This second installment of pitchers to watch heading into the 2014 season moves to the National League East. Over the coming weeks, I'll throw out a few names, by division, to consider for your mound corps. The objective is uncovering value. Low cost with upside is the key. Let's get right to it.
Seven Arms to Watch in the NL East
Stephen Strasburg (WAS) - Strasburg seemed to back it down a bit in 2013 as he continues to mature and settle in with those lingering concerns about his eventual durability. The velocity was still there, but his command wasn't quite as sharp, and he wasn't quite as effective at putting hitters away. Even though he posted a 3.00 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP with a very respectable 193 strikeouts over 183 innings, he won just eight games and fantasy owners were universally bemoaning his less than stellar production. Those exceptional pitchers who fail to live up to superhuman expectations can sometimes come at a modest discount on draft day, depending on the level of "what have you done for me today" mentality among your co-owners, and that's what I would be hoping for here. He is likely to continue pitching to contact a bit more than he did early on, but as he develops a feel for stepping up when the situation calls for it, he still has the skillset to do whatever needs to be done and that is what makes an ace something very special. Give me just a tiny discount, and I'm a buyer.
Noah Syndergaard (NYM) - It's very possible Syndergaard will begin the season at Triple-A having not pitched above Double-A in his young professional career, but I would be very surprised if we don't see him in the Big Apple by mid-season. That's the path Matt Harvey took in 2012 and Zack Wheeler followed last year, and Syndergaard is in the same class talent-wise. He has a heavy fastball and a wicked curve that is still getting better, and while his change-up still needs some refinement (he can be a bit vulnerable to lefty hitters) he throws strikes - lots of strikes. With his skills and mound presence, it is easy to see him stepping in and having a big impact right away so the sooner you can get him on your roster, the better. Even at his young age (22 in August) and experience level he is a middle of the rotation arm today, and if the change and curve continue to come along as I think they will, he is a top of the rotation guy.
Alex Wood (ATL) - This is one of those potential value picks who could provide decent numbers with a relatively small investment on draft day. The Braves young lefty just needs an opening in the rotation to perhaps help your fantasy team. The top three spots in their rotation should be pretty firm with Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran, and Mike Minor, but there are some health question marks behind that trio. I do expect to see off-season acquisition Gavin Floyd (see below) early on barring any rehab setbacks, but I am a little more skeptical with regard to Brandon Beachy and that could the shot Wood needs. I love his fastball for a southpaw, and he has a devastating change-up that is a little unusual for a pitcher his age. His breaking stuff still needs some work, but he has the ability to miss bats with that change. If you are in a holds league or a swingman that could qualify as a starter or reliever provides value, Wood might be a great candidate for your roster. He'll likely see action in both roles throughout the season so expect some flexibility, and if he does get an extended shot in the rotation, you might realize a nice return on your investment.
Gavin Floyd (ATL) - I've always been a somewhat moderate fan of Floyd's - at least until he allowed that inevitable home run at a critical time while he was in my fantasy lineup. So what might help ease that problem? I'm hoping a ticket out of U.S. Cellular Field and into a new league will do the trick. If he keeps progressing, the Braves new arm is expected to join their rotation in late April or early May so he'll have plenty of time to contribute to your fantasy stats - either good or bad. He had a weak 2012 for the White Sox and made just five starts in 2013 before having elbow surgery so you can toss those numbers out. I'd prefer to go back just a little further in his career when he was considered a very promising young arm. This is an angle I look for - I usually call it “changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes” so all the pieces are there for a pretty decent uptick in performance if he proves healthy and he finds a way to keep the baseball inside the park with just a little more regularity.
Zack Wheeler (NYM) - The Mets have had some pretty lean seasons of late but there are at least three reasons for fans to be anticipating better days ahead. Wheeler, Syndergaard (see above) and Matt Harvey could one day soon bring back memories of Seaver, Koosman, and Ryan. That's pretty high expectations, but they may be up to it. Unfortunately Harvey will miss most or all of this season, and Syndergaard is still just reaching his lofty potential, so Wheeler should be in the spotlight in 2014. There are many who would put Wheeler at the top of that food chain, but I actually have him third in the group long term. He has the big fastball and a very nasty curve but he needs to hone his command so he can get deeper into games, and his change-up is still just adequate. At his age that will likely improve and no matter where he eventually falls in the pecking order within that trio, he can help your fantasy team now. The only concern is the price tag. If there are Mets fans in your owner pool, with Harvey out of the high bidding and Syndergaard still in the process of building his resume, Wheeler could get a lot of attention on draft day.
Nathan Eovaldi (MIA) - In South Florida all the talk is about Jose Fernandez and he is a true blue chipper, but there are a couple of other young arms capable of making some impact, especially in their pitcher-friendly home park. There are some things to like about Jacob Turner, but I think there may be just a bit more latent value in Eovaldi. He caught my eye when he was in the Dodgers organization with a very lively fastball that has a lot of hop. He can handcuff hitters with his high 90's heat and just needs a more consistent change-up to start generating some strikeouts. His WHIP has remained high (1.32 in 2013) so he also needs to throw more strikes but that is symptomatic of his inconsistent off speed pitches and should come down as he gains confidence in the secondary pitches. Being stingy with the home run ball helps soften the damage from a few too many base runners, so if he cuts those down he could provide a nice boost to your ERA while producing a better strikeout rate. And, maybe, just maybe, the Marlins offense can start providing him with some run support.
Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez (PHI) - Here's a sleeper to monitor. Gonzalez who defected from Cuba, has some very useful skills - enough to get him a three-year contract from the Phillies. However, after complications with the defection and some minor elbow surgery (removing bone spurs) he didn't sign until late into last season and has pitched very little over the past couple of years. That likely means he is going to need some time, possibly at Triple-A, to shake the rust off. That said, he was the best pitcher on Cuba's national team from 2009-2011 and still has a lot of upside. He features a lively mid-90's fastball and quite an assortment of secondary offerings including a cutter, a decent change-up, a slow curve and even a knuckleball. It's doubtful the Phillies will want him throwing the whole cupboard and will work with him to focus on the best and most consistent of his offerings, but he has the build and tools to be a quality addition to their rotation and yours if everything comes together. With some health question marks and a somewhat thin rotation in Philadelphia, it shouldn't be long at all before Gonzalez gets a shot and he could be worth a small investment on draft day.
The Endgame Odyssey
Here we'll cover some notes and observations on the closer scenarios across baseball. Over these six weeks, the focus will be on the division featured in the arms to watch.
Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel will again be the top closer (or very close to it) on most draft day depth charts, and deservedly so. Barring any injuries, he should continue to be a saves machine with Jordan Walden his capable backup. ... Steve Cishek is the favorite for saves in Miami, but there are a couple of interesting names to watch. The Marlins signed Carlos Marmol (could they possibly straighten him out?), and Carter Capps comes over from the Mariners with a very big arm. I don't see Cishek as a lock for the full season. ... The Mets' Bobby Parnell is the closer but is recovering from neck surgery. Word is they still expect him to be ready for Opening Day, but they also have Jose Valverde in town as a possible insurance policy. ... There were rumors that closer Jonathan Papelbon might leave Philadelphia, but he's still there and he's still their end-game choice. He suffered through some hip problems last year but is supposedly 100 percent this spring. If only Phillippe Aumont could work a bit better with their coaches and unearth just a little more command the Phillies might be very tempted to try and move Papelbon again. ... In Washington, the plan will be for Rafael Soriano to again handle ninth-inning duties, but he has experienced a slow decline in velocity and strikeout rate which is impacting his effectiveness so it may be just a matter of time before former closer Drew Storen gets his job back.
Next week we'll look at Seven Arms to Watch in the AL Central.