1. Who should be the first player off the board?
Many players have started to make this closer than it used to be, but the answer to this question has been the same for years now, Johan Santana. All Mets’ fans were incredibly frustrated with their bullpen, but no one had more of a beef than Santana. Seven times he left and was in line for a win and the pen blew it. At 2.53, he had his best ERA since 2004, and won 15 plus games and broke 200 plus strikeouts for the fifth straight season.
Not only is Santana the best pitcher on the planet, but he is also incredibly durable, an attribute that every fantasy player craves from their pitching staff. Santana has made at least 33 starts and pitched over 200 innings in every season since 2004 when he was made a full-time starter.
Brandon Webb is a great choice, but doesn’t get the strikeouts that Santana does. Many people are considering Tim Lincecum the best pitcher this season, but he plays for an awful team and also doesn’t have the track record that Santana does. He looks to be the “next big thing” but I’d rather take the guy who has done it for four years instead of just one great season. Santana dominates every pitching category (except for saves, obviously) and is the only pitcher worthy of a first round selection.
2. Whose statistics will start to drop off?
Before last season’s “breakout” at age 31, A.J. Burnett had never won more than 12 games in a season, he had only made 30 or more starts twice in a ten year career, and was a whole three games over .500. You can’t deny that he is a strikeout artist, but between his injury history and his so-so record, I wouldn’t look for more than 13 wins out of Burnett, with 175 Ks and close to a 4.00 ERA. That is, if he can stay healthy. He will most likely be drafted by an overzealous Yankee fan far before I would be ready to pick him.
Following a season where he was sent back to AAA, Ervin Santana had a huge 2008 for the Angels. Throughout his career, Santana was unable to pitch well on the road. Well, in 2008 he was 11-2 on the road and only a .500 pitcher at home. He tied his career high for wins, lowered his career best ERA by nearly a run, and struck out people at an incredible rate.
Given that these factors are so far away from his norm, I just can’t believe that he will be able to replicate them. How does a guy go from a 7-14 with a near 6.00 ERA to a 16-7 record with a 3.50 ERA and 214 strikeouts? Expect more of a 14-10 record with a 4.10 ERA and around 165 Ks.
A reliever for the previous four seasons, Ryan Dempster enjoyed great success on his return to the starter’s role. Although he had some pretty good years as a starter for the Marlins in the early 2000s, few could have predicted the 17-6 record with a sub-3.00 ERA and nearly 200 strikeouts.
Is it possible that a guy can have close to a 5.00 ERA as a closer, and below 3.00 as a starter? Dempster has always had a pretty solid strikeout rate, so even if his other stats suffer, he still should help you in one category. If he wins more than 13 games I would be surprised, and you should expect a 3.75 ERA as well.
3. Who can be called a “value pick?”
Since a rough rookie campaign, James Shields has become a consistent option. In the last two seasons, Shields has averaged 13 wins, 172 strikeouts, and around a 3.72 ERA. He also goes deep into games as evidenced by his three complete games last season and 215 innings pitched in each of the last two years. He doesn’t allow many walks at all (just 40 in 215 IP in ‘08), so his WHIP is also helpful. He won’t go among the top 10 or 15 starters, but perhaps he should.
He might not be the most exciting pitcher, but damn it, Mark Buehrle takes the ball every five days and you can take that to the bank. For eight seasons the guy has thrown over 200 innings and won at least ten games. At a position that is the hardest to predict due to inconsistency and injury, Buehrle is a rare breed. He doesn’t get a ton of strikeouts and his ERA fluctuates greatly, but you can always do much worse than Buehrle. Another season of 13-11, 3.79 ERA, and 145 Ks is within reach.
Another work horse, Ted Lilly has started 30 or more games in five of the last six seasons, and has won 15 or more games in the last three. Lilly is always in the neighborhood of a strikeout an inning, and his ERA is usually around the high 3.00s or no higher than 4.30. The Cubs should win the NL Central again, which should keep Lilly in the 15 win range in 2009. I am projecting a 16-9 record with a 3.81 ERA and 170 strikeouts.
4. Which young gun is ready to take the next step?
Yovani Gallardo was most likely in this same spot last year, just waiting to break out. Unfortunately, a knee injury cost him almost the entire season after just three starts. I would be much more concerned about his ability to return from such an injury, but the guy came back in the last week of the season and threw a gem over four innings, and then pitched for the Brewers in the NLDS.
He has nasty stuff, gets great strikeouts (110 in 77 IP in 2007 at AAA), and plays for a team that could contend for a division title. From the lower levels of the minors, all the way through AAA his ERA never even touched 3.00 (except injury rehab), and if he falls a little bit in your draft, don’t hesitate to grab him. People might be scared by the injury, but he already showed that he was back from it last October.
Even though the guy threw a one hitter last season, I don’t think people are on board with Matt Garza just yet. You have to remember that guys like Tim Lincecum and Cole Hamels are the exception. Most young pitchers struggle right out of the gate, and it is hard to say that Garza struggled too much, as his ERA in the last two seasons have been 3.69 and 3.70.
But the guy threw two shutouts last year, got playoff and World Series experience, and is still just 25 years old. His strikeout numbers might not wow people, but if you look at his minor league stats, there is reason to believe that his “K” numbers should be on the upswing in the near future. The guy has “ace stuff” and could realize that potential fully in 2009.
Although the Reds thought they would get plenty out of top prospect Homer Bailey and new acquisition Edinson Volquez, the contributions that they got from young Johnny Cueto were a surprise. Sure, Cueto threw out some horrible efforts, but in 14 of his 31 starts he gave up two earned runs or less. He is only 23 years old and this was his first major league experience.
The fact that he was able to complete a full season of 31 starts is also impressive, and his minor league statistics suggest that his strikeout numbers are for real. His ERA on the farm was never over 3.50 which means there is room for improvement there as well. He should be better than .500 this year, with a 13-9 record with a 4.10 ERA, and 180 Ks.
5. Can Rich Harden stay healthy and be your ace?
Let me start by saying that if Rich Harden does stay healthy, he has the stuff to be a definite number one pitcher for your fantasy team. Even in his finest season, which 2008 may have been, he still missed some time. Harden was only able to make 25 starts, but boy were they awesome. He was 10-2 with a miniscule 2.08 ERA and an eyepopping 181 Ks in just 148 innings.
In 14 different starts, Harden struck out eight batters or more, and in 22 of his 25 starts he allowed two earned runs or less, including a streak of nine consecutive starts. Now that the lovefest is over, let’s take a look at the rest of the package that you get if you draft Harden. He has made over 20 starts in just two of his five seasons, and twice has made less than ten.
He is already having some issues with his shoulder and is no guarantee to start the season healthy. He has perhaps the best “stuff” in all of baseball, but it is his inability to stay on the mound that scares some fantasy players away. Personally, I couldn’t bring myself to draft him among the top ten pitchers, and truth be told, it would have to be very, very late in drafts before I would think of taking a guy with such a serious injury risk.
Do you have your own questions? Do you disagree? As always, your comments and questions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. I guarantee a response within 18 hours. Also, don’t miss “The Fantasy Baseball Gurus Show” on Blog Talk Radio every Wednesday night at 10pm EST.