O's Gausman, M's Walker expected to get big innings this season
Kevin Gausman had a 5.66 ERA in 20 big league games and a 3.51 ERA in 16 Minor League outings in 2013. (Bowie Baysox)
By Jake Seiner / MiLB.com | March 3, 2014 10:00 AM ET
The value of a competent, young starting pitcher has never been greater to Major League clubs. Hurlers lacking big league experience have managed to play major factors on quality teams, contributing in playoff pushes and starting key postsesaon games. Last year, Michael Wacha and Danny Salazar were among the rookies to impact the baseball landscape with their promising arms.
In the American League, a number of hurlers are likely to graduate from top prospects to young Major Leaguers early this season. Many got brief tastes of the Majors in 2013. Others are hoping to make the jump straight from Double-A. Come September, some might already be household names, while others might be on their way. Perhaps most importantly to some fans, their impact on fantasy leagues could be just as big.
So what are the names you should know? With the help of Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections, taken with gratitude from the fine folks over at Fangraphs, here's a rundown of which pitchers could earn big innings in the Majors this season and how you should expect them to perform.
The Projections: Gausman excelled in the Minors in his first full professional season, striking out 82 batters over 82 innings with a 3.51 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A. He struggled once he reached the Majors, though. The LSU product made five starts and 15 relief appearances, accumulating a 5.66 ERA and allowing eight homers in 47 2/3 innings. ZiPS thinks the long balls will decrease, projecting him to allow 1.09 per nine innings, not far from league average. If that happens, Gausman's strikeout and walk numbers point to a pitcher poised to break out at the big league level.
Playing Time Factors: Currently, there are five pitchers ahead of Gausman on the Orioles' depth chart, but that could change, either due to injury or because of his performance in Spring Training. The 23-year-old may not spend all of 2014 in the Majors but should be there for most of the season -- unless his performance dictates otherwise.
Fantasy Impact: It's not hard to imagine Gausman striking out a batter per inning as an effective Major League starter, and the ultimate upside is even higher than that for fantasy owners. Limiting the long ball in Camden Yards can be a challenge, and it'll be those home run numbers owners should gauge early on. If it seems like Gausman is keeping the ball out of the air better than last season, it could be time to shell out for him big-time.
The Projections: ZiPS takes into account that Walker will pitch his home games in one of baseball's most pitcher-friendly environments, which makes his 4.07 projected ERA slightly less optimistic than face value. That said, the projection system thinks he's ready to step into a Major League rotation and chew innings like a mid- to late-rotation starter.
Playing Time Factors: Walker made three starts with Seattle to end the 2013 season, and with nothing left to prove in the Minors, he was expected to break camp in the Mariners' rotation. But a sore shoulder shelved Walker for at least a week, casting doubt on his readiness for Opening Day.
Fantasy Impact: The upside is high for Walker. Though ZiPS projects him to be slightly below-average overall, his stuff could play above what his Minor League numbers suggest. With a dominant fastball and two above-average off-speed pitches, Walker could become one of the Majors' best pitchers quickly, if things break the right way.
The Projections: The 23-year-old spent most of 2013 with Double-A Portland, racking up 135 strikeouts in 108 innings. ZiPS believes in his punchout abilities and thinks that, paired with an ability to keep the ball in the park, will make him an average Major League starter in 2014. Barnes' upside may not be the highest among the other top pitching prospects, but ZiPS suggests the right-hander is ready to take on a starting role this season.
Playing Time Factors: Ready though he may be, Barnes has some obstacles in his way if he's going to crack the Red Sox's rotation at any point in 2014. One obstacle was removed when Ryan Dempster announced he'd take the year off, but even beyond the established starting five, Barnes would have to leapfrog a number of Triple-A arms to get first crack in case of an injury. Realistically, his best bet would be as a September callup, and it's possible his time will be limited to a few innings out of the bullpen.
Fantasy Impact: If and when Barnes does get playing time, he should provide some quality production to fantasy owners. ZiPS thinks he'll strike out nearly a batter per inning, and pitching for the Red Sox should help his win total. His ERA isn't projected to be dominant, but the upside is high enough to make Barnes worth a flier late in drafts, especially in AL-only leagues. His ultimate utility in 2014 will be determined mostly by playing time.
The Projections: Ventura struck out 10.4 batters per nine innings in the Minors last season, but ZiPS is skeptical about the 5-foot-11 right-hander's ability to punch out big league hitters. Otherwise, his other numbers align with what might be expected based on his Minor League track record, with a low home run rate and below-average walk rates.
Playing Time Factors: Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore said before Spring Training he planned to begin the year with Jason Vargas, James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen in the rotation, with a collection of pitchers competing for the fifth spot. Ventura may be the favorite in that mix, having reached the Majors and pitched well in three starts late last season, but Danny Duffy -- and perhaps Wade Davis -- are likely to challenge as well. Even if he doesn't win a job out of camp, he should take up a rotation spot in Kansas City at some point in 2014.
Fantasy Impact: Ventura is an interesting case, especially because there are factors beyond ZiPS' grasp at play. For one, it's hard to imagine Ventura not racking up more strikeouts with his stuff, headlined by a high-90s fastball that can hit triple digits. For another, there are concerns that the diminutive right-hander might not hold up under the duress of a Major League workload. Though the latter should be a consideration by fantasy owners, the reality is Ventura's upside makes him a highly coveted piece heading into 2014.
The Projections: Zimmer had a fascinating 2013 season. His ERA in 18 Class A Advanced starts finished at 4.82, despite monstrous strikeout rates and other stellar periphery stats. Zimmer jumped to Double-A in July and posted a 1.93 ERA in four starts, dominating Texas League hitters before finishing his season early due to shoulder stiffness. To ZiPS, all of that suggests Zimmer could use some more time in the Minors, projecting substandard walk and home run rates, despite quality Minor League results.
Playing Time Factors: Zimmer should get that required Minor League time but still could play a role in the AL Central race if Kansas City hangs around long enough. The 22-year-old right-hander will begin 2013 either with Double-A Northwest Arkansas or Triple-A Omaha and could reasonably be ready for a Major League gig by mid-summer.
Fantasy Impact: Rebuilding owners may consider investing in Zimmer before the season, but in most leagues, he's more of a wait-and-see candidate. If he starts strong in the Minors, he could jump to the Majors by July or August and shine. Results similar to what the Cardinals got from Wacha last year aren't out of the question.
We decided not to give Masahiro Tanaka a full writeup, seeing as this is MiLB.com and he's unlikely to pitch in the Minors in the near future. That said, the 25-year-old is a viable Rookie of the Year candidate for the Bombers. … Alex Meyer won't begin 2014 in Minnesota but could pitch there at some point. When he does, ZiPS thinks the 6-foot-9 right-hander will find fast success. … Marcus Stroman is likely to start 2014 at Triple-A but could ascend to the Majors quickly. Like Ventura, he faces questions about his height and frame, but past results and ZiPS suggest that shouldn't keep him from finding success in the Majors. … Mike Wright gets a little lost among some of the Orioles' more lauded arms but could be a quality mid-rotation starter as soon as this season. … Erik Johnson broke out with Double-A Birmingham in 2013, showcasing a deep repertoire and quality control. He made five starts in the Majors and should open 2014 in Chicago's rotation. … For Boston, Allen Webster made seven starts in 2013 and posted a lackluster 23-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio. ZiPS isn't optimistic he'll cut down on the walks in 2014. … Dylan Bundy won't return to game action until at least May and faces a number of obstacles to pitch in the Majors this season, but assuming his stuff returns post-Tommy John, he could be a major contributor down the stretch. ... Jake Odorizzi pitched well in 29 2/3 big league innings last year, but ZiPS is skeptical of his ability to keep the ball in the strike zone. ... James Paxton likely will join Walker in the Mariners' rotation. Task No. 1 for the left-hander will be cutting down on the walks. ... The Indians were hoping for better when they traded for Trevor Bauer, but ZiPS isn't optimistic he can turn things around.
Jake Seiner is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Seiner.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.