There are all different draft strategies when it comes to starting pitchers. Some people draft a few big guns in the first five rounds and then a few more in the next 5 rounds to give them a dominant staff. Others may draft one early and then get one every 3-4 rounds to give them a nice rounded staff. And then there are people like me who usually won’t draft a pitcher in the first five rounds and sometimes don’t take one until round 9 or 10. They go into the season with a few dependable names and then piece their staff together from the waiver wire and through trades. None of these strategies are wrong and all of them can work, it all comes down to which one works best for you.
Even if you find a way of drafting that works for you, things can still go wrong. An injury can occur at any time and the disabled list has no age preference, everyone is welcome. Slumps are also a part of the game and can happen to the best of them, just ask Justin Verlander. Then there are the velocity gods who like to steal 1 MPH at random from players without warning. It’s usually an older player but just like the DL, there is no discrimination here and everyone is fair game. Even if you think you’ve drafted a winner, keep your eye on the bottom half of your staff and the waiver wire. If you see an available pitcher that is or could be better than one of your bottom guys, snatch him up. While your team looks happy and healthy now, bad things can be lurking around the corner. You can never have enough starting pitchers.
There are a lot of pitchers on the move this year. This year’s free agent class contains Johan Santana, Roy Halladay (signed by Toronto & retired), Barry Zito, A.J. Burnett, Bronson Arroyo, Hiroki Kuroda (re-signed with Yankees), Josh Johnson, Ted Lilly , Dan Haren (signed with Dodgers), Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco (signed by Twins), James Shields, Matt Garza, Gavin Floyd, Tim Hudson (signed with Giants), Jake Westbrook, Jason Vargas (signed with KC), Phil Hughes (signed with Twins), Jason Hammel, Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman (signed by Astros), Paul Maholm, Shaun Marcum, Bartolo Colon (signed by Mets), Chris Capuano, Scott Feldman, Aaron Harang, Joe Saunders, Edison Volquez, scott Baker, Ryan Vogelsong (resigned by Giants), Bruce Chen, Mike Pelfrey, Roberto Hernandez, Jason Marquis, Jeff Carstens, Colby Lewis (resigned with Rangers), Jeff Francis, Jonathan Sanchez, Jon Garland, Aaron Cook, Erik Bedard, Freddy Garcia, Scott Kazmir (signed by A’s), Roy Oswalt, Chris Young (resigned with Nationals) and Chien-Ming Wang.
Some of those names don’t even deserve to be mentioned, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t. There are a few useful names in there and a few more that can be used to fill in the back-end of your staff. For the most part though the rest of the players are either past their prime but can eat some innings or have had mediocre success and show just enough to get them a contract. The useable free agents are listed below. As for the rest, I’ll leave them to you.
As always feel free to disagree in the comments section below:
1. Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers): With the exception of his rookie season, Kershaw has never had an ERA over 3.0 or a BAA over .214. He had 185 strikeouts in 2009 but has been over 200 the past 4 years. His average win totals don’t meet the standard of his other numbers, but his quality starts do. This year Kershaw started 32 games and had 27 quality starts and had 25 quality starts in each of the previous two seasons. It’s hard to believe Kershaw will only be 26 years old in March. There are some players below that can match his numbers, but they can’t do it in and out each and every year. Kershaw is one of the few pitchers that are worthy a first round draft pick.
2. Yu Darvish (Rangers): Yu surpassed 200 strikeouts for the second time in the majors and the sixth time in his career. His 277 strikeouts were one more than he had in his final year in Japan with the Nippon Fighters. While his walks are still high Yu did show improvements here and also lowered his hit totals resulting in a full point drop in his ERA and .20 off his WHIP. His ERA isn’t where it was in Japan, but his strikeouts, WHIP and hits allowed are. Normally the third year in the league is when pitchers experience their breakout. Combine that with the fact that Yu is 27 years old and you’ve got a recipe for a career year. It might not seem possible to improve upon his numbers from this year, but he is talented enough to do just that. He’s that good.
3. Stephen Strasburg (Nationals): Speaking of third year pitchers, Strasburg is another one of those pitchers that could be poised for a breakout. There were a few hiccups here and there, but overall his numbers improved across the board. The strikeouts were lower even with the extra innings, but the velocity was there and his K/9 was still 9.39. Strasburg resume is as impressive as his talent, and we’re just starting to scratch the surface. Just like Darvish above this could be another breakout waiting to happen, but at the very least expect improvements across the board (especially in wins).
4. Adam Wainwright (Cardinals): Wainwright is back and has returned to his pre Tommy John form. OK the ERA wasn’t the same as it was in 2009 and 2010, but all of his other numbers were. His walk totals were the lowest of his career and his velocity was up from last year which is a big plus. Wainwright doesn’t seem to stick with one primary pitch for too long. In 2007 & 2008 he relied on his four seam fastball. In 2009 he abandoned the four seam for a two seam fastball. He changed yet again in 2010 going with a sinker as his big weapon. In 2012 he still used his sinker but increased the use of his Cutter. This year the Cutter was his primary weapon with the Sinker playing second fiddle. The constant change is what I believe has kept hitters off-balance and keeps Wainwright on top. Expect a repeat performance of this year’s numbers and take any improvement as a bonus.
5. Felix Hernandez (Mariners): Outside of Clayton Kershaw, Felix is one of the healthiest and stable arms in the top 10. He’s pitched 8 full seasons without a trip to the DL and those of you who have lost a top pick to injuries know how important that is. He’s had 5 straight seasons of 200+ strikeouts, his ERA hasn’t gone above 3.06 in 4 of the past 5 years and his once troublesome walk rate has improved each year for five years now. Not bad for a guy who turns 28 in April. Felix has seen his velocity drop for three straight years now and yet his strikeout percentage this year was the same as it was in 2009. His decrease velocity is his only negative and yet he has found a way to make that into a positive. Felix’s numbers in 2012 and 2013 were identical so expect more of the same in 2014. There is a reason he is nicknamed King.
6. Justin Verlander (Tigers): The bottom line wasn’t bad, but it’s not what you expect from a first round draft pick. In comparison, this season was almost identical to his 2010 season except he was a little more hittable this year (hence the WHIP). Some say Verlander has lost some velocity on his fastball, but he’s only lost 1 MPH off of the fastball since 2011 and still clocks in at 94. The only difference in his pitch selection this year is that he abandoned his rarely used two seam fastball and increased his changeup use. The question is, was this an off-year or is this just the real Justin Verlander? He was the man in 2011 and 2012 and had 2 great seasons. This year however was not only similar to his 2010 season; it had many commonalities with his 2006, 2007 and 2009 seasons as well. So which one is the real Verlander? The answer could be both. He is talented and has big strikeout potential so the question comes down to his ERA & WHIP. The 2011 Verlander is a first round pick, but this year’s Verlander is not. He’s a risk if you pick him too early and a bargain if you get him late enough in the early rounds. Verlander is not going to hurt you, but there is a chance he won’t live up to his average draft position.
7. Cliff Lee (Phillies): There are numerous pitchers that put up good numbers each year and there are a number of pitchers that endure extended stretches of good health. What is rare about Lee is that he’s been fortunate enough to experience both right though his 35th birthday. In the past 6 years his ERA has gone above 3.39 just once and has been below 3.0 twice. He’s amassed 200+ strikeouts for the past three seasons which is impressive considering his fastball sits between 90-91 MPH. He’s also totaled 200 or more innings in 8 of the past 9 seasons with only 1 trip to the DL (2007). While he is capable of delivering high win totals, the least he will give you is 12 (short of a fluke season like 2012). Lee may be getting older but he hasn’t missed a step and I don’t see much changing for next year. Ignore the age and just look at the numbers when drafting here and you won’t be sorry.
8. Cole Hamels (Phillies): With a one two punch like Lee and Hamels you’d think the Phillies would be better than they are. This was Hamels worst season since 2009 and while it wasn’t all bad, his numbers did not reflect those of a top round pick. His first few months were a disaster sending owners into panic mode. Those who traded for Hamels and those who weathered the storm were rewarded in the second half, but just like Cliff Lee in 2012 the wins just weren’t there. He did total 200+ strikeouts for the third time in four years. The 1.16 WHIP was a little high but not really in comparison to the 1.12 he had last year and the 1.18 in 2010. The home runs this year could be blamed on his home park but in previous years he gave up more on the road. We just have to except the fact he’s going to allow a few more over the wall regardless of where he pitches. For 2014 expect the ERA to be back to around 3.0 with 200 strikeouts and wins dependant on the improvements Philly makes in the off-season.
9. Madison Bumgarner (Giants): It’s been 3 ½ years in the making, but at age 24 Bumgarner is now the ace of his staff. Just like Cliff Lee, Bumgarner isn’t a flamethrower as his fastball sits around 91 MPH. He’s rounded out his game by increasing the use of his curveball and changeup. Whether or not this change is responsible for his lower hit totals remains to be seen, but what is clear is he is a more complete pitcher and there is still room to grow. With 2 years of 191 strikeouts and 199 this year, it’s clear this is his floor when looking to next year. His WHIP and BAA have gone down each year and while it’s possible they could go lower, I expect numbers right around his 2013 totals. The ERA should be close to or below the 2.77 he posted this year, but the worst case scenario is he flirts with a 3.0. Bumgarner may never achieve the status of Clayton Kershaw or even Cliff Lee, but he’s one of the top guys once they are gone.
10. Max Scherzer (Tigers): Is Scherzer a late bloomer who took several years to figure things out or did he just have a lucky year? The strikeouts were always there as he’s always been someone capable of striking out 200+ batters. The wins aren’t in question either considering the number of runs Detroit scores each year. The big things that have changed are his ERA and WHIP. He lowered his walk totals but his BB% is the same as it was in 2011. His line drive percentage went down slightly and his fly ball percentage inched up, but only by a few points. His pitch selection remained similar to other years with the exception of a slight increase in his changeup use and decrease in his fastball. Additionally both his Hit/9 and HR/9 dropped substantially, but since nothing else changed the question is why? We know Scherzer will give us 14-15 wins and 200 K’s. What we don’t know is what neighborhood his ERA & WHIP will be in. Regardless neither number will be bad, but one is worth more than the other. He could replicate last year’s numbers but conventional wisdom says he’s more of the pitcher we saw in 2012.
11. David Price (Rays): An early slump and an injury put a damper on Price’s season. He had a 5.24 ERA before hitting the DL in mid May and just like with Cole Hamels, owners panicked. While his velocity was down, the rest of his numbers were right in line with what you’d expect. After the break, Price posted an ERA of 2.87 with a 1.0 WHIP, 7 wins and 84 strikeouts. The lower strikeout totals were disappointing and can most likely be attributed to the injury and loss of velocity on his fastball. The injury will be an afterthought next season and the fastball should return to normal so there is no need to shy away. For next year I think his numbers from 2012 would be a good outliner, except expect an ERA closer to 3.0. There is talk that the Rays may trade Price in which case his value could change depending on his new home, but his bottom line shouldn’t be affected much.
12. Jose Fernandez (Marlins): This is THE hardest pick to rank. Place Fernandez too high and half of the fantasy community will complain that he’s overrated. Place Fernandez too low and the other half of the community will call for my head. And, if I place him in the middle I’ll catch slack from both sides. See what you’ve done here Jose! After throwing less than 140 innings in the minors the Marlins brass deemed the 20-year-old ready, and to the surprise of many…he was. Fernandez pulled off a Mike Trout type of season finishing second in ERA to Clayton Kershaw, fourth in WHIP behind Kershaw, Harvey and Scherzer and first in BAA. In addition to his 95 MPH fastball (occasionally 99) Fernandez throws a curveball, slider and changeup. Not many pitchers of his age have 4 pitches in their arsenal let along have command over them. I could call for improvement here but seriously, can his numbers get any better than they were this year. His numbers are going to regress next year. Not to the point that he’ll be bad but to the point that you’ll be disappointed if you paid for last year’s numbers. Provided his arm holds up he could be a top 10 pitcher next year, but with a limited resume even that’s hard to call.
13. Chris Sale (White Sox): I’ll admit I wasn’t sold on Sale when he first came into the league and questioned his durability. Sale went to the minors after finishing college and pitched a whole 10.1 innings there before being summoned to the majors. He spent 2010 and 2011 pitching in relief and was handed a starting role in 2012. With the exception of the decreased walk rate and increased strikeouts, the past two seasons were mirror images of each other. Sale averaged over 10 strikeouts per 9 innings in college, and last year’s 9.49 k/9 aren’t far off that mark. He also has very good control which is evident by his ratio of 1.93 BB/9 last year and his career hits/9 of 7.52. Sale will be 25 next year and will be entering his third full year as a starter. Not all third year pitchers breakout but if I were to bet money on just one pitcher to breakout next year, it would be Sale. The slow steady growth and control he has displayed so far in the major league screams breakout, but even if he doesn’t expect improvements in his ERA, wins and BAA.
14. Mat Latos (Reds): Not much has changed about Latos in the last 4 years which makes him easy to assess. He’s good for an ERA in the mid to low three’s, a WHIP between 1.15 and 1.2 and 185 strikeouts. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it. Since those are the numbers we’ve become accustomed to receiving from Latos there is no need for an explanation on what to expect next year, but I think he’s due for another growth spurt. Latos did have arthroscopic elbow surgery in October and while he should be ready for spring training, it’s something to monitor.
15. Gio Gonzalez (Nationals): Just like Latos, Gio is another pitcher that just hasn’t changed much. He’s capable of giving you a low WHIP but will usually give you something around 1.25. The ERA will hovers in the 3.2 range with a chance to go below 3.0. He has the ability to give you 200 strikeouts but will more than likely miss by a handful. He’s at an age to where he could improve, but I’m thinking (short of a career year) this is all he’s going to be. He’s a good number 2 pitcher to pair with one of the players ranked above.
16. Matt Cain (Giants): All those innings finally caught up with Cain as he had the worst season of his career. Cain missed double-digit wins for the first time in five years, his ERA was a 4.0, his strikeout totals were down and his hits and BB per 9 were both up. He also allowed a career high 23 home runs. The good news is that Cain was not injured. The velocities of his pitches were right in line with the previous 3 years. There were no dramatic changes to his line drive, fly ball and ground ball percentages. While his WHIP was higher than his previous years it was in line with his career average as were his BAA against and K/9. There are no signs that he has lost his stuff so just consider this a down year for Cain. Next year expect an ERA closer to 3.0, 13-15 wins and 175 strikeouts. There are several players listed below that can give you similar numbers so if you’re afraid that he’s regressing, move along to one of them.
17. Mike Minor (Braves): This was the season the Braves have been waiting for and why the team endured his growing pains. Minor generated more swings on pitches outside the strike zone and increase his first pitch strike percentage. His walk percentage dropped 2 points to 5.6 and his HR/9 was .97. He’s had numbers like that before, but never during the same year. He relies primarily on his fastball (90.4 MPH) and mixes in his other three pitches equally. Since he doesn’t have a dominating fastball he needs to keep his walks low and be precise with every throw. Considering his number for the past year and a half I don’t see this as being a problem. His ERA could go up or down slightly and I think his strikeouts will settle in the 170 range, but a WHIP under 1.10 and 15 wins are certainly attainable. He’ll be 26 next year so he’s still learning and improving. In comparison, he’s a younger version of Matt Cain.
18. Anibal Sanchez (Tigers): It was a career year for Sanchez. This is the lowest ERA, WHIP and BAA he has displayed since his rookie season back in 2006. Since his rookie season his lowers ERA was 3.55 (2010), his lowest WHIP was 1.27 (2012) and his lowest BAA .250 (2011). He also added over a full point of velocity to his fastball, and all at the age of 29. His ground/fly ball and line drive percentages haven’t changed, and the only difference in his pitch selection was the increase use of his sinker (13%). So is the increased velocity and extra use of his sinker enough to turn him around, or was this just a career year and nothing more. Cliff Lee wasn’t anything special and didn’t turn into the Cliff Lee we all know until the age of 29 so it’s possible, but not probable. Detroit is high on Sanchez and claims to have traded from him because of his potential, but I think that was just talk after the fact. He’s capable of 200 strikeouts in a season and he will generate wins because of the team he plays for, but I wouldn’t expect to see an ERA or WHIP that low next year. He could be a late bloomer, but what are the odds two late bloomers (Scherzer being the other) breakout at the exact same time for the same team? Sanchez is still useful, but not if you draft him banking on his 2013 numbers.
19. Homer Bailey (Reds): That’s four straight years of improvement for Bailey. The ERA, WHIP and BAA against continue to shrink while the strikeouts and innings pitched continue to rise. He lowered his home runs totals at home, but still needs to trim a few more off the final total to get to that next level. Bailey used to have a problem with walks but the past two seasons he’s been able to correct things in that department. All in all, Bailey has turned into a very dependable pitcher you can feel confident starting even in the cozy confines of the Great American Ballpark. He turns 28 in May so we could still see a little more improvements out of him, but I think another year of stable numbers is in the cards. Expect an ERA in the 3.5 range, a 1.15 WHIP and around 185 strikeouts. If he can do that then I see another step forward in 2015.
20. Jordan Zimmermann (Nationals): Zimm may not turn into that dominant strikeout guy we saw in the minors and in college, but he has turned into a very stable number two guy. His 3.25 ERA this year is in the neighborhood of what he’s delivered in the previous two seasons. He had a career best BB/9 of 1.69 which lowered his major league average to 1.99. Zimm also lowered his hit totals as his hits/9 went from 8.56/8.59 the previous two seasons to an 8.10. Combine that with the low walk rate and you’ve got all the makings for a pretty nice WHIP. He also does a good job at keeping the ball in the park with a HR/9 of .80 and .83 the past two years. Taking all his improvements into consideration along with his age, Home Park and division he pitches in and it’s easy to see why Zimmerman ranks where he does. You may only get 160 strikeouts from him, but he’ll make up for the low K’s with his other numbers.