Last week, we looked at several noteworthy pitchers who changed teams this offseason in an effort to predict what effect their new surroundings might have on their fantasy value. We mostly relied on statistics to try and understand in what ways the change in home stadium, run support, and (in some cases) leagues could impact their numbers. It was assumed that their pitching abilities would remain mostly consistent with what they've been in the past.
But that piece dealt with established pitchers who have years of major league service under their belts. This installment discusses prospects. The problem with pitching prospects is that they tend to be fairly difficult to accurately analyze with statistics, to a far greater extent than position players. This is attributable to a number of factors. For one, pitchers, as opposed to hitters, are far more capable (and indeed, typically expected) to refine their methods as they rise through the minors. This can take the form of learning a new pitch, developing the ability to throw their existing pitches for strikes with greater consistency, or simply tailoring their approach to account for the fact that there are pitches that might confound minor leaguers that simply won't get the job done against MLB's more refined bats.
The other factor that makes projecting pitching prospects something of a crapshoot is that they're far more susceptible to career-altering injuries than position players. Beyond closely monitoring a player's injury history or noticing a sustained decline in velocity over time, arm injuries are very difficult to predict. Young pitchers who've suffered major arm injuries early in their careers are legion. Some are able to bounce back; others never regain their past form. It's for this reason that drafting pitchers, particularly hard-throwing ones, is a much less exact science than drafting position players (both in fantasy and in the actual MLB draft).
So hopefully that explains why this piece will be a little lighter in the stats department than most. It's simply not feasible to predict how a pitcher will translate to the majors by looking at their minor league numbers in a vacuum. That's not to say that statistics aren't a valuable resource in evaluating pitching prospects; they just don't tell the whole story. Sorry for the long-winded explanation. I just don't want you to think I've suddenly gone all Clint Eastwood on you.
Also, please note that we'll be splitting our prospect extravaganza into two parts, as this piece ended up running a lot longer than I initially anticipated. Check back in next week for part two, in which we'll examine three more potential aces.
Gerrit Cole - Pittsburgh Pirates
Cole was the #1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, and of all the pitchers on this list, he's the most likely to have a significant fantasy impact in 2013. He throws a devastating fastball that can clock in at over 100 MPH (though it typically averages around 98), which he pairs with an excellent changeup that has very similar arm action to the fastball. These combine to form a deadly combination for opposing hitters. He's excelled at every level of the minors and has risen quickly through the Pirates organization. If there's one thing to nitpick about him, it's that his slider could stand to improve, but he can still be effective as it develops due to the strength of the other pitches in his repertoire (as Mike Krukow was known to bellow every 30 seconds in the immortal MVP Baseball 2005, "I still think fastball-changeup's the best combination in baseball!"). It's not outside the realm of possibility that Cole starts the season on the major league roster (he's received an invite to camp), though the Pirates have publically maintained that he'll receive more time in AAA to work on his command and consistency.
Whether or not he's in Pittsburgh on opening day, it's difficult to envision a scenario in which he doesn't make his MLB debut this year (probably sooner than later), and when he does, the sky's the limit. Cole has been compared to Stephen Strasburg, a tantalizing thought for fantasy owners, but one that comes with potential caveats. Cole's not without risk (due to the increased chance of injury inherent to his hard-throwing style and the possibility, however remote, that he could spend significant time in the minors this year), but he's as close to a sure thing as there is among pitching prospects right now, and should be drafted in every league. He has excellent value in standard leagues as a mid-to-late round pick (even just to stash on your bench until he's called up), and he should be a top target in keeper leagues.
Trevor Bauer - Cleveland Indians
Cole's former UCLA teammate Trevor Bauer was acquired by the Indians in a trade with the Diamondbacks last month. Unlike Cole, he doesn't try to overpower hitters with his fastball, instead relying primarily on an excellent assortment of breaking pitches. He has excellent control for a pitcher at his stage of development. Unfortunately, control pitchers typically require a longer adjustment period when transitioning to the majors than power pitchers (it's much easier to get hitters to chase pitches out of the strike zone in the minors, as evidenced by Bauer's 7.16 BB/9 in his brief stint with the Diamondbacks, up from 3.84 in AAA), so Bauer would likely benefit from more time in the minors this year, and is a strong candidate for prolonged growing pains when he does arrive in Cleveland.
He draws frequent comparisons to Tim Lincecum due to his small frame, his pitch arsenal, and, most obviously, his faithful emulation of Lincecum's delivery. While comparisons to a two-time Cy Young winner are enough to make any fantasy owner salivate, let's not forget that Lincecum struggled in 2007 in his first major league action, and that mimicking his notoriously violent wind-up is perhaps an unwise career move. Given the amount of time it tends to take pitchers of his ilk to develop into effective MLB starters, I don't know that he warrants a draft pick in standard leagues, but he, like all prospects of his caliber, is an intriguing option in keeper leagues (though perhaps to a lesser extent than the other prospects on this list, given his finesse-based approach). He's certainly someone to keep an eye on and I predict that he'll be a useful (though not dominant) fantasy option by 2014.
Jameson Taillon – Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates haven't managed a winning season since 1992, the longest such streak of any team in Major League Baseball. However, like the Rays and Nationals before them, they seem to be on the precipice of turning all those high draft picks into what could be a very frightening team (I call this the John Bender corollary). Between Cole and Taillon, Pittsburgh could have one of baseball's most devastating 1-2 punches as soon as 2014. Standing an imposing 6-foot-7, Taillon throws a fastball in the very high 90s and a plus curveball, as well as a changeup and a slider that could each stand to improve, according to scouting reports (some suggest that he may abandon the slider altogether). He's posted consistently excellent numbers during his two years of minor league service - his paucity of walks (just 60 in 234.2 innings) is particularly encouraging for a pitcher at his stage of development. He's been invited to spring training along with Gerrit Cole, but I think Cole will make his debut in the majors long before Taillon (Cole, despite having been drafted the year after Taillon, is considered farther along in his development as a result of his 3 years of college experience).
At this point, considering that he's only a year out of high school and hasn't pitched above AA, Taillon's simply too raw (and the Pirates too far from contention) for it to make sense to rush his development, to say nothing of the fact that teams are likely to be more careful than ever with young, hard-throwing pitchers in the aftermath of what happened to Stephen Strasburg (to whom Taillon, like Cole, has been compared). It's possible that we see him in a Pirates uniform for a late-season cameo in 2013, but I think it's more likely that he spends the entire year on the farm. As such, I'd pass on him in standard leagues, but he's a very interesting (if not quite elite) commodity in the keeper format, as he could very well be a high-end #2 starter by 2014.
Stay tuned for part two, coming next week.