Kyle Kendrick, Philadelphia Phillies
It was nothing new: The Phils moved Kendrick into the rotation last season for a lengthy spell because injuries depleted it. What was new: his changeup as a weapon and following the coaching staff's directive to pitch more aggressively. What resulted, after the All-Star break: a 2.87 ERA, a 6.78 K/9, a 2.18 BB/9 and a 51.1 percent ground-ball rate.
The right-hander's rate of K's per nine last year is anomalous in the context of his career, but his method, continued, will help him retain most of that gain. Kendrick raised his rate of first-pitch strikes notably, stayed down and reduced the rate of contact against him to just above 80 percent. His cut and sinking fastballs were accompanied by that improved changeup, the crafting of which is a specialty for pitching coach Rich Dubee.
Is Kendrick ascending to fantasy ace-dom? No. Is he a breakthrough candidate with the upside to round out your mixed-league staff or be an inexpensive, mid-grade anchor of your NL-only staff? Absolutely. -NM
Shaun Marcum, New York Mets
After his June 14 start last season, his ERA sat at 3.39. Subsequent elbow issues cost him about two months, and his return produced a 4.32 second-half ERA. He probably wasn't right on the mound as last year came to a close.
He's landed in an optimal environment to recapture that early success, though. Citi Field's neutrality bodes well for someone who will not miss calling Miller Park home. The 31-year-old hasn't walked more than 2.98 per nine in any of his seasons with 21-plus starts. Above-average left-on-base percentages look like the norm. His diverse arsenal keeps batters guessing, and staying in the National League should preserve his solid if not outstanding dominance; the 7.91 K/9 he logged last year is probably his apex.
With a sound limb, Marcum, for mixed leagues, is a Connect Four special ... "Pretty sneaky, sis." -TH
Hyun-Jin Ryu, Los Angeles Dodgers
Not an entree, but a great side dish
Skepticism over Asian imports in recent years - outside of Yu Darvish - keeps their prices low. Ryu will turn 26 before the season starts, which means he should carry his overseas brilliance across the Pacific.
The David Wells comparison fits: The slightly tubby Korean wields low-90s giddy-up - more about efficiency than power - with fine off-speed and breaking stuff. The southpaw gave up a bit too many homers back home, but he could resurrect the output Ted Lilly and Chris Capuano gave their owners as part of this rotation, much of which was padded by Dodger Stadium.
Adding the lack of opponents' book on him should aid Ryu's transition and help him carve out a productive "rookie" season as a mixed back-ender. -TH
Alex Cobb, Tampa Bay Rays
This year, for the first time, Cobb entered spring training with a rotation spot that's his to lose. He pitched well in place of Jeff Niemann in 2012, with a 7.00 K/9 and a 2.64 BB/9 in 136 1/3 stanzas, but he didn't begin to see it reflected in his results until after the break, when he registered a 3.40 ERA. The right-hander, as expected, kept the ball out of the air most of the time (21.2 percent fly-ball rate).
That's Cobb's M.O. He pitches to contact more so than he goes for the K, so bargain shoppers should expect a somewhat lesser rate of strikeouts. But he prevents long-ball damage. Folks concerned about his issues with walks in the past two seasons (mostly on the farm) should take solace in his rapid improvement in that area under the direction of Tampa Bay and Jim Hickey. Historically, wildness has been a relatively short-term issue for him.
Cobb's numbers aren't flashy, but now that he's ironed out some wrinkles and he's a favorite to pitch for the Rays, he's a potential money-earner. The likelihood that he'll deliver is compounded by the fact that mixed-league intrigue doesn't seem to have risen in step. -NM
Jason Hammel, Baltimore Orioles
When a pitcher with a 4.99 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP in 732 lifetime innings entering a season busts out a 3.43 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP in 118 frames one year, roto managers will be skeptical. It's understandable. Hammel's 3.20 BB/9 wasn't much different from his career rate of walks issued, but his 8.62 K/9 was by far a personal best. Something is fishy.
To be sure, Hammel doesn't project to repeat his success from 2012 so readily. But the 30-year-old's increased usage and velocity of a two-seam fastball accounts for much of this statistically supported breakthrough. He also reduced the rate of fly balls against him to less than 30 percent - which comes in handy at Camden Yards. Knee soreness that caused him to miss multiple stretches of starts and eventually led to surgery (with more missed starts) prevented what otherwise could've been a superb year. He's healthy, this spring, and boding well for this year is the fact that he picked up right where he'd left off in each of his outings following an absence.
Hammel has taken his game to the next level. His draft stock hasn't done enough of that, however. He's an exciting mixed-league piece and could easily be a steal in AL-only auctions, if the crowd is full of doubters. -NM
Ivan Nova, New York Yankees
Seems basic: Anyone who produced a 5.02 ERA last season is bound to rebound. But few acknowledge it, especially since the 26-year-old's drop-off is widely labeled a harsh counterbalance of a lofty, wins-fueled 2011. In 2012, Nova took "Bronx Bomber" to a new level, allowing 1.48 homers per nine innings and surrendering a 22.4 liner percentage.
His inflated HR/FB (16.6, compared to 8.4 the year before) and, more importantly, sparkling K/9 (8.08, 5.33), BB/9 (2.96, 3.10) and swinging-strike percentage (9.0, 6.6) say he was short-changed, though. Nova's velocity held up, too. Larry Rothschild attributes the righty's woes - only mildly counteracted by a sparkling June - to Nova's stubbornness with pitch sequencing and selection. The rotator cuff inflammation that sidelined him may have bothered him before and after the DL stint.
He'll have to fight for his spot, but with a job, splitting the difference of the last two years alone looks like a productive outcome. When buying a minimal improvement, remember he has yet to maximize his deceptively intriguing tools that could make him one of baseball's true breakthrough hurlers. -TH
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in the prestigious LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.
He appears frequently, including every Sunday, on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, as well as every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.