- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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We're running out of time.
The 2013 fantasy baseball season is approaching its stretch run, the three-quarters pole set to arrive next week, and at this stage many owners might be looking up at a significant gap in the standings, grasping at any last hope of a title run.
Desperate times don't call for desperate measures; they call for lightning in a bottle.
One year ago on this date, Kris Medlen was lightning in a bottle.
At the time, Medlen had made but two big league starts, and was owned in less than 25 percent of ESPN leagues. He had just moved into the Atlanta Braves' rotation, where he was generating some sleeper buzz, but hardly enough to dramatically improve his stock. And in this very space, just 357 days ago, he was picked as one of five "lightning in a bottle" picks, pitchers who at waiver-wire cost possessed the greatest chance of pulling off an epic, championship winning hit streak.
Medlen would, from that day forward, toss nine consecutive quality starts, winning seven games with an 0.81 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 68 strikeouts.
Now, recounting this story isn't designed to be a pat on the back. There were four other picks on that list: Derek Holland, Bud Norris and Jaime Garcia fared well enough, but the fifth, Tyler Skaggs, was a disaster (5.83 ERA, one quality start in six tries). The point is to illustrate that wacky things can happen during small time spans in a given season, and with analysis and a little luck, you can unearth the proper gems to rally you from seemingly certain defeat. At the very least, they're the ones you need to try to find.
Maybe there is no such thing as "this year's Medlen." But ... what if there is?
This isn't to say that anyone profiled here is even close to a sure thing. Heck, the very definition of "lightning in a bottle" players is low odds of success. Their statistical ceilings, however, are considerably higher than similarly regarded players. Picking one could result in an out-of-nowhere fantasy ace ... or you might wind up cutting him in a week, while seeking the next such candidate. There's no shame in that.
Here are the criteria for these "lightning in a bottle" picks: Each one is available in a minimum of 75 percent of ESPN leagues. Each one, too, could be a top-40 starter or a top-20 reliever from this point forward if he catches every single break.
Jacob Turner, Miami Marlins: If he could only strike out more hitters, fantasy owners might swarm to him in droves. Turner was once considered one of the brightest pitching prospects; he was one of Keith Law's top 30 prospects overall, in both 2011 and 2012. Since reaching the more competitive professional levels, however, Turner's K rate has plummeted, going from 19.0 percent (that a percentage of total batters faced) in Double-A ball to 16.2 percent in Triple-A ball to 16.3 percent thus far in the majors.
That said, Turner has picked up that pace slightly of late, whiffing 18.7 percent of hitters in his past seven starts, and his raw stuff certainly seems to be improving. To that end, his average fastball velocity has increased by a tick, now 92.0 mph this season, compared to 91.2 in his 10 starts in 2012. He has also notched 31 of his 55 K's on curveballs or sliders, opponents batting .207 combined against those two pitches, continuing trends evident in all three of his big league years to date. Perhaps best yet: Turner continues to increase his ground-ball rate, his 47.4 percent number an improvement upon his 44.7 percent rate of 2011-12, another skill that alleviates somewhat the risk of costly hits.
What if Turner, pitching in relative obscurity in Miami, indeed takes that next step, having just recently reached the 25-start career plateau? Wins might always be a problem for him, but a top-40 starter's upside is not out of the question.
Dan Straily, Oakland Athletics: As a fly-ball pitcher -- his rate is 41.4 percent this season -- "high ceiling" might not be as natural a label for Straily as the rest of the pitchers on this list. He'll always be at risk for untimely home runs, and as a result his ERA might struggle to ever drop beneath three. But at least he calls a more pitching-friendly environment his home: O.co Coliseum.
The Athletics made a bold statement about their rotation hierarchy this past week, when they demoted Tommy Milone, rather than Straily, to the minors thanks to a schedule that facilitated a four-man rotation. Considering that Straily had back-to-back performances with Bill James Game Scores beneath 40 (remember that 50 is a "quality start" by that measure), one might've assumed it would be him. Still, even with those games, he has a 3.34 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and seven quality starts in his past 12 tries. He also has a slider that has limited opponents to .191/.224/.268 triple-slash rates while resulting in 55 of his 109 strikeouts in his big league career. Frankly, it's surprising that he's not whiffing more batters.
Samuel Deduno, Minnesota Twins: You might remember this guy as the mastermind of three brilliant pitching performance for the Dominican Republic team in March's World Baseball Classic, including the winning effort in the championship game. What you might not have realized is this: Since June 15, only 12 pitchers have more quality starts than Deduno's seven.
What you probably recall is that Deduno, granted 15 starts by the Twins last summer, walked 53 batters in 79 innings, resulting in an ugly 15.3 percent rate. And those three points sum up the Deduno package: Filthy stuff, poor control of it. Still, his improvement in terms of control warrants mention, as his 9.6 percent walk rate and 3.61 walks-per-nine innings ratio represent his best numbers in any 13-start stretch of his professional career. That Deduno generates such a high rate of ground balls -- 61.0 percent this season -- is another plus. If his control issues are truly behind him, that leaves one more hurdle to clear in order to become a reliable, every-start fantasy pitcher: He needs to recapture the swing-and-miss potential he showed both in the minors and in the WBC.
Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians: He never seems to get enough credit for his raw swing-and-miss potential. Kluber's 23.3 percent K rate ranks 21st out of 95 ERA qualifiers, his 25.2 percent miss rate on swings ranks 13th and his 8.56 K's per nine innings ratio ranks 21st. It's also not the first time he has shown this; he had a 19.2 percent K rate and a 25.7 percent miss rate on swings last season and a 9.12 K's per nine ratio during his minor league career. How isn't he regarded as one of the better sources of strikeouts in the game?
But what makes Kluber a pitcher with a surprisingly high rest-of-year ceiling is his team's schedule. Sure, there's a dreaded series at Detroit coming up -- that's a three-game set Aug. 30-Sept. 1 -- but Kluber isn't currently on track to pitch in it. Look at the Indians' schedule the final four weeks of the season: NYM-3, KC-3, @CWS-4, @KC-3, HOU-4, CWS-2, @MIN-4. That's a grand total of 11 games against any of the five more strikeout-prone teams in baseball.
Danny Farquhar, Seattle Mariners: After saves on back-to-back days on Saturday and Sunday, Farquhar looks like the Mariners' closer du jour, an honor previously held by pitchers like Oliver Perez and Yoervis Medina. As such, it might seem easy to be dismissive of his fantasy prospects, especially considering that he's 26 years old, in his fourth different professional organization and was once tossed back and forth between the Toronto Blue Jays and Oakland Athletics three times during a 19-month span. Still, have we all forgotten the Mariners' recent track record of plucking successful closers off the scrap heap? They've done so three times in the past four years: David Aardsma (2009-10), Brandon League (2011) and Tom Wilhelmsen (2012) all saved at least 29 games for them.
Farquhar stands out for one simple reason: The strikeouts. His 36.0 percent rate (that going by total batters faced) is seventh best among relievers with at least 20 appearances, and it represents a substantial improvement upon the 24.1 percent number he had during his professional career entering 2013. So what changed? Simple: Farquhar altered his delivery, going from a mostly-sidearm to mostly-over-the-top motion, and the result was a few extra ticks on his fastball; he has averaged 94.4 mph with the pitch and thrown 18 percent of his fastballs 96 mph or faster. To compare -- granted, small sample caveat -- he averaged 90.6 mph and never reached 92 mph with any of his 30 fastballs thrown in the majors in 2011.
Farquhar might be the sneakiest source of 10-15 more saves out there.
A.J. Ramos, Miami Marlins: Closers tend to get snatched up quickly in any fantasy baseball league -- with the exception of the Houston Astros' "finishers," understandably -- so when speculating for saves, one must occasionally take a chance on a setup man with "closer stuff." Ramos isn't currently closing for the Marlins and he might not the rest of the year; but he also has better raw stuff and a more promising future than the incumbent, Steve Cishek, and isn't the future what the 2013 Marlins are all about anyway?
Ramos' command might be questionable, his walk rate 11.1 percent for the season and 10.0 percent in his past 18 appearances, but he's capable of touching 97 mph with his fastball with a filthy slider responsible for 25 K's, 23rd among relievers. That 18-game span is significant for another reason: He has a 0.39 ERA and 0.81 WHIP during that time, and he has pitched multiple innings in seven of those games. In a deep enough league, Ramos should help in ERA, WHIP and K's, and with the right breaks, he could slide right in as a top-20 fantasy closer.
Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks: The Diamondbacks recently got Brandon McCarthy back from the disabled list and should soon get Trevor Cahill back, as well, but who's to say that they're not going to need a sixth starter by year's end? They've already received mixed results from Tyler Skaggs, who has four quality starts, a 5.56 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP in his 13 starts so far in the majors, and there are already whispers that Bradley might get the call before long.
Bradley is the kind of prospect any fantasy owner should love: He routinely whiffs more than 20 percent of the hitters he faces, thanks to a high-90s fastball and a dominating curveball. He already has a 2.16 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 16 starts for Double-A Mobile, and he has amassed only 124 2/3 innings in the minors for the season. Considering that he threw 140 frames in Class A ball in 2012, and that the Diamondbacks probably can't ask more than 9-10 starts of at best 60-65 innings from him, there's not much of a risk of his facing an innings cap, either.
TOP 150 PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 150 pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. For position-specific rankings, see the "Pos Rnk" column; these rankings can also be seen split up by position.