Nick Blackburn (MIN, SP)
Y! Rank: 680
Some organizations just seem to have a knack for drafting and developing solid pitchers. The Oakland A's are one such team. The Florida Marlins are another.
But right now, the Minnesota Twins might have the most impressive collection of young pitching in all of the majors.
Francisco Liriano has the stuff to contend for a Cy Young if he can maintain his health over a full season.
Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey both posted excellent ratios in 2008 and have been the topic of many sleeper articles heading into 2009.
But Nick Blackburn, the fourth-man in what could quite possibly be the best rotation in the league this year, has been largely overlooked by fantasy players.
Another in the long line of Twins' pitchers with pinpoint control, Blackburn posted solid numbers in 2008: 11 wins, an ERA of 4.05 and a WHIP of 1.36.
Those ratios would have been even better had Blackburn not faded in September. Late season fades, like Blackburn's, are not unexpected when a young pitcher is asked to significantly increase his innings compared to previous seasons.
The greatest number of innings Blackburn had pitched in a season prior to 2008 was 160, and the Twins had him throw 193 innings last year.
That's not such an obscenely high number of innings that I would worry about injury risks, and Blackburn should be more stretched out in 2009 and better able to hold up over the course of an entire season.
The only downside to drafting Blackburn is the fact that he'll struggle to even give you 100 strikeouts in a year. Blackburn's walk rate is so low and he induces so many ground ball outs that his low strikeout rate shouldn't affect his overall game, but it does reduce his fantasy value.
But if you're confident in the strikeout production of the rest of your staff, Blackburn makes for a great late-round selection who should provide a lot of innings and significantly lower your staff's ERA and WHIP in the process.
2009 Prediction: 195 IP, 14 W, 3.65 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 95 K
Andy Sonnanstine (TAM, SP)
Y! Rank: 584
Similar to Nick Blackburn, Sonnanstine is an excellent command pitcher who, as the fourth man in an excellent rotation, is too often overlooked by the fantasy community.
In 2008, Sonnanstine had the 15th best strikeout-to-walk rate among all major league starters at 3.35. That was better than elite-level pitchers like Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy, and Brandon Webb.
It also is just scratching the surface of what Sonnanstine is capable of doing. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 3.73 over 22 starts in 2007, and was an astounding 6.17 over four minor league seasons.
If he can push that rate back up, he easily could be in line for 150-160 strikeouts in 2009.
Sonnanstine won 13 games last year with a 4.38 ERA and 1.29 WHIP, all of which make for solid fantasy numbers. However, his BABIP was slightly elevated at .312, which suggests that those ratios are due to get even better in 2009 as that BABIP regresses to the .290-.300 norm.
Combined with the fact that he should be in line for a solid number of wins pitching for one of the best teams in baseball, his potential fantasy value could easily creep up to the second-tier starting pitcher level, roughly in line with what teammate James Shields did last season.
If Sonnanstine was a member of any other team (especially a team with a large fan base like the Yankees, Red Sox or Cubs), he would have almost certainly been the subject of significant hype over the past five years.
But because he pitches for the Rays, a team blessed with so many high-end pitching prospects, Sonnanstine has remained under the radar for the most part.
Take advantage of his low-profile and snag him with a late-round pick. At worst, he should be a solid back of the rotation fantasy pitcher, and at best, he could give you second-tier talent at bottom-tier cost.
2009 Prediction: 190 IP, 14 W, 3.80 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 150 K
Sean Marshall (CHC, SP)
Y! Rank: 584
Marshall has already been the subject of a good number of sleeper reviews, but his ADP is still on the low side, so I think he's deserving of a spot in this column as well.
Marshall will start the year as the Cubs fifth starter, and should finally be in line for a complete season as a starter.
Lou Pinella is not one to tolerate slow starts from his young players (i.e. Felix Pie circa 2008), but with the departures of Sean Gallagher and Rich Hill, for once Marshall doesn't seem to have a whole of lot pressure on him at the back-end of the rotation.
There are a couple of guys in the bullpen (Aaron Heilman, Chad Gaudin, Jeff Samardzija) with the potential to be starters, but none of them seem to really pose a credible threat to Marshall. If they're conscripted into the rotation during the year, it will more likely be to cover the inevitable Rich Harden injuries.
So, what can Marshall provide if he is actually given 30+ starts?
His career minor league numbers are excellent: 2.40 ERA and 1.08 WHIP over 54 starts. After a disappointing rookie year in 2006, his major league numbers have also been consistently good.
Though it seems like he's been hyped as a prospect for years, Marshall is still only 26 years old and should be just entering his peak years. He's got a lock on a rotation spot with one of the best teams in the majors and should be in line for a solid number of wins.
The only thing I worry about is the potential for a second-half decline. Marshall has never pitched more than 150 innings in any season, and if the Cubs have a reputation for overly tasking their young pitchers. Especially if the Cubs are in the thick of a playoff race, Marshall might be pushed beyond his limits late in the season, and that could definitely have a negative impact on his performance.
That shouldn't prevent you from drafting Marshall, though you may want to consider trying to trade him if he puts up a good first half.
2009 Prediction: 180 IP, 11 W, 3.75 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 120 K
David Purcey & Ricky Romero (TOR, SPs)
Y! Rank: 870 & N/A
The draft philosophy of the Toronto Blue Jays in the first few years of the J.P. Riccardi era was to only spend their first-round pick on established college players who could supposedly make a quick and easy transition to the majors.
Overstepping prep stars with more upside for the "safe bets" sometimes paid off. When the Jays selected Aaron Hill at 13th overall in 2003, the next high schoolers to go off the draft board were Jeff Allison, Matt Moses, and Eric Duncan, none of whom are exactly topping out many prospect lists these days.
But it also backfired to an embarrassing degree in 2002 when the Jays selected Russ Adams at 14th overall when high schoolers such as Scott Kazmir, Cole Hamels, and Matt Cain were still available.
The Jays righted the ship in 2006, focusing on picking the best guy available, rather than stubbornly sticking to the college-only dogma. That change in philosophy is already paying dividends with emerging star Travis Snider, selected at 14th overall in 2006.
Largely forgotten men were the Jays' first-rounders in 2004 and 2005, David Purcey and Ricky Romero. Neither player took the minors by storm, and they were somewhat written off as further testament that "polished" college pitchers don't necessarily translate to major-league ready talent.
Then last season, these two big lefties finally began to demonstrate why they were viewed as elite talents in the first place.
Purcey made the most notable improvement. In AA and AAA from 2005 to 2006, Purcey was generally awful, posting a combined 5.50 ERA and 1.56 WHIP.
Then in 19 starts at AAA last season, he cut his ERA almost in half to a solid 2.69, and posted the best WHIP of his career (including his college years) at 1.12.
That performance earned him a mid-season call-up. His overall numbers with the Jays in 2008 weren't spectacular: a 5.54 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP.
But if you remove his shaky first two appearances in April and May when he was called up just to make spot starts, his numbers were a much more respectable 4.84 ERA and 1.35 WHIP with a stellar 3.06 K/BB rate.
Purcey was involved in two pitchers' duels with Matt Garza late last year, losing the first game 1-0 to the Rays and getting his revenge with a 1-0 victory a few weeks later.
I had the pleasure of watching both games, and I can tell you, when Purcey's locked in, he can be frighteningly good.
Ricky Romero also made some impressive strides in 2008. Romero floundered in AA over 51 starts from 2006-2008, posting a 4.97 ERA, a 1.57 WHIP, and an ugly 6.5 K/9 rate.
Then, perhaps gaining confidence from what was really an underserved call-up to AAA, he turned things around in the second-half of 2008, posting much better numbers in seven late-season starts: 3.37 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, and an 8.0 K/9 rate.
Perhaps those numbers are just due to the small sample size and are not actually an indicator of Romero turning a corner. But he's looked impressive in spurts this spring, and has earned himself a rotation spot with the Jays to start the year. I for one am very interested to see what he does with that opportunity.
The good news for both pitchers is that with the Jays' rotation decimated by injuries and the loss of A.J. Burnett, they are both likely to get long looks in 2009.
Based on the bizarre fluctuations in their stats and some articles I've read about them this spring, it seems as if a lot of their early set-backs might have been due to a lack of confidence and other head problems that tend to affect young pitchers.
If that's the case, having a firm rotation spot and spending a year under the tutelage of pitching Brad Arnsberg, known for bringing out the best from young pitchers, and Roy Halladay, who himself famously suffered from some head problems early in his career (10.64 ERA in 2000), should go a long way to ensure that those problems don't recur.
I truly believe that the impressive performances that Burnett, McGowan, Marcum, and Litsch have put up over the past two years are due in large part to the guidance of Arnsberg and Halladay, and that guidance could pay huge dividends for Purcey and Romero in 2009.
Purcey's definitely the safer bet to start the year, but it would also be wise to keep a close eye on Romero, who probably has the better long-term upside.
2009 Prediction: Purcey – 180 IP, 12 W, 4.20 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 170 K
2009 Prediction: Romero – 100 IP, 8 W, 4.80 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 80 K