This wraps up 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 NL West
Ian Kennedy (ARZ) - Kennedy is not a power pitcher, and it takes a very special guy to rank high on my list without some pretty good gas. This is one that made that very positive impression on me when he was still in the Yankees system, and he produced handily a couple of seasons ago. Unfortunately, he wasn't as successful last year, but there were still many of the same indicators present that convinced me he could be a very good one early on. That said, I am giving him a mulligan for 2012, and hoping for a value buy in 2013 drafts. He is a finesse pitcher, but more important, he always appears to have a plan. That is impressive, especially in a relatively young arm. While he certainly isn't there yet, think Greg Maddux. He didn't have overpowering stuff, but he possessed excellent command of the strike zone, and he was always 2-3 pitches ahead of the hitter with his plan of attack. Arizona is not a very forgiving environment, so he will need to avoid mistakes, but he is the type of pitcher who can do just that. He should be a little less popular at the table this spring, and if he is, I'm buying.
Dan Hudson (ARZ) - He joined the D'Backs in 2010 and made an instant splash. He followed that up with a very strong 2011, and the future looked very bright. However, he had some shoulder problems early last season, went on the DL, then came back with decreased velocity, and what ended up being a torn UCL that lead to Tommy John surgery. He is rehabbing now, and is expected back around mid-season, but he may be somewhat forgotten in many leagues. He may be of marginal help this year as there is sure to be some rust to shake off when he does return, but he could be a very useful (and inexpensive) keeper heading into 2014. He and the coaches have been tweaking his motion which should make him both more efficient, and hopefully less likely to suffer more physical problems in the future. If you have a roster that allows you to pick up a guy like Hudson, and wait to see how things shake out, he's worth the risk.
Tim Lincecum (SF) - I bought Lincecum in every league I played in before he ever threw a pitch in professional baseball (2006), and enjoyed a brilliant run (they were all keeper leagues) before his extremely valuable contract expired. He was the best pitcher I had seen in several years when he was coming into the pros, and really only one other has shown me that kind of ceiling since (Strasburg). Last year was a nightmare. His unorthodox delivery was out of synch and it cost him both velocity and command. He had to throw more "get me over" pitches or issue uncharacteristic walks, and both haunted him time and time again. His numbers were probably the worst of any starter who took a regular turn in 2012. So far this spring, the velocity has come back - he's sitting around 92-93 mph - and there are signs the command is gradually coming back as well. He probably isn't far enough removed from those dominating Cy Young years to see a huge drop in perceived value, but he should be around at a healthy discount, and that is enough for me to grab him, and hope that as a 28-year-old he is far from done.
Hyun-Jin Ryu (LAD) - It's really hard to say how Ryu will fit into major league baseball. The Dodgers signed him to a lucrative contract, and he will get a chance to pitch in a pitcher-friendly environment for a team that has had a lot of success with arms over the years. Those are certainly positive factors. However, his impressive numbers come out of Korea (he posted a 2.66 ERA with 210 strikeouts and just 46 walks in over 182 innings last season), and not Japan, so there are reasons to be cautious with your optimism. There is a good chance that some fantasy owners will think of Yu Darvish and his skill set when evaluating Ryu, and that would be a mistake. The portly lefty is unlikely to be a top-of-the rotation pitcher in the United States even when he reaches his ceiling, and might very well suffer from transitional bumps in the road as he adapts to the game at this level. He does possess four quality pitches, with a fastball that sits in the low 90s, and he has shown an ability to miss bats in his career while staying in or close to the strike zone, but unless he is not drawing much interest at all in your league, you might be best served by letting another owner overpay. It's funny how imports are often all the rage, especially just after one has a reasonably successful debut in MLB, but in truth most turn out to be just average players at best. Don't get caught up in any frenzy.
Chris Capuano (LAD) - I picked him up a couple of years ago (when with the Mets) hoping he could stay healthy for a full season - something he hadn't done in a while. He did, and while the numbers weren't great, he was a useful back of the rotation match-up guy, and there were some signs he could be even better, further removed from the injuries that had taen him out of the equation for two-plus years. Last season, he did show some improvement, albeit he is still prone to giving up the long ball at some inopportune times, and he posted what could be his best season as a major leaguer. He is fighting for the fifth spot in the Dodgers rotation, and should be the favorite to claim that role. And, even if he is relegated to the bullpen to start the year, there are enough question marks on the staff to likely see him back in the rotation sooner rather than later. He is now 34, so it would be a bit too optimistic to expect another jump in performance at this stage of his career, but having a couple of guys like Capuano available to you as the season progresses could be just enough help to keep your team in contention when you need someone to give you some innings. If he could just avoid that one bad pitch a game, he could be a very useful addition.
Cory Luebke (SD) - A lot of fantasy owners waited patiently - or maybe not so patiently - as Lubeke toiled in the Padres bullpen for much of the 2011 season. He was clearly a better option than some of the arms in the rotation, but he was relatively inexperienced, and he was the only viable left-handed option in the bullpen. They did eventually stretch him out, and then installed him in the rotation where he compiled 17 very encouraging starts. So encouraging in fact, that there was considerable optimism heading into last season, and he got off to a strong start. Unfortunately, ligament damage sent him to the operating table for Tommy John surgery after just five 2012 starts. As a major league starter, he has shown the ability to consistently throw strikes, and to miss enough bats to ring up about a hitter per inning on average. Add his extremely pitcher friendly home park into that mix, and there is good reason to look forward to his return. The surgery was done last May, and with a normal 12-month recovery/rehab, he could be back in the San Diego rotation by June. They will undoubtedly be careful with him, and won't overwork him early on, but he can still provide a fantasy team with a lot of a good number of quality innings, and pretty nice peripherals. And, like some of the others we have discussed throughout this series, he offers even more value beyond this year.
Andrew Cashner (SD) - You won't find many better arms, but you also won't find many pitchers with Cashner's medical charts. The guy can regularly sit in the upper 90s and touch triple digits, even as a starting pitcher, but he can't stay out of the trainer's room. The Cubs waited for the injury smoke to clear, but they eventually shipped him to San Diego where the story was much the same. He was electric when on the mound last season, and took a dominating no-hitter into one start, then strained a lat muscle in the next and spent a couple more months on the DL. This off-season, he suffered a lacerated tendon in his thumb in a non-baseball related injury so he has just now started serious throwing in preparation for the upcoming season. The Padres are committed to seeing if they can keep him the rotation, and if they are successful, you'll be just as happy as they are to have him on your roster. He may not be quite ready for Opening Day, but barring any setbacks or any other injuries, he should be good to go soon after, and there isn't much blocking him for the fifth spot in the rotation.
Jhoulys Chacin (COL) - Colorado isn't the pitcher's graveyard it used to be, but it's still volatile enough to require a superior talent if you are looking for consistent, and long term success from a Rockies starter. That said, there just isn't anyone in the rotation that gives me that optimistic feeling. Chacin was shelled early and often last season, and then missed several months with a pectoral injury. He is listed here because I wanted to talk about at least one arm on every team, and because when he returned from that injury, he showed enough command to last five innings despite a rather short pitch count restriction. In fact, for much of last season, most Colorado starters were strictly limited regarding pitch counts, and more often than not, they didn't last the five innings required to qualify for a win. If that trend continues in 2013, perhaps consider using Rockies long men to fulfill any of your league's reliever requirements, and leave the starting staff alone. In fact, even if that pitch limit plan isn't a factor this season, I think I'll just leave the beautiful city of Denver in my vacation plans rather than in my fantasy pitching program. Jeff Francis, I loved you once.
The Endgame Odyssey
Here we'll cover some notes and observations on the closer scenarios across baseball. For the last six weeks, the focus has been on the division featured in arms to watch.
One of the more reliable closers the past couple of seasons, Arizona's J.J. Putz is quite competent as long as he's healthy. When he does need downtime, David Hernandez has proven to be a nice fill-in. The Rockies will again turn to Rafael Betancourt, though they would probably like to see Rex Brothers take it up a notch. And, the Dodgers could be the most perplexing end game scenario in baseball. They have one of the best in Kenley Jansen, but signed Brandon League to an expensive three-year deal, and named him their closer. Don't expect that to last. Jansen is the far superior option. Huston Street is not unlike Putz, in that he is very effective when healthy, but he rarely completes a season without some DL time. Dale Thayer was his caddy last season as the Friars prefer to leave premier set-up man Luke Gregerson in that role. Finally, in San Francisco, Sergio Romo will likely get the first call, but they also like him much better in a set-up role, and could perhaps let Santiago Casilla have another crack at closing if the wind blows that direction.