The World Series ended not long ago, and the Dodgers have only spent $50 million in free agency so far (if you include Ryu Hyun-Jin’s posting fee), but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to start looking forward to the 2013 (fantasy) baseball season.
Over the next couple weeks, the Rotoworld staff will look at some players whose arrows are pointing up for 2013. Fantasy risers, if you will. We’ll break them down by division, with the AL East hitting leadoff.
Brandon Morrow, SP, Blue Jays
Morrow has been worthy of attention in fantasy leagues since arriving in Toronto in the winter of 2009 and being moved into the rotation on a full-time basis by the Blue Jays. Blessed with an electric fastball and wipeout slider, Morrow piled up strikeouts by the truckload in his first two seasons with the Blue Jays, posting K/9 rates of 10.9 and 10.2 in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Of course, the consistency was absent, as it was often unpredictable what you would be getting from the right-hander from start to start.
In 2012, Morrow traded in the strikeouts for a lot more outs by other means. His strikeout rate dropped all the way to 7.8, but his ERA fell to 2.96, down from the 4.61 mark he posted from 2010-2011. The biggest reason for his improvement was that he simply threw more strikes, as his BB/9 rate of 3.0 was easily a career best. He was also able to vastly improve his start-to-start consistency, indicating he might be starting to figure things out on the mound. Morrow’s velocity was down slightly in 2012, which could help explain the drop in punchouts. But, the Jays and fantasy owners will gladly sacrifice some strikeouts if it means Morrow will continue his improvement in other areas. The low ERA virtually ensures he won’t be undervalued next season, but he has a chance for a true breakout year.
Casey Janssen, RP, Blue Jays
The Blue Jays acquired Sergio Santos last offseason thinking he would take over as the team’s closer for the next few years. But, Santos wound up missing most of the season with shoulder woes, and it was Janssen that assumed the ninth inning role after Francisco Cordero flamed out. Janssen not only settled into the role, he became one of the better relievers in the American League. The 31-year-old right-hander finished the season with a 2.54 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and fantastic 67/11 K/BB ratio over 63 2/3 frames. He converted 22 of 25 save opportunities.
The Jays are hopeful Santos will be ready for the start of spring training, but they have no reason to strip Janssen of the closer gig. The 31-year-old probably won’t be drafted as one of the better fantasy closers next season, but he should be.
Manny Machado, 3B, Orioles
The Orioles surprised everyone when they decided to call up Machado in early August. Machado, of course, was one of the top prospects in the game, but he had just turned 20 a month earlier and wasn’t exactly tearing it up at Double-A Bowie, batting .266/.352/.438 with 11 homers and 13 steals. After getting off to a terrific start, the youngster started to fade a bit and wound up hitting .262/.294/.445 over 51 games, striking out 38 times while walking on just nine occasions.
Of course, Machado also belted seven home runs in fewer than 200 at-bats, which is awfully impressive for a guy that’s still not able to legally buy a drink. The Orioles still view Machado as their shortstop over the long haul, but he’ll remain at third base with J.J. Hardy around. Machado isn’t ready to be a star just yet, and it will hurt if he loses shortstop eligibility in your league, but he’s capable of hitting 20 homers while stealing double-digit bases.
Jason Hammel, SP, Orioles
When the Orioles dealt Jeremy Guthrie for Hammel last offseason, most figured they would suffer a bit of a dropoff with that slot in the rotation. As it turns out, it couldn’t have been farther from the truth, as Hammel was Baltimore’s best and most consistent starter in 2012, posting a 3.43 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 113/42 K/BB ratio over 118 innings. He was also impressive in his two postseason outings for the O’s, surrendering just two runs in each of his two ALDS outings versus the Yankees.
It was easily the 30-year-old Hammel’s best year, so many might chalk it up as a fluke. But, remember that the right-hander’s only other extended looks in the rotation came while he had to pitch in the thin Denver air. His minor league track record suggested he was capable of this type of season. Hammel did undergo knee surgery during the year and aggravated the knee shortly after returning. He did appear to finish the year healthy, but it’s something to monitor.
Chris Tillman, SP, Orioles
It’s been an interesting journey for Tillman. The right-hander was viewed as one of the better pitching prospects in the game when he was promoted back in 2009, but he struggled mightily that year as a ripe 21-year-old and didn’t get any better over the next two seasons, even pitching poorly at Triple-A last year. But, suddenly in 2012 his fastball velocity jumped up and his slider and changeup were much more effective. Now 24, Tillman put up a 2.93 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in his 15 starts with the Orioles this season.
It’s natural to be skeptical of Tillman’s success this season given his past struggles, but he has a chance to be a fantasy surprise in 2013 if he can maintain his increased velocity and sharpness of his secondary offerings. He did deal with an elbow problem in September, but all signs point to it being a minor issue.
Chris Archer, SP, Rays
You would be hard-pressed to find many young pitchers with better raw stuff than Archer. After putting up a 3.66 ERA with 139 strikeouts over 128 innings at Triple-A Durham, Archer put his stuff on display with the Rays, punching out 36 batters across 29 1/3 frames late in the year.
As it stands right now, Archer doesn’t have a spot in the Rays’ rotation. However, Tampa seems likely to deal at least one starter this offseason, which could pave the way for the 24-year-old. He has definite control issues, having posted a career 5.1 BB/9 rate in the minors before a 4.0 BB/9 mark in his brief time with the Rays. But, if the role is there, Archer has the ability to be a worthwhile fantasy asset from the get-go.
Will Middlebrooks, 3B, Red Sox
Middlebrooks seemed poised to spend his first full season at Triple-A in 2012, but he wound up occupying an address in Boston for most of the year. The 24-year-old was called up in early May when Kevin Youkilis went on the disabled list, and he played so well that the Sox decided to trade Youk and install Middlebrooks as the regular third baseman. He batted .288/.325/.509 with 15 homers over 286 plate appearances before his season ended prematurely due to a broken wrist.
Middlebrooks’ wrist is expected to be fully healed by spring training, and he’ll be back at the hot corner in 2013. His 70/13 K/BB ratio with the Red Sox left a lot to be desired, and he never showed a whole lot of patience in the minors, either. But, there’s definite 25+ homer potential here to go along with a handful of steals.
Felix Doubront, SP, Red Sox
Doubront can have control problems at times and has had trouble staying healthy, but you take notice when a 24-year-old lefty strikes out 167 over 161 innings.
David Phelps, SP/RP, Yankees
His role with the Yankees is probably as a swingman, but Phelps pitched very well for the Bombers this season and has a nice minor league track record.
Chris Davis, INF/OF, Orioles
The K/BB ratio is ugly, and he can be vulnerable to left-handed pitching, but 33 homers is 33 homers.
Travis D’Arnaud, C, Blue Jays
A trade of J.P. Arencibia could clear the way for D’Arnaud, who is the best catching prospect in the game.