Johnny Cueto, Reds
Cueto, 24, posted xFIP’s of 4.37 in 2008 and 4.57 in 2009. While by no means bad, those performances were mildly disappointing, given the way the right-hander shredded minor league hitters on his way to Cincy.
Perhaps Cueto is ready to take a step forward in his development as a major league starter. After owning the Pirates and Brewers in his last two starts, Johnny has 7.35 K/9, 2.39 BB/9 and a 4.12 xFIP in 49 innings. He’s getting plenty of whiffs with his four-seam fastball (12 percent, double his MLB-average whiff rate on the pitch from 2009), and his slider is getting swings and misses 12.8 percent after eliciting whiffs 9.7 percent in ’09 (13.6 MLB average).
He’s getting behind in the count often, with a 52.2 first pitch strike percentage that’s well south of the 58-59% big league average, but Cueto’s contact and swinging strike rates have improved after he posted mediocre numbers in ’09. ZiPS projects a 4.12 FIP for the rest of the season, with 7.6 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9.
Brett Gardner, Yankees
Taken in the third round of the 2005 draft out of the College of Charleston, Gardner used his wheels to swipe bases at a high percentage clip (83.4 percent) and cover the gaps in the minors, while working the count for a 13.6 percent walk rate. Questions were raised about his bat, though, given Gardner’s lack of pop (.094 ISO) and 20 percent K rate.
While the 5-10, 185 pound lefty batter is unlikely to keep the .390 wOBA that he currently holds, Gardner has eased concerns about his offense. He’s drawing walks at a 10.3 percent rate this year, swinging at 20.2 percent of pitches outside of the zone (27.4% MLB average), and he’s making scores of contact (93.5 percent, compared to the 80-81% MLB average).
Gardner isn’t going to drive the ball with any frequency, but he controls the zone well and has proven to be one of the best stolen base thieves in the game: he’s 17-for-18 in 2010, and now has an 88.9 percent success rate in the big leagues. According to Baseball Prospectus’ base running numbers, Gardner has added nearly half a win with his legs (best in the majors), including about three runs on steal attempts. Add in his stellar outfield D, and Gardner might be the rarest of species: the unheralded Yankee.
Derek Holland, Rangers
After laying waste to Triple-A batters (38.2 IP, 37/7 K/BB, 8 runs allowed), Holland was recalled when Matt Harrison (biceps) was placed on the DL. While the 23-year-old lefty’s 2009 work with Texas looks grim at first glance (6.12 ERA in 138.1 IP), his underlying performance was much more promising: a 4.38 xFIP, with about seven whiffs per nine innings and 3.1 BB/9.
Holland has made two big league starts so far, and he has posted a 10/3 K/BB while allowing three runs. He has the stuff (low-90’s fastball, low-80’s slider, mid-70’s curve, low-80’s change), track record (9.7 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 in the minors) and prospect pedigree (Baseball America rated him #31 on its list of farm talents prior to 2009) to contribute in all fantasy formats.
John Lackey, Red Sox
Signed to a five-year, $82.5 million contract over the winter, Lackey has been lackluster this season. The long-time Angel dealt with right triceps and forearm injuries over the past couple of years and his contact rates had been rising, but his combination of solid K rates and quality control led to sub-four xFIPs from 2007-2009.
In Boston, Lackey has a middling 4.85 xFIP in 50 innings pitched. He’s striking out a career-worst 5.58 batters per nine frames, while walking a career-high 3.78 per nine. The 31-year-old’s contact rate has continued to increase: opponents have connected 85.8 percent in 2010, compared to an 80.4% career average, and Lackey is getting swinging strikes a paltry 5.6 percent (8.9% career average, right around the MLB average). He’s not locating well, either, with 45.7 percent of his pitches catching the plate (50.4% career average, 48-51% MLB average). Lackey’s curve has been worth +0.92 runs per 100 pitches during his career, but it has been thumped for a -1.96 runs/100 mark in 2010.
Owners are best off taking a wait-and-see approach with Lackey. His trade value is diminished right now, so it makes sense to hold on to him and hope that his stuff rebounds.
Lastings Milledge, Pirates
When Milledge managed just a .308 wOBA and a .094 ISO in 2009, some were willing to forgive the shoddy offensive showing due to a fractured right ring finger that might have affected his bat control. However, the former Met and National is hitting like someone broke both his thumbs.
In 136 PA, Milledge has an anemic .286 wOBA, and he’s hitting for even less power than last season (.066 ISO). The 25-year-old continues to swing at plenty of junk pitches (30.3 outside swing percentage), and he’s chopping the ball into the dirt and popping up at an alarming rate. Milledge has a 57.4 GB% this year, and his infield/fly ball rate is 16 percent (twice the major league average). Couple the punch less hitting with…adventurous routes in left field, and it might not be long before the Pirates give Jose Tabata a shot.
Mitch Talbot, Indians
Freed from the Tampa pitching factory that had buried him on the organizational depth chart, Talbot was shipped to Cleveland for Kelly Shoppach last December. Talbot’s got a 3.23 ERA in 47.1 IP for the Indians, but his peripherals suggest that bumpier days are ahead.
The 26-year-old right-hander showed strong ground ball tendencies on the farm (53.9 GB%), and he has continued to burn worms in the majors (49 GB%). Unfortunately, Talbot’s control has been ordinary (3.99 BB/9, with a 52.9 first pitch strike percentage) and he’s not fooling anyone. He has 3.61 K/9, his contact rate is near 90 percent and his swinging strike rate (4.1 percent) is less than half of the major league average. Talbot’s xFIP is 5.09. Unless he misses more bats or displays sharper control, expect that ERA to spike.