September 10, 2013
Five to Watch
Injured NL Starting Pitchers
If it wasn’t made clear in my first article on starting pitchers who were due for a bounce back, my view on starting pitching is that depth is everywhere. I mean, hell, I tried to make a case for Edinson Volquez as a viable option heading into next season (author’s note: I’m a dolt). Perhaps Volquez was the wrong option to hang my case on, but I selected him in an effort to prove a point. That point you ask?
The point is that starting pitching depth is just about everywhere. Don’t believe me? Check out this list of five NL starting pitchers who either haven’t pitched in 2013, or have only just returned recently. They range from “I’ve been waiting on him for a couple years” to “I legitimately forgot he existed even though he’s on my favorite team*.”
Cory Luebke, San Diego Padres
Long a favorite of mine and others, Luebke hasn’t pitched in a MLB game since April 27 of 2012. That’s a long time off for someone who was just only coming into his own when he went under the knife for Tommy John and flexor tendon surgery. The excitement about Luebke emanated from his strong 2011. True, it was only 140 innings, but a 27.8 percent(!) strikeout rate against an eight percent walk rate should get even the most out-of-touch fantasy owner to take notice. Add in PETCO Park as a backdrop and the scene looks even prettier. Luebke’s 3.29 ERA, while more than acceptable, was actually higher than it should have been, according to his FIP, which checked in at a cool 2.93.
The issue of course is that those beautiful numbers will be two years old before Luebke takes the field again. When he did play in 2012, the numbers, while still good, were compiled in a small sample and were not nearly what they were in 2011. His K% dropped a stunning 10 percentage points and while his walk rate dropped almost two percentage points, that doesn’t quite make up for it. All that said, he still had a 2.61 ERA and a 2.80 FIP in 31 innings pitched before the injury struck. It should also be noted that Luebke’s 27 percent strikeout rate was never going to be sustainable as a starter, as Luebke only made 17 starts in 2011, with another 29 appearances coming out of the bullpen.
So the ultimate question is, which Luebke are you getting if you plan on plunking down a pick for him in a redraft or if you’re going to use a keeper spot on him in a deep dynasty league. The answer, of course, is that we just don’t know. But we can assume that something closer to his 2012, at least as far as his rate stats go would be reasonable. That would be something along the lines of seven strikeouts per nine inning, a stellar WHIP due to a low walk rate combined with pitching at PETCO and low win totals because Padres. Luebke is expected to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, and whether I’d burn a roster spot on him in a dynasty league would depend heavily on his showing there. If he’s not healthy, I probably ditch, but if he is, he’s a worthwhile rotation piece.
Scott Baker, Chicago Cubs
Prior to his injury, Baker had been an under-the-radar option who could quietly carry a fantasy rotation from time to time. He managed to strike out 22.5 percent of batters faced in 2011 while walking only a stingy 5.8 percent of batters. The downside to Baker was that he was fly-ball prone, but even there he was able to keep the ball in the ballpark for the most part, with a solid 8.7 percent HR/FB. It’s only been one game in 2013, but the concerning part is that despite a prolonged recovery period, Baker’s sinker came in at three MPH lower than in his 2011 season, per Brooks Baseball. His off-speed stuff didn’t experience as much of a drop off, but that decrease in velocity will loom large for someone who is around the plate as much as Baker is.
While I’m still trotting him out there entering the playoff round of my dynasty league, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable adding Baker in the hopes that he’d be an effective piece in 2014. That can all change if he starts tossing with his old velocity or signs in a pitcher friendly park in the offseason. He could well be a candidate to return to Chicago’s North Side, where their rotation consists of Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, and Travis Wood. If he does, he’s an option late in redraft leagues, but much of his value heading into 2014 will be determined by the presence of velocity on his fastball. If he can return to his former self, or even be reasonably close, Baker is an option that many a fantasy owner will have forgotten about over the course of the last two seasons.
Brandon Beachy, Atlanta Braves
When he did pitch, Beachy struck out 19 percent of batters and walked only three percent, which falls a bit short of his previous career strikeout rate, but is also a significant improvement on his career walk rate. Given the small sample size, we can’t expect any significance out of that decreased walk rate, but control is usually the last thing to return after undergoing Tommy John, so it’s at least a positive indicator if not statistically meaningful. The cause of Beachy’s setback this season was inflammation in his elbow, which is certainly concerning but in the end it might be nothing. He’s just surpassed the 10-day period he was given for rest after a visit to Dr. James Andrews and there’s been no recent news.
I wouldn’t expect to see anything out of Beachy the rest of the season, and if we do it’s likely that it will come out of the bullpen. While the lack of certainty surrounding Beachy at this time is worrisome, there is almost always irritation or scar tissue breakup throughout the rehabilitation process. I’m not overly concerned just yet, and would be willing to invest in Beachy as a 160 inning pitcher headed into next season. That means I’d be keeping him in dynasty leagues as though he was a normal pitcher and drafting him at only a slight discount in redraft leagues. Atlanta will likely lean on him as a rotation option next year with Paul Maholm hitting the open market.
Chad Billingsley, Los Angeles Dodgers
There are few things that everyone needs to know about Chad Billingsley. First off, his given name is Chad, so he’s not a Charles and he wasn’t going to be a Chaz or a Chet or a Charlie. He’s just Chad. Secondly, he was once called “effortlessly fat” and there will never be a better descriptor for him than that, and you should think of it every time you see him. Thirdly, he was, on more than one occasion, considered a darkhorse for the NL Cy Young Award without any irony whatsoever (back off, hipsters!). Lastly, dat ass.
After putting together a 3.14 ERA in 32 starts and 201 innings in 2008, Billingsley has been more about what could be than what actually is. He’s yet to match that ERA, unless you count his 12 inning sample from 2013, which of course you wouldn’t. That doesn’t mean he’s useless though, and with a full season of recovery under his belt, there’s a chance that Billingsley starts contributing in the first half of 2014. While his ERA/WHIP haven’t exactly endeared him to fantasy owners of late, he still brings a career 21 percent strikeout rate to the table and on a team with the offensive firepower of the Dodgers, wins will be likely, if not bankable. It’s not the best profile in the world, but given the team he’s on the the lack of attention being paid to him, he’s a low cost addition who has always had talent and can help your fantasy team when healthy. He’s an option in every format.
Jaime Garcia – St. Louis Cardinals
*wherein crowd = Bret Sayre
Garcia has been flagged as an injury risk since his call up, as he suffered a sprained UCL in the minors in 2007, underwent Tommy John surgery in 2008, had some setbacks from Tommy John, and then underwent surgery to repair a Labrum tear in his shoulder that had been nagging at him in 2013. So while he’s not exactly the paragon of health, Garcia is extremely useful when he does start. In fact, he’s the (or at least “a”) inspiration for Bret’s “Holy Trinity” series, as he’s done a great job of striking a moderate percentage of batters out (19 percent career), being stingy with the walks (seven percent career) and keeping the ball on the ground (56 percent career).
Shoulder surgeries are scarier than elbow surgeries at this point, given the impressive return rate of Tommy John surgery, but Garcia knows the rehab process and the Cardinals seem to do a good job of getting their pitchers back on the field. Garcia is something of a “draft and follow” type for me. Someone I’d keep tabs on throughout the offseason and if the news is positive, I’d jump all over him as a keeper option/redraft candidate. He might well wind up on the DL, but as long as your league allows for multiple DL slots, he’s worth the gamble for what he’ll provide.