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March 18, 2014

Five to Watch

National League Prospects

by Bret Sayre

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As the spring builds up and draws to a close, there is a lot to pay attention to. One of said things is the impression that prospects make in camp that can either win them an unexpected spot on a team’s roster or put them in better position for a call-up once the season gets going. Here are five players with prospect eligibility (for fantasy purposes, we don’t care about service time) who are making a positive impression this spring that could lead to heightened fantasy value in 2014.

Carlos Martinez, P, St. Louis Cardinals
The recipient of far too many Pedro Martinez comps in the minor leagues (he’s a vertically-challenged Dominican starter with great raw stuff, so of course Pedro, duh), Martinez is being given a legitimate shot to beat out Joe Kelly for the final spot in the Cardinals’ rotation this spring. This opportunity was made possible by yet another Jaime Garcia shoulder setback, but if it happens, it could vault Martinez’ fantasy star through the roof.

The question has never been whether Martinez has the stuff to start (he does), it’s whether the Cardinals had room for him in the rotation and if he could hold up over the grind of a full season. The second question has yet to be answered, but he was able to throw over 120 innings last year, despite making 32 relief appearances between the regular season and the playoffs. And while his 5.08 ERA may not seem that impressive on the surface, his 3.08 FIP tells a far different story. But the most encouraging thing Martinez carried forward from his very strong minor league portfolio is his high ground-ball rate. For his career in the minors, Martinez kept the ball on the ground 51.8 percent of the time, and that ticked up to 52.3 percent in the regular season. Of course, small sample caveats apply, but it’s a skill set that he has shown. His two-seamer has impressive downward movement and allows him to keep the ball out of the air despite not being able to generate a ton of plane, given his height.

However, even with all of these positive attributes, two truths remain about the fantasy value Martinez may hold this season. First of all, despite his strong spring performance thus far (one earned run in 10 innings), he’s certainly no lock to beat out Kelly for that spot. Of course, this wouldn’t be a death knell to his value anyway, as he is likely to be a strong contributor as a middle reliever (in leagues where that matters). Finally, even if he does make the rotation, we’re not looking at a 200-inning horse here. I’d be surprised if Martinez cleared 160 innings, so even if he pitches up to his current ceiling, his overall value may be muted just by the lack of work.

Rafael Montero, P, New York Mets
After splitting his time in 2013 between a dominant stint in Double-A and a very impressive stint in Las Vegas to close the season, Montero finds himself knocking on the door of a rotation spot in Queens. Right now, he has one big thing in his favor and another in his way. On the positive side, the fourth and fifth starters for the Mets right now appear to be John Lannan (intimidating) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (seriously), so it might seem easy to break in after a short period of time, right? Unfortunately, the competition for any openings may be fierce between fellow Top 101 prospect (and Thor enthusiast) Noah Syndergaard, and the reason for so many LOL Mets jokes back at the beginning of the decade, Jenrry Mejia.

This spring, Montero has continued to do what he generally does, throw strikes and keep runs off the scoreboard. With a 3.00 ERA in nine innings, he’s not forcing the issue to start the season, but he is reminding the organization that he’s just about ready should a need arise. However, maybe it would be in his best long-term interest to stop pitching well, as there are now rumors floating around that the Mets may look to carry Montero in the bullpen to start the season, which would be just about the most Mets thing ever. Despite the competition, I still expect Montero to be in the rotation within the first two months of the season given the likely ineffectiveness of their back-end starters—and that’s not even mentioning the injury risk of Bartolo Colon and Jon Niese.

Jameson Taillon, P, Pittsburgh Pirates
Taillon may have been part of the first round of cuts for the Pirates back on March 10, but he continues to impress the organization with his stuff, makeup and intelligence. Taillon may have been the biggest beneficiary of Neal Huntington doing his best Han Solo impression this off-season and remaining frozen in carbonite while the teams around them added to their pitching depth. With new reclamation project Edinson Volquez holding down the fifth spot in the rotation out of the gate, and oft-injured Wandy Rodriguez and Charlie Morton ahead of him, opportunities may not be tough to come by in Pittsburgh as the season wears on. And while it’s unlikely that Taillon will be called upon before the Super Two deadline, he’s likely to be a much more attractive option than either Jeff Locke or Brandon Cumpton for a team hoping to contend.

With a combination of prospect fatigue and the Pirates’ developmental plan, fantasy owners have begun to sour on Taillon because he hasn’t put up those dominant minor league numbers and he doesn’t have the “ace” upside of future rotation cohabiter, Gerrit Cole. But those who expected anyone to go toe-to-toe on a pure stuff level with Cole were never realistic to start with. Realistically, Taillon can be a solid #2 fantasy starter pitching in one of the best parks possible for his skill set. That future will likely start early on this summer, and it may not take him very long to get there.

Matt Wisler, P, San Diego Padres
A top-50 prospect in Jason Parks’ Top 101 this year, Wisler showed in Double-A last season why he has a bright future in San Diego. In 105 innings, the potential number three starter had a 3.00 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 103 strikeouts versus only 27 walks—and that was after posting a 2.03 ERA in six High-A California League starts. The Padres, unlike the Pirates or Mets, have better starting pitching depth, which certainly hurts Wisler’s chances of making an impact at the major league level this year. However, there’s a certain something in the water or the temperate climate in San Diego that makes pitchers’ elbows go boom. And considering that the rotation currently consists of three injury risks of the highest order, Josh Johnson, Andrew Cashner, and Tyson Ross, being eighth on the depth chart may come sooner than we all think.

From a skills standpoint, Wisler is a perfect fit for Petco Park. He’s done a good job of keeping the walks to a minimum in the minor leagues, even though he has steps to take with his command. He doesn’t keep the ball on the ground particularly well, but that ballpark will do a great job of masking that flaw. And while he’s going to have to improve against left-handed batters (his slider is his best pitch right now—and it’s at its best against same-side hitters), those are the hitters who struggle most to take advantage of mistakes in Petco. Around midseason, Wisler should be on the doorstep of the major leagues and as with any other lesser skilled pitcher in his situation (hello, Eric Stults), he merits watching with a close eye.

Andrew Heaney, P, Miami Marlins
The great thing about Marlins’ prospects is that the organization is certainly not afraid to throw them right into the fire. Last year saw examples of that well beyond the most famous example of Jose Fernandez—players like Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Jake Marisnick were all summoned from Double-A without a single appearance at the Triple-A level. This leaves Heaney right in the middle of the promotion window. After 61 2/3 innings of absolutely dominant pitching in the Florida State League (0.88 ERA, 66 strikeouts, and 17 walks), he finished strong with six starts in Double-A and put himself on the fast track to Miami.

This spring has seen that track get even faster, as he’s given up only two runs in his three outings, spanning 7 2/3 innings, and the whispers of him potentially starting the 2014 season in the Miami rotation are starting to get louder. Of course, that’s exactly what you expect when the competition for the fifth starter job comes down to Brad Hand, Brian Flynn, Kevin Slowey and Tom Koehler. That’s a veritable murderer’s row of suck. Heaney, as an advanced college arm, could likely hold his own in the major leagues now—and in fact, could be their second best pitcher behind Jose Fernandez in very short order. And for those of you concerned about Heaney being reassigned to minor league camp this past Monday, remember that it was March 13, 2013, when Jose Fernandez was reassigned to minor-league camp. We all know how that story turned out.

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

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