Friday, March 17, 2006

FANTASY BASEBALL; YOUNG PITCHERS YOU SHOULD KNOW!

UPDATED ON MONDAY, 3/20!

Every owner will see at least one pitcher fall to injury or slog through an off-season, and often times several pitchers are simultaneously DL'ed or mired in slumps. Experienced owners know that's just the nature of Roto-ball. But, as opposed to throwing up your hands and hurling curses at the cruel fantasy Gods, as satisfying as that may be, be a boy scout! That is, "BE PREPARED!"

What follows is a brief list of young guns who have the potential to make a fantasy splash this season. Some are worth drafting... and others are just worth keeping an eye on. In addition, there will always be the odd Chien-Ming Wang, Aaron Small, Jeff Francis or John Patterson who either explodes onto the scene or emerges during the season. If you feel good about a pitcher or any player for that matter, don't hesitate to go with your gut and grab him!
Follow the "Golden 'Wire Rule;" cut the player whose production won't be missed, or cut the player who can't be used to beat you to a "win, place or show finish."

**Please note that not everyone will agree with all of these selections and, like each installment, this is but a tool. A tool to be used in conjunction with your own careful research and draft cheat-sheets! And, while a guy like Brandon McCarthy may not be on your radar that does NOT mean that he's lacking in potential. Likewise, if I've omitted a youngster who you believe will make an impact on the fantasy landscape... don't hesitate to grab him and play him, or stash him if it's his upside that appeals to you.
Astute owners know when to grab such guys, and accordingly when to "sell high," if need be, and use them to aid in their fantasy cup quests.

1. Seattle Mariners; "King" Felix Hernandez: Anointed "King Felix" by his teammates, all opposing batters bowed before Hernandez's greatness at one point or another last year. The Mariner fireballer started 12 games in '05, and proceeded to post a 4-4 record with an ERA of 2.67, a microscopic WHIP of 1.00, and 77 Ks in 84.1 IP. Hernandez's .500 record is a reflection of the poor run support he received and not a manifestation of his pitching. How great was the King last year? Consider that opposing batters hit just 3 Home Runs and notched a .203 average against him, and just 1 batter reached base per every 9 Innings of work. That's impressive stuff for any pitcher, all the more remarkable given that Hernandez is just 19.
Supported by a marginally improved offense, hopes for a 20 Win season should be curbed. Nevertheless, Felix Hernandez has been compared to "a young Dwight Gooden," called "the best pitcher to enter Baseball in over 20 years," and based upon his own talent alone the boy King looks like a 15 Win, a sub 3 ERA, one Strikeout per inning talent. In short, a fantasy stud.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates; Zach Duke: When "one" thinks of the Pittsburgh sports scene, "one" tends to think of QB Ben Roethlisberger and his fellow SuperBowl winning Steelers, or perhaps "one" might conjure images of Penguins of yore Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr patrolling the ice. But alas "one," who's apparently quite the sports fan, will NOT draw images of excellent Baseball and top tier Pitching... until, perhaps, the young Buccs' get to make their respective marks! Zach Duke certainly made an impression as a rookie last year, blowing through opposing lineups like Barry Bonds does interviews; with all the patience and grace of a bull in a China shop. Duke was un-freakin'-conscious over the span of his 14 starts, mixing a "restaurant quality" Fastball and knee-buckling Curve to compile an 8-2 record, with an ERA of 1.81 and 58 punchouts in 84.2 IP. Arguably one of the 3 best young hurlers in all of Baseball, Duke is currently Pitts' #2 starter. But, should '04 phenom Ollie Perez flounder again, Duke will claim the top of the rotation for himself.
With more offensive talent than many people realize providing him with run support, a 15 Win, 3.10 ERA, 140 K season is not a preposterous projection.

3. Detroit Tigers; Justin Verlander: The #2 overall pick from the 2004 draft, Verlander absolutely minced Minor League competition last season. At Double-A Erie, "JV" accrued a teeny-tiny, nearly impossible to see ERA of 0.28 (NOT a misprint!), an equally miniscule WHIP of 0.58, awarded just 7 free passes and struck-out 32 batters in precisely 32 innings.
Verlander offers impeccable control, a mid-90's Heater, and a plus Curve. Although he has the 5th spot in the Tiger rotation locked, the early spring returns have been iffy at best. Verlander's control has wavered and he served-up some fat pitches to the Phillies. In fact, young Phil' 1st Bagger Ryan Howard apparently put one Justin Verlander offering into a low-Earth orbit.
A solid Sleeper, keep an eye on how the rest of the spring shakes out. Assuming he sticks, and it looks like he will, Verlander will contribute Strikeouts and innings pitched, but his Wins and ERA should be low and high respectively.

4. San Francisco Giants; Matt Cain: Cain came up and started a lucky-7 games for the boys by the Bay last year, going 2-1, with 30 Ks, 19 BBs, and a 2.33 ERA in 46.1 innings pitched. And yet even after that rather lengthy audition, Cain's... uhm, able to qualify as a rookie. Awfully mature for a 22 year old, the young Giant has command of 3 pitches including a mid-90's Fastball.
One of a very few rookie hurlers with the potential to make an appreciable fantasy impact, Matt Cain could be 15 Wins, 3.30 ERA good!

5. Chicago White Sox: Bobby Jenks: Jenks is no secret to anyone who followed Baseball last season. The Angels tried to sneak him through Waivers over the '04 off-season and you've gotta' wonder if the Los Angeles of Anaheim (worst name in pro sports) brass experienced some sort of collective brain injury. Bobby Jenks has certainly suffered his share of injuries and stints on the DL (primarily stress injuries), but 6-3/240 Closers who can touch triple-digits on the radar gun are rare commodities indeed.
A late-season fantasy grab last year, Jenks rewarded those owners who snatched him off of the 'Wire in handsome fashion by saving 6 contests, posting an ERA of 2.75, and blowing away 50 batters in just 39.1 IP. This year Jenks is looking to turn the corner, cross into the blue, and become an elite Closer. Although the dude possesses 45+/100+ (Save/Strikeouts) ability, I don't think he'll be quite that good this year. Assuming he stays healthy, a 40 Save, 85 K, 3.15 ERA campaign is certainly within reach, however.

6. Baltimore Orioles; Chris Ray: After B.J Ryan defected to the rival Blue Jays and Rodrigo Lopez headed to NY, the Oriole management thoroughly and completely misjudged the Closer market. And, after failing to land a proven arm, new pitching coach and some would say "magician," Leo Mazzone will try and mold 24 year old Chris Ray into a viable, go-to 9th inning guy.

7. Minnesota Twins; Francisco Liriano: Duking it out with fellow prospect Scott Baker for the 5th and final spot in the Minny' rotation, Francisco Liriano made a strong case for himself by pitching lights-out ball (ERA of 1.69 and 8 Ks in 5.1 IP) in the World Baseball Classic. A global event, mind you, that has been watched by "tens upon tens of Americans."
The game's 6th ranked prospect as determined by "Baseball America," although Liriano's history of shoulder troubles has given the Twins pause for thought a Fastball that explodes through the zone, a Slider that brushes 88 MPH, a rapidly improving change-up, and a Minor League leading 112 Strike-outs lead manager Ron Gardenhire to believe that the young-gun has top of the rotation stuff. The Twins, concerned that Liriano didn't receive enough work during the WBC and is thus lacking in arm strength, will probably err on the side of caution and send him down to Triple-A to begin the season. Do not expect the Twins' top-ranked pitching prospect to remain on the farm for long, though. Francisco Liriano will likely be called up by June and serve as a long reliever and spot starter, and should Baker struggle or one of the other Twin starters fall to injury, Liriano will immediately be installed in the rotation.

8. St. Louis Cardinals; Anthony Reyes: With a virtual flock of Cardinals blocking his flight to the Majors, starter Anthony Reyes bided his time in the Minors... and blew away opposing batters at an eye-popping pace. At Triple-A Memphis last season, Reyes started 12 games (including 2 complete games), and went 7-6 with a 3.64 ERA and a WHIP of 1.08. What should catch your attention is the following; 136 punchouts and a mere 34 free passes in 128.2 IP. This cat was as hot as Texas asphalt in August!
So far this spring, though, Reyes hasn't looked particularly sharp, and newcomer Sidney Ponson is eager to lock-up the 5th and final spot in the rotation. Rest assured that Reyes, who is just 24 and has bright promise as a commanding strikeout pitcher, will find his way to the bigs by mid-season at the latest and is yet another top-tier sleeper starter.

9. Minnesota Twins; Scott Baker: The second of the twin Twin pitching prospects, Baker may be a bit further ahead in terms of conditioning but Liriano's the more talented of the two. Alas, Scott Baker's development will secure him the final spot in Minnesota's rotation... for now.
The 24 year old Baker was like a human ricochet last season, bouncing between the Minors, starting rotation, and bullpen with head-spinning frequency. But, after becoming a permanent pitching fixture by summer's end, Baker found his groove and went 3-3, with an ERA of 3.35, a WHIP of 1.16, and gave up just 5 Home Runs in 53.2 IP.
So far this spring the kids' been on fire, yielding 1 run on 4 hits, 2 BBs and 1K in 3 IP, with an ERA of 1.59. He throws 4 pitches, including a filthy Slider that serves as an "out pitch," and is much tougher on Lefty's (1.90 ERA) than Right-handers (4.50 ERA). Expect him to cling to his starting job by his fingernails...

10. Pittsburgh Pirates; Paul Maholm: Maholm had his '04 season ruined when a seeing-eye line drive found its way to his eye and broke his orbital bone. But the 7th overall pick in the 2003 draft showed great moxie when he got back on the mound last season and worked his way up the Minor League chain, reclaiming his place with the big club by August. Accordingly, Maholm went 3-1 in his 6 starts and notched an outstanding ERA of 2.18, a terrific WHIP of 1.16, and surrendered just 10 ERs and 2 long balls in 41+innings of work.
So far this spring the 23 year old Pirate prodigy, who has 4 pitches at his beck and call, has induced an awful lot of groundball outs and became the first Pitt' arm to go at least 5 innings deep. Considered a notch below talents such as Seattle's Felix Hernandez and Giant Matt Cain by certain internet fantasy analysts, Maholm is an excellent sleeper candidate nonetheless, and a 12 win, 3.75-4.00 ERA season is not out of the realm of possibility.

11. Chicago White Sox; Brandon McCarthy: A red-hot prospect at this time last year, the 22 year old Sock started 10 games in '05, going 3-2 with a 4.03 ERA and WHIP of 1.18. After several poor outings, the Chicago coaching staff stopped comparing McCarthy to a "young Black Jack McDowell."
After having his delivery thoroughly re-tooled over the off-season, McCarthy feels better than ever and is excited about his prospects for the coming year. He's going to start working out of the 'Pen as the Series winning Sox have no need for another starter, but McCarthy is a kid to keep an eye on.
For the immediate future he looks like a "beast or famine" pitcher; top of the rotation stuff with Bullpen fantasy numbers. Unless... or until, one of the White Sox starters is felled by misfortune, McCarthy's value will be marginal. But, if he's inserted into the starting ro' and receives a dozen or more starts you could be looking at an 8 W', 3.75 ERA kinda' pitcher.

12. NY Yankees; Philip Hughes: The Yankees' top prospect according to "Baseball America" (and they DO know their stuff) Hughes, who went 9-1 with a 2.19 ERA and 93 Ks in 86.1 IP at Class A last year, has already been sent down to Double-A Trenton. But, manager Joe Torre and Pitching Coach Ron Guidry are positively giddy with excitement over his future. Hughes is an imposing mound presence at 6-5 and with a big time curve, above average Fastball, and poise that belies his age (19), Hughes' future will soon be upon us.
Of course, it would take a remarkable confluence of misfortune to force the club to promote him to the Majors, but a late summer or early-September call-up is not out of the question. Those of you who belong to deep, DEEP, Keeper Leagues might consider expending a late, LATE round flyer on Phil Hughes and stashing him away for next season. Those owners who did the same with Seattle ace Felix Hernandez last season are looking at a possible 18 game winner this year.

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