him for a buck, patiently waited for his arrival, extended his contract to the full five years, missed a season for recovery from Tommy John surgery, and will now enjoy one more season with him as an anchor of my rotation. In my humble opinion, we have yet to see the very best of Strasburg. He was excellent for most of 2012, but he wasn't really ever turned loose. He is still learning the finer points of pitching at the game's highest level, and I think 2013 could be a "breakout" year for him. That sounds a bit silly I suppose, suggesting that a pitcher with a 15-6 record, an ERA just over 3.00, a spectacular WHIP, and nearly 200 strikeouts could be primed for a big season, but I'll stand by it. He is a top 10 pitcher next season, maybe even top 5 in a best case scenario. Bid accordingly, and hope his conservative usage, and missing a month with the innings limit gets you a small discount.
Brandon Morrow ($9) - If you read my column regularly, you might be able to skip this part - you already know about my expectations for Morrow. Many fantasy owners may have lost faith. This year, it was an injury that carved away a large chuck of his season, and his strikeout rate was down somewhat. If I was faced with buying him, those factors would be considered good news. Nothing normally excites me more than a target pitcher struggling in some form or another. Buying star statistics rarely offers value - Strasburg perhaps being an exception - so uncovering the guy with modest (or worse) numbers, but still harboring an exceptionally high ceiling, is the ideal situation. I have been on his bandwagon for a few years now, and some would ask, is it possible you were wrong? Yes, that is always possible, but for me to scratch an elite arm off of my list he has to show me he has lost something, or convince me what I have seen is a mirage. Neither has happened yet with Morrow. He actually showed progress this year, throwing more to contact, reducing his pitch counts, and working deeper into games. The strikeouts will be back, he will step up to the next level, and I am prepared to be patient.
Matt Moore ($5) - I will have to make a decision on Moore. It's not about whether to protect him or not, that is a given. However, this is his option year in my home league. I can keep him one last year at this contract, or extend his contract one or two years at a higher price. To extend him all the way, his price would increase to $15, and I believe that would still end up being a solid value. Moore struggled earlier this season, and the impact on his 2012 numbers could bring his price down a bit in the 2013 draft. Forgive the somewhat inflated statistics, and rely more on the numbers he put up in the second half. He is young, he is left-handed, and he has a history of starting off slowly when facing a new level of competition. He has already begun to adjust, and I expect that to continue next year. Tampa Bay has established a pattern of maximizing the potential of young pitchers, and none have had a higher potential ceiling, including the next name on this list, than Moore. I often like to note when I think the clock is ticking on a young pitcher, and that the window of opportunity to nab him at any kind of discount will be closing in the near future. That is an apt evaluation of Moore.
David Price ($20) - I sometimes allow myself the luxury of holding onto a pitcher with a price tag at or about $20 when choosing my protections. Don't get me wrong, I am not willing to protect a $20 pitcher - it has to be someone with a $20 contract that I feel will likely exceed that production level. The past couple of years in this league, Hamels has been the guy, but the mantle now falls to Price. I admit that I am a bit concerned about his recent skipped start because of a tender shoulder. The words "shoulder" and "pitcher" when uttered in the same sentence comprise a frightening image in my mind. I will want to see him pitch effectively again this year, and I will want to see nothing but glowing reports on his health this winter, but if that happens, he should be able to provide solid value at his current price tag. Price has developed steadily, and is now a viable top tier starter with even more room to grow. He should provide an anchor this coming season, and perhaps one more beyond this one (this will be just the second year of his contract). Since extending the contract would take him beyond my normal limit for protected pitchers, I am unlikely to have him beyond his option year, but I'll enjoy the next two seasons at his current cost.
Possible Targets for the 2013 Draft - or Filling the Pipeline:
Contracts expire, and you have to keep the pipeline full. There are many to consider, but below is a list of a few pitchers I will be scrutinizing this winter, and on draft day next spring, hoping to find the guys that I will count on in the future while they can still be obtained at high value prices.
Yu Darvish - I came into 2012 expecting big things from him, but was outbid in my home league when his price soared to $24, and forced me to back out of the race. I really didn't expect his ERA and WHIP to be so lofty, but pitching in Texas, and adjusting to the major leagues - typically at least as difficult for a pitcher coming over from Japan as it is for a minor leaguer making the jump from Triple-A - it isn't all that surprising. He still has the highest ceiling of any Pacific Rim import, and that makes his a target on draft day. I only hope his failing to live up to the hype helps bidders overlook his wins and strikeout total, and brings his price down.
Cory Luebke - Tommy John surgery last May will cost him the first couple of months of 2013, and that should be enough to drive his price tag into the value range. He worked hard in a relief role awaiting his chance at a rotation spot, he then looked exceptionally good in the few starts before the elbow injury. He should return as good as ever, and continue to develop with the added benefit of pitching in PETCO Park. I can find fill in arms while he finishes he rehabilitation, but I think he produces right away when he gets back and shakes off the rust.
Danny Hultzen - He was my top ranked pitching prospect in the June 2011 draft, and he has already created something of a stir as many fantasy owners await his arrival. Unfortunately, he may be too hyped to provide a lot of value, especially if he comes up for a cameo yet this season. Trevor Bauer, and the top pick in that draft, Gerrit Cole are a little more visible so they might hopefully steal some of the spotlight, but I am preparing to see Hultzen go for an inflated price. I hope I am wrong.
Casey Kelly - He is an injury risk, and he has somewhat limited experience resulting from injuries he has had to contend with in his young career, but he has a lot to like, and he could be getting close to getting a long term chance to show it. Kelly has uglied his numbers up enough in the handful of starts he has made this year to help keep the price down on draft day, but he could be a very handy $1-$3 pitcher going forward. The key will be keeping him healthy.
Derek Holland - The label "erratic southpaw" could often be used to describe some of my most interesting targets. Great stuff that comes and goes, the ability to dominate on any given night, and enough blowups to frustrate the majority of fantasy owners is the definition of Holland, and it earns him a spot on my wish list for next season. As I have stated frequently, lefties often take longer to "lock in" and that leads to a lot of annoying inconsistency. I really appreciate what he is capable of doing, and I do believe he could be getting close to doing it on a regular basis. One of those "clock is ticking" guys.
Jameson Taillon and Zach Lee - There are two names here because they have similar circumstances. These two are at the top of my Elite Watch List, a list that while it changes constantly, dates back over 20 years. Timing is everything with arms like these. If they come up next summer and make a splash, their price skyrockets in 2014. They do need to be reasonably close, and I think both are getting there, but it could be time to grab one and stash him for a prime spot in a future protections list. These two are very possibly the Stephen Strasburg (probably not quite) and Matt Moore of 2013.
Closer situations are always in flux, and even with the end of the 2012 regular season looming, there are marks. Owners of the Padres' Huston Street have to be wondering when he will return. He threw a bullpen session Monday and it sounds like he could be back in a few days. Until it happens, Luke Gregerson has replaced Dale Thayer as the fill in. The Dodgers got good news regarding Kenley Jansen and his heart condition. The medication is doing the job, and he is scheduled to return next Monday. Word is he could have minor surgery this winter to correct the problem. Teams don't like to rock the boat with the playoffs around the corner, but the Nationals are likely to give serious thought to returning Drew Storen to the closer's role next spring. In Oakland, Grant Balfour has been outstanding since taking over for Ryan Cook. He should be locked in for the rest of 2012, but look for the A's to move another direction for next year. Andrew Bailey hasn't had many chances to strut his stuff since moving into the closer's role in Boston, but he should be there to stay if he can avoid the trainer's room. The Twins have technically been deploying a closer-by committee approach over the past couple of months, but it has become clear that Glen Perkins is the first option. There is a pretty good chance he keeps the job next season too. And, in Toronto, there could be some choices to make next spring. Sergio Santos will be coming back, and even Brad Lincoln could be a consideration, but Casey Janssen is making it extremely difficult to justify a change.
Is there a pitcher you would like to see discussed in an upcoming Notebook? Throw the name out, and I'll see what I can do. In fact, I would like to remind readers to check back often as each week's Notebook will feature updates in the comments section on evolving mound situations. And, as always, keep in mind this is an interactive forum, so your comments are always appreciated. I will respond to any comments or questions as soon as possible. Thanks!
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