Prospects: Pitchers for 2009

Earlier in the week I posted a look at a number of hitting prospects who weren't called up in September yet still are of intrigue for fantasy value in 2009. Today it's the pitcher's turn. As a reminder, I'm focusing on 2009 value only, so intriguing players still in the low minors like Madison Bumgarner and Jarrod Parker won't be of consideration. On Wednesday I'll have the final column of the year, a grading of the Rookie of the Year preview column from back in April.

Pitchers to Watch for 2009

Brett Anderson/Trevor Cahill/James Simmons - LHP/RHP/RHP Athletics - The Athletics have done an excellent job rebuilding their farm system through trades, drafting, and international scouting. The future is again bright in Oakland as a result, and the Athletics' decision to rebuild will start paying dividends of young talent next season. Anderson and Cahill are elite pitching prospects, both among the Top 10 in baseball, while Simmons is an underrated right-hander who should do a nice job complementing a strong top of the rotation.

Anderson is a left-hander with above average stuff and great command, with a low-90s fastball that induces plenty of grounders and two plus secondary offerings in his curve and changeup. His 3.69 ERA in 105 innings on the season isn't too spectacular, but considering he spent _ of the year in the California League and the other part in the Texas League he can be cut some slack. His ERA would also be considerably lower if he hadn't tried to pitch through a thumb injury, giving up eight runs in one-third of an inning before going on the disabled list. His 118/27 K/BB is also a big plus, as is the fact that he handles both right-handers and left-handers with ease.

Cahill followed almost the exact same path as Anderson this season and finished with a 2.61 ERA and 136/50 K/BB in 124 1/3 innings. He induces even more ground balls with a GB/FB of 2.43 thanks to his low-90s sinking fastball. Cahill's command isn't quite as good as Anderson's and his curveball/changeup combo I'd also rate behind, but the superior movement on his fastball makes up for some of that. Both he and Cahill were selected to Team USA in the Olympics. Simmons doesn't have the great sinking fastball or strikeout breaking pitch, but his command is the best of three and his changeup rivals Anderson's. Drafted just last season, Simmons put up a solid 3.51 ERA and 120/32 K/BB in 136 Double-A innings.

With all of this talent, it's no wonder general manager Billy Beane was willing to take a chance when dealing Rich Harden. Justin Duchscherer has a rotation spot locked up as long as his hip is healthy, but that's not a lock and there's not a single other spot in the rotation that won't have to be earned with quality production. That bodes well for the chances of the A's three-headed pitching monster to get a shot, and it could come earlier than expected. Both Anderson and Cahill possess No. 1 or No. 2 starter potential and Simmons should be a solid innings eater, so all are worth watching. All three pitchers are very advanced and are capable of pitching well right away, so they'll need to be monitored very closely.

Recommendation: Watch spring training battles and go the extra dollar if it looks like one will win a spot.

Wade Davis/Jeremy Hellickson - RHPs Rays - Despite the loss of Jacob McGee to Tommy John surgery the Rays are still swimming in young pitching. In addition to Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, David Price, and Jeff Niemann at the big league level, the Rays have two more potential top of the rotation arms in Davis and Hellickson. They even have another potential front-line arm in Nick Barnese in the low minors, but we'll save him for another day.

Davis entered the year the better prospect, but his season was slightly disappointing with a 3.47 ERA and 136/66 K/BB in 160 2/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Hellickson, who is a year and a half younger, had a 2.96 ERA and fantastic 162/20 K/BB in 152 innings between High-A and Double-A. However, his ERA went from 2.00 to 3.94 once reaching Double-A, in large part because his home run rate doubled to 15 allowed in 13 starts. Davis is a harder thrower who still needs to refine his curve and develop a changeup, while Hellickson has three above average pitches and outstanding control. Both have their warts, but they each remain Top 50 overall prospects.

Unfortunately for Davis and Hellickson, their patch to a big league job will be difficult. The first five starters above are all locks for a spot in next year's rotation. Davis and Niemann will battle to serve as the sixth starter, though moving Davis to the bullpen makes a lot of sense. The club has had better luck in that department this year, but they still lack a long-term closer. Letting Davis come in and light up the radar gun and focus only on his curve for a secondary pitch makes plenty of sense, as it would hide some of his weaknesses. Niemann could also make a good reliever, though they'll probably leave him in the rotation for now. I suspect Hellickson will be the club's sixth option by mid-season, and will thus be worth watching closely. If Davis is moved to the bullpen this winter he'll be a save sleeper for 2009 and his long-term value would actually take a jump in fantasy leagues.

Recommendation: Monitor Davis' role and react accordingly. Watch Hellickson's progress with the home run rate in the minors and look for an opportunity.

Neftali Feliz/Derek Holland - RHP/LHP Rangers - The Rangers had one of the best farm systems in the game entering the year, and with the development of their young players they actually may be in better shape than they were then. Part of the reason for that was the continued progress from Feliz, who went from a promising youngster with an erratic arm to a downright dominant pitcher. At the young age of 20 Feliz posted a 2.69 ERA and 153 strikeouts in 127 1/3 innings between Single-A and Double-A. That he walked 51 batters wasn't a plus, but it was an acceptable number and an improvement from the previous season. Feliz's best attribute is his fastball, which sits in the mid-to-upper 90s, and his changeup and slider have improved in 2008, though still need some refinement.

Holland was a lesser known arm coming into the year, but he's shooting up prospect lists thanks to a combined 2.27 ERA and 157/40 K/BB in 150 2/3 innings between three levels. The 21-year-old started the year with Feliz for Low-A Clinton, but his age dictated a move and he eventually made five starts in High-A and four in Double-A. He was even better at the higher levels than he was in Low-A, thanks in part to an uptick in velocity. Holland was hitting the mid-90s consistently later in the season, even hitting the high-90s late in starts. His slider is inconsistent but a plus pitch more often than not and the same could be said for his changeup, but his fastball is so good from the left side that he could be pitching in the majors right now. Assuming the velocity stays that high, Holland should join Feliz among the Top 10 pitching prospects in the minors.

Vicente Padilla and Kevin Millwood will remain in the club's rotation due to their contracts, but the rest of the Rangers' staff is filled with veteran mediocrities or youngsters with lower ceilings who have struggled. The opportunity will be there for both Feliz and Holland when they're ready, and the Rangers could feel the pressure to promote them as early as June. Both are better bets in keeper leagues due to their young age and need for some refinement, but those in one-year leagues should be watching for improvements. Both could be legitimate No. 1 starters if they progress as pitchers just a bit more.

Recommendation: Watch for improved command and consistency from secondary offerings. Pursue aggressively if those improvements are evident.

Thomas Hanson - RHP Braves - A big right-hander at 6'6" and 220 pounds, Hanson took a step forward in the rankings department this season. He looked promising after an overall solid season in 2007, but his struggles with the long ball once reaching High-A were concerning and his 4.20 ERA there didn't help. However, the now 22-year-old solved those woes early this season, posting a minuscule 0.90 ERA, 49/11 K/BB and no homers allowed in his first 40 innings for Myrtle Beach. Problems with consistency plagued him once reaching Double-A, but overall he looked just fine with a 3.03 ERA, 114/41 K/BB, and nine homers allowed in 98 innings. That line also included a no-hitter on June 25 in which he struck out 14 batters.

The big difference for Hanson this year has been his fastball, which is up about two or three MPH from where it was most often in 2007. He typically sits in the 92-93 MPH range and can hit 95, whereas he was previously mostly around 90-92. He's also added a slider, which may even be better than his plus curve. Hanson's command is still only average or a little below and since he pitches up in the zone with his four-seamer he'll continue to give up his share of home runs. That said, Hanson's stuff grades out as a No. 2 starter, and he should be able to maintain, or come close to maintaining, that status in the majors. The Braves have a dearth of starters with Mike Hampton a free agent, John Smoltz injured, and Charlie Morton nor Jo-Jo Reyes stepping up. Hanson could well compete for a rotation spot next spring as a result, so he's someone to monitor.

Recommendation: Stash away in early drafts, then waive and watch for an opportunity if he is sent to the minors.

David Huff - LHP Indians - Drafted in the supplemental first round of the 2006 draft, Huff missed the entire second half of last season with an elbow injury. However, he's rebounded with full health and excellent production in 2008, posting a 2.52 ERA and 143/29 K/BB in 146 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Huff sits right at 90-91 MPH with his fastball, but his strikeout rate remains elite thanks to pinpoint command and one of the best changeups in the minors. His slider and curve are more to keep an opposing hitter off balance, but they're solid enough to play at the big league level. Roll it all up, and Huff could surprise people as a No. 2 starter. He'll more likely have trouble limiting home runs and be relegated to a No. 3 who posts an ERA right around 4.00, but that has plenty of uses.

Fausto Carmona, Cliff Lee, and Anthony Reyes will have rotation spots locked up for 2009, and Scott Lewis' late season performance means he'll likely have one as well. Huff pitched well in Triple-A and is advanced as he's going to get, so expect the Indians to let him battle Zach Jackson, Jeremy Sowers, and a veteran acquisition for the last rotation spot next spring. Huff should be the favorite despite his lack of big league experience, and he's certainly the most interesting for fantasy purposes.

Recommendation: Watch off-season transactions and early spring reports to ensure Huff will be given a shot. If so, take a flier in AL-only leagues. If not, wait to pounce once he has a clear shot at a big league role.

Chris Tillman - RHP Orioles - One of the prospects stolen from the Mariners in the Erik Bedard trade, Tillman built on some late season success in 2007 and now looks like a top-level pitching prospect. The 20-year-old right-hander was one of the youngest pitchers to play in Double-A for the whole season, and his 3.18 ERA and 154 strikeouts in 135 2/3 innings was excellent. Tillman's command still needs work as evidenced by his 65 walks, but the stuff is there. Tillman throws a fastball that sits in the 92-93 range and can hit 95. Combined with good movement, it's a plus pitch despite not inducing many grounders. He also has a plus curve, though he has trouble spotting it too often.

Tillman is exceptionally young and needs to work on his command, but the Orioles could get antsy and promote him early next season anyway. There were rumors that the club was going to do so late this season, but manager Dave Trembley shot them down in early August. Baltimore won't have trouble finding room once he's ready, and Tillman could be a true ace if his command improves substantially. If not he'll still be a No. 2/No. 3 and have plenty of fantasy value.

Recommendation: Look for command improvements in the minors. If shown, stash him away in AL-only leagues and reap the rewards once an opportunity arises.

Jordan Zimmerman - RHP Nationals - Selected out of Division III Wisconsin - Stevens Point in the second round of the 2007 draft, Zimmerman showed solid command and an advanced feel for his pitches after debuting in the New York-Penn League. Those traits continued to be displayed this season, as Zimmerman posted a 2.89 ERA and 134/47 K/BB in 134 innings mostly for Double-A Harrisburg. His fastball sits in the low-90s, but he's been able to dial it up a bit higher than that in the past and it's been a hard pitch for opposing hitters to center. His breaking pitch and changeup are both solid, though unlikely to be true out pitches.

Zimmerman would have been in the majors this September if not for biceps tendonitis. General Manager Jim Bowden has talked of Zimmerman getting a shot to earn a spot in a big league rotation next spring, but he'll probably head to Triple-A to start the year. However, he will be among the first pitchers chosen when the Nationals need an arm, and Zimmerman's fine all-around game should make him a No. 3. That will be worth claiming once he's promoted and Zimmerman's lack of hype means he should come at a discount.

Recommendation: Claim in NL-only leagues once promoted, likely in May or June.

Others to watch: Jake Arrieta (RHP, Orioles), Brett Cecil (LHP, Blue Jays), Carlos Carrasco (RHP, Phillies), David Hernandez (RHP, Orioles), Will Inman (RHP, Padres), Aaron Poreda (LHP, White Sox), Jess Todd (RHP, Cardinals).

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