We're now close to the middle of the six-part series on key arms to watch in each of baseball's divisions. As you know, these pitchers may be primed for a breakout, ready to take a significant step forward or they might be on the precipice, more likely to tumble into the abyss. In either case, you will want to be aware of these hurlers on draft day 2014. Let's get to it this week with:
Seven Arms to Watch in the AL Central
Rick Porcello (DET) - It may seem like Porcello has reserved an annual spot on this list, but I keep seeing positives and I don't think he has touched his potential yet. He could be one of those guys who gets a little better, a little better, and then boom, he explodes with all the promise he has flashed. At least that's what I'm hoping for. Porcello has been around awhile, but don't forget he is still just 25 years old. As he has matured his fastball velocity has improved, he gets more movement, his secondary pitches are more reliable, and all of that is increasing his strikeout rate. A natural groundball pitcher, he'll get the benefit of Miguel Cabrera moving off of third base and back to first, and Jose Iglesias will be the everyday shortstop. Don't underestimate the impact of these moves for Porcello, and to some extent, the entire Tigers staff. A significant improvement in a team's defense (and this qualifies) can make a huge difference, and I liked Porcello to take the next step before he received the defensive boost. Will this be "the" year for him to breakout? I'm banking on it.
Phil Hughes (MIN) - Porcello gave me the opportunity to highlight the "much better defense" angle, so I'll use Hughes to talk about the "changes in latitudes" principle. Actually, a lot of pitchers find New York more than a little distracting with the media focus and all of the other major market hoopla, and if they struggle to perform up to the hype that goes along with it when a young talent arrives, the whole environment can gobble you up. After a promising 2012, Hughes struggled again last season and ended up with a horrendous 4-14 record and an equally ugly 5.19 ERA to go with a 1.46 WHIP. Those are not the kind of numbers that many predicted for him. Too many home runs, following too many untimely hits, and far too often his game just seemed to unravel. He moves out of the New York spotlight, into a park that is not a home run haven, and I'm going to see if he can turn it around in a big way. Fellow off-season signee Ricky Nolasco might be in line for a change of scenery boost too, but between the two of them, I expect more of a spike in value from Hughes.
Alex Meyer (MIN) - There aren't a lot of arms I see as value buys in this division, but there are couple of young guns I see having an impact fairly soon. Meyer is right at the top of the list and he should be in Minnesota by mid-season if all goes as planned. I've been tracking him since college and I really like a lot of what he offers. He has a big arm (he can touch triple digits) and has a nice repertoire of quality secondary stuff including a very promising change-up. Like many tall pitchers - he is 6-foot9 - Meyer took some time to lock in a release point, and he did miss some time with a sore shoulder last season which is always a little disconcerting, but there is so much ability here. It would surprise me if he comes north with the Twins as they will likely let him tune up at Triple-A before a call-up sometime in the early-mid season, but he's worth stashing on your roster. When he does arrive, expect an excellent strikeout rate, and quality innings but they may ease him into a normal workload initially. A good buy now and even better in keepers.
Yordano Ventura (KC) - Here's part two of the big arm with big upside section of this week's Musings. Ventura has explosive stuff and easily sits in the upper 90's with his fastball with an occasional clocking of 102 mph last season. He compliments that with a very nice breaking ball, and an average but improving change-up. He generally throws strikes but could still use a little more refined command of the strike zone, albeit with his stuff, close to the spot is often going to be good enough. He tossed 150 innings last year between Double-A, Triple-A and a September look in Kansas City, and the Royals are saying they could let him throw 200 innings this year. The question is where. They may choose to let him gather some more experience at Triple-A, or he could jump right into the Royals rotation right out of Spring Training. I'm guessing it's the latter and even if he does go down initially, he'll be back quickly. The hardest part for fantasy managers will be finding value. His arm isn't much of a secret any more, and if owners in your league pay close attention, there could be several hoping to get him on their rosters. He could be a decent middle of the fantasy rotation option this year with even more ceiling as he matures for those of you in keeper formats.
Justin Verlander (DET) - This is another case of finding a star who faded a bit recently, but still has the tools to come right back. I would seriously doubt that Verlander's star has diminished enough to capitalize on a big discount come draft day, but even a modest discount on enough players is what championships are made of. Some owners in your league will likely look at Verlander's 2013 numbers and jump to a "he's losing it" assessment. With a 1.32 WHIP, a 3.46 ERA, and just 13 wins, he doesn't look like an elite starting pitcher, at least not at first glance. During much of the season he struggled, and didn't dominate as he has so often in the past. Very uncharacteristically, he even seemed to "labor" on the mound at times, and that is decidedly NOT Verlander. He is maybe best known for his free and easy delivery that I have said many times looks like he is casually playing long toss. What the overall numbers don't show is that late in the year, he bounced back in a big way. He was dominant in September and into the playoffs, and a healthy Verlander in 2014 can quite possibly move right back to the very top of the elite pitchers list. Watch closely for a small discount, and jump!
Erik Johnson (CWS) - I try to include at least one potential value pick from each MLB team, and sometimes that's a little challenging. Johnson being here is the product of not being too excited about any of the likely White Sox rotation arms. I should say that I remain very bullish about Chris Sale - he has always tremendously impressed me - but his discount days are surely a thing of the past. I think Johnson is likely to slide into the back of Chicago's rotation and he has the tools to be a useful fantasy addition. A low to mid-90's fastball, and a respectable slider are his best weapons, and his change-up has some potential. They should serve him well, and I believe he may be able to keep the ball in the yard, always a challenge in his home park. My concern will be whether he can consistently throw strikes with his secondary stuff. His fastball isn't a world beater and at the major league level, he will need to mix in more off-speed pitches to be successful. If he can throw them for strikes, his fastball will be effective, if not, hitters will sit on the fastball and it could be a difficult transition. He has a good demeanor on the mound and looks like a workhorse in the making. He's not too well known yet so you might be able to grab him fairly cheap and use him to round out your rotation.
Trevor Bauer (CLE) - Bauer is here because I can't completely erase the visions of what I saw when he was in college. Unfortunately, watching him now doesn't always bring about the same belief in him possibly enjoying a sparkling major league career. He can display a good, albeit not overwhelming fastball, but he also has a wipeout, plus curve with a lot of crisp movement, and an equally impressive change-up and those are the types of pitches that usually come later. Bauer can fall into all sorts of mechanical messes that drain his effectiveness and his pro career to this point has been a textbook on how not to perform at your ceiling level. Still, if it clicks, he has more upside than any pitcher on the Cleveland staff. Right now, he's fighting for a spot as the Indians fifth starter, and there's no guarantee he'll win that battle. If you draft Bauer you might have a Triple-A enigma on your roster, but there's always that possibility that you will have picked up a high upside dollar pitcher who decided this was his year to come of age. Late in a draft I would rather take a chance on Bauer than roster a proven mediocrity.
The Endgame Odyssey
Here we'll cover some notes and observations on the closer scenarios across baseball. For these six weeks, the focus will be on the division featured in arms to watch.
The Royals have enjoyed the breakout of Greg Holland, and he'll definitely be their primary end-gamer again, but trade rumors do circulate at times, so keep alternatives like Aaron Crow and Kelvin Herrera in mind should something pop. ... Similarly, the Twins will again hand the ball to Glen Perkins if they can carry a lead into the ninth, and as long as he stays healthy, there aren't many viable options in Minnesota. ... Future Hall-of-Famer Joe Nathan has solidified the Tigers' end game, and while he isn't a long term solution, he gives them time to perhaps further develop Bruce Rondon. However, if their future arrives unexpectedly, don't be surprised if Joba Chamberlain gets a look. ... If he gets healthy, Nate Jones is the man expected to take the reins in Chicago, and I think he has the stuff and the mound presence to succeed. ... I'm not quite as optimistic about the back of the Cleveland pen. They acquired John Axford in the offseason, and word is he corrected a flaw in his motion that will cure his woes of 2013. He's going to have to prove it to me, and if I owned him, I would feel a bit better if Cody Allen or maybe even Brian Shaw was also on my roster.
Next week we'll look at Seven Arms to Watch in the NL Central.