This article is part of our Mound Musings series.
Last week we looked at the NL East, and for the next five weeks I'll continue to throw some names out there for your consideration, covering one division each week. When the dust settles, we should be looking at Opening Day, and hopefully have a value-laden pitching staff heading into the 2017 season. Let's get to it and look at the:
American League East
Baltimore Orioles – The O's have both locks and question marks. Musings regulars won't be surprised when I lead with Kevin Gausman. He showed a lot of growth last year, and I see another big step forward in 2017. I may be the most bullish analyst in the game regarding Gausman, so my expectations are off the charts. Things get a bit cloudier for the rest of the rotation.
Their other frontline guy, Chris Tillman, may not be ready for Opening Day as he comes back from shoulder issues – uh oh, there's that dirty word "shoulder" again. If he's not ready, his fill-in is both undecided and probably fantasy irrelevant. The best bets would likely be Vidal Nuno (probably destined for the bullpen) or Logan Verrett.
The other three spots appear to belong to southpaw Wade Miley (I think he'll be better, but not enough to help you much), Ubaldo Jimenez (putting him in your rotation is literally a leap of faith – it could be rewarding or revolting on any given day), and former super-prospect, Dylan Bundy. He's the opposite of Gausman to me. I don't see as much upside as others, but he could move up the food chain to a spot right behind Gausman if everything clicks. There isn't much depth here, so these arms will generally get the ball every fifth day. Other than Gausman, I'm not sure I would look forward to that for my fantasy rotation.
Unlike last week (NL East) where there were several teams with bullpen question marks, the AL East looks pretty stable, and nowhere is that more evident than in Baltimore where Zach Britton has established himself as a pure stud. Set-up man Darren O'Day will get an occasional chance when Britton needs a day off, but as long as he is healthy and rested, Britton will get the ball in the ninth inning. Don't expect last year's insane ERA (0.54), but solid peripherals, saves and strikeouts should again be plentiful.
Recapping the Orioles:
The arm to own: Kevin Gausman
He's not for me: Dylan Bundy
Best of the bullpen: Zach Britton
Boston Red Sox – Things have suddenly gotten serious in Boston. They already had the somewhat disappointing (at times) David Price and last year's "he finally started showing us what he's got" poster boy, Rick Porcello, and they add arguably the ace of the American League, Chris Sale. I know, Sale is a breakdown waiting to happen, but until it does happen – if it ever does – he's easily one of the most elite starters in the game. I'll take the chance. I have also been a Porcello-believer since the early day, so he fits in the middle of my rotation, but his price might not allow that this season. Price occasionally shows ace stuff, but he consistently goes too early for my taste on draft day.
Some would put the next guy up with those top three, but even when healthy, Drew Pomeranz hasn't won me over, at least not yet. I'm going to pass. That group will be filled out with an assortment of Steven Wright, Eduardo Rodriguez or perhaps sleeper Henry Owens. Wright has the inside track and could be a modest back of the fantasy rotation consideration if his shoulder doesn't act up. Rodriquez doesn't excite me if he is overexposed and starts logging too many innings. Owens shows enough to keep me interested, but he'll likely start the year in Triple-A while he tries to prove he can command his stuff well enough to succeed. I'll be watching.
To be right up front, Craig Kimbrel makes me a bit nervous. He still rings up strikeouts, but he has also shown a disturbing tendency to misplace the strike zone. He walked 30 batters in just 53 innings last year, and there were times when he wasn't just barely missing the zone. Something just doesn't look right. He'll be the guy if he avoids any monumental meltdowns, but he'll likely come at a premium price, and I think newcomer Tyler Thornburg and converted starter Joe Kelly might just become fantasy assets.
Recapping the Red Sox:
The arm to own: Chris Sale
He's not for me: Drew Pomeranz
Best of the bullpen: Tyler Thornburg
New York Yankees – The Yankees staff will again be anchored by Masahiro Tanaka. That's the good news. I have been a Tanaka fan since he came to the States. The potentially bad news is the worry that his partially torn UCL will give out. He opted to forego the traditional Tommy John surgery in favor of rehabbing the elbow and was able to compile almost 200 innings last year. There are a handful of pitchers now going this direction and there have been positive outcomes, but, for me, the jury is probably still out. I still want Tanaka on my staff, but I consider it risky.
Michael Pineda is the wild card. His early days are forever stuck in my memory. Wow! He has been very erratic but is showing more and more of that potential dominance. I'll pursue him hoping for a full return to yesteryear. At 36, CC Sabathia will take the next spot, but I am staying away. He had a fairly productive year in 2016, but I fear it may have been a swan song.
Now it gets interesting. I'm inclined to give Luis Severino a mulligan for last year and plug him into the rotation. His numbers were probably ugly enough to chase a lot of owners away, so there could be some value here. The other candidates for a starting gig all have some modest upside tempered with some lingering questions. I would give a slight edge to Chad Green over Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa, but all three strike me as being better suited to swingman roles. There's a good chance all will get a few starts, but track decent prospect James Kaprielian, who is unlikely to be a factor until late this season at the earliest.
After a brief excursion to Chicago – long enough to pick up a World Series ring – fireballer Aroldis Chapman returned to the Yankees. He can be almost untouchable, which makes him a candidate to provide triple-digit strikeouts along with a load of saves and a microscopic ERA and WHIP. Nearly as filthy set-up man Dellin Betances is the eighth-inning bridge to Chapman and may get a few scraps if Chapman needs a day off.
Recapping the Yankees:
The arm to own: Michael Pineda
He's not for me: CC Sabathia
Best of the bullpen: Aroldis Chapman
Tampa Bay Rays – This is one of those cities where young pitchers come to make a name for themselves. The franchise has a reputation for developing young arms and that should factor into your assessments. Chris Archer has clearly stepped up and taken the role of staff ace. This, despite 19 losses and a pedestrian 4.02 ERA in 2016. He was awful early in the year, bur righted the ship and enjoyed a much better second half that saw him net 233 strikeouts. He is receiving enough hype to probably go too early to offer much value, but with some consistency he has a high ceiling.
I also like Jake Odorizzi and see him moving forward, which would make him a draft day possibility, and I believe Alex Cobb darkened his stat line enough in those last couple of starts to make himself a pretty decent sleeper. You also should add Blake Snell to your possible target list. Inability to command the strike zone contributed to a balky WHIP and too many short outings, but the young southpaw has the stuff to be a good one, and it's not unusual for things to click in their second year.
The final rotation spot may initially go to Matt Andriese, but I think Taylor Guerrieri will eventually step in. Jose De Leon will also draw some attention, but a changeup not many minor leaguers often see was the key to all his strikeouts, and I have doubts his other offerings can stand up in the majors.
This bullpen is probably the least familiar in the division, but last season Alex Colome did his best to make sure there wouldn't be any closer drama in 2017. He was reliable and fairly consistent after stepping into the role, and has surely built some job security. It also doesn't hurt that there aren't many viable alternatives. Set-up man Brad Boxberger, journeyman Danny Farquhar and lefty Xavier Cedeno offer marginal support.
Recapping the Rays:
The arm to own: Alex Cobb
He's not for me: Matt Andriese
Best of the bullpen: Alex Colome
Toronto Blue Jays – The Rogers Centre is no pitcher's paradise and this division is no cakewalk, but I like this staff. I'll start with Marcus Stroman, who I considered a bit of a disappointment last year. He had a respectable season, but the after-effects of a 2014 knee surgery may have sapped his generally electric stuff. A big year could beckon.
Aaron Sanchez took a huge step forward last year and will look to build on that after logging a surprising 192 innings. I'm not sure he can better his 2016 numbers, but he could come close to matching them. J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada are both reliable, workhorse types that typically provide solid innings and put themselves in a position to win games. My only concern with Happ is what his gaudy 20-4 record will do to his draft day price tag. Estrada just needs to be careful and stay away from the middle of the plate. I'd welcome either of them on my fantasy staff; just be sure not to overpay.
If there is an Achilles' heel to this rotation, it resides in the fifth slot. The top candidates are Francisco Liriano and the recently signed Mat Latos. Over their careers they have both shown that they can get on a roll and pitch quite effectively. Unfortunately, they have also shown they can quickly get untracked and implode with epic meltdowns. I'll give Liriano the edge in the competition, but each of these guys could log some starter innings, and in my opinion, each should be avoided by all but those with the stoutest of hearts.
It's not every day that a kid reliever steps in and pitches like a veteran with ice water in his veins, but that's just what happened with Roberto Osuna in 2015. He added a few more cubes to the glass with a 36 save season last year. Now 22, he's still very young for a closer, but rather than being a warning sign, his performance just suggests the best is yet to come. At nearly twice his age (40), Jason Grilli is a most proficient table-setter who, along with seasoned veterans Joe Smith and J.P. Howell, provide a stabilizing presence in the Jays' pen.
Recapping the Blue Jays:
Next week we'll look at the NL Central.