March 09, 2012

The final few rounds of your draft or last few dollars of your auction budget should be spent aiming for upside. And no place on a major league roster is more packed with upside potential (hit tip to Jay Bilas) than the back end of the starting rotation. Quite often guys changing roles or guys returning from injury fill out the final spots in a team's rotation, and those are just the guys who can provide a monster return on investment. Give them all a bump in keeper leagues, where they can be weapons for a long, long time.

Let's take a look at four such guys heading into this season.

Jeff Samardzija, Cubs -- Samardzija is in a battle for one of the final two spots in the Cubs' rotation, along with Travis Wood, Chris Volstad, Randy Wells and Rodrigo Lopez. Judging by his performance in his spring debut and the comments made by manager Dale Sveum, Samardzija is a favorite to grab one of the spots. Samardzija is coming off a strong second half in 2011 and tossed three scoreless innings against the Royals in his first spring start, prompting Sveum to say the right-hander looks like he's "on a mission" this spring. In 36 appearances after the All-Star break last year, Samardzija struck out 35 batters in 36.1 innings, posting a 2.23 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. He's worth a flier right at the end of your draft.

Andrew Cashner, Padres -- The Cubs had high hopes for Cashner heading into '11, but he suffered an injury in his first start, which essentially cost him the entire season. Don't let that make you forget that he was the 19th overall pick in the '08 draft, and that he has a fastball that regularly sits in the mid-90s. He could use a fourth pitch, but his slider and change-up are both solid complementary pitches, especially given where he's at in his career. Combine all that with the move to Petco, and he looks like a strong breakout candidate this season.

Chris Sale, White Sox -- In 58 relief appearances last year, Sale posted a 79:27 K: BB ratio in 71 innings with a 2.79 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. Combine that with a strong showing in a small sample in his rookie year, and Sale has a 2.58 ERA and 1.10 WHIP for his career. Now the lefty, who will turn 23 at the end of the month, moves into the White Sox's rotation and should have a long leash from new manager Robin Ventura. Sale was a dominant starter in college at Florida Gulf Coast, striking out 146 batters in 103 innings in his final season before the White Sox made him the 13th pick in the '10 draft. His repertoire is similar to Cashner's, with a fastball that rests comfortably in the mid-90s to go with a slider and change-up. He could face an innings limit, especially if the White Sox aren't competing for a playoff spot, but he's primed to burst on the scene this season.

Daniel Bard, Red Sox -- Like Sale, Bard is making the transition from the back end of the bullpen to the back end of the rotation. Bard, too, features a fastball-slider-change combo, but he has the ability to run his heater up into the high 90s. Don't be scared off by the ERA, which jumped to 3.33 last year after sitting at 1.93 in '10. Bard's K/9 remained steady, while he walked fewer batters per nine innings and gave up fewer homers. What's more, he dropped his WHIP below 1.00, coming in at a cool 0.96. In addition to what he brings to the table, Bard has a strong infield and outfield defense behind him, as well as one of the league's best offenses supporting him. As far as super-cheap pitching options go, Bard is just about as good as it gets.

Chat with me on Twitter, @MBeller.

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