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April 7, 2008

Fantasy Beat

Young Hurlers to Go Get

by Marc Normandin

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Now that we're a week into the regular season, it's time to take a look at how some of the younger crop of pitchers did in their first starts of the year, as well as to analyze what we can expect from them going forward. For a few of these pitchers, you may want to find a way to get them on your roster immediately, but some others may need more development time if you want them to help rather than hinder your stat line.

First up, Edwin Jackson has bounced around between the majors and minors since 2003 when the Dodgers originally called him up. His starts have ranged from agonizing to promising during that time, and with the Rays always trying to find a useful back-end starter, Jackson has been put on the mound often during his time in St. Petersburg. Jackson's biggest problem that's reflected in his stats is his K/BB ratio. His strikeout rates themselves have ranged from 4.1 to 7.8 during his short stints in the majors, which with those figures reflects more basically that his walk rates are consistently poor. His career BB/9 is 5.0, and career K/BB is 1.3; it's hard to succeed with those rates in the majors, especially when you give up 1.1 HR/9 over 161 innings, as Jackson did last season.

To start 2008, Jackson pitched six innings of one-run ball against the Yankees, punching out four while walking just a pair of hitters. He's going to need more performances like that if he's going to be of any use to your club, but as of now it's a tough sell. Jackson has a tendency to lose focus during starts, and it hurts his performances. More than one solid start will be needed as proof to show that the young pitcher with a career ERA of 5.56 in 278 2/3 innings has turned a corner. PECOTA doesn't think this is the year to bank on him either; the 24-year-old's 90th percentile, most optimistic forecast has him down for a 1.35 WHIP, while his weighted mean has a 4.81 PERA and WHIP of 1.52. There are other young pitchers available now, but keep an eye on Jackson, just in case he strings together a few more starts like this past one.

The Brewers have put Manny Parra into their rotation, and his first start of the 2008 season went very well, both for Parra and the Brew Crew. Parra pitched 5 1/3 innings while striking out seven against just two walks allowed. In the past, health has been a concern for Parra; he was passed by on the organizational depth charts by Yovani Gallardo and former Brewer farmhand Will Inman thanks to some shoulder problems that kept him from fulfilling his promise as a starter.

Parra has had excellent strikeout rates in the minors, ranging from 8.3 to 10.0 K/9 at various levels, and he has not had issues dishing out free passes since his time in High-A ball. Since he also has had little to no trouble with giving up homers during his professional career, there is potential for Parra to be a much better pitcher stats-wise than his place in the rotation indicates. PECOTA thinks Parra is a capable fifth starter, with a weighted-mean forecast of 4.68 (PERA of 4.81) and the chance for 115 strikeouts in 131 2/3 innings pitched. His 75th percentile seems like a reasonable possibility, as long as he is able to stay healthy: a 4.07 ERA with a 4.33 PERA, 8.0 K/9, and 141 innings pitched. That would be excellent output from a guy who was drafted late or widely ignored in many leagues.

As of now, MLB.com lists Parra as the fifth starter on the club, and at some point very soon Gallardo will be coming off of the disabled list. This means that one of the Brewers starters will end up in the bullpen. That's a unit where both Seth McClung and Guillermo Mota have jobs, so the probability that the Brewers will need Parra to improve their options during the middle innings is high. Parra has plenty of value in relief as well, especially if you can pair him up with another high-strikeout reliever with plenty of innings pitched. It's no guarantee that he will end up back in the pen for good, but it's a possibility to consider if you need to drop or trade someone to acquire him.

A pair of young Reds made their 2008 debuts on the mound, with Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez both picking up wins in well-pitched starts. Volquez had made 20 starts for the Rangers since 2005, with little success: 7.20 ERA, 6.2 K/9, 4.7 BB/9, and 1.6 HR/9. However, Volquez is still just 24 years old, and his PECOTA forecast has him down as capable of pitching like a useful fourth or fifth starter for the Reds this season. His weighted mean forecast ERA is 4.63, with a PERA of 4.78, with 8.3 K/9 and 4.5 BB/9. That second figure is the obvious problem with having Volquez around, since he could hurt your team's WHIP if things go south.

Volquez did strike out eight hitters over 5 1/3 innings pitched-the kind of thing you love to see if your league uses K/9 over straight Ks-while giving up only one run and just two free passes. Although he's not a rookie prospect any more thanks to the innings he's already pitched, Volquez is talented, and if he can keep his walks down, he's capable of more performances like that. I put stock in his turning things around in the NL for the Reds, and picked him up for my own team this weekend. The combination of switching to the NL-and the NL Central, no less-while getting a new set of coaches to work with your mechanics is enough for me to give him a shot; I suggest you do the same if he's still available.

As for Cueto, he's still a rookie-status prospect, and was ranked 41st on Kevin Goldstein's latest Top 100 prospects list. He doesn't get the attention of teammate Homer Bailey, but the 22-year-old right-hander held his own in the minors. He split 2007 between three levels, and put up some impressive figures during that time: after a successful High-A stint, he moved on to Double-A and pitched even better, with 11.4 K/9, 1.6 BB/9 and 0.9 HR/9 over 61 innings. Triple-A saw a dip in his punchouts to 8.6 per nine, but he did cut his walks in half as well over 22 innings pitched. The Reds felt that he proved enough in the minors, and sent Bailey down to figure himself out while they see if Cueto is ready for the show.

Cueto's first start went well enough: seven innings, 10 strikeouts, no walks, and only one run allowed. The only warning flags I can raise are some of the normal ones for young starters: sometimes, the league will adjust to them quicker than they adjust to the changes in approach, and Dusty Baker is his manager. For Cueto's long-term health, Baker's track record is obviously a potential problem, but at least you know he'll toss plenty of innings for you if he retains Baker's confidence. If you're a masochist, that's workable for you. If you're a Reds fan (or Will Carroll), not so much, though in recent years "Reds fan" and "masochist" have been somewhat interchangeable terms.

Over in Oakland, Dana Eveland is a big pitcher. He's listed 6'1" and 240 lbs, and there have been concerns about his conditioning in the past. Eveland has gone from the Brewers to the D'backs to the A's in a short span of time, but if he pitches well in Oakland's rotation, this may be his last stop for some time. Eveland has some wicked stuff, and if he's able to keep in shape, he should be effective as well. Keep in mind, David Wells was a fine athlete in his day, even if he was a bit on the hefty side.

The 24-year-old power lefty has a mid-90s fastball, solid command, and an excellent breaking ball. He's had problems with his performance in the majors in the past, but those can be chalked up to his not being ready. Last year was a throwaway campaign, thanks to a torn tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand that shelved him for three months. This year, he's with an organization that's rebuilding and seeing what it has, so unless he explodes or they find him passed out in the locker room with a chicken leg still in his grasp, he should log plenty of innings.

PECOTA doesn't think much of Eveland just yet; his forecasted PERA of 4.90 isn't pretty, especially since he'll be pitching in hitter-hating McAfee Coliseum for half of his games. A 1.3 K/BB doesn't inspire much confidence either, but it's also possible that he'll turn a corner with the help of the major league coaching staff. He's worth the look for his 75th percentile forecast, which would mean he's delivering a 3.99 PERA and slightly improved K/BB of 1.4. PECOTA also doesn't think he'll top 100 innings until he hits his that level of performance, but if he's in shape-and he did pitch in the Mexican winter league, to keep him active-and takes advantage of the expansive McAfee, he's worth a look for his upside.

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