This article is part of our MLB Barometer series.
In the last piece, I took a look at some of the biggest risers of the winter among hitters. This week, the focus will be on pitchers – both starters and relievers – who are moving up draft boards as their situation has improved since the end of the 2018 season.
All ADP data used in this article is from the NFBC.
Collin McHugh/Josh James/Forrest Whitley, SP, HOU – Charlie Morton's departure to the Rays via free agency, the expected loss of Dallas Keuchel (he's still unsigned), and Lance McCullers' decision to undergo Tommy John surgery in November has opened up three rotation spots in Houston.
For players already immersed in early drafts, there is value to be had with all three of the replacements, as the entire trio currently holds an ADP outside the Top 200 (since January 1), but their prices are rising, and it would hardly be surprising to see each of the three starters move up 50+ picks between now and the end of March.
After spending last season working exclusively out of the Houston bullpen, McHugh is the cheapest of the three starters (NFBC ADP – 258.40), and while he has the lowest long-term ceiling, he might offer the most short-term stability given the uncertainty about the workload the Astros are willing to give James and Whitley this season.
As a reliever, McHugh's four-seamer averaged 92.1 MPH – an increase from the 90.5 and 90.8 marks he averaged as a starter during the previous two seasons. With the extra velocity, he threw his fastball more than ever (48.8% usage, 24.8% whiff rate), while mixing two excellent breaking pitches; a slider (23.8% usage, 37.6% whiff rate) and curveball (18.2% usage, 49.5% whiff rate). The slider was a new offering in McHugh's arsenal in 2017, and it might be necessary for him to lean more heavily on his breaking pitches if his velocity increase last season was the byproduct of a max-effort approach in relief.
James (NFBC ADP – 209.24) was impressive in a very limited 23-inning opportunity with Houston late last season. Over three levels, he reached 136 innings in 2018, which would seemingly keep the door open for 160+ in 2019 if he's effective every fifth day. Steamer and RotoWire's projections have him between 123-128 innings. Both projections have James pitching to sub-4.00 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning, and while I would project a similar workload, his performance could dictate that he receives more.
The question with James comes down to command, which has always been the wet blanket in his scouting report despite an uptick in velocity after he was treated for sleep apnea a couple years back. With a high-90s fastball, a slider that gets a lot of whiffs, and an improving changeup, James has a breakout-friendly profile if he can pick up where he left off at the end of last season. If he struggles with his command and he's frequently falling behind hitters, James could move into the bullpen and become part of the bridge to the ninth inning instead.
Whitley (NFBC ADP – 227.36) has carried the rare "ace upside" tag as a prospect for most of his time in the Houston system, after he was taken 17th overall in the 2016 first-year player draft. After a 50-game suspension following a failed test for a banned stimulant, Whitley was limited by oblique and lat injuries while pitching at Double-A Corpus Christi before he logged 26 innings in the Arizona Fall League to push his season game total to 52.1 for 2018. Projecting Whitley's workload is even more difficult than projecting James' innings, because of the lost time last season, and since he's still just 21 years old with his 91 game innings in 2017 marking the highest total of his young career. The most likely scenario here appears to be a stretch at Triple-A for Whitley, where he'd be significantly limited on a start-by-start basis early in the year with the hope of preserving him for a near-regular workload in June and beyond.
This time last year, Walker Buehler was projected for fewer than 100 innings by most projection systems (ZiPS had him at 93.2). The situation is slightly different, since Buehler had larger annual workloads in college at Vanderbilt than he did following his recovery from Tommy John surgery in the Dodgers' system. We're still left to make our most educated guess at how the Astros are going to use Whitley. Let's assume that he was still throwing non-game innings on the side while he was suspended to begin last season, and give him another 40-50 frames on top of the 52.1 he actually saw at Double-A and in the Fall League. In that scenario, he logged 90-100 innings (again) last season, which might give him a path to 130-135 (at the high end) in 2019.
Again, we are guessing, but if that high-end estimate were to hold up, Whitley could make 27 five-inning starts with the Astros, which would allow him to join the rotation as soon as early May. He probably won't do that, but if the Astros were to use Whitley this season the way the Dodgers used Buehler a year ago, it might be 22-24 starts, and 130-135 innings of ace-level output. This can be done fairly easily, with increased off-days scattered throughout the regular season schedule, and teams being flexible about giving pitchers extra days off on both sides of the All-Star break.
Based on the RotoWire 2018 earn values, Buehler was a $13 pitcher last season with his limited workload. Keep in mind, that you would have had some other pitcher in that active roster spot before Buehler was added to the Dodgers' rotation, and you might have also missed a start or two while trying to get a read on the schedule for his early weeks in that role, so you might have been able to squeeze $15-17 of rotisserie value from one active pitcher spot, if you were able to play with a "smaller" roster by drafting Buehler after Round 20. Most pitchers drafted in that range returned $5 or less.
With Whitley going nearly 120 picks earlier than Buehler in early drafts, there is slightly more risk this time around, but roster management – not having too many players you're going to have to wait a month-plus to use – is a greater issue than Whitley's talent and output for me. In a league like the NFBC (seven reserve spots, no DL), it's very difficult to roster more than one player that you cannot use at any given time. Despite those constraints, I believe Whitley can be a profitable player at his current price in 2019.
Sonny Gray, SP, CIN – Getting out of New York should be a very good thing for Gray. After walking batters at a career-high 3.9 BB/9 rate last season, can he bounce back to previous norms? One theory with Gray's struggles at Yankee Stadium (6.98 ERA, opposing hitters posted a .315/.406/.527 line against him) is that he was nibbling around the strike zone to avoid getting punished by the long ball – his walk rate at home (5.3 BB/9) was nearly double his mark on the road (2.8 BB/9). His road splits were very good in 2018 (3.17 ERA, .223/.295/.320), and his strikeout rate has been up since the start of 2017 (8.5 K/9), with the support of consecutive seasons in which he's posted a double-digit swinging-strike rate. A closer look at Gray's pitch mix over the last two seasons shows a curveball that has been excellent at generating whiffs for three years running.
Great American Ballpark boosts homers, but the move to Cincinnati reunites Gray with his former college pitching coach, Derek Johnson, whose recent success in Milwaukee included big steps forward from Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson, and Jhoulys Chacin. A year ago, Gray was just inside the Top 150 overall, and he will likely jump 50-75 spots from his current ADP (286.56) with his move out of the Bronx. Injury risk is a greater concern for me than a ratios repeat from last season, as he missed time with forearm, lat, shoulder and trapezius injuries in 2016 and 2017.
Jesus Luzardo, SP, OAK – The A's retained Mike Fiers, and perhaps in an effort to secure a high-volume starter, they'll end up with Dallas Keuchel in the coming weeks, but there is a clear need for help in the Oakland rotation. Regardless of whether the A's add another arm via free agency, Luzardo is going to be a part of the solution in the very near future. Retaining an extra year of club control will likely be a priority, putting Luzardo in the Triple-A Nashville rotation for a few turns to begin 2019 before he gets a chance to claim his place atop the A's rotation.
He was brought along carefully in 2017 following pre-draft Tommy John surgery in 2016, and the A's allowed him to reach 109.1 innings in 2018 across three levels. If he throws 150 innings in 2019, 135-140 should be in Oakland, where Luzardo's advanced command should allow him to make a smooth transition in Year 1, as his arsenal features a fastball that can touch 98 mph, a plus changeup and an above-average curveball. Between Luzardo and Whitley, it's easier to project the former to have the larger workload in 2019, and it's somewhat surprising that Luzardo carries a slightly lower price tag in early drafts (NFBC ADP – 247.28).
Justus Sheffield, SP, SEA – Sheffield was the centerpiece of the return that the Mariners received for James Paxton, and his path to a rotation spot in Seattle is much clearer than his setup would have been in New York. Like most of the other young pitchers in this piece, Sheffield figures to see a little time at Triple-A before getting his chance at the big-league level, likely in early May. His price is much lower than that of Whitley and Luzardo (NFBC ADP – 435.56), but it's fair to wonder if his 2019 ceiling is high enough to spend a precious roster spot on stashing him prior to his callup. In any case, he went from undraftable in most formats (had he remained with the Yankees), to being worthy of consideration in deeper mixed formats (i.e. draft-and-hold) and AL-only leagues since he'll have a shot at 140-150 big-league innings in Seattle this season. Although he's undersized, Sheffield has three potential above-average offerings and good control, which puts him first in line to take a rotation spot when injuries or ineffectiveness create the need in the Mariners' rotation.
Jose LeClerc, RP, TEX – LeClerc was a big surprise in 2018, as he cut his walk rate from 20.0% in 2017 to 11.2%, while piling up whiffs at a career-best rate with his slider (56.1%!) despite a significant uptick in usage. His NFBC ADP since January 1 is 127.84, putting him in a reliever tier that includes Wade Davis, Kirby Yates, and Ken Giles. As somebody willing to buy that last year's skills growth as sustainable, the only concern comes from a suggestion made by new manager Chris Woodward, that the Rangers may not use LeClerc like a traditional closer, instead leaning on him for high-leverage situations throughout the late innings as needed. While this is optimal usage to increase the Rangers' win total, it's not necessarily optimal for turning LeClerc into a top-10 closer since he might end up in the 20-25 saves range instead of having a crack at 35-40. On the other hand, if the saves total needed to be near the top of the category takes another hit in 2019, getting 70-75 innings with excellent ratios and extra strikeouts might offset some of those potential lost saves.
Cody Allen, RP, LAA – Allen signed a one-year deal with the Angels, where he's positioned to open the year as the Halos closer, despite some concerning underlying skills trends. He posted a double-digit walk rate for the second time in the last three seasons in 2018, while his strikeout rate dropped to 27.7% last season – his lowest mark since 2013. In addition to making more contact against Allen, opposing hitters compiled a 38.4% hard-hit rate against him – his worst mark in seven seasons with Cleveland. Allen has allowed 28 homers since the start of 2016, with 25 of those coming against his four-seamer, a pitch that has lost nearly a full MPH in each of the last two seasons (93.5 MPH average in 2018). Without recouping some of the lost velocity, Allen will need to lean more heavily on his excellent curveball, otherwise he's vulnerable to losing the ninth-inning role to Ty Buttrey or one of the Angels' other relievers at some point this season. Allen's price is going to rise from his current ADP (268.80) now that he has a team, since he might have been forced to begin the year outside the ninth-inning role if he'd signed elsewhere.