It's a phrase I use a lot, because it's a key concept in formulating your draft strategy. Knowing not only how a player will produce, but also the general perception of that player will help you find the best bang for your buck.
I'm going to examine some pitchers who I think have a good chance to provide a nice return on your investment.
After my column last week on hitters, I received a lot of feedback asking why certain players weren't on the list. A lot of names they mentioned I agreed would have nice years, but they don't necessarily fit the criteria.
If you like him, I like him and everyone else likes him, that breakout season you/I/they are expecting will cost a pretty penny. It's just like saying a particular player is a sleeper. If everyone thinks he's a sleeper, is he really one?
I'm focusing on players whom I value more highly than the ESPN rankings do, and players whom I think a bit more of than what appears to be their general value, based on drafts I have participated in. Think of this as the list of "15 pitchers whom Jason really likes."
This isn't a list of "breakout" candidates or anything like that. If I think a particular pitcher can earn $25 this year, whereas others see him as a player who earns $17-$18, he qualifies.
I've even included a few arms to take a late flier on, some for mixed leagues and some for single leagues. I list them in no particular order.
Tim Lincecum, SP, Giants: I don't believe too much hype surrounds him. He has that perfect combination of strikeouts and the ability to induce ground balls. Improvement will come from gains in his control, which is a reasonable expectation as he enters his second year in the big leagues. In single-league play, if he's under $20, I'm probably in the bidding. I said the same thing about Cole Hamels last season and that worked out well. I think it will again.
Matt Cain, SP, Giants: It seems hard to believe, but Cain is only four months younger than Lincecum. I say it often: Consistency can be taught; talent can't. That's the case here. Cain just needs a touch more consistency to join the ranks of the top starters. Cain finished very strongly to close out last year, and looks to carry that into his third full season in the big leagues. From a scouting perspective, Cain has lacked aggressiveness at times, and at other times has shown an over-reliance on his fastball, but he has made strides in both areas. There is still more upside here, so he might be undervalued in some leagues.
Boof Bonser, SP, Twins: Bonser appeared poised to carry some positive late 2006 starts into making him a rotation mainstay last season, and while he threw 173 innings, the five-plus ERA was not what people expected. Bonser's strikeout rate was down, his walk rate was up, and he was out of shape. A typical Bonser start amounted to him cruising through the first few innings, only to tire and get blasted from the fourth on, at which point opponents slugged .491 against him. A lot of spring training notes where a player is reportedly "in great shape" are just noise, but I think there's a lot of substance in notes that Bonser reported to camp approximately 30 pounds lighter, and that lost weight could help his stamina this season. He has the repertoire to be a solid No. 3 starter in the big leagues. Others will focus on last year's numbers and maybe won't see his potential. Don't make the same mistake.
Jeremy Guthrie, SP, Orioles: It was a tale of two seasons for Guthrie last year. He posted a 2.74 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in the first half and a 5.03 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in the second half. The split was due to a combination of things: He wore down a bit and tried to pitch through an oblique injury, so his numbers naturally regressed a bit. Many will look at his second-half numbers and minor league track record and say that he was just a half-season fluke -- that he was a bit too lucky, and hitters caught up to him in the second half. There's certainly an element of truth to that.
However, from a scouting perspective, he finally seemed to harness the stuff that once made him a first-round pick, and I think some are expecting a bit too much regression out of him. He's a legitimate major league starter based on what I saw last season, and could earn double-digits in AL-only leagues again this season.
Kevin Slowey, SP, Twins: I've said in the past that Slowey is the new Brad Radke, and seven rough starts at the major league level in the middle of last season won't change that. He looked good in six additional games down the stretch and is poised to grab a full-time slot in the Twins' rotation this season. Slowey is vulnerable to the gopher ball, but he throws strikes like his life depends on it and has the potential for great command. He's in a battle for the final rotation spot with Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins, and frankly, I'm a fan of all three. I want to own the winner of the battle, but Slowey has the edge at the moment.
Andy Sonnanstine, SP, Rays: Sonnanstine has yet to win one of the open rotation jobs in Tampa, but he is one of the front-runners. I'm a sucker for pitchers who throw strikes, and Sonnanstine and Slowey have somewhat similar games. Though Sonnanstine's raw stuff is not as good as Slowey's, his changeup is an out pitch, despite the fact that his fastball sits at 89-90. He's not going to be a great pitcher, but he can be a useful one for a very minimal investment in an AL-only league or possibly a reserve pick in a mixed leagues.
Micah Owings, SP, Diamondbacks: Many pitchers are able to pitch above their stuff and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Owings is one of those guys. Scouts use all kinds of names for it like feel, pitchability, and aptitude, and Owings has all of them. I've written earlier this spring that Owings is working on his changeup so he can be a little more effective against left-handers, who slugged almost .500 against him last year, and that could be a key to him taking another step forward.
Joakim Soria, CL, Royals: I generally always pass on the high-priced closers, and though Soria's price gets up there, I still feel he's generally too good a potential value to pass up if you're looking to spend a little for some saves. Many overlook how ridiculous his numbers really were last season: Almost a 4:1 K:BB ratio, just three homers allowed all year, and a WHIP under 1. Opponents' on-base percentage last season? .191. The best part is that he got even better as the season went along. Too often, many owners look at the overall strength of the team in selecting a closer. Even closers on the worst teams can get 30 saves, and that's what I expect Soria to challenge this season.
Ben Sheets, SP, Brewers: I discussed Sheets extensively in this Clipboard, so I won't repeat it here. The bottom line is: I think he has a chance to stay healthy this season, and no one has ever questioned Sheets' ability when his body was sound.
A.J. Burnett, SP, Blue Jays: Just like Ben Sheets, when Burnett pitches, he performs. Also like Sheets, getting him to actually take the mound for 30 starts has been a big question mark. All the injuries of the past few seasons depress Burnett's acquisition cost on draft day, but few have his upside. It's a perfect combination for those looking to take on a little risk and hopefully get lucky. He has the ideal skill set of a power pitcher (better than a strikeout per inning) that induces groundballs (1.76 GB/FB ratio). Sign me up for rolling the dice, even if he has hit the 200-inning mark just once in the last five seasons.
Ubaldo Jimenez, SP, Rockies: The only thing standing between Jimenez and the upper echelon of starting pitchers is improved control. He took some small steps in that regard by smoothing out his delivery a little bit last season. It hasn't shown up in the walk column yet, but it was a first step toward becoming a little more consistent in throwing strikes. He has starts where he can pepper the zone, but he needs to be more consistent about doing so from outing to outing. Jimenez throws four pitches, two of them plus and two of them solid average, and can hit the upper 90s on the gun. I will always try to take a chance on that kind of power arm with strikeout potential.
Scott Olsen, SP, Marlins: Olsen completely regressed in every respect last season, posting some horrific numbers and going through some well-documented issues off the playing field. Add some shoulder tendinitis early this spring, and there are all kinds of reasons to stay away. That could be one of the reasons I like him. When everyone else is fleeing the sinking ship, in some cases there is the possibility of getting a good return on a cheap investment. Olsen still has the skills that produced a solid rookie season in 2006. If his head is on straight this season -- no guarantee by any stretch -- Olsen could bounce back nicely.
Adam Loewen, SP, Orioles: I've always been a big fan of Loewen's talent, but not of his ability to keep the ball in the strike zone. Unfortunately, after he started to make some strides in 2006, he suffered a stress fracture in his elbow last year, which in many ways has put him back to square one. He's had problems with control in his early spring outings, but that is to be expected, considering his layoff from pitching. If he manages to start finding the zone again, he has that combination of inducing groundballs and missing bats that gives him some good upside. A little patience could payoff later in the season.
Matt Garza, SP, Rays: Garza has a mid-90s fastball that he commands well, and he also throws two solid-average breaking balls. He clashed with Twins management last season, who wanted him working on his changeup at Triple-A, whereas Garza focused on getting outs any way he could to get back up to the big club. Garza found he needed that changeup when he got to the big league level, though, because lefties had an OBP over .400 against him. That off-speed offering will be a key pitch to spot against them. Still, he acquitted himself fine in his major league debut, and I expect continued growth this season.
Zack Greinke, SP, Royals: Greinke is honestly a borderline candidate for this list, because he's a popular pick to have a nice year. I may as well join the chorus. After getting past his psychological issues, Greinke had a solid season last year while bouncing between the pen and the rotation; his ERA was more than two runs lower after the All-Star break (2.42), and he has the peripherals to back it up. He's gotten knocked around a bit this spring, but his raw stuff has looked very good so far. He should quietly have a solid season as a full-time member of the rotation.
Jason Grey is a graduate of the MLB Scouting Bureau's Scout Development Program and has won two Tout Wars titles, one LABR title and numerous other national "experts" competitions.