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December 22, 2011

The Keeper Reaper

Starting Pitchers for 12/22/11

by Mike Petriello

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It’s been a big week for starting pitchers, as Texas won the Yu Darvish sweepstakes and Cincinnati picked up Mat Latos for a package including Edison Volquez. I’ve touched on the latter two pitchers recently, so I won’t repeat myself.  As for Darvish, he’s not really eligible for this series since I doubt there are too many leagues where he’s already owned and eligible to be kept. Kevin Goldstein has a fine rundown of what the future might hold for Darvish in Texas hereand here, and Derek Carty has one here.

Clay Buchholz | Boston Red Sox
Sh
allow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: NO
AL-only:
 YES
Super Deep:
YES 

You may have noticed a recurring theme in this series, which is “sure, this guy is great… if he’s healthy.” It’s been a big caveat for Tommy Hanson and Josh Johnson, and now we have to deal with the same issue regarding Buchholz. His breakout 2010 (17 wins, 2.33 ERA) was impressive despite a relatively pedestrian 6.2 K/9 mark, though BP 2011 saw room for improvement:

Pitchers can have fantastic stuff without racking up strikeouts, and Buchholz is exhibit A. The young right-hander should punch out more batters with his mid-90s heater, a 90-mph slider, and his finest pitch, a vanishing changeup, and those strikeouts are coming. His fastballs and sliders were fouled off at a 20-percent clip, which suggests that once he grows into his stuff, the whiffs will pile up. Normally, it would be odd to talk about a 26-year-old growing into anything but his thirties, but the velocity is new to Buchholz, whose slider averaged 81 mph two years ago. The added giddyup resulted from a change to his grip, which now resembles that used for a cutter, and the slider now functions as a fastball variant with a break he can command.

Expected to team with Jon Lester and Josh Beckett as a formidable trio at the front of the Boston rotation, Buchholz managed just 14 starts before a stress fracture in his back shut him down for the rest of the season. Though he was reportedly feeling soreness before his season ended, it’s hard to tell how much it was affecting him, since he was far more effective in his last seven starts (.577 OPS against, 37 strikeouts in 44 innings) than he was in his first seven (.842 OPS against, 23 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings).

So far, we’ve heard nothing but positive reports for Buchholz in 2012 as he’s already pitched in instructional leagueand might have actually seen action out of thebullpen in the playoffs had Boston held on.The early date of his injury works in his favor, as he’ll have had about ten months to recover before Opening Day; his potential and the fact that the injury wasn’t to his arm makes him intriguing, though not without risk.

Jhoulys Chacin | Colorado Rockies
Sh
allow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: NO
NL-only:
 NO
Super Deep: 
BORDERLINE

I suppose the initial inclination is to look at a 23-year-old starter who pitched nearly 200 innings with a sub-4 ERA at Coors Field and be impressed—and maybe I should be. As one of only two Colorado starters who pitched enough to even qualify for the ERA title, Chacin had a perfectly fine season, generally ranking between two and three wins above replacement by the various measurement systems.

That’s all well and good, but it just feels like there’s something unsatisfying there. Despite pitching 57 more innings than he did in 2011, Chacin struck out only 12 more batters, cutting his K/9 by nearly a third—one of the larger declines in the league. Unfortunately, that wasn’t met with a corresponding decrease in wildness, since he led the National League with 87 walks.

So how does a pitcher like that get by in Coors Field? Unsurprisingly, he turned himself into quite the groundball artist, with his 56 percent grounder rate ranking as the fifth-highest in baseball. That’s lovely for the Rockies and (to a lesser extent) for his fantasy prospects. I’d suggest that the only thing wrong with Chacin might have been initial expectations, because after never piling up huge strikeout numbers as a starter in the minors, he spent part of his first two seasons in the bigs as a reliever. As we’ve seen countless times, a move back to the rotation led to fewer strikeouts. At 24, there’s clearly still room for growth, and Colorado should be happy to have him. I’m just not sure he’s someone I’d make a great deal of effort to hang onto this offseason.

Wandy Rodriguez | Houston Astros
Sh
allow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: NO
NL-only:
 BORDERLINE
Super Deep: 
YES

This was a reader request from some time ago, one who I keep holding off on because I always expect to see him on the move as the rebuilding Astros try desperately to infuse some young talent into the system. I suppose since I’m finally including him here, that means he’ll be traded within the next 72 hours.

Rodriguez is one of those guys who always feels like he should be younger than actually he is, and while I suppose that’s partially due to the fact that the Astros haven’t really been worth paying attention to for the last few years, it’s still surprising to note that he’ll be 33 next month, so he’s in his decline years. After three consecutive years of solid-to-good performance, putting up FIP marks in the mid-threes while striking out just under a man per inning, Rodriguez took a step back in 2010, striking out fewer and reverting to the homer-prone ways which had plagued him during his early years in Houston. And while left elbow soreness cost him several weeks in May and June, his performance wasn’t markedly different before or after.

Now it’s not quite as bad as all that, because Rodriguez’ xFIP was in line with each of his successful seasons, suggesting that if the homer-itis was merely a year of bad luck, elbow pain, or both, he could get back to what he once was, which was not without value. I’m not sure that’s someone I’d want to place too highly in the keeper rankings, however, especially if he does end up moving to the tougher league.

Madison Bumgarner | San Francisco Giants
Sh
allow: BORDERLINE
Medium:
YES
Deep: YES
NL-only:
 YES
Super Deep: 
YES

Bumgarner only turned 22 over the summer, yet he’s already had more than his share of ups and downs, going from first-round pick and consensus top-ten prospect to question mark with mysteriously declining velocity and back to stud starter, finishing just outside the top ten in NL Cy Young voting at the age of 21. On most teams, that’s your top starter; on the Giants, Bumgarner was no better than third behind Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, and depending on how you feel about Ryan Vogelsong’s shiny 2.71 ERA, possibly even fourth.

It’s remarkable how underrated Bumgarner feels, because despite the pedestrian 13-13 record, he was truly one of the elite pitchers in the league in 2011. Only four pitchers in baseball—you might have heard of Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, and Cliff Lee—topped his 2.67 FIP, and he did it while increasing his K/9 by nearly 1.5 over 2010 while keeping his walk rate amongst the lowest in the league. While there’s some concern that his home run rate might regress—even in San Francisco, an 0.53 HR/9 mark is hard to keep up—the fact that he allows fly balls only 35 percent of the time helps alleviate that worry.

So what’s not to like? Not a whole lot, to be honest. The lousy Giants offense is costing him wins, to be sure, and there’s always some concern about young pitchers coming off of big workloads. Otherwise, Bumgarner is set to be one of the better starters in the league once again, and that makes him extremely valuable.

Mike Petriello is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

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