We have four down and two to go in my six-part series on 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 West
Yu Darvish (TEX) - Darvish was the focus of considerable attention prior to last season as many fantasy owners sensed the arrival of a true impact player from the Pacific Rim. He got off to a shaky start, particularly with his control, and there were a lot of people ready to jump off the bandwagon, and label him just another "star" in Japan who wouldn't be able to cut it in the United States. I watched him several times, though I didn't own him in many leagues after seeing his price inflate in most 2012 drafts. You could see the stuff, and you could see the upside, but the numbers shadowed much of that. Unfortunately, as I dreamt of picking him up at a huge discount this season, he got things together too soon, and pretty much dowsed any hope of stealing him in 2013. A great strikeout provider with an exceptionally high ceiling - even pitching in Texas - he might still be available at a discount so get him now, because even the small discount won't last much longer.
Derek Holland (TEX) - Quality, young, left-handed starting pitchers were put on this Earth to make fantasy baseball owners crazy. Meet Mr. Holland. Like many southpaws at this stage of their careers, he is still finding, or at least looking for, consistency. There is no question he has the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation starter, and there were outings last year where he made that very obvious. Unfortunately, he oftend followed those outings with a shelling when he lost his release point, failed to stay on top of the ball and saw movement on his pitches disappear. That's how you look fantastic, and still manage to post a pretty mediocre 4.67 ERA. He throws strikes, is gradually missing more bats and has the ability to dominate opposing hitters when he keeps all the parts moving in the right directions. Expect that to become more and more frequent as he matures, and while there could be an occasional bump in the road, when it all comes together, you want to make sure he is on your roster.
Hisashi Iwakuma (SEA) - Like Darvish, Iwakuma also arrived from Japan prior to last season. He wasn't expected to be a major factor like Darvish, but a lot of people thought he could be a contributor, especially pitching in a friendly home park like Seattle. There was a lot of head-scratching when he was left out of the rotation, and he rarely entered games out of the bullpen early in the year, but when he did pitch, the results were respectable. As the season progressed, and his role intensified, an opening popped up in the rotation, and Iwakuma was asked to step in. He spent the last half of the season solidifying his rotation spot, ending the year with a 1.28 WHIP and a 3.16 ERA. He goes into 2013 behind only Felix Hernandez in the Mariners rotation, and a lot of fantasy owners have asked if he's for real. Based on what I saw last year, I would say he is, and it appears that his conservative usage while he learned the intricacies of the American game may have served him well. He is not a dominating force, but he can collect enough strikeouts to help, and he still has that nice home park on his side.
Danny Hultzen (SEA) - I always watch with enthusiasm when the first year player draft takes place. I have my "draft board" prepared, and I find myself hoping pitchers I am especially interested in find their way to favorable organizations. Two years ago there was considerable hype regarding a very deep crop of young arms that included guys like Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Hultzen. It was a tough task ranking them. Cole had the best arm, and Bauer had some wicked stuff, but poise and polish belonged to Hultzen, and he was left-handed, always a nice bonus. I ended up narrowly putting Hultzen at the top of that year's board, and he is still very high on my prospect list. He breezed through his stint at Double-A Jackson, but then stumbled a bit with his command when he reached Triple-A Tacoma, causing the Seattle brain trust to slow things down a bit. He'll begin 2013 back at Tacoma, but look for him to arrive in the majors sometime this season. Being that potentially frustrating quality, young, lefty, when he does arrive there could be some ups and downs, making his value in redafts somewhat lower, but you could build a keeper/dynasty rotation around him once he gets settled. The M's, who have a great reputation for finding talented arms but haven't always been the most successful at developing them, also have another blue-chipper in Taijuan Walker, who has a similar ceiling, but may not debut in Seattle as soon as Hultzen.
Jason Vargas (ANA) - Vargas makes this list because I am fond of the "changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes" angle with pitchers who have shown some promise, but have failed to reach their potential. I have seen some nice performances turned in by him, and I have also seen some real clinkers - sometimes even in the same game. He can be cruising, and seemingly lose focus long enough to allow a couple of base runners and a long ball to bring them all around and turn a very good outing into an ERA buster. Moving from Seattle to Anaheim is certainly no boost from a peripherals standpoint, but he should get more support, and there's always the chance someone in the Angels organization knows where his on/off switch is located, and how to turn it on full time. He's a bit risky, because that turnaround is hard to predict until you see it happening, but if you are looking for a late-round flyer to fill out the back of your rotation, there is some reason for optimism. He won't get a lot of strikeouts, and he is never going to be an ace, but he could give you some reasonably quality innings, and pick up a few wins along the way with his new team.
Tommy Hanson (ANA) - Some people would say I don't lend enough attention to injury risks for pitchers. It's true, I won't usually avoid a pitcher who is coming back from Tommy John surgery, or who piled up a big increase in innings pitched the previous season, but there is one area that always makes me extremely jittering regarding a pitcher's outlook - shoulder woes. And, that is the story of Hanson's career to this point. He was one of the most promising young arms in the game from 2009-2011, but shoulder problems have possibly derailed a promising future. Last season Hanson noticeably backed down on his somewhat violent motion, which had probably contributed to the rotator cuff problems, and it resulted in both decreased velocity, and inconsistent command of the strike zone. In essence, Hanson's dynamic arm/shoulder has "aged" significantly, and he finds himself needing to adjust from being a power pitcher to more of a finesse guy, similar to what many older pitchers have to face late in their careers. And, the results last season suggest it could be a very steep hill to climb for Hanson who rarely looked comfortable with his new pitching style. He now moves west to sunny California, but his star may be fading rapidly. There is some chance he could end up making the necessary adjustment, but there are those who will probably still pay for the circa 2009-2011 Hanson, and for that, I'll pass.
Jarrod Parker (OAK) - A couple of years ago Parker was at the top of my elite pitching prospect list before needing Tommy John surgery in 2010 and losing some of his developmental momentum as he rehabbed. However, that was an elbow, and not a shoulder, so he made it a successful return last season, and even showed significant improvement with his command in the second half as the rust was gradually being swept away. He toils in a pitcher's paradise, and he is now another year further removed from the surgery so it's not impossible that he could take yet another step forward in 2013. I would anticipate an increase in strikeouts while he gets deeper into games with better command, fewer walks, and fewer mistakes left out over the plate, and if all the components come together, he could be a very productive, high-tier fantasy starter. He's a notch below the elites, and he is not likely to reach that status, but he can be a major contributor to just about any fantasy team's mound corps. He was too productive to offer a huge discount this year, but it would be reasonable to expect a little better numbers than he compiled last season.
Jarred Cosart (HOU) - For the Astros pitching staff, they will take changes in latitudes to a whole new level in 2013. They will still be toeing the mound in Houston, but they will be doing it in a whole new league. Now in the American League West, things could look a little different, even though the results could be rather similar to those they have endured in the National League lately. There aren't a lot of bright spots on the staff. Bud Norris still has some potential to fulfill, and there is always the hope that Erik Bedard can rekindle his spark, and Alex White and Brad Peacock could progress, but perhaps the most intriguing possibilities will play out with Cosart. He will begin the season in Triple-A where he will continue to work as a starter, but there is also the chance that they could, at some point, opt to take advantage of his electric, albeit limited arsenal as a late inning reliever. He has the raw skills to eventually be successful in either role, so he could be a nice draft and stash candidate. There isn't a lot in his way looking down the Astros pitching food chain, so opportunity could knock at just about any time.
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.
In Anaheim, the Angels signed Ryan Madson, who returns after missing all 2012 after elbow surgery. He's banged up again, but they think he'll be back soon. Until then, and perhaps at some point in the future, Ernesto Frieri will get the call. Houston has an assortment of "closers" more diverse than a box of fancy chocolates, but they are all stale. Jose Veras is the apparent first in line, but Wesley Wright and Rhiner Cruz could figure into the equation, and the guy I actually like best is the oft-injured deep sleeper Chia-Jen Lo. Grant Balfour is the inexpensive answer in Oakland as long as he is healthy with Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle fall-back options. Unheralded Tom Wilhelmsen made a splash in Seattle last year, but he could just be a placeholder while the M's wait for Stephen Pryor to develop more consistent command. And, in Texas, future Hall-of-Famer Joe Nathan is back, but the Rangers also signed the talented and younger Joakim Soria, who missed last season after a string of dynamic years in Kansas City, so you can't overlook him.
Next week we'll close out the pre-season series when we look at Eight Arms to Watch in the NL West.