<
>
Insider

Pitchers to watch in spring training

2/14/2011

Although all eyes in Cincinnati Reds camp likely will be on the tall, Cuban lefty who can throw 105 miles per hour -- I admit, I'll be watching as well -- I think we know by now how manager Dusty Baker intends to use Aroldis Chapman. Someday, perhaps even this season if other events dictate panic, Chapman could be in the starting rotation. For now, he seems destined for bullpen duty and the eighth-inning role setting up capable closer Francisco Cordero. Whine about that arrangement all you like, but that's where signs are pointing.

What should be of more immediate interest to fantasy owners in one-year leagues is what happens with much-shorter Arkansas lefty Travis Wood, he of the 17 big league starts. His rookie-year numbers -- 3.51 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and impressive 7.5 K's-per-9 rate -- sure make him look like a future All-Star. Perhaps Wood continues to impress in 2011, but here's the thing: He hasn't won a rotation spot yet, and we might not know for certain where he fits into the Reds' plans until mid-March. Thus, how he performs this spring will affect whether fantasy owners make him a top-50 starter on draft day ... or simply ignore him.

Say what you will about right-hander Homer Bailey, the former "can't-miss" prospect with a career 5.09 ERA in the majors, but he's out of minor league options, so unless he's traded, he'll likely be in the rotation. Bailey still has upside as well; it seems we've been discussing him forever, but he's still only 24, just nine months older than Wood. Bailey struck out 100 hitters in 109 Reds innings in 2010, offering hope to even the most pessimistic fantasy owners. He's making this rotation, even if nobody wants him. That leaves Wood and Mike Leake battling for one spot after Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto and Bronson Arroyo. Leake beat out Wood and others for the final spot a year ago despite entirely skipping the minor leagues. Don't assume this situation can't happen again.

I can't find too many pitchers as statistically accomplished as Wood was at the major league level in 2010 -- he nearly tossed a perfect game against the Philadelphia Phillies in their stadium in his third big league start -- who might not get the opportunity to prove themselves again, so this is clearly a situation that bears watching. I like Leake, too, but I don't see nearly the same upside, particularly when it comes to missing bats and accruing strikeouts. Heck, Chapman has more upside than either of these guys, if Baker changes course and goes that route. But if Wood has another good spring, he'll likely break camp with the Reds and make 30 starts. If not, well, fantasy owners will need to move on.

Here are a few other pitchers I'm keeping closer than normal tabs on this spring:

Jonathan Broxton, Los Angeles Dodgers: Broxton could be a 40-save closer, or he could lose the closer job in early March. That's quite a range. Of course, since I ranked him among my top 10 among closers, you can probably tell which way I'd lean. There are at least five other closer situations -- or potential options such as Craig Kimbrel, Chris Sale and Brandon League -- I'll also be watching, but I'll address that in a future blog. Broxton's fastball and psyche are clearly worth watching this spring.

Kyle Drabek, Toronto Blue Jays: Like Wood, Drabek is probably going to go a bit higher in drafts than deserved, considering an average spring might get him kicked to the Triple-A curb, even if temporarily. Drabek was summoned straight from Double-A in 2010, skipping Triple-A Las Vegas, and the Blue Jays don't need to rush him. If he pitches really well, however, he could be the pitching version of former minor league colleague Domonic Brown.

Javier Vazquez, Florida Marlins: Geez, the Yankees could use him. Oh wait, been there, done that (twice). But this is Florida. There are far fewer people watching. The pressure on Vazquez is down more than the velocity on his pitches, and he might not need ace stuff in this ballpark, in this league. I expect in a month, when he's pitching well, he'll be a lot more popular to fantasy owners. He's on my radar now.

Brandon Webb, Texas Rangers and Justin Duchscherer, Baltimore Orioles: Don't we just have to group these right-handers together? When healthy, they're pretty good, no? Webb won a Cy Young and came in second two other times. Duchscherer is a two-time All-Star and nearly won the 2008 AL ERA title. I don't want to assume these guys are fantasy sleepers until I see they're healthy. If they are pitching well, however, their upside demands our attention.

Joe Blanton, Philadelphia Phillies: Let's face it, the better he pitches, the better chance there is of his being traded. Mock if you like, but two seasons ago, a 4.05 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 163 strikeouts made him a nice fifth or sixth fantasy starter. He's draftable even if he stays in Philly, but if he goes elsewhere, watch how Kyle Kendrick and Vance Worley perform. One of them would assume the fifth rotation slot, and on a potential division winner, that generally means wins.