Identifying and acquiring the top rookie pitchers are one of fantasy’s great challenges, so let’s take a look at some the youngsters set to cut their teeth in the Junior Circuit this summer…
The Narwhal: Jeremy Hellickson
Arguably the game’s best pitching prospect, Hellickson came up last year and more than held his own (3.47 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 4.04 xFIP) in 36.1 IP (ten games, four starts). His minor league numbers are stupid good (9.8 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9 in 580.1 IP) and the projections like him (sub-4.00 ERA’s across the board), but the most important thing is playing time, and we know that Hellboy has himself a rotation spot locked up. He does it with five pitches (four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter, change, curve according to Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook) and premium fastball command, so it’s definitely a “right now” skill set.
One think worth mentioning is that Hellickson hasn’t exactly had an ideal spring. He missed time with a slight hamstring issue and is currently on the shelf with blister problems. Neither is a long-term concern, but they have limited him to just 2.2 IP so far. Tampa won’t need a fifth starter until a week-and-a-half into the season, so it might not be much of an issue. I don’t love the idea of rookie pitchers in the AL East (especially when they’ll have to face both the Yankees’ and Red Sox’s offenses), but if you’re going to gamble on one, Hellickson is the guy. Just don’t be surprised if he ends up pitching closer to his Marcel projection (4.08 FIP, 7.42 K/9) than what the fans (3.53 FIP, 8.49 K/9) or Bill James (3.45 FIP, 9.50 K/9) forecast.
Doug’s Kid: Kyle Drabek
Like Hellickson, Drabek is expected to open the season in his team’s rotation, but it’s still slightly open for discussion. He debuted with three representative starts last season (4.08 FIP in just 17 IP) and is more of a gunslinger than the control artist. Drabek’s high-octane fastball-curveball combo didn’t result in as many minor league strikeouts as you’d expect (7.5 K/9), but let’s cut him some slack since having Tommy John surgery can skew things, especially when he only has 429.2 IP to his credit and was (theoretically) hurt for some of them. His ground ball rate was consistently over 50% in the minors, though that’s not an uncommon occurrence among top pitching prospects.
The projection systems have Drabek holding his own more than anything, mostly calling for FIP’s right around 4.00 with a strikeout rate close to seven per nine. A league average season is probably the most realistic expectation this year, if that, so he’s definitely more of a long-term keeper league target. Drabek is extremely talented, but he might not be as well-suited for immediate success as Hellickson.
Hopefully Not A Piñata: Michael Pineda
Pineda definitely passes the eye test at 6-foot-7 and 260 lbs. with a fastball that legitimately sits in the mid-90’s, but as Dave Cameron wrote just last night, he’s probably not ready for the show. The biggest concern is his secondary stuff, namely his lack of a weapon against left-handed batters. Pineda has made mince meat of the minors (8.8 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9) and has some (62.1 IP) Triple-A time to his credit, but the issues Cameron laid out are very real concerns for this season. Either way, he looks like a lock for a rotation spot, but tread carefully. Of the three guys in this post, Pineda is easily the riskiest, more likely to wind up in the minors by May than he is toss up a sub-4.00 FIP.
For what it’s worth, ZiPS pegs Pineda for almost an exactly league average performance. Seattle’s ballpark and defense will help some, but it might not be enough in 2011.
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I also want to point out this study by Scott McKinney at Beyond The Box Score, which looks at how long it’s taken top prospects to put up their first average (2.0 WAR) season in the big leagues. The majority of prospects (both pitchers and position players) enjoy their first 2.0 WAR season in their sophomore years, but about 18% of pitchers reach that level as a rookie. Two out of ten will have to wait until year three.