Believe in prospects now?

Fernandez, Maurer among young pitchers getting early look in rotation

Updated: April 3, 2013, 8:29 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Two baseball stories begin their first chapters this week: Jose Fernandez is set to make his major league debut for the Miami Marlins on Sunday, Brandon Maurer his for the Seattle Mariners on Thursday.

60 Feet 6 Inches

(Obligatory pause to allow you to regain your composure, knowing that you, like most any fantasy owner, cannot contain your excitement when a prospect debuts.)

Understandably, headlines like Fernandez's anticipated debut -- the freshest among prospect-related news, so we'll discuss him first -- send us scrambling to the waiver wire. The proverbial "getting in on the ground floor" is an irresistible urge for fantasy owners, with no greater evidence than this: In the four FAAB-bidding leagues in which I play (or follow, to include the League of Alternative Baseball Reality-NL results), Fernandez cost an average of 28.3 percent of the winning team's seasonal FAAB budget and was the most expensive player purchased in all but one. The exception was my local NL-only league, in which Kyle Lohse took those honors.

Fernandez's prospect credentials are stunning: He was the No. 14 pick overall in the 2011 amateur draft. He had an astonishing 1.75 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and .191 batting average allowed in 25 starts in the minors in 2012. He was tabbed Keith Law's No. 6 pitching prospect and No. 16 overall, as well as Baseball America's No. 2 pitching and No. 5 prospect overall, this preseason. And he has a mid-90s fastball with a curveball that Law himself says "would miss right-handers' bats in the majors today."

But before we embrace this Fernandez lovefest, let's undergo a brief reality check: This is a 20-year-old with only 11 starts in high Class A ball, none higher, who made only one appearance of two innings facing mostly minor leaguers during this year's Grapefruit League action. His promotion is a bold move by the Marlins; the reality is that expecting much from him this season might be too bold.

There is no doubt that Fernandez should have cost a considerable chunk of any fantasy team's FAAB budget, based solely upon his scouting reports and high -- albeit potentially distant -- statistical ceiling. Now the question becomes: To what degree should you trust him, or Maurer, for that matter, in the early weeks of 2013?

Let's allow history to provide us an outline.

Using a 10-year span of prospect reports -- we'll use Baseball America's annual Top 100 prospects for this study, to grant us the largest sample possible -- I've analyzed the start-by-start, early-career performances of 80 pitchers who managed to place as one of the top 10 pitching prospects from 2000-09. To improve the sample, I've isolated only the 41 of those 80 who have made at least 80 career major league starts. The results were telling:

Any veteran fantasy owner has, by this point, probably heard the phrase, "Every young pitcher endures an adjustment period." The chart above illustrates this; this group of elite pitching prospects typically reached this career stage between their sixth and 20th turns in the majors, then fully hit their stride by about their 40th career starts. This is evidence that you shouldn't expect the breakthrough during a top pitching prospect's rookie season, but rather his sophomore campaign, if you have the option of waiting.

It's the performance of those debut dandies, though, which are most curious. The chart also shows that prospects tend to enjoy an initial advantage through their first five career turns, particularly in the strikeout department. The rationale is anyone's guess; it could be as simple as their early opponents possessing less extensive scouting reports. This is especially relevant to pitchers like Fernandez, who averaged 10.73 K's per nine innings during his minor league career, and Maurer, who averaged 8.37 per nine during his. It's also relevant to a pitcher who has already debuted, Shelby Miller, who has but one big-league start under his belt and an 11.07 K's per nine ratio in his minor league career.

[+] EnlargeFernandez
Scott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsInjuries to the Marlins rotation suddenly vaulted Jose Fernandez to the major league roster earlier than most expected.

(Again an obligatory pause, this time to recognize that Maurer, unlike Fernandez or Miller, was not regarded a top-10 pitching prospect by either Law or Baseball America this preseason. He was one of Law's "just missed" prospects, so admittedly, he doesn't directly adhere to the chart guidelines.)

In other words, if you own Fernandez, Maurer or Miller, there's every bit as compelling a reason to activate them now rather than leave them on your bench for evaluation purposes until June. Granted, no two prospects possess identical skills, makeup, mentality and circumstances, all variables that influence the study, but history does show a greater chance that you'll miss a prospect's more valuable outings and absorb his adjustment-period performances if you play the waiting game.

You might also want to use the data for sell-high trading purposes, in the event that one or both gets off to a comparably strong start. After all, prospect buzz often can drive trade stock into the stratosphere. If, say, Fernandez is sitting at a 3.40 ERA and 37 K's through his first five starts, it might be a brilliant idea to shop him, because he's highly likely to reach an adjustment stage at some point.

Returning to the study's guidelines for a moment, let's not gloss over the high failure rate of this group. That only 41 of the 80 prospects reached the 80-start plateau means that a whopping 39 did not -- though, to be fair, 10 of those 39 "made it" as relievers, while it could be argued that five others (Brett Anderson, Wade Davis, Brian Matusz, Jarrod Parker and Chris Tillman) still have an opportunity to "make it." Still, that leaves 24 of 80 prospects, or exactly 30 percent, who failed to develop into long-term successes at the major league level. And that's only top-10, elite-level, prospects; a pitcher like Maurer, if he fails, wouldn't even count against that total in future years (unless he earns a top-10 ranking in 2014 or beyond).

That sure demonstrates the boom/bust nature of pitching prospects, and it's why we advise so strongly that you tread carefully with them.

A final note as it pertains to a pitcher's career development: Those career-starts-41-and-beyond statistics represent promising news for an attractive group of sophomores and third-year starters who could follow a similar pattern of improvement in 2013. The following pitchers, along with their career big league starts in parentheses, were Baseball America top-10 prospects between 2000-12 who reside within a group of pitchers with between 41 and 80 turns: Brett Anderson (68), Jeremy Hellickson (64), Stephen Strasburg (45) and Chris Tillman (51). In addition, Yu Darvish (29), Matt Moore (32), Jarrod Parker (30) and Chris Sale (29) should also reach the 41-start plateau by midsummer.

Consider it a good time, at least as history dictates, to trade for each.

Rotations, schmotations

It must be one of those annual rites of spring, like birds, bulbs and baseball: Questions about rotation order and the relevance of Opening Day starts.

[+] EnlargeJonathon Niese
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIJonathon Niese pitched well on Opening Day, but can you really call him an ace?

Fantasy owners' knowledge as a whole has increased in the past three seasons -- thank you, sabermetrics -- since the last time I ran this study, but every so often you'll still run into the occasional outlier who leans upon a faulty assumption: That a pitcher's alignment as his team's "ace"/Opening Day starter puts him in a pattern to face only fellow "aces," leading to a decrease in that pitcher's win potential. Some might say that New York Mets Opening Day starter Jonathan Niese, for example, might be bound to suffer in the win column.

The truth is that the only time the term "ace" matters is during the playoffs, in a short series, when the goal is to get that man on the mound as often as possible.

During the regular season, the day-to-day grind of 162 games, including off days that populate teams' schedules at varying frequencies, shuffle rotation orders, meaning that said "aces" often aren't even facing their opponent's same by their second turns. We'll already witness this for the first time Saturday, when Texas Rangers "ace" Matt Harrison works on four days' rest, lining him up against Los Angeles Angels No. 5 starter Tommy Hanson. The label also sometimes changes hands during the course of said schedule.

To lean on history again for evidence, I've analyzed 13 seasons' worth of rotational data (2000-12) -- consider it a expansion of the aforementioned 2010 study -- to illustrate how opening-week order becomes largely irrelevant deeper in the season. Labeling each team's Opening Day starter its "staff ace" and numbering its subsequent starters in order, staff aces actually matched up with the same in only 22.3 percent of their total starts all season -- that means that, after Opening Day passes, those staff aces actually meet up in only 19.5 percent of their remaining turns. And remember, with most teams using a traditional five rotation spots, you'd expect a pitcher to have a 20 percent chance of facing each individual spot.

There is, however, truth to the part about an ace possessing diminished win potential when specifically lined up with a fellow ace. The following chart compares these aces' performances to the league averages:

If wins are paramount in your league, that's something to keep in mind -- but only as a single day's matchups are concerned, not as a yearlong thing. In other words, take it into account if, say, you see Clayton Kershaw battling Matt Cain on Aug. 3. But even if you're worried about diminished win potential, are you really going to bench either Kershaw or Cain accordingly?

Another big check in the aces' column: Aces were actually the most likely to provide you with a full healthy season, meaning the greatest appeal for these Opening Day starters is that it signifies teams' trust in them as regular contributors. These pitchers averaged 28.1 starts per season, which is astonishingly high if you consider the injury rate for pitchers.

Relief Efforts

One of the enhancements you'll notice to this year's "Sixty Feet Six Inches" is the incorporation of our former "Relief Efforts" column into the analysis. Listed at column's end is this season's first set of rankings, and one that ranks both starters and relievers in one set. (For the sake of convenience, a pitcher's individual rank as starter or reliever is indicated, as "SP01" or "RP01," for example.)

There'll also be a "Relief Efforts" section -- barring the column itself sporting a relief-pitching topic as its primary story -- to address the latest closer news.

This week's top relief-pitching story comes from the Chicago Cubs, where incumbent closer Carlos Marmol already appears on the verge of losing his gig. Handed the second-easiest save chance by definition -- the three-run-lead, one-inning assignment (the three-inning save rule is classified the "easiest") -- on Opening Day, Marmol couldn't convert. He threw just nine strikes in 19 pitches and zero of four first-pitch strikes, hitting Andrew McCutchen with a pitch and allowing a Pedro Alvarez RBI single and Gaby Sanchez to walk. Marmol was promptly yanked, Cubs manager Dale Sveum playing lefty-righty matchups to get James Russell to retire Neil Walker and Kyuji Fujikawa to retire Russell Martin. Fujikawa recorded his first save for his two pitches of work.

This comes on the heels of an awful spring by Marmol -- 6.97 ERA and 7.84 walks per nine innings in 12 appearances -- as well as a 2011-12 regular-season performance combined in which he had a 3.76 ERA and 1.45 WHIP. He's among the most ill-equipped to handle high-leverage chores because of his poor control, and regardless of Sveum's supportive comments -- he told the Chicago Tribune afterward that "[Marmol] is still the closer" -- Marmol's status as the team's primary ninth-inning reliever will probably be short-lived.

Fujikawa, signed to a two-year, $9.5 million deal this winter to serve as closer insurance, is well worth adding in any leagues in which he's available. His strength is far greater command; he averaged 2.29 walks per nine and 5.43 K's per walk during his career in Japan and had 10 K's compared to four walks during his eight Cactus League appearances.