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February 16, 2012

Preseason Value Picks

Starting Pitchers for 2/16/12

by Mike Petriello

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Baseball Prospectus Fantasy 2012 is GO. With PECOTA and the PFM now available for public consumption, we’re back for another season of fantasy analysis. Today, I follow the first two Mikes by kicking off my portion of the preseason series with a look at a few starting pitchers who may be undervalued in early drafts, plus a check in on the health of one of the most promising young starters in the game.

Roy Oswalt | SP | Free Agent
Mixed: $- | AL/NL-only: $- | PECOTA Rank: -- | ADP: 71st SP
PECOTA Projections:

IP

W

ERA

WHIP

K

SV

137

10

3.54

1.15

94

0

Just days before camp opens, Roy Oswalt still doesn’t have a home. That’s as much due to his insistence on a particular geography and pay scale limiting his options as it is anything else. Bill Parker took a good look at his unique situation here yesterday, and that’s important, because it’s a different situation than, say, Scott Kazmir, whom no one will hire because they think he’s done. Entering his age-34 season, Oswalt still has a lot to offer as a solid mid-rotation veteran starter.

But just because we don’t yet know what colors Oswalt will be wearing doesn’t mean he won’t be pitching at all this season, and that seems to be a fact which is getting lost in early drafts. Taking a look at the ADP list on mockdraftcentral.com, Oswalt is going undrafted in over 20 percent of leagues. The luminaries going ahead of him right now include Ryan Vogelsong and Dillon Gee, and I don’t think you’d see a whole lot of argument that Oswalt, when healthy, is superior to each of those starters. The mere issue that he hasn’t signed yet shouldn’t dissuade owners from picking him up if you’re drafting this early, because you can imagine what his value will look like if he becomes the newest member of the Red Sox, Cardinals, or Rangers a week from now. (That applies mostly to mixed leaguers, I’d imagine, because those in AL- or NL-only leagues would be taking on an additional risk if he signs and is then ineligible.)

Of course, it’s that “when healthy” issue that raises a red flag with Oswalt, who missed time twice last year with back woes. I wouldn’t let that bother you too much, though, since he was able to make his final 10 starts of 2011 (posting a 3.59 ERA and a 51/15 K/BB) and is reportedly ready to go for 2012. Remember that he’s only a year removed from a 2010 season that ranked among his finest, and while PECOTA seems to be hedging its bets just a bit by projecting only 137 innings, the 1.15 WHIP comes in as the fifth-lowest among all starters likely to pitch in 2012. If he’s healthy, he’ll produce, and with his insistence that he only play for a contender, he should have a solid offense supporting him that could lead to few more wins than his PECOTA-projected 10.

Bud Norris | SP | Houston Astros
Mixed: -$5 | NL-only: $2 | PECOTA Rank: 124th SP | ADP: 83rd SP
PECOTA Projections:

IP

W

ERA

WHIP

K

SV

168

7

4.77

1.48

153

0

Next we turn our attention to Bud Norris, the man who was initially recalled to the Astros on the day Oswalt made his final start for the team before being traded to Philadelphia in July of 2009. PECOTA is far from hopeful on Norris, projecting a 7-16 record along with a poor ERA, and considering that he has lost 21 games over the last two seasons for a Houston crew that looks like it might be historically poor in 2012, I can’t really say I can argue with the projection.

Still, that shouldn’t be enough to completely discount Norris, because when I looked at him back in October, I did see some positive signs:

Perhaps that’s unfair to Norris, because he’s shown an impressive ability to miss bats in his short career, with his 10.5 percent swinging-strike percentage last year topping that of both Josh Beckett and Justin Verlander, tied for 13thin baseball. That was actually the lowest rate of Norris’s three years in the bigs, but since he compensated for that with by far the lowest walk rate of his career, the resulting 2.51 K/BB was a new best for him, and that makes him valuable.

I’m not alone in my optimism for Norris; Bill James projects a 3.97 FIP for him this year, and Jonah Keri named Norris as his “breakout pick” in yesterday’s Astros preview over at Grantland, expecting he’ll be the staff ace by the end of the year (I know, “staff ace” in Houston isn’t exactly like being the top pitcher in Philadelphia, but still). If Norris can continue to pile up strikeouts and keep his walk rate at or below where it was last year, he’s going to be a pretty good pitcher.

Make no mistake, though: the Astros are going to be bad. Really, really bad, especially if they actually go through with the reported plan of allowing Brett Wallace and Carlos Lee to man the infield corners—to say nothing of the collection of unproven bullpen arms who could potentially blow any leads that Norris hands them. The lack of support he’s likely to get is worth dropping him down a tier, but don’t forget that strikeout rate in the late rounds either.

Brandon Morrow | SP | Toronto Blue Jays
Mixed: $4 | AL-only: $11 | PECOTA Rank: 48th SP | ADP: 50th SP
PECOTA Projections:

IP

W

ERA

WHIP

K

SV

183

11

3.95

1.36

199

0

What can I say; I’m a sucker for strikeouts, and for all of his flaws, that’s the one item Brandon Morrow has been consistently able to provide. Over the last three seasons, he’s the only qualified pitcher to total a K/9 rate north of 10, and his 10.2 mark last season led the American League. That’s in large part why the Blue Jays rewarded him with a three-year contract extension earlier this winter, because as Ben Lindbergh said at the time, Morrow “seems like a pitcher whose best days are just around the bend”.

I agree, as I’m sure most of you do, but because Morrow’s ERA has underperformed his FIP in each of the last two years, he hasn’t been seen as a top-tier fantasy starter, getting drafted behind Johnny Cueto, Wandy Rodriguez, and Ervin Santana. I’ve looked at both Cueto and Santana recently and found each solid but underwhelming; neither seems likely to have a true breakout season like Morrow could.

That’s particularly true if you believe in Morrow’s final three starts of 2010, a dominating stretch in which he shut down the Yankees, Rays, and White Sox, allowing just two runs while striking out 24 over 21 innings. For his part, Morrow claims those three starts represented a new outlook on the game that he hopes to carry over into 2012, and while pointing at just those three starts clearly shouts “small sample size”, it’s not hard to see a guy with Morrow’s peripherals putting it all together as he enters his age-27 season either.

Tommy Hanson | SP | Atlanta Braves
Mixed: $8 | NL-only: $12 | PECOTA Rank: 29th SP | ADP: 25th SP
PECOTA Projections:

IP

W

ERA

WHIP

K

SV

156

10

3.45

1.22

146

0

I realize that this is the time of year where every ballplayer claims they’re “in the best shape of their life”—you know, the “Russell Martin special”—but in Hanson’s case, it’s especially important to see what kind of spin is coming out of Braves camp since he missed the final two months of 2011 with right shoulder soreness.

February 3, ESPN:

"I definitely feel a lot more optimistic now than a couple months ago or even last month," he said.

Hanson said he is throwing on his normal offseason schedule and expects that to continue when Braves pitchers and catchers report to spring training Feb. 19.

"I'm on a normal schedule right now and I feel good, so I don't think that will change," he said. "I'll be on a normal schedule.

"My shoulder feels really good. I've been off the mound a couple times and it feels really good."

February 14, Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Gone is the distinctive pause in the right-hander’s throwing motion, the unusual hitch that perhaps contributed to a shoulder injury that wiped out much of the second half of his promising 2011 season.

“Some of the fatigue that he had, some of the back issues and shoulder issues, we wanted to see if we could make some adjustments and do some delivery work that would take that stress off,” said pitching coach Roger McDowell, who worked with Hanson to modify his delivery.

The AJC story goes on to note that after a strengthening program, Hanson took the advice of a Braves physical trainer who suggested altering his mechanics to generate more power from his legs and less on his arm. In the months since, Hanson claims he’s felt no soreness while throwing with his new motion.

So those are positive signs, and so is the fact that Hanson will have had essentially eight months off since his last big-league appearance. Ideally, he’ll be healthy enough to return to form as one of the best young starters in baseball, but health may not be the only concern. Until he gets into game action, we can’t know how this mechanical change will impact his performance. Even if his velocity isn’t affected, a change in mechanics like this can potentially manifest itself in control issues, particularly for someone with as many moving parts as the 6’6” Hanson, and that can take time to iron out.

Even if none of that comes to pass, expect the Braves to take it easy with Hanson regardless. They’re extremely deep in starting pitchers with Tim Hudson, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, and Jair Jurrjens, plus Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran in reserve, so don’t be too surprised if the Braves take advantage of early-season off-days to slowly ease Hanson back into the swing of things.

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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