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Combing Triple-A Numbers For Starting Pitchers

Even in non-keeper leagues, it's important to be up on the game's top prospects, particularly those who are big league ready.  One sign of readiness is domination at the game's next-highest level, Triple-A, coupled with a strong scouting report.  After combing through the 2013 Triple-A numbers, here's a look at a slew of pitchers who appeared at the level.

  • Danny Salazar, Indians: Having made ten fantastic starts in the Majors, Salazar is no secret at this point.  But in many mixed leagues, you may be able to draft the 24-year-old around the 12th or 13th round.  The only reason to pump the brakes on the hard-throwing righty is that he set a career-high with 145 innings in 2013, making something around 175 his ceiling for 2014.  Salazar's big league excellence is backed up by his Triple-A numbers: 2.73 ERA, 11.9 K/9, 2.1 BB/9 in 13 starts.
  • Tony Cingrani, Reds: Cingrani had even more big league success than Salazar, logging 104 2/3 innings with a 10.3 K/9.  His six Triple-A starts went equally well.  Similar to Salazar, Cingrani has never exceeded 146 innings, so keep your expectations reasonable.  It appears he can be had right around the same point in the draft as Salazar, so maybe we'll see the two in a future Draft Round Battle.
  • Tanner Roark, Nationals: Roark should be in a Spring Training competition for the fifth spot in the Nationals' rotation, along with Taylor Jordan and Ross Detwiler.  He made five starts for the big club last September, and four of them were strong.  Roark spent also spent time in the Nationals' bullpen.  At Triple-A, he worked in both roles as well, with a standout 1.71 BB/9 illustrating his strong command.  While Roark has never been regarded as much of a prospect, he worked from 92-94 miles per hour in his big league rotation stint, and could be something of a late bloomer at age 27.  That said, I see little potential for strikeouts, so those in standard mixed leagues can probably pass.
  • Will Smith, Brewers: Smith, a 24-year-old southpaw, was traded to the Brewers in December straight-up for a quality regular in Norichika Aoki.  Baseball America threw a back of the rotation projection on Smith a few years ago, and it does seem he'll compete for the Brewers' fifth starter job.  Smith had started 16 games for the Royals' big league club in 2012, and his first 11 games in Triple-A in 2013 were starts as well.  He posted a 3.55 ERA, 9.9 K/9, and 2.7 BB/9, but was moved to the bullpen because the Royals had a more pressing need there.  I think he could have some sneaky value if he earns a rotation spot with the Brewers in 2014.
  • Michael Wacha, Cardinals: Wacha needs little introduction, but I'll give you some background anyway.  The 19th overall pick in 2012, Wacha had a great spring in 2013 but opened the season at Triple-A.  He earned a call-up in late May, but was sent back down because Jake Westbrook was returning.  Wacha returned in August, solidfying his rotation spot in September before pitching quite well in four of his five postseason starts (winning the NLCS MVP).  Including the postseason, he has 95 1/3 Major League innings under his belt, yet is being drafted in many leagues as one of the 15 best starters in the game.  Current projections suggest an ERA in the 3.50-3.75 range, with a strikeout rate that could well dip below 8.0 per nine (it was 7.7 at Triple-A).  Like most people, I like Wacha, but I would not make him my #1 fantasy starter, nor would I draft him inside the first eight or nine rounds.
  • Burch Smith, Padres: Sleeper alert!  Smith, 24 in April, was knocked around in the Majors as a rookie in 2013.  In 18 starts at Double and Triple-A, however, he posted a 2.63 ERA, 9.9 K/9, and 2.2 BB/9.  He works around 92-93 and is a solid prospect.  The Padres quietly have strong rotation depth, however, so Smith is a name to stash away if and when one of Andrew Cashner, Josh Johnson, Tyson Ross, Ian Kennedy, or Eric Stults gets hurt.
  • Kevin Gausman, Orioles: Gausman, the fourth overall pick in 2012, couldn't live up to the hype when he debuted May 23rd last year.  He was up and down in 2013, finishing the year in the Orioles' bullpen.  Gausman showed strong command at Triple-A, and is known for top of the rotation raw stuff.  He could be a nice post-hype sleeper if he lands a rotation spot in 2014.
  • Taijuan Walker, Mariners:  In 25 starts at the Double and Triple-A level last year, Walker posted a 2.93 ERA, 10.2 BB/9, and 3.6 BB/9.  He also made three decent starts with the big league club.  While he projects as a potential ace, I'm not convinced the control is there for a fantasy impact in 2014, especially after a 4.2 walk rate in Triple-A.
  • Tyler Thornburg, Brewers: Thornburg likely has the inside track on the Brewers' fifth starter job ahead of the aforementioned Will Smith.  The 25-year-old was absolutely battered in his first 12 starts at Triple-A in 2013, then made a couple appearances out of the Brewers' pen, then had three pretty good starts back in Triple-A, then bounced between the Brewers' pen and rotation.  As a big league starter, he posted a 1.47 ERA, 7.1 K/9, and 3.3 BB/9 in 43 innings.  It was only seven starts, and the 2.1 K/BB ratio doesn't inspire confidence even with that ERA.  I don't expect a fantasy impact in 2014.
  • Zack Wheeler, Mets:  What's the harm in grabbing Wheeler in the 18th round to see if he harnesses his ace stuff now that he has 100 big league innings under his belt?  Wheeler walked 3.5 per nine at Triple-A and 4.1 in the bigs, so the potential harm is damage to your WHIP if the free passes continue.
  • Yordano Ventura, Royals:  Ventura, like many of these hurlers, hasn't quite figured out how to limit free passes, with a 3.9 BB/9 at Triple-A.  I think you can wait on him. 
  • Jameson Taillon, Pirates:  The second overall pick in 2010, Taillon posted a 2.9 BB/9 at Double-A that rose to 3.9 at Triple-A.
  • Jarred Cosart, Astros:  Cosart earned a big league look despite an ugly 4.8 BB/9 at Triple-A, and that stayed the same in the Majors while his strikeout rate plummeted.  Hits didn't drop in, and he did keep the ball on the ground, resulting in a miraculous 1.95 ERA in the Majors.
  • Jake Odorizzi, Rays:  His work at Triple-A suggests he's ready: 3.33 ERA, 9.0 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 in 22 starts.  He was OK in a smattering of big league starts.  I can't quite picture mixed league impact.
  • Erik Johnson, White Sox:  The 24-year-old posted a 1.96 ERA across 24 starts at Double and Triple-A, with pretty good rates of 8.3 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9.  His five big league starts showed he still needs seasoning.
  • Chris Archer, Rays:  Even as a guy who finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting, Archer is still being drafted outside of the top 200.  He quietly wasn't that great at Triple-A, resulting in a pretty weak big league projection fantasy-wise.
  • Gerrit Cole, Pirates:  His 12 Triple-A starts last year were hardly inspiring, with a 6.2 K/9 and 3.7 BB/9.  In a reminder that guys with ace stuff can get better in the Majors sometimes, Cole posted a 7.7 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9 in 19 big league starts.  He whiffed 39 batters in 32 innings in September.  Projection systems have his strikeout rate under 8 or even under 7 for 2014, but I'll take the over for the man drafted first overall in 2011.  Unfortunately, so will most fantasy baseballers, as Cole is being drafted around the eighth round.  That's no discount, but at least he reached 196 1/3 pro innings in 2013, suggesting he won't be held back by an innings cap.
  • Alex Wood, Braves:  Wood spent some time in the bullpen as a rookie, but also made 11 starts for the Braves.  He posted a 3.54 ERA, 8.7 K/9, and 3.5 BB/9 in those, allowing more than a hit per inning.  He mostly skipped Triple-A, so we don't have a lot of data in trying to determine what his control will be like in 2014.  The price to draft him remains low.
  • Sonny Gray, A's:  Gray, the 18th overall pick in 2011, posted a 3.42 ERA, 9.0 K/9, and 3.0 BB/9 in Triple-A, allowing nearly a hit per inning.  He improved upon all of those rates in 64 big league innings, posting a strong groundball rate as well.  I'm naturally suspicious of a guy who gets better in the Majors, though as noted above with Cole, it can happen and stick.  The price to draft Gray is low enough where it doesn't matter.
  • A few other players with big Triple-A strikeout rates to watch: Alex Torres of the Rays if he gets a crack at the rotation, Jake Arrieta of the Cubs, Drew Pomeranz of the A's, Michael Pineda of the Yankees, Danny Duffy of the Royals, and Allen Webster of the Red Sox.

Let's hear it in the comments: which of these starters will break out in 2014?

ADP data courtesy of the NFBC.

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