Prospects are so enticing. Man do they ever look nice on a list with a shiny number next to them. And when your team needs help in the lineup, or in the rotation, it always seems like there’s a prospect that’s ready to take the league by storm. So many of us in redraft leagues like to reach for them. Instant salve for your rotation wounds! Coming up any day now!
More than half of the best pitching prospects in baseball bust.
Even if you’re talking a top ten pitching prospect, their bust rate is close to 60%. Sure, a quarter of them become superior, and that’s better than any other portion of pitching prospects (the superior rate drops under ten percent after the top 30 pitching prospects), but almost two in three bust. Some may head to the pen, some may spend their time on the Quad-A shuttle, some may end up losing out to the surgeon’s scalpel, but so many pitching prospects never work out.
So you, in your redraft league, you may want to reconsider having too many pitching prospects on your redraft team. Consider Archie Bradley, who’s now looking at missing time due to elbow woes and just a week ago looked like he might be in the D-backs rotation any day now. Really, you’d have to have four of those guys on your roster to assure yourself of value this year.
Or just get lucky.
Let’s use these closer rankings to take a look at the top pitching prospects that are MLB-ready and assess their ability to help this year. Remember, this isn’t about keeper leagues, where you can wait a little longer and have a little more patience. This is about how likely a guy is to come up and help you, this year, right now, when your rotation needs it most.
Tier 1: Elite (4) (AKA: The “Taijuan Walker” Tier.)
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
According to Baseball America, the only top 10 pitching prospect that isn’t up in the big leagues yet is Archie Bradley. But with the elbow news we’ll dock him a point or two. Taijuan Walker came in 11th on the list, and though that means that his bust rate officially climbs over 60%, he’s in a good position to succeed. A great home park, a team that needs pitching, and a decent amount of adjustment behind him. Dude has 95 mph gas and a wicked breaker and it looks like the change should be good. Then again, he’s coming back from a shoulder problem and has as many command problems as Archie Bradley.
Craig Kimbrel only has one possible Kimbrel this year — three strikeouts and no base runners in a save situation — but it wasn’t in a save. So no Kimbrels for The Namesake. That and the aching body parts are is enough to keep him out of the top spot, just because Kenley Jansen is so filthy. If you owned both of the top closers, you’d have 47 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings, so you’d already be twenty strikeouts ahead of the average closer. Awesome. Holland and Jansen also have a Kimbrel each, for what it’s worth.
Tier 2: Rock Steady (6) (AKA: The “Kevin Gausman“ Tier.)
Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins
Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
David Robertson, New York Yankees
Addison Reed, Arizona Diamondbacks
Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals
Kevin Gausman is behind some pitchers — Noah Syndergaard and Dylan Bundy most notably — but he’s ready to go right now. His mid-nineties gas and two brands of change-up are exciting, and he’s shown plus command in the past. By peripherals, he wasn’t overmatched in his first go-around in the big leagues, but the ERA results weren’t exciting. That’s fine. Nobody in the Orioles’ rotation right now is killing it consistently — ok Chris Tillman has been good — and any of them could be replaced by the kid with ace-like upside. If the Orioles’ fans were already talking about needing Gausman like the Mariners’ fandom is demanding Walker, you might see Gausman in the top spot. He’s absolutely exciting.
Glen Perkins, Sergio Romo, Addison Reed — these guys are all good, all have above-average strikeout rates, and good control, with no obvious flaws or setup men biting at their heels. But for my money, it’s Trevor Rosenthal that has the stuff to jump up into the elite tier. He’s still striking everyone out at least. And though Kevin Siegrist and Carlos Martinez are good, they are both used against same-handed hitters. Rosenthal has seen some control woes recently, but he doesn’t have a history of bad command. And his first strike rate is league average — and that’s the most predictive walk rate peripheral. Paradoxically, the Cardinals’ closer is having trouble getting batters to reach. Reaching turns a ball into a strike, so there’s your problem. But with no real erosion of his stuff, there’s little reason to think he can’t find a way to entice batters to reach again.
There was some question about whether David Robertson should jump right into this tier if healthy. It was my contention that he’s been groomed for this role and has had the strikeout rates of a closer his entire career. Robertson is sitting 93 and closing games since he returned, and everything looks dandy. I just wrote the word dandy.
I’ve been down on Rafael Soriano, but it’s time to give him a little due. Last year, his velocity was down, but more damning was the fact that his slider was getting below-average whiffs and his overall line was very un-closer like. Well, now he’s throwing the sinker less, throwing the slider more, and the pitch has an average whiff rate once again. A lot of breakers and fewer sinkers mean an eleven-year high in whiff rate for Soriano and a good strikeout rate and pristine number so far. It’s worth mentioning that his velocity is down again, but that happens to all pitchers and it’s nice to see him adapting at least.
Tier 3: Okay Options (7) (AKA: The “Alex Meyer” Tier.)
Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Joakim Soria, Texas Rangers
Fernando Rodney, Seattle Mariners
Tommy Hunter, Baltimore Orioles
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers
Alex Meyer was only rated 45th, and there are plenty of arms on the list above him. Some — like Andrew Heaney and Eddie Butler — might be ready to come up right now. But the Twins have the worst rotation in baseball by ERA right now, and yet they’re keeping their head above water to some extent. They might feel some pressure to bring up the kid with mid-90s velocity, a good breaker, and a change that he just tweaked into plus territory. I saw Meyer in the fall and came away hugely impressed and think this callup might happen fairly soon.
Steve Cishek blew a save and Joe Nathan hasn’t been scored upon in his last four outings (six strikeouts, three base runners), and that’s enough to flip flop them at the top. But with both showing career-low velocity, neither is breaking down the door for the tier above. It’s particularly interesting for Cishek, who’s one of the pitchers throwing the biggest drop and has seen his radar gun reading drop below 90 mph, but is currently showing the best strikeout rate of his career. Might be a good time to sell high, strikeout rates in ten innings or less are not particularly stable.
Let’s give Joakim Soria some love. With all of his setup men falling apart, injured or starting, he’s all alone on closer island in Texas. And for five straight appearances, he’s come out and gotten one strikeout without any base runners. It’s a remarkable game log. Well done!
Perhaps I was hard on Francisco Rodriguez. I still don’t like his career-worst velocity (below 90!) and the fact that he’s resorted to throwing the change-up at a career-high rate. Strikeouts minus walks are the best predictor of in-season success for a pitcher, but it’s still only been 16 innings of work for K-Rod. It doesn’t make much sense to point to past saves totals in-season and say that he’ll continue to get saves at that pace, unless you believe the surprising Brewers will continue to outscore the rest of their division. I’ll bet on the field and say that his crazy pace will slow, hitters will sit on the change-up, and things will change. But with Jim Henderson still not throwing in the eighth, and Will Smith a lefty without blazing velocity, there isn’t really a challenger that should make him too nervous. He’s safe even if I’d be selling high on him.
Take a look at the more volatile closer situations on the next page.
Tier 4: Question Marks (6) (AKA: The “Marcus Stroman” Tier.)
Huston Street, San Diego Padres
Grant Balfour, Tampa Bay Rays
LaTroy Hawkins, Colorado Rockies
John Axford, Cleveland Indians
Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates
Matt Lindstrom, Chicago White Sox
Sergio Santos, Toronto Blue Jays
Marcus Stroman is short. Based on his rating, he’s got an 83% bust rate. The park waiting for him in the big leagues is homer-happy. It’s in the American League. I love Stroman — his change and slider are great pitches — but these factors have to be considered in any evaluation of his promise this year. The nice thing is that he’s close. His start was recently lined up with Dustin McGowan’s, and McGowan has one foot in the bullpen right now (and the other foot in the surgeon’s office). But some think that his size will lead to homers, and with the park and league against him, that’s worth worrying about.
Grant Balfour blew his last save attempt in spectacular fashion, allowing a walk-off grand slam to Jose Abreu in Chicago. That alone wouldn’t drop him out of the top tier, but combined with his walk and strikeout rates, there’s smoke here. He’s walked nine against seven strikeouts in 10 1/3 innings, and seeing that strikeouts-minus-walks link above, that’s worrisome. The worst velocity of his career, the lowest fastball usage of his career, his second-worst swinging strike rate of his career — it’s sort of surprising that he’s had blank slates in seven of nine appearances. The problem with taking advantage of this knowledge is that his caddy is impossible to figure. Jake McGee pitches a lot of eighth innings, but the team hasn’t gone to him in the past, he’s a lefty, and he might get expensive with a ton of save chances. Perhaps Joel Peralta would get another chance.
It’s not great news that John Axford has seven walks in his 9 2/3 innings. Or that finding the plate recently — two walks in his last six appearances — has come with a corresponding loss of strikeouts (three strikeouts in those six innings). That’s enough to let old man Huston Street leapfrog him, even if tiers are more important than singular rankings. Huston Street’s a bit of a head shaker on his own. He’s only good for 50 innings in a good year, his velocity is down under 90 for the third straight year, and he throws the slider as much as anyone — maybe it’s his plus command that allows him to succeed year after year. At least it makes more sense than what LaTroy Hawkins is doing. He’s striking out less than a batter every two innings and his ground-ball rate is below average. It’s all command. These guys belong together.
Mark Melancon is only an interim closer while Jason Grilli recovers from an oblique pull, but he’s above a full-time closer because that full-time closer — Matt Lindstrom — is still walking as many people as he’s striking out and pitches for a team that will struggle to give him saves chances. And Sergio Santos, who still has the stuff I like, but not the results, and is perhaps an interim closer himself. Though Melancon’s strikeout rate is decidedly below-average and only has the upside of slightly below-average, his ground-ball rate is elite and he’s been a revelation since joining the NL again. He’s great short-term pickup.
Tier 5: Rollercoaster Rides (8) (AKA: The “Edwin Escobar” Tier.)
Jim Johnson (first chair), Sean Doolittle (second chair), Oakland Athletics
Joe Smith (first chair), Ernesto Frieri (second chair), Los Angeles Angels
Kyle Farnsworth (first chair), Daisuke Matsuzaka (second chair), New York Mets
Hector Rondon(first chair), Pedro Strop (second chair), Chicago Cubs
Jonathan Broxton (first chair), J.J. Hoover (second chair), Cincinnati Reds
Josh Fields (first chair), Anthony Bass (second chair), Houston Astros
Edwin Escobar doesn’t have the most velocity, but his change-up is good, and recent mechanical changes have made his breaker work more effectively. He has a great park waiting for him, even if he’s a top-60 pitching prospect with a tiny success rate waiting for him. The question is just how long his major league team will stick with Ryan Vogelsong’s bad ERA (and worse peripherals). You could put fast-rising Pirate prospect Nick Kingham here, if it wasn’t strange that his team called up Brandon Cumpton when the first need arose.
It looks like Jim Johnson is headed back to the closer’s role, even if he hasn’t gotten a save yet. Since the twentieth of the month, he’s returned to his roots and concentrated on getting ground balls. He’s thrown 30 sinkers out of 37 pitches, and close to 90% of his balls in play have been ground balls. His manager has noticed, and Johnson’s a great pickup if he’s on your wire.
Joe Smith is the other hot pickup, and though I don’t want to harp on velocity too much, I do think it’s worth pointing out that he immediately has the worst velocity among all closers. His traditional seven strikeouts per nine would be among the worst strikeout rates in the group, too. And the Indians had plenty of chances to make him the closer with his sub-three ERAs in Cleveland, and they never did. And Joe Smith was bought at middle-innings prices, not closer prices. And his manager is still talking about how Ernesto Frieri — who has the strikeout rates and velocity of a traditional closer — can still get his job back. And Frieri has two scoreless baserunner-less innings in a row. That is my essay about why I think Joe Smith is not going to keep the role all year long.
Kyle Farnsworth might keep his role all year, but his arm-grabbing and velocity ups and downs don’t inspire confidence in the 38-year old retread closer. Daisuke Matsuzaka is the handcuff, and though the team is better than the Astros and Cubs, there’s a whiff of “Maybe we shouldn’t care” about the situation. But no, we’ll own him because SAVES. I mean, Hector Rondon got the last save for the Cubs, but that was April 11th. How excited should we get about his three-strikeout ninth inning in a 4-0 victory last week? Somewhat, I guess. At least he’s more in control than either Josh Fields or Anthony Bass in Houston, where all the divining in the world may just net us a 20-save closer with an awful ERA. (With Fields imploding, I still like Anthony Bass (aka the guy from the Sonic commercials) for some reason, but he hasn’t been lights-out himself. Chad Qualls is relevant if you’ve stuck around for this sentence.
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Aroldis Chapman (face), Cincinnati Reds
Casey Janssen (shoulder, back, abdomen), Toronto Blue Jays
Jason Grilli (oblique), Pittsburgh Pirates
Jesse Crain (calf, biceps), Houston Astros
Bobby Parnell (elbow), New York Mets
Aroldis Chapman is headed out for a rehab assignment, so he’s a week away from being back. Your time to buy low is gone. Casey Janssen is now expected back in mid-May after throwing a successful bullpen. I’ll still take Santos’ saves total over his, but it’s going to be easy for the Jays to plug their old closer back in the role, what with the Santos implosions recently. No news about Jason Grilli’s oblique since he went on the DL on April 25th. But it was retroactive to the 21st, so he may not be gone for long.
Ernesto Frieri has a toe in this water, but I’m betting he returns to glory.
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The Steals Department
For some reason Brett Gardner is not universally owned despite having power and speed and playing for a decent offense. The good news in the early going this year is that he’s taking off more — seven tries in the first month is way ahead of his 24-steal full-season pace last year. I’d take him over Norichika Aoki, who’s not taking off as much as I thought he might in Kansas City, and is striking out way too much in the early going (for someone with his amount of power). I still like Alcides Escobar to hit for a good average and 30+ steals this year, like what we thought Erick Aybar might do some day. Alejandro De Aza has a stinky overall line, but he’s playing every day for the most part, has improved his strikeout rate, and has power and speed.
In the deep league department, it looks like Lorenzo Cain is on the way back. That reduces Jarrod Dyson’s value, but there’s enough promise in Cain’s bat to focus on the guy with a more complete game in Cain. Alex Presley is percolating! Before his unsuccessful pinch-hit appearance Tuesday night, he’d managed to get a hit in seven straight games. And he survived the first Astros purge of 2014 for some reason, so it looks like he might get another month to prove he’s a valuable major leaguer. And if he doesn’t, Robbie Grossman will be back. Both of them could steal 15-20 bases if they were given a full year. They’ll be lucky to get a half year. If Presley is owned.. David Lough? He doesn’t play all the time, or steal a ton of bases, but when he does play, he puts up a decent batting average and a few steals. Lough is owned? How about Mike Aviles if Jason Kipnis’ oblique keeps him out a while.