Thursday, March 27, 2014

Fantasy Baseball Sleepers and Busts: Starting Pitchers

Live Surgery Every Fifth Day
Every year, there's a guy in your league that pays nothing for starting pitching and does well in the categories anyway, and that guy makes you feel like a total asshat. But what you're failing to realize is that guy is (a) witch-like in his luck, both from selections and from dodging injury, and (b) grinding like hell for his numbers, and winning your league with the persistence of a 20-year-old working the 18-table online poker hustle. For the humans with lives in the room, you are actually going to have to make some good picks on draft day, which means that it's time to dig into the rankings and find some values, and dodge some grenades.

Starting Pitchers - Sleepers

Cliff Lee, Philadelphia.
Durable, devastating if your league does K/BB ratio (and it should), and even a reasonable bet to win a lot of games for a terrible Phillies team, because he'll (a) stay in games long enough to get a few wins he wouldn't get on a good team, since the bullpen is weak, and (b) find himself on a good team for the second half of the year, after Rben Amaro Jr. executes a terrible fire sale as his last gift to the team's fans. Cliff's a monster, and as safe as pitchers get.

Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco.
Love the park, defense, skills and durability. Bum's got 4 straight years of 200+ innings and solid numbers, hasn't shown any real sign of slowing down, and is still scary young (turns 25 in August). In a tier of guys with warning signs, he's just lockdown good.

Julio Teheran, Atlanta. It took a while for him to get here and get great, but he's just all kinds of electric (185 K's in 211 IP), has the Opening Day slot since Kris Medlen exploded, and could easily provide Top Six value despite coming off the board after dozens of other picks. I think there is a lot of profit potential here.

Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle. The secret best SP in town last year, Iwakuma will go a little light from a lack of history at this level, not to mention his slow spring training from a driving finger strain. That's good news for you, since it might make a guy with a career 1.10 WHIP and 2.84 ERA, who went nearly 220 innings last year, available a long time after he should have gone off the board. It's really not out of bounds to suggest that he might be the Mariners' best SP again this year.

Doug Fister, Nationals. He goes from the good league to the bad one, an infield defense that grazes to one that vacuums up everything, and gets to pad his strikeout numbers by mowing down opposing SPs. Oh, and he's never had injury issues. My friends who root for the Tigers can't figure out why they would trade him, especially for the meager returns they got, and his upcoming appearance in the All-Star Game isn't going to make it easier to explain.

Tyson Ross, San Diego. A common sight on expert lists, Ross has the peripherals that make nerd hearts flutter, pedigree (second round pick by the A's in 2008, a team that knows how to draft), and the best park in the majors for pitchers. The only real question here is whether his arm is going to be up for a full diet of starts, because his numbers are going to be too good to put him back in the bullpen.

Marco Estrada, Milwaukee. Sometimes the breakout happens a year after it's expected. Estrada was a trendy pick a year ago based on the peripherals and a move to the rotation, and while he failed to hold up for more than 21 starts, those starts were quality -- 1.08 WHIP, 3.87 ERA, 4+ K/BB ratio. All he needs is a little more luck in making the long balls count only as solo shots, and more durability. Besides, I'd much rather have a guy that pitches well and gets hurt, rather than the plugger who keeps taking the ball no matter what.

Scott Kazmir, Oakland. Oddly dominant in the second half of the year in Cleveland, and now in a better home park, with a coaching staff that thrives with castaways (see Colon, Bartolo). Oh, and he's still just 30, and lefties frequently come into their own a bit later. At some point, you just have to trust Billy Beane's track record on things like this.

Yordano Ventura, Kansas City. It's hard to imagine how this guy isn't ranked higher, seeing how he's been lighting up radar guns in Arizona, appearing in tout lists, and winning a better slot in the rotation every time you turn around. There's some sniffing that he throws too hard and isn't tall enough (sub 6-footer) to last, and I get that there's a strong prejudice against the Royals ever having fantasy relevant players, but this is just a different kind of animal here. I could see him struggling a bit with control, but if he doesn't? Meet the AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year.

Rick Porcello, Detroit. Groundball pitcher ups his K rate, gets a massive upgrade in the terrible defense behind him (shame Julio Iglesias isn't healthy to make it really amazing, but still, they aren't a joke any more), and moves up in the rotation at age 25. You still need to be in a bit of a deep league to make his upcoming 3.8 ERA and 1.2 WHIP work for you, but he's got the pedigree to do better than that.

Starting Pitcher - Busts

Stephen Strasburg, Washington.
On pure stuff alone, he might be the most frightening pitcher on the planet. But his owners, hamstrung by the Nationals' inability to ever commit to one year in which they truly go for it, and the man's own high pitch counts, find themselves outside of the winner's circle more often than not. The problem is that you are just getting 20% less from your SP1 than the other guy, and that assumes good health -- something that no Straz owner is taking for granted. 75 career starts, 434 career innings, for less than 6 a game. So he's not exactly helping you in Wins or Quality Starts, and maybe they shut him down late in the year for your playoffs, too. If this is your idea of high pick SP1 Fun, you're doing it wrong.

Justin Verlander, Detroit. Can I hate him into irrelevance? Not likely, but those who ignore 2013's leaking oil year may be doomed to repeat it, and if not for good luck, the 1.31 WHIP would have produced more than a 3.46 ERA. The K's were at a 5-year low, the walks at a career high, and if won-loss matters to you, he went 13-12. There's only so much post-season heroics you can pull off before wear and tear gets noticed, and Verlander will, if all goes well this year, make his 300th start at age 31 in September. I don't see him getting back to his ceiling, even with a better defense behind him.

Zach Greinke, Los Angeles. The secretly worst big name pitcher, Greinke has spent a career not quite getting to the promised land, and he's usually good for a trip to the DL every year. Starting the year off bad-mouthing the Aussies seems like more of the same to me, and he's had enough of a burden that makes me wonder if he's on borrowed time at age 31.

Gio Gonzalez, Washington. I keep waiting for his borderline unacceptable walk rate to really harm him, but so far, he's been remarkably consistent both here and in OAK. But with this many walks, he walks the edge where power hitters can end his night early. He's likely never to be on one of my teams.

Mat Latos, Cincinnati. Starting the year on the DL is never a good sign, especially when you couple it with last year's WHIP erosion. If Latos hadn't gotten lucky with long balls not leaving the yard last year, the ERA would have slipped as well. You're paying SP1/2 price for SP3/4 here, which is never a recipe for success.

Matt Moore, Tampa Bay. Supposed to be the new David Price, but the control has never been there, and he's been a WHIP killer. At this point, there's 337 innings of evidence that he is what he is -- a mid-rotation fireballer that might be more due to the raw K numbers, but hasn't quite put it all together yet. And if you haven't gotten it done to date in this park, with this defense and bullpen.... how is it supposed to get better once you graduate your way out of town?

Cole Hamels, Phillies. This is one of those cases where the eye tells you stuff the numbers don't. By the numbers, Hamels was fine last year, with a 1.16 WHIP, 4+ K/BB, and poor luck won-loss record and pedestrian 3.60 ERA. But he failed the eye test, with meltdowns instead of shutdown innings, weak work whan the season wasn't yet lost, and an 8-14 record that really felt like it was what he deserved at times. Add that to the interminable spring training injury reports, and I'm staying away.

Jered Weaver, Anaheim. Red Alert! Red Alert! Weaver's velocity dropped last year, hasn't looked good in spring training this year, and just feels like quick-twitch erosion. Innings have dropped in three straight years, he's 31 with nearly 1500 career innings, and the strikeout rate that was once elite is now ordinary. Don't get sucked in by the brand name.

Clay Buchholz, Boston. Proof that fantasy baseball is making people smarter can be found in 2013's 12-1 won-loss record and World Series ring not translating to a higher pick, but he's still going too high for my liking. His career WHIP is 1.29, the ERA is 3.60, and he misses starts every year. If your league is shallow, that's borderline FA level.

Tim Lincecum, San Francisco.
Why are people still drafting this guy? He's a WHIP murderer (just under 1.40 in the last 2 years), an ERA killer (4.75 in the same time frame), and all of that is in a great pitcher's park and defense. Somehow, this led to a new deal and continued employment from the Giants, but you don't need to make the same mistake.

Tomorrow, closing pitchers and season predictions. And all for free!

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