Pitching prospects: Walker, Heaney expected to be fantasy-relevant in '15
We’re less than two weeks from Opening Night at Wrigley Field, which means there’s precious little prep time for those of who still have drafts and auctions this spring. This year’s prospect class looks may be able to have the most offensive impact of any group since 2012 when Mike Trout and Bryce Harper broke into the majors, thanks to Kris Bryant and Joc Pederson. You can’t make two clicks on the Internet without reading something about Bryant, and we already covered Pederson in depth. We’ll get to more prospect hitters later, but let’s now turn our attention to the young pitchers who could affect fantasy leagues this year.
Pitchers are, on the whole, far less predictable than hitters, and that volatility is only exacerbated with prospects. On the other hand, prospect pitchers also come much cheaper than their hitter counterparts, and that means they have a much lower bar to clear to turn a profit. Not everyone can be Matt Harvey or Jose Fernandez, but they don’t have to be to have fantasy value. The following three pitchers should all be fantasy-relevant in 2015.
Taijuan Walker, Seattle Mariners
We’ve been here before with Walker. He was a popular pick in leagues last year before a shoulder injury sidelined him until June. He spent most of the season at Triple-A Tacoma before ultimately making eight appearances, including five starts, with the Mariners. The results were mixed, as he posted a 2.61 ERA and fanned 34 batters in 38 innings, but also issued 18 non-intentional walks.
Walker’s technically in a battle with Roenis Elias for the final spot in Seattle’s rotation, but it would be a shock if the 22-year-old didn’t emerge as the winner. He has been great this spring, tossing 12 shutout innings with 13 strikeouts against three walks while allowing just four hits. He has reclaimed the velocity he lost to the shoulder injury, with his fastball sitting in the mid-to-high-90s. While his four-seamer and knee-buckling curveball justifiably lead his repertoire, Walker developed a cutter a few seasons ago that could really be the key to him unlocking his full potential this season. Here it is as a strike-three pitch in one of his first outings of the spring (hover over .gifs to play).
That cutter will be important for Walker against lefties, as it gives him a pitch that he can really bear in on their hands. It also gives them something to think about besides his splitter, which can be downright filthy.
The curve will remain Walker’s prime wipeout pitch, and everything is built off the foundation of his fastball. You can see those two pitches in their dominant form below.
Few pitchers at any age have four pitches like the ones at Walker’s disposal. There’s little reason to doubt the effectiveness of the fastball, curveball or split. If he learns to command that cutter, he’s going to make this Mariners rotation scary. Even if he only uses the cutter sparingly, having all four pitches on tape will help him put hitters in guessing situations. On top of that, it will afford him a number of ways to attack both lefties and righties to either side of the plate. Factor in the pedigree, a friendly home park, and the defense behind him, and everything is in place for Walker to have a great season.
Andrew Heaney, Los Angeles Angels
Heaney came to the Angels as part of the three-team deal with the Marlins and Dodgers that landed Dee Gordon in Miami and Howie Kendrick in actual Los Angeles, rather than Anaheim. The lefty was a monster at Double-A Jacksonville and Triple-A New Orleans last year, forcing his way to the majors after showing he had nothing left to prove in the minors. Unfortunately, major league hitters don’t always agree. Heaney lasted for just 29 1/3 innings before getting sent back down, compiling a 5.83 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and surrendering six homers in his brief stint with the Marlins.
There’s no doubting that Heaney has the requisite talent to be a mid-rotation starter for the Angles this year. That, as well as his low draft-day price, makes him an attractive fantasy target. We still need to see more from him though, as does his manager. Mike Scioscia is still deciding whether it will be Heaney or Nick Tropeano filling out the rotation, and he may not make a decision until the very end of camp, given that the Angels don’t need a fifth starter until the second week of the season. Heaney has really struggled this spring, allowing 13 runs in 14 innings. If he’s going to hold off Tropeano and stick in the Angels’ rotation, he’s going to have to embrace his changeup more than he did a year ago.
Heaney didn’t use the changeup much last year, but it had the right look when he did. Eno Sarris over at Fangraphs wrote a great piece on little-used changeups last year that nevertheless had the movement and velocity difference to suggest they’ll be good pitches (http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy/like-these-baby-changeups/). No pitcher got more horizontal movement than Heaney. That’s going to be the pitch for him that keeps righties at bay. His fastball and sinker aren’t the sort of overpowering pitches that will allow him to simply mow down lineups. He needs to differentiate between hard and soft, and have something other than his slider to keep righties off balance.
What’s interesting is that it’s hard to figure out why Heaney didn’t throw more changes last year. In addition to the pitch having just the sort of movement and velocity subtraction from the fastball that a pitcher strives for, Heaney commanded it well, too. Check out the pitch’s zone profile, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
As you can see, more often than not Heaney spotted it down and away to a righty. Here’s just such an instance in an at-bat against Chris Young in his major league debut.
The bet here is that we see more changeups from Heaney this season. Not only should he have confidence in the offering after last year, but it’s the only way he’s going to be able to counteract righties’ platoon advantage with any sort of consistency. With a greater does of changeups, he can be a strong fantasy pitcher this year.
Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks
Let’s make sure one thing is clear right off the bat. Bradley is easily one of the five best pitchers in the Diamondbacks organization. He may not begin the year with the big league club, but that can’t possibly be based on performance or talent. This is another case of service-time shenanigans, though Bradley isn’t getting the attention that Kris Bryant is, because his numbers are merely very good, whereas Bryant’s suggest he’s not actually a human, but rather some cyborg constructed for the sole purpose of crushing baseballs. Given that the Diamondbacks are unlikely to compete for a playoff spot and that they have every incentive to keep Bradley at Triple-A Reno until the Super 2 deadline passes, fantasy owners can’t be sure when they’ll see him in the majors. That doesn’t mean he should be left on the undrafted scrap heap, though.
Like Walker, Bradley was a target at this time last year with the expectation that he’d be in the Arizona rotation at some point during the season. He, too, was sidelined by an arm injury, and ultimately never made it to the majors. Due largely to the injury, Bradley’s numbers last year left plenty to be desired. He split the season between Double-A Mobile and Reno, amassing a 4.45 ERA, 1.51 WHIP and 75 strikeouts against 49 walks in 83 innings. You can’t even get any lipstick on that pig. That’s just a bad season, no matter how you look at it.
The good news is that Bradley appears to have put the dreadful 2014 season in his rear-view mirror. The 22-year-old is completely healthy and having a great spring. In 11 1/3 innings, he has allowed three runs on 13 hits with 10 strikeouts and two walks. While his velocity has been down a touch, he’s still sitting at 93 mph and peaking at 95 mph. A few years ago, he may have tried to reach back for that few extra mph, even at this incredibly early stage at the season. That he hasn’t this year shows the sort of maturity necessary for Bradley to make the leap this year.
Also necessary for him to stick in the majors is his curveball, which can be among the best when Bradley is on top of his game. He’s just a three-pitch guy right now, with a changeup along with his heater and deuce. You can do a lot of things when you throw in the mid-90s with consistency, but it’s the curveball that could unlock the majors for Bradley. Here it is freezing Albert Pujols.
That’s a special curveball, along the lines of Adam Wainwright and Garrett Richards. If Bradley can harness this pitch, along with his fastball, he’s going to get a ton of strikeouts. There will undoubtedly be some growing pains, especially with respect to his overall command, but this sort of natural stuff almost always carries a pitcher to new heights, so long as he can avoid a major injury. Keep Bradley on your radar when your draft or auction is in the endgame.