In doing some initial research for this particular series of articles, I've been struck by how many pitchers could sort of be seen as both buy-low or sell-high candidates. Confused? I know that's like a double-negative, but there are some pitchers who just aren't so clear cut. Take Tom Milone of the A's. Milone is a finesse lefty who was nothing but a fantasy afterthought before the season started, a back end starter who might luck his way to one season with an ERA under four before crapping out of the league for good. He was a bargain basement sleeper for desperate schlubs if there ever was one.
Well, Milone has indeed had a fine season. Coming into today, Milone carries an 11-10 record with a 3.94 ERA and a relatively surprising 118 strikeouts and 1.23 WHIP. He's been a demon at home, with a 2.77 ERA in thirteen starts. As a lefty who relies on deception, and who is aided by a friendly home ballpark and a great defense behind him, he'd seem to be the ultimate sell-high pitcher, since he can never be this good again, right?
Well, maybe not. If Milone has another few seasons of this, he's a legitimate fantasy option in deep leagues. And who is to say he can't? His strikeout rate is up to snuff, he doesn't walk anybody, and his BABIP is right at league average. Yes, he benefits from his home park, but barring an unexpected trade, as long as he calls the pit in Oakland his home, that won't change. It is absolutely possible that managers will think so little of Milone and his soft-throwing ways that you could trade a scrub for him and end up with two or three years of 180-200 innings with an above-league average ERA. Again, in deep leagues, that's incredibly valuable.
When we discuss buying low on players, we aren't just talking about finding stars. We're trying to find any player or pitcher who could give us great value relative to what we gave up for him. That may mean hitting the jackpot like obtaining Jose Bautista for Raul Ibanez or something a couple of years ago. Or it could be as simple as trading a bench warmer for a pitcher who suddenly becomes a useful innings-eater to compliment your aces. So sometimes the pitchers who seem like obvious sell-high guys are actually buy-low guys, because everybody else in your league views them as sell-high guys. What a paradox!
Ok, enough ranting. On to the real thing. After the jump, five American League pitchers who could be solid buy-low candidates for your keeper league purposes.
A World Series star for the Rangers last year, Holland has pretty much failed to build on that good will and his ERA has become as unsightly as the creepy pornstache he grew last October. Holland's ERA has jumped a run, and the primary reason is that he can't seem to keep right-handed hitters in the ballpark. Of the 25 bombs Holland has given up this year, 23 have been to righties. He only gave up 19 in a full season's worth of plate appearances to righties last season, so if you're looking for the reason why he's having such a hard time in 2012, there it is.
On the bright side, he's dropped his overall walk rate while maintaining his strikeout numbers. Given that he'll spend the next few years pitching in front of a high-octane offense and a solid defense, he only needs to rein in those right-handed hitters to enjoy a lifetime of fantasy production. Since he's only 25 still, he's a decent guy to nab while his ERA is still high, as there's a great chance he'll develop and make the necessary adjustments against those nasty righties.
Amidst all of the disappointment that Porcello has brought upon his fantasy owners since he showed up in the majors in 2009, please remember that he is still just 23. Please also note that he is the owner of a completely ridiculous .351 BABIP, and that he has two amorphous blobs manning the corner infield positions behind him. Detroit's defensive troubles have been well-documented this year, and they've been particularly hard on poor Porcello. He currently leads the American League in hits allowed, and is probably the all-time leader in bloop doubles given up because Dmitri Young took two steps and fell on his face in the outfield.
Detroit's crappy fielding is probably the reason they aren't in first place right now, and don't think for a second that the team's front office hasn't taken notice. Any offseason moves to upgrade the defensive unit will only be a boon to a pitcher like Porcello. His home run rates have fallen every year while his strikeout rates have edged up. Those are good trends, so if the Tigers acquire some decent fielders to plug in around the awesome Austin Jackson, Porcello's ERA and WHIP should go down. How they'll accomplish that while keeping Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez all in the lineup is far from clear (though getting the absolutely execrable Young and Brennan Boesch out of the outfield would probably be a start).
Nova isn't a great pitcher by any means, and I had even pointed him out as a regression candidate before the season. Regress he has, but for all the wrong reasons. It's easy to look at Nova's 4.92 ERA (more than a run higher than in 2011) and past ground ball tendencies and immediately think that it's all the fault of 38-year-old Derek Jeter playing decrepit defense behind him. While having Jeter running in muck at shortstop is certainly not helping matters, it's not the cause of Nova's struggles. Shockingly, they're due to that old familiar rascal, the home run ball.
In 2011, Nova was a surprise success due to the fact that he induced a ton of ground balls and kept the ball in the ballpark. This year, he's been serving up more taters than Spud's Potato Bar, surrendering 25 in just 157.1 innings (compared to 13 in 165.1 last year). While he is allowing more fly balls in general, the low ground ball rates and high home run rates fly in the face of everything he's done throughout his career thus far, whether in the majors or minors (his rate of 1.4 homers surrender per nine innings is double what it was in 2011 and in the minors). More encouragingly, his strikeout rate has spiked, while his walk rate has actually gone down a bit. In short, if he brings the home run totals down to a rate more in line with his track record, his other numbers will improve drastically. He's not going to be a perennial All-Star, but he's a good bet to be a hell of a lot better than what you're seeing right now.
I've had one eye on Paulino ever since his days with the Astros. Despite some pretty bad seasonal ERAs, Paulino always threw hard and showed the ability to rack up some high strikeout totals. I figured that in a better environment (i.e. not with a franchise busy perennially cornering the market on crappy middle relievers), he might click with the right pitching coach and become a successful starter. Well, that "better environment" turned out to be the Royals, of all teams, and Paulino looked to be in the middle of a bit of a breakout this year before Tommy John surgery killed his season early.
The Tommy John alone won't scare other managers; the combination of the operation and his age (he's no prospect at 28) will. Paulino was dealing when he got hurt, sporting a 1.67 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 37.2 innings. You can chalk the minuscule ERA up to small sample size fooferah, but the K's are the real deal. "Buying low" here might simply constitute grabbing him off of your league's free agent pool and eating a roster spot for a few months, but in very deep leagues where he's still owned, he can probably be had for a song. With Wil Myers likely to be bursting on the major league scene next year and with Eric Hosmer bound to improve, the Royals' offense could be pretty imposing in a jiffy. Once he comes back, Paulino could be a sleeper 15-game winner in front of that attack.
Cobb is sort of a forgotten man amongst the sexier names in Tampa Bay's vaunted starting rotation, and you might be able to take advantage of that relative obscurity to get a good deal on a solid back-end fantasy pitcher. Cobb has had his bumps in the road, but he limits walks and home runs, and should continue to be the beneficiary of arguably the best team defensive unit in the major leagues. In seven starts since August, he's struck out 35 batters in 42.1 innings, while walking just seven. He had success in the minor leagues and he appears to be hitting his groove after being cuffed around in June and July. A sleeper for double-digit wins and 150 strikeouts in 2013.