Looking Back, and Looking Ahead
The next three weeks, I want to look at some young 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 - this week I'll look at some National League names, and next 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. Let's take a look.
2013 Arms to Watch - National League
Matt Harvey (New York Mets) - He's at the top of the class, but he's also hurt and could require surgery that would shut him down for all or most of 2014. I am confident that if he has Tommy John surgery, he will come back as strong, or even stronger, than he was this year. Harvey has an explosive fastball, and an assortment of off-speed stuff that is high quality as well. Most important, he can fully command his entire arsenal - particularly, spotting that devastating fastball. Yes, he looks like a dynasty or long keeper play, but perhaps someone will cut him loose and you have the roster flexibility to carry him while he makes his way back? He has the talent to warrant such a move, and that can't be said about too many pitchers.
Jose Fernandez (Miami Marlins) - His record is solidly on the plus side even though he pitches for one of the weakest teams in baseball. He is certainly in the running for Rookie-of-the-Year honors - rightly so - and there is nothing to suggest he can't be a frontline starter. Like Harvey, he has an electric fastball, but it's his breaking pitches that really separate him from the pack. I love a well-developed curve, and his is truly a yacker. When you have off-speed pitches like that, and aren't afraid to throw them in any situation, with any count, success comes very easily. I do think the league will get a slightly better take on his offerings, but not enough to remove the luster he has built up. This is not smoke and mirrors, he's for real.
Zack Wheeler (New York Mets) - Mets fans probably got spoiled by Harvey. It's pretty rare to see a pitcher come up and make that kind of splash with virtually no bumps in the road. That said, don't overlook Wheeler. Prior to 2013, he was ranked ahead of Harvey ceiling-wise, and he has all the tools to be that kind of pitcher. I have generally liked Harvey just a bit better for some time, but that doesn't diminish my enthusiasm for Wheeler, who may take a more traditional path, complete with some inconsistencies, as he strives to reach his full potential. Perhaps the scariest part for fans of the amazing Metropolitans is the fact that they have another arm that is clearly in the same class, but more on him in Part III of the series.
Shelby Miller (St. Louis Cardinals) - Sometimes one of the most difficult thing for a young pitcher to learn is how good major league hitters can be. Elite arms rise, often very quickly, to meet each new challenge, and when they have a power arm like Miller's, it can be very tempting to just reach back and blow a hitter away when things get sticky. That rarely works for long at the major league level - the hitters there can hit the best fastball if they have a good idea it's coming. Miller has top-of-the-rotation stuff, and he has learned, painfully at times, that he needs to fool hitters rather than just blow them away as he always did against weaker competition. Making adjustments is a huge part of the game, and he seems to be able to do that, so expect big things ahead. The Cardinals will have a potent mound corps led by Adam Wainwright, and Miller.
Patrick Corbin (Arizona Diamondbacks) - You might want to insert a small gap here as the next group includes pitchers I think will be solid No. 2 or, perhaps, depending on the rotation, extremely productive No. 3 starters. Corbin tops this tier, and he sparkled most of 2013. He pitches in a fairly dangerous ballpark, yet he put up solid peripherals because he keeps the ball in the field of play. I think a repeat of 2013 might be a little much to ask, but he has very well-developed stuff, especially for his age, and being a southpaw. He should be a good, but not great, strikeout pitcher, but his stuff combined with a very mature mound demeanor make his a very nice addition to a fantasy rotation.
Gerrit Cole (Pittsburgh Pirates) - Cole could end up somewhere between middle-of-the-rotation and staff ace, but he's closer to the former than the latter. He has a big arm, and a big fastball, but he doesn't always command that fastball too well, and he doesn't miss enough bats because his secondary stuff is still a work in progress. I would have liked to have seen him receive more seasoning, and even after coming to the major leagues I didn't think he adjusted quite as well as I would have expected, but there is a load of talent here, if he can take it to the next level.
Jacob Turner (Miami Marlins) - The next two are in the same organization with Fernandez, and they figure to fight over who will be No. 2 and who will be No. 3 when their young rotation reaches maturity. Turner has the more developed repertoire than Eovaldi, so I am going to give him a very slight edge. He was written off by many when the Tigers threw him into the fire far too soon - it's their organizational philosophy - but you have to be very careful about labeling one of their pitchers a flop before seeing what he can do when he has had a chance to learn the ropes. Turner is still young, and he's still learning, so there will still be challenges to overcome, but when the Marlins are ready to compete, he should be fully ready to contribute.
Nathan Eovaldi (Miami Marlins) - I actually like Eovaldi's raw stuff better than Turner's, but he is going to need to refine his secondary offerings before he can take the next step. He has a Tier I fastball, and a Tier III repertoire beyond that. There has been notable improvement in his changeup, and his command of his breaking pitches is coming along as well. There are some analysts who feel he is better suited to bullpen work without a reliable third or fourth pitch, but I like what I have seen enough to give him time to develop the full package. He doesn't have the variety to finish off hitters like his fastball suggests he should, but that provides something to watch for. If the pieces begin to all come together, that strikeout rate will creep upward.
Julio Teheran (Atlanta Braves) - He has been much better this year as he has displayed more poise and maturity on the mound while finding more confidence and consistency in his breaking stuff. If that continues, he can be a solid force in a rotation that usually brings out the best. The shortfall is his fastball that still tends to flatten out and come in dangerously straight. Good pitchers have great fastballs, but great pitchers have great fastballs with movement. It's not easy to teach movement - and without it, Teheran can be a very good, but not great pitcher.
Tony Cingrani (Cincinnati Reds) - Cingrani has a rotation fastball, but he just doesn't show me a strong feel for secondary stuff. There is a possibility that it will develop over time, but for most pitchers at this level, it's a refinement process, and not a development issue. He could be a dominating reliever if he doesn't pan out as a rotation option, but with Aroldis Chapman in town, that would not translate to fantasy value. Next season should be a make-or-break season for Cingrani. The Reds will probably give him a regular turn to see if he can produce, but I would like to see a much more advanced repertoire before jumping on board.
Wily Peralta (Milwaukee Brewers) - Occasionally a pitcher will come along that scouts and analysts love, and watch as I will, I just don't see it. That's at least partially the case with Peralta. Don't get me wrong, he could be a decent starting pitcher, but there are those who feel he can become an ace. That, quite frankly, would surprise me. He doesn't command any of his pitches especially well, and his delivery doesn't appear to make huge improvements very likely. He could prove me wrong - others certainly have - but for now I will list him as a third-tier ceiling.
Rotation Short Takes
Jarred Cosart (HOU) - The Astros have shut him down for this year, but he certainly showed enough to factor into the rotation mix next season. He has plenty of upside, but he is still going to have to hone his command if he wants to be a reliable fantasy option. Next season could have some rough stretches, but he's worth watching.
Ubaldo Jimenez (CLE) - Somebody recently reset the way-back clock for 2010, and Jimenez has turned into the pitcher he used to be. I need to watch him again, but I saw a couple of innings, and he does look like a pitcher with a plan. It's always been in there, and if he has rediscovered himself, it could be a huge bump up.
Ricky Nolasco (LAD) - Speaking of huge bumps upward, the Dodgers have unveiled the Nolasco all of his fantasy owners have dreamed of for all these years. He's 8-1 since moving to the west coast, and he isn't showing any signs of backing off. Hopefully he won't forget the things that have turned his career around.
Kris Medlen (ATL) - As predicted, Medlen has come on strong after a mediocre start to the season, and he and Mike Minor (love the guy) will anchor a very dangerous Braves pitching staff when the playoffs roll around. The window for buying-low on Medlen is probably closed, but he should be solid.
Danny Hultzen (SEA) - Shoulder woes - hate 'em - have limited him to 35-plus innings, and the Mariners have vacillated between shutting him down and giving him a few spaced-out innings in September. He remains a high-ceiling prospect, and he is slated to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, so monitor his progress closely.
Scott Baker (CHC) - One of the more injury-prone pitchers in the game, Baker returned and looked good following a lengthy recovery from Tommy John surgery. He threw just 55 pitches - 39 strikes, and that is his calling card. A pending free-agent, he will be the definition of high risk/high reward when next season rolls around.
The Endgame Odyssey
I'm stubborn, and I still think Chia-Jen Lo is the best internal option for the Astros long term, but for the time being, Josh Fields would appear to have the inside track for saves in Houston. ... Bobby Parnell will have back surgery, so he is officially done for 2013. The Mets will use LaTroy Hawkins, and maybe the occasional Frank Francisco, as they finish up this year, but Parnell will be the guy next season. ... Koji Uehara has now retired the last 34 batters he has faced - that's a perfect game plus seven and counting - as he continues to close every door. Red Sox fans should all be wearing "Thanks Koji" t-shirts. ... The Pirates Jason Grilli continues to work himself back into form, but his fastball velocity is still a bit off so look for Mark Melancon to continue closing for now. ... The Cardinals probably won't change now unless it is absolutely necessary, but Edward Mujica has been in a funk, and Trevor Rosenthal, should they decide to leave him in the bullpen, is probably a better option, long term. ... On the list of most pleasant surprises this year would be Minnesota's Glen Perkins. I did think he could be an adequate closer, but he has far surpassed that level of performance.