Continuing the monster starting pitcher list…
Echelon 4, Part I – Upside Hotel
As with the Echelon 5, I’m going to sort this subset of players by age with 26 again being the cutoff point. This group of 25 and under arms is further along than the group in Echelon 5. Almost all of them have some major league experience and/or a clear path to their team’s rotation with an impressive spring performance. The long term upside of some of them might not be as high as some 5s, but their chance to make a 2010 impact is much higher. This 26 and over crowd is significantly better than their Echelon 5 counterparts and though there is still a chance they’ll implode, it’s not the near certainty it is with the 5ers. Crafting a scenario where they are fantasy viable doesn’t involve a set of 7-10 “if” phrases, instead maybe just two or three.
20 Year Olds
1. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco (MLB) – Much has been made over his significant drop in K/9 at AA (from 8.6 to 5.8), but I think it’s still far too early to overreact. He struck out 10.5 per nine in 141 innings in 2008 and then suffered the drop in 107 innings at AA-Connecticut last year. So he has one great and one awful similarly sized sample. He still kept the ball in the yard remarkably well (0.5 HR/9) and had sparkling results (1.93 ERA, 1.03 WHIP). Oh and he’s 20! It’d be nice to see his velocity return this year, but judgments need to be held at least until he is able to legally drink. He’s still an excellent investment for 2011.
21 Year Olds
1. Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds (WBC) – Big time prospect defected from Cuba and surprised everyone by signing with the Reds. He already possesses a plus-plus fastball both in terms of speed and movement with a strong slider to complement it. He is still very raw and hopefully the Reds handle him with care. Realistically he should have an ETA of June 2011 at the earliest unless he just OBLITERATES the high minors for significant periods of time.
2. Hector Rondon, Cleveland Indians (AAA) – He could probably use another 75-90 innings at AAA, but he’s proven himself at every level thus far with great control, above average to great strikeout rates and the ability to limit home runs. His changeup is coming along well to go with a low 90s fastball and two breaking pitches. It wouldn’t be totally out of the realm of possibilities for him to win a spot out of camp, but at least some AAA time this year is probably best for his development.
3. Chris Tillman, Baltimore Orioles (MLB) – Owns a great fastball/curveball combo that he used to dominate the minor leagues to the tune of 10 K/9 across 399 innings and posting a 3.79 ERA in the process including a 3.18 at AA and 2.70 at AAA in the past two seasons. He got a 65 inning taste of the big leagues last year and it was rocky to say the least. I think that the experience will serve him well this season and he will make his adjustment to the league and succeed more than he fails. His control was actually better in the majors (3.3 BB/9 to 3.9 in the minors) than it was coming up through the minors so if he holds onto that and the strikeouts get to 80% of his minor league level, then the league is in trouble.
22 Year Olds
1. Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado Rockies (MLB) – Made it from AA to the majors in 2009, but struggled mightily with his control in the quick stops at AAA (14 IP) and MLB (11 IP). A full season or at least three-quarters of a season at AAA will serve him well as polishes his control against better competition. He already has an above average changeup to go with his excellent groundball-inducing fastball. This is the kind of repertoire you want for a Coors Field pitcher. If he can get his cutter and curveball to catch up, then he can be a #1 guy. He is definitely someone worth investing in with an early minor league pick.
2. Kyle Drabek, Toronto Blue Jays (AA) – Hopefully the Jays don’t rush Drabek in an effort to show fans what they got back for Roy Halladay. He still has a raw arsenal including a changeup that needs plenty of work. It wouldn’t be awful to start him at AAA out of spring, but another 40-50 innings at AA first might even be the best solution followed by AAA work the rest of the year before a September call-up and then another 50 or so innings at AAA in the beginning of 2011 before getting to the show. Obviously this is dependent on how he performs this season, but there is absolutely no need to rush him.
23 Year Olds
1. Michael Bowden, Boston Red Sox (MLB) – He doesn’t jump off the page with gaudy numbers or an overwhelming set of pitches, but all three (fastball, curveball and changeup) are above average and have some room to get better. He strikes me as someone similar to Jair Jurrjens at least in terms of his peripheral numbers. Jurrjens teeters on that 2.0 K/BB line mainly because of a passable but not overwhelming 6.0-6.5 K/9 rate. That doesn’t mean Bowden will be posting a 2.60 ERA anytime soon if for no other reason than the fact that Jurrjens didn’t deserve his in 2009. Bowden profiles as a middle-to-back of the rotation guy who could raise his ceiling as he becomes more polished.
2. Brett Cecil, Toronto Blue Jays (MLB) – Simply lost his ability to strikeout batters at the elite rate he had in 2008 across three levels. Having pitched just 31 innings at AAA in 2008 and only 49 more in 2009, he was clearly rushed into his major league duty. He would be best served with another 75 or so innings at AAA to start 2010, but most depth charts have him in the big league rotation right now. There will be more growing pains, but he has middle of the rotation ability.
3. Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays (AAA) – His changeup was identified as the thing to work on for 2009 and he met the challenge turning it into an above average pitch en route to a brilliant season. He’s been the total package of power and control throughout the minors and he isn’t far from pushing way onto the major league roster. The Rays have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to their starting pitching and continued AAA success from Hellickson could put someone else out via trade or even Hellickson himself who could fetch a mint for the Rays.
4. Tommy Hunter, Texas Rangers (MLB) – His underlying numbers belied the resulting success he enjoyed in 2009 and he is in for some significant regression if he posts the same kind of peripherals again in 2010. He’s a back end of the rotation starter who can be useful in spurts, but he will soon be squeezed out of the Texas rotation by the influx of talent they have coming down pike. The one caveat is that Mike Maddux is a very good pitching coach and he coaxed the 4.10 ERA in 112 innings out of Hunter, so perhaps there is even more magic where that came from. That’s not a hedge, though. I’m avoiding Hunter at all costs and I’ll happily eat crow if he miraculously becomes a 7.0+ K/9 pitcher while maintaining his solid control.
5. Vincent Mazzaro, Oakland A’s (MLB) – Profiles pretty similarly to Hunter across the board including the part about eventually being squeezed from the rotation by better talent. Mazzaro has displayed 6.5-7.0 K/9 talent in the minors, but only brought 5.8 K/9 with him to the majors in his first tour. He can display the kind of K/BB ratio he enjoyed at AA-Midland and AAA-Sacramento the past two years then he might stick in the back end of that rotation, but I wouldn’t bet on him over Gio Gonzalez, Dallas Braden or even Josh Outman once he’s fully healthy late in 2010.
6. Jake McGee, Tampa Bay Rays (AA) – See what I mean about Tampa Bay’s depth? McGee spent 2009 returning from elbow surgery so he essentially started over again in hopes of regaining his arm strength. He only threw 30 innings of work, but struck out 40 batters while walking 12 across two levels in low A ball. He has always been a dominant type who overpowers hitters with a sharp fastball and deceptive curveball and changeup offerings as his secondary pitches. He’s a bit of unknown as he returns from injury and he could detour to the bullpen where his high strikeout/somewhat erratic control profile would flourish and perhaps develop into closer-worthy status should the control get better.
7. Jonathon Niese, New York Mets (MLB) – Acquitted himself well enough when forced into duty at the major league level before being shutdown like so many Mets were in 2009. He is in line to win a spot in the rotation more out of necessity than anything else, but he could be similar to teammate John Maine if all goes well. That is probably the ceiling for his profile right now with a mid-4.00s ERA and decent strikeout totals being the low end of a healthy season from Niese. You could do worse in an NL Only while filling out your rotation.
8. Aaron Poreda, San Diego Padres (MLB) – You know what is better than pitching in Petco? Nothing. And that is why Poreda will get a look in most NL Only leagues even if he doesn’t break camp in the rotation (which he shouldn’t). His spotty control needs about 100 more innings of AAA work before he is ready to make any type of impact in the majors. He has got a low-to-mid 90s fastball that he is living off of at this point while his slider and changeup require attention. He could make an impact during the dog days of summer, even if as a spot starter at home in spacious Petco Park.
24 Year Olds
1. Jake Arrieta, Baltimore Orioles (AAA) – Part of the wave that Baltimore hopes can make them the next Tampa Bay in the coming seasons. Arrieta has two money pitches with his fastball and slider while the changeup is becoming more and more effective. He dominated AA for 59 innings before getting a promotion to AAA where he remained strong, but lost three strikeouts off of his K/9 (down to a still solid 7.7). He needs more time at AAA to work on his command and continue to improve that changeup, too. He could be a midseason call up perhaps after the deadline if veterans Kevin Millwood and/or Jeremy Guthrie are moved out to contenders, but I wouldn’t expect any significant contributions until 2011.
2. Homer Bailey, Cincinnati Reds (MLB) – After four straight season on the Baseball America Top 100 from 2005 to 2008 (topping out at 5 in 2007), Bailey had been left dead at least in terms of an elite prospect as he not only failed in two small, nearly insignificant major league stints, but also struggled to master AAA (4.77 ERA in 111 IP in 2008). Of course once he was written off and the limelight went to roast some other “next big thing”, he excelled. First in AAA and then in majors. Actually his first 62 major league inning of 2009 were abysmal (6.82 ERA), but from August 28th on he went 5-1 with a 1.76 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 8.7 K/9 and 2.5 K/BB in 51 innings. Plus he had also laid waste to AAA posting a 2.71 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 8.2 K/9 and 3.0 K/BB in 90 innings before the big league success. Now even taking it all together, it’s still just 141 innings of success, but Bailey proved what many often forget: you can’t rush to judgment on young pitchers. Don’t rush back to the other end of the spectrum for 2010 though, either. He’s still very young. Buy in with an expectation of a 4.30 ERA over 170 innings and anything better will be a bonus.
3. Collin Balester, Washington Nationals (MLB) – Young enough to believe he can improve into a useful piece on the fantasy landscape, but even his minor league profile wasn’t terribly exciting so expectations can’t be terribly high for him. It is kind of an obvious thing to say, but Balester’s key to success is greatly improved control. He doesn’t have enough stuff to give away free passes and overcome it. Again, it’s not groundbreaking, but for some pitchers it’s much more important whereas someone with overpowering stuff can learn the control piece later on.
4. Brad Bergesen, Baltimore Orioles (MLB) – This guy is snake bitten. He took a shot off the shin cutting his season short last year and now this offseason he gets hurt filming a commercial. He’s got very good command which is probably why the O’s were confident enough to let him pitch just 11 innings in AAA before bringing him to the majors. He will need to have sub-2.0 BB/9 stuff if he plans to stick with fewer than 5.0 K/9 and be successful. I will go back to my favorite comp for this profile, he is very Nick Blackburn-ish meaning he could experience more success in 2010, but the margin for error is Mary Kate Olsen thin.
5. Luke French, Seattle Mariners (MLB) – French wishes he had the profile of Bergesen or Blackburn. He’s got the middling K-rate that they have, but nowhere near the control. The Seattle defense seems to give pitchers a boost similar to what Petco does for guys in San Diego, but that still doesn’t really make me want to roster French. He needs to recapture the seemingly anomalous 7.9 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 skills he showed in 82 innings at AAA-Toledo last year before I will approach the bandwagon.
6. Sean Gallagher, San Diego (MLB) – He gets the Petco boost off the bat, but that’s mitigated a bit by the fact that they have 94,000 options for their rotation who could be equal to or better than Gallagher at this point. He has shown the talent to be a very good top of the rotation guy with good command and a strikeout per inning stuff, but health has been a major roadblock to this point. A clean bill of health plus Petco Park could result in one of those $1 gem seasons where you get 150 innings of 3.60 ERA. Watch closely this spring.
7. Matt Harrison, Texas Rangers (MLB) – There isn’t a ton to like here, but he did manage 3.1 K/BB ratio in 640 minor league innings, so he can’t be completely ignored, especially in Texas because of the Mike Maddux Effect. He’s waiver wire fodder in all scenarios even if he somehow broke camp in the rotation.
8. Kris Medlen, Atlanta Braves (MLB) – He got better as the season went along posting a 3.4 K/BB ratio from July on and become a very reliable reliever for the Braves. The Braves rotation seems pretty set 1 through 5 right now, but that doesn’t mean Medlen won’t ever make his way back as a starter. He’s an ideal swingman for them as he continues to develop a third offering to go with his plus slider and solid fastball.
9. Franklin Morales, Colorado Rockies (MLB) – Like Medlen, Morales looks to be locked into a bullpen spot for 2010, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will be there permanently. His control needs plenty of work and the bullpen is a better place to figure it out than every fifth day as a starter. He may catch some spot start duty unless he becomes their left-handed 7th/8th inning guy several games a week. Provided he is used regularly, he has value as a high strikeout reliever who could vulture a handful of wins and a handful of saves.
10. Marc Rzepczynski, Toronto Blue Jays (MLB) – Fared pretty well in 61 major league innings despite essentially skipping AAA (just 11 IP) en route to the majors. He’s a groundball pitcher with excellent strikeout ability which is usually a recipe for legitimate success. His command is a bit sketchy having walked over 4.0 batters per nine, but as long as he’s approaching nearly a strikeout per inning he can get by with those walks. He’s a bit under the radar and I really like him for 2010 if he can secure a rotation out of spring.
11. Anthony Swarzak, Minnesota Twins (MLB) – Fits the low strikeout/high control profile we’ve come to expect out of Minnesota, but his command isn’t quite to the level of teammates Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano and Kevin Slowey. He has just 80 innings of AAA ball under his belt so I suspect we will see him start there and refine that control before getting another shot in the majors. His profile isn’t terribly appealing because it lacks the flashy strikeout total, but the Twins have a strong enough track record that you want to keep your eye on their prospects just so you don’t miss out on a potential gem.
12. Sean West, Florida Marlins (MLB) – Didn’t pitch much at AA (64 innings) and skipped AAA completely, but actually fared relatively well in 103 innings at the big league level. He got his feet under him in the late summer closing out with a 2.6 K/BB ratio across the final two months after failing to top 1.5 prior to that point. He’s an intriguing option for 2010 after gaining some invaluable experience last year. He has some serious strikeout potential for an endgame pick and might not cost more than a dollar.
25 Year Olds
1. David Huff, Cleveland Indians (MLB) – He wasn’t able to bring much of his 8.1 minor league K/9 rate with him to majors as he failed to reach even the 5.0 mark in 128 innings. That and a host of other factors led to a dismal 5.61 ERA and 1.56 WHIP. But he would hardly be the first pitcher to struggle mightily in his first shot in the majors only to mature and become the viable option his minor league performance suggested he could become. The Indians rotation is wide open for 2010 so he shouldn’t be short on opportunities unless he completely implodes. Someone to watch, but best case is still a mid-4.00s ERA.
2. Ian Kennedy, Arizona Diamondbacks (MLB) – Injury wiped out most of 2009, but he impressed the D’Backs enough with a 5.6 K/BB ratio (28 Ks, 5 BB) in the Arizona Fall League for them to seek him out in the blockbuster Curtis Granderson/Max Scherzer trade. He has a 9.9 K/9 rate in 249 minor league innings along with a 2.8 BB/9 so the skill is there. He’s drawing a lot of attention as a sleeper so far this year. So much so that he is headed toward the other end of the spectrum, but there will still be plenty of leagues that undervalue him. Look out for his health reports throughout the spring and be ready to pounce if he is given a clean bill of health and a spot in the rotation.
3. Andrew Miller, Florida Marlins (MLB) – It’s been a helluva rollercoaster ride for Miller already and he’s just 25 years old. He has shown flashes of brilliance, but they have been fleeting. This year is a do-or-die kind of season at least in terms of projecting Miller as a top of the rotation starter. If he fails to show improvements in his command, then it is time to reset expectations on what he can become. He does a great job limiting home runs and holds an above average strikeout rate which leaves the mental aspect of the game as his final hurdle to stardom. That mental game goes hand in hand with improving his control. I’d rather wait-&-see with him unless he came at a truly rock bottom price.
4. Bud Norris, Houston Astros (MLB) – He has been rumored as a future closer type, but the Astros went out and acquired two potential closers for their bullpen so they obviously won’t be looking to Norris for that role in 2010. He only has two worthwhile pitches, so barring vast improvement of the changeup his future is in the bullpen. The rotation is a mess after Wandy Rodriguez and Roy Oswalt so Houston will likely shoehorn him into the rotation regardless of the progress of that third pitch which could mean trouble. He offers strikeouts, but they could come with an ERA approaching 5.00.
5. Yusmeiro Petit, Seattle Mariners (MLB) – It seems like he has been around forever since he first started in pro ball at 18 back in 2003, but he still hasn’t hit his prime. He has a very live arm having struck out over a batter per inning in 612 minor league innings, but he has only brought 73% of that effort to majors with a 6.9 K/9 in 229 innings across the last four seasons. That’s a passable rate as is his 2.9 BB/9 in the same span. The problem has been his atrocious 2.0 HR/9 rate. That is simply unacceptable and is the sole reason for his 5.57 major league ERA. As an extreme flyball pitcher, the Seattle defense will help him, but they can’t help save balls that are knocked 400 feet to right or left field. He bears watching and could definitely be worth a flier if he finagles that fifth spot this spring, but be prepared to cut your losses if the home runs remain an issue.