The Cream of the Crop on Draft Day 2014
Every year about this time, the debates begin regarding the top pitchers to come off the board in next year's draft. Sometimes it's trying to acquire one of those studs before this season ends, or if you're out of the running for 2013, it might just be time for "wait 'til next year" planning. This is always a tough assignment because not only do you have to consider this year's stats, but the wise owner really needs to mix in some expectations for next season. As I always say, anyone can draft based on the past, but winner's usually look into the future too. That said, here are my top arms for next year - assuming they stay healthy, of course - three in the National League, and three in the American League. Let's take a look.
Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers)
Simply stated, he's the best pitcher in the game today. He is sitting on a 0.88 WHIP and a 1.72 ERA, he has logged more than 200 innings with a month to go in the season (you can do that when you are as efficient as he is), and he averages just below a strikeout an inning. He pitches for a good team in a pitcher-friendly park, and with their deep pockets, the Dodgers may be even better in 2014. Kershaw is only 25, and being left-handed, you might consider him far ahead of the typical development curve for southpaws. Many don't begin to settle in until they are his age or older, and he has already firmly established himself as one of the best as he works on his third consecutive season with the best ERA in the game. The scary part - I have a hard time seeing how, but he could actually get even better. There just aren't any holes in his game, and it's rare to say that about any pitcher, let alone a young lefty. It would greatly surprise me if he wasn't the first pitcher off the board in virtually every draft next year, and he could be good enough, across all categories, to go very early.
Yu Darvish (Texas Rangers)
This could be the first of a couple of surprises in this ranking. I am going to make Darvish my top American League pick, and second overall. His ranking relies on both what he has done in 2013, and what I think he might do in 2014 and beyond. He is still getting fully comfortable with baseball in North America, and he is already a dominating pitcher in a lot of ways. First and foremost, he misses bats, and he misses them considerably more often than most of his contemporaries. Consider this: Darvish easily leads the major leagues in strikeouts with about 30 more than the next arm on the list. Yet, he has pitched just 168-plus innings, some 30 behind the league leaders. His command can still be shaky at times, leading to higher pitch counts and too many walks. With his repertoire of about 8-10 different pitches, it's not hard to imagine the challenge of commanding them all every night. If his command improves, and he could pitch deeper into games without escalating pitch counts, his strikeout totals could be mind-boggling - at least for this day and age. At his current strikeout rate, if he were to log 240 innings, he would register 320 strikeouts. He does pitch in a dangerous home park, but the surrounding cast is explosive, and he has a knack for always giving the Rangers a shot. Put his potential ceiling with that amazing strikeout rate, and I'll take him in the draft right behind Kershaw.
Adam Wainwright (St. Louis Cardinals)
As prolific as Darvish is with strikeouts, Wainwright is as stingy with walks, and that is his calling card. With perhaps the best command - game in and game out - of any pitcher in baseball, he methodically slices and dices hitters. He is all the way back after missing all 2011, and at 31 he is probably in his prime. He's not especially overpowering, but he throws everything for quality strikes. Take note of that word "quality" in his case. There are pitchers who can stay within the strike zone as consistently, but none come to mind that can virtually always hit an exact target. If you love reliability, and a pitcher throwing a clinker makes you crazy, take Wainwright, as he rarely (his last horrid start being the exception, of course) tosses a bad one.
Stephen Strasburg (Washington Nationals)
I'm going to consider 2013 a bit of an outlier for Strasburg. He has posted a solid WHIP (1.06) and a respectable ERA (3.00) while recording a strikeout per inning. It all sounds like he's doing very well. Right? I don't think so. His walk rate is higher than I would expect, and the Nationals have put him under stress with poor run support for most of his starts. Young pitchers can react to those low scoring affairs by nibbling, pitching to contact more often to extend their stay in the game, and by suffering higher levels of fatigue. Strasburg is better, probably much better, than the 2013 version, and I expect both he and the Nationals to show how much better next season.
Felix Hernandez (Seattle Mariners)
Is it possible that King Felix is only 27? The guy is aging well, and while he hasn't always been quite as dominant as he was when he first arrived, he can still take control of a game, and I think an improving Mariners team, along with the arrival of some very talented young arms, could motivate him to step up to a new level as soon as next year. He has been his usual workhorse self this year, and my only concern is the high mileage at such a young age. He's pitched 200-plus innings each of the past six seasons (anticipating more than 200 this year), and that's a lot of wear and tear on the body. That said, I look for a stellar year in 2014, and the King could lead Seattle back to postseason prominence.
Chris Sale (Chicago White Sox)
Really bad teams can mask the performance of individuals, and the White Sox have been the definition of really bad for most of 2013. My expectations for Sale center on both the team's improvement, and his evolution into a top-tier starting pitcher. He has the stuff, and the mound demeanor to be exceptional, but he also has already developed a history of chronic arm problems. They haven't been severe, but they have brought on discussions related to lighter workloads, and even possible moves to the bullpen. That's enough to make me nervous, but I'm a risk taker, and if he is healthy, he can be a monster on the mound. I'm betting on a step forward in 2014.
There are certainly a lot of other pitchers who could have made the list, but didn't. Guys like Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, David Price, Matt Harvey (pre-injury), rookie Jose Fernandez and Madison Bumgarner have given reasons, recently or in the past, to be considered, but the six named are the three in each league I'm circling on draft day.
Rotation Short Takes
Kevin Gausman (BAL) - I like him every bit as much as I did when I labeled him the best pitching prospect in the 2012 draft. He has generated mixed results so far, which just hopefully kept his price tag lower if you are trying to acquire him. He isn't going to be a big help this year, but in keepers and dynasties, I'm buying.
Roy Halladay (PHI) - I love the guy, and he has had a career to be more than proud of, however I am skeptical regarding how much he has left. I want to see him a little more as he shakes off the rust, but be very careful not to pay vintage-Doc prices for him just yet. It's possible we won't know for sure until next spring.
Taijuan Walker (SEA) - The Mariners called up Walker to start Friday. I don't expect him to be used hard over the next few weeks, but he is definitely someone you want to roster in keeper leagues as soon as he is eligible. I'm not quite as high on Walker as some analysts, but he is blue chip.
Ricky Nolasco (LAD) - He has seriously picked it up since moving to the west coast - many pitchers do - but I am not totally convinced he is the "new" Nolasco. He has never lacked potential really, but he has been unable to keep a solid focus, and I want to see continued consistency before I jump on the bandwagon.
Jeremy Hellickson (TB) - Hellickson has done his own version of Nolasco much of this season. He's too hittable, and he doesn't command the strike zone, even from inning to inning some times. The Rays sent him down, presumably to get his mind on the really important stuff - like quality performance, so maybe this will get him going.
R.A. Dickey (TOR) - I was tempted to add him to my top names list for 2014, and probably would have had I gone just a little deeper. I didn't expect 2012 results this season, but I don't think he ever really got in synch this year. I love his innings-eater durability, and I think he comes at a substantial discount next season.
The Endgame Odyssey
Jason Grilli continues to say he will return to the Pittsburgh pen sooner rather than later, and he would presumably step back into the closer's role pretty quickly. The latest projections still say early September, so barring a setback, Mark Melancon's fantasy value could take a hit fairly soon. ... Rafael Betancourt is likely done for the year, and quite possibly for his career. Rex Brothers just became the Rockies closer over the long term. ... The Nationals have made rumblings about Rafael Soriano being replaced, or at least being put into a mix for saves. The likely choice to fill in, should it happen, would have been Drew Storen, but he has had his share of lackluster outings too, so the job could fall to Tyler Clippard. These types of rumors can sometimes be psychological ploys so it might not actually transpire, but keep an eye on it. ... Brad Ziegler is ready to hand the closer's job off, but J.J. Putz again showed us his impeccable timing by hitting the disabled list just as he was probably in line to get his job back.