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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 the six-part series on some key arms to watch in each of baseball's divisions. As you know, these pitchers may be primed for a breakout, ready to take a significant step forward or they might be on the precipice, more likely to tumble into the abyss. In either case, you will want to be aware of these hurlers on draft day 2014. Let's get to it this week with:

Seven Arms to Watch in the NL Central

Shelby Miller (STL) -
He remains a bit of an enigma. A couple seasons ago he fell in love with his fastball (pretty easy to do when you have one like his), but he found out major league hitters can hit the best blazers when they know it's coming. The Cardinals put him on a "no shake" plan where he was not allowed to shake off the pitch being called for and it helped almost immediately. Last season he came out with all guns firing but slumped a bit in the second half and into the playoffs. He still finished the 2014 regular season 15-9 with a 1.21 WHIP, a 3.06 ERA, and almost a strikeout an inning despite that slump so it's obvious to most that Dr. Jekyll is definitely in there as long as he can keep Mr. Hyde at bay. Memories of his playoff struggles and good but not great overall numbers on the regular season might drive his draft day price down somewhat so there is value potential to be had. He has all the tools, and he appears to be maturing so there is reason to believe better is in his future. That said, he's likely still more of a very talented kid than a savvy veteran pitcher so there is some risk. With his skill set I'll take that risk and hope for the best if I can get any kind of discount at all.

Kyle Lohse (MIL) -
Lohse has continually surprised me the past couple of seasons. Prior to that, I looked at him as just a league-average or maybe worse innings eater and I didn't pay particularly close attention to him. However, he seems to be remaking himself a bit and while he's not going to ever be an ace, he can be helpful in a fantasy rotation as long as you have other arms to compensate for his low strikeout totals. He's now 35 and he never did have a high octane fastball (upper 80's to low 90's with a tailwind) so he has learned to get by tossing his pitches in or around the strike zone while keeping hitters off balance. Now instead of rocket line drives, a lot of the balls hit are easier plays for his defense which has contributed to a better BABIP coinciding with his improved overall performance. He still gives up too many home runs - mediocre fastballs in a bad location often end up in the bleachers - and I'm a little concerned about him allowing a few more base runners which can make those home runs more dangerous, but because he doesn't ring up the big strikeout numbers he can sometimes be available on the cheap so he could fit as a piece of the right fantasy staff.

Marco Estrada (MIL) -
It was tale of two seasons for Estrada in 2013. He started off poorly, but after a stint on the disabled list in June, he came back to the form that had made everyone take notice the previous season. He has decent, but not great stuff, but he throws strikes, and he moves the ball around - up, down, in, and out. He has a solid array of pitches, and isn't afraid to throw any of them in any situation. That's a pretty good formula for success. With a minimum of walks, and about a strikeout per inning, he posts a very good WHIP and at least partially limits the damage done when his lone nemesis comes into play. Like many pitchers with respectable but not overpowering stuff, mistakes can be costly and he does give up a few long ones. Because he doesn't possess one of those gaudy fastballs (his average is only about 90 mph), even with a consistently solid WHIP and about a strikeout an inning, he usually doesn't get a lot of respect on draft day. In my book that is value looking for an owner. I believe in Estrada and I consider him the type of inexpensive pitcher who helps win fantasy championships.

Mat Latos (CIN) -
A few short years ago Latos was Shelby Miller - loads of raw talent but looking for maturity and the refinement to make all that talent pay off. The Reds gambled and acquired him when he wasn't always considered a sure thing to reach his optimal ceiling, and it may be just about to pay off. In Cincinnati he has put together very solid back-to-back seasons with over 200 innings, just a bit under a strikeout an inning, and solid WHIPs to go with good ERAs. So how does that translate to value on draft day? Latos pitched the last part of 2013 with an abdominal strain and bone chips in his elbow. He had the bone chips cleaned up last fall, and then had surgery in February for a torn meniscus (knee). Perhaps all that might scare some owners away, but it looks like he's going to be 100-percent healthy by Opening Day, and even though he now pitches in a hitter-friendly home park (as opposed to San Diego earlier in his career), I think the best is yet to come for this guy. Again, don't expect a huge discount, but now, at age 26, if he keeps progressing the way he has since coming to the Reds and discovering a very seasoned approach to his work on the mound, this might be your last chance to own him for anything below a premium price.

Jameson Taillon (PIT) -
You probably all know I can't do these value write-ups without tossing in a handful of blue-chip kids with the talent to make an instant impact. Taillon is at the very top of that list. New readers should know that I maintain an ongoing top pitching prospects list and Taillon is firmly in the top spot. I love this guy. He has a mid-upper 90's fastball (and it's getting even faster) that sinks and darts. He throws it to spots consistently and actually displays the mound presence to throw it with complete confidence. Add in a knee-buckling curveball, and a rapidly improving change-up and it equates to a pitcher who can be a force from his first day on a major league mound. The Pirates probably won't want him in Pittsburgh on Opening Day. I expect him to spend the first couple of months of 2014 with Triple-A Indianapolis, but he'll be with the Pirates soon and you want him on your roster. If you are in a keeper or dynasty you REALLY want him on your roster. He has one of the most impressive heaters in pro ball, and he is mature beyond his years so the secondary stuff is coming quickly. Buy him now.

Carlos Martinez (STL) -
Here's another big arm to keep tabs on. He packs more heat than Taillon but it's not quite as electric, and beyond a decent slider, he doesn't really have a third pitch. That's where the value question arises. Without a quality third pitch his rotation prospects are difficult to define. He has been effective in late-inning bullpen duty, but Trevor Rosenthal is pretty locked in as the Cardinals closer so saves aren't going to be available in abundance. Martinez needs a passable change-up. Given those parameters, his value may be in leagues that count holds, and because he has the ability to throw multiple innings if needed, he could develop into one of those wonderful swing men that qualify as bother a reliever and a starter. He'll give you strikeouts - more if he develops a more reliable off speed pitch - and with Rosenthal in the barn it seems unlikely the Cardinals will want to keep him in the bullpen if they think they can get quality innings from him as a starter. There's too much talent here to waste him in lower leverage situations for long. In the relatively near future I think he gets a serious look for a rotation spot and he could be a help in leagues that reward versatility so give him a good look on draft day.

Jake Arrieta (CHC) -
Longtime followers know that 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. In Arrieta's case I'm hoping he hasn't forgotten all the things I liked about him when he was coming up with the Orioles. That won't be enough to make him a fantasy asset, but if he can progress a bit he could be a nice end of the draft find. He has a spicy fastball that sits in the mid-90's and at times he shows decent secondary stuff. The problem is the "at times" part of that equation. He can be a stalwart one outing and completely lose the zone in his next start. When he loses command, the walks rise, and get me over the plate pitches turn into hit me over the fence pitches. He needs consistency. Still, he has shown flashes, and was once more highly thought of than current O's ace Chris Tillman so there is a glimmer of hope. With the exception of Jeff Samardzija he has more ceiling that any other Chicago starter so if you are looking for lightning to strike there are worse risks.

The Endgame Odyssey

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

The Reds continue to chatter about possibly moving Aroldis Chapman to the rotation, but it's not going to happen in 2014 and may never come about. They will probably get him more innings, which equates to more strikeouts. If Jonathan Broxton can get and stay healthy he is the backup. ... The Trevor Rosenthal era is now in St. Louis, and he has the tools to be a premier closer so enough said. Former closer Jason Motte is the most likely candidate for a shot if Rosenthal needs any time off. ... Jason Grilli steps back in for the Pirates but durability is going to be an ongoing issue so if you own Grilli it might be wise to handcuff with Mark Melancon. ... In Milwaukee, it's Jim Henderson, and he should be fairly well entrenched now. They do have Francisco Rodriguez in the stable, but probably hope they don't need him to close very often. ... The Cubs acquired a Band-Aid in Jose Veras, but when Kyuji Fujikawa returns, probably in May or June, he should get a shot, and that assumes Pedro Strop won't have already taken the job and run with it. It could be an interesting game of musical closers in Chicago this year.

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