- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Call it a hunch, but we'd guess that at least one fantasy owner in 84.8 percent of ESPN leagues is frustrated, dumbfounded even.
That's the percentage of leagues in which Aroldis Chapman is already owned.
His owners, naturally, cannot understand how a pitcher with Chapman's skills, and the kind of performance he has enjoyed to date, remains buried in middle relief -- the one role on a pitching staff that has minimal impact in fantasy baseball. Chapman might, by measure of our Player Rater, be the 42nd-most valuable pitcher in the game thus far. But his owners surely know he's capable of more.
The Chapman tale, both career and season, has been well-documented. A 24-year-old left-hander imported from Cuba, Chapman brought with him a blazing 100 mph fastball and a lethal slider, a combination destined to make him one of the game's brightest strikeout artists. During his first two big league seasons in 2010-11, he struck out 90 hitters in 63 1/3 innings, posted a 3.27 ERA, and had 17 holds and one save. Command, however, presented an obstacle; he averaged 5.55 walks per nine innings between the majors and minors in those seasons.
Still, the Cincinnati Reds and scouts alike agreed on one thing: Chapman had a tremendous future as a starting pitcher ahead, and before long, the Reds would need to give him that chance and work through those issues.
This spring, it appeared they would. Chapman made four Cactus League starts, was in the running for the Reds' No. 5 starter spot until the exhibition season's end, and even exhibited one substantial improvement that appeared to make him the natural choice: He issued only two walks compared to 18 strikeouts in 17 innings.
Naturally, the Reds instead went with Homer Bailey for that job, partly because Bailey, a former top prospect himself, was out of minor league options, and returned Chapman to the setup relief role he occupied in 2011.
All Chapman has done since is continue demonstrating the gains he made this spring. He has pitched 14 2/3 innings without surrendering a run, allowing only five hits. He has struck out 25 hitters, with his 15.34 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio fifth-best among qualified relievers. Most importantly, however, he has continued to show good command, allowing only four walks, while throwing strikes 7 percent more often and pitches within the strike zone 17 percent more often.
The entire package makes Chapman by far the No. 1 rotation candidate in the game who is not currently in his respective team's rotation, a point Keith Law also made a few weeks back. As Law noted then, Chapman exhibited good off-speed stuff during his days in Cuba, and I'm in agreement that any tradeoff in lost fastball velocity would be made up for by the value of his slider. Chapman's stuff could translate to top-10 closer or top-20 starter potential, should the Reds decide to make a move.
Unfortunately, the Reds have no imminent plans to move Chapman into their rotation, despite No. 4 starter Mike Leake's team-leading four losses and 5.97 ERA.
"It's not on the front burner," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty told the team's official website last week. "Right now, [Chapman is] serving an important role in the bullpen. Until we get healthy there, it'd be hard to take him out of that role."
Nevertheless, fantasy owners might yet extract some value out of Chapman, the relief version. Again per our Player Rater, his ERA contributions rank 18th among pitchers, his WHIP 22nd, and he's 79th in the majors in strikeouts. That's a useful back-end option even in mixed formats, but there remains no question that should Chapman be elevated to starter -- or closer -- his value would skyrocket.
Sticking with the "starter-worthy, yet not currently starting" theme, here are five more pitchers who are completely deserving of big league rotation spots:
Trevor Bauer, Arizona Diamondbacks: I don't care that he has walked 25 batters in 41 1/3 innings' work in his seven starts for Double-A Mobile. What else about his game don't you like? Bauer is 6-1, has a 1.96 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 11.10 K's-per-nine ratio, meaning that between the minors and spring training so far this season, he has a 2.28 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 10.52 K's-per-nine ratio in 11 appearances. What rotation can't find a space for a prospect like that? Sure, he might require an adjustment period at the big league level, considering he's just 21 with only 11 starts' experience at the Double-A level, but his stuff compares to any of the best prospects currently in the minors and he needs be the next pitcher picked when the Diamondbacks have an opening. Should Patrick Corbin continue to struggle in his next couple of starts, for instance, it should be Bauer's turn.
Kris Medlen, Atlanta Braves: Again I agree with Law -- Medlen was also in his Chapman column in April -- as Medlen has been a sleeper of mine since the onset of spring training; he was a cheap pickup of mine in the annual League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) draft under the premise that he might make a run at a rotation spot at some point. It might make sense today for the Braves to use Medlen in a minor role, considering he's still only 21 months and 19 innings removed from Tommy John surgery, but at the time he got hurt he was one of the team's more promising rotation prospects. Medlen's critics might be quick to point out that he has a pedestrian 3.24 K's-per-nine ratio; I counter with the fact that he's throwing just as hard post-surgery as before it (91.1 mph average fastball this season, 90.1 in 2010), plus he's relying more on a two-seamer that has elevated his ground-ball rate to 56 percent, helping make up for some of the lost K's. By midsummer the Braves should seriously consider giving Medlen some starts, and if or when they do, fantasy owners should be quick to scoop him up.
Alex Cobb, Tampa Bay Rays: Cobb's curse is that he's a Rays pitcher, and that's an organization overflowing with starting-pitching talent. Still, he has demonstrated his mastery of Triple-A ball, posting a 2.38 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 9.00 K's-per-nine ratio in 18 career starts at the level, and he even chipped in with six quality starts during a nine-start fill-in stint with the big league club last summer, some of those against lofty competition. Cobb has turned in four quality starts in his past five outings for Triple-A Durham, and with rookie Matt Moore off to a rocky start with the big club, he could soon warrant another look in Tampa Bay.
Brad Peacock, Oakland Athletics: This one might be cheating a bit, as speculation has already begun that Peacock might supplant Tyson Ross in the Athletics' rotation within its next turn. Even if it doesn't, it's going to soon, because Ross never should've been picked over Peacock in the first place. Granted, Peacock struggled to the tune of 11 runs (10 earned) in seven spring innings, but he was also the most polished prospect the team received in the Gio Gonzalez trade this winter, and certainly one with a higher ceiling than Tommy Milone, who made the team. Through six starts for Triple-A Sacramento, Peacock has a 3.24 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 8.64 K's-per-nine ratio, and keep in mind the Pacific Coast League isn't exactly a pitching-friendly environment. The right-hander has endured only one poor start for Sacramento thus far, and as he's a fly-baller, he's in the right place to break into the majors, the Athletics' home ballpark one of the most spacious ones in the game. Peacock warrants a stash today, and an instant pickup in any format once the Athletics summon him which might be within hours.
TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Among streaming starter -- something I define as single-start options in daily leagues among pitchers owned in 25 percent of ESPN leagues or fewer -- options for the upcoming week, here are my picks by day:
Tuesday, May 8: Joe Blanton versus New York Mets
Wednesday, May 9: Anthony Bass versus Colorado Rockies
Thursday, May 10: Henderson Alvarez at Minnesota Twins
Friday, May 11: James McDonald versus Houston Astros
Saturday, May 12: Trevor Cahill versus San Francisco Giants
Sunday, May 13: Jake Arrieta versus Tampa Bay Rays
Monday, May 14: Ryan Vogelsong versus Colorado Rockies
Tuesday, May 15: Wade Miley at Los Angeles Dodgers
Tuesday, May 1, Felix Doubront: 4 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 8 K
Wednesday, May 2, Carlos Zambrano: QS, 7 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 5 K
Thursday, May 3, Jeff Niemann: 5 2/3 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
Friday, May 4, Drew Smyly: QS, 6 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 7 K
Saturday, May 5, James McDonald: W, QS, 6 1/3 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 7 K
Sunday, May 6, Bronson Arroyo (pitched Monday): W, QS, 6 2/3 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K
Monday, May 7, Carlos Zambrano: W, QS, 9 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 9 K
Week's total: 7 GS, 3 W (42.9%), 5 QS (71.4%), 44 2/3 IP, 40 H, 12 ER, 11 BB, 50 K, 2.42 ERA, 1.14 WHIP
Season total: 30 GS, 16 W (53.3%), 20 QS (66.7%), 193 IP, 153 H, 55 ER, 59 BB, 139 K, 2.56 ERA, 1.10 WHIP
Mat Latos, Cincinnati Reds: Rumors of Latos' demise were apparently premature. The right-hander exploded for 11 strikeouts in six shutout innings' work this past Sunday, and while the opponent was the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, Latos' arsenal looked as dominant as ever. Per ESPN Stats & Information, he induced a career-high 18 swings and misses, including 10 on his fastball; he had only 13 swings and misses on his fastball in his first five starts of the season. Latos also blew his fastball by Pirates hitters up in the zone; they were 1-for-13 (.077) with 7 K's on pitches up, after previous foes were 21-for-63 (.333) with 5 K's against pitches up in his first five starts. That gave Latos two solid outings in his past three, and perhaps it signals him getting more comfortable with his new surroundings. Keep him in your lineup.
Lance Lynn, St. Louis Cardinals: Only one pitcher in baseball has won all six of his starts so far this season, and his name is Lance Lynn. He's also tied for the most starts of two or fewer runs (6), and his 1.40 ERA trails only Johnny Cueto (1.31) among qualified starters. Lynn might have endured his share of good fortune: He has a 93.8 percent left-on-base rate and a .209 BABIP, and the fact that his 2.90 Fielding Independent Pitching score ranks only 24th in the majors shows he's going to regress to a certain degree. But a No. 24 ranking is still a good one, and Lynn's performance has done one thing for sure: It has cemented his status as a permanent member of the Cardinals' rotation, the only things left to threaten it being poor performance, an untimely injury or a team plan to cap his innings. Lynn has two key things going for him: He has a 3.36 K's-per-walk ratio and a 52 percent ground-ball rate, numbers that say he has quite a lot of staying power.
Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays: Was last week's column premature? Have Morrow's high-strikeout ways returned? The raw numbers hint "yes," being that he has 17 whiffs in 15 innings in his past two starts, during which he has allowed zero runs and eight hits. Still, last week's point remains valid: Morrow's improvements are related to command and his ability to generate ground balls, and sure enough, he didn't walk a batter in either of his past two turns, and he generated 16 ground balls on 35 balls in play (45.7 percent). He's still throwing his fastball with greater command than ever, 57 percent of the time putting it in the strike zone, and his slider continues to be a dominant swing-and-miss pitch, responsible for 12 of his 17 K's in those past two outings. Heck, if last week's column shortchanged Morrow on anything, it was this: If he indeed can whiff as many batters as he throws innings, he might yet become a top-25 starter.
A.J. Burnett, Pittsburgh Pirates: Ask any New York Yankees fan -- or Burnett owner in 2010 or 2011 -- about the right-hander's stinker on May 2 and you'll get the same response, "Same ol' A.J. Burnett." His performance was poor in epic fashion; he allowed 12 runs on 12 hits and failed to survive the third inning. That erased much of the buzz building after he posted back-to-back quality starts for his new team, and it served as a reminder that, at any moment, Burnett might burn you. He's like a lesser version of the oft-predictable Ricky Nolasco; Nolasco at least has a stronger track record of fantasy success.
Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers: There's enough in Gallardo's pitch data to cause some alarm, and while he might possess the stuff to rebound into the top 25 starting pitchers in time, he's anything but one today. Two things stand out: He's throwing substantially fewer first-pitch strikes, his 63 percent rate of 2011 dropping to 52 percent this season, and his fastball has suffered, its average velocity dipping from 92.6 mph in 2011 to 91.4 mph this season and his OPS allowed with it soaring from .746 last season to 1.059 this. In Gallardo's defense, he started last season slowly, too, and his numbers in all of those departments increased as temperatures did midsummer. But his stats remain substantially beneath what they were at this point last season, so his owners are understandably concerned.
Philip Humber, Chicago White Sox: Nobody expected that Humber would remain perfect, but in three starts since his April 21 perfecto at Seattle's Safeco Field, he has been anything but. During that time, he has surrendered 20 runs on 21 hits, five of them home runs, in 13 1/3 innings of work, and he has walked 11 batters compared to 12 K's. Most distressing: Humber averaged 91.5 mph with his fastball during his perfect game, and he generated seven swings and misses and six K's with his slider. In three starts since, meanwhile, he has averaged 90.1 mph with his fastball, and has gotten six swings and misses and five K's with his slider. Humber appears to have given back all of the gains he had entering that outstanding April 21 start; until he shows more signs of the pitcher we saw on that day, he belongs either on your bench, or, in a shallow league, the free-agent list.
Tristan H. Cockcroft highlights a handful of pitchers, leading with Aroldis Chapman, who are biding time in bullpens but have the talent to be valuable starting pitchers.