We have four down and now move out west with just two to go in my six-part series on some key arms to watch in each of baseball's six 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 AL West
Jarrod Parker (OAK) - A good memory can be helpful or it can be a curse, but in the case of Parker, I'm pretty confident it will pay dividends. A few years ago he was right at the top of my prospect pitcher list and everything was sailing along smoothly. Then he hurt his elbow and went under the knife. As it often does, it slowed his progress, but like a fine symphony, it was only a rest in his advancement, the score is nearly finished now and I think a breakout season could be at hand. He has a good fastball, but that is only a compliment to his exceptional change-up, something you don't see all that often at his age and experience level. He was still a little inconsistent last year, throwing too many pitches and falling behind in counts, especially early in the year, but there was steady, noticeable improvement and I look for that trend to continue. He's a groundball pitcher who gives up a few home runs (it happens with heavy use of a change-up) but that could be a place to improve in 2014 as his command sharpens and he is able to mix his pitches up without wandering out of the strike zone. He won't be cheap per say, but he could well outperform his draft day price tag.
Jarred Cosart (HOU) - Being a live arm in an organization trying to find its way into contention can have certain benefits. The Astros aren't likely to break camp with many "ace" quality starting pitchers - in fact, unless something changes before Opening Day, they won't have anyone even close. Yes Mark Appel is in the system, but he's not in Houston yet, so Cosart earns the label of current Houston starter with the highest ceiling. Because he's not really a household name, and he plays for a weak team, he will be overlooked in a lot of fantasy leagues. More seasoning in the minor leagues would probably help him hone his spotty command, but he's more likely to get on-the-job training with the Astros given their lack of quality rotation options. He spent some time with the big club last year and while he generated a lot of groundballs, his strikeout rate was anemic and the walks were a constant problem. He's better than that. He's not going to be an ace, but the Astros will win some games in 2014, and he is a pretty good bet to get his share with a respectable ERA and a few more strikeouts.
Yu Darvish (TEX) - I list Darvish here because there still seems to be at least some fluctuation in his draft value. Is he a top five starting pitcher? Some say probably, and others point at the walks and occasional early departures and scratch their heads. Don't be bashful. Darvish is a top five starting pitcher, and he's going to be better. He's still learning the American game, and he has shown great strides in pitch selection (he is using few pitch variations) and mound presence (he doesn't get rattled, and when he does get in a jam he very often escapes with little or no damage). He's working on pitching to contact more, but I don't expect a significant dip in strikeout rate, and his command is becoming a serious weapon. The strike zone is different here compared to Japan, and hitters there are more prone to swing at pitches out of the zone. He's learned that and he knows where to go to tie a hitter up. Despite pitching half of his games in a band box, you can expect a very good WHIP and ERA to go with another potentially league-leading strikeout total. Toss in a productive offense which should give him opportunities to win a lot of games, and he qualifies as an elite starting pitcher.
Scott Baker (SEA) - Here's another for the good memory file. When Baker was in Minnesota I loved the guy. He was up and down, flashed real potential, and then lost his path, albeit briefly in many cases. He looked like he was about to realize all that potential in 2011 but recurring elbow problems cut his season short. Before the 2012 season even got going, the elbow problems returned, and he missed all of that season, and most of last year after having Tommy John surgery. He looks to be healthy this year, and he moves to a park that should help soften his tendency to allow home runs. His calling card has always been control, so hopefully there won't be too much rust, and with the Mariners he can settle nicely into the middle or back of their rotation without any need to live up to ace of the staff expectations. With a history of elbow problems dating back about five years, there is clearly an injury risk, but there is also a chance that the surgery repaired the problems that have plagued his career. He probably won't be pressed into a heavy workload, but I'm a buyer in the late rounds.
Scott Kazmir (OAK) - I almost gave this spot on the list to Sonny Gray, but I think he may be generating too much buzz to provide much value. So, shifting gears, there was a time when I considered Kazmir one of the best young pitchers in baseball. Then, for several seasons, he looked absolutely awful. There was no consistency at all, erratic mechanics, and change after change as he tried to find himself, but it ended up a total loss of confidence resulting in an unqualified disaster. He was out of baseball for a year, but then he attempted a comeback last year. The Indians took a chance, and while he wasn't the pitcher he had been when the star was shining brightly, but there was enough to catch my attention again. He still walks a few too many, but now in pitcher-friendly Oakland those free passes may not hurt too much, and the strikeouts were there. When he is locked in he can still dominate, and while he may not be a picture of consistency, he might surprise a lot of people in a lot of leagues. If he is going for early in his career prices, I'd probably stay away, but after five or more years of nightmare numbers, some managers in your league are likely going to be skeptical. Remember the rule to take upside over proven mediocrity as Kazmir will probably have considerably more upside than others in his draft position range.
James Paxton (SEA) - This list wouldn't be complete without a young southpaw who has a lot of upside but could easily lose his release point from time to time and suffer from an elevated WHIP. I would have to include Taijuan Walker here, but he is far too visible and is likely to be a pitcher people may overpay to get. Perhaps that will equate to a bargain on the Mariners other young gun. Paxton breezed through their minor league system, albeit with some pretty scary command issues that arose occasionally and made a lot of people consider scratching him off of their prospects list. However, he has the ability to miss a lot of bats with a potent mid 90's fastball, and if he stays around the plate opponents will have a tough time making solid contact. He has a sweet but sometimes erratic curve and an acceptable change-up, but everything plays off of that fastball. He was very effective with the big club late last year, but he may not have pitched enough innings to draw a lot of draft day attention.
Tyler Skaggs (LAA) - There's a reason the Angels and the Diamondbacks have fought over having Skaggs on their rosters since he came out of high school in 2009. Arizona wanted him in the amateur draft but the Angels beat them to him, the D-Backs acquired him when they dealt away Dan Haren, and now the Angels have him back as part of the Mark Trumbo deal. He has a curveball that is pure pleasure to watch - unless of course you're standing in the batter's box, and his fastball has plenty of hop. His change-up is still a little inconsistent, and like most left-handed kid arms, command of the strike zone can come and go, but when he's on, the results are eye-opening. Skaggs is only 22 and there will be more growing pains, but he has managed to darken his form enough in his brief Major League trials to frighten off many potential suitors (a 1.41 WHIP to go with a 5.29 ERA). Beyond Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson the Angels don't have much rotation stock to get excited about, at least not with the ceiling of Skaggs, so he should be in Anaheim sooner rather than later, and very possibly right out of Spring Training. Grab him if he's available late - particularly in keeper formats.
The Endgame Odyssey:
Here I'll cover some notes and observations on the closer scenarios across baseball. Over these weeks, the focus will be on the division featured in arms to watch.
One of the most interesting closer battles this spring is in Texas between Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria. Here it's a case of two very good options rather than a mediocre option fighting off contenders. I'm going to lean to Soria because I think he could come back to the form that made him one of the best closer's in the game before the arm troubles. ... In Houston, it's very likely going to be musical closers again. No one stands out, and while Josh Fields is the tepid pre-season favorite, I think Jesse Crain when healthy, and even a somewhat forgotten Chia-Jen Lo are both more appealing. They might even try Chad Qualls but that's not the answer. ... Jim Johnson landed in Oakland where the ballpark will help, but he needs to shake off the horrible inconsistency of last season. Ryan Cook is in the wings, and Sean Doolittle is a sleeper if the A's decide they want to move him out of a set-up role. ... The Mariners signed Fernando Rodney to close, which makes you skittish about their confidence in Danny Farquhar being the answer long term. Rodney is and almost always has been a wild card so a handcuff is worth the investment here. ... Finally, in Anaheim, Ernesto Frieri returns to the role despite ongoing talk that suggest the Angels wish they had alternatives. They don't, so barring a severe Frieri meltdown, he is likely to be the guy.
Next week we'll close out the pre-season series when we look at Seven Arms to Watch in the NL West.