As July withers away, most fantasy owners are in one of two modes. Perhaps you are in an exciting race for a league title, or maybe the fortunes of 2014 weren't so kind and you have begun the "wait until next year" phase. I often talk about pretenders and their counterparts, the real deals, and this would be a good time to start making a list of pitchers to hang onto for next season (or target if you don't already own them). Pitching ability is a fluid scenario - especially with some of the younger arms. I update my list on an almost daily basis. Just because a pitcher didn't show me much earlier in his career, doesn't mean he can't be very appealing now following a little mound maturity. Most of the pitchers below have been mentioned in this column over the course of this season, but I want to make sure you eliminate them from your pretenders list. These guys are displaying the skills needed to be considered real deals moving forward. Let's see who tops the list of pitchers who are establishing themselves as players to keep:
Jake Arrieta (Cubs) - I've actually been talking up Arrieta for a few years - since back in the days when he was in the Baltimore system. Truthfully, when he was moved to the Cubs organization, I kept watching, but really wondered if he would ever reach his full potential. His stuff hasen't changed all that much, his fastball still sits in the 92-95 mph range, it still has good movement, and his secondary pitches are good enough to work. It's location. That will be a recurring theme with these guys. Arrieta is throwing strikes - his walk rate has dipped considerably - and he is throwing those strikes down in the zone. That has equated to a much lower home run rate, and a much higher groundball percentage. He's only allowed two long balls in 85 innings this year. Hitters are having a difficult time getting on top of the ball, and when they make contact, it is often weak. Yes, I would probably like him even better on another team, but he has learned what it takes to succeed and I think the best is yet to come for him.
Garrett Richards (Angels) - I debated whether to list Richards or Arrieta first in this group of pitchers, and it really is a toss-up. Both are impressing me more and more almost every time I see them. Richards has done something this year that you don't see too often. His velocity is up (he averages just over 96 mph on his fastball and can touch or nearly touch triple-digits, and he can do it deep into games), and the movement on his fastball is considerably improved. When I first watched him, he was pretty much another live arm with little else to rely on. He was that dreaded thrower rather than a pitcher. Potential yes, but wait and see. Since then, they have refined his mechanics so that he gets more movement on his slider and change-up too. Add better command to that recipe and you have a new pitcher with an elevated ceiling. Now that he can throw his secondary pitches with confidence, that fastball is devastating. There is a lot to like now, and like Arrieta, there could be even more in the future.
Charlie Morton (Pirates) - Unlike Arrieta who I have liked quite a bit for a long time, or Richards who showed me enough stuff, albeit without the complimentary morsels needed to make it all work, to at least monitor in case he started getting it all in synch, I didn't like much of anything about Morton when I first saw him. His mediocre fastball was too straight and his command of it was inconsistent to say the least, his fairly nice - at times - breaking ball was prone to rolling up there far too often, and he didn't really have anything to combat left-handed hitters so they pretty much routinely pummeled him. I'd occasionally watch an inning or two, and then move on. Then early in the 2012 season, he had Tommy John surgery. He returned in mid-season last year. Where did the old Morton go? His fastball was up a couple of ticks (that sometimes happens following Tommy John surgery), and the sink he relies upon was there, he could throw that curveball over the plate all the time and it had even more bite and depth, and he was throwing with confidence and a much more polished mound demeanor. I found myself watching his starts to see if it was a mirage. This year he's even keeping lefties off balance - something he never did before - and he is even more of a groundball machine. He's never going to be a big strikeout pitcher, but he has really come on considering his age (30). The Pirates showed a lot of faith in him early on, and he is paying it back with performance.
Corey Kluber (Indians) - I'll admit it. I'm still trying to figure him out. Only one pitcher shows up in the top 10 of both pitches per plate appearance and strikeouts per nine innings. Strikeout pitchers always throw more pitches per batter. Kluber doesn't profile as a strikeout pitcher, yet he averages over a strikeout an inning. Maybe that's just how things work now - swing hard in case you hit it syndrome? Ian Kennedy doesn't look like a strikeout pitcher either but he has 143 punchouts in 135 innings this year. What Kluber does have is excellent command within the strike zone. His arsenal of pitches, while not dominating, is competent, and when you can throw all of them where you want them consistently, you will likely enjoy some success. He makes this list because once a pitcher realizes what command can mean, and refines his mechanics enough to make it happen, they usually continue down that path. A steady decline in walk rate, an increase in ground ball percentage (even in front of a poor defense), and a progressively lower home run rate all point in the right direction. The toughest thing with him will be finding value. He is developing quite a following so he won't be easy to sneak through a draft.
Nathan Eovaldi (Marlins) - Eovaldi makes this list even though he is probably still more of a work in progress than the others named. He does need to display better command of the strike zone - it's coming but it's not quite there - but his biggest need is reliability with his off speed stuff. I fell in love with his mid-high-90s fastball because it has both velocity and explosive movement. He also has a nice power slider with bite, but that's where the story starts to fade. He can throw a fair curve, but it's inconsistent, and his change-up is steadily improving, but still lags behind the fastball and slider. In essence, he's a two-pitch power pitcher. That's the definition of a late innings reliever. Because I like the hard stuff so much, and because I do see an improving feel for his change-up, I think it's just a matter of time before he breaks out. Add to that the excellent results the Miami organization has had developing young arms (and Eovaldi was originally in the Dodgers organization so he likely learned a lot there) and I am going to say that breakout could come sooner rather than later. He looked good when he arrived, and there is considerably more ceiling.
There you have it - a few arms with a lot of positive indicators. They aren't likely to be fantasy staff aces, but they could offer exceptional value, and that wins leagues.
Some Notable Rotation Ramblings:
• The Mariners may be sending the same kind of message to Taijuan Walker that the Cardinals sent to Shelby Miller last season. Yes, you're talented, but do it like we tell you to do it or you could be spending more time in Tacoma. It worked on Miller last season, we'll see how Walker responds.
• If I had to name one pitcher I had high on my draft list but failed to acquire in several drafts this past spring, it would be Chris Sale. He really impresses me with his doggedness on the mound. When things get sticky, he gets nasty. Note to myself: allocate a couple more dollars for him on draft day in 2015.
• This guy seems to be enjoying himself. Odrisamer Despaigne pitched into the eighth inning of his last start working on a no-hitter. As I have mentioned before, he doesn't have great stuff, but he has a lot of variety and he can pretty much throw any of it for strikes. In Petco Park that can work.
• The Pirates' Jeff Locke certainly isn't the most skilled pitcher in baseball, but he works his butt off and he gets more accomplished than a lot of other arms with far more natural ability. He probably won't win you all that many leagues, but he won't lose them for you either. In very deep leagues that equates to value.
• This isn't technically a rotation rambling, at least not yet, but the Blue Jays have called up Aaron Sanchez to work in their bullpen. This is an opportunity to give him a taste of the major leagues but he is a blue chip prospect who just needs to refine his command and build endurance. He's a keeper for next year.
• OK, I'm going to sneak in one more name for the real deal list. Tyson Ross has fine tuned his mechanics and he just keeps getting better. He pitches for the punchless Padres which really diminishes his win totals (he's 11-18 over this season and last), but he can help in all the other categories.
It seems closer shuffling is all the rage these days. Former friar Huston Street has already packed an overnight bag and moved north to join the Angels for the rest of the season - much to the chagrin of Joe Smith owners. ... Joaquin Benoit is the new guy in San Diego, but they could perhaps deal him too. Keep the name Kevin Quackenbush filed away just in case. ... Jonathan Papelbon will go if the Phillies can get around his cumbersome contract. Ken Giles might get the first audition if Papelbon moves. ... The Tigers collected one former Rangers' closer in Joe Nathan last off-season and they agreed to a deal Wednesday to acquire Joakim Soria. ... Zach Putnam appears to be first call for the White Sox, with the occasional assist from Jacob Petricka, but Matt Lindstrom may be getting close to a return and will probably get the chance to reclaim his old job. ... The other Sox, those of the Red persuasion, aren't going anywhere this season, which might mean Koji Uehara could be moving. He'd surely bring a nice haul of quality prospects. ... Did everyone get to see Fernando Rodney's bow and arrow routine? That's funny but probably not the best idea unless you are a lot more in control of games than Mr. Rodney. ... I was a little concerned about Casey Janssen in Toronto. He was held out of a save situation with an illness last weekend, and wasn't sharp at all in two subsequent outings. However, he bounced back and did well Wednesday in recording a save … The Cubs' Kyuji Fujikawa has moved his rehab to Triple-A Iowa and could be back sometime in early-mid August. I'm guessing he gets a chance to close sooner rather than later.