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March 22, 2012
Preseason Value Picks
Starting Pitchers for 3/22/12
As spring training heads into the home stretch, we’re starting to learn a bit more about starting pitchers who came into camp with question marks. Those questions can be related to any number of issues—we’ll be discussing guys who are trying to return from life-threatening injury, insubordination, and good-old fashioned sore arms—but in each case, only additional data will help us make the informed decision. Here’s a look at four pitchers and the absolute latest on their attempts to solidify their places in a big-league rotation…
Despite the various suspensions and histrionics from the always-volatile Zambrano, none of that has been his biggest problem over the last few years. That honor would go to his once-fearsome fastball, which has slowly lost its bite, bottoming out at a 90-mph average last season. The lost velocity not-so-coincidentally pushed Zambrano’s swinging-strike percentage to a career low, which in turn pushed his ERA over 4.00 for the first time in his career.
All that being the case, Zambrano’s off-field difficulties do make his 2011 sound worse than it was, and a 4.59 FIP is neither an outright disaster nor in any way different from when he was winning 18 games for the 2007 Cubs. Beyond that, his decreased fastball was present in 2010 as well, when he managed to win 11 games with a 3.33 ERA for Chicago, and it’s difficult to know just how much the increasing friction with management impacted Zambrano’s performance (not that he really has anyone else to blame but himself, of course).
But despite how long he’s been around and all of the mileage he’s put up on that right arm, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Zambrano is still only 30 years old, and early signs from Miami camp have been encouraging. In 9 1/3 innings over three starts, Zambrano has whiffed 16 batters with reports of improved velocity, and while we like to say that spring training stats are meaningless, that generally speaks more to game results. The process is still important, and it’s definitely good to see a former strikeout guy missing bats in his new home.
Zambrano will almost certainly never again be the workhorse we saw five or six years ago, piling up innings and strikeouts, and there’s obvious risk here. While you could argue that Ozzie Guillen and Miami are a perfect fit for Zambrano, it’s also not that hard to see him flame out and be out of baseball entirely by July. Still, as a change of scenery guy, there are worse bets to take, particularly in NL-only leagues.
It’s pretty hard to find a more boom-or-bust guy than Francisco Liriano, who can be elite when he’s on (see 2006 and 2010) or injured and ineffective when he’s not (see every other year). That makes him difficult to value in fantasy because buyers are always intrigued by the potential he brings yet wary of the sizable downside that comes with it. It’s not even a little surprising that one of his primary PECOTA comps is Erik Bedard, another talented lefty who only rarely is able to show his plus stuff.
According to Liriano himself, his down 2011 was—wait for it—caused by injury problems, particularly the shoulder he first injured just before camp:
Liriano, 28, fought shoulder problems all last season, he said. He threw a no-hitter at Chicago on May 3 and was even better in a 6-1 victory over Texas on June 12, when he took a no-hitter into the eighth. But overall it was a struggle.
Reportedly healthy—for the moment, anyway—this spring, Liriano has been tearing through the competition with an 18/2 K/BB in four starts. While the usual spring stats caveats apply, that’s important because no one has ever doubted Liriano’s skill when healthy, and right now, it seems that he is. That could change in a heartbeat, of course—the only pitcher seemingly less fragile than Liriano is probably Joel Zumaya—and so that needs to be kept at the front of your mind during draft season. It’s high risk, high reward as usual with Liriano, and for the $1 price he’s fetching in most mixed leagues, I’d say that’s probably worth it.
It’s been barely over seven months since Juan Nicasio took a line drive to the head off the bat of Washington’s Ian Desmond, a horrific event that broke Nicasio’s neck and put far more than his baseball career in jeopardy. That being the case, it almost feels shallow to try to judge Nicasio’s potential this year, because the simple fact that he’s not only recovered enough to play but to do so with “no restrictions” is a miracle no matter what his stat line ends up being.
Still, he’s back on the field, so judge we will, and the early returns are encouraging. More than just encouraging, actually, at least according to Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post:
MIP (most impressive pitcher): Juan Nicasio, and not simply because of his amazing return from a broken neck. His fastball, as manager Jim Tracy said, is "pure electricity." He works with an intensity and pace that reminds me of Bob Gibson.
So far, so good; Nicasio has a 9/1 K/BB through three spring appearances. Before the injury, his rookie year was off to a solid enough start, putting up an impressive 58/18 K/BB and a 4.14 ERA in 13 starts (though I can’t help but point out that he had one of the weirdest Coors Field splits I’ve ever seen: 1.98 ERA at home, 7.04 ERA on the road? I have no doubt that will work itself out with a larger sample size, but still, bizarre.) Really, a shiny K/BB has been Nicasio’s hallmark for his entire professional career; powered by a fastball that gets up into the mid-90s, he’s struck out nearly four-and-a-half times as many batters as he’s walked across parts of six seasons in the Colorado system.
Though he never quite put together the secondary pitches to vault into the ranks of mega-prospect stardom—though the slider certainly has that potential if he can harness it with regularity—Nicasio is an intriguing breakout candidate just based on the K/BB marks that come from his strikeout fastball and his ability to limit walks. There’s risk here, of course, because of his home field and his recovery from injury. But by the same token, you can probably pick him up for just about nothing. He’s certainly worth a flyer in deeper leagues.
Minor received some unwarranted criticism heading into spring training when he suggested that if the Braves weren’t going to include him in a starting rotation which looked to include Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, and Brandon Beachy then they should just trade him to a team that would. Minor never outright demanded a trade but did manage to ruffle some feathers by voicing his unhappiness should he fail to beat out prospects Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran for the final spot in the rotation.
That all seems so long ago now, doesn’t it? With Hudson injured and out for at least the first month and Jurrjens struggling terribly in his own return from injury, Minor’s rotation spot is all but assured. He’s backed up his words with a huge spring, having now tossed 14 scoreless innings after putting down the Orioles on Sunday. Though he made 15 starts for the Braves last year, they came over several stints with the big club, as injuries continued to change the shape of the Atlanta rotation; Minor made one start in April, two in May, three in June, and none in July. Recalled for good in August, Minor started nine more times and was one of the few Braves who performed as the team collapsed down the stretch, going 4-1 with a tasty 51/15 K/BB over the final two months of the season.
That was good enough to sneak him onto the very end of the two-star range in Derek Carty’s recent look at NL starting pitchers, and that sounds about right (as does the PECOTA projection listed above). Minor isn’t likely to be a star, despite his surprising selection with the number-seven overall pick by Atlanta in 2010, but he is a good young pitcher without an injury history who has enjoyed some success in his brief time in the majors. With the holes opening up in the Atlanta rotation, Minor will get the chance to prove himself long-term for the first time.