So you drafted, say, Taijuan Walker, Joe Musgrove, or Dinelson Lamet—a starting pitcher you had reason to think would be useful, and now, because of injuries, isn’t and might not be for quite a while. What do you do? It depends, as always, on how deep your league is. In a relatively shallow league, there will be starters who are available as free agents and whose acquisition by you isn’t tantamount to outright surrender.
You could get, for example, Trevor Cahill or Steven Brault (both of whom we like), Brian Johnson (whom we kind of like), or Junior Guerra (whom we don’t trust at all), and no one will laugh at you. But if you play in a deeper league, all those possibly-useful starters are gone. You could of course plug the hole in your roster with a good do-no-harm reliever, perhaps even someone who has a shot at getting saves if something untoward befalls his team’s closer (Scott Alexander and our heartthrob George Kontos come to mind).
But you want something more: a Cahillesque bullpen pitcher who should provide good stats while there, but has a decent shot at becoming an effective starter should injury or failure befall a member of his team’s rotation. Yes, yes—by all means get Collin McHugh if he’s available. But is there anyone less obvious who might work out for you?
We count three guys. In descending order of conspicuousness:
—Robert Gsellman, Mets. Gsellman’s total disappearance from the discussion of potential starting pitchers with upside puzzles us a little, and tells you all you need to know about the often-melancholy half-life of the professional athlete. A year ago, after an excellent rookie season, the Fantasy draft market regarded him as a top-40 or -50 starting pitcher. He was terrible for a while, got demoted, came back up and got hurt—but then recovered and had a rather effective second half as a starter (3.50 ERA, .234/.313/.364 opponent slash line). But here he is, only 24, and buried so deeply in the Mets’ bullpen that you could have gotten him in the 40th round or so of your draft. He’s pitching very effectively now in long relief, and in our opinion it won’t take much for him to re-enter the starting rotation: we’re not believers in Jason Vargas, Matt Harvey just isn’t that great any more, and Zack Wheeler is as fragile as porcelain. You sticklers for detail will point out that Gsellman’s problem is that he’s terrible third time through the batting order. But that’s what bullpens, and managers who know how to assemble and deploy them, are for.
—Domingo German, Yankees. He’s another guy whose relative unpopularity is a puzzlement. He was one of the ten best starters in the International League last season. He strikes out more than a batter an inning. He’s pretty good at keeping the ball on the ground, which you want in Yankee Stadium. He had a superb spring that moved him ahead of Chance Adams in the next-starter pecking order. Aside from an Anthony Santander home run, he’s been pitching very well in the majors. We don’t know why Luis Cessa was picked over German to make a (rained-out) spot start last weekend, but we are convinced that direct A/B comparision between the two leaves Cessa in the dust. And now C.C. Sabathia is hurt.
—Burch Smith, Royals. With our usual consummate timing, we touted Smith, then a Rays prospect, in one of our first Fangraphs columns three years ago, just before he blew out his elbow. He didn’t pitch at all in 2015 or 2016, but last year he looked good at three minor league levels. He went from the Rays to the Mets to the Royals during the off-season, and now he’s pitching in the Royals’ bullpen, where he’s been throwing 94-MPH fastballs. We’re inclined to give him a pass on his poor first outing this season. Since then, he’s pitched 6 innings, struck out eight, and given up just two walks and two hits. The question with Smith, as before, is whether he can throw hard enough long enough to succeed as a major league starter. We’re inclined to think so, since he pitched effectively into the sixth inning in his last four minor league starts last year. And since the Royals are now using the pitiful Eric Skoglund (career MLB ERA: 9.43) as their fifth starter, and Nathan Karns not yet ready to come off the DL, we figure Smith will get his chance pretty soon.
The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.