Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The Oakland Athletics have the process of squeezing the most value out of a pitcher down to an exact science.
Develop, call up, use for a few years, trade before he gets too expensive (preferably for more pitching prospects), repeat.
It's what the small-market A's and their bottom-five payroll must do to stay competitive, and one of the reasons why general manager Billy Beane had a book written and a movie made about him (though there was little mention of Oakland's "Big Three" of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson in the film version of "Moneyball").
Excelling at that process is how they've gone from Zito, Mulder and Hudson to Dan Haren, Joe Blanton and Rich Harden to Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez to Jarrod Parker, Dan Straily and Sonny Gray.
The latter three will be tasked with fronting the rotation this season following the departures of Bartolo Colon (18-6, 2.65 ERA in 2013) and Anderson (3.81 ERA in 450 2/3 innings over five years with Oakland).
All three carry intrigue, but only one has a real chance to be a fantasy ace this season and it's Gray, due in large part to his terrific curveball.
The 18th overall pick in 2011 threw 64 innings with the big league ballclub after a midseason callup last season and had a 2.67 ERA, a 1.11 WHIP and a 67/20 K/BB. He did that after recording a 3.42 ERA, a 1.32 WHIP and a 118/39 K/BB in 118 1/3 frames at Triple-A Sacramento.
Combined, Gray tossed 182 1/3 innings and had a 3.16 ERA, a 1.24 WHIP, 185 strikeouts and 59 walks in 2013. The 24-year-old right-hander allowed just nine home runs total, a 0.44 HR/9, with four coming in the majors.
If you include all pitchers who threw at least 60 innings last season, Gray had the eighth most valuable curveball in the majors, according to FanGraphs.
He allowed zero home runs and picked up 40 of his 67 Ks with the pitch.
Gray also averaged 93.2 mph on his four-seam fastball. He barely used his slider and changeup, essentially making him a three-pitch pitcher (four-seam, two-seam, curve), but since his fastballs are above average and his curveball is so good, he can get away with it.
Parker's changeup is just as good as Gray's curveball and his two-seam fastball proved to be very effective last season. However, Parker's change doesn't generate as many strikeouts as Gray's curveball. The same goes for Parker's fastballs when compared to Gray's.
Parker hasn't developed a consistent second pitch with which to get strikeouts, which is why his K/9 was under 7.0 in each of the last two seasons and just 6.12 in 2013.
Even while Parker was going 10-3 with a 3.22 ERA over his final 24 starts last season, he had just a 5.99 K/9.
He also had an issue with home runs, serving up 1.14 per nine innings in 2013 after giving up 0.55 the previous season. His fly-ball rate and HR/FB both increased significantly from 2012, but his infield-fly-ball rate decreased.
Straily appeared to have the greatest strikeout potential of the three young hurlers after fanning 190 batters in just 152 innings between Double- and Triple-A in 2012, but it hasn't translated to the majors yet.
In 152 1/3 innings last year, Straily struck out 124 men, walked 57 and gave up 16 homers.
His slider was excellent last year, both in general and at inducing Ks, but it was less effective at the latter than both Gray's and Parker's put-away pitch. And like Parker, Straily doesn't have another consistent strikeout pitch.
All three pitchers deserve to be drafted in standard fantasy leagues, but Gray is the one you should be targeting for potential fantasy ace production.