Concluding the Spring Training editions of Future Rookies, we’ll take a look at the pitchers who look to make an impact in fantasy baseball this season. In order to qualify for the Future Rookies column as a pitcher, one has to meet Baseball America’s definition of a prospect and thrown fewer than 50 innings or made fewer than 30 relief appearances.
The list of names of starting pitchers who are capable of making a positive impact in the fantasy world this year runs quite deep. There are a number of notable omissions, too many to name, that include the entire host of lively arms in the Kansas City Royals farm system as well as others. Those who are highlighted below will either begin the season up with the parent club in the rotation, or should be summoned in short order after the season begins.
Brandon Beachy, SP, Atlanta Braves, 24 years old
Signing as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2008 out of Indiana Wesleyan, where he played third base and closed, Brandon Beachy has never been hyped as much of a prospect. Last year saw him make the transition from reliever in Double-A to starter at the major league level by season’s end. As you can see in the table above, Beachy’s minor league numbers were staggering, and in his 15 innings with the Braves he was able to carry over his exceptional strikeout rate whiffing a batter per inning pitched. Many observers viewed Mike Minor as having the edge in the competition with Beachy for the fifth starter spot in the Braves rotation, but nonetheless, Beachy earned the spot in the rotation with a lights out spring that saw him throw 20 innings, striking out 21 and walking just four batters while compiling a 0.90 ERA. Armed with a three pitch mix that includes a low-to-mid 90’s fastball, a solid curveball and a changeup, all of which he’s able to control, he has the goods necessary to face a lineup multiple times through. While he may not have the pedigree of more heralded Braves farm hands such as Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and the aforementioned Mike Minor, his sensational 2010 season and spot in the Braves rotation makes him an intriguing starter for those in deep leagues. Those rostering him should be aware that he’s likely to be on a strict innings limit as he began last year as a reliever and only finished the season having thrown 135 innings, and remember that as a rookie he’s likely to experience some bumps in the road.
Zach Britton, SP, Baltimore Orioles, 23 years old
Of the highlighted players, Zach Britton intrigues me the least as he’ll be ultimately landing in the American League East when promoted, and has the feel of a much better real life prospect than a fantasy one. Britton’s calling card is his low-90’s sinker, which Baseball America describes as the best in all of the minors, and as you’d expect it generates a high percentage of groundballs. He’s also described as having a plus-slider, which leads to hope for a higher strikeout rate down the line if he’s able to use it as a true wipeout pitch. Britton had a fantastic spring, posting a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings of work, keeping the free passes in check by issuing just five, but also only striking out 13. He’ll open the season in Triple-A with Norfolk, but should likely be called up to the Orioles sometime in June after the expected Super Two qualifying date passes. Keep an eye on his strikeout rate and his walk rate in the minors early in the season. If he’s able to either increase his strikeout rate or reduce his walk rate, he could be a useful starter in deep leagues or AL-only leagues. More likely than not, I see him as being a spot starter at best this season though.
Kyle Drabek, SP, Toronto Blue Jays, 23 years old
Much of last year, I was quite bearish on the stock of Kyle Drabek as others touted him as a truly elite pitching prospect. Coming into the 2011 season I am warming up significantly with each nugget of information I gather from reading about him. Drabek is a perfect example of a player who’s stuff is more significant than his minor league numbers, which were solid but not spectacular last year (3.78 BB/9 and 7.33 K/9 in Double-A). He features a pitch repertoire that includes two fastballs, a two-seamer and a four-seamer that sit comfortably in the low 90’s but can touch 96 MPH, a cutter he added last year to neutralize left-handed batters, a developing changeup, and last, but far from least, his 12-6 hammer curve which rates as a 70 on the 20-80 scale according to Baseball America. His curveball has swing and miss action which should help him generate ample strikeouts as he learns to better use it, and his two seam fastball and cutter helps him generate a healthy number of groundouts. I don’t expect everything to come together in 2011 for Drabek, but he should be useful in all but the shallowest of league formats if he’s benched in unfavorable matchups, and long term, he has all the goods I look for in a potential front-line starter: healthy groundball rate, potential for strikeout growth and passable control.
Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Tampa Bay Rays, 23 years old
Known as “Hellboy,” Jeremy Hellickson begins the season as the Tampa Rays’ fifth starter after they dealt Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs for a prospect haul. While his fastball isn’t overpowering and sits in the low-90’s, occasionally touching 95 when he needs to dial it up, Hellickson succeeds with tremendous control and command of all of his pitches that include a low-80’s Bugs Bunny changeup as well as a two-seam fastball, a cutter and a curveball. Able to rack up gaudy strikeout numbers while keeping the walks to a minimum, the lone fly in the ointment for Hellickson is his high fly ball rate, which will almost certainly lead to some balls being deposited in the bleachers against the high octane offenses he’ll be facing in the American League East. Like the vast majority of young hurlers, Hellboy is likely to be on a tight innings limit this season, but pitching on a contender means he may not be shut down early and instead have a start skipped here and there throughout the season. Those in head-to-head leagues looking to roster him can breath a sigh of relief with that in mind. With some major league success, albeit a small sample of success, under his belt, he is the safest of the highlighted Future Rookies starting pitchers and should be rostered in league formats of all sizes.
Michael Pineda, SP, Seattle Mariners, 22 years old
One of the buzzworthy stories of spring training this year was the somewhat surprising decision of the Mariners to name young Michael Pineda their fifth starter. Fantasy gamers should rejoice as it adds one more exciting young arm to an already deep list of high upside starters. The large, 6′5″ and 250-pound right-hander has toyed with minor league hitters since entering the Mariners farm system. Don’t be deceived by the 4.76 ERA that Pineda posted in the Pacific Coast League last year, as his underlying stats that include a superb strikeout rate and top notch command are what should jump off the page. Pitching his home games in the spacious Safeco Field, Pineda should have some of his rookie struggles mitigated by his friendly digs. Pineda throws three pitches from a three-quarter arm slot, a fastball, changeup and a slider. The pitch to salivate over in that trio of offerings is his blazing fastball, which occasionally touches triple digits and is full of life. He should challenge Jeremy Hellickson for the most valuable rookie starting pitcher this season, but he is unfortunately backed by a rather putrid offense, meaning his win potential is lagging a bit behind Hellboy’s. Those in shallow leagues can probably allow Pineda to prove himself a bit before adding him, but he should be on watch lists in those leagues, and owned in medium sized leagues and larger.
With the last two American League Rookies of the Year being relief pitchers, it should be easy for fantasy owners to recognize that there is potential for a great deal of fantasy value if a rookie reliever is able to nail down a closer gig. Those in deeper leagues may also wish to roster high volume strikeout relievers capable of posting lights out ratios, regardless of role, and the highlighted group of relievers below certainly have that ability.
Aroldis Chapman, RP, Cincinnati Reds, 23 years old
The household name of the relievers listed, thanks to his unprecedented triple-digit heater that touched a record 105.1 MPH, Aroldis Chapman is a pitcher that should be owned in all but the shallowest of leagues. While his long-term future role remains a bit murky, it appears he’ll be spending the 2011 season in the Reds bullpen, making him a likely closer in waiting should Francisco Cordero falter this season. If he’s able to overtake Cordero for the closer job, he instantly becomes an elite reliever thanks to his potential to post 100-plus strikeouts with stellar ratios. The greatest nemesis of Chapman, and the potential hangup that could cause him to struggle at times this season, is his spotty control. Fortunately, working in short stints and having the ability to strike out hitters at a high clip should help relieve owners of some concern, as Carlos Marmol has illustrated a high strikeout rate can help overcome a high walk rate.
Kenley Jansen, RP, Los Angeles Dodgers, 23 years old
A converted catcher, Kenley Jansen has made a seamless transition to pitching, reaching the majors last year after just 57 innings of work dating back to 2009. His walk rate and limited experience raise some red flags, but his mid-90’s fastball that can touch triple-digits and his high strikeout rate should alleviate much of that concern. With a developing slurvey breaking ball and a changeup he rarely uses, Jansen is the least developed of the relievers included in Future Rookies, but he’s also the reliever tied with the most career saves at the major league level, having saved four games to close out 2010 after Jonathan Broxton imploded down the stretch. As the primary right-handed setup man to Broxton this year, he has a chance to vulture some saves, or perhaps outright take the closer job in Los Angeles should Broxton struggle again this season and manager Don Mattingly opt to save left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo for high leverage situations before the ninth inning.
Craig Kimbrel, RP, Atlanta Braves, 22 years old
Craig Kimbrel, the Braves co-closer entering the 2011 campaign, was downright filthy to finish up the 2010 season with an 18.26 K/9 and a respectable 3.97 BB/9 in 11.1 regular season innings in September and October. In the postseason he was able to strikeout seven of 13 Giants batters he faced while walking just one. His BB/9 was 5.66 in Triple-A and 6.97 in the majors, so it bears mentioning and watching, but his strong finish and reasonable walk rate in the spring (four walks in 12.1 innings) lend hope to the control issues being a thing of the past. Largely a two-pitch pitcher (fastball/slider), Kimbrel has the requisite goodies to be an elite closer at a fraction of the cost of the “safer” options.
Jake McGee, RP, Tampa Bay Rays, 24 years old
After years of being developed as a starter in the minors (129 games started of 140 games pitched), the Rays opted to move southpaw Jake McGee to the bullpen, where he finished the season in the majors. A Tommy John surgery recipient in 2008, McGee has comeback as strong as ever, regularly throwing a 92-95 MPH fastball while being able to add a few more ticks when need be. Depending on the source you choose to believe, he compliments his fastball with either a slider or a power curve and also throws a developing changeup on occasion. With the Rays bullpen in upheaval after losing the bulk of the key contributors from the 2010 season, including closer Rafael Soriano, they look to enter the season in the dreaded closer-by-committee. Being the most talented of the bunch, and having the greatest upside, McGee should have a chance to claim the closer role as the season wears on, but manager Joe Maddon may force him to “pay his dues” before anointing him the man over other uninspiring closing options that include Kyle Farnsworth (aka Mr. Anti-Clutch) and Joel Peralta. McGee should be owned in all league formats, and I’ll go on record as saying that I believe he’ll be the most valuable Rays rookie pitcher this season, even more valuable than rookie counterpart Jeremy Hellickson who I gushed about above.
Chris Sale, RP, Chicago White Sox, 22 years old
The Chicago White Sox 2010 first round draft choice, Chris Sale, was able to reach the majors after just 10 innings of minor league ball in the same year he was drafted; quite the remarkable feat. Not only did he reach the majors, but he was quite effective, even notching four saves. Long-term it remains to be seen if the White Sox will develop him as a starter or as a reliever (I’d venture to guess they’ll develop him as a starter), but this season he’s clearly been tabbed as a bullpen arm for the White Sox to begin the season. Able to dial up his fastball to 100 MPH and featuring two other above average pitches, a slider and a changeup, Sale should be hell on hitters this season in a setup capacity to Matt Thornton. Thornton was able to beat out Sale for the closer job in spring training, and with three seasons of posting xFIPs, FIPs and ERAs all of 2.75 or lower, he seems unlikely to relinquish his perch. With a tougher road to saves and the potential for the White Sox to option him to the minors to stretch him out should Peavy’s surgically repaired shoulder force him on the shelf, or any other number of reasons for general manager Kenny Williams to option him down to stretch out, Sale is more of a deep league option. By chance, should he step into the closer job he would become an attractive option in leagues of all sizes.
Josh is a recent college graduate from SUNY Cortland where he majored in Sport Management. You can catch up with Josh in the Cafe Forums where he posts as B-Chad.
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