“65 Mustangs”: Start by Building your Starting Rotation (Starting Pitcher Rankings 1-27)
As Matt said, happy almost Spring to all of you. It feels good to be thinking and writing about baseball again, even though it is less than 10 degrees with nearly a foot of snow outside my house in Central CT. Pitchers and Catchers report in a few weeks, and I’m already starting to think about what kind of pitching staff I want to build this season, much the way the Yankees have been doing since the end of last season.
How many Starters do I want to draft and in what rounds? What will be my “bullpen” strategy, as in how many closers do I feel safe drafting and how early should I start drafting them? Should I draft any Middle Relievers if my league does not count Holds? I don’t want to go into a draft just trying to pick the best player in each round and hoping I fill all the buckets with someone off my draft list. No, instead I try to begin with the end in sight, just as I’m writing this piece, already picturing what it will look like when I am finished. So, my strategy in general terms is to Build a Pitching Staff for a Long Season.
I realize that my pitching staff will look a lot different in September then it will on April 1st , but I also know I need to start accumulating stats on April 1st, so I don’t get so far behind that I can’t catch up. I also know I need to set a good, strong ratio foundation early if I want good ratios in the end. Of course that means not starting CC Sabathia until mid May sometime, but we can talk about in-season strategy another time. However, I’ll also need some players that may not help me in April, but stand a good chance of coming on later in the season when everyone else is scrambling to fill some categories, like CC used to do when he was a bit younger.
Closer battles are some of the last to be decided, so it is too early to start Building a Bullpen , But it is never too early to start building a starting rotation. I’m going to try to rank the starting pitchers, so that I can begin to envision what my draft strategy will look like. As I was getting started, I realized that there are a large number of starting pitchers that will be tough to rank this season for one reason or another. Just as I had pinpointed one of the hardest to rank this year, the Yankees signed him to a seven year, nine figure contract on 1/22/2014. As you can tell, I’m a Yankee fan, and the Yanks have an entire rotation of tough to rank starters, beginning with Tanaka. Just as hard to rank are perennial top 20 pitcher CC Sabathia, the quietly effective Hiroki Kuroda, the mercurial Ivan Nova, and finally the “what have you done for me lately” Michael Pineda. If I’m ranking the top 100 starters, my gut tells me that I’ll have a chance to rank all 5 of those guys, but where?
Well, we surely want to start with at least one, if not two, of the elite SP. So, before I run out of space (Yes, our editor Jessica Phantise keeps us on a short leash, especially me), I better get started. Matt, Marc, and I tend to rank players a bit differently. I kick it old school, I watch a lot of games, read a lot of articles, talk to a lot of people (when I can get Corey off the phone), and then go with my gut on draft day. I am a risk-taker, who looks for value. Matt is the Bill James of our leagues to my Tommy Lasorda. Well, I’m better looking though, then Lasorda I mean, not you Matt. Matt will dazzle us with advanced metrics, while I shoot from the hip and Marc puts together a sensibly ranked cheat sheet for draft day. I guess we’ll see in September which way works best. So, here are my top 25 Starting Pitchers. I guarantee at least six of them will be very, very hard to rank, and I will make them numbers 20 through 25, as I will do with each of the four tiers of the top 100 in the coming weeks. Here we go:
- Does anyone NOT think it is Clayton Kershaw? The question here is whether you want to spend a 1st rounder or big money on a SP. I probably won’t, unless I get the turn at the end of the first and he is still there. But, I’ll be Okay.
- Yu Darvish turned my head last year and almost won me a couple of leagues. Plus, I am a sucker for Strikeouts. How is that for advanced metrics? If I can get him in round 2, he is mine. I wonder if his compatriot will be as good.
- What more is there to say about Adam Wainwright? Even a torn elbow ligament three years ago was only a speed bump for this annual Cy Young contender.
- The King gets little respect because of his perceived lack of W’s. Look it up. Only about five SP have more W’s than Felix Hernandez in the last five years. He is consistently a top 5 pitcher, and he is only 27. I bet his velocity returns as well, but that is just a hunch on my part. Or is it because he is one of my keepers?
- This is the year. Stephen Strasburg. Well, he’s also one of my keepers. It’s finally time they take off the training pants, I mean wheels, and cut him loose.
- Cliff Lee is hard to keep out of the top 5, but until he actually is not a top 10 SP, I like him right here for his consistency and ability to keep guys off the bases.
- Max Scherzer. Well, I told you I was a sucker for the strikeout, but I’d be lying if I said I was one of the “I told you so’s” with this guy. I can’t give him top 5 till he does it again, though, and I’m just a bit skeptical.
- I like Madison Bumgarner here just a hair above the next guy, and I think it is the K thing again. But I could be hypnotized by the Giants knack for churning out top SP. I’ve liked him since he was in the minors.
- David Price is not my kind of SP, and I doubt I’d own him because of that. Someone else will pull the trigger first. But, knowing you have a problem is always the first step, no?
- Chris Sale is also not my kind of SP. There is something fragile looking about him. What do you think Mr. Lasorda? I think I better draft one of the top 8 as my staff ace and anchor.
- Cole Hamels is my kind of SP, but I let him anchor too many of my staffs last season and he disappointed. Funny, though, when I pretend I am Matt and look at his peripherals, I don’t see much difference from the prior “career” year he had in 2012. Well, except maybe for a complete lack of offensive support in Philly, even though I don’t like making excuses any more than I’d give him points for having one of the hottest wives in sports. Well, I wouldn’t.
- People have no shortage of reasons why Zack Greinke is going to crumple into the fetal position at any given moment. I just keep on drafting him as my #2 pitcher when he drops to the 5th round, and he keeps on winning games, striking out hitters and posting great ratios wherever he pitches. I hope he’s found a home in LA.
- Lucky 13 goes to Justin Verlander. Can you believe that a lot of writers have him down around 25 or 30, just ahead of the aforementioned CC Sabathia? C’mon guys, really? Until proven otherwise, Verlander is a top 10 SP. I put him 13th because I hope I am lucky enough to draft a first or second round talent in the 5th round. Hey, your velocity would be down too if you pitched that many innings and that deep into the post season every year. No one wins 19 every year. Wish me luck.
- If I can’t get Greinke or Verlander as my #2, James Shields would do me fine. Consistently great stats are just as valuable as often elite stats, and what I look for in a #2. Good chance for W’s on an improved Royals team, high K’s every year, great ratios, and often slips to the 5th or 6th round. Where do I sign?
- Mat Latos toiled in San Diego purgatory for years with no support, only to move to the Great American Launching Pad, and he excelled. A rising star in the same mold as Hamels and Greinke, but far less expensive.
- I’ve been following and watching Homer Bailey for years now. In fact, he got a restraining order last season. OK, no, not really, but he does satisfy my strikeout fetish, and I think this is the season he puts it all together. I’m all in on HOMER for 2014. Plus, with that name, how can he miss?
- Jordan Zimmermann does everything right, and is the perfect complement to Nat’s flame throwers, Stephen K and Gio. Of course that makes he’s not my kind of pitcher, so I probably won’t own him unless he falls below the next few guys. But he is surely an up-and-comer in what will likely be one of the major’s best staffs.
- I’m late to the Hisashi Iwakuma party and don’t know much about him. Hey, I’m not here to BS anyone, so I’m ranking him right about where all the experts are. He does have pretty good K rates and an amazing, possibly SAFECO deflated AL WHIP. I’ll have to follow him and get to know him better before I can move him up this list or draft him. Hopefully he won’t get a restraining order first.
- Gio Gonzalez is another guy who fits my #2 profile. I’ve won leagues with him as my #2. He would front most staffs that did not have a Stephen Strasburg on the roster, and posts a ton of K’s with good ratios. I’d rank him higher if I thought 2012 was his standard more than his 2011 and 2013. But wins are a category in most leagues.
The next 6 guys are my “Where the heck do I rank these guys” selections from the top 25. Any of them could be or have recently been a top 10 SP in Fantasy, but have either just burst on the scene or suddenly hit a big loss of velocity or injury speed bump in 2013. Some, like Cain or Cueto, are young enough to rebound. Some, like Weaver and CC Sabathia, may have too many miles on their arms and shoulders to ever recover their glory. And finally, some, like Fernandez and Tanaka, have had rookie seasons or legends greater than myth, but have to prove it is real before I can raise them into the first few rounds of a draft.
- Jose Fernandez helped me get to the finals of my MLFB League, and almost won me a few ROTO Leagues as well. But, is he the rare exception, like Felix, who can play at an elite level right from age 20? Or is he due for a “correction?” I got him cheap and rode the wave, meaning I probably can’t afford him this coming season. Draft accordingly, just as you must for…
- Masahiro Tanaka. So, the Yanks have decided he is worth that type of money. So, presumably, did the Dodgers, Snakes, Cubs, and Angels. He could be better than Yu Darvish, but remember, he has NEVER thrown a professional pitch in the US at any level. Draft accordingly, which of course means I won’t own him. Someone will pick the shiny new toy in the 2nd round, hopefully leaving Darvish for me.
- Last season, I thought Matt was on the verge of elite, top 10 prominence. No, not you Matt, I meant Matt Cain, the Giants SP. I invested heavily in him, and people laughed at me when I reached for him ahead of guys like Greinke and Gio. They thought they were right too, when he had a 6.49 ERA in early May. However, he was better than ever in the 2nd half, rolling out a 2.36 ERA after the break. I don’t know of any injury or velocity issues, and hopefully our Matt does not have some dire indicators on him, because I am still a believer. I think he should be #14 right before James Shields. So, Mr. Lasorda, why did you rank him at #23? I’m hoping people draft him off of his 4.00 ERA, 8-10 record, and 25% drop in K’s, so he falls to me in the 6th or 7th round.
- My, how the mighty have fallen. Jered Weaver has been a top 10, 1.00 Whipster in the AL West for as long as I can remember. True, my memory is not so good anymore, but you know what I mean. He had a large drop in velocity and K rates, even though his elbow injury was to his non throwing arm last season, and with apologies to Matt, his FIP was close to 4.00 over the last two seasons. If someone drafts him as a top 20 SP, I won’t get to own him, but if he falls below that level, I have a warm seat for him in my dugout; right next to…
- CC Sabathia, one of my favorite pitchers of this generation. He may never have been a stat darling, but the man has been a bulldog beast of a pitcher for over a decade. He’s gone to the post season with three teams and logged more innings than Mr Lasorda has frequent flier miles. Maybe his arm is finally ready to fall off, and we know it does not have as much velocity anymore. But, while Weaver’s 4.00 FIP spells doom and gloom, Sabathia’s similar 4.00 FIP would signal an improvement. If not, he could join Phil Hughes in the pitcher-friendly Midwest next season. I see him ranked as far down as 45 on some lists, but I am not ready to pull my boy from the top 25 yet. However, on draft day, I throw emotion out the window and would be thrilled to scoop him up as my 3rd SP around the 8th or 9th round or later, just like…
- Johnny Cueto, who would have been in my top 10, had he repeated 2012. Instead, he had shoulder and lat issues, and only started 11 games. Yet I still see the potential ace in there somewhere, right Tommy? While we think he’ll be a top 20 SP again, we surely can’t draft him there.
So, unlike numbers 20 and 21 who I probably won’t own, I’ll be glad to roster one or two of numbers 22-25 if I can get them at number 35-45 prices. My overall strategy is to leave the 8th round with two or three of these guys, usually two of them, and then I can fill in my rotation later with nothing but value picks. If luck has it that I only end up with one of these guys, besides hoping it is not Sabathia, then I’ll have to grab at least two from the top end of the next tier. Next week Mr. Lasorda and I will look at numbers 26 through 50 where there are plenty of good consistent pitchers, some gracefully on the way down and some on the cusp of joining the elite. There is a whole stable of rookie SP, probably enough to fill two rotations that we will look at. A good many of them may well finish in this top 25, or even top 10 by the end of 2014. Many of them might even have a better season than Fernandez or Tanaka and cost about half as much. I hope I can find a way to keep it at 25 pitchers.
Finally, feel free to leave comments. Tell me I am crazy. Tell me I’m spot on. Tell me why some of my picks can’t possibly perform as well as I say they will. You can even argue the merits of Cole Hamel’s wife being the hottest baseball wife if you want. Most of all have some great drafts or auctions and begin with the end in sight so you can win in September. Remember to read articles by Matt Taylor and Marc Foster as the three of us get ready for draft day. Here is a link to our first article of 2014 posted the other day by Matt, and I’ll see you again soon. Precision tayloring: The Intro