I thought I would follow the lead of my associate Jason Mastrodonato and his AL or Nothing report and talk about a sextet of young National League hurlers that I will not hesitate to roster next season.
James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates: McDonald was acquired by the Pirates for Octavio Dotel and after a brief stint in the bullpen, has returned to starting where he should remain the bulk of his career. McDonald will be 26 in October so he is a bit past the prospect stage. He may even make a few post-hype prospect lists next spring. Since Los Angeles has entered each of the past few seasons with playoff intentions, McDonald was always passed over by a veteran to fill the back end of the Dodger rotation. Pittsburgh has no such illusions, hence barring injury or a complete meltdown, McDonald should get 30+ starts next season. So far with Pittsburgh, he is sporting a very good K/BB of 24/9 in 22 2/3rd innings. He has always demonstrated the ability to miss bats. As is the case with most youngsters, control will be the key. If he can maintain that walk rate, he will be successful. Of slight concern is the fact McDonald is a fly ball pitcher, but with Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen roaming the spacious left and center in PNC Park, he should be fine. The fact that there is a stigma against Pirate pitchers may mean you can get McDonald at a discount as well. While he will not be the type I play no matter what in mixed leagues, his strikeout ability make him an attractive candidate to spot in mixed leagues and use liberally in NL only formats.
Clayton Richard, San Diego Padres: Richard’s first full season in San Diego looks to be a success. He is also not a a spring chicken as he will turn 27 early next month. His WHIP is a little high due to a slightly high BABIP. The key, like with McDonald, will be walks. Richard has improved his BB/9 from previous seasons and if he continues to do so, he could make the jump into the middle tier of starters. While he is not overly dominant, he fans more than 7 per 9 which is acceptable. With PETCO at his back, he does an excellent job of keeping the ball in the yard. Richard will never be a front of the line starter of fantasy ace, but he definitely has the makings of a very useful fantasy starter. One small word of warning is if the Padres make the playoffs and Richard excels, he will carry that momentum into next spring and be hyped up too much.
Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants: Now here is a true prospect. As opposed to our first two subjects, Bumgarner is already demonstrating the ability to pound the strike zone at the ripe young age of only 20 years old. He just turned “drinking age” this past August 1. Of concern is a pedestrian strikeout rate, but when you consider Bumgarner’s age, the strikeouts should pick up. Hopefully, those really married to the numbers will shy away, citing the low K/9. This is the opening you need to swoop in. Bumgarner has a great park to work in half the time and while he is not an extreme ground baller, he induces ample worm-burners to compensate for the paucity of strikeouts.
Chris Volstad, Florida Marlins: Of all the names discussed, I am least confident Volstad will excel. He may be an example of “he is what he is.” And what is he? Volstad is an innings eater that does not strike out enough hitters to make up for the relatively high walk rate. But if he can miss just a couple more bats while walking a couple fewer, there is some upside. He induces a lot of grounders so his HR-rate is low which bodes quite well if he can indeed improve his other peripherals just a tick. Volstad is not someone I will target, but if he gets to the end game and starters are going at a discount, he is someone I will invent in for the potential upside. I’m just not counting on it.
Jonathan Niese, New York Mets: If it is possible to have a quiet great season in New York, Niese is doing just that. His strikeout and walk rates are both better than league average. He keeps the ball in the yard. The only concern is unless Niese is shut down, he will have worked significantly more innings than in 2009, making him a fixture on the Verducci effect lists. But to be honest, I am not all that concerned about the risk due to his repertoire. He throws mainly fastballs and cutters, with the occasional curve and even less frequent change up. He improved and started throwing the cutter more effectively to the point where it has advanced beyond his curve which was considered his second best pitch when he was a "prospect" and it gives him an effective weapon to handle righties. He does not throw the more stressful slider which should help in this regard. In order to sustain his success, he will likely need to throw a third pitcher with greater frequency, but Niese has the presence to be able to do this and remain a quiet, yet effective option.
Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals: You no doubt know Zimmermann and how great he looked before he was shut down for Tommy-John surgery last season. His ERA may not have shown it, but his strikeout and walk rates were superb. Assuming he gets in a few starts and looks good the next few weeks, the hype machine will be in full force and Zimmermann will be front and center. But beware. Even if he does come back and look good this season, that is not a clear indication he will be ready to pick up where he left off in 2009. I am more concerned about the mental aspect for Zimmermann returning, not so much how he looks. I want to see if he throws the same type of pitches, namely the curve and slider as these will put more physical, hence mental stress on the youngster. Other will contend that these few starts will knock the rust off. I do not agree with that and expect his command to be slow to return next spring, regardless of how he looks. This likely means I will not be rostering Zimmermann a whole lot next season. But that’s okay, I can think of at least 5 other guys I like.