KEEPERS: 2017 Dynasty Reload—AL SPs

This is the eighth installment of our annual off-season series aimed at helping keeper league (KL) and dynasty owners address needs over the next 3-5 years. Each week we will examine a position, and note players and prospects who 1) are likely available in your league; and 2) we think have a good shot at earning double-digit R$ sometime between 2017 and 2019.

Stable, established contributors are more difficult than ever to acquire, be it by trade or off your league's free agent list. This is even more valid for rebuilders with little excess talent to barter, and particularly relevant with respect to position players in deeper leagues.

We'll attempt to identify the best and most MLB-ready of both marginal producers and legit prospects with upside, some with little to no MLB track record. And of course context matters—in terms of opportunity, risk, health, age, price and productivity time-line. Our filter uses the following criterion:

  • Player must be growth-age—27 years old—or younger as of April 1, 2017
  • Player must have earned less than $10 in a 5x5 format during 2016
  • Player must have 100+ AB or 50 IP above A+, AFL experience, or 5 years in professional foreign ball

Links to previous positions: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | AL OF | NL OF

As we noted in this space last year, calling SP breakthroughs in any particular year is too frequently a dart-throwing exercise. After a 2016 season that was particularly hard on both SP health and performances, we didn't do any better than anyone else. Of our ten above-the-cut-entries from last year, five had seasons interrupted by injuries, five simply underperformed our expectations, and none reached our $10 plateau. 

Our big 2016 winners were found below the cut, where Rick Porcello came out of nowhere in his eighth MLB season to earn $10+ for the first time—$30 to be precise—and an AL Cy Young award. And where Aaron Sanchez won a rotation job and earned $20, and Kevin Gausman earned $11. Like others, we whiffed on the inexperienced Michael Fulmer's $17 MLB debut. That's the kind of season 2016 was.

Rotation outlooks are as murky as ever now this winter, partly due to the 2016 hangover. At least a few of our growth-age-based candidates—Andrew Heaney, Nate Eovaldi, to name a couple—will miss all of 2017 rehabbing from elbow surgery, and aren't included here due to the uncertainty involved in their recoveries.  And role is always an issue, something that needs watching throughout the spring if not the season for at least several good arms. But the AL will enter the pre-season with plenty of good young arms that could take big steps up in 2017—again, health permitting. Let's get to it:

Despite posting typically solid K/BB numbers at AAA-Oklahoma City with LA, Jharel Cotton (RHP, OAK) struggled with gopheritis (17 HR, 4.91 ERA over 97 IP). His move to OAK coincided with a much-improved Triple-A bottom line (38 IP, 3 HR, 2.82 ERA) and a September MLB audition in which Cotton posted an impressive 2.15/4.01 ERA/xERA, 66% FpK, 13% SwK, and 5.8 Cmd over five starts (29 IP) despite giving up four HR. As an xFBer, the longballs aren't going away, and Cotton may need more than his FB/plus-CU repertoire to thrive over a larger sample. It's also worth noting that physical issues have delayed Cotton's minor league development; his 165 IP last year are 40 more than in any of his professional seasons. He's a back-of-the-rotation sleeper with a limited ceiling for now.

Lucas Giolito's (RHP, CHW) 2017 MLB struggles (11/12 K/BB, 7 HR allowed, 6.75 ERA in 21 IP) clearly fueled his devaluation in the eyes of his previous organization, as he now finds himself in the AL. But Giolito still owns age (22), and a plus-plus fastball/curve combination that still draw raves from scouts and analysts. His limited 2H numbers at Triple-A—37 IP, 40/10 K/BB, big GB tilt and a 2.17 ERA—suggest that all of his elite skills didn't vanish overnight. Now with his MLB feet wet, Giolito's pedigree suggests he'll make big gains at some point over the next three seasons. Buying opportunity.

After earning $15 and $26 respectively in 2014 and 2015, Sonny Gray (RHP, OAK) enters 2017 as perhaps the biggest SP question mark in baseball. Multiple injuries and DL stints no doubt played a role in a 5.69 ERA / 1.50 WHIP performance that was highlighted by an 8% SwK and 1.4 hr/9. And we remain leery about the forearm injury that essentially shelved him for the final two months. A rock-solid 50%+ GB% suggests that with better health, Gray should improve on a 33% H% and 64% S%—and fashion a rebound of sorts. But recall that he also faded in the 2H of 2015 as back and hip problems took over, suggesting that durability is now an issue. Don't assume a return to his previous peaks, particularly on a rebuilder.

Reynaldo Lopez (RHP, CHW) enjoyed a breakthrough season in his high minors debut, posting a combined 126/35 K/BB and 3.21 ERA over 110 IP in AA/AAA and earning his MLB promotion. Lopez found the going tougher at the next level, with his 4.5 Ctl fueling a 4.91 ERA over 44 IP. But his dominance remained intact (42 Ks), and Lopez had his moments—including an 11 K/2 BB, two-run 7 IP start vs. ATL. The 23-year-old could head back to Triple-A for more fine-tuning, and the next season or two could be volatile as Lopez looks for command consistency. A fastball that regularly touches triple-digits in short spurts could eventually make Lopez a ninth-inning option, but we'll put him here for now. 

Between DL stints, last year's cover-boy Lance McCullers (RHP, HOU) displayed scary good rotation dominance (11.8 Dom, 13% SwK, 57% GB%) that overcame ongoing control issues (5.0 Ctl) and an unfortunate 38% H% to post a 3.22/3.24 ERA/xERA. But McCullers missed April with shoulder soreness and then the final two months of the season with a strained elbow, leaving huge question marks about his durability, effectiveness, and perhaps even his role going forward. After tossing just 89 innings between HOU and the minors, McCullers will likely be handled with kid gloves in 2017. Big short-term risk, big long-term reward. 

Sean Manaea (LHP, OAK) is an obvious above-the-cut choice following a solid $8 MLB debut in which he displayed outstanding skills that included a 13% SwK, 65% FpK, 4.0 Cmd and 47% GB% over his final 90 IP (2.91 ERA) in the 2H. Skills. Manaea also tossed a career-high 166 IP between OAK and the minors—just 30 IP less than his combined, injury-plagued 2014-15 workload. And while 2016 is obviously a positive, Manaea missed two weeks with a strained forearm in June, and another two weeks near the end of the season with back issues. Another 2017 breakout candidate for whom health looks like the biggest risk going forward.

As suggested by a 4.06 ERA and 50% DIS%, Joe Musgrove (RHP, HOU) was volatile during his 11-start 2H MLB debut. Part of the problem was his inability to carry over his GB-throwing ways from Triple-A, as reflected in a 1.3 hr/9. But Musgrove also posted an impressive 8.0 Dom and 2.3 Ctl (backed up by a 10% SwK and 62% FpK) in his first go-round in HOU, and was able to avoid big HR numbers in the minors. Relying on movement and command instead of plus velocity, Musgrove doesn't have the long-term ceiling of other names on this list. But he could get there sooner, particularly on a contender.

The Baseball Forecaster points out that Daniel Norris (RHP, DET) has been a physical mess—including thyroid cancer, a fractured back, and an oblique strain—for the past two seasons, which makes it difficult to judge his skill set after the fact. What we do know is that 1) Norris entered the 2015 season as a consensus Top 25 prospect after posting a 163/43 K/BB over three minor league levels as a 20-year old in 2014, ending that season with his MLB debut. And 2) when finally healthy in September 2016, Norris recorded a 2.73/3.49 ERA/xERA, 11.5 Dom and 2.4 Ctl—supported by a 14% SwK and 63% FpK—over five starts (30 IP). Durability remains a red flag, Norris could use a few more ground-balls, and the recent setbacks keep us unsure of his ceiling. But he's another upside-with-health play.

We anticipated growing pains for Eduardo Rodriguez (LHP, BOS) last season. But a broken knee cap in March added to his struggles, fueling two minor league stints that effectively made him a 1H non-factor. Once fully healthy and up to speed, Rogriguez's 2H—9.2 Dom, 12% SwK, 3.24/4.21 ERA/xERA over 78 IP—was more in line with his upside. The breaking stuff and control still needs fine-tuning, and Rodriguez still needs to generate a few more ground-balls. And the Red Sox' rotation depth suggests he'll need to win a job in March. But with health (seeing a pattern yet?), Rodriguez looks poised for big improvement either this coming season or next.

Despite missing three weeks in July due to a sprained left wrist, Carlos Rodon (LHP, CHW) took a nice step forward in the 2H of his first full MLB season. Rodon shaved almost half a run off his 1H ERA, posting a 3.81/3.86 ERA/xERA and 3.3 Cmd over 78 IP and ending 2016 with a decent $5 R$. Of particular note during this stretch was his FpK (from 52% to 56%) and SwK improvement. Rodon began to use an improved change-up more often over the final two months. If he can bring his GB% and hr/f more in line with his 2015 effort, Rodon is a 2017 breakout candidate with good upside. 

2016 looked like an injury-rebound season for strike-thrower Drew Smyly (LHP, SEA), but it didn't work out that way. HR and H%/S% woes crushed him in the 1H (5.33/3.90 ERA/xERA), before mysteriously plunging 2H dominance (6.7 Dom, 9% SwK%) finished him off. His venue change looks like a wash, and FBer Smyly should benefit from a fine OF defense. The key will be a full season of better luck and avoiding the long-ball. The soft-tossing Smyly's previous R$ high has been $9, both in 2013 and 2014—a good indicator of his upside if everything goes right.

Bigtime stuff and dominance (9.9 Dom, 12% SwK, .5 hr/9) helped Blake Snell (LHP, TAM) overcome a 5.2 Ctl to post an uneven 3.54 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in his 89-inning MLB debut. Snell obviously needs a more consistent grasp of the strike zone and better control over soaring pitch counts that left him unable to finish six innings in 12 of his 19 starts. But the quality of his power repertoire and pedigree—49 straight scoreless IP between A+ and AA in 2015—makes Snell's growing pains worth the wait.

Following a 2015 lost to a torn knee ligament, Marcus Stroman (RHP, TAM) struggled in the 1H of his first full MLB season (5.08/3.96 ERA/xERA) due to a combination of loftier-than-usual Ctl+hr/f, and poor S% luck. But despite giving up more HR than usual for the entire season, Stroman maintained his elite 60% GB% as well. And when his S% luck and control issues reversed course, Stroman's season did likewise, with a 3.56/3.11 ERA/xERA over the 2H—and a $6 R$ for the year. Notable in his late surge was an 8.3 Dom backed up by a 10% SwK, both of which would be full season career-highs. If the strikeouts hold and the HRs abate, Stroman could realize his significant upside in 2017.


Missed our cut, but worth watching:

Jose Berrios (RHP, MIN): Thought he'd rise above the cut this year, but disastrous MLB debut (8.02 ERA, 5.4 Ctl, 1.9 hr/9) in which he showed next-to-nothing keeps him here. Age, pedigree and outstanding high-minors numbers keep him attractive, but only from a reserve spot for now.

Matt Andriese (RHP, TAM): Earned $5 as a swing-man last year in 128 IP. 4.37/4.01 ERA/xERA doesn't look like much, but 4.4 Cmd, 66% FpK and 11% SwK were impressive—and offset by H%/S% woes. Will fight for a rotation spot in March.

Trevor Bauer (RHP, CLE): Career-high $7 in 196 IP thanks to big GB% spike. But most of his success came in 1H—before 2H hr/f surge and 5.51/4.40 ERA/xERA crashed him on the rocks. SwK continues to drift, no sign of consistent skills growth anywhere. This looks like a ceiling or close to it.

Tyler Duffey (RHP, MIN): Righty struggled big-time vR and 1.7 hr/9 overall despite fine 3.6 Cmd and 48% GB%. 35% H% and 60% S% were also culprits in that 6.43 ERA. Needs adjustments and better luck, but the seeds are there.

Carson Fullmer (RHP, CHW): 2015 first-round college pick whiffed a batter an inning in his first professional season between AA and CHW while struggling to keep runs off the board and prevent walks along the way. Power stuff, control could result in a role change.

Brent Honeywell (RHP, TAM): Outstanding repertoire and command, as seen in career 2.58 ERA and 286/58 K/BB over 279 minor league IP. Missed six weeks early with forearm soreness but roared back to post similar numbers between A+ and AA. Just 60 IP of high-minors experience, but could move quickly, health permitting.

James Kaprielian (RHP, NYY): 2015 first-round pick who missed most of 2016 with a strained elbow tendon, then impressed in the AFL. Huge upside with mid-90s fastball and four usable pitches, another potential fast mover. But health remains a red flag.

Francis Martes (RHP, HOU): 21-year-old consensus Top 50 prospect struggled early, then broke out with a 76/19 K/BB and 2.97 ERA over final 64 IP in first Double-A effort. Live fastball and plus power curve could land him in HOU at some point this season, either in the rotation or out of the pen.

Luis Severino (RHP, NYY): Reversal following 2015 debut was largely a result of inflated H%/S%, but gopheritis and ineffective change-up were in play as well. And 8.50 ERA as an SP (11 HR in 48 IP) suggests that he's more comfortable coming out of the pen.

Tyler Skaggs (LHP, LAA): Unable to return from 2014 TJS for almost two years, posted uneven 4.17/4.33 ERA/xERA over 50 IP afterward. 9.1 Dom offered glimpses along with other flashes. But one-time prospect now has plenty to prove.

Chase Whitley (RHP, TAM): Promising return following May 2015 TJS; 32/9 K/BB, 2.21 ERA over 37 minor league IP, 15/3 K/BB with just four earned runs in 14 IP at TAM. 3.5 Cmd, 101 BPV over 109 MLB IP suggests that this flyer shouldn't be ignored this spring.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.