For many fans, this time of year is an unbearable period of nothing more than waiting for the real games to begin. Most roster debates have been settled, many for quite some time, and teams are making their way home for the start of the season next week. For fantasy leaguers, however, this time of year can make or break what happens in September. A keen eye that can identify pop-up players before others may be the difference between winning and losing down the line. Being asleep at the wheel, on the other hand, can set in motion a chain of events too horrible to really discuss.
Too dramatic? Yes? Too bad, it’s my column and I had to see if you were paying attention.
This week we feature three players who were (somewhat surprisingly) named to their respective rotations.
Brandon Maurer | Seattle Mariners | SP | ESPN: 0.5 percent ownership, Yahoo: NA, CBS: 13 percent
Oliver projection: 90 IP, 5-4, 3.92 ERA, 3.89 FIP
It’s safe to say if Taijuan Walker won a spot in the Mariners’ rotation this spring, everyone would have noticed. Ditto that, to a lesser extent, for Danny Hultzen and James Paxton. The thing is, they did not. Brandon Maurer did.
Back in November, Jeff Sullivan touched on Maurer in a great piece about stupid labels like “The Big Three.” The gist: Maurer is pretty good. Maybe not quite as good as those other guys, but labeling “The Big Three” muddies the waters when other players come into the picture, and doesn’t serve any practical function.
The biggest problem has always been simple health; it has never been about velocity, movement, or pitchability.
Baseball America offered similarly high praise earlier this offseason, stating Maurer gives the Mariners “yet another pitching prospect with frontline potential” in its 2013 Prospect Handbook.
As a California high schooler, Maurer pitched in the same rotation as Pirates prospect Gerrit Cole. He was a 23rd round draft pick in 2008, but he more or less fell off the map as elbow and shoulder problems limited him to six games in 2010 and 13 games in 2011. Last year, though, in what was technically his age-21 season (his birthday is two days after the cutoff), he posted strong numbers at Double-A, including a 3.20 ERA, 117 strikeouts and 48 walks in 137.2 innings.
The common expectation entering spring training was that he would begin the year in Triple-A, a level he has not yet reached. But the combination of his effectiveness this spring (22 strikeouts in 20 innings), and the lack thereof from others (Erasmo Ramirez, who was once Jon Garland, who was once Jeremy Bonderman) means he will break camp with the big club, and as the No. 4 starter, to boot.
The bottom line is the guy can pitch. He has talent, including a mid-90s fastball and as many as three other major league caliber pitches of varying quality. He’s healthy, and he’s coming off a very impressive spring, where he beat out strong competition for a job pitching in what has been a pitcher’s park (although with the fences moving in, to what extent that will continue is open for debate).
Recommendation: In dynasty formats, he’s a strong buy. In deep AL only leagues, he’s certainly worth a flier, especially for his debut next Thursday in Oakland. In mixed leagues, a wait-and-see approach might be more appropriate, but it also might cause owners to miss out on a pop-up player with significant potential.
J.A. Happ | Toronto Blue Jays | SP | ESPN: 0.2 percent ownership, Yahoo: 4 percent, CBS: 10 percent
Oliver pProjection: 152 IP, 9-8, 3.92 ERA, 3.74 FIP
The biggest bombshell this week, without a doubt, was the Blue Jays’ decision to bust former ace Ricky Romerodown to Single-A ball. Romero was solidly effective from 2009-2011, making the All-Star team two years ago, but was beyond bad last season (in case you hadn’t heard). His 5.77 ERA was the worst in the entire league among qualified starters, and his 6.17 strikeouts per nine innings and 5.22 walks per nine innings helped give him a barely-above-replacement-level WAR of 0.2.
So perhaps it should not come as a great surprise that Toronto feels a Ricky Romero-less roster gives it a better chance of winning in 2013, at least until the team figures out whatever the hell is wrong with him. The demotion to Single-A is more about keeping him in a climate where he won’t get rained out, but it’s still a steep fall for the guy who toed the rubber each of the past two Opening Days.
Happ is now an intriguing character heading into his age-30 season. His ERA, FIP and xFIPs have oscilated between the high threes and high fours during stints as a starter and reliever with the Phillies, Astros and Blue Jays. He seems to be trending in the right direction, though.
Last season he improved his strikeout percentage for the fourth straight season (from 17.4 percent in 2009, to 18.7 percent in 2010, to 19.2 percent in 2011, to a robust 23 percent last year), and cut three percent off his walk rate (from 11.9 percent in 2011 to 8.9 percent in 2012). His velocity is up across the board, averaging 90.5 miles per hour on his fastball last season and he also managed to generate more swings outside the strike zone, and more swings and misses than at any point in his career (31.1 percent and 9.5 percent, respectively).
Recommendation: There’s no telling when Romero will reappear, and the rotation in Toronto is certainly crowded, but Happ was sneaky good last season, and could provide a nice boost to owners searching for early-season starting pitcher depth.
Dylan Axelrod | Chicago White Sox | SP | ESPN: 0.0 percent ownership, Yahoo: 0.0 percent, CBS: 1 percent
Oliver projection: 139 IP, 9-6, 3.62 ERA, 3.48 FIP
Axelrod debuted briefly with the White Sox in 2011 and threw 51 innings for the team last year, split between the rotation and bullpen. He’s probably better suited for the latter, but will keep a spot in the White Sox rotation while John Danks gets up to speed.
Although you’d be hard pressed to find a glowing scouting report about his stuff (which features a high 80s fastball), it’s interesting to note that Oliver is more optimistic about Axelrod than about either Maurer or Happ. It’s also interesting that, lacking premium stuff, he’s had healthy swinging strike rates of 9.5 percent and 10.1 percent during his two stints in the majors. The 27-year-old’s 5.47 ERA, 5.04 FIP, and 4.72 xFIP from last season leave a lot to be desired, though, and there isn’t much to suggest he was unlucky.
Recommendation: With limited upside, and a definitive end date to his status as a starter, it’s probably safe to avoid Axelrod unless Danks gets pushed back deeper into the summer. Even then, his game is all about locating pitches where he wants them, and choosing those pitches well. I certainly wouldn’t want him putting balls on a tee for Miguel Cabrera in US Cellular Field, but if you’re streaming pitchers, or in need of a spot start, there are worse options. Probably.
POPSICLE STICK JOKE OF THE WEEK
I love stupid jokes, and this is the best way to start your Friday (don’t fight it, I’m right), so here goes:
Question: What kind of band plays snappy music?
Answer: A rubber band.