Every year I like to list some of the arms I will be watching in spring as draft day draws near. Typically they will be pitchers I hope can provide some substantial value because I believe they have a very good chance of outperforming their draft day price tags. They won't all be aces, some will be young and still developing, while some will be rebounding from injuries or off years, but the key is always the never-ending quest for value. Let's get to it with:
Seven Arms to Watch in the AL East
Matt Moore (TB) - Moore put together a strong season in 2013 with a 17-4 record, a 3.29 ERA and 143 strikeouts in more than 150 innings. So given that kind of performance, what puts him back atop this list? In a word, "ceiling," and I don't think he's there yet. In fact, I don't think those numbers are all that close to reaching his potential. He posted a 1.30 WHIP, and while that was an improvement over 2012, he still clearly struggled with his command of the strike zone. High pitch counts limited his innings, and pitching behind in the count so often cost him strikeouts. Like so many young southpaws, Moore is still looking to lock in his delivery, and when that happens, he has the stuff to be an elite starting pitcher. He pitches in an organization that has an excellent track record with regard to developing young pitchers, and he has some of the best stuff in the game. If he stays healthy, and takes that next step this season, he might have trouble matching that win percentage, but all of his peripherals could improve, and his value could spike in virtually all fantasy formats.
Kevin Gausman (BAL) - This talented young arm was mentioned in last week's article on potential holds providers, and his name pops up below in the End Game Odyssey recap for the division, so I might as well mention him as a starting pitcher with significant upside. This is where he will ultimately end up. The question is when. The Orioles know what they have, and they are trying not to rush him, but he has so much potential they are struggling to hold him back. He features a fastball that sits in the mid-upper 90s with crisp movement, and he has the secondary pitches to go with it. He just needs more pro experience, and it's unclear where the O's will want him to get that. He could make their rotation right out of spring training, they could have him spend some time refining his skills in the bullpen or they might briefly decide to let him develop further in Triple-A. Wherever he starts the season, you want him on your roster. I get more excited every time I watch this guy pitch, and it's easy to see why Baltimore is so tempted to get him on a major-league mound sooner than later.
Brandon Morrow (TOR) - I won't give up on Morrow. He has fought through injury after injury throughout his big league career - most of them relatively minor, but enough to often sidetrack or stall his progress. Last season, in just 54.1 innings, he posted an ugly 5.63 ERA and notched just 42 strikeouts, but it's still there. The fastball that has consistently averaged about 93 mph still jumps, and the breaking pitches are still nearly unhittable when he hits his spots. He is expected to be fully healthy heading into the 2014 season, and I will hope to have him on my various rosters looking for a healthy year. If they can keep him on the mound, a year like he enjoyed in 2012 (2.96 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP with 7.8 K/9) is certainly within reach and the strikeout rate could actually be better than that. Call me patient, or call me stubborn, but I am still a believer.
Masahiro Tanaka (NYY) - Another quality arm has arrived from Japan, and while it can be difficult to predict what kind of impact he will have in the major league arena, there are some things that can be interpreted with some accuracy. Tanaka comes off what can only be described as an incredible season in Japan where he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and a 0.94 WHIP over 212 innings. Does that equate to Yu Darvish - arguably the best pitcher to come over in a long time, if not ever? Like Darvish (age 27), Tanaka is young at just 25, so there is still plenty of room for growth, but they are not the same pitcher. Darvish has an entire smorgasbord of pitches in his arsenal while Tanaka is pretty much a three-pitch pitcher - low-mid-90s fastball, exceptional splitter and a slider. All are quality pitches and he throws them for strikes, but he won't generate the strikeouts you see from Darvish, and as Darvish has discovered, major league hitters generally have a much better knowledge of the strike zone than hitters in Japan. That is likely to mean higher walk totals and being a bit more hittable when he has to get more of the plate with each pitch. He should be a solid starter for the Yankees, but there could be some growing pains. If other owners in your league are skittish about Japanese imports, he could be a nice value buy, but be careful not to overestimate expectations.
Jake Peavy (BOS) - Peavy surely isn't the pitcher he once was back in his days with the Padres, pitching in loving Petco Park, and it's not likely he ever will be again. Injuries have often lurked in Peavy's history, and he hasn't had many 200-plus inning years lately other than tossing 219 innings in a very nice 2012 season. A rib injury cost him a few weeks last summer, and he managed just 144.2 innings. He's now 33 and is in his contract year with the Red Sox. So what gets him named to the target list? Tenacity. Obviously I love talent and an exceptional skill set, but I also love bulldogs, and Peavy is the definition of that. Boston should provide plenty of run support, and he will do anything and everything he can to get his team a win. His fastball is still in the low 90s, so there is plenty of zip left as long as he stays healthy, and I think he could be in line for a very solid year. His skills may not be at quite the level they were in his prime, but he will find a way to squeeze every last ounce of performance out of what he has.
Michael Pineda (NYY) - Now we're getting into a couple of more speculative picks to ponder. Pineda opened a lot of eyes, including mine, in 2011 with the Mariners as he pitched with poise well beyond his years and displayed the stuff that gets pitchers to the top of my short list in very short order. Unfortunately, he developed shoulder problems prior to 2012 season, and had surgery in April. He missed all 2012 and most of last season and while I will say again that I hate shoulder problems, if he can come back healthy, Pineda is still young enough (he's 25) to have an exemplary season this year and a productive career. He pitched just 32.1 innings in the minors last season as he tried to shake off the rust while testing the shoulder, but there were positive signs, including ringing up more than a strikeout per inning. Watch him closely this spring and take a flyer on him if he has no setbacks and joins the Yankees rotation.
Marcus Stroman (TOR) - It looks like Stroman might get a crack at the Blue Jays fifth starter spot, or he could end up at Triple-A for a bit more seasoning. He sat out 50 games last year for a drug suspension, but jumped in and had an impressive season at Double-A New Hampshire that included a credible 3.30 ERA and 129 punchouts in 112 innings. He has a plus fastball, cutter and slider and while his change is still considered just average, he could make an impact in Toronto's rotation fairly soon. Stroman is just 5-foot-9, so he's not the prototypical power pitcher, but I like a lot of what I have seen in his young career, and he is someone to monitor. If it all doesn't come together for him he could be a strong bullpen arm, but I think the Blue Jays will give him every chance to make their rotation. A lot will depend on how Esmil Rogers and Kyle Drabek fare in camp this spring, so keep an eye on their performance as well.
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.
We might as well start with the most volatile closer situation in the division. It looks like Tommy Hunter is the favorite for saves in Baltimore, but I'm not convinced that is the long-term solution. The problem is the Orioles don't have an obvious answer. If he's not in the rotation, Kevin Gausman could easily be a short-term fix, and Darren O'Day is a lukewarm possibility, but not really a better bet than Hunter. Watch this situation closely. ... The Yankees are in a slightly better position, but David Robertson is not a lock to succeed and there isn't much behind him. ... The other three teams in the division have solid closers, albeit all have some potential durability concerns. Koji Uehara has proven to be as reliable as they come in Boston, but he's no kid so Edward Mujica might be a nice guy to handcuff. ... Grant Balfour will close in Tampa Bay, but Baltimore backed out of an offseason signing of Balfour because of health concerns so Jake McGee might be nice to stash on your roster. ... And, while Casey Janssen has been superb in Toronto, the Blue Jays were cautious with his usage because of some lingering shoulder issues last season. Grab onto Sergio Santos as a safety net just in case.
Next week we'll look at Seven Arms to Watch in the NL East.