Pitching for Next Year
September 20, 2004

One of the toughest aspects of writing about fantasy baseball is trying to predict which pitchers will be next year's $1 star.  When I wrote for the Fantasy Baseball Index last winter, I picked 10 pitchers that I thought were off most people's radars, or were probably going to be well-undervalued going into the spring.  My list was Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Rafael Soriano, Jeremy Affeldt, Josh Towers, Oliver Perez, Sterling Hitchcock, Wilson Alvarez, Claudio Vargas, Juan Cruz, Joe Nathan and Ryan Wagner.  It's not a terrible list, really.   Obviously, Ollie Perez and Joe Nathan came up very big.  Injuries sidelined Sterling Hitchcock and Rafael Soriano and kept Grant Balfour, Jeremy Affeldt and Joaquin Benoit from better seasons.  Towers, Cruz and Alvarez weren't bad but I can't deny that I missed pretty badly on Wagner and Vargas.   I'm still hopeful for next year on those two, though.

In that issue, I also spotlighted several veteran pitchers for much better years: Bartolo Colon, Freddie Garcia, Kelvim Escobar, Brad Radke, Miguel Batista, Jon Lieber, Jose Contreras, Ramon Ortiz and, of course, Johan Santana, who I've been a big fan of since the beginning of 2003.  I also wrote that Javier Vazquez, while an excellent talent, could have some ups and downs in the AL because he didn't like to pitch inside.  He wasn't the only one I thought wouldn't be as good this year: I had Jarrod Washburn, Mark Buerhle, Derek Lowe, Jamey Moyer, Mark Redman, Ryan Franklin, Brian Anderson and Darrell May all earmarked for worse years.  Not all of what I wrote made it to the issue that hit the stands because of editorial license, but I'm OK with that.  It's their magazine and the guys at Fantasy Baseball Index have a more entertaining style of writing that makes up for any omissions of my analysis. 

Regardless, even though I wasn't close to perfect, discounting for injuries it looks like a I did a decent job when I strayed from the mainstream, especially considering that most of that was written last December.  In addition, for two years in a row I've fielded the best pitching staff in AL Tout Wars for about the same amount of salary as everyone else spent.  My point is that I've had some decent success identifying pitchers that will perform well above what they'll cost on draft day.  I'm not offering the fantasy equivalent of a Harvard Law Degree as a qualification for success, but if you'll humor me, I'd like to list a few pitchers I think could pass under the radar next year.

Obviously, it doesn't take much insight to say that Johan Santana is good.  That's old news.  Nor does it take much forethought to say that Bronson Arroyo and Rich Harden could be pretty good next year.  Or that Scott Kazmir has a lot of upside.  All of those guys will be talked about in the off-season publications, probably ad nauseum.  Here are the end-game sleepers - pitchers that should go for $5 or less - that I like for next year:

Scott Elarton was a highly regarded prospect in Houston before shoulder problems and a trip to Colorado made him un-rosterable.  Freed from the thin air, he's had some very encouraging outings in Cleveland.  He still has some struggles with home runs, but I don't see that as necessarily a negative as long as he keeps the other baserunners (especially the walks) to a minimum, which is what he has been doing lately.  Cleveland has a tremendous offense and barring injury will have a very good rotation starting with CC Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee.  Elarton should slide quietly into the 4th spot.  There's really no way their bullpen can be any worse than it was this year so that should translate into a few more wins for the starters. 

Jorge Sosa is realtively new to pitching, having been converted from a positional player in the minors.  I'm not sure how the Devil Rays see him, but I'm hoping it will be as a starter.  He has a dominating fastball, decent slider and just needs a change-up or splitter or another offspeed pitch to keep the hitters from sitting dead red.  The D-Rays already have a good bullpen and an excellent defense behind him and they appear to finally be learning how to make a decent offense.  Sosa's starts have been inconsistent, but when he's been on he has been exceptional: in four of his eight starts, he's gone at least 5 innings, allowed 2 earned runs or fewer, walked 2 or less and struck out at least 5 batters.  And don't forget what he did in AAA when the D-Rays shipped him down to work on his mechanics in May - 3 starts, 13 innings, 11 hits, no walks, 4 earned runs (2.77 ERA) and 23 strikeouts.

Bruce Chen finally figured out that being a major league pitcher requires dedication and some hard work.  He came up through the Atlanta system as a highly regarded prospect but never put in the time and attention to detail to fully realize his potential.  Nine teams later, he seems to have figured things out.  As a side note, for all the praise that Leo Mazzone gets as a pitching coach, has anyone noticed that he has been a failure when it comes to developing young pitchers?  The Braves minor league system has produced several good-to-excellent starting pitchers while he's been there - Chen, Jason Schmidt, Odalis Perez, Jason Marquis, Darrell May, Paul Byrd - but with the possible exception of Kevin Millwood (who only twice in his six years in Atlanta produced an ERA under 4), none of them became good pitchers in Atlanta.  And let's not forget the notable flameout of Steve Avery.  Can we please stop the apotheosis of Mazzone?

Erik Bedard has two problems he must conquer.  The first is something completely in his control: he needs to work faster on the mound.  The second is something that isn't in his control, but the O's are looking into: Javy Lopez as his catcher.  Ray Miller, who's mantra is to "work fast, throw strikes and change speeds" will get him to be less methodical.  As for Lopez, the O's appear to recognize that his obsession with setting up outside whenever there are two strikes just doesn't work with Bedard.  Batters, knowing that the offering will be away, foul off pitch after pitch driving up his pitch count while waiting for the mistake.  Bedard made 26 starts this season and all but 8 were handled by Lopez.  It's not a coincidence that Bedard pitched into the seventh inning in just 6 starts this season and three of those occurred when another catcher was behind the plate.  With Lopez behind the plate his ERA and WHIP were 5.78 and 1.739 respectively.  Without him, it was 4.14 and 1.401 and in every one of his starts with someone else behind the plate he went at least 5 innings.  One peculiarity about Bedard's season is that in more than half his starts, rain has either delayed the game or affected the game in some way.  Assuming the weather doesn't continue to plague him next year - in which case, I may be forced to nickname him "Rain Man" - and the Orioles decide it's ok to start another catcher other than Lopez, we should see a better much Bedard.

Three Expo pitchers who look good for next year are John Patterson, Jon Rauch and Tony Armas Jr.  All three struggled with injuries that hopefully will be fully healed by next spring.  All three of these guys can dominate a good line-up: both Rauch and Armas no-hit the Astros for 5 innings before injuries forced them from the game and Patterson shut down the Marlins just last week.   There's a high probability that the Expos will have a different location and different ownership next season which means they will have more money to put into better offensive support and probably a deeper bullpen.  A healthy Jose Vidro and Nick Johnson, along with Brad Wilkerson and Brain Schneider is a nice core and Juan Rivera may be more than a AAAA outfielder.  If the Expos move to Washington DC or Northern Virginia as anticipated, the kind of help that could be added to this team will be far more productive than Tony Batista and Carl Everett... players like Corey Koskie and/or Jermaine Dye or JD Drew.  With that kind of support, these three starters could be nice sleepers.

Juan Cruz looked like he was going to get a chance to start in Chicago this year before the Cubs signed Greg Maddux.  Inexplicably, the Cubs then shipped Cruz off to the Braves.  I don't believe in the Mazzone magic, but I do believe in the ability of the Braves to field a quality offensive and defensive team behind their starters as long as they have a healthy Chipper and Andruw Jones, Rafael Furcal, Marcus Giles and Johnny Estrada.  They should get some help next year with Andy Marte and shouldn't have too much trouble filling out the rest of the line-up with decent players.   Jaret Wright and Russ Ortiz are both free agents this offseason and I don't believe both will be re-signed, which opens an opportunity for Cruz.  Last year, he pitched brilliantly before his final two starts obscured his numbers.  If he has a strong spring next year, I think he'll get his chance to show that last year was the beginning of a very nice career as a starter. 

And one final guy I'd like to mention is Rick Ankiel.  After his well-publicized tribulations the last couple of years, it's great to see him back in the majors.  It's just icing on the cake that his numbers on rehab were excellent and that he's showing much of the same dominance out of the bullpen on his return to the majors that he showed during his initial exposure in 1999-2000.  The Cardinals will give him terrific support at the plate and in the field.  If they can make Jeff Suppan a 15-game winner, surely they can do the same for a guy with oodles more talent.

(April 15, 2006 Editor's Note -:  As a follow-up, Scott Elarton went 11-9 with a 4.61 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, but in September went 4-1 with a 2.42 ERA and 1.08 WHIP.  Jorge Sosa went 13-3 with a 2.55 ERA and 1.39 WHIP.  Bruce Chen was serviceable for the Orioles, finishing 13-9 with a 3.83 ERA and 1.27 WHIP.  Erik Bedard was one of the best pitchers in the American League until a knee injury sidelined him in Mid-May.  His effectiveness upon his return was a mixed bag.  Had John Patterson gotten any run support he might have contended for the NL Cy Young in 2005.  Before fatigue finally caught up to him in his final three starts, his ERA for the season was 2.66.  He finished with a 1.19 WHIP and 185 Ks.  Jon Rauch and Tony Armas both battled injuries all season, as did Juan Cruz.  Rick Ankiel gave up pitching to become a positional prospect but the injury bug has continued to plague him.)