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February 15, 2011

Fantasy Focus

AL Rookie Hurlers to Watch

by Marc Normandin

Last week we took a look at some American League rookies who may play the field in 2011. This time around, we'll focus on some brand new hurlers from the Junior Circuit that could impact your fantasy season. If you're wondering why there aren't any relievers listed here, worry not: Mike Petriello will have you covered later this week on the reliever front, so you'll know just where to draft Chris Sale, Jake McGee, Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden and others.

Jeremy Hellickson was a beast at Triple-A Durham in 2010. In 117 2/3 innings, the right-hander punched out 9.4 hitters per nine frames while also displaying the excellent control he was known for at the lower levels. This earned him a September call-up, and unlike with many of their late-season additions, the Rays made the most of his roster spot by giving him 36 1/3 frames to pitch in. He posted a 3.47 Run Average in that stretch, with strikeout (8.2 per nine) and walk (2.0 per nine) rates that fit with his career numbers in the minors.

Now that Matt Garza has been dealt to the Cubs, Hellickson will no longer have to fight for a rotation spot. He is the Rays' fifth starter, and though they may monitor his innings and pitch counts more than their other four hurlers given his youth, he will get enough starts to merit your attention on draft day. PECOTA has projected 120 2/3 innings with 8.3 strikeouts per nine and walk rate of 3.0 per nine—those rates are accurate, but expect more innings from the righty (PECOTA projected just 21 starts, a number he should best with ease). He is more flyball-oriented than anything, but he's in the right park for that trait, and even without Carl Crawford in left this year, the Rays will have a solid outfield defense to augment Hellickson's stats.

The 24-year-old Hellickson is not a sleeper thanks to his strong 2010 debut, but unless someone in your league is obsessive about him, he should be worth the dollar amount or round spent on him.

Michael Pineda is just 22 years old, but he could nab a spot in the Seattle Mariners' rotation before too long. In 2010, the righty blew through Double-A (77 innings, 78 strikeouts, just 16 unintentional walks) and, despite his 4.47 RA brought on by a 1.3 home run per nine rate, pitched very well in his Triple-A debut (76 whiffs in just 62 1/3 innings, 17 walks). Given his past and the ease with which he struck batters out and controlled the strike zone in Triple-A last season, he should master the level in 2011 and earn himself a promotion to the bigs by midseason at the latest—if the Mariners don't break camp with him already in the rotation.

David Pauley and Luke French are the competition Pineda has to deal with this spring. Pineda is projected by PECOTA for a 3.59 ERA (aided in part by his home park), 7.6 strikeouts per nine, and a K/BB ratio of 2.4, while Pauley (4.35 ERA, 5.3 K/9, 3.1 BB/9) is something of an emergency starter. French, while younger than Pauley, isn't looking any better in terms of 2011 (4.79 ERA, 1.4 K/BB). Regardless, the Mariners may hold off on bringing up Pineda until later in the season, as starting the year with him won't help them compete in the AL West, and as Kevin Goldstein points out, he needs to work on his off-speed stuff. It's a position battle to keep an eye on, though, if you have a draft later on during spring training.

Kyle Drabek wasn't as spellbinding in his 2010 major league debut as Hellickson, but there is still reason to be excited about him in 2011. In his first year with the Blue Jays organization, Drabek threw 162 innings at Double-A with an RA of 3.72, 7.3 strikeouts per nine and a 1.9 K/BB ratio. While you can wish those ratios were a little better, Drabek is good about keeping the ball in the park: He has a career rate of 0.6 homers per nine innings in the minors, thanks to just 33 bombs allowed in 429 2/3 innings. He can thank his two-seamer for that, as the low 90s pitch has some sink—that's how he posted a 1.6 G/F ratio in the minors in 2010, and where his extreme groundball rate (in a limited sample, of course) came from during his short stint with the Jays.

This tendency to keep it on the ground should help Drabek outperform his expected ERA, simply because he'll see his share of unearned runs due to additional balls in play. (His stay at Double-A is an example of this—Drabek allowed 53 earned runs and 67 runs total, hence the discrepancy between his 3.72 RA and 2.94 ERA.) It's fantasy, so you care about ERA—the ability to outperform an expected ERA, even if it means the pitcher looks better than they actually are, is a plus for your purposes. PECOTA sees Drabek having some trouble keeping his walk rate in check (projected 4.1 BB/9 against just a 6.1 K/9), which isn't unexpected given his age and lack of big league experience. Picking up Drabek as something of a sleeper is smart—don't overpay for him though, as he may not contribute to your strikeout rates, and his walks could hurt your WHIP.

Zach Britton is one of two five-star prospects in the Orioles system, and while the lefty won't see the majors right away (the O's are in the midst of sorting out rotation spots for two of their other young hurlers, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta), he may find himself there before too long. For one, Justin Duchscherer has one of the five rotation spots, and he lasted all of 28 innings in 2010 after missing all of 2009—just take a look at his injury history and you'll see why this is not only a possible outcome but almost predetermined. There is a good chance that the winner of the Tillman/Arrieta spring bout won't matter, as both arms will be in the rotation the first time the Duke has an owie. Second, Jeremy Guthrie won't be a free agent until after 2012, but he's set to make $5.75M this year and is a candidate to be dealt this summer to a team searching for an arm—the O's took calls on him last year when he possessed a lower price tag and more remaining club control, after all. That has the potential to open up a spot for Britton, though he could also just impress Baltimore more than Tillman or Arrieta have and leapfrog them on the depth chart.

Goldstein's "Perfect World Projection" for Britton said he could be "a left-handed version of Brandon Webb." Webb was a Cy Young caliber pitcher back when he was able to stay on the mound, so that's a hefty compliment and a lot to live up to. Until his secondary stuff is more consistent—Britton has a tendency to overthrow his slider and occasionally loses control of the offering—that projection will remain a dream, but the potential and ability are both there. PECOTA doesn't see him helping much based on his current minor league track record—a 5.3 K/9 and 4.2 BB/9 are good only for Pirates pitchers, not fantasy ones—but a second successful go-round at Triple-A could dramatically change the 23-year-old southpaw's outlook. 

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