Written by: John Piper
Starting pitcher is by far the deepest of all the positions to fill during a fantasy draft. Every Major League team has 5 starters that can throw down 25 to 35 starts a year. Generally, each fantasy team will have 6 to 7 starting pitchers on their roster. This means that 70 to 85 big league starters are on fantasy teams out of the 150 actual starters in real life. For fantasy purposes, this means that many teams 5th and sometimes 4th starters are irrelevant for the game we play. Let’s be honest, not many fantasy managers will feel comfortable with Miami’s Tom Koehler or Houston’s Brad Peacock on their fantasy team(s). Koehler played in 29 Games (23 starts) and went 5-10 with a 4.41 ERA, 1.36 WHIP and 92K over 143 innings. Over the course of 18 games (14 starts) Peacock record was 5-6 with a 5.18 ERA, 1.38 WHIP and 77 K’s over 83 innings.
Now it is important to remember that with a 5th starter on your squad you are subject to his start getting skipped via a rainout or an off day. This will make a 5 to 10 starts difference between a staff ace and the 5th guy, so bear that in mind during your drafts and in season. It is safe say not all 5th starters need to be looked at through fantasy goggles, but here are two that deserve a long look by fantasy managers.
One such 5th SP battle worth watching is for the Washington Nationals, where Ross Detwiler (28), Tanner Roark (27), Taylor Jordan (25), and Ross Ohlendorf (31) are battling for that honor (ages in parenthesis).
Ohlendorf was used primarily out of the pen as a long reliever and spot starter. Considering his spring has been marred by a poor first showing (3 hits, 1 BB, 2 runs and zero outs) along with an injury, Ohlendorf is almost assured of not being named the fifth starter. Jordan was brought up as a starter by the Nationals and it wouldn’t be prudent to change things now. He hasn’t been spectacular this spring which is something that would have set him apart in the competition. Seeing how that is not happening, the more likely scenario would be to send Jordan back to AAA to get his normal innings in while awaiting and injury or eventual call up.
Truth-be-told, this has almost been exclusively a two-horse race to begin with. Last year Detwiler started the season as the 5th starter, but injuries cost him time and effectiveness allowing Roark to impressively finish the year as the fifth starter. Word out of Nationals camp is that Detwiler has the role to lose and has been developing a cutter this offseason which will only make him more effective. His 2012 numbers (27 starts, 164 IP, 10-8 record, 3.40 ERA and 1.22 WHIP) helped feed the fire for a breakout campaign last year and were well founded early on. He didn’t allow more than 2 ER in any of his first 4 starts, however, low run support gave him a 2-2 record through those games. After that his back started acting up and he was shut down in late summer. Roark, a rookie last year, worked well out of the pen until he was promoted at the end of last year from long relief to a starter. In 5 September starts he had 4 quality starts and posted a 1.74 ERA and 0.90 WHIP.
So far this spring Roark has outplayed Detwiler. Since Roark has experience out of the pen and Detwiler gives the Nationals another quality lefty in the rotation, it seems that Detwiler will grab the 5th starter role. That means Roark will be relegated to the long relief/spot starter role.
The other battle to focus on for fantasy purposes is the one in New York for the Yankees. Again there is an official 4 horse race where; Michael Pineda (25), David Phelps (27), Vidal Nuno (26), and Adam Warren (26) are competing for the spot. Much like with the Nationals though, this is unofficially a two pony race with two long shots.
Adam Warren worked almost exclusively out of the pen last year for the Yankees (77 IP, 3-2 record, 64 K’s, and posted a 3.39 ERA, 1.43 WHIP). In his two starts (one in June the other in September) he did pitch 11 shutout innings but the Yankees will probably keep him as a long relief/spot starter in the pen where he is much more valuable. Nuno pitched well in his brief time in the bigs (20 IP, 2.25 ERA), but he is also on the outside looking in. He will most likely be sent down to the minors, be put in the pen, or shipped out via a trade before the season starts.
The two pitchers we are most concerned with here are David Phelps who started 12 games last year for the injury riddled 2013 Yankee rotation and Michael Pineda. Phelps finished last season with a 6-5 record in 86.2 IP while posting a 4.98 ERA and 1.42 WHIP. There were moments last year that he seemed like the answer and other times where things came unraveled. In late May/early June, he had 5 quality starts out of 7 starts with over 1.00 K/IP, a 2.95 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. The problem here is the same as with the Nationals and Roark, Phelps has been good out of the pen and Pineda is groomed to be a starter. Pineda, coming back after two years from shoulder surgery, has amazed coaches, managers, and players this spring and has struck out 9 hitters in 4.2 IP. His 2011 numbers were quite good as he recorded 171 IP with 173 K’s, a 3.74 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. Last year he pitched at three levels in the minors and again was in the 3.00’s ERA and 1.10 WHIP range with over a strikeout an inning.
Overall I feel that since Pineda and Detwiler have not been guys used out of the pen and their main competitors Phelps and Roark have, that they will be the starters. In Pineda’s case he has the most upside of nearly any 5th starter in the league, but coming back from shoulder issues is never a safe investment for fantasy owners. Luckily, this year you won’t spend much for either as they are both cheap with huge value if things break right for them. So if either, or both, are available later on in your drafts feel free to grab them and reap the rewards.