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Mound Musings: Wheeling Into A Rotation Spot

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.

It's Time to Consider the Possibilities

Continuing the ongoing look at premier young arms making their way to the major leagues, this week we'll take a look at some pitchers who have just been thrust into the spotlight and might offer some significant upside. Let's take a look at a couple who are here now or soon to arrive.

Zack Wheeler (New York Mets)

It's easy to assume that a great pitching prospect will arrive in the major leagues, and instantly enjoy ace-like success. In truth, that doesn't happen often. Sometimes, the less viable young pitchers are actually more successful when they first arrive because there is something in their motion that makes their delivery more deceptive. These are the pitchers who make a splash, become the fabled flavor-of-the-month and then fade into mediocrity when the league has a book on them. That is not the category into which Wheeler falls.

Wheeler, like his young teammate Matt Harvey is the real deal. And, just for the record, there is another pitcher of their caliber on the way, albeit probably not until next year. Look for the trio of Harvey, Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard to be providing Mets fans with a LOT to cheer about very soon.

With two starts now under his belt, Wheeler's performance is mixed. He jumped up and dazzled the Braves with six shutout innings in his first outing and then struggled a bit against the White Sox the next time out. In both outings, there were positives and negatives. Without question, the biggest concern, even more than supposedly tipping pitches, would be the five walks in the Braves game, and three more against the White Sox giving him eight free passes in 11.1 innings.

There are quite a few reasons for worse than expected command when a pitcher reaches the major leagues. Adrenaline is almost always a factor, and it sometimes leads to overthrowing - something it appeared was happening to Wheeler at times. And, a bigger concern is the patience of major-league hitters who are considerably less likely to swing at pitches out of the zone compared to their minor-league counterparts. That forces the youngster to be even more focused on his target and can create a situation where the pitcher is being - how many times have you heard it? - "too fine" and not completely trusting his stuff.

At Triple-A Buffalo, Wheeler walked 27 in 69 innings. That's really too high, though not terribly so, and suggests that his command is still developing. The last couple seasons he has refined his command, but not surprisingly, his walk rate has regressed temporarily with each move up the ladder. There is a good chance he will adjust again, and it will improve at the major-league level. His fastball sits 93-96, and his breaking pitches show plenty of depth and bite, but his changeup can still be a little inconsistent, so there is still room for work, but he has shown the ability to adjust - a huge asset - and he is living on his stuff, not deceptive motions or extreme unfamiliarity. His nice easy motion might not be a big help now, but over the long haul it will give him a consistent release point, and a much better chance to succeed. He's a winner.

Kyle Gibson (Minnesota Twins)

The Twins certainly need to bolster their pitching staff, and while they have added some quality arms via the draft the last couple years, most notably Kohl Stewart in this year's first-year player draft, the arms ready to help today are pretty limited. The best of the more experienced arms, Alex Meyer, is on the shelf at Double-A New Britain with some shoulder stiffness. There is no structural damage involved, so he should be back soon, but he is not a candidate to move up to Minnesota any time soon.

That leaves the help call to Gibson, who is expected to make his major-league debut later this week. He was a first-round pick in 2009, but he had Tommy John surgery in 2011, pitched only 27 innings in 2012 after his return and is still building back to what he showed earlier in his career. There was talk that he might break camp with the Twins this spring - they are pretty desperate - but they opted to give him more time at Triple-A Rochester where he has already logged more than 90 innings. And, there's the worry. How many innings will the Twins allow him to throw this year? Speculation was 140-150 innings, but Minnesota management now claims there is no hard cap on his workload. That would be very surprising.

Gibson has a good, but not great fastball that generally sits in the low 90s, and he has a respectable slider, but his best offering is probably his changeup. To me, his repertoire translates into a middle-of-the-rotation starter when he reaches his ceiling. For the Twins, at least right now, that probably means closer to the top of their rotation. Because he doesn't have dominating stuff, he'll have to be careful. At the major-league level, average stuff in the middle of the plate gets hit hard. His command is coming back, and he could see a bit better strikeout rate as he develops further, but his fantasy value is likely to be limited this season.

He can be considered in deeper leagues as a match-up option, but be aware that the likelihood of him being a workhorse this season is low. The Twins will probably not ask him to pitch deep into games, they will almost assuredly monitor his pitch counts, and I would be surprised if he is still pitching in September if he takes a fairly regular turn the next couple of months. Proceed with caution.

Some Notable Rotation Happenings:

Ricky Nolasco (MIA) -
To be honest, I have never been much of a Nolasco fan as he continually under-performs relative to his stuff. That said, the Marlins are looking to an inexpensive rotation with some bright young arms, and they will very likely deal Nolasco in the near future. A change of scenery certainly couldn't hurt.

Taylor Jordan (WAS) -
With Dan Haren going on the disabled list, the Nationals are considering a call-up for Jordan. He is one of those players who got quite a bit stronger after undergoing Tommy John surgery. There are positives, like a lot of movement and pretty fair command; the question is the readiness of his secondary stuff.

Scott Diamond (MIN) -
Don't get me wrong, he is never going to be a fantasy ace, but I keep seeing things that make me think he could get on track, and pitch like he did in his respectable 2012 season. He doesn't walk hitters, and a lot of the hits he allows seem to be finding their way past the defense. Do you like to roll the dice?

Michael Pineda (NYY) -
His velocity isn't quite what it was, but his rehab is going well, and he should be back in the next couple weeks. It's hard to forget just how good he looked in Seattle before the shoulder problems, and the Yankees say they won't use him as a reliever. He is definitely someone to pursue.

Dylan Bundy (BAL) -
Readers have asked about Bundy, and the latest is unfortunately another setback in his attempt to rehab from elbow problems. Now he has seen Dr. James Andrews, and that, as it often is, means bad news. Tommy John surgery is on the horizon, and his 2013, and much of 2014, is over.

James McDonald (PIT) -
Remember him? He has been dealing with shoulder problems since early May and has not made much progress. In fact, his name may also now appear in Dr. Andrews' appointment book, so don't look for him to return any time soon. There's probably no reason to hang onto him at this point.

Robbie Erlin (SD) -
With few viable options, the Padres are trying Erlin in their injury-depleted rotation. He has some upside, but he has simply been too hittable both in San Diego and at Triple-A Tucson. That said, there is an opportunity emerging, and he will certainly enjoy Petco for half of his starts.

David Price (TB) -
He has looked extremely sharp in his rehab starts and is lobbying to be activated right away. Look for him back in the Rays rotation as soon as early next week, and expect the old Price results.

Endgame Odyssey

Detroit has said goodbye to Jose Valverde - again. For now, Joaquin Benoit is in the driver's seat, but I would be surprised if that lasts long term. They like him in a set-up role, and there is a good chance they are checking with other teams on the availability of a proven closer ... Tom Wilhelmsen isn't ready to close again in Seattle, and the man who was in position to take the job and run, Carter Capps, has run himself pretty much out of the consideration set. There is no one who represents a clear choice, so Wilhelmsen could get another chance almost by default ... In Boston, Andrew Bailey has been extremely hittable lately, and the Red Sox have taken him out of the closer's role. While Koji Uehara is clearly their best option, the Red Sox consider him fragile and probably would rather not increase his workload. Hopefully Bailey is healthy, can work through these struggles, and will soon step back into the gig ... Virtually untouchable in the early part of the season, Jason Grilli of the Pirates has been a little suspect lately. He has experienced a heavy workload given his age and pre-closer usage, so don't be shocked if Pittsburgh tries to give him a little more rest whenever they can. The backup plan would be a fairly reliable Mark Melancon ... The Cubs DFA'd Carlos Marmol. Will someone else give him a try? Maybe, if the Cubs eat enough salary. He has the tools if another organization can get him straightened out ... Rafael Betancourt may be back with the Rockies soon, and they apparently intend to reinstate him as their closer. Where possible, it might be a good idea to hang on to Rex Brothers. He showed everyone what he can do, and there is a good chance he winds up closing again in Colorado.