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Mound Musings: AL Central Spotlight

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

For more than 25 years, pitching guru Brad "Bogfella" Johnson has provided insightful evaluation and analysis of pitchers to a wide variety of fantasy baseball websites, webcasts and radio broadcasts. He joined RotoWire in 2011 with his popular Bogfella's Notebook.

We're getting close to the middle of my six-part series on some key arms to watch in each of baseball's six divisions. As you know, 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 Central

Chris Sale (CWS) -
It would be hard to imagine Sale having a better year than he had in 2012, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility. He won 17 games, posted a nifty 1.14 WHIP and a 3.05 ERA while striking out a batter an inning over 192 frames. That said, he is naturally on the small side, and there were times when he looked a little fatigued. It was nearly double the innings he pitched the previous year, so it shouldn't come as a huge surprise. He has built on some weight over winter to help with his stamina in a grueling season, so he could be even more dominant in 2013. Perhaps the only concern is his durability. The innings jump from 2011 could be a negative, and the White Sox actually toyed with moving him back to the bullpen at one point last year - despite his effectiveness in the rotation. He has experienced minor elbow problems, but nothing significant, at least so far, and there were indications the team might opt to protect him a bit. Given his obvious ability, and the potential to be even better as he matures, I would set aside injury concerns, and roster him if I could get him at face value. The upside is there for more.

Gavin Floyd (CWS) -
Last season was something of a roller coaster for Floyd, who was once considered a top pitching prospect, but one that has never quite reached the peak. As has become his calling card, there were exceptional starts mixed with poor outings, his walk rate and WHIP were up, but his strikeout rate increased too. He pitches in a hitter-friendly park and served up too many home runs - often after falling behind in counts - so there was definitely a mix of good and bad. He's now 30 years old. Do you give him another chance to fulfill some of that earlier promise? The White Sox think so. They picked up a fairly lucrative option during the offseason, and I have to agree with that decision. There were too many times where he looked very sharp last year, better than he has in the past, so perhaps he is hinting at being able to lock it in and pitch to his potential. There have even been rumors of trade possibilities - and moving out of his current homer-happy park could help. If he can command the strike zone more consistently, he has the stuff to be more successful. If that happens, he will no doubt have been undervalued on draft day in most leagues.

Wade Davis (KC) -
Davis spent 2012 in the Tampa Bay bullpen, and enjoyed a great deal of success in the role. Coming to Kansas City in the blockbuster deal that sent Wil Myers to the Rays, he will now move back to the rotation, and take a regular turn every five days. The question is how will the move impact his performance. Shorter outings resulted in more velocity on his fastball and better breaking stuff; he didn't have to face a lineup several times a game and that netted him more strikeouts. I have always liked what Davis has shown, so with the move to Kansas City (the Rays certainly have a better reputation with pitchers) and possible doubts about his effectiveness as a starter perhaps deflating his price on draft day, I am willing to take a flier. He is not going to be a top-of-the-rotation arm, but he could be a nice addition to the back end of a fantasy rotation, and he won't have to face the heavy lumber in the AL East nearly as often as he has. Be careful not to overpay - if someone is willing to buy completely into his 2012 statistics as a reliever, let him. But, if Davis fails to generate much interest on draft, take a shot.

James Shields (KC) -
The outlook for Shields isn't unlike that of Davis, with one huge difference - Shields is a proven ace. He has hurled 200-plus innings every season for the last six, and he is efficient enough to get deep into games. The Rays have shown the ability to develop pitchers, and the Royals have not, but the veteran Shields should be able to help himself at this point in his career. Kansas City is a young and improving team, and its home park is similarly pitcher-friendly to his most recent digs in Tampa, so I would tend to downplay the negatives of moving to the Royals. And, as mentioned, Shields is likely to be much more at ease facing the Twins and Indians more often rather than the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays. If I had any doubts, they would center on Shields' occasional tendency to get out of synch with his mechanics. It happened in 2010 - and it was ugly - and it happened briefly last season, but he snapped out of it quickly. The gambit here is Royals pitchers do not demand the same respect as Rays pitchers on draft day, so it's quite possible he could be slightly undervalued. If you can get him as a second or third starter on your staff, do it.

Liam Hendriks (MIN) -
You might think it's surprising to see a pitcher who is listed as a possible fifth starter on a pitching-starved team, and who posted a dismal 1-8 record with a 1.55 WHIP and a 5.59 ERA over 85 innings in the major leagues in 2012, but Hendriks will come in as a dollar special on draft day. He is not overpowering, he relies on pinpoint command, keeping the ball down in the zone and keeping batted balls on the ground. It didn't happen in 2012 - at least not in the majors. In Triple-A over 106 innings, he walked just 28, so the plan works when executed properly. When he is on his game, he has an average fastball in the low 90s and an array of offspeed stuff, all of which he can throw for strikes in any count or situation. Given the starters listed immediately ahead of him in the Twins rotation - Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey - I would probably list him as their third starter ahead of Scott Diamond (if healthy) and Vance Worley. He should get his innings, and I am willing to gamble on him settling in with the experience of last season under his belt. He won't ever be an ace, but it would be hard to imagine too many drafts where he will command any kind of price. If you need a cheap arm with upside, he's not a bad bet.

Vance Worley (MIN) -
Worley is yet another pitcher who will wear a new uniform in 2013. Perhaps more important, he should be healthier after having surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow last fall. He had a solid season in 2011 with a 1.23 WHIP and a 3.01 ERA to go with a decent strikeout rate. In 2012, his walk rate and strikeout rate were comparable, but he was simply too hittable, as he spent far too much time in the middle of the plate for a pitcher with his average stuff. His WHIP jumped to 1.51 and his ERA ballooned to 4.20 so fantasy owners were left with a bad taste in their collective mouths. For this season, with his elbow at 100 percent, there is a good chance he can return to his 2011 form, and while he may not get as much run support in Minnesota, he will be pitching half the time in a much more pitcher-friendly environment. Like many of the arms covered in this series, he is never going to be an ace. Most of those will be easy enough to identify, and unfortunately they will almost always carry a price tag that reflects their potential to shine. In most leagues, the known superstars won't win you a championship, but uncovering quality arms to round out your staff can.

Rick Porcello (DET) -
You've all heard it before - Porcello is due to big strides toward his potential. Well, I'm going to say it once more. He actually made strides last year, albeit not really big one. His fastball velocity jumped nearly two miles per hour, his strikeout rate showed modest improvement and there were times when he looked much more in command overall. I expect to see even more improvement in 2013, and with Porcello fighting for the fifth spot in the rotation, the improvement could be all the more dramatic should the Tigers find a suitable trade partner. All that offense certainly gives him a better opportunity to accumulate wins, but a very shaky infield defense is no big bonus to a groundball pitcher like Porcello, so a move almost anywhere else could be a nice assist to his peripherals. His numbers in 2012 - 10 wins, a 1.53 WHIP, a 4.59 ERA and only 107 punch outs in 176 innings - are not going to make him a hot commodity on draft day. But people sometimes forget that while it seems he has been around forever, he is still just 24 years old.

Trevor Bauer (CLE) -
The last pitcher on our AL Central list is a tough one to assess, and while I love his upside, I am not ready to give him a glowing recommendation for this season. Bauer is a tremendous talent, but he clearly showed he wasn't ready for the big show in a couple looks in Arizona last season. He was the minor league pitcher of the year, owning both Double-A and Triple-A despite some modest control issues, but when he reached the majors, he lost all command of the strike zone (13 walks in 16 innings) resulting in a 1.65 WHIP and a 6.06 ERA. To make matters worse, he displayed some lack of maturity that drew the ire of both coaches and teammates, and probably contributed to his even being considered in trade talks. He's now in Cleveland, or at least in the organization, but he needs seasoning at the minor league level. Bauer has all the tools, and he should get a better grip on things as he develops, but he's a risky play this year. If you play in a keeper or dynasty, the risk is palatable, but in a re-draft, I'd probably stay away.

The Endgame Odyssey

Here we'll cover some notes and observations on the closer scenarios across baseball. For the next few weeks, the focus will be on the division featured in arms to watch.

Like some of the starting rotations in the division, there are more than a few question makrs in the bullpens as well. Chicago's Addison Reed got his baptism under fire last season. He struggled at times, but hopefully the experience will help this year. He has the stuff to be a very good one. Chris Perez gets saves despite the occasional blow up. He'll be the closer again in Cleveland, but Vinnie Pestano is one good trade offer for Perez from stepping in. The Tigers want to give the closer's gig to Bruce Rondon, and if he can throw strikes, he'll get the nod. If he can't do it, look for a carousel of arms like Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel to fill in, or even a deal or free-agent signing (Brian Wilson) to have a go. The Royals got a nice boost from Greg Holland, and he'll be their primary end gamer again, but keep an eye on Kelvin Herrera who may be sneaking into the picture at some point. And, the Twins will hand the ball to Glen Perkins if they can carry a lead into the ninth, but it's mostly because they just don't have any better options.

Next week we'll look at Eight Arms to Watch in the NL Central.

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