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September 10, 2013

Five to Watch

Injured NL Starting Pitchers

by Craig Goldstein

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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*.”

*this exercise assumes your favorite team is the Dodgers and that you are me

Cory Luebke, San Diego Padres
Remember, way back in February, when the Padres had a potential rotation of Cory Luebke, Casey Kelly, and Joe Wieland, supplemented by any number of guys like Tim Stauffer, Tyson Ross, Edinson Volquez, and more? Well, Eric Stults is going to be the staff leader in innings pitched, so y’know, @cantpredictball and all that.

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
Amongst the flurry of starters acquired by Jed Hoyer in the offseason, Baker’s incentive-laden deal has slipped under the radar, mostly due to Baker not having thrown a pitch until last week. While Scott Feldman is off in Baltimore and Carlos Villanueva is doing his best Dick Dastardly impression down in the bullpen, Baker and Edwin Jackson are the only free agent starting pitchers actually... y’know, starting games for Chicago. I own Baker in my 20-team mixed dynasty league, where we have 25-man rosters and keep 22 players. The generous roster size as well as the high number of keepers allowed me to hold on to Baker, although I probably did more damage to my team by holding on to him than some of my other players. Such are the gambles we take in dynasty leagues, though. Baker, like others on this list, missed an entire year in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Baker had his operation in April of 2012, and only just returned to action this past week.

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
After 13 stellar starts in 2012, Beachy succumbed to a torn ulnar collateral ligament and required Tommy John surgery (this will be a theme), with the surgery taking place June 21, 2012. Unlike others on this list, Beachy had a relatively smooth recovery, returning to the major leagues just 13 months later, debuting July 29, 2013. It was a putrid debut, but he put together four solid performances in August before coming up lame with elbow inflammation. Which is exactly why he qualifies for this list. He might not be as low profile as some of the other options, but he’ll only have made five starts in 2013, ending the season with a 4.50 ERA and a 4.08 FIP.

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
Remember way back in the beginning of the season, before the Dodgers went on a historical run, before they floundered their way to a 30-42 record, and before the season even started? Remember when they had “too much pitching”? Well, we can all guess how “too much pitching” worked out when we realize something called a Matt Magill made multiple starts for your future NL West champions. When I set about gathering names for this article, I legitimately forgot that Chad Billingsley even existed, only being reminded by an extremely helpful Twitter follower. Which says either something about my fandom, or something about the ease with which we forget about players who aren’t constantly being mentioned. Let’s roll with the latter, eh?

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 GarciaSt. Louis Cardinals
If I’m being honest, I was trying to limit this to guys who were right around the 30-inning mark or less for 2013 contributions. If I was going to break that self imposed boundary though, it would make more sense to break it using Johnny Cueto who somehow threw fewer innings than Jaime Garcia did. But since we’re being honest, I really wanted to write about Jaime Garcia. I’m a crowd pleaser* in that way. Did you realize Garcia made nine starts this season? That he accumulated 55 innings pitched? Those numbers shocked me as it has felt like he’s been gone since late April. Maybe it’s just that I’m so used to Garcia missing time that it’s beginning to feel like the default setting.

*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.

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

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