Editor's note: Mound Musings, RotoWire's pitching-centric weekly column, has a new look this year. After six years of toeing the rubber, RotoWire Senior Baseball Writer Dave Regan is taking his pen elsewhere. Look for his debut baseball column, "Bats and Balls," later this spring. Taking the Mound is veteran fantasy writer and pitching guru Brad Johnson, whom you'll know from his popular "Bogfella's Notebook."
Hey, pitching junkies, welcome to the 2013 fantasy baseball season. I'm going to again kick off the season with a six-part series on key arms to watch in each of baseball's six divisions. They may be primed for a breakout and ready to take a significant step forward, or they might be on the precipice and more likely to tumble into the abyss. In either case, you will want to be aware of these hurlers on draft day 2013. Let's get to it.
Eight Arms to Watch in the AL East
Matt Moore (TB) - This young lefty was the first name on this list last season, and after a somewhat disappointing 2012, he climbs right to the top again. Moore posted a fairly respectable 3.81 ERA with 175 strikeouts in 177-plus innings, so there were some clear positives, but he struggled with his control, issuing 81 walks on the way to a mediocre 1.35 WHIP. Keep in mind, he has a history of strong second-half performances, and he did improve later in the season. However, in the minors he had a habit of struggling when he reached the next level of competition, before finally settling in and devastating the opposition. The latter tendency didn't really rise to the surface in 2012, but this is the top shelf, and there is a very good chance the trend of eventually settling in will continue - just a bit later than usual. The best part of it is with the decent but not dominating numbers last year, he could be quite a bargain on draft day. The stuff is there, and he just needs to trust in it to cut his pitch counts down, pitch deeper into games, and maybe, just maybe, challenge David Price for the mound leadership of the Rays. That's a bold statement to be sure, but don't be lulled to sleep on draft day thinking he is just another arm.
R.A. Dickey (TOR) - The Jays have done some significant shuffling in their rotation, and the addition of Dickey is the highlight of that rebuilding effort. Dickey had a spectacular season with the Mets last year, winning 20 games, with a microscopic 1.05 WHIP and an equally impressive 2.73 ERA. He even notched nearly a strikeout an inning (230 in 233-plus frames), making him arguably one of the more valuable pitchers in the fantasy game for 2012. So what do you do for an encore? With the move to the tougher AL East, many might think a sharp decline in performance is in order. I'm inclined to think any decline will be modest, not sharp. The Jays have a more potent offense for run support, so he could again get into the 20-win range, and he has the control to keep men off base, which can limit the damage to his ERA that might be expected again some of the division's juggernaut lineups. And, his unique knuckleball will be new to many of the hitters he faces, so the strikeouts should come as well. Add it all up, and while his ERA might jump a bit, those overestimating the damage done by the AL East could let him slip a bit deeper than he should in many leagues.
Josh Johnson (TOR) - I'll admit it right up front - this spot would normally be reserved for Brandon Morrow, but I am guessing any regular readers of "Bogfella's Notebook" already know how much and how often I tout Mr. Morrow. So, how does Johnson fit into the new Jays outlook? He had a strong rebound year after injuries severely limited his production in three of the last six seasons. He logged 191-plus innings and provided a nice 3.81 ERA to go with a decent 1.28 WHIP, all while pitching for a pretty bad team. Now he moves into a tougher division, but he has hopefully shaken off some of the injury-induced rust that manifested itself in mediocre command of the strike zone for much of the 2012 season. If he gets back into his early career groove, he can be a top-of-the-rotation starter in any division. He is in a contract year, so he will no doubt be focused on proving the injuries are a thing of the past, and that he is back in top form. To be honest, it's the injury risk that makes me most hesitant to give him a full endorsement, but he has more upside than most pitchers who will go in his round or price range, and it would be difficult to let him slip too far. Monitor him in spring training to make sure all is well.
Wei-Yin Chen (BAL) - Chen quietly put up a pretty solid season for the Orioles in 2012. He collected 12 wins with a 4.02 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP. He's not overpowering so his 154 strikeouts in 192-plus innings were marginally useful to his fantasy owners. Unlike some of the pitchers discussed here who have the stuff to get out of serious jams, even when facing dangerous AL East hitters, Chen does his work with more finesse. That limits his ceiling, but the veteran from Japan is cagey enough to keep batters off balance most of the time, and because he throws strikes, he will often be in the game long enough to notch a win if the Orioles give him a few runs. Last season was his first in MLB, but he is not a kid (he'll turn 28 in July) so there isn't a lot of reason to believe his stock is significantly on the rise. Rather, on draft day he should be viewed as a reasonably consistent innings eater who can fit solidly into the middle or back of a fantasy rotation. I like his chances of showing modest improvement in his peripherals as he becomes more familiar with the hitters he will face.
Hiroki Kuroda (NYY) - Kuroda is probably just a more experienced (he is 10 years older) and more savvy version of Wei-Yin Chen. He's been stateside for several years, plays for a better team, and has shown that the move to the New York City spotlight is not a problem. His nearly 220 innings, a solid 1.17 WHIP and a quality 3.32 ERA in 2012 are pretty much the norm for this veteran, and while he is never really a spotlight pitcher on fantasy draft day, there is no reason not to include him on your staff if the price is right. Because he doesn't rely on a blazing fastball, and has proven that he can place the ball wherever he chooses, pitch after pitch, he is a great stabilizer on the Yankees and on his fantasy roster. He won't collect huge strikeout totals, but he is also likely to minimize those demoralizing implosions. He hasn't pitched fewer than 196 innings in three seasons, so until he starts showing signs of advancing age, he is worth a shot. The Yankees resigned him for one year this winter when he probably could have gotten two years somewhere else, so its not impossible that this could be his last season in the United States.
Michael Pineda (NYY) - This one is more of a flyer pick for those in keeper or dynasty leagues, or leagues with a bench deep enough to stash a potential difference-maker still rehabbing from an injury. He opened a lot of eyes, including mine, in 2011 with the Mariners as he pitched with poise well beyond his years, and displayed the stuff that gets pitchers to the top of the list in short order. He developed shoulder problems prior to last season, and went under the knife in April. I will say that I hate shoulder problems. They are often more difficult to fix, require longer rehab, and are notorious for setbacks during that rehab. Even with all that, if you can find a space on your roster, he really did look that good in Seattle. He recently started throwing off of a full mound, has reportedly had none of those annoying setbacks, and a best-case scenario could see him back in the rotation about midseason. That should give his keeper and dynasty owners plenty of opportunity to see if he is ready to pick up where he left off on a very promising career.
Jon Lester (BOS) - It's hard to say how fantasy owners will react to the ugly and annoyingly inconsistent year put up by Lester in 2012. After four years of productive pitching, the wheels came off last season. He registered a horrid 4.82 ERA, produced with a sprinkling of awful outings mixed in with a quality start here and there. His WHIP was uncharacteristically high at 1.38, his strikeout rate was a career low and like just about everything else in Boston last year, it was basically like a bad dream. Too many walks, after falling behind in counts, also lead to a spike in home runs allowed when he tried throwing get-me-over fastballs - something that rarely works at this level. Given his track record, and no reported injury problems, I am willing to give him a mulligan for 2012. The whole Red Sox season went sour, so it only figures that their ace would have his share of lemons as well. There were reports that he was unhappy in Boston, and that he was struggling with the negative press he was getting much of the year, but if he gets his rhythm back, and stays focused, he can be back on top.
Baltimore Sleeper (BAL) - This is actually going to involve more than one name, because there are several Orioles pitchers who could emerge as a useful starter on fantasy staffs. Add these guys to your list: Jair Jurrjens, if his knee is sound, which would allow them to finalize his signing; Jake Arrieta, who has flashed just enough to make him an intriguing flyer if he could ever develop some consistency; Brian Matusz, who had everyone talking in 2010 before self-destructing the next year; Dylan Bundy, a gem who night sparkle if the Orioles decide he doesn't need more seasoning; and last year's fourth overall pick in the draft, Kevin Gausman, who has the talent and major college experience that could get him to Baltimore sooner than later. Watch the developments in spring training, but pay particular attention to Gausman - he is nearly two years older than Bundy, and has that kind of ceiling. When healthy, I love Jurrjens, but that knee is chronic, the Orioles probably will leave Matusz in the pen where he enjoyed some success last season. Arrieta could be a viable starter, but without the upside of Gausman, and Bundy needs perhaps another season in the minors.
The Endgame Odyssey
Here we'll cover some notes and observations on the closer scenarios across baseball. For the next six weeks, the focus will be on the division featured in arms to watch.
Jim Johnson jumped up and took MLB by storm once he claimed the closer's gig in Baltimore, and he'll likely have a very long leash after last season's performance. . Boston got Andrew Bailey back late last season, but he wasn't the closer they had seen in Oakland so they went out and got Joel Hanrahan from Pittsburgh to handle the end game. If Bailey proves healthy, he is the backup, but he could also be moved in a deal to one of several teams who could use his healthy services. In New York, it will finally again be business as usual with the ageless Mariano Rivera who missed last season with an injury. Tampa Bay decided to give Fernando Rodney another chance to close in 2012 - he had been tried in other cities - and apparently the gulf coast air agreed with him as he was one of the most dominant closers in the game. And in Toronto, after Sergio Santos was acquired, it looked like he would be the closer. His shoulder disagreed, and he missed most of the year, which opened the door for Casey Janssen. Santos hopes to be back at full strength, but it is a shoulder, so no guarantees. And Janssen did an admirable job, so it should be his to lose.
Next week we'll look at Eight Arms to Watch in the NL East.
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