The Waiting: Aces, Ceilings and Floors
I was really happy to see that Wilson had written about Zach Lee, because he had been on my mind lately and Wilson basically saved me 500 words to say much the same thing. I like Lee and I agree that boring can be beautiful.
What got me thinking about Lee was pouring over several mid-season rankings of prospects and finding him largely absent despite a good season at double-A Chattanooga. Sure, if the list went long enough he would be there, but generally he was not showing up in the top 50. There were several other pitchers who popped up ahead of him who, on the surface, are farther from contributing to their major league clubs (and in fantasy). This is not altogether surprising because lots of prospect evaluators are explicit about valuing long-term potential and ceiling when looking at prospects. One guy who ranked ahead of Lee on a few lists got me particularly intrigued and thinking about the floor/ceiling question: Lucas Giolito.
Giolito, as you probably know, was considered one of, if not the, top talent heading into the 2012 draft. Keith Law speculated that he could be the first high school right-hander to go first overall. An arm injury in the spring of 2012 dropped his draft stock sufficiently that the Nationals were able to nab him at 16, which even at that slot was considered a risk given that there was widespread fear that his elbow was not right. Sure enough, he pitched two innings that summer before getting shut down and requiring Tommy John surgery. (Sidenote about Giolito: if you don’t know his full bio, his grandfather is Warren Frost who played Mr. Ross on Seinfeld and delivered all-time great performances like this one. Watch to the end.)
Now Tommy John surgery may be no big thing these days, but around the time the 2013 mid-season ranks were coming out Giolito had thrown a handful of innings (the day after his 19th birthday on July 14, he threw 3.1 innings to bring his total to 5.2 on the season). Over the course of the summer his performance across rookie and short-season stops was impressive, but not earth shattering: 1.96 ERA, 1.145 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 2.79 K:BB in 36.2 innings. So, why was he popping up in mid-season top 50 rankings and what should fantasy owners take away from both the ranks and his performance?
First, and most importantly, Giolito is healthy. While TJ is common and recovery rates are good, we’ve seen enough pitchers just in 2013 (Luebke, Baker, Hudson, Beachy) not recover quickly or suffer another injury to be reminded that it is still a big deal to go under the knife on your pitching elbow. (Sorry Mets fans.)
Second, when he’s healthy, prospect evaluators talk about Giolito being one of a few pitchers in the minors who has ace potential. Aces are rare. Aces front rotations for 200+ innings a year with excellent performances. While he still needs to work on his command against better hitting, if Giolito is healthy and an ace, should dynasty and keeper owners be thinking about him even though he is at least a full season or two (or three) away from pitching in Washington? I say, yes, you should, and it relates a bit to Zach Lee.
If Giolito is a special talent, as some evaluators think he is, and you can get him more cheaply now than next spring (when he will be even higher on prospect lists) or summer (when, if he performs well, there will be no radar for him to hide under) then, even with the wait it might take, you need to do it. There are obviously plenty of cautionary tales, like Dylan Bundy, of special pitchers who break down (or break down again). Remember, though, that part of Bundy’s story is that he blew through three levels of the minors in 2012 before pitching a few token innings in Baltimore at the end of the year. The special guys move fast.
I would take Zach Lee ahead of many pitching prospects getting heat based on their performances at low levels of the minors this year because he is closer to being in LA and reaching his likely solid floor. But, if I am choosing between Lee and Giolito (and I might be in one league), I will be keeping the Nats hurler in hopes I have got an ace up my sleeve, because they do not come along often. If the waiting is the hardest part I will be okay with that.
How about you?
I agree. Giolito’s upside is elite, so I would definitely choose him over Zach Lee. Giolito has a chance to be a difference-maker in a fantasy league. Lee will be a good pitcher, but he is not going to win your league for you.
Would you rather have Max Fried or Giolito?
Sorry for the long delay in replying. Fried is very interesting and, of course, he and Giolito were high school teammates, which is kind of fun and funny.
As usual, the answer is that it depends on your league. Fried had an excellent year at low-A Fort Wayne and got a lot of love from prospect watchers in 2013. He is clearly a step ahead of Giolito right now just because of Giolito’s TJ recovery. But, while his performance was very good, there are a couple of things that I note – he had a good, not great strikeout rate (7.61 K/9) and a walk rate that was a bit higher than you want to see (4.26 BB/9). Does it matter ultimately what he did as a 19 year-old at low-A? Who knows. That said, the Padres haven’t been known for zooming prospects along the developmental pathway, so we will probably get to see Fried at high-A and AA for extended stretches and get a better sense of how he does against advanced competition. From my perspective, if you’re in a league where you can remain patient, I would go with Giolito because I think he may take a big leap this year. It’s a total hunch, and riskier, but when I see guys like Jason Parks at BP say, “Giolito will be the only arm I throw an 8 future projection on. The risk is higher than most, but the ceiling is frontline,” I get pretty weak-kneed.