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Drafting the Rookie Pitcher

Drafting rookie pitchers in fantasy baseball is usually a very poor idea. Very rarely do rookies come on the scene and make a huge splash on their MLB squad during their first season, and they are even less likely to perform to the draft slot you picked them at. I get it. You’re trying to wow your buddies with your baseball knowledge by drafting the next hot prospect, just like you might in a fantasy football draft. Just like many rookie wide receivers, and definitely rookie quarterbacks, rookie pitchers are overvalued because of their name. This year, there will certainly be a guy in your draft who’s all over Kyle Drabek, because he’s been hyped for what seems like years now. Someone will draft Mike Minor and spout out his great minor league numbers. Trust me, I like them both. In fact, I own both of them in a deep dynasty league. But in a redraft? Their production won’t warrant the draft position that they’ll command.

Here is a list of five rookies that many fans may not yet know who will provide you with a near-immediate impact this season and at a much discounted rate.

1. Craig Kimbrel, RP (Atlanta)

Summary – Kimbrel is the front-runner to take the Braves’ closer job along with

Jonny Venters, which immediately makes him a name that people need to know. But what you may not know is the elite level at which Kimbrel will be able to help your team, even if he loses the closer job to Venters. Kimbrel has electric stuff, including a fastball in the upper 90s and a devastating slider. The fastball has some late life to it as well.

The Upside – In just 20.2 innings last year, Kimbrel struck out 40 batters. Add to that is the fact that he only gave up nine hits. Those who know little about him might begin to suspect that this is some sort of aberration. On the contrary, take a look at Kimbrel’s career minor league numbers. In 151 innings, he recorded 242 strikeouts while giving up only 74 hits. This type of production is something that does not usually come cheaply, but if you’re going to be looking for production late in your draft, Kimbrel is that guy. Even if he doesn’t get the job as the closer, he could still strike out well higher than 100 batters, as long as he gets 70-plus innings. Think Carlos Marmol much later in the draft.

The Downside – Think Marmol much later in the draft. Just like many with the fantastic stuff that he has, Kimbrel’s had some command issues to put it mildly. These issues have caused him to put quite a few runners on base. In his major league stint last year he walked 16 batters in 20.2 innings. That, simply put, is alarming. In his minor league career (remember, 151 innings) he has surrendered 95 walks.

Overall – Kimbrel’s done enough in his short time to make you sit up and take notice. I don’t see a decline in his numbers, but there certainly needs to be some caution taken with him. Expect some growing pains with him, but there’s tremendous value to be had in drafting him in the latter half of closers this year. If he can even remotely harness his stuff and exhibit some control, this is a guy who could be an elite closer with his raw ability. Grab him mid-late in mixed leagues and reap the benefits. NL-only leagues, I’d probably take the risk a round or two earlier than I’d have him projected to be.

2. Michael Pineda, P (Seattle)

Summary – Pineda is a very, very intimidating figure on the mound. Standing 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, he’s an absolute monster, and he has the stuff to back it up.  Playing last season as a 21-year-old, he dominated Double-A hitters, showing impeccable command for a player his age. He struggled a bit more to keep the ball in the yard at Triple-A Pacific Coast League surrendering nine home runs in 62-plus innings, but remarkably his strikeout rate spiked, and opponents’ batting average dropped a point. Still, Pineda is one of the best pitching prospects in all of the advanced minors.

The Upside – Pineda could be in Seattle as early as, well, opening day. I don’t see it, but it is a possibility. He has been described at times as having some of the best ‘stuff’ in all of the minor leagues. He throws with some natural movement, and his fastball sits at anywhere from 93-95, touching in the upper 90s. He’s shown continually strong progression throughout the minor leagues and could emerge as being an absolutely dominant No. 2 pitcher for the Mariners. The prospect of a Felix Hernandez and Pineda 1-2 combo is tantalizing.

The Downside – Some have said that he’d be an elite reliever. Really, that’s about it. His command is there. He’s strong and has proven to be durable to this point. Can he do it long-term as a starter? That may be the only question mark. Still, he’d be an elite arm at the back end of the bullpen if he were not able to handle a starting load.

Overall – I have Pineda as a future stud. Honestly, I’m calling him (with confidence) the American League Rookie of the Year for 2011 if he can get to the big club sometime before June. There’s a lot to like here, and fans in the Emerald City can get excited about the future of their pitching staff.

3. Zach Britton, SP (Baltimore)

Summary –  I’m one that has eagerly been awaiting Britton’s arrival for some time. A lefthander with a true, hard sinking action on his fastball, Britton is a true ground ball artist. Couple that with a relatively high strikeout rate, and you’ve got a pitcher who has all of the ingredients for the recipe of success. There’s not much standing in his way in Baltimore, and it is very possible that he gets a shot at starting in the big leagues right out of spring training.

The Upside – With a huge ground ball ratio, Britton has a very good chance at having a long career, even if it is in the toughest division in baseball. I’ve seen him cast with the upside of Brandon Webb from four years ago. Webb was a nightmare to hit then, and I can only imagine how tough Britton would be from the left side. He throws his fastball in the low-90s, but can dial it up to around 95.  Add in a tough slider, and you’ve got a near top of the rotation starter.

The Downside – Everything I’ve read about this guy screams injury risk. Apparently he has some mechanical flaws that make him susceptible to injury, but has yet to have a major setback. If that is indeed the case, it is extremely possible that one might be on the horizon. It would be a huge blow to a near MLB-ready player to have a setback at this point in his career. Couple that with the fact that he plays in the AL East, and you’re playing a little Russian roulette here.

Overall – Buyer beware. All signs here point to there being huge upside. As excited as I am about this kid’s prospects, the red flag of his division and his delivery are almost impossible to ignore. Draft him late in AL-only leagues, but I’d avoid him in all but the deepest mixed leagues until I was sure he’d be a contributing factor for the team this season.

4. Chris Sale, P (Chicago White Sox)

Summary – The first player from the 2010 draft class to reach the major leagues, Sale immediately made a splash with the White Sox. After tallying just more than 10 innings in the minors, Sale was up and contributing in the stretch run for the White Sox – throwing meaningful innings and even closing games. A tall and lean pitcher, Sale had a ridiculous strikeout rate (32 strikeouts in 23 innings pitched) for a first-year player and the control wasn’t a major issue.

The Upside – Sale has elite stuff. There’s no way that a player ascends to the bigs as quickly as him if he doesn’t have some of the best raw stuff out there. His delivery makes it difficult for hitters to correctly address the baseball, leading to some fantastic strikeout rates. What is even more impressive to me is that he’s had even more success against right handed hitters. To me, this suggests a pitcher that is comfortable regardless of the situation, and someone who is likely to continue to dominate hitters in each situation. He’s a pitcher that could easily be a top-end starter or a dominating reliever.

The Downside – Sale’s delivery is not exactly ‘cookie-cutter.’ He’s difficult to pick up to hitters due to his three-quarter delivery, but there’s also a chance of injury. The chance for him to get hurt is a bit greater than most, so it is possible that the White Sox will continue to use him out of the pen. With Matt Thornton in the mix at the back end of the pen, and with a world of more experience, it is possible that Sale’s only value here this season is as a setup man. Still, he’d be one of the elite fantasy setup men, due to the very high likelihood of at least some saves and high strikeout totals.

Overall – Sale will help your fantasy team this season. Don’t get caught up in drafting Thornton early to get the saves for the White Sox. I think that Sale’s MLB-ready ability showed itself last year, and the White Sox showed it off late in the season. Thornton’s been too successful at his role for them to drastically change it, and I have a feeling that they’ll (at the very least) split time. Draft Sale late, and he’ll undoubtedly provide value even as a setup man for your mixed league team.

5. Jake McGee, P (Tampa Bay)

Summary – The Rays are torn on what to do with McGee’s future. Possessing a tremendous fastball, he induces a ton of swings and misses, and just like Sale he gets them from both sides of the plate. He’s going to get some work as a starter in spring, but this is likely only because of the easier process of moving from starter to reliever than the other way around. With a lack of tremendous options at the end of the pen for Tampa Bay, McGee could easily wind up the closer for the Rays out of camp.

The Upside – McGee has a huge fastball and projects to be a very effective reliever at the back end of any bullpen. His command is better than I would have expected too, and he gets a huge percentage of swinging strikes on his fastball. McGee throws hard. Very hard. Averaging in the mid-90s from the left side already makes him appealing. Getting that velocity to the upper 90s at times only makes him a bit more interesting.  As a starter, McGee has done a tremendous job in the minors as well, and he projects to be a middle-of-the-rotation kind of guy.

The Downside – There are a lot of red flags here. Most notably is his delivery. I must confess to never having seen McGee throw. However, the majority of times I’ve read about McGee, adjectives like ‘max-effort’ and ‘violent’ are used to discuss his delivery. These are not desirables for a starting, or even closing, pitcher. McGee has already had arm issues (Tommy John surgery in 2008, missing most of 2009). The surgery is not a cause for a long-term concern, but couple that with his delivery, and you may have a reason for some. In addition to his delivery, there’s his secondary pitches. During his short big league stint last year, McGee threw 90 percent fastballs. It’s great to have that kind of confidence in your stuff, but unless you’re

Mariano Rivera, you’d better have something to add to it.  McGee’s secondary offerings have been described as average.  Add to this the fact that the Rays’ farm system has some other arms with a bit more plus offerings, and this leads me to believe that he’ll likely continue to stay in the pen, as opposed to starting.

Overall – Another cheap source of strikeouts, McGee provides great value for you in the latter rounds of the draft. I have a feeling that McGee may start the year in Triple A, but keep him on your radar early and often. I like his short term more than his long term, but in a redraft league I think he provides excellent value for the second half of the season. Draft him in the latter rounds in AL-only leagues if you can and reap the benefits.

Other names to watch:

Tanner Scheppers (Texas), Jordan Lyles (Houston), Cory Luebke (San Diego), Mike Montgomery (Kansas City), Dillon Gee (New York Mets)

Again, these players are what they are, rookies. Expect growing pains out of them, but all five of the above names should provide you with value in your draft. Later this week, I’ll be discussing the rookie names that may make an immediate impact at the plate.

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