Mound Musings: 2015 Draft Day Aces

Mound Musings: 2015 Draft Day Aces

This article is part of our Mound Musings series.

A Who's Who of Rotation Aces for Draft Day 2015

Every year about this time, the debates begin regarding the top pitchers to come off the board in next year's draft. It's a big challenge because not only do you have to consider this year's stats, the shrewd owner really needs to mix in some expectations for next season. As I always say, anyone can draft based on the past, but the winner's usually find a way to look into the future too. That said, here are my top draft board arms for next year - assuming they stay healthy of course - three in the National League, and three in the American League. Let's take a look.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

He just keeps getting better, and at age 26 he's the best pitcher in the game before most southpaws even hit their stride. And, he's been at this level for a few years already. That's scary. He missed a little time earlier this year, but he came right back to form. He's now logged 169 innings and carries a 0.83 WHIP and an equally obscene 1.70 ERA. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 202:25, which clearly underscores his command ability to throw any pitch, at any time, and in any count. Kershaw isn't your typical starting pitcher. He doesn't really throw a changeup, instead throwing both a curve and slider, and that probably reduces the number of mistakes he makes. He changes speeds, moves the ball around at will and never allows an opposing hitter to sit on a pitch. With him on the mound, it's a real guessing game. I'm not sure how, but he could actually have more ceiling, and hitters aren't close to catching up with him.

Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals

Despite years of top-tier performance, Wainwright still doesn't get all the attention he probably deserves. There's value in a plug-and-play arm like him. Fantasy owners love him because he is the kind of guy you can put in your lineup as a rotation anchor and just forget about him. He's just not flashy. Seven-plus innings, a handful of hits, almost no walks, damage held to a minimum, and a fair amount of strikeouts - game after game, start after start, season after season. He's 33, so he will probably slow before too long, but not yet. Right now, even working through a down time where he has been out of synch, he has a 1.07 WHIP and a 2.69 ERA over 194 innings. If you wanted to mark him down it would be on his more pedestrian strikeout total of 153, but he is on this list based primarily on reliability. The Cardinals are almost always highly competitive, and his steady performance gives him a chance to win nearly every time out. That's clearly a track record worth investing in.

Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

He's been teasing us for a few years with glimpses of brilliance, and in 2014 he put it all together and took that step up to the top tier of fantasy starters. He's 28, so he's just hitting his peak years and if he just continues to repeat numbers similar to this season - 0.97 WHIP, 2.26 ERA and 205 strikeouts in 207 innings - he'll remain in that top tier for a long time. Cueto can still get a little fringy with his command, and that can lead to an occasional early departure based on pitch count, but it's fairly rare, and it seems to be an issue less and less often. On the plus side, when he does put a few too many on base he has the electric stuff to wiggle off the hook. He's won 16 games already this season, and that is pitching for a team that has been decimated by injuries to many of their key hitters. Call it resiliency in the face of adversity. You have to like that.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

His numbers stack up with anyone on this list, and what might be most incredible, they have for nine seasons even though he is only 28 years old now. This is his seventh consecutive season tossing more than 200 innings (ninth if you make it 190 innings), and he has six consecutive years with more than 200 strikeouts. Perhaps the most alarming statistic is his lack of wins. He has won more than 14 games just once (19 wins in 2009), and playing all those late night games in media-modest Seattle often keeps him out of the spotlight. So, perhaps what sets King Felix apart is his penchant for becoming more dominant in challenging scenarios. Hernandez is a situational stud. When he gets two strikes on a hitter, nine times in 10, that hitter will head back to the bench. When a runner does reach base, the fences at Safeco Park seem to move far out of reach for even the most prolific bats. Seattle is improving, and he is primed for a great season.

Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

On any given night Sale could very well be at the top of this list. I actually believe when he is locked in, his stuff outshines even those already named here. He has 11 wins for a bad team to go with a microscopic 0.94 WHIP and a 2.11 ERA. And, he also has 178 strikeouts in just 149 innings. There is his Achilles' heel, or maybe it's better described as an Achilles' arm. His motion is a bit violent, and he already (he's still just 25 years old) has a substantial injury history. To this point in his career, they have been relatively minor, nagging ailments, but they cut into his innings, if not his performance. Just like Kershaw he is that amazingly unusual southpaw who has blossomed very early. Even with an underperforming team, if I could count on 200-plus innings, I would be thrilled to pencil him in at the top of my rotation. If for no other reason, it would give me one more reason to watch the potentially most dominating pitcher in the game more often.

Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees

I am throwing out just about every prerequisite I have for making a pitcher a top-tier option for a fantasy rotation by naming Tanaka here, but you have to take some chances sometimes. Tanaka has thrown just 129 major league innings, and he has been on the disabled list for a couple months with an elbow injury that could result in Tommy John surgery as early as this year, or at some point in the future. Still, he's 12-4 with a 1.01 WHIP and a 2.51 ERA over his first 18 starts, and he looked considerably better in the earlier of those before the elbow problem began to flare up. He has an impossible to predict arsenal of pitches and he throws strikes with all of them to produce an almost unbelievable 135:15 strikeout-to-walk ratio. If the Yankees are saying he is sound and ready to go when you sit down to the draft table next spring, take the chance. They are very unlikely to send him out to the mound unless he's 100 percent healthy.

There are certainly a lot of others who could have made the list, guys like Stephen Strasburg, Yu Darvish, David Price, Max Scherzer, Jose Fernandez (pre-injury), Corey Kluber and Madison Bumgarner have given reasons, recently or in the past, to be considered, but the six named are the three in each league I'm circling on draft day.

Some Notable Rotation Ramblings

The Reds moved Homer Bailey to the 60-day disabled list earlier this week, effectively ending his 2014 season. Nagging injuries (this one a flexor mass strain) and inconsistency have plagued him for his entire career. There aren't many I like better when he's in synch, and not many more frustrating when he's not.

I'm getting ever more bullish on the Twins' Phil Hughes. He's always had good stuff, but he has added consistent command of the strike zone and it has taken his game up a notch or more. He is borderline one of those pitchers who can throw too many strikes making him a bit too hittable, but I look for continuing improvement.

Cole Hamels has had some physical issues dating back a year or so, but he seems to have put them behind him. He combined with three relievers to toss a no-hitter Monday because his control wasn't up to standard (five walks). He remains a risk, but he's more than capable when healthy so he deserves attention.

It was great to see Derek Holland back on a major league mound. He was in good form, tossing 105 pitches over seven innings. He allowed just one sun, albeit he did have several hard hits balls, and he didn't issue a walk while striking out six. He could be worth considering as he hit 94 mph on his 101st pitch.

About one more season like the one he's having this year, and Tyson Ross will be trying to get his name on that list of six aces to pursue on the next draft day. Padres starters tend to wear the same type of bias label as Rockies hitters, but he's a good one no matter where he pitches. If he could only find some run support.

Regular readers should be applauding me. I have gone pretty much the entire season barely mentioning Brandon Morrow. He was activated earlier this week after missing four months, and he'll likely pitch out of the bullpen for the rest of this year. I'm eager to see how he looks. Could he be the Jays closer next season?

The Endgame Odyssey

The Padres don't have a lot to play for, and since Joaquin Benoit is again having shoulder issues look for Kevin Quackenbush to get some save chances this month. ... Hector Rondon continues to get the job done on most nights and hasn't given the Cubs a reason to explore other options. I'm still not convinced he is the answer long term but he is entrenched now. ... Eric O'Flaherty will remain the placeholder for Sean Doolittle in Oakland, but when Doolittle is ready he will immediately step back into the closer's role. ... The Giants are apparently committed to a timeshare at closer with both Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo receiving end-game duty. I really don't think either is a great option, but they'll get the saves the rest of this year. ... I have been generally unimpressed with Neftali Feliz but there isn't a lot of competition for saves in Texas. I'm guessing a new closer is brought in this offseason. ... The Blue Jays are probably quietly weighing options for next season. Casey Janssen has done an excellent job, but he has a balky shoulder and an expiring contract so there's no guarantee he'll be back. I don't think Aaron Loup or Brett Cecil is a solution long term, and while Aaron Sanchez could be, he is probably bound for the rotation. This is an interesting scenario to keep an eye on.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brad Johnson
For more than 30 years, pitching guru Brad "Bogfella" Johnson has provided insightful evaluation and analysis of pitchers to a wide variety of fantasy baseball websites, webcasts and radio broadcasts. He joined RotoWire in 2011 with his popular Bogfella's Notebook.
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