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December 20, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

Top 2014 Pitching Risers

by Paul Sporer


There is a subset of the fantasy baseball community that is entirely reticent about drafting a starting pitcher early. Early is obviously a subjective measure, but I fall into the camp that all but refuses to take one in the first two rounds. It isn’t just the extra injury risk that is associated with pitchers—though that is definitely a large component—but it is also the fact that quality pitching is more widely available both later in the draft and as the season goes along.

You will have the Matt Carpenter and Josh Donaldson type breakouts in a given year on the hitting side (and mind you, those weren’t the only two), but those are rare and even rarer is the guy who comes along in the middle of the season to put up beastly offensive numbers. The AL Rookie of the Year, Wil Myers, didn’t come up until June 18th and he raked, but he was drafted onto a roster in just about every league back in March anyway, so it’s not like you could have picked him up.

Pitching is much different in that regard. Not only are there are massive bargains late in every draft or auction, but guys emerge for a bevy of different reasons and turn into hugely effective assets. Guys like Clay Buchholz, Francisco Liriano, and Justin Masterson rose from the ashes of 2012 to become top 30 starting pitchers in 2013 according to ESPN’s Player Rater. Just quickly perusing the 100-250 portion of the starting pitcher ranks from 2012, I found 12 guys who rose into the top 90 a year later:

Pitcher

2012

2013

Buchholz

103

20

Harvey

104

8

Nolasco

107

45

E.Santana

123

34

Lester

131

50

Leake

134

51

Corbin

138

23

Masterson

149

28

Cashner

158

40

Liriano

184

26

Locke

219

89

Kluber

234

75

Most of those guys were 2012 failures that came out of nowhere to deliver their 2013 value. Think about how you reacted to Liriano signing with the Pirates. If you even gave it a second thought, it was one of laughter. Some of the guys like Buchholz and Jon Lester still had their believers, but guys like Patrick Corbin and Jeff Locke were complete surprises.

Today we will take a look at six guys who could pull that feat in 2014. We will be pulling them from the 100-250 level of the Player Rater and the idea is that they have a real shot at finishing in the top 90 (or technically 89 since that’s the lowest we saw from the 12 above) this year.

Martin Perez, TEX (finished 102nd in 2013): Okat, now moving up 12-13 spots isn’t going to impress anyone and stand out as some special call, so let me make it clear that I’ve got Perez with the potential for a couple of tiers higher, say top 50. Perez only had 20 starts in 2013 and that was part of the reason he found himself outside of the top 100, but he wasn’t flawless in his first full-ish season, either. His 1.34 WHIP has plenty of room to improve as does his 16 percent strikeout rate. Perez has incredible velocity from the left side—in fact it was sixth-best for a southpaw—and enough secondary stuff to go with it that he should be toting at least a league-average strikeout rate (which was 19 percent in 2013), and we could see him develop into a strikeout force eventually.

Don’t forget that Perez was a highly touted prospect before losing some steam as a very young Triple-A’er. He still has just 162 1/3 major-league innings under his belt; the best is yet to come. Perez won’t be forgotten at the draft table, but he won’t be an early pick, either. The rest of the group will be pretty far off the radar.

Nathan Eovaldi, MIA (119th): If you’ve been reading me for any amount of time, this inclusion surprises you exactly zero percent. Eovaldi is thisclose to a restraining order if I don’t cut it out, but I’m a huge fan. Sure, the 1.7 K:BB ratio in his 260 1/3 innings doesn’t exactly inspire a boatload of top-90 confidence, but there is some real talent locked in that right arm. Like Perez, Eovaldi brings it. His 96 MPH fastball was eighth-best among righties last year. It is effective at limiting damage, but he hasn’t turned it into a strikeout weapon just yet.

He also has a devastating slider that does handle his strikeout workload, accounting for 32 of his 78 punchouts. He started to show some glimpses of his potential in the final month of 2013 with four big outings out of give including a dismantling of the Braves and Tigers as well as two strong efforts against the Phillies. Even counting the rough outing against Washington (3 IP/5 ER), he had a 2.43 ERA and 2.3 K/BB in 29 2/3 innings. He still walked a few too many in that stretch (10), yielding a 1.35 WHIP. That’s a small sample of quality, but there is enough here to see a full season of great work.

Ian Kennedy, SD (154th): Yes, I’m headed back to a once fruitful well that dried up some in 2012 and went nearly empty in 2013. Even after being traded to San Diego Kennedy only had a 4.24 ERA and actually allowed more homers per nine innings—his big Achilles heel. Of course that was on the road. He allowed six in 22 innings (2.5 HR/9) on the road as a Padre and three in 35 1/3 innings in Petco Park (0.77 HR/9). He will have a full season with half of his games in Petco so the real bet is on some road improvement and given his previous success while residing in a hitter-friendly park, it’s a bet worth making.

Brandon Beachy, ATL (171st): He only threw 30 innings last year thanks to injury so he’s not going to be completely off the radar, because he didn’t exactly burn folks the way Kennedy did. But he certainly won’t carry the steep price tag he had heading into 2012 on the heels of his breakout 2011 season (Wow, was it that long ago? It feels more recent.). He hasn’t come close to his 29 percent strikeout rate from that big season in parts of the last two that have been stunted by injury. Was it the injuries that relegated him to 21 and 19 percent or is that just his truer talent level? I would actually bet on something in the middle, say around 25 percent. With only 70 innings in all last year, he will be capped in some form, but he can crack the top 90 even in 150 innings.

Brandon McCarthy, ARI (172nd): There was some concern that a more hitter-friendly park would cost him a few points in ERA, but a lot of that fear was mitigated by a shift to the NL and yet McCarthy just didn’t perform. He had the best ground-ball rate of his career at 48 percent and even lowered his walk rate from five to three percent, but yet his ERA rose from 3.24 to 4.53. He even stay healthier than 2012, though not entirely so managing just 135 innings.

Injuries are always going to be a problem for McCarthy and just about everyone knows they are buying a 170-or-fewer-inning guy who will likely be in the 120-140 range. He isn’t a huge strikeout guy, either. So why am I endorsing him? Because he’s good. He can offer a low-3.00s ERA and a quality WHIP to make up for his uninspiring strikeout totals. Throw in some good fortune with his total and you can get a lot of value out of him over 130-ish innings. He finished 84th among SPs in 2012 with a 3.24 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 8-6 record, and 16 percent strikeout rate.

Phil Hughes, MIN (244th): No pitcher was a worse fit for his stadium than Hughes. He moves from the homer haven of Yankee Stadium to a much-friendlier Target Field and takes an otherwise impressive skillset with him. His 20 percent strikeout and six percent walk rates over the last two years are lost in the shuffle because he posted a 4.65 ERA and 1.35 WHIP with them, including a particularly ugly 5.19/1.46 combo in 2013.

This was spurred by a 1.6 HR/9, a rate that is sure to come down with half of his games in Minnesota now. He had a 2.0 HR/9 in 78 1/3 innings at Yankee Stadium this year compared to a perfectly reasonable 0.94 in 67 1/3 road innings. If he matched that at home, it would’ve saved him eight home runs. If we just chop off eight solo shots that would’ve been good for 0.50 off of his ERA. There are going to be some in your league who have sworn off of him entirely, but his new setting makes him a very appealing target.

Other names to consider include: Zack Wheeler (113th), Tyler Chatwood (119th), and Robbie Erlin (162nd).

Who are your favorites, either on the list or beyond?

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

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