This is an extremely tall task.
Picking entrants into the “elite four” starter tier as we coast towards 2018 and beyond is a punishment that really isn’t a punishment. Take this story as an example. (It’s the fantasy offseason, I can start columns with stories like the true millennial that I am!).
Listening to an episode of the SI Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch – *nerd alert* – an entrepreneur candidly dropped this phrase in regards to his Pittsburgh-based sports blog: “Hope sells…”
Local beats are often a way to build up a following as a aspiring writer, and as many are saturated with talent, the prospect of covering a team that doesn’t have a “face” on the national scene and possesses some hope for the future intrigues me.
Right about now is the time you’ll realize how absolutely insane I am – the San Diego Padres came to mind.
Tatis Jr., Baez, Morejon, Gore – Ralph loves them and so do I. Yeah, they suck, but abiding by that entrepreneur, once hope starts to accumulate, all those Padres-centric blogs – well, all two of them – will see an uptick in views.
This is a beautiful example of a punishment that isn’t really a punishment.
It may seem dismal that I’d have to write about a team that has hovered around the 70-win mark for all of eternity, but when you’re obsessed with baseball – and possess the lunacy gene – I see it as a treat.
Here, I’m speculating on pitchers who can not only become good, but excel into the echelon of objectively elite; the absolute studs that perennially cost a top pick. Let’s first look at three names that I think can transcend in 2018 – a much smaller crop – before busting the door wide open with the overly-generic “Beyond” timeframe.
The “elite four” I alluded to consists of Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, and Chris Sale, four pitchers who will go first in nearly every draft come March. When I began digging into some names I’ll mention below, age faded into the background. Bill Petti dug into starter aging curves back in 2012 to ominous results. By most of his metrics, decline’s slippery slope starts when you hit age 27. This is in stark contrast to the musings I’ve heard from Scherzer in reference to how much he has learned and honed his craft as he ages. (Failed to find the quote I wanted, but in this video on his repertoire, you can see nods to my point).
These are competing narratives. Aging curves say don’t bet on an aging pitcher, yet intuition, and literally every intangible we understand about pitching, suggests maturity comes with age. This leads me to the top guy who I’m weirdly confident in; a player Scherzer took under his wing.
Strasburg veered towards his changeup more than last season and saw an uptick in his fastball velocity. This — along with a sharper curve and improved command — leads this 29-year-old to a godly 29% strikeout rate and peripherals I routinely drool over. Strasburg has continually posted elite numbers when he is on the mound. Whipping your arm like any pitcher means there is injury risk, and I’ve heard countless times how past injury is a great predictor for future injury, but you can spin the injury narrative on any pitcher. Most of the time it leads to a vortex of circling around disconnected points of information only one’s doctors can tie together.
Strasburg exists in a sphere where anticipating 200 innings means anticipating jaw-dropping success. If you’re giving any pitcher a clean bill of health for the coming year, I think Strasburg can do the most with it. His curve has an uncanny ability to limit line drives, sits in the 85th percentile in terms of horizontal movement (min. 200 pitches). His changeup possesses a whiff-per-swing rate greater than anybody in the majors, and his fastball sits a steady 96 mph that he isn’t afraid to spot anywhere around the zone. I’m convinced these pitches are only going to get better as he crosses into his 30s. That’s a phrase rarely heard, but dismissing his prior success because of injuries is essentially underappreciating the success itself. It’s a glass half-full or half-empty scenario, but instead of water, it’s whiskey; i.e. too good to pass up.
With Strasburg, I opted for a pitcher who is on the wrong side of the aging curve. Martinez represents our second relatively “chalky” pick in a row; younger, with a good sample of success, and room to grow. I have to admit, I’m more nervous with the Cardinals’ ace than Strasburg because I fear Martinez can linger in the “almost elite” tier for the rest of his career and never bridge the gap.
Evidence persists in his walk rate and general command stagnating over the last four seasons. If you’ve ever watched Martinez for an extended period of time, he’s frustrating, walking batters just over 8% of the time. Thinking back to the Cardinals’ 2017 opener, he dominated; looked immediately like a candidate for the future elite four. But as the season progressed, that 10-strikeout gem faded into irrelevance.
A week later he walked eight batters in one game. It’s a perpetual roller coaster with the righty, but one that is distinct of others, and holds an extensive platform for upside. His 2017 brought him back in line with his stellar 2015 campaign, but he mixed in his sinker (insane movement) more with a heavier reliance on offspeed pitches. If you would’ve told me this in the preseason, I would’ve expected worse command, so the fact that his command is still hanging around average means more chances to boost swing-and-miss, but hold steady elsewhere.
Martinez is only 26 and has a home in St. Louis – possibly – through the 2023 season with options, which like seemingly everything else Martinez does, has positives and negatives. Good because he’s not worried about anything aside from playing (sure, it’s a pie-in-the-sky positive). Bad because I often think a player with this much potential that stagnates might just need to mix things up. Derek Liliquist is a pitching coach with an extensive resume, but change can often be a good thing. Looking at the same guy for five-plus years might blind you to where improvements can be made.
2018 is shaping up to enlighten us with a potential long-term path for the Cardinal. If improvements are perpetuated and consistency – of any kind – is found, he’ll creep into this conversation without question, with more years to sit in the tier than most.
Going even younger gives me more time to be correct – or incorrect. I wrote a piece on Castillo during the final month of the season, after the Reds shut him down for reasons of workload. Striving to keep the “beyond” candidate blurbs a bit more succinct, which works perfectly here because if you want more info, click that link!
Castillo isn’t on a good team, which kills some of the buzz, but I’m already teetering towards all-in on a pitcher who has stitched together an uncanny ability to generate groundballs and swinging strikes. When you think of that combo, minds trend towards a player like Dallas Keuchel, but Keuchel is a bad comp for nearly any pitcher (the Jose Altuve of pitcher comps).
The Astros’ stud exists with an alien ability to locate below the zone and turn nearly every pitch into a grounder or whiff. Castillo prides himself on a similar ability, but as I detail in my column – read it already!!!! – he began to mix in a sinker late last season that opened up his repertoire to a whole new set of limits. Subsequent to that epiphany, his fastball – which many consider “straight” – became a pitch he could elevate to even out its effectiveness. His changeup maintained its dominance to left-handed bats and his slider stuck around against right handers.
No gruesome splits, high velocity, and a mix of stats that are extremely intriguing. He’s already undervalued in the 2018 mocks I’ve seen and we’re not even through Pumpkin Spiced Latte season. While the sexier picks are Luke Weaver & Co., Castillo is just as good. Sure, he’s relatively unproven, but I’m always enamored with cheaper price tags when the product is the same (CVS cotton swabs for me, thank you very much). In this case, Castillo might be the better product too.
Now let’s get wild. There is a good chance very few of you have actually seen Kopech pitch for more than one inning. GIF’ing everything he does is great, but it escapes his unparalleled success at Triple-A. Kopech’s walk rate resembles descent from Mount Everest, while the level of hitter he faces climbs in the inverse direction; the Ronald Acuna of pitchers if you choose.
At 21 years old, this call can go in virtually any direction, but as far as upside goes, there is not a pitcher in the minors with more. He isn’t a towering arm to any extent at 6-foot-3, but leverages his size well, mixing in developing changeup with mythological fastball velocity that I actually hope resides at a lower level to harnesses his control. An issue you often see with larger-framed pitchers is an inability to repeat mechanics and Kopech luckily escapes that tag given his quiet motion, but holds a live arm that you often see in taller starters. Ralph has him inside his top 10 fantasy baseball prospects for 2018 and I’d go as far as saying his improvements warrant consensus top 10 valuation from here on out. Gamble, and fortune may find you.
Names that also came to mind…
There are numerous guys who have cases for the “Beyond” tier; would love to hear your picks below.
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More of my writing can be found on my site, BigThreeSports.com