This article is part of our Mound Musings series.
The season is underway, 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 2015. The trick is to identify those special surprises waiting to happen. Every year, several arms step up, but we're looking for that BIG surprise, the huge step nobody sees coming. Nobody that is, except you! Let's take a look...
Ready To Turn Some Heads
Nathan Eovaldi (Yankees) - He's blessed with one of the best arms in the game. The Dodgers watched with anticipation, but then he was dealt to Miami. They saw the possibilities too, but he's now with the Yankees, and they might be the team that gets to reap the rewards. He's commanding that blazing fastball, and perhaps more importantly, he's throwing his secondary pitches for strikes. I don't put a lot of stock in spring stats, but Eovaldi walked just three while striking out 20 in 18-plus innings. Part of those innings were in minor league games, but if he's going to throw everything for strikes, hitters won't be able to sit on that fastball - making it seem even more electric - so he could be very difficult to handle. Yes, there is a chance he could still be a bit inconsistent at times, but being on most of the time could make him a huge fantasy asset..
James Paxton (Mariners) - He's been on the prospect radar for some time, but a string of minor injuries has interrupted his progress. This spring he was dealing with a wrist injury, but he's ready to go and he'll step into a rotation with a lot of talent. Other than inconsistent command of the strike zone, there haven't been many things I don't like about Paxton. He gets the ball up there in a hurry for a young lefty, easily reaching the mid 90's with his fastball, and he has a curveball that can tie up hitters trying to wait for the heat. His change-up is coming along too, but all he really needs is to consistently spot all of his pitches, and there have been hints he'll improve there too. When you have that kind of stuff, it's a bonus if your motion creates some deception. Paxton throws downhill and he can appear to be all arms and legs when he comes to the plate. Because he long arms his delivery, it can be a bit difficult for hitters to pick it up. He may have days when he isn't locating, but when he is, he can dominate, so we'll see if he can hit his spots regularly.
Gio Gonzalez (Nationals) - It might be a bit of a stretch to call a big season from Gio a "huge" surprise, but he's being overlooked in many leagues. There are a couple of things that play into this prediction. First, Gonzalez has the repertoire to be a very solid pitcher when he throws strikes, but on the best staff in baseball, he is a number five starter. Most number fives are risky at best - they are as likely to be combustion candidates as innings eaters - but on another team, he could be a three, or maybe even a two on some staffs. Add to that the fact that in the National League East, Gio will be facing teams like the Phillies and the Braves many, many times. Those are two of the worst hitting teams in baseball. There's no pressure, perhaps even somewhat reduced expectations, so Gonzalez can settle in, throw strikes, and help his fantasy owners while his team piles up a lot of wins.
Julio Urias (Dodgers) - Every few years a young arm arrives in pro ball with the glaring ability to make a massive difference. A couple of years ago it was Jose Fernandez who will attempt to pick up where he left off following Tommy John surgery. The next guy to fill those shoes might be Urias, and the huge surprise relates to the fact that he might do it later this year - at the tender age of 19 (he won't actually turn 19 until August). He has a lively low to mid 90's fastball that could creep higher as he matures, and he already has a filthy curve to go with an excellent change. I rarely predict a number one standing for a young, unproven pitcher, but he gets that label. He's no lock to get meaningful innings this year given his age, but I think he could see Los Angeles by August and if he does, he can be an impact arm from his first pitch.
Some Notable Rotation Ramblings:
- The Giants have some health issues to be concerned about to start the season. Tim Lincecum is pitching but had a sore neck during much of the spring, and Matt Cain (forearm) was placed on the disabled list while Jake Peavy was scratched from his first start with a sore back. None of the injuries is considered long term, but it makes for a rough start to the season.
- I was anxious to see the new Masahiro Tanaka when he pitched on Opening Day for the Yankees. He has indicated that he will "back off" a bit on his pitches, and will throw fewer four-seam fastballs. He was good to his word, and while the numbers looked pretty ugly, I think he's in an adjustment period and should be solid again soon, assuming the adjustments do protect his balky elbow.
- I was very tempted to add the Padres' Tyson Ross to the list of surprises above. I mean a pitcher who was 13-14 last season while playing for a team that doesn't get a lot of attention could be in line for something of a surprise splash. Ross hasn't hit his ceiling yet, and the 2015 Padres are capable of providing enough run support to set him up for a big year. My only fear is that habit of throwing sliders almost every other pitch (actually about 41%). Ouch!
- Almost since his arrival in the major leagues, I have been somewhat on the bandwagon of Rick Porcello. He was (and still is) young, but there was a lot to like about his skill set, and you could pretty easily seen him developing as he garnered experience. This year, he was acquired by Boston, and then inked to a huge contract. Teams obviously make investment mistakes, but the Red Sox didn't give him over $20 million per season for the next four years in anticipation of him being a mid to back of the rotation starter. They are optimistic and so am I.
- I'm going to take this opportunity to mention a couple of different pitchers on a major league team that I am very bullish on this year. First, I am a perpetual fan of Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright. Have you ever noticed that while you get nervous and move the edge of your seat when your starter gets in trouble, yet on those rare occasions when Wainwright gets in a jam, you just brush it off, knowing he will probably escape. The man controls the game. And, I think some of that is rubbing off on Michael Wacha. If he stays healthy and continues to move his game forward - he has experienced some of those dreaded shoulder woes - he could be a monster.
- Write down Scott Kazmir for another look as the season progresses. I watched his start against the Rangers and he looked like Kazmir circa 2007.His velocity was up, everything was crisp, he was in and out, up and down, at will, and the Texas hitters were simply overmatched. He does have durability concerns - he even had a visit from the trainer in the fourth inning - but I was very impressed.
This will be a semi-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. Apparently another season of musical closers is upon us. Just hours before the first pitch of the 2015 season the Braves dealt Craig Kimbrel to San Diego which likely takes Joaquin Benoit out of the saves picture and will send fantasy owners scrambling to see if Jason Grilli is available on the waiver wire. The Mets' Jenrry Mejia experienced tightness in his elbow while warming up Monday. Jeurys Familia had already pitched the eighth inning so he didn't pick up a save chance but he is the favorite to close while Mejia recovers. Chris Hatcher logged a save for the Dodgers on Opening Day, but don't read too much into that. He was torched the next day and is likely one of several who could see save chances until Kenley Jansen returns. Joe Nathan experienced elbow problems following his first 2015 outing and was placed on the disabled list the next day. The Tigers say they hope he'll be back in a couple of weeks, but the Joakim Soria days may already be upon us. Interestingly, the Yankees recently used Dellin Betances in the eighth inning (and he wasn't all that sharp), and came back with Andrew Miller for the save in the ninth. Monitor this situation as Miller could be the first choice if Betances remains a little shaky. I watched Zach Britton again the other day and he continues to baffle me. I generally don't care much for sinkerball pitchers because when they overthrow, the pitches don't sink. He's the exception. He can throw one 95 mph and it still rolls off the table.
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