When is the Best Time to Sell High?
Today! The season is under way, and some of the surprises of spring are ready to take the mound. Some will pay nice dividends over the long haul, but others will - sometimes all too quickly - become the first "flavor of the month" arms for 2014. The trick is to identify those disasters waiting to happen, and pass the trash to the owner on your left as soon as possible. Of course, there will be some quality newcomers as well, so it won't always be easy to sort them out, and that's what we're here for. Let's take a look.
The "Flavor of the Month" Phenomenon
It might not even last a month. Sometimes a start or two is all it takes to unmask the latest fantasy rotation savior, but those less capable guys who get by for a little longer can be both dangerous (if they stay on your roster) and profitable, if you move them in a timely manner to someone else's roster.
Somehow on draft day a few marginal pitchers become hot commodities. They could be kids with some evolving hype, more established players posting very impressive spring numbers, or it could have been just a smoldering ember of interest that burst into flames for any number of reasons. Now, as we enter the actual season, those hot commodities can become even more intriguing if they manage to put together a quality start or two.
One of the primary objectives of this column is to try and help sort out and identify the true quality rather being fooled by the horde of pretenders you'll see throughout the season. At this time of year, it can be especially critical. Just keep in mind, having one of those infamous "Flavor of the Month" guys on your roster for a short stint can still be advantageous as long as you sell while the value is high.
Things to Consider When Evaluating Long-Term Potential:
• Look at K/BB ratio. Major league hitters usually excel at pitch recognition and knowledge of the strike zone. If a pitcher does not have good control, that weakness is likely to be magnified at the MLB level fairly quickly. If he's not consistently throwing strikes, a pitcher is probably going to unravel.
• Watch the pitcher in his first couple starts. Naturally you want to see exceptional velocity and movement - those are standards to live by - but a variety of at least three quality pitches is the true formula for success long term. A pitcher can get by on two good pitches for a time, but without a third pitch, he won't be as effective for long. The better the stuff, the more forgiving you can be with command of those three or more pitches, but it is mandatory that they be able to use all of their pitches in almost any situation.
• Relievers converting to the rotation frequently fall into the above category. They may have been very successful in the bullpen (creating that hype based on previous bullpen statistics) with a lively fastball and a so-so change-up, but now facing hitters three or four times a game, they simply don't have the weapons necessary for consistent success. More time in the minors could change that as they develop their arsenal, but today is not the day to have them in your rotation.
• Watch the swings. Are hitters obviously off balance and unable to connect with the ball consistently? Shots hit right at someone or balls fouled straight back usually foretell of dark days ahead. Assuming it's not all due to deception (see below), swinging strikes, rolling over on pitches or hitting pitches well foul when contact is made are what you want to see. The pitcher is probably changing speeds effectively and locating his full complement of pitches.
• Quality stuff and command makes a pitcher. You will see pitchers who have a quirky or eccentric motion and/or release point enjoy success early on. Hitters may initially have a hard time picking up that otherwise mediocre stuff, but it's only a matter of time before they get comfortable with where the pitches are coming from and those early returns on an investment can evaporate quickly.
Some Notable Rotation Ramblings:
• I intended to watch an inning or two of Jose Fernandez making his first start of 2014 for Miami. I ended up watching all six. Every time I see him I am more impressed. This guy is not a "Flavor of the Month" but rather perhaps a true "Flavor of the Decade" if he stays healthy. And I don't make statements like that very often. On a better team - and the Marlins may be headed that way - he is easily a top five (or better) starting pitcher.
• One more South Florida observation. Nathan Eovaldi is developing into a very effective pitcher. He always had the overpowering fastball, but his secondary stuff (remember, at least three quality pitches) is coming along nicely. He'll still have some rough days, but they won't be as often. As he sharpens his command of his arsenal, he'll pitch deeper into games and the strikeouts will increase.
• Ricky Nolasco has been on the hype pile so many times I have lost count. I like the change in scenery angle, but I saw more of the same - too many mistakes out over the plate making him too hittable. In this case, it's the same Nolasco in a different uniform. He has the stuff to be better, but I haven't seen it and I doubt we ever will. Sell him if you find a buyer.
• There was quite a bit of buzz surrounding Tanner Scheppers moving into the rotation in Texas. The initial returns were not very good. He is an example of a reliever with good numbers becoming a vulnerable starting pitcher when his limited arsenal is exposed. It was encouraging that he settled down after a very shaky first couple of innings, but he is a risky play in a starting role.
• What a great match-up of two talented and highly visible young arms in the NL Central. Michael Wacha and Tony Cingrani were featured in an early season match-up worth watching. I will say I think Wacha is much better equipped to enjoy ongoing success because of his exceptional change-up, but both of these guys could be a bit overvalued until they develop more reliable third pitches, so I would hesitate to get too excited about them now.
• Here's another sell-while-you-can candidate. Cleveland is where changeups go to die (Danny Salazar is the exception), and I am still not ready to jump on the Justin Masterson bandwagon. I still see vulnerability and his 2013 season along with his first 2014 start should be propping up his value. I'm ready to deal if I can coax quality out of another owner in exchange for his services.
• And one to keep - the Dodgers Hyun-Jin Ryu is already in midseason form. When he first arrived in the spring of 2013, I wasn't too impressed. He didn't display exceptional command, and his stuff was pretty ordinary. By late last year it was a different story, and so far this season it's even better. Early in 2014, his pitches are crisp and he is hitting the catcher's target consistently.
This will be a regular feature in Mound Musings - observations of starting pitchers you might want to target or avoid as the season progresses. If you have someone you'd like to see covered in a future edition, throw his name out there in the comments below.
The Endgame Odyssey
Already it begins. The season of musical closers is upon us. We didn't make it past Opening Day without a couple surprises. Everyone assumed Nate Jones would close for the White Sox, and in truth he probably will at some point, but for now, the guy is Matt Lindstrom. When healthy and fully-charged, Jones is the better option, so expect this to be a short-term patch unless Lindstrom sets the world on fire. ... Jim Henderson was presumed to be the end-gamer in Milwaukee, however Francisco Rodriguez got the call to finish a 2-0 win on Opening Day. This one could go either way. Henderson lacked life on his pitches this spring, so he has something to prove if he wants the job back. For the time being, Rodriguez owns the job. ... Casey Janssen opened the season on the disabled list. The good news is it's an abdominal strain and not his balky shoulder, so Sergio Santos will be getting the ball in the ninth for the foreseeable future. The Jays have actually shut Janssen down until he is 100 percent healthy, so this could drag on for some time. ... In Baltimore, the Orioles waited until the clock struck 12 to name Tommy Hunter their closer, and that is not a good sign. Teams and players prefer to have roles defined well in advance of the first real games, so one has to suspect Hunter is on a pretty short leash. Keep tabs on Darren O'Day and maybe Brian Matusz as the need to shut things down roles around for the Orioles. ... Bobby Parnell has been diagnosed with a partially torn MCL that will keep him on the shelf for at least a couple of weeks, and if surgery ends up being in his future, much longer. The insurance policy the Mets signed in the offseason, Jose Valverde, now sounds like a wise investment. ... The Yankees have David Robertson set to handle end-game duties, but he hasn't looked particularly sharp this spring. Could Dellin Betances be making a case for claiming the role? The team has few viable options, and his lively but limited arsenal translates very well into late inning relief. At this writing no other changes were deemed imminent, but there were plenty out there trying to make it interesting!