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The mental debate is on to find the breakout starting pitcher in 2017. I’ve been juggling options for the last couple of days. Ideally, I like to find an upside arm with an ADP between 165 and 300. The pitchers in play that price are: Sean Manaea (173), Jake Odorizzi (185), Carlos Rodon (196), Aaron Nola (203), Robbie Ray (216), Taijuan Walker (233), Blake Snell (235), Jharel Cotton (246), Tyler Glasnow (284), and Eduardo Rodriguez (299). Of these options, I like to find a pitcher with a low walk rate and pitchers for a team that will score runs to help in the win’s department. Also, I’d like to see some progression over two or three years.
My first choice would be Aaron Nola, but he does have some injury risk after suffering an elbow injury in 2016. Here’s his player profile I did from the last two seasons just for reference:
Nola's 2016 Outlook
Nola made it to the majors after 29 starts in the minors over one and half seasons. He went 14-7 with a 2.57 ERA and 137 Ks in 164 innings. His best asset is his elite strike-throwing ability (1.5 per 9 innings), but he has limited upside in Ks (7.5 K rate) without another swing and miss pitch. The Phillies called him up in late July. Over 13 starts, Aaron had a 3.59 ERA with 68 Ks in 77.2 innings. He allowed two runs or fewer in seven games with two disaster starts (12 runs and 19 base runners in nine innings). His arm had an edge over righties .212, but he needs to improve against LH batters (.310 with weak success in Ks [15 in 125 plate appearances]). Nola had a short fastball (91.1) followed by a plus curveball (.167 BAA) and a changeup (.367 BAA) that still needs work. His scouting reports suggest more velocity on his fastball and more upside in his changeup. With 187 innings pitched last year over 31 starts, Aaron will be a workhorse for the Phillies. Double digit wins with a sub 3.50 ERA, and about 150 Ks with 200+ innings pitched.
Nola's 2017 Outlook
In his first start of the season, Nola allowed one run over seven innings with no walks and eight Ks while throwing only 95 pitches. He struggled in his next two outings (11 runs and 16 base runners over 12 innings with 15 Ks) before shifting into high gear. Over his next nine starts, Aaron was a huge Fantasy asset (5-2 with a 1.90 ERA and 62 Ks in 52 innings). His arm fell apart over his last four starts in June and his first start in July (13.50 ERA and 2.556 WHIP). Nola landed on the DL in mid-August with a right elbow injury that didn’t require surgery. He finished with a low walk rate (2.4) and growth in his K rate (9.8) while limiting the damage in HRs (0.8 per nine). His AFB (91.3) was in line with his rookie season (91.1), but it did have more life early in the season (April – 91.1, May – 91.8, June – (91.4), and July – 90.2). Aaron had losing value with his four-seam fastball (.300 BAA), sinker – (.321 BAA), and changeup (.333 BAA). His curveball (.167 BAA) grades as plus pitch. Over two seasons in the minors, Nola went 14-7 with a 2.57 ERA 137 Ks over 164.2 innings. Love the upside of his arm, but any elbow injury should be a red flag. With no setback in spring training, his price point (ADP of 218) seems more than fair. Ground ball pitcher (55.2) with a chance with a sub 3.00 ERA and 200+ Ks.
His ADP is moving up, and it should continue with each positive inning pitched this spring. For about of one-third of 2016, Aaron an elite arm. Player to watch, but Nola doesn’t come without risk.
This season I’m going to use Taijuan Walker of the Arizona Diamondbacks as my breakout pitcher. He’s being drafted after Round 15 in most 15 team leagues, but he did look electric on March 10th (no runs, one walk, and no hits over four innings with 10 Ks). He threw 41 strikes over his 60 pitches thrown. Over three appearance this spring, Walker allowed no runs over nine innings with one walk and 13 strikeouts. His AFB came in at 94.7 so far this March.
Walker's 2017 Outlook
The Mariners bailed on Walker after two subpar seasons in the majors. Over 65 games in the majors, Taijuan has 22-22 record with a 4.18 ERA and 322 Ks over 357 innings. His walk rate (2.5) came in a favorable area with a step down from 2014 (2.1). His K rate (8.0) continues to point to upside. Homeruns (1.4 per nine in his career) have led to disaster downside. Taijuan did battle an ankle issue, which led to surgery in October. Walker was exceptional over his six starts (1.97 ERA and 29 Ks over 32 innings) before losing his rhythm in his next five games (17 runs and 41 base runners over 27.1 innings). His failure was due to an increased walk rate (4.0) and struggles with HRs (9). He rebounded in his next four starts (1.59 ERA with 23 Ks over 22.2 innings). After a bad start (five runs, six base runners, and three HRs over four innings), Taijuan was placed on the DL with his ankle/foot injury. When he returned, his arm had losing value in his next four outings (18 runs and 29 base runners over 17.2 innings). Walker at least had a pulse over his last five starts (2.94 ERA and 30 Ks over 30.2 innings) despite walking 13 batters and allowing four home runs. His AFB (94.6) offers upside with batters hitting .276 against his four-seam fastball with 16 HRs allowed. He had success with his curveball (.212 BAA) and split-finger fastball (.229). Unfortunately, he made too many mistakes with his split (nine HRs over 131 at bats). His ride had plenty of peaks and valleys in 2016 while much of his struggles can be attributed to his ankle issue. The move to the NL should treat him well. On the verge of being a front-line starter, but he needs to stay healthy. I could see him posting a sub 3.00 ERA with 200+ Ks. He will be a target if his ADP (231) remains in a favorable area. I’d prefer him as an SP4 in 15 team leagues.
He has multiple things working in his favor headed into 2017. First, Taijuan has a favorable walk rate (2.5) in his major career while showing the ability to strike out batters (8.1 per nine). Second, the move to the NL will be a positive. Many Fantasy owners are starting to fear the Diamondbacks’ home ballpark. If you throw the ball well as any major-league park, you will get batters out. He’ll also pitch in many games in LA, SD, and SF.
Walker has two swing and miss pitches (curveball and split-finger fastball), which will have even more value when pitching ahead in the count. He needs to limit the mistakes in the strike zone with his fastball and split while avoiding disaster starts.
Overall, Taijuan has the stuff to be an impact arm. He failed last year due to his ankle injury. I’ve never drafted him in his major-league career, but this season I’ll try to add him ideally as an SP4 in a 15-team league.