I have spent the last few weeks profiling some of my favorite mid-to-late round position players from the American League for this season, so today I wanted to take some time to look at a few emerging arms from this year’s class. The key to a successful pitching staff is finding the right balance of elite anchors, underrated workhorses and breakout stars. One place we are usually compelled to mine for the latter is within the ranks of young starters who are on the cusp of greatness and can be slotted nicely into the meat of our staffs. With that in mind, here is a look at four pitchers poised to break out that could help propel you to victory as mid-round picks in your fantasy leagues this year.
Danny Salazar, CLE - The Indians rookie burst onto the scene late in 2013, making 10 second half starts before being introduced to the masses when the team handed him the ball in their first playoff appearance in six years. When he was promoted, he quickly got the attention of fantasy owners by striking out 17 batters in his first two major league starts. He enters the year as one of the more highly sought young arms in drafts, and much of the buzz around him surrounds his potential strikeout ability. With a fastball that averages 96 mph and a K-rate of 11.25, it is easy to see why people are excited to draft him. There is no denying that if he can continue to throw that hard, and learn to harness his control a little more, the sky is the limit. The interesting thing about Salazar is not only can he just throw the ball by you, he also happens to possess a nasty splitter that can make hitters look silly. Of course, as with any young pitcher, we have to expect some growing pains and Salazar is still figuring things out. In order for him to reach his full potential, he is going to have to figure out how to work further into games. He didn’t get past the fifth inning in over half his starts last year, and he will need to improve to at least bolster his win total. The team will have no choice but to take the reigns off this year, but even so he will still likely have a cap on his innings since he already has one Tommy John surgery on his resume. The other issue for fantasy owners when it comes to Salazar is his price. No one is sleeping on the flamethrower, so if you want him on your team it is going to cost you. I am obviously a fan, and have drafted him in a couple spots just to have some shares in him, but I would be lying if I said that I think that anything beyond gaudy strikeout numbers is a sure thing. Even so, depending on who you can pair him with, there is something to be said for getting those K’s at a discount and without much damage to the ratios.
Alex Cobb, TB - There may have not been a more inspirational performer in all of baseball last year than Cobb. He was cruising along through a breakout season when a line drive knocked him out cold and sidelined him for nearly two months. When he returned, he was arguably even better than before the beaning, and he finished 11-3 with an ERA of 2.76 and a WHIP of 1.15. Now, while he was a popular sleeper this time a year ago, no one was quite predicting he would break out quite so dramatically. Cobb is not a hard thrower, with a fastball that averages 91 mph, but he has terrific secondary pitches and solid control. He also keeps the ball on the ground with a GB% of 55.8% a year ago. One key area of growth for Cobb last season was his strikeout ability, which saw a nice bump from his previous time in the Majors. It remains to be seen if he can sustain those gains this year, but you have to like a young pitcher entering his prime whose K-rate has increased three straight years and has the ground-ball profile that Cobb has consistently demonstrated. Add in the mental toughness that he showed last year and you got a budding ace on your hands. Don’t let the lack of electric stuff blind you to the upside here.
Sonny Gray, OAK - Gray in some ways was the West Coast’s answer to Danny Salazar in the American League last year, as the A’s rookie found himself in the Majors in the heat of a playoff race and then introduced himself to the world with a pair of epic battles with Justin Verlander in the ALDS. While he didn’t win either game, he pitched well enough to, but Verlander was superb as the A’s offense failed to score any runs in either contest. While Gray’s stuff can’t compare to Salazar’s, he can chuck it to the plate pretty nicely, and can reach back for a little extra juice when he needs to. His fastball averages about 93-94, and he has a nasty curveball that he isn’t afraid to throw for strikes. While he displayed elite strikeout capability last year, striking out 67 batters in just 64 innings, I have some concern about his ability to maintain that high K-level this year after major league hitters get a good look at his stuff. Still, there is a lot to like about Gray, especially when we compare him to other young arms in this year’s draft. First, he won’t cost you as much as Salazar or Michael Wacha and Gerrit Cole, to bring in some NL comparisons. In fact, the best course of action may be to sit back and wait for one or two of those names to come off the board and use that as you cue to get ready to pick your spot to swipe in and draft Gray. Just hope you aren’t in the same draft with our own Lawr Michaels, because the above strategy on drafting Gray will likely be useless.Drew Smyly, DET - I am going to take a little different approach in identifying my last arm on the list. Rather than diving into the stats and percentages, I’ll just pass on a little insider info and leave the numbers to my boss at a later date. That’s right gang, it’s a new season here at Mastersball, and once again we are selling memberships to the Drew Smyly fan club. The difference this year is he has a rotation spot all but assured heading into the season now that Doug Fister was shipped off to Washington in the off-season. Now that the LABR mixed draft is in the books, you can see once again that our fearless leader, Todd Zola, has staked his claim on Smyly, tabbing him as his SP4 with the first pick of the 12th round. Never one to pass up an opportunity to be mildly sardonic, he paired him at the turn with none other than Fister himself to close out the 11th. As some of you know, many of us here in the writing staff start our drafting season in early December. We continue on from then until Opening Day, drafting together enough that inevitably we can get attached to certain players through our proclivity to draft them. When this occurs often enough, they become “our guys.” We all have them and this year Smyly is once again one of Todd’s. When I was representing the site in the recent mock draft over at Baseball Prospectus, there inevitably came a point in the draft where I was looking for my SP4 and I looked at the board and there he was. It was the easiest pick of the draft for me. He was “our guy”, after all.