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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: "Mark Buehrle may not be much to look at, but he's got a great personality." (Starting Pitcher Preview)

Rather than ranking hundreds of pitchers in a fashion which can be frustrating to manage during your draft or auction, I suggest grouping pitchers according to types.  This can be done in a number of ways, not necessarily exclusively those that I've outlined below, but I like to aim for getting at least one pitcher from each of my tiers (with the exception of #7, where I've put a number of guys who I will be flat-out ignoring).  You can still take a second or third guy from any one of the categories, if it fits your strategy or they are being undervalued, but this method will protect you somewhat from ending up with too many injury risks, too many unproven youngsters, too many low-strikeout veterans, or overspending on pitching in the early rounds.  It's not a perfect system, but I can boast that in the keeper league I invented it for I have now led the league in pitching staff scoring for three consecutive seasons, even though I only spend about 25% of my money on pitching.

Also, keep in mind, that although pitchers who I've grouped together share some particular trait, their potential and their risk can vary dramatically from #1 to #20, which also roughly suggests where they'll be available in the draft.  Say, for instance, that the first two pitchers I select are Matt Cain (#11) and Carlos Zambrano (#9), I will probably try to get a top five guy from the "upside" group and at least a top ten guy from the "rubber arms" group.  However, if I already have Roy Halladay (#1) and Yovani Gallardo (#6), I'll probably wait until deeper in the draft to spring for guys like Derek Lowe (#15), Manny Parra (#17), and Gavin Floyd (#11).  You probably don't want to just lift my tiers verbatim, but rather design your own to fit the particular scoring rules and roster requirements of your league.

#1: Bonafide Aces

1. Roy Halladay (Phillies)
2. Tim Lincecum (Giants)
3. C. C. Sabathia (Yankees)
4. Johan Santana (Mets)
5. Felix Hernandez (Mariners)
6. Justin Verlander (Tigers)
7. Cliff Lee (Mariners)
8. Chris Carpenter (Cardinals)
9. Dan Haren (D-Backs)
10. Jon Lester (Red Sox)
11. Matt Cain (Giants)
12. Adam Wainwright (Cardinals)

If you are going to draft a pitcher in the first five rounds of a standard (10-team) league, make it be one of these fellows.  Now, I'm not saying you need a pitcher that early in the draft.  There are plenty of workable strategies that don't require a bonafide Ace, but if you go that route, go with these proven commodities.  Every one of these players has had multiple seasons of excellence and remains in the prime of his career.

You can bicker with my rankings, especially at the top.  I chose Halladay over Lincecum mainly because he'll get a lot more run support, and therefore have a better chance at accumulating wins, but there's a strong chance Lincecum leads him in strikeouts by a sizable margin.  If there is any uncertainty surrounding Johan Santana's health by the middle of Spring Training, he falls out of this class.  Same goes for Carpenter and Lee.  Again, if you're drafting a pitcher early, you need somebody who is at least seemingly without risk.

#2: Aces?

1. Zack Greinke (Royals)
2. Brandon Webb (D-Backs)
3. Josh Beckett (Red Sox)
4. Ubaldo Jimenez (Rockies)
5. Josh Johnson (Marlins)
6. Yovani Gallardo (Brewers)
7. Javier Vazquez (Braves)
8. Matt Garza (Rays)
9. Carlos Zambrano (Cubs)
10. Ricky Nolasco (Marlins)
11. Cole Hamels (Phillies)
12. Scott Kazmir (Angels)
13. Jake Peavy (White Sox)

I'm perfectly content with one of these hurlers as a #1 pitcher.  All have proven their ability to pitch like an Ace.  Just don't reach for them too early, because either youth (Jimenez), health (Johnson), or an inexplicable disposition (Zambrano) have prevented them from doing it consistently.

It will be tempting to overreach for Greinke after his Cy Young season.  Sure, I think he has permanently "arrived," but the 2009 numbers are difficult to duplicate, especially as he continues to pitch for the worst team in baseball.  There is no doubt that the prolonged frustration and perfectionism which results from pitching in front of a bad defense that never scores you any runs can have an effect on the psyche and eventually the stats of even great pitchers.  We saw it with Cliff Lee in the first half of '09 and with Matt Cain in '08.

#3: Rubber Arms

1. A. J. Burnett (Yankees)
2. John Lackey (Red Sox)
3. James Shields (Rays)
4. Jered Weaver (Angels)
5. Roy Oswalt (Astros)
6. Wandy Rodriguez (Astros)
7. Edwin Jackson (D-Backs)
8. Bronson Arroyo (Reds)
9. Ted Lilly (Cubs)
10. Mark Buehrle (White Sox)
11. Ryan Dempster (Cubs)
12. Scott Baker (Twins)
13. Joe Saunders (Angels)
14. John Danks (White Sox)
15. Derek Lowe (Braves)
16. Kevin Millwood (Orioles)
17. Joe Blanton (Phillies)
18. Andy Pettitte (Yankees)

Guys from this tier are notoriously underrated.  In fact, you'll likely end up selecting one of your high-upside #4 or #5 guys prior to somebody from the bottom half of this list.  But, by the end of the season, these guys will have quietly accumulated the stats to justify at least #3 status and, as such, will have a very special place in your heart.  The most underrated statistic in fantasy baseball is 30+ games started.

I could confidently sell you on any one of these guys, but this season I'll honor Joe Saunders, who, in 2009, posted his second consecutive season of 31 starts, 185+ innings, and 16+ wins.  His ERA rose above where you'd like it (4.60), mainly due to a rough midsummer stretch, but he finished strong, going 7-1 with a 2.55 ERA in his final eight starts.  He doesn't turn 29 until June and he pitches in the midst of a fairly deep rotation on a team that was second in the league in scoring in 2009.  It's a fine situation.    

#4: The Upside

1. David Price (Rays)
2. Chad Billingsley (Dodgers)
3. Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers)
4. Jair Jurrjens (Braves)
5. John Lannan (Nationals)
6. Clay Buchholz (Red Sox)
7. Jonathan Sanchez (Giants)
8. Tommy Hanson (Braves)
9. Brett Anderson (Athletics)
10. Francisco Liriano (Twins)
11. Edinson Volquez (Reds)
12. Johnny Cueto (Reds)
13. Rick Porcello (Tigers)
14. Max Scherzer (Tigers)
15. Jorge De La Rosa (Rockies)
16. Joba Chamberlain/Phil Hughes (Yankees)
17. Manny Parra (Brewers)
18. Anibel Sanchez (Marlins)
19. Mike Pelfrey (Mets)

Much has been made about the "third-year starting pitcher."  Not all of these guys have been in the league for that long yet, but all are in their mid-twenties with a year or more of major-league pitching experience.  And, all were top prospects, who have great "stuff" to go along with improving maturity.  Half a dozen of the pitchers on this list will jump up at least a tier or two in 2011, but it's hard to say exactly who they'll be.  I like Price because scouts have always assumed he would become an Ace and his numbers during the second half of '09 suggested he was heading that direction.  I worry slightly about Hanson and Porcello because they are very, very young and had fairly high workloads in '09.  As guys like Liriano, Volquez, and Billingsley have already proven, pitchers who reach the majors with gusto in their early twenties usually go through some growing pains.

Obviously, if you want Price, Billingsly, Kershaw, or Hanson you're going to have to reach for him in the first half of your draft, maybe even in the early rounds in a deep league.  The key to the tier system is that if you make that choice, you don't then follow it by selecting another risky #4 in middle rounds, but instead solidify your rotation with a Roy Oswalt, a Mark Buehrle, or a Ted Lilly.  I can't stress it enough.  There's nothing sexy about those guys, you just have to get to know them.

#5: Once & Future Aces?

1. Daisuke Matsuzaka (Red Sox)
2. Rich Harden (Rangers)
3. Ervin Santana (Angels)
4. Tim Hudson (Braves)
5. Ben Sheets (Athletics)
6. Hiroki Kuroda (Dodgers)
7. Aaron Harang (Reds)
8. Brad Penny (Cardinals)
9. Chris Young (Padres)
10. Brett Myers (Astros)
11. Gavin Floyd (White Sox)
12. Erik Bedard (Mariners)
13. Justin Duchscherer (Athletics)
14. Jeff Francis (Rockies)
15. Aaron Cook (Rockies)
16. Jeremy Guthrie (Orioles)
17. Barry Zito (Giants)

An older man's version of tier #4.  Again, a handful of these guys will probably end up among the top 25 pitchers in the league.  They all possess the talent to do so.  However, they're all terribly inconsistent, mainly because of health problems.  Making a good selection for this tier requires some due diligence.  You need to follow the progress of the pitchers you're most tempted by right up until your draft day.  Who's got a new situation?  Who's on schedule during Spring Training?  Who's still rehabbing?  Who's skipping starts or throwing a lot of "simulated games"?  Who are the managers and pitching coacher talking about during their interviews?  Last year, before the season even started, it was apparent to anybody that was paying attention that Josh Johnson had fully recovered and that, on the other hand, Ervin Santana and Cole Hamels weren't quite right.  When it comes to hitters, I take Spring Training with a grain of salt.  When it comes to pitchers, I go the opposite route.

#6: Rookies

1. Stephen Strasburg (Nationals)
2. Neftali Feliz (Rangers)
3. Kevin Slowey (Twins)
4. Bud Norris (Astros)
5. Wade Davis (Rays)
6. Ian Kennedy (D-Backs)
7. Chris Tillman (Orioles)
8. Brett Cecil (Blue Jays)
9. Madison Bumgarner (Giants)
10. Brian Matusz (Orioles)
11. Brad Bergesen (Orioles)
12. Trevor Cahill (Athletics)
13. Derek Holland (Rangers)
14. Aaron Poreda (Padres)
15. Mat Latos (Padres)
16. Luke Hochevar (Royals)
17. Justin Masterson (Indians)
18. James McDonald (Dodgers)
19. Homer Bailey (Reds)
20. Clayton Richard (Padres)
21. Gio Gonzalez (Athletics)

Not all of these guys are officially rookies, but they might as well be.  They've pitched no more than a handful of games in the majors and, in most cases, haven't pitcher particularly well.  Kevin Slowey may belong on the "upside" list, but a major injury to his pitching wrist has me feeling, sadly, as though it is best to treat him like a whole new pitcher.  Who knows what his command it going to be like relying on a couple of surgical pins.

Don't load up on these guys, especially early in the draft.  Remember, for every Tommy Hanson, there are a dozen guys like Anthony Reyes, Joel Pineiro, and Phil Hughes, who arrive with a ton of hype, but either never succeed or don't succeed for several years.  I'm tempted to make an exception for uber-prospect, Stephen Strasburg, but even him I treat with some skepticism.

#7: For Optimists Only

1. Randy Wolf (Brewers)
2. Joel Pineiro (Angels)
3. Jeff Niemann (Rays)
4. Nick Blackburn (Twins)
5. Randy Wells (Cubs)
6. Carl Pavano (Twins)
7. J. A. Happ (Phillies)
8. Scott Feldman (Rangers)
9. Ricky Romero (Blue Jays)
10. Jason Marquis (Nationals)

Beware of the "breakout" season.  All of these guys put up solid numbers in '09, but for whatever reason, I'm skeptical.  Some, no doubt, will prove me wrong, but I won't own any of them in 2010.  Wells, Niemann, Romero, and Happ were Rookie of the Year contenders, but none of them were top prospects and their minor-league careers were just so-so.  Wolf, Pineiro, and Pavano are, of course, competent major-league arms, but they pitched a bit over their heads in '09.  And Jason Marquis.  Well, Jason Marquis is Jason Marquis.

#8: Flyers

Kyle Lohse (Cardinals)
Zach Duke (Pirates)
Brandon Morrow (Blue Jays)
Ian Snell (Mariners)
Gil Meche (Royals)
Vicente Padilla (Dodgers)
Dustin McGowan (Blue Jays)
Shaun Marcum (Blue Jays)
Kevin Correia (Padres)
Ryan Rowland-Smith (Mariners)
Kenshin Kawakami (Braves)
Fausto Carmona (Indians)
Chris Volstad (Marlins)
John Maine (Mets)
Oliver Perez (Mets)

I could make this list much longer.  These were just a few who came to mind.  This is where your true "sleepers" belong, guys who nobody else is going to be particularly interested in, but you think might have something unexpected brewing.  Don't overreach.  You take these guys somewhere in the final rounds, or for $1 or $2.  As such, they present zero risk.

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