This article is part of our Mound Musings series.
Over these final weeks, I want to look at some younger arms who have provided us with a large enough sample to get a feel for what they could provide a fantasy owner right out of the box next season - last week I looked at some National League names, and this week we'll visit the American League - and then, in the third part of the series, I'll post my elite pitching prospect list, with arms that have yet to arrive, or have only given us a brief peak at what they might offer in the future. It's been an amazing year, and this is a fun time to start plotting a strategy for next season. Again, keep in mind, the pitchers listed below are at various steps along the developmental timeline, and the goal is to find arms capable of taking a significant step forward from where they are now. Let's take a look.
Potential Breakout Arms to Watch - American League
Kevin Gausman (Baltimore Orioles) - He's at the top of the list, and has been a huge favorite of mine since he was drafted out of LSU in 2012. He came out of college virtually major league ready - to be at least an average starter at that level - but as he matures he is going to be a pure gem. He came up for a little look last season and has split time between Triple-A Norfolk and Baltimore this year, but don't look for him to take the trip down again. He should be here to stay. Gausman has a fastball that tops out in the upper 90s, he stays down until he wants to sneak one past, and it explodes. Plus, he already has a well-developed change-up so when his breaking pitches become more consistent, he will have all the tools. He's built to be a workhorse, he should be a superior strikeout pitcher, and it could all come together very soon. I own him in every league I play in, and will do all I can to lock him up long term.
Marcus Stroman (Toronto Blue Jays) - He's not your prototypical starting pitcher at just 5-foot-9, but he has a lively arsenal of pitches including a fastball that averages nearly 94 mph. However, it's the movement that sets him apart. In particular, the addition of a two-seamer has made him more hand-neutral. In fact, he is tougher on lefties than he is on righties, and he has the potential to be a potent strikeout weapon. He gets a fair share now (about eight punchouts every nine innings), but there is a good chance that will creep up as he gets more comfortable. Like many 23-year-olds he still suffers command inconsistency, and because he doesn't have the downward plane of a taller pitcher mistakes can be costly, but he's only served up seven long ones in 120-plus innings - another testament as to how much his pitches move. Look for better next season as he matures and gets more acclimated to the game at its highest level.
James Paxton (Seattle Mariners) - The only thing really holding Paxton back is a worrisome track record of injury. Early this season he had a strained lat muscle that put him on the disabled list, and when that cleared up, he developed soreness in his triceps that delayed his return until August. In 2013 it was a balky knee. The good news is those are all nagging injuries unrelated to his elbow or shoulder, but they have slowed his progress, mostly by making it more difficult for him to lock in his motion and release point. That said, he has a devastating fastball that sits mid-90s, and a truly fun-to-watch curve to go with a useful change-up. He will garner plenty of strikeouts, but he's actually more of a groundball pitcher (a nice combo). With the injuries he's only going to log about 80-90 innings this season, so he could find his workload monitored next year and pitch counts could be iffy, but he's a high ceiling consideration for your 2015 rotation.
Yordano Ventura (Kansas City Royals) - I was actually a little disappointed in his 2014 performance, and that's with a 13-10 record and a 1.28 WHIP with a 3.19 ERA. Those certainly aren't bad so maybe I was being a little overly optimistic regarding his timeline to stardom - it wouldn't be the first time. He has a lot of arm with a fastball that easily sits in the mid-90s and can approach triple-digits, and he has adequate breaking pitches with a decent, albeit still sometimes inconsistent change-up. When his command waivers his mechanics can abandon him and he becomes over-reliant on that fastball that can find its way up in the zone. The take-away is that these are all just refinements and those can lock into place fairly quickly. When he's in synch he can overwhelm hitters and that will happen more and more often. My biggest concern is that there will be plenty of believers remaining on his bandwagon next spring, but hope for a small discount.
Drew Smyly (Tampa Bay Rays) - In horse racing there is an old belief that simply travelling through Florida and breathing in the air improves a horse's prospects. I'm beginning to think that works for pitchers too. Smyly was up and down with Detroit, experiencing mixed results as a starter - primarily due to a vulnerability to right-handed hitters, before looking sharp as a reliever. He stepped back into the rotation this year and the results were better, but then he made the trip to Florida (he was part of the deal that sent David Price to the Tigers) and he apparently found the fountain of dominance. He's been shut down now to keep his innings in check, but over the last two months he allowed just 33 hits and 14 walks in 60-plus innings (an 0.78 WHIP) leading to a 1.79 ERA and he's logged 61 strikeouts over that span. He's changed his mix and his off-speed pitches are consistently down and on the black. Smyly isn't overpowering, so that command is crucial. Just hope other owners only look at his 2014 composite numbers.
Some Notable Rotation Ramblings
•Allen Webster of the Red Sox nearly made the breakout list above. He would admittedly be a bit of a stretch because he has just a pedestrian fastball and still struggles with his command, but I like his off-speed stuff. If he can progress just a little, he could be a decent $1 flyer on draft day next season.
• Maybe he gets jazzed when in a playoff race, or maybe he just likes pitching for a team on the west coast, but for whatever reason, the Giants' Jake Peavy is experiencing a monumental resurgence. He hasn't allowed more than two runs in any of his last seven starts while ringing up six wins so ride him out.
• The Yankees have announced that Masahiro Tanaka will make a start this Sunday following a successful rehab program including tossing five scoreless innings in an instructional league game this past Monday. They are unlikely to push him too hard so this may have limited fantasy impact, but it's worth monitoring for next year.
• Some organizations have consistent success with young arms, and Jarred Cosart is the latest story coming out of Miami. He has been impressive since coming over from the Astros, and while he still loses the plate at times, his stock will be up slightly next season. Expect a better strikeout rate as he matures as well.
• Maybe one of the quietest exceptional performances of 2014 belongs to the Orioles' southpaw Wei-Yin Chen. His peripherals are just good - not great - but he has logged 16 wins for a very good team, and that suggests he keeps his team in the game. He'll have trouble matching that win total from year-to-year, but it's a positive.
• The Cardinals are driving toward the playoffs, but they have been juggling their rotation. Of primary concern is Michael Wacha who had a start skipped and has experienced a decline in velocity on his fastball, a pitch he needs to have at full speed. He missed time with shoulder issues over July and August so the reports are a serious concern.
The Endgame Odyssey
The A's welcomed Sean Doolittle back, but it may be too little too late. The starting pitchers added via trades were nice, but they really miss Yoenis Cespedes. ... He still looks shaky at times but Joe Nathan is still closing for the Tigers. Joakim Soria waits in the wings, just in case. ... It's possible Drew Storen will just refuse to give the closer's role back to Rafael Soriano in Washington. He's been a monster and Soriano may or may not be back next year so he is also setting himself up for 2015. ... In Houston, Chad Qualls has a sore hip so Josh Fields has been getting the call. Fields logs some stretches of success, but he's a risky proposition. This is a good scenario to avoid unless you are desperate. ... Casey Janssen has settled down recently and is again getting regular work as the end gamer in Toronto. If he stays healthy (and effective) the Jays probably prefer his experience as they chase a playoff spot. ... The Phillies' Jonathan Papelbon made a rude gesture to the fans after imploding and blowing a save opportunity, which earned him a seven-game suspension. He didn't appeal so he's out until next Tuesday. I would guess it could be a bit of a committee closing in Philadelphia, with Ken Giles perhaps being a slight favorite. ... It's possible Joaquin Benoit will return to closing duties for the Padres this weekend. He has been dealing with a sore shoulder on and off for a couple of months.