Pitching is a fickle little pickle. The primary reason, of course, is injuries. The constant stream of injuries makes it so few, if any, teams ever make it through the entire season using just five starters. This is where the reinforcements come in. I’ve got seven notable arms who aren’t locked into a rotation spot, but have the skills to excel if and when they get the chance.
I think we often focus too hard on April and forget that it’s a six-month season. It’s a balance, right? You can’t get load your team up with guys who aren’t going to contribute until June or later. However, I wouldn’t eschew a viable arm who could be in the rotation within the first 4-6 weeks of the season for a lesser arm who has a role now, especially if that better arm will be in the bullpen to start (meaning they won’t be dead weight on your roster).
Ross Stripling | Los Angeles Dodgers, 29 yr old RHP
My love of Stripling is well known, including a Top 40 ranking in my latest SP ranks. Of course, I know we don’t have to take him that high because of his role uncertainty, but I definitely want that profile. There were some flaws in his 2018 breakout – namely 9.1 H/9 and 1.3 HR/9 – and yet despite that, he managed a 23% K-BB and put together a fantastic 3.02 ERA/1.19 WHIP. Over his career (split between relieving and starting), he has a 3.52 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 17% K-BB in 296 IP thanks a strong arsenal that he tunnels well by playing his fastball off the breaking balls effectively.
On the one hand, the Dodgers have several options behind their locks (Kershaw, Buehler) that make it hard to see Stripling’s path: Hyun-Jin Ryu, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Julio Urias and even Dennis Santana. On the other hand, they share similar shortcomings to Stripling meaning their issues (particularly injury) could facilitate his return to the rotation. Roster Resource doesn’t currently have him in the bullpen, but I have a hard time seeing why they’d want to put a 29-year old with nearly 300 IP of MLB success in the minors.
Seth Lugo | New York Mets, 29 yr old RHP
As we get into Spring Training and find out where Stripling and Lugo are going to end up to start the season, their rankings could converge. I looove Lugo yet he’s down at 100 and arguably has an easier path to the rotation with only Jason Vargas blocking him off. Meanwhile, the uber-blocked Stripling is up at 36 (and again, I’m not drafting him 36th). Lugo only netted five starts, but still amassed 101 innings as a great multi-inning reliever en route to a 2.66 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 18% K-BB rate. As the 497th player off the board in early NFBC drafts, Lugo can just repeat his 2018 and still be a worthwhile investment, but there’s real upside here thanks to that killer curveball.
Woodruff is my favorite of this duo and he actually is penciled in with that 5th-starter role right now, but I included because I don’t think it’s inked in. Woodruff flashed a 27% K rate in 42 innings of work powered by his fastball/slider combo. His changeup is still developing and even dabbled with a curveball a bit in September. Walks the main concern with nine of his 14 allowed coming in his four starts (13% BB).
Burnes is going to be worked out as a starter in Spring Training and definitely has the stuff to nab a role, perhaps even Woodruff’s. He flashed a sparkling 15% swinging strike rate in 38 innings out of the pen last year suggesting he probably left some strikeout so the table with his 23% rate. He had a great 2.61 ERA/1.00 WHIP combo and while he didn’t max out on strikeouts, he proved remarkably difficult to hit with a .196 AVG. If he doesn’t make the rotation, he could be their right-handed answer to Josh Hader, going more than an inning regularly and missing bats at an absurd rate.
Matt Strahm | San Diego Padres, 27 yr old LHP
Strahm’s also heading into camp with designs on becoming a full-time starter after quality 2018 campaign, spent mostly in the pen. He only amassed 13 innings in his five starts so he was essentially an opener in those. He totaled 61 innings and fanned 28% with a 9% walk rate. It was encouraging that he walked just 6% during the starts and struck out batters at a brilliant 35% clip.
Nick and I discussed Strahm a good bit on the latest Fireside and Nick definitely made me realize I have Strahm way too low. He’ll join the Top 100 during the next update. What I love most is that he has a four-pitch arsenal and he netted positive pitch values on all of them. You rarely see a reliever working four pitches consistently (12%+ for each), let alone netting positive values throughout. Strahm’s a definite buy for me.
Brad Peacock | Houston Astros, 31 yr old RHP
Despite three spots opening up with the departures of Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel (…I mean, he is still a free agent, but I highly doubt he returns to HOU) and injury Lance McCullers Jr., Peacock hasn’t really been seen as an option to take one of them. Wade Miley signed on, rookie Joshua James has generated tons of excitement as an up-and-coming stud, and Collin McHugh took the third after his insane relief season.
Peacock dominated in a hybrid role back in 2017, including a 3.22 ERA/1.22 WHIP combo in 21 starts with 135 Ks in his 111.7 innings of work (29% K rate), but he returned to the pen last year with just one start among his 65 IP. He still had a sizzling 28% K-BB rate, improving both components of that metric, though his long-term HR troubles returned with a 1.5 mark (0.7 in ’17; 1.2 career). Until he can reign in the longballs, he’ll likely be stuck in a low leverage long/middle relief role. We’ll take that while he waits his chance to re-enter the rotation, though, because he can still pile up the Ks with decent ratios.
Domingo German | New York Yankees, 26 yr old RHP
German’s most likely of this group to start 2019 in the minors (though Stripling could be headed there, too, at least per Roster Resource), but if you can stash him, there’s major upside, even if only in a relief role. His 15% swinging strike rate was 9th-best among the 173 pitches with at least 80 innings last year which is great, but also once again reminded us that swing-and-miss brilliance doesn’t guarantee success (5.57 ERA/1.33 WHIP in 86 IP).
The tough part about being a raw stud on a contender is that he won’t get a chance to learn on the job in the majors. They can’t afford to let him work things out while eating up MLB innings again. Their disgusting bullpen depth also makes it hard to see them parking him there until a rotation spot opens up, so he’s a true minor league stash to open 2019. If he can show the kind of control that led to a 7% MiLB walk rate (461 IP) at the MLB level, there’s big upside here.