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George Bissell covered five National League starters he’s eyeballing this draft season yesterday and today I’m coming at you with five from the junior circuit for whom the draft day value proposition is enticing. Well, technically I’ve coming at you with four and George is dropping in for the fifth.

Jharel Cotton, Oakland Athletics

NFBC ADP: 246

I get the scouting concerns. Cotton lacks a reliable breaking pitch and his size and arm slot lead to concerns about the plane and movement on his heater. He gave up 20 bombs in 135 Triple-A innings last season and another four in a 30-inning major league trial. There’s not much Cotton can do to calm the anxiety about his home run generosity other than keep himself on the A’s. I’m less worried about the pitch mix because his changeup is at least plus, and he offers enough variety with a sinker, cutter, and curve to keep hitters off balance even if none of those are better than average standalone offerings. As much as the raw material, I like Cotton because of his minor league resume. He had the highest strikeout rate in both the 2014 Cal League and the 2016 PCL. His DRA- in those two seasons were 78 and 81, the sixth and 14th best marks among pitchers who threw at least 60 innings at the respective levels. There’s a limit to not scouting stat lines, and at some point I’ll gamble on the guy who’s accumulated a pile of evidence that suggests he’s likely to stick in the bigs. As long as you’re expecting a capable SP5 and not the strikeout numbers and advanced stat excellence that define his minor league career you should be fine.

Ian Kennedy, Kansas City Royals

NFBC ADP: 250

Since becoming a full-time starter in 2010, Kennedy has averaged 196 innings per season and hasn’t logged fewer than 168.1. Over that same time period, he’s struck out 8.4 batters per nine innings. The bugaboo has been home runs, a problem so severe that he’s posted the two highest HR/9 of his career in the past two seasons despite calling Petco, then Kauffman home. This space is usually reserved for the types that have underlying skills pointing towards a breakout; Kennedy is not that. He is exactly who you think he is, an innings eater who is going to pump fastballs over and pad your strikeout total. The damage he does to your ERA will depend almost entirely on the sequencing of the many homers he’ll dish up. Last year 22 of Kennedy’s 33 came with the bases empty, and as a result his ERA came in at 3.68 ERA in the face of a 4.09 DRA. I don’t expect Kennedy to pitch to a sub-4.00 ERA again, but I do expect him to beat PECOTA’s 4.55 projection by a few tenths. Contrary to the title of this article, I strongly recommend you don’t watch Kennedy. I do recommend you take the discount on draft day and just plug him in there. There is value in the volume, especially if you’ve invested an earlier pick in a pitcher that needs a caddy because of injury risk (Hill) or innings limitations (Urias).

Daniel Norris, Detroit Tigers

NFBC ADP: 289

Norris has only pitched 129.1 innings in the major league since his rapid ascension from High-A to Toronto in 2014. That’s helped feed a narrative that he’s injury prone, which is both true and exaggerated. Yes, he’s missed time with an oblique injury in each of the past two seasons. I don’t mean to minimize that, but he also managed to clear 150 frames between the majors and minors in both 2015 and 2016. That’s not ideal from a workload standpoint, especially if you drafted Norris and needed his innings at the major league level, but it’s a fine foundation for a 24-year-old to work from. And speaking of a base to build on, Norris was excellent after returning to Detroit last August, registering a 3.04 ERA over 10 starts, including an electric five game stretch in which he struck out 38 batters in his final 29.2 innings. If Norris can hold the big gains he made with respect to his ability to pound the zone, including and especially getting ahead on the first pitch, he should be able to keep his walk rate in check and utilize his nasty secondary arsenal to keep the whiffs coming.

Kendall Graveman, Oakland Athletics

NFBC ADP: 431

Among pitchers who have thrown 300 innings over the past two seasons, only Jered Weaver has a lower strikeout rate than the 26-year-old sinkerballer. Graveman’s 51.3 percent groundball rate over that time is a top-10 mark, not exactly a good match for the defense behind him. So it goes without saying that this is a recommendation for the deeeeeeeeep and mono-leaugers among us. Even in those contexts it’s fair to wonder how why he’s worth any investment at all given his pedestrian results and seemingly low ceiling.

The answer lies in BP’s new pitch tunneling statistics. I’m still processing the research and learning how to leverage it in my fantasy analysis, but as I’ve started to tinker around with the leaderboards, Graveman’s name has stood out. To be fair, there’s some selection bias here because the metrics are built on pitch pairs. To quote the stats team, “each pitch is viewed in the context of the one thrown before it,” and because Graveman follows a sinker with another sinker so often, on the aggregate we’d expect most of his pitch-to-pitch differentials to be relatively small. Still, it’s striking to see how favorably he stacks up to Kyle Hendricks, the modern day hero of our new metrics. Like Hendricks, Graveman’s 2016 numbers ranked among the best in the league in both Release Differential and Tunnel Differential. In other words, batters have a relatively hard time telling what pitch is thrown both when it is released and at the point when they need to decide whether to swing. They were both also on the low end in Post-Tunnel Break, relying more on consistency of release and tunnel than stuff.

Because of the bias inherent in the method, Graveman’s success means less than it does for someone like Hendricks, whose pitch mix is more balanced. Then again, some pairs involving Graveman’s changeup rate favorably in the context of his own aresenal, so maybe there is some growth potential here if he rearranges his pitch distribution a bit. At this ADP, or for $1 according to Mike Gianella’s AL-Only bid limits, it won’t cost you anything to find out. Once upon a time a sinker-heavy Kyle Hendricks struck out five per nine too.

And, as promised above, here’s George Bissell with one of his favorite American League targets:

Francisco Liriano, Toronto Blue Jays

The 33-year-old southpaw’s sterling strikeout rates (9.3 K/9 over 1,513 career innings) have remained remarkably consistent over the past decade. His control is a completely different story. Liriano’s walk rates have endured wild swings, from league-average to downright atrocious on a per-season basis. A deluge of free passes (5.5 BB/9 over 113 2/3 innings) in tandem with a lackluster 5.32 ERA got him shipped out of Pittsburgh at the trade deadline last season. Once he re-united with his old battery mate Russell Martin in Toronto, he cut his walk rate nearly in half (2.9 BB/9) and posted a 2.92 ERA over 49 1/3 innings of work down the stretch.

It would be too simplistic to suggest that a change of scenery was all he needed. However, he’s going from being the nominal ace of the Pirates staff, to a situation with almost zero pressure as the Blue Jays fifth starter. Liriano relies heavily on opposing hitters chasing out of the strike zone, so I will always have my doubts regarding his control. Yet the strikeouts are still there, and he’s going off the board outside of the top 300 picks (315th overall, 21st round) according to NFBC average draft position. There is almost zero risk at that price on draft day. If Liriano can sustain a league-average walk rate, and stay healthy, he has a legitimate chance to finish as a top 40-50 starting pitcher in mixed leagues. We’ve seen him do it before. –George Bissell

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dgalloway15fish
3/14
Tyson Ross
GeorgeBissell
3/15
Ross isn't joining the Rangers rotation until June coming off surgery. There's no reason to draft him in a standard mixed league right now.