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.

2018

Stephen Strasburg

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.

Carlos Martinez

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.

Beyond

Luis Castillo

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.

Michael Kopech

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…

2018: Jacob deGrom (with health and longer hair), Chris Archer (who knows), Robbie Ray (give me some more control), Gerrit Cole (you think I’m crazy, but I’m not), Madison Bumgarner (duh)

Alex Reyes (2019+, essentially Kopech), Jon Gray (Coors will kill him, but hard to escape the peripherals), Mitch Keller (personal favorite, effortless everything, further off)

There are numerous guys who have cases for the “Beyond” tier; would love to hear your picks below.

Follow me on Twitter, before it’s too late… @LanceBrozdow

More of my writing can be found on my site, BigThreeSports.com

   
  1. Ante GALIC says:
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    Lance!

    Thanks a million for the write-up and everything this year. Hope all is well with you. Loved every word and number herein contained!

    Cheers,
    Ante

    • Lance

      Lance says:
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      @Ante GALIC:
      Thanks Ante!

  2. J-FOH says:
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    You a tricky guy here. Went out on the edge and I love. Playing it safe is for lots of other un-named writers on the net. Well played Lance Romance!

    I sure wish we could get an off season post from Laura. She would complete the A-Team.

    • Lance

      Lance says:
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      @J-FOH:
      Lance Romance I haven’t heard, I like it! Hahahaha

      Mix of bold (Castillo) and obvious (Stras) is a nice way to toe the line.

      *paging Laura…. Laura*

      • J-FOH says:
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        @Lance: Thats an old term..hey wait, I’m old and you’re not *kicks phone book*

      • Laura Holt

        Laura Holt says:
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        @Lance: I swear I’ve been writing a lot in my head, I just have to actually sit down and type it up in some kind of semi-logical order! At any rate thanks for the shout outs, and I will have something to post soon. Love the list, Lance… I will probably draft Strasburg anywhere I feel like I can get even a slight discount on him next year — amazing how close his final numbers were to Kershaw’s this year (plus he’ll less of that pesky playoff wear and tear going into 2018 ;). I think the next guy in line for me is DeGrom… was surprised how good his 2017 looks on paper given how easy it would have been for him to implode like everything else around him did all year. I have been a Martinez fan forever, owned him since early minors in my deepest keeper league, but don’t know if he will ever get it completely together emotionally/mentally — it’s scary to watch him pitch and see how quickly he can go from absolutely dominant to all over the place. And I loved Jon Gray going into this year, and I’m sure will draft him with reckless abandon again next year — I suspect I’ll end up with Gray and Robbie Ray as my team ace(s) a lot and will just hope they both keep trending in the right direction. My personal add to the “beyond” tier is Paxton… wishful thinking that he will stay healthy for any length of time I know, but if he does things could get interesting.

        • Lance

          Lance says:
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          @Laura Holt:
          Second pretty much everything you’re saying here.

          Paxton is a great beyond, I had him for Cy preseason, top 90 guy for me preseason, he was the sexy pick, but nobody bought in as much as they should have.

          He was unbelieveable for most of the season and I have no reservations about next year. I’ll always stand by that natural arm slot helping him out a ton health-wise even though he did go down this season.

          Gray is going to be very interesting is well, I can already see myself being bullish on him.

  3. J-FOH says:
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    Comment number two. I enjoyed a mid season piece on Sale that explain his velocity drop as he became even more of a pitcher by dialing it back to get both better location and use his incredible heater as an out pitch when needed. I would love to see Strasburg go this route. The “art” of pitching can be a beautiful thing when you keep them guessing and on their toes.

    • Lance

      Lance says:
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      @J-FOH:
      Actually disagree with this, I don’t want Strasburg to change at all. To keep his change as effective as it was this year, he needs to keep that FB 95-96, velo diff is big part of its success. I guess maybe in theory, it kind of makes sense, but Stras is right on track to me. He’s been fantastic the last few seasons and I get the injury buzz, but I’m past that. Lemme bet on a guy who with 200 IP is immediately a top 4/5 guy for me.

      The Sale storyline is something I thought should’ve been covered in the Boston media (live up there). I think his change to efficiency during that last season in Chicago and eventual transition back to 2015-esque Sale is a big reason why he started to lapse down the stretch. That chronic fatigue from a season of work at a higher level, even if it was only 2 years in the past, can do a number.

      I’d be really interested if somebody did a study on pitchers like this: velo drop, approach change, and then reversion back, and how effective it is; how fatigue changes its effect on the pitcher.

      • J-FOH says:
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        @Lance: Bartolo Colon really re-made himself. I read the Sale article in the Wall Street Journal. Im not saying change now for Stras but to sustain for a longer career you need to dial it back a bit. Im a Greg Maddux advocate for how great he was with all that slight variation.

        • Lance

          Lance says:
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          @J-FOH:
          That’s fair, thought you were more so implying a shift now.

          I saw a few Sale articles, but thought it was something that a lot more digging could’ve been done on – I probably should’ve been the one to carry that torch!

          Bartolo man hahaha those are some large – metaphorically and literally – shoes to fill. Imagine this though – Stras is gonna need to put on about 50-pounds hahahaha

          • J-FOH says:
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            @Lance: the HindenStrasBerg!

  4. NatroneMeansBusiness says:
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    Not to get too wild, but what about Josh Hader? Is he staying in the pen? There was a solid hype with that guy. Also, can you explain what separates madbum from the top four?

    • Lance

      Lance says:
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      @NatroneMeansBusiness:
      LOVE the Josh Hader call man, he’s so much fun to watch. I’m a little worried in that transition back to the rotation because he can’t go 80%+ fastball, and as a result is going to have to rely on offspeed a lot more. It’s not that his CH/SL are bad pitches for him, but he doesn’t command them like a guy who will be able to sit with a sub 10% walk rate. And the track record of a starter with even over a 8.5/9% walk rate isn’t fantastic.

      He feels very Robbie Ray to me – definitely a good thing, but Ray’s xFIP/FIP numbers weren’t mind blowing – which is due in part to that walk rate always being up there.

      I guess maybe I’m not worried, more so interested in his adapting back to a 5-6 inning role. At 23, I have all the faith it’ll be smooth, but might not be as quick as we have the tolerance for in fantasy.

      MadBum is in conversation for the top four, but from what I’ve seen in drafts, not many are betting on him over any of those other four, so I decided to section them off as so.

      Argument could stem from a few things: injury, team, swinging strike down a bit, etc.

      He presents an interesting value proposition if you’re confident in a bounceback (which I think I am, to a degree – shoulder’s are fickle beasts). Could provide that ace value at a price that will be discounted a little bit coming off the injury.

  5. thorbs says:
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    What are your thoughts on Weaver and Montgomery? I see them as #2 ceilings, but more likely solid #3s.

    • Lance

      Lance says:
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      @thorbs:
      I saw a lot of Weaver this year and like him a lot, but have seen him wayyyy up there on some draft boards (top 20ish). I see him more in the 8.5ish K/9 window than the 10.5+ he was last season because of the ~9.5% swinging strike rate. But his control is good enough to buoy him for the most part. I think ceiling #2 with floor #3 is reasonable for career, sure.

      Montgomery is interesting as well, basically could have emulated Weaver’s path of valuation if he had a stretch like Luke (aside from the fact that he wasn’t the same level of prospect). His size, to me, means he’s going to take a little bit more time to develop fully, but the fact that he’s a southpaw with not egregious L/R splits and control makes me intrigued.

      I’m not sure how much upside there is for him this coming year, but he’s going to cost next to nothing. Long term career picture is murkier than Weaver.

  6. Jp says:
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    Not a mention of Severino?! I like him more than C-Mart for next year.

    • Lance

      Lance says:
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      @Jp:
      Sev is in there no doubt, 23 with those peripherals? Love it. But he seemed a little chalky for this, wanted to go off the map a little (save Stras). Wanted to get people thinking about other options that aren’t the recent big guns.

      I’ll likely have him above CMart as well for 2018 (most should)

  7. Dave says:
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    Love your stuff! Looking at my pitching for next year in a 12 Team NL only $260 auction league, 8 keepers. Planning on keeping K Bryant at$20, Pollock at $12 Drury at $1 Panik at$5 and 4 from this list. Strasburg $32 Votto $35 Wacha $9 L Lynn $14 Weaver $10 Hader $7 Spangenburg SD $5 What 4 of the last 7 would you keep? I was thinking going 4 pitchers Thanks for your help

    • Laura Holt

      Laura Holt says:
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      @Dave: Gonna answer this while I’m here since I love me some NL-only questions; Lance and others can feel free to disagree! No way I’d throw Votto back, even at $35, in 12-team NL; personally I’d keep him and dump Wacha . I know it’s scary to go into the season in a league that deep w/o enough starters, but I always have to remind myself not to panic and keep guys who I think will hurt me more than they’ll help me, regardless of cost. Of course this year, it seemed like pretty much every NL starter hurt me more than he helped me, so I’m already at a loss trying to figure out who the hell will be making up my pitching staffs in my deep NL-only leagues next year… in one league the only two starters I have that I’m eligible to keep (with about 75% of players already owned/kept) are Teheran and Foltynewicz… I can’t see keeping either of them even for free next year, but there will be SO few starters available at auction… so who knows what that team will end up looking like.

    • Lance

      Lance says:
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      @Dave:
      I went heavy on top tier talent for my CBS NL only and it paid off, knocked Grey off the throne in their version of a ‘perts league. I got a little bit lucky with some picks but I’ll probably run it back and see what happens.

      Applying what I learned from that was to covet the big names if you have a shot at them.

      Which means I agree wholeheartedly with Laura above, I think causing back Votto is wild.

      I’m keeping Stras, Weaver, Votto, Wacha. Don’t trust Lynn as much as others.

      Panik would move into that conversation as well for me, I can see Lynn over Panik, might even entertain Hader for long term gamble.

      • Laura Holt

        Laura Holt says:
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        @Lance: Ha, my original answer (which I shortened since my replies tend to get, uh, a bit wordy sometimes) included Panik as a potential drop (2B should be pretty deep again next year even in NL-only… Panik came in at just 17th best 2B in standard NL-only value for 2017… might be a roster clogger and Dave might be better off hoping to find a $1-$2 flyer in that slot depending on how many guys are being kept) followed by Lynn (also don’t trust him and can’t even begin to predict what he’ll do next year). And I think I’d rather have a middle reliever than Wacha, but perahps that’s just my tortured past with him talking ; )

        • Lance

          Lance says:
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          @Laura Holt:
          I agree on Panik, I just kind of shrug with him. My only thinking is that you might be a Giants fan or something; I’ll always be a proponent of sticking to guys you believe in, even if others don’t.

          But I disagree with the middle reliever over Wacha in an NL Only like this. Wacha’s a viable sub 4 ERA guy, with some control, that better than average in NL to me. Middle relievers you can find anywhere (Morrow this year, Blanton last), would much rather search for one of those guys than give up on a guy you can hold for only $9.

          $9 isn’t gonna get you anything in the draft with those keepers.

          Just my 2 cents.

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