Tier 7: The Cliff (Continued)
41. Nathan Eovaldi (Boston Red Sox) — Eovaldi’s rank is a product of uncertainty. If he gets 180-plus innings in the rotation, I’d be pushing Eovaldi above Kyle Hendricks and Kyle Freeland. But considering how the Red Sox used him last year, he may be hovering 150 frames, getting pulled often before completing six. The skill set is there to dominate as he added his fabled cutter last season (well, really at the very end of his NYY tenure), which gave him the freedom to stop pounding the zone with 100 mph heat and instead trust the pitch at the top or above the zone. There’s potential for 3.50 ERA or lower with a 1.15 WHIP and 25% strikeout rate here; there’s just so much concern about the workload. If you miss out on the other options, it’s worth it to take the plunge as his price is far from the top 100 picks.
Tier 8: Searching for the Light
42. Yusei Kikuchi (Seattle Mariners) — Now it gets really interesting, as I wouldn’t want to have a staff boasting any of these arms as my SP NO. 4. Way too much concern or question marks that could have me sending them to the wire before April ends. The safest of the lot seems to be Kikuchi, though I wish I knew more about the Japanese import. He’s supposed to be a Toby type with better strikeout upside, and that’s cool and all. Think good velocity with a solid slider and multiple options to turn to if it goes south. I think in most casual leagues, Kikuchi becomes a solid get when all the exciting options are off the table. Don’t grab him before the known entities who could climb the ranks quickly, but he should be off the wire through the year. That’s all you got? Yeah? I just don’t know enough yet. Just how it is.
43. Josh James (Houston Astros) — A lot of people are going to dislike how high I’m ranking the next two guys, and for very good reasons. It’s a lot safer to go after some of the ratio vets we’ll get to shortly, and if you want more safety, please ignore this high rank and go there. For me, I just don’t see myself skipping James/Alex Reyes/etc. to go get someone like Jon Lester or Cole Hamels. Sorry, my plan is to have four starters already under my belt, and with four locked in, it’s time to take some chances. It’s early February, and there’s still chance for James to get displaced from the Astros rotation — especially if the Astros decide to keep him in the pen during the spring. I don’t see the latter happening though, and what you’ll find is a high-ceiling arm with that averaged 97 mph on his heater last year (albeit half his games were out of the pen), an absolutely filthy changeup he trusts against both lefties and righties, and strong slider he trusts inside the zone that generates 17% whiffs in its own right. The stuff is there, and 170 frames from James seems realistic if he gets the job (137.1 thrown across minors and majors last year). I have James above Reyes simply because there’s a higher chance of James producing in the opening weeks, but these are two of the more exciting arms past SP No. 40 that you’ll find. We want numbers, Nick! Fine, James has 25% to 30% strikeout upside and potential to kill it in ratios as well. The guy’s stuff is legit, though there is the inherent volatility risk paired with all young arms. That work?
44. Alex Reyes (St. Louis Cardinals) — OK, this one is all about what happens in the spring and whether St. Louis is going to bring about its version of #Dodgeritis, what I’ll be henceforth calling Committing a Cardinal Sin. Yes, I’m talking about a pitcher who would be a stud (*cough Ross Stripling *cough*) but is getting held back as lesser options get opportunities in the rotation. The Cardinals have been slow to allow young arms into their rotation in the place — Adam Wainwright was a closer, Luke Weaver took time, etc. — and given Reyes’ injury history, it’s safe to imagine a cap around 150 frames in 2019, which we hope he hits. If Reyes is in the bullpen (or worse, in the minors!) out of the gate, I’d hate to be forced to stash him for April. However, if there’s even a chance he’s starting in those first few weeks, you’ll be rewarded. Reyes’ stuff is as electric as you find, featuring mid-to-upper 90s heat, a pair of wicked breaking balls, and a solid changeup. It speaks to the exciting ceilings of guys in the mid-20s, it’s just down to health and innings. I can see Reyes going closer to No. 40, I can also see him falling to the middle of the 50s — it completely depends on how your draft is going. If I have a few starters with whom I feel comfortable, I’m drafting Reyes to be that difference maker and can wait a little bit for him to get there.
45. Shane Bieber (Cleveland Indians) — If Shane Bieber plays at his 3.23 FIP, he’s the steal of the draft! Hey everyone, welcome to today’s edition of Don’t Mind the Gap as we talk about ERA & DIPS gaps, why they happen, and why you should generally avoid this foundation for your analysis. Yes, Bieber probably was unlucky last year as a 4.55 ERA will most likely drop significantly as he held a .356 BABIP and sub-70% LOB rate (the 12.1% HR/FB rate seems normal). Let’s understand that BABIP, though. Bieber is a strike-thrower to a ridiculous fault. His four-seamer found the zone 62.4% of the time, induced a sub-20% O-Swing, and allowed contact over 88% of the time. The latter two marks are especially bad when that high contact returned a .306 BAA and .196 ISO — plenty of damage for a pitch thrown over a thousand times — though you may be thinking his high zone-rate is a good thing. It is — if you’re hitting the corners. Bieber’s 93 mph fastball did not. It was crushed a ton as a result and a is major reason why you should take his expected BABIP regression with a grain of salt. Bieber should probably hold a sub-10 H/9, but if he continues to throw heaters this poorly, it will still be higher than most, along with his BABIP. There is good news, though: I believe there is a cure. It’s incredibly abnormal and you may think I’m crazy — Bieber needs to throw fewer strikes. Bieber held opponents to 0 ER in 50% of the starts he allowed two walks (3 out of 6) and held opponents to 0 ER just 7.5% of the time in games with 1 or 0 walks (1 out of 13). That’s significant to me. The man needs to nibble! In addition, he has two strong secondary pitches in his slider (53% O-Swing, 44.5% Zone rate, 26% swinging-strike rate, absolute money and he doesn’t even know it) and curveball (14.5% swinging-strike rate, 40.5% O-Swing) that should find their ways outside the zone more often as well, helping Bieber nullify the hittability of his fastball. This is a big ask of Bieber, though. There’s a lot of grooming and polishing needed to get to that point, and while I do believe he’ll get there eventually, I’d feel better if his curveball (or maybe even changeup!) were a stronger third option like those in the rest of the Indians’ rotation. There will be a lot of frustration as Bieber will continue to hold an inflated BABIP, but we’re getting to that point of shrugs and you may as well chase Bieber with his 30% strikeout upside. This is an awfully negative write-up for someone that you’re pretty even — if not slightly high! — on relative to the field. That’s just how it is sometimes. I blame the SP landscape.
46. Jimmy Nelson (Milwaukee Brewers) — For those who don’t remember, Nelson added two ticks of velocity in 2017, went from throwing OK four-seamers to elevated four-seamers, and soared to a 3.19 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 29.5% K rate through his final 23 starts. It was marvelous until sliding back into first led to shoulder surgery and voided his 2018 season. Good news is that he’s 100% healthy and will join the Brewers for spring training; the only question right now is where his velocity is. If it’s around 93 to 94 mph expect Nelson’s draft stock to jump in March, possibly to the early 40s. With his elevated heater, well-commanded sinker, and a pair of stellar breaking pitches, a 25% strikeout year with solid ratios is very much within grasp. Considering your other options around here, there’s little reason not to go full nelson.
47. Ross Stripling (Los Angeles Dodgers) — I feel that I could stick five different Dodgers pitchers at this one rank, but instead, I’m just going to stick Stripling and Maeda together and clump the other three later in the next tier. I know this is going to sound like a cop-out, but between Stripling and Maeda, whoever gets the fifth rotation spot is going to sit right here in the first edition of The List as the other falls off. I don’t think I’ve ever done this before; it’s wild and crazy, and I expect some of you to be mad. But it’s Feb. 7, and we just don’t know enough yet. You’re probably going to be reading this on draft day and know the answer, so BAM! It all worked out just fine. Anyway, I have Stripling one spot ahead at the moment simply because he was the last one to get consistent starts and killed it when he wasn’t yo-yoed from the bullpen and rotation. That would be a 2.80 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 28% K rate, and 2.3% walk rate. Absurd stud numbers. I’d think a slight decline in the K rate (11% strikeout rate and his four-seamer isn’t so good that it makes me overlook the good but not elite swinging-strike rate like I do for his teammate Walker Buehler) is expected, but even a 25% K rate is phenomenal with anything close to those ratios. If I knew he had that rotation spot now, he’d be in the low 30s — same for Maeda — but you get a discount because it’s a 50/50 shot and we don’t know which pitcher is hiding under the hat. What if it’s a six-man rotation? Well those never last, so I’m not considering it. Anyway, I’m down to grab either one in drafts and wait and see. Missing out on one of the guys in the next tier is worth the gamble for a bona fide No. 3 starter — one you’ll know you have at the end of March, not in May.
48. Kenta Maeda (Los Angeles Dodgers) — Read Stripling’s blurb if you just skipped to Maeda. It’s important and why this one is a little short. If Maeda gets the job, he’d be a steal at this price, even though he did struggle a bit last year as a starter. It still came with a 27%-plus strikeout rate, and the elevated walks (8.7%) seemed a bit off. I see a pitcher with two pitches over a 25% swinging-strike rate — elite! — and that alone should get you amped if he’s given the ball every five days. I just hope the Dodgers will let Maeda pitch through the sixth inning constantly, even if he still has that contract incentive per 10 innings thrown. It’s not like he doesn’t have deep enough a repertoire for it. I think I should also mention that for both these arms, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill are currently in the rotation and will most likely pitch one season between them, and Kershaw is still a major injury risk, meaning it’s possible Stripling and Maeda both have their share of innings as a starter (they both did last year, after all!). I’d love to grab the one who doesn’t get picked first (probably in this order), though grabbing both with the notion of dropping one when the news breaks could be a solid strategy. Just don’t overpay for it.
49. Joe Musgrove (Pittsburgh Pirates) — This could be a very exciting year for Musgrove, the man armed with not one, but two Money Pitches in his changeup and slider. Given the recent tendencies of the Pirates to move away from heavy fastball usage in favor of increased sliders, I’m hoping the trend continues into 2019 for Musgrove, ramping up his 18% slider usage close to the 30% mark. Meanwhile, his changeup had unreal peripherals — 51% O-Swing, 44.5% zone rate, 25% swinging-strike rate — but it came in just 227 thrown. I can see this working out very well for Musgrove if he heavily favors the two secondary pitches, creating something like a 45/30/25 split, and with his ultra low walk rate (sub-5%!), Musgrove could maintain a sub 1.20 WHIP for a second consecutive year. Musgrove has all the indications of a breakout (his four-seamer is well-commanded too!), but it’s hard to ignore how he’s never held an ERA under 4.00 thus far. Maybe so, though Musgrove could be one pitch-mix tweak away from something special.
50. Tyler Glasnow (Tampa Bay Rays) — We’re all really pumped about Glasnow, right? 11 starts in Tampa Bay returned a 4.20 ERA (3.52 SIERA!), 1.10 WHIP, 28.4% K rate, and we’re thinking this is it. It’s GlasNOW. Well, maybe. That’s an awfully small sample size, and I’m not entirely convinced he’s removed from his walk issues of the past — an 8.4% clip in those 55.2 frames makes me a little skeptical. Then there’s the question about his breaking balls. It’s a slider/curveball pair — kinda. Some are calling it a curveball through-and-through, while I think he experimented with a slower breaker vs. tighter one. Either way, I need to see Glasnow moving away from 70% heaters while spreading those breakers into a definitive slider and curveball, not just one breaker that comes in harder or softer on a given night, or turn that changeup into a strong third option. I just don’t trust that Glasnow can be a legit No. 4 or 5 — even with the strikeouts — if he sticks with the same pitch mix. 60% heaters with sliders and curveballs as well as a decent changeup? Now we’re talking. But that’s a little too optimistic, and I have to wait this late to chase it. This isn’t as clear of a breakout as some would make it out to be.
Tier 9: Shoot Your Shot
51. Cole Hamels (Chicago Cubs) — These next two guys usher in a new tier. I feel that the darts above are slightly better than the ones below, and it’s a turning point in your draft. Do you think you need to go for some stability? Then fine, take one of these two guys. If you need stability more on the strikeout side, Hamels is the Chicago southpaw you chase as he returned to his 12% swinging-strike rate career mark. I’d expect another 23% strikeout rate with a sub-1.30 WHIP and ERA around 3.70 and the chance for slightly better as the HR/FB falls now that he’ll have a full season in Wrigley and away from Arlington. This sounds like you don’t want to talk about Hamels. I mean, I don’t really. I don’t expect to draft him myself, but I feel like I have to recognize that I’d take him if it’s the final rounds of the draft and somehow he’s still on the board. Probably. Maybe not. But you get the point.
52. Jon Lester (Chicago Cubs) — The same goes for Lester, though I can imagine him toughing out a better ERA/WHIP than Hamels even as the strikeouts start to take a downward turn. It was a funny year for Lester (Funny? Funny how?) going from prime regression candidate to getting regressed like a man facing the music to actually earning his keep down the stretch. Seriously, Lester kind of killed it in his final eight starts, returning a 1.71 ERA and 23% strikeout rate in 47.1 frames. Thank a vastly improved cutter for that. Now, I have my questions about that longevity in his 35-year-old season, but if you’re looking for quality start chances and/or innings, fine, go with Lester. We good? Cool, let’s get back to the fun stuff after these twins. They are on the Cubs, not Minnesota. Oh come on, I haven’t even done the roundup yet and you’ve already returned. It’s good to be back. No, it’s not.
53. Michael Fulmer (Detroit Tigers) — You see me referencing “fun stuff” above? That’s this ranking of Fulmer. Nick, your inconsistency is driving me crazy. First, you had Fulmer at No. 49 in October, then “mid-60s” in December, NOW HE’S RISEN AGAIN TO No. 53. I was honestly contemplating not making Fulmer this high because of that December post and ultimately felt that it just wouldn’t do y’all right. Here’s my direct quote from that December article: “He’s coming off knee surgery, hasn’t found his changeup since 2016, and hasn’t quite gotten the swing-and-miss success from his slider quite yet.” Yes, I’m going to refute each point. 1) Fulmer is ready for spring training and pitched hurt last year. Healthy Fulmer is a wonderful thing. 2) Fulmer received ulnar nerve transposition surgery prior to the 2018 season, and it takes months for his full feeling to return to his fingers, explaining why his changeup wasn’t back yet last year. 3) His slider was still a Money Pitch and needed to hit the zone 50%-plus of the time because of his lack of a changeup. Turn that down to a 40% zone rate and pump up the nibbles off the plate, and you’ll have your 20% swinging-strike rate. I know, it’s really weird arguing against myself but I look back at that article and curse my own name. I can see Fulmer pushing 180 frames this year and having the breakout we’ve been dying to see since his call-up. This is too high of a rank for someone who has struggled so much with such an injury history. Do you see the names that are after him? Who below him is a better bet for success? I can understand the case for a few, but I don’t see an arm that will make me feel like I missed out on locked in production after my drafts. So why not? Let’s go chase the man with the stuff that dictates top-20 upside. The Fulmination of years of hype.
54. Eduardo Rodriguez (Boston Red Sox) — Do I like Erod? Do you like Erod? You tell me. Dang, I thought that would work. Here’s what’s making me act like Coney Island streetwear and flip-flop: an 11% swinging-strike rate is solid and led to two seasons of a 26% strikeout rate, but I’m not liking the rest — a 1.25-plus WHIP in two straight years and ERAs north of 3.80 as nothing is looking out of line in his HOTEL. Not to mention Eduardo has never tossed more than 140 frames in the majors as that knee balks more than Dylan Floro. These aren’t good things. Looking at his repertoire, I don’t really see a path to Erod turning into a consistent 3.00 ERA guy with that 25%-plus strikeout rate, while his constant 8.25-plus hits per nine doesn’t seem to be turning dramatically downward. He’s equipped with a changeup that gets the job done on certain days, then disappears on others — like a mini-Andrew Heaney. The biggest difference is Heaney’s 20% swinging-strike curveball, where Erod has a slider that turned into a cutter, both sitting under a 10% swinging-strike rate.It’s odd to see his four-seamer hold a better mark at its on-the-nose 10% clip and imagine going through a start just armed with those two pitches. No wonder Erod went six innings just nine times in his 23 outings. Now, I don’t want to hate on Erod completely — if he does develop that changeup consistency (maybe have a zone rate higher than 25% and closer to 35% would do the trick), I can see Erod ending in the top 40, maybe even top 30 if he keeps himself healthy enough for 170-plus frames. Those are two major bets to take, and I’m throwing my darts elsewhere.
55. Mike Soroka (Atlanta Braves) — I really like Soroka and think he’s a fantastic talent, but this may not be the year we see it come together for two reasons. First, he’s currently vying — not locked in — for the fifth rotation spot in Atlanta, and a small signing or a strong spring from the many other young suitors could force Soroka to more development time in the minors. Second, while I’m in love with Soroka’s fastball command, there’s still room to grow with his secondary stuff. If I were drafting Soroka inside the top 45, it would be a bet on both a locked rotation spot (at how many innings? 150?) and that he takes a step forward in either his slider and changeup. It’s certainly possible, but I think his path to his ceiling is a bit tougher than others. Nick, you’ve been talking him up this entire winter! I know, I know, this is how it is sometimes. When I sit down and really write these entire rankings out, I’m able to clear my head a little more, and it often means I need to take a step back on some of the guys I love. There are always casualties in love. That’s a thing people say, right?
56. Chris Archer (Pittsburgh Pirates) — I’ve seen Archer go in the 30s, and it just doesn’t seem right to me. The 30-year-old has held a 4.00-plus ERA for three straight seasons with a rising WHIP ranging from 1.24 to last year’s 1.38 with lower velocity (weird spike in 2017 though!) and his highest career hits per nine and BABIP. Let’s say he pitches to last year’s 3.73 SIERA (that’s generous to me, but for the sake of argument). It’s still a 1.30 WHIP and a 25.4% K rate. That’s so close to hurting you significantly in the ratio department, and were the strikeouts that necessary? And did you really get that many? He averaged exactly six per start, which is above average, but his 5.5 IPS held him back from fulfilling that solid strikeout rate. I worry it might be more of the same, even with the change of scenery for a full year. I just don’t see where Archer improves in his repertoire. It’s foolish to bet on his changeup becoming a mainstay and having a massive impact, and while Alex Chamberlin made an interesting argument about the re-introduction of his sinker, I’m skeptical it lowers Archer’s ERA from a 4.31 to 3.60 levels this season. I simply don’t see the path to upside in Archer, and his strikeouts are easier to find than you’d think. Collin McHugh could have a 25% strikeout rate. So could Heaney, Tyler Skaggs, Derek Holland, Alex Wood, Musgrove, etc. We also saw many starters go on long stretches showcasing near a 25% strikeout rate, long stretches we were able to take advantage of from the wire. Don’t convince yourself you need to chase Archer for the punchouts, and you’ll be free of his ratios weighing you down.
57. Derek Holland (San Francisco Giants) — The Dutch Invasion got back in their boats and left the Holland beaches in June of last season, allowing Holland to win leagues for owners that swooped him up off the wire. I’m not kidding, the southpaw held a 2.94 ERA, 25.5% strikeout rate (11.5% swinging-strike rate!), and 1.27 WHIP in his final 19 starts, rooted in a shift on the rubber to the first base side. Now back in the same pitcher-friendly Oracle Park, I see Holland as a prime discount as a sixth starter in leagues. Sure, this could fall apart quickly for Holland, but he could also return the numbers of a top-30 arm if he picks up where he left off. That’s worth your attention, especially this late in your draft.
58. Joey Lucchesi (San Diego Padres) — I’m a little conflicted with Lucchesi. I see his 3.64 SIERA rooted in a 1.59 HR/9 that should most likely come down, paired with a 26.5% K rate, and I think: “This guy can go 3.60 ERA with a 25% K rate and 1.25 WHIP — sign me up!” Then I think about his repertoire and mechanics and get sad. I don’t like how much Lucchesi moves in his windup as too many moving parts often equates to inconsistent locations — just ask Lance McCullers (I bring him up too often) or Zack Godley — and Lucchesi’s extreme motion makes me a bit skeptical of whether he can really improve his 8.50-plus hits per nine or massively drop his 20%-plus HR/FB rate. Then his repertoire, which is all kinds of weird. It’s just two pitches: a four-seamer that misses few bats at 90.5 mph and was overall mediocre last season and a pitch we call a churve. It’s a changeup grip paired with a curveball release, and it went to medical school because it’s Dr. Strange. I think that’s part of its allure as batters don’t know exactly how it will move, helping Lucchesi get around an 18% swinging-strike rate with the oddity. But that’s it. Just those two pitches. It doesn’t seem right for Lucchesi to be on the verge of a breakout season — that churve is so far from something like Patrick Corbin’s slider or Jose Berrios‘ curveball while Joey’s fastball is fine but nothing exemplary — and I haven’t even mentioned his horrendous 5.0 IPS last season. And yet, after all that, he’s still in the top 60. That’s what we’re dealing with this year. I’m fine drafting Lucchesi at the end of drafts with the hopes the magic continues through the first couple of weeks; there are worse plays to make out of the gate. I simply think there are better darts to throw, darts that can stick on the board for much longer.
59. Rich Hill (Los Angeles Dodgers) — I’m going to rank Hill here, and he probably doesn’t deserve it. The southpaw has returned a 27%-plus strikeout rate in each of his past three seasons, with last year’s 1.12 WHIP sitting as the highest of the stretch, and his 3.66 ERA seems repeatable, if not a little lower this season. But I don’t want to own Hill because he is a headache you never want to deal with. Is he starting this week? Uggggh, that’s the second start in a row he’s missed! Now they’re moving him to the bullpen?! Oh wait, they’re not. Great! He’s starting — JUST FOUR INNINGS?! I hate this. It’s more painful than sitting through a Jersey Shore marathon. Not to mention, Hill is getting older: He’ll be 39 years old in March, and his 130 or so frames the past two years could decrease further in the season ahead. I’m leaning that you’ll see more of stinkin’ Rich, not filthy Rich (or maybe no Riches at all!), and given the massive Dodgeritis involved, I’ll let someone else snag him and sleep easy.
60. Hyun-Jin Ryu (Los Angeles Dodgers) — As promised, I’m grouping the other Dodger arms together (yes, I’m giving you a heads up on tomorrow’s ranks!), and I have to put Ryu here because he has a starting gig in Los Angeles. It’s weird how Ryu is the one immune to Dodgeritis (in the sense that if he’s healthy he starts, no question), but at the same time, he absolutely dominated his time on the field last year via a 1.97 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and 27.5% K rate. I know that’s stupid good, and I’m still shocked four months later that it actually happened. His changeup gained chases off the plate as well as swings and misses, his four-seamer jumped from a swinging-strike rate of 7.5% to 12.1% and fell 162 points in BAA. That wasn’t a typo — a .368 BAA to .206. Yeah. The 15-game, 82.1-inning sample is sending people into a frenzy going for Ryu, and I’m not doing it. This just looks a little too ridiculous for me to buy from Ryu, a guy who missed two straight seasons (save for one 4.2-inning start) and still struggles to stay on the field. But this is what he’s like when he’s healthy! Is it really? It came with a 3.18 SIERA, and I still can’t really believe that strikeout rate. So let’s say he settles on a 24% strikeout rate and 1.15 to 1.20 WHIP. Who gets more innings, Hill or Ryu? I think y’all would say Ryu, yet Hill has had 130 two years straight, something Ryu hasn’t done since 2014. Ryu will throw his back out leaning over to get the catcher’s sign or pump his fist and strain his bicep and miss half the year. It’s just how it works, and while I’m all for starting Ryu when he starts, I wouldn’t be expecting production close to last year and I’m not expecting more than 120 innings. That makes me lean Lucchesi or Holland instead, but because of his early situation, Ryu gets the call over the next Dodger arm. And yes, I expect some contention here, and I look forward to reading it in the comments. Let me hear it.
(Photo by Scott Kane/Icon Sportswire)