Hey, pitching junkies, this week we continue our season-opening 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 NL East
Stephen Strasburg (WAS) - Yes, I almost always avoid pitchers who will be drafted early, preferring to shop for bargains - pitchers who can easily outperform their price tag. However, there will generally be a handful of arms who have the upside to warrant a significant draft-day investment. Put Strasburg squarely atop that list for 2013. Now far removed from his arm surgery (in 2011) the Nats will no doubt unsnap his leash and turn him loose on the National League. That's a train you want to ride. Barring any unforeseen health problems, he should top 200 innings, and that will come with an excellent ERA, WHIP, plenty of strikeouts and probably quite a few wins playing for a serious pennant contender. I would make Strasburg and Clayton Kershaw the co-favorites for the Cy Young award, and as much as I like Kershaw, Strasburg probably has the higher ceiling. He will go early, or carry a pretty sizeable price tag, in most drafts, but he is one of those generational arms who can justify dipping a little deeper into the purse.
Jordan Zimmermann (WAS) - Sometimes being a bit forgotten on a pitching staff can be a good thing for shrewd fantasy shoppers. With Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez (assuming he doesn't run into any complications with the banned substances questions) and newly-acquired Dan Haren all taking a turn, Zimmermann could be somewhat overlooked on draft day. Time to pounce. He doesn't run up the big strikeout totals - though I do expect to see some modest improvement in his K-rate - but he will give you a solid ERA and WHIP with enough wins (he plays for that same quality offense) to be a valuable front-line fantasy starter. It's a rationale thing. How can a third or fourth starter on any given team be a top-of-the-fantasy-rotation starter? Zimmermann does not have the ceiling of Strasburg, but he is maturing, and could build on his already considerable success. If he slips behind some of the arms with less upside on draft day, take him with confidence, and mark him down as a bargain. Keep the Bogfella Code in mind: when deciding between pitchers with similar histories or recent performance, always take the higher upside.
Kris Medlen (ATL) - I talked a lot about Medlen last season, waiting (sometimes not all that patiently) for the Braves to move him into their rotation. I like his stuff, his demeanor and I think he has the skills to keep building on his success. He finally got to take a regular turn in the second half of last year, and he ended up notching 138 innings (plus another 13 at Triple-A Gwinnett while stretching out). With the big club he turned in a sparkling 0.91 WHIP and an equally impressive 1.57 ERA to go with 120 strikeouts. However, he's one you'll need to track on draft day. In some drafts, an owner might choose to pay for his 2012 WHIP and ERA. Obviously, he's not likely to match that, and that expectation would result in him being overpriced. However, in other leagues, his performance last season could be considered a short-term anomaly. There, the sure-to-come upward adjustment in his stats could be overestimated, and he suddenly becomes at least a minor bargain. He could very well post a quality season, perhaps not too unlike the aforementioned Zimmermann, and I would probably put them in the same grouping on my draft-day depth chart. Watch him closely, but be careful not to overpay.
Matt Harvey (NYM) - Typically, a young pitcher will catch my eye early in his professional career, and if I am impressed enough, I'll add his name to my watch list. Harvey didn't really fit that pattern. He was on the watch list fairly early, but near the bottom, so just someone to follow to see if he would progress as he developed. Most of the time, there will be progress, but frequently not enough to move significantly higher on the list. Harvey was an exception. Each time I saw him, he moved up. His command sharpened, his change-up became more consistent, he showed more confidence in his full repertoire, and by the time the Mets called him up late last year, he was someone I was tracking closely. He arrived in the Big Apple and made quite a splash (a 1.15 WHIP, a 2.73 ERA, 70 punch outs in 59-plus innings), which will drive his price up on draft day this season. I list him here because so many pitchers arrive in the big leagues and can instigate something of a "flavor-of-the month" frenzy when they initially enjoy some success, only to fade into mediocrity (or worse) when the league figures out their lackluster stuff or unusual delivery. Harvey is not likely to suffer that fate. His stuff is the real deal, and his owners probably won't be disappointed.
Zack Wheeler (NYM) - At this time last year, the Mets had two prized pitching prospects in Wheeler (No. 1) and Harvey (No. 2). The gap between them has closed somewhat with Harvey's performance late last season, but Wheeler remains the top dog. The Mets have already announced that he will begin the season in Triple-A, but it's hard to imagine him staying there long if he enjoys any kind of success and stays healthy. Therein lies the golden opportunity - at least in leagues with some bench flexibility. If you have room to stash him for a couple of months, the payoff could be worth the wait. Most continue to rate higher than Harvey, long term, but I see them as pretty even, and because his major league debut will be delayed, he should come at a significant discount on draft day. He was drafted out of high school, so he's about a year younger than Harvey, but both have excellent stuff, they can miss bats, and both are reining in their overall command of the strike zone - the only real problem each needs to address before moving into New York's rotation for many years to come.
Nathan Eovaldi (MIA) - I'll label Eovaldi, a "work in progress" entering this season, but I love his live arm. When I first saw him, I considered him a strong candidate to become a late-inning reliever. He had a fastball that approached triple-digits with some late movement, and he was developing a nasty slider, but his change-up was pretty fringy. Since then, both the slider and change have become more consistent, and he is just a little better command away from being a solid starting pitcher. He came up through the Dodgers organization, so he was no doubt well-grounded in the basics of mound work, but he was dealt to Miami where the rebuilding Marlins will ask him to learn on the job because they lack depth at the major league level. He still walks too many hitters, and worse, gets behind in too many counts, but it appears he is making strides in the right direction. Once he displays the confidence to throw more strikes early in counts, you can expect him to be less hittable, and could see his strikeout rate climb.
Jacob Turner (MIA) - Once considered the Tigers top pitching prospect, and one of top young arms in baseball, Jacobs was rushed to the majors (it's an organizational philosophy), and in two brief stints he was routinely battered. Then, last season he was dealt to Miami, and he pitched reasonably well in August and September for the Marlins. Looking ahead to 2013, he could be a nice addition to a keeper or dynasty league squad, as he really is a promising young arm. But Miami looks like a brutal club on paper this year - both offensively and defensively - and he still probably lacks the consistency to turn in quality performances start after start. He has a higher ceiling than Eovaldi, and like the former, he'll probably get plenty of innings on a team that doesn't have much else to throw at opponents, but he could cause some damage to your staff's peripherals from time to time. He'd likely function best as a spot starter where fantasy owners can choose his matchups against weaker teams and in more pitcher-friendly ballparks. As with Eovaldi, there is some future here, but beware the present.
Cole Hamels (PHI) - Back near the top of this week's column, I explained how being slotted behind other talented arms in a rotation could lead to a draft-day bargain. Hamels has been there, filling a spot at the back of the Phillies rotation behind aces Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, but he's probably not going to slip very far these days. Fantasy owners know all about him, and with Halladay and Lee slightly slipping recently, Hamels might even be considered the staff ace now. He picked up 17 wins in 2012, with a sharp WHIP and ERA, while averaging about a strikeout an inning. The only concern might be linked to reports that he suffered some shoulder stiffness over winter, and then was thought to have had more shoulder woes, albeit minor, at the beginning of spring training. He denies any significant problems, so monitor his usage in February and March, and pencil him in near the top of your starting pitching draft grid if he experiences no further health problems.
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.
Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel will be the top closer on most draft day depth charts, and deservedly so. Barring any injuries, he should continue to set the bar in a fantasy category that seems to be more and more unstable. Steve Cishek wins the closer's job in Miami, and he did reasonably well for a bad team in the role last season. Still, he is a second or better, a third closer for a fantasy team. The Mets want Bobby Parnell to close, but he has been shaky when asked to do so, leading them to repeatedly name the perpetually injured Frank Francisco their guy. It's hard to say exactly when but expect Parnell to claim the gig sooner than later. Jonathan Papelbon will again end games in Philadelphia, and given the recent turmoil in major league bullpens, he's a pretty good bet to be one of the more reliable. In Washington, it's a case of the rich get richer. The Nats already had a premier closer in Drew Storen, and then signed another end gamer, Rafael Soriano, in the offseason, bumping Storen to a set-up role. It's a luxury that could be difficult to justify, so don't be surprised if the highly coveted Storen changes uniforms when or if the Nationals need to upgrade somewhere else.
Next week we'll look at Eight Arms to Watch in the AL Central.
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