About a month ago, Cincinnati's Mike Leake(notes) was widely considered a placeholder for Cuban heartthrob Aroldis Chapman(notes). However, after a sterling opening month, the 22-year-old isn't ready to relinquish his grip on the fifth starter's job anytime soon.
His rapid progression is nothing short of amazing when considering where he was a season ago.
At this time last year, Leake was presumably enjoying the excesses of college life. While most coeds were slugging back Cuervo shots at local bars, the Arizona State standout was mowing down Pac-10 hitters. Over 142 innings, the Golden Spikes finalist accumulated an almost spotless 1.71 ERA with 162 strikeouts and 16 wins. Major League GM's may have housed unnatural feelings for Stephen Strasburg(notes), but the Sun Devil was also highly coveted. Cincinnati drafted him at No. 8 overall.
Entering spring training, most scouts tabbed Leake for minor league duty. But after an impressive Cactus League run, the mild-mannered hurler earned a spot in the rotation, and the record books. Joining such rubber-toeing legends as Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax and Catfish Hunter, he became only the 38th pitcher in history to make the jump to The Show without making a single appearance in the minors, an especially rare feat in today's age dominated by arbitration clocks and cautious seasoning.
So far, Cincy's risky move has paid off.
Looking like a young Bret Saberhagen (minus the bulged cheek and panty-evaporating moustache), the inexperienced starter has been very effective - in an even-numbered year no less. Though his 1.38 K/BB (5.88 K/9, 4.28 BB/9) is taking up residence in Lowesville (Derek) and his fastball isn't overpowering, there's plenty to like. Due to his unconventional five-pitch arsenal, hitters have had difficulty picking up his offerings. In particular, the sinking movement on his cutter and fastball has drawn tons of weak contact (see highlights here). Leake currently ranks 15th in groundball percentage (54.5) among qualifying starters. Battery mate Ramon Hernandez(notes) doesn't think the rookie's early season success is a mirage. From MLB.com:
"He can throw strikes and get ahead of hitters. As long as he does that, he's going to be fine," catcher Ramon Hernandez said. "It's not a lucky thing right now. He's doing what he wants to do."
His .263 BABIP and unsightly BB/9 suggest he's been goin' down to Lucky Town. That cannot be disputed. But with a sparkling 2.94 ERA and two wins to his credit, the 14 percent owned commodity is quickly becoming a player of interest in 12-team leagues. Javier Vazquez(notes) investors, presumably with one foot over the ledge, could certainly use the help.
Most fantasy owners may be buzzing with anticipation over Chapman, but Leake's artist stroke may actually turn a Picasso profit for deep leaguers. Frankly, he's been just as good - and may continue to be - as heavily owned mid-rotation assets Clay Buchholz(notes), Kevin Slowey(notes) and Tim Hudson(notes). However, Dusty Baker's tendency for shredding young, innocent arms is a concern.
Chapman's tilt-altering debut is probably only a few weeks away, but if the placid rookie continues to make adjustments he may just be the Red who deserves the bluster.
If you're an owner with an insatiable thirst for quality starts and have an overactive bladder, it's highly recommended you take a Leake.
Fearless Forecast (Rest of Season): 137.1 IP, 8 W, 4.07 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 92 K
Quality commodity owned in fewer than 20 percent of Yahoo! leagues.
Mike Aviles(notes), KC, SS (one percent-owned): Yunel Escobar(notes) supporters desperately seeking a short-term stopgap should look no further than Aviles. Thoroughly tongued by Brandon Funston two seasons ago, Aviles was recalled Sunday from Triple-A to battle Sultan of Suck, Yuniesky Betancourt(notes), for at-bats. After smacking three hits with a homer, RBI and run scored in his starting debut Tuesday, he may overtake the shortstop gig permanently. Almost fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, the Big Apple native is a player worth biting into. Remember what he accomplished in 2008? He still possesses the skills to be a terrific BA source at a very shallow position.
Ooh Stream Weaver...
Widely available plug n' play starter heading into the weekend.
Chris Volstad(notes), Fla (5/7 at Was, four percent-owned): At 6-foot-8, Florida's mound Wookie has always been an intimidating foe. That is, when command hasn't eluded him. Though his K/9 has slouched this season, the 24-year-old's control has sharpened, indicative in his 2.79 BB/9 and 1.11 WHIP. The addition of a slider has helped him keep the ball in the park, a task he failed miserably at a season ago (17.5 HR/FB% in '09). Washington has surprised to say the least, but the Nats are still only mediocre offensively averaging 4.2 runs per game, the eighth-lowest mark in baseball. Tossing a complete game gem against the NL East foe on May 1 (9 IP, W, 1 ER, 8:1 K:BB), Volstad could again yowl.
Middle Relief Magic
ERA/WHIP savior, potential saves/wins vulture.
Tim Stauffer(notes), SD (seven percent-owned): Aficionados could list several reasons why the Padres have shocked the rawhide world. The bullpen spearheaded by Heath Bell(notes) and Stauffer would definitely be one of them. The converted starter has excelled in a maximum exertion role. Trusting his slider more while cranking up the velocity on his fastball, the reliever has racked 16 strikeouts over 15.1 innings. More impressively, he's posted an insane 3.57 GB/FB. The missed bats/weak contact combination is an ideal characteristic for any pitcher. If the trend continues, he could be a poor man's Matt Thornton(notes). Deep-thinking owners who've suffered from excessive blood/ERA loss should apply this tourniquet .
Image courtesy of US Presswire