April 6, 2015
The Buyer's Guide
A couple years ago, I was chatting with an unnamed minor-league pitcher about his much-heralded breakout campaign. He signed a pro contract with ample hype, but scuffled for a couple of years, moving from the rotation to the bullpen and back again, and getting moved to multiple minor-league affiliates. Suddenly, the light bulb came on and he dominated.
Asking him what changed, he deadpanned, “They finally put me somewhere and let me [expletive] pitch.”
I’ve often wondered how much routine affects development for minor-league pitchers. I talked to another minor-league pitcher who lamented the difficulty of adjusting to pitching every five days from just once a week, both in terms of preparation and weight lifting. He shrugged and said, “I didn’t know what I was doing, really, that first year. I needed routine.”
Because such concepts can’t be perceived in the box score and don’t often appear in scouting reports, they’re often overlooked for young pitchers. However, the more people I talk to, the more I become convinced that routine and a solid set of performance expectations go a long way for young pitchers, who are desperately trying to claw their way to the big leagues.
I wonder how much damage organizations can do to minor-league and major-league development if expectations are not explicitly laid out or if routines cannot be established. Anecdotally, it seems to matter more than we traditionally believe.
Right-hander Kevin Gausman emerged as one of Major League Baseball’s brightest young arms as soon as he signed out of LSU in 2012. Baseball Prospectus ranked him the no. 13 overall prospect in a year later and the no. 10 prospect in 2014. Such hype has made him a perennial fantasy darling, and while he’s recently either been in the big leagues or just on the precipice, fantasy owners have been anxiously anticipating the Orioles’ unleashing him on American League batters with no restraints.
However, reports surfaced on Sunday afternoon that Baltimore planned to shuffle Gausman to the bullpen in favor of veteran starter Ubaldo Jimenez. As such, the sun remains just below the horizon line for Gausman. His time basking in the sunlight remains pushed back to future moments—indeed, it has begun to feel as if his chance is merely ever-coming and never-present.
Two questions wedge their way to the front of one’s mind:
(1) What the hell are the Baltimore Orioles doing with Gausman?
(2) Could this be a time to swoop in and “buy low” while the most-recent disappointment hovers over fantasy owners?
If any reader were to follow me on Twitter over the past calendar year, you would be aware that I’ve been vocal about my displeasure over the Orioles’ treatment of Gausman. The organization has consistently juggled him between the minors and the majors with seemingly no concern for routine, schedule or comfort. Baltimore has also refused to present him with a concrete role as a pitcher, pushing and pulling him from the bullpen to the rotation and back again, ad infinitum.
To illustrate the Orioles’ odd management of Gausman’s development path, I’ve listed his roster transactions over the past two seasons:
Reading through such a chaotic laundry list of locations, minor-league levels, and roles, one could be forgiven for assuming that we’re dealing with a fringe prospect or a minor-league veteran—and not one of the most-prized young arms in baseball. Kevin Gausman has been bounced around and denied any source of stability or routine for the better part of two years. Yet, presumably, the Orioles are relegating him to the bullpen because the organization is concerned about his ability to offer consistent production on a club that has postseason dreams.
Of course, one must actually have the chance to pitch consistently in a given role at a stable location to show consistency on the mound.
In many ways, this smells of veteran handcuffery. That is, the Baltimore Orioles have a veteran pitcher with a four-year, $50 million contract in Ubaldo Jimenez, and given his solid performance this spring, they likely feel considerable pressure to place him in the rotation. It should be said, though, that it’s far from the first time a big-league club will side with a high-priced veteran over a young, unestablished arm.
However, if consistency is the game plan, Ubaldo Jimenez is one of the best examples of scattershot performance the current game offers. He compiled a 2.88 ERA in 2010 with Colorado and has since posted ERAs of 4.68, 5.40, 3.30, and 4.81, respectively. Perhaps the Orioles can get lucky and catch lightning in a bottle for 200 innings this year—like they did in 2013—but everyone knows it’s a risk with a high possibility that Jimenez falls on his face and pitches far below replacement level.
An Orioles fan may argue that Jimenez doesn’t profile as a reliever and contend that Gausman has provided quality innings out of the pen in the past; thus, this optimizes the current roster and provides the best path to contention in 2015. Valid. Perhaps.
I’d counter that Gausman isn’t a rubber ball that can be tossed about, only to bounce back to his origins with predictable results and little damage. He could be a future anchor of the rotation. He’s a guy who had a 3.57 ERA over 20 starts last year, despite having little routine or any promise of long-term stability in Baltimore. Hell, he even held it together in the minors, despite occasionally not staying long enough to unpack his suitcase. He’s far from perfect as a starter, but he’s shown ample evidence that he has the tools to succeed in the majors as a starter, given refinement and repetition. But he needs a home, first.
Plus, what’s the game plan in Baltimore? Gausman isn’t going to threaten for the closer’s role, as Zach Britton firmly established himself in that role. A bullpen ace who lacks a defined role, aside from being used in high-leverage situations? That’s interesting in terms of bullpen optimization, but the Orioles will assuredly want to keep Gausman stretched out in case the rotation suffers an injury or Ubaldo underperforms (which is likely). That leaves the dreaded long-relief role, right? Thrilling.
Such underwhelming current conditions for Gausman, however, could lead to a productive poaching season in fantasy leagues. This is to say, is Gausman’s potential as a starter high enough to warrant overlooking his uncertain playing-time situation?
The right-hander posted a lovely 3.41 FIP and 3.57 ERA in 113.1 innings last year for the Orioles. He was a solid two-win pitcher and limited the home-run damage in a difficult pitcher’s park. In a very basic sense, those seem to portend future success.
On the flip side, though, owners should be wary of Gausman’s pedestrian strikeout rate, which is just 6.99 K/9, and his 1.31 WHIP last season. In effect, the 24-year-old was below-average in three of the four categories for starting pitchers, only bringing above-average value to the ERA category—and even then, he didn’t pitch enough to be overly valuable in standard leagues.
The 8.8 percent swinging-strike rate last year doesn’t indicate an underlying likelihood for immediate improvement in that realm. His fastball regularly reaches the mid-to-upper 90s and his split-change is devastatingly beautiful, but his future success as a starting pitcher hinges on the development of his slider. He only induced a 9.74 percent whiff rate on the pitch last year. While that’s an increase from his 8.14 percent rate in 2013, it’s far from ideal. Opposing hitters have hit .368 with a .237 ISO over the past two years on his slider. It simply hasn’t been very good.
The good news is that he’s aware that his breaking ball must be more consistent. He indicated that he felt more comfortable with his slider out of the bullpen in 2013 than he did as a starter, but he’s confident that the offseason work will bring the necessary consistency.
In the end, though, the language leaves me concerned for future performance because Gausman is screaming out for repetition and regular work as a starter to develop the comfort and consistency with his slider. Coming out of the bullpen in irregular spurts won’t be ideal for that development, especially in working a second and third time through a batting order, incorporating that slider and working on his sequencing. I’m unsure where that sort of development can or will happen.
Still, the ability shines through on occasion. He has the ability to be dominant in stretches. He posted a 2.87 ERA in September last year, striking out 29 batters in 31 1/3 innings and only walking nine. If you’ll notice, that’s at the back end of three-month stint in the rotation. Perhaps that’s merely correlation and not causation. It’s far from clear. But as someone who has tracked and criticized the Orioles’ roster management of Gausman, it seems unsurprising that he would find greater success after a couple months in the same role—for seemingly the first time in two years.
I still want Gausman to be good. He’s only 24 and has a big fastball to go with an awesome split-change. He possesses the frame to be a workhorse, and his prospect pedigree is great. He needs to add a breaking ball, much like Julio Teheran when he entered the big leagues, but it shows flashes. And until he has a chance to feature that pitch for an extended period of time, it’s tough to level too much criticism on his unfinished development. Again, it’s just a question of when and where that development will finally be allowed to happen.
BUYER’S ADVICE (REDRAFT LEAGUES): Sell
This is not a situation with which you want to deal. You don’t want to be at the mercy of haphazard roster management, nor do you want to commit a valuable roster spot to someone who furthermore has question marks in his strikeout rate and his command. The fantasy profile, in this season only, ultimately results in hope—hope that he’ll get a legitimate shot, and hope that he’ll show substantial improvement in key areas if he does receive that opportunity to start. I’d let someone else deal with the headache and grab a more reliable fantasy asset.
BUYER’S ADVICE (DYNASTY LEAGUES): Hold
You have no choice but to hold at this point. His fantasy value has dipped dramatically where the likely return wouldn’t be worth bailing on a young starter with a no. 3 upside—perhaps even a no. 2 upside if you are really willing to dream. Of course, if we’re being honest, Gausman owners are really in fantasy purgatory. If he gets promoted and deals, you have to keep him and perhaps have to deal with the whims of the Orioles’ front office once more. You have to keep him and simply deal with the past suffering. On the other hand, if he rots in the bullpen, you won’t be able to get anything productive for him on the trade market. Staying the course is the only legitimate option, as uninspiring as that is.