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Mound Musings: NL Central Spotlight

Brad Johnson

For more than 25 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.

We're making the turn with part four of my six-part series on some key arms to watch in each of baseball's six divisions. As you know, they may be primed for a breakout and ready to take a significant step forward, or they might be on the precipice and more likely to tumble into the abyss. In either case, you will want to be aware of these hurlers on draft day 2013. Let's get to it.

Eight Arms to Watch in the NL Central

Marco Estrada (MIL) -
For much of last season, Estrada toyed with National League opponents. He was considered a fair prospect, but not a likely top-of-the-rotation contributor. In fact, he wasn't even in the rotation early in the year, but did reasonably well coming out of the bullpen, and the Brewers called on him to fill in when a need arose. It could have been short-lived, but he made it impossible to take him out of the role with strong performances, and he enters 2013 ready to take a regular turn. He has good, but not great stuff, but he throws strikes, and he moves the ball around. He has a solid array of pitches, and isn't afraid to throw them in any situation. That's formula for success. With a minimum of walks, and about a strikeout per inning, he posts a good WHIP and limits the damage done when his lone nemesis comes into play. Like many pitchers with good but not overpowering stuff, mistakes can travel a long way leading to a few too many home runs. It may be tough to keep his ERA in the mid 3.00s, but the sub 1.20 WHIP and strikeouts are real. I kept calling for his promotion to a rotation slot last year, and I'm not jumping off the bandwagon now.

Adam Wainwright (STL) -
Wainwright was one of the best starters in the fantasy game in 2009 and 2010, each season racking up 230 innings, more than 200 strikeouts and an ERA in the mid 2.00s. Unfortunately, he required Tommy John surgery, and that cost him all of 2011. Many believers brought him onto their rosters for 2012 at close to a premium price, and most were disappointed when he struggled - primarily with his command - through much of the first half. But, if you watched, it was pretty obvious things were coming together as the rust wore away. He was much stronger in the second half of the season, but his overall ERA of 3.94 and modest 1.25 WHIP could be enough to scare away those looking for a top-of-the-rotation starter, but less observant. I fully expect that ERA to drop to 3.00 or maybe better, which puts him in the second tier of starting pitchers, just a small step down from the elite's, and certainly worthy of a No. 1's status on a fantasy team. If you can get him anywhere at or below that price, "Don't Stop Believin'" (can you hear that song in your head now?), and consider him a major bargain. He is high on my list for potential value on draft day this year.

Shelby Miller (STL) -
What happens when a very good prospect falls in love with one pitch in his arsenal, and forsakes all others? The answer is, at the highest levels, the hitters learn, and they learn quickly. Worse yet, major league hitters can hit a very good fastball - and Miller definitely has that - with regularity if they are reasonably sure that's all that is on the menu. After taking his lumps at Triple-A Memphis for an extended period, the Cardinals put him on a "no shake" program where he was required to throw whatever the catcher asked for, and there were even rumors the club was shopping him. He grumbled, and griped, but he got the message, and there was obvious progress that led to his late season debut in St. Louis with the big team. Unfortunately for fantasy bargain hunters, he did well enough in his short stint with the Cardinals to garner back at least some of the positive attention he was receiving as a top-tier pitching prospect so you might not be able to steal him at a ridiculously low price this year. It's possible the Cardinals will play it conservatively with Miller, allowing for a bit more maturity and experience, but he will be in their rotation sooner, rather than later, and he has the skills to make a significant impact right out of the gate.

Homer Bailey (CIN) -
I admit it, I had pretty much written Bailey off - several times - going into last season. The perpetual teaser, he had shown enough to keep me interested time and time again, only to walk off a cliff for extended periods. Sometimes they may have been related to minor injuries, and other times he just lost all focus on the mound, but the results were consistent. That is, they were consistently inconsistent. He would display his potential for a handful of starts, and then crash and burn for an extended period. The worst of it was, it was painfully difficult to predict when one string would end and another would begin. He could be masterful against the best when he was on, and be a punching bag for also-rans when he stepped over to the dark side. Last year was a "breakthrough" season complete with an acceptable 1.24 WHIP, a decent 3.84 ERA and a modest strikeout rate, but even with that, there were those frustrating lapses - just not as long and not as frequent. Chances are I won't own Bailey again this season. I think his ceiling is a bit overrated, and that means his price tag will be beyond what I would be willing to consider a bargain. He could put it all together and improve on last year's numbers, but I am still a little skeptical. If you do decide to buy, beware those possible rough stretches, and if the Bailey-fog rolls in, be patient, and wait for an inevitable hot stretch (it will come), and then sell as quickly as you possibly can.

Aroldis Chapman (CIN) -
He owns one of the most impressive arms in the history of the sport, and can set radar guns on fire with heat that can approach 105 mph. The Reds have stressed out over the best role for Chapman since her arrived, and it looks like he might get his wish to take a regular turn in the rotation this year. There will probably be some who assign his peripherals as a late-inning reliever to expectations as a starter but, especially in his case, that could be a very dangerous plan. He does have a blazing fastball, but he is not going to crank it up there at well over 100 mph when asked to pitch six or seven innings. He has respectable, but not great, secondary stuff, and he often struggles to command the whole package. That could lead to shorter outings with higher pitch counts, and a likelihood for fatigue as the season wears on. I still believe he is best suited for late-inning work where he can let it fly, but the Reds' brain-trust wants to see if it can bottle more innings from his magical arm. That's understandable, but unless you are desperate for strikeouts, I would be wary.

Scott Baker (CHC) -
Long-time followers know two of my primary rules in fantasy baseball are to always take potential upside over proven mediocrity, and always avoid adding Cubs to your roster. Those rules have served me well. However, the Cubs still love to taunt me. This year there are two who could be considered serious temptations - Baker, and reliever Kyuji Fujikawa (see below). I have always liked Baker (formerly with the Twins), and he always shows me good reasons to have faith when he is healthy. Oh yeah, there's the bad word with regard to Baker - healthy. He's been around awhile, but he has tossed 200 innings just once (2009), and missed part of 2011 and all of last year with elbow problems. He is hopefully fully recovered, and signed with the Cubs in the off-season. He has had no reported setbacks, and is targeting a mid-late April return to the major league mound. If you can accept the risk of both more injuries, and the horror of a Cubs pitcher on your roster, he could be a nice high-risk, high-reward gamble.

James McDonald (PIT) -
On the plus side, the Pirates have a habit of acquiring, via draft or trade, some pretty nice arms. However, on the downside, too many of those pretty nice arms tend to underperform, especially at the major league level. McDonald was acquired from the Dodgers (usually a strong start to a pedigree) and is entering his third season as a Pirates starter. The first two seasons qualify for mixed reviews. Once a highly touted Dodgers prospect, he was too hittable, and only marginally effective in 2011, but got off to a great start in 2012. He missed more bats, fooled more hitters, and looked as if he could be coming into his own early last year, but the wheels came off in the second half and his season took a sharp downward turn. His velocity is down, and he loses command of the strike zone too often. That combination is lethal, and it's enough to suggest you look elsewhere unless he comes at a huge discount.

Pirates Kids (PIT) -
Even when your organization takes on a "finds them but doesn't often develop them" persona, there is usually reason for optimism, and the Pirates have two VERY big reasons to be optimistic. In Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, they have two of the elite pitching prospects in the game, and both are getting close enough to the major leagues to be considerations on draft day 2013. Cole has the better arm, though they both have excellent physical tools, and he is generally considered the top prospect in their system after being the first pick overall in his draft class. He can touch 100 mph and can be dominating at times. That said, I still see Cole as more of a thrower than a pitcher, and while that can be trained out of him, I actually like Taillon just slightly better. He is amazingly advanced for his age and experience level (he was drafted out of high school and is a year younger than Cole). At 6-foot-6, 230, he is an imposing figure on the mound, and he has both the stuff and composure to make it stick. He commands all of his pitches, and is poised enough to challenge when he needs to and fool hitters when that would work better. Both of these guys could see Pittsburgh at some point this year, with Cole being the most likely to come up first, but either are worthy of a roster spot if you have the flexibility to draft and stash them away.

The Endgame Odyssey

Here we'll cover some notes and observations on the closer scenarios across baseball. For the next few weeks, the focus will be on the division featured in arms to watch.

Surely the Cubs are as tired of Carlos Marmol as his fantasy owners lately. They say he will open the season as the closer, but if I am buying a Cubs reliever, it's Japanese-import Kyuji Fujikawa, and not Marmol. With Chapman expected to step into the rotation, Jonathan Broxton will take over end game duties in Cincinnati - as long as he can stay healthy. I still think Chapman is better suited to late-inning relief, but the Reds didn't ask me. John Axford returns to close in Milwaukee after a rollercoaster 2012. He finished up strong but wildness could always rear its ugly head with him again at some point. Jim Henderson would be a lukewarm choice to fill in. The Pirates will hand the ninth inning to Jason Grilli in April, but he is pretty much unproven in that role. Consider Mark Melancon, and even Bryan Morris, either of which could sneak into the picture if Grilli struggles. And, in St. Louis, Jason Motte has become one of the more secure closers entering the 2013 season, and will probably command "secure closer" bids.

Next week we'll look at Eight Arms to Watch in the AL West.