Matthew Pouliot

Strike Zone

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2014 Breakdowns: Starters

Monday, March 17, 2014


Here is the longest of the breakdown columns, with 25 starting pitchers touched on below. I'll be finishing up the series with relievers next week.

 

If you still don't have it, I'd recommend purchasing the online draft guide. The projections and top 250 lists (top 300 for mixed leagues) are being updated daily with the season just two weeks away.

 

 

Underrated

 

Madison Bumgarner - Giants - My tendency this year has been to wait on starting pitchers if I don't get Clayton Kershaw in the middle of round one; my draft board is typically topped by hitters in rounds 2-4. Bumgarner, though, is one top 10 starter that's slipping through the cracks and falling to round four. That's surprising to me, as the lefty still could be on the upswing: he had the best strikeout and swing-and-miss rates of his career last season. He actually had a slightly higher K rate than Kershaw (8.90 K/9 IP to 8.85). He hasn't had any health scares, and he works in a terrific ballpark for pitchers. I have him ranked sixth among SPs, but he's currently the 12th SP in ESPN drafts and 10th in Yahoo drafts.

 

Alex Cobb - Rays - The only thing Cobb is lacking is a big name, and that'll change soon enough. Last season, he was limited to 143 innings after taking an Eric Hosmer liner off his ear, but he's never dealt with arm problems. Of the 107 pitchers to throw 140 innings in the majors last season, Cobb had the sixth best groundball rate and 25th best strikeout rate, allowing him to post a 2.76 ERA even though he gave up about 50 percent more homers than one would expect given his groundball rate. He works in the AL's best ballpark for pitchers and is backed by a strong defense. Despite everything he has working in his favor, he's the 22nd pitcher off the board in Yahoo and 27th in ESPN. I have him 12th.

 

Doug Fister - Nationals - Fister's mid-spring elbow soreness is a source for concern, dropping him a couple of places in my rankings, but an MRI came back clean and the Nationals still anticipate him being ready for the start of the season. Hopefully, it's just one of those minor spring training issues because Fister has the potential to be one of the NL's top fantasy starters. This is a guy who finished with 3.45 and 3.67 ERAs in Detroit the last two years despite pitching in front of a bad defense in a modest hitter's park in the AL. His strikeout rate will go back up in the NL, and he'll benefit from much improved defensive play in Washington. If he pitches as effectively this year as he did last season, it'd likely translate to an ERA under 3.00. I'm not going quite that far with my projection -- I have him at 3.15 with a 1.11 WHIP -- but I rank him 14th among SPs.

Editor's Note: Rotoworld's partner FanDuel is hosting a one-day $100,000 Fantasy Baseball league for Opening Day's games (March 31). It's $25 to join and first prize is $15,000. Starts at 1:05pm ET on Opening Day. Here's the FanDuel link.

 

Johnny Cueto - Reds - With so many predicting greatness for Homer Bailey and Mat Latos, Cueto has turned into a bit of a forgotten man in Cincinnati, all because he just couldn't stay away from torso strains last season. Granted, the torque in his delivery made him susceptible to such problems, but he has toned it down some this spring and he's still showing his usual velocity in Reds camp. For all of the promise of Bailey and Latos -- and I do believe Bailey is a sleeper Cy Young candidate -- Cueto remains the Reds best pitcher, having gone 33-16 with a 2.61 ERA the last three years. He's way too talented to be the 49th starting pitcher selected in ESPN leagues.

 

Ian Kennedy - Padres - Kennedy's 21-4 campaign for the Diamondbacks in 2011, when he finished fourth in the NL Cy Young balloting, will go down as his career season, but there's good reason to think he'll be a quality mixed-league starter with Petco Park supporting him. His strikeout rate has held perfectly steady in the two years since his big season, and he's throwing just as hard as he did then. His problem has been the home run ball, but he's going from a big home run park to one of the worst in the majors for the long ball. Of course, it didn't stop him from somehow giving up nine homers in 57 1/3 innings after being traded last year, but that just served to hold down his price tag this spring. I'm looking for an ERA in the mid-3.00s and a strong WHIP to go along with another fine strikeout rate.

 

Dan Straily - Athletics - I'd have liked to have recommended A.J. Griffin here, but his elbow problems make that impossible. Straily is the next best thing. Like Griffin, he's a big flyball pitcher on a team with a tremendous outfield defense and in a ballpark that isn't kind to home run hitters. As a rookie last year, Straily fanned 7.3 batters per nine innings, but he did it with a swing-and-miss rate that, thanks to his slider, suggests improvement could be in store. He probably is due to give up a few more singles and homers anyway, but his walk rate should come down, helping to mitigate the damage. He's my No. 43 SP.

 

Rick Porcello - Tigers - The Jose Iglesias injury hurts quite a bit, but I still like Porcello as a fifth starter in mixed leagues.. Even without the top-notch shortstop, the Tigers will still be putting an improved infield defense on the field this year, and to go along with his usual excellent strikeout rate, Porcello became a much better strikeout pitcher last year, coming in at 7.2 K 9/IP. I don't necessarily expect him to duplicate that number this year, but with his ability to generate grounders and his excellent walk rate, he's not a guy who needs to be at 7 K/9 IP to succeed. I had him ranked 41st among starters prior to the Iglesias injury. He's 47th now, but that's still far higher than his placement in ESPN drafts (73rd).

 

Tyson Ross - Padres - One of my deep sleeper picks last year, Ross failed to establish himself initially after being traded to the Padres, struggling in a couple of early starts, going on the DL with a partially dislocated left (non-throwing) shoulder and then returning as a reliever. However, when his opportunity came again in the second half, he had a 2.93 ERA and an 85/23 K/BB ratio in 80 innings. The concern entering this year is that Ross could regress in the command department. However, he possesses excellent stuff and an ERA in the low-3.00s can't be ruled out. He has terrific upside, yet he's going completely undrafted in most ESPN leagues.

 

Overrated

 

Yu Darvish - Rangers - Darvish's strikeout rate last year was the third highest ever for any pitcher not named Randy Johnson (Johnson has six of the top eight seasons, with Pedro Martinez and Kerry Wood claiming the other two spots), so it's not surprising to see him being drafted second among starters this year. I'm not quite that high on him, though. It took far-and-away the game's highest strand rate to produce his sub-3.00 ERA last year (there was as much difference between him and No. 2 as between No. 2 and No. 9). He did cut back on the walks as a sophomore after a surprisingly wild rookie season, but he still issues more than any other elite fantasy starter. As a result, I have him with the highest WHIP of my top 10 SPs. Really, though, it's his innings count that places him behind Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez in my rankings. If I bumped him up to 220 or so, I'd have him slightly ahead of those two. Instead, I have him essentially matching last year's 209 2/3 innings, making him my No. 3 AL starter and No. 8 overall.

 

Zack Greinke - Dodgers - Despite a rough start that saw him suffer a broken collarbone in his second start of the year, Greinke finished with the second best ERA of his career in his first season with the Dodgers. He was particularly outstanding down the stretch, posting a 1.85 ERA after the All-Star break. However, his success came with a surprisingly modest strikeout rate (7.5 K/9 IP, down from 10.5 in 2011 and 8.5 in 2012) and diminished velocity (his average fastball was 91.7 mph, down from 92.4 in 2012 and 93.7 in 2009, according to Baseball Info Solutions data). What he did have was the highest strand rate of his career (80.8%, fifth highest in the majors). I don't see Greinke collapsing, but while he's going 13th among SPs in both ESPN and Yahoo drafts, I place him 17th.

 

Anibal Sanchez - Tigers - After 3 1/2 years with ERAs in the 3.50-3.90 range for the Marlins, Sanchez suddenly took his game up about four notches last year, leading the AL with a 2.57 ERA and striking out 10 batters per nine innings. He allowed nine homers and struck out 202 batters in 182 innings. The year before, he allowed 20 homers and struck out 167 in 195 2/3 innings, even though 60 percent of those innings came in the NL. Plus, he did it all despite a shoulder strain in June that put him on the DL for a few weeks and conjured up all of the bad memories of his previous shoulder problems. Now it looks like the shoulder may be an issue again, as he was scratched from his outing Monday due to some soreness. He was going to be placed here anyway, though. Sanchez has started 124 games the last four seasons, so maybe I shouldn't still be worried about the shoulder. However, I don't feel comfortable penciling him in for anything close to 200 innings (a mark he still hasn't reached in his career).

 

Jered Weaver - Angels - Diminished velocity seems likely to turn Weaver into nothing more than an average starter within the next year or two. His fastball has gone from 89.9 mph to 89.1 to 87.8 to 86.5 the three years, and the only right-handed starter with a slower heater last year was R.A. Dickey. Weaver still finessed his way to a 3.27 ERA while healthy, but his peripherals are worsening annually and now he has to deal with a few more big-time left-handed hitters arriving in the AL West (Robinson Cano, Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo). I'm placing him 44th among starters, and even that may be optimistic if his velocity drops by another 1-1.5 mph this year.

 

Shelby Miller - Cardinals - Miller was terrific as a rookie, yet just not quite as terrific as his 3.06 ERA indicates; both his FIP and xFIP were right around 3.70. Also, while he did manage 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings, his swinging strike rate was actually a bit below the league average, suggesting that his K rate could be coming down in the near future. Finally, I'm a bit concerned about the late-season shoulder problems. The Cardinals backed off him in September and then declined to use him in the postseason. It sounded like it was simple fatigue more than anything else, but there's no way of knowing for sure. I don't dismiss Miller's upside, but I can't get behind him going higher than pitchers like Cobb, Fister, Gerrit Cole and Julio Teheran in ESPN drafts.

 

Matt Moore - Rays - Moore was one of my favorites a year ago. Then he went and lost two mph off his fastball and missed August with a sore elbow. Moore was pretty great anyway, ending the season 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA, but it came with a 3.95 FIP, 4.55 BB/9 IP and 17 wild pitches in 27 starts. He looks like quite an injury risk now, and with his velocity down, his ceiling probably isn't quite as sky-high as it once seemed. Maybe he's worth taking a chance on in the middle rounds of mixed-league drafts anyway, but he's not slipping far enough for my tastes. He's currently the No. 31 SP in ESPN leagues, while I have him 49th.

 

CC Sabathia - Yankees - Sabathia is another pitcher whose velocity is plummeting. He peaked at 94.7 mph in 2005 and was still as high as 93.8 mph in 2011, but in the two years since, he's come in at 92.3 and 91.1. This spring, he peaked at 88 mph in his first two starts, and while there were some reports of him touching 90 mph in Panama over the weekend, he was more frequently in the high-80s. Sabathia has been working on his cutter and he seems to know a new gameplan is necessary if he's going to succeed in the AL East without his old heater, but I don't imagine we'll see an ERA in the low-to-mid-3.00s while he tries to adapt. He's my No. 55 starter.

 

Matt Garza - Brewers - Garza's spring struggles haven't dropped him at all in my rankings, Instead, it was his signing with the Brewers that scared me off. First of all, it didn't seem like a very good sign that several teams were scared off by his elbow problems and declined to pursue him in free agency; given his track record and relative youth, he was probably in line for a $70 million-$80 million contract had teams felt he was healthy. Instead, he settled for $50 million. Also, Miller Park doesn't really mesh well with his tendency to give up homers, which has always been his weakness. He's going off the board as the No. 45 starter in ESPN, but I don't think he's worth drafting in mixed leagues.

 

Sleepers

 

Charlie Morton - Pirates - After remodeling himself as a Roy Halladay clone, Morton blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. He came back strong last year, though, amassing a 3.26 ERA in his 20 starts. He was an absolute groundball machine, posting the best rate of anyone to throw at least 100 innings in the majors (62.9 percent), and he still managed to strike out a solid 6.6 batters per nine innings in the process. He should be stronger and potentially better in his first full year back. I don't have him recording enough strikeouts or helping enough in WHIP to be a big asset in mixed leagues, but he should be a nice mid-rotation guy in NL-only leagues.

 

Erasmo Ramirez - Mariners - Alex Cobb and Ramirez were the two pitchers I landed in each of my mixed leagues last year. One worked out well, the other not so much. Ramirez missed the first two months with a sore elbow and struggled some when the Mariners gave him a look in July, though he did have a nice seven-start run (2.26 ERA) towards the end of the season. Ramirez has three pretty good pitches in his 90-94 mph fastball, slider and changeup, and through 131 major league innings, he's struck out 7.2 batters per nine innings and walked 2.6. The Mariners defense has to be at least a little better this year with Robinson Cano at second base and Abraham Almonte leading the center field competition, and Ramirez probably won't give up as many homers again. I still worry about the elbow, but since he won't cost much at all, it's worth giving him a try.

 

Nathan Eovaldi - Marlins - Eovaldi always showed a good fastball while climbing through the Dodgers system, but he took it to another level last year. In fact, his 96.2 mph average was the highest mark in the majors, coming in just a tick better than Cole at 96.1. Unfortunately, Eovaldi lacks a legitimate No. 2 pitch to go along with it, though his slider shows promise at times. If it clicks, he could break through and become a top-30 starter this year. I'm not quite that optimistic and he also needs to be considered an injury risk (he missed the first 2 1/2 months of last season with shoulder inflammation), but the price tag is mild enough to make him worth at least a reserve pick in mixed leagues.

 

Yordano Ventura - Royals - If Ventura is still a sleeper, he won't be for much longer; it looks like he'll claim the opening in Kansas City's rotation over left-hander Danny Duffy. He'll also probably overtake Eovaldi for the game's hardest fastball, what with his ability to touch 100-101 mph on the gun. Given the potential for control problems, I'm not sold on him being a force in mixed leagues right away. Still, the talent is there. Besides the big heater, he has a quality curve and the makings of a decent changeup.

 

Tommy Milone - Athletics - Milone is another flyball pitcher in Oakland, with all of the advantages that it entails. Last year, he just gave up too many homers and got himself bounced from the rotation as a result. He appeared likely to be without a spot to begin this year, too, but injuries to Griffin and Jarrod Parker have changed that. Milone wasn't exactly bad last year, finishing 12-9 with a 4.15 ERA. He's struck out 3 1/2 batters for every one he's walked in his career. If he can maintain his rotation spot this year, he'll again be strong in WHIP and wins. He probably won't be as much of an asset in ERA, but that's what makes him underrated for fantasy purposes; ERA is his worst category.

 

Kevin Gausman - Orioles - Neither will crack Baltimore's rotation at the beginning of the season, but Gausman and Zach Britton remain two of the team's most intriguing pitchers for fantasy purposes. Gausman, a 2012 first-round pick, struggled mightily as a starter after getting a shot last year, but he came back strong as a reliever late in the year, topping out at 97 mph and striking out 23 in 14 1/3 innings. Britton is being groomed as a reliever this spring and is working in the mid-90s with his usual sinking movement. Neither figures to have any fantasy value at the beginning of the season, but both could be rotation candidates in a month or two. Alternatively, they might enter the closer picture if Tommy Hunter struggles.

 

Archie Bradley - Diamondbacks - Another not-so-sleepy sleeper, Bradley's chances of making 20-25 starts in the majors this season took a big leap with the news that Patrick Corbin might need Tommy John surgery. Bradley is a fabulous talent with ace potential, though it should be noted that he walked 4.3 batters per nine innings in Double-A last season. So, it's possible he's not ready just yet. His chances of opening the season in the majors probably hinge on Bronson Arroyo having a setback with his back; if it looks like Arroyo won't miss more than a start or two in the regular season, there wouldn't be as much reason to rush Bradley. Still, this is a guy who could be a difference-maker in mixed leagues come May or June.

 

Carlos Carrasco - Indians - Carrasco didn't come close to putting it together last year, but he did return from Tommy John surgery throwing harder than ever, averaging 94.9 mph with his fastball in his seven starts and eight relief appearances for the Indians. That kind of heat, combined with his plus changeup and two decent breaking balls, leaves the potential for a real breakthrough, and the Indians seem prepared to give him extended look since he's now out of options. He's been strong so far this spring, too, with a 1.29 ERA and a 9/1 K/BB ratio in seven innings. There aren't many better fliers in AL-only leagues.

 

Dallas Keuchel - Astros - Keuchel wasn't one of the four pitchers penciled into Houston's rotation at the beginning of the spring, but he's a better bet than all of them for fantasy success this year. Last year, he had the fifth highest groundball rate among major league starters and still struck out 7.2 batters per nine innings in the process. Despite all that, he gave up 1.17 homers per nine innings, an oddly high total given his other start. The end result was a 5.15 ERA, but a 4.25 FIP and a 3.58 xFIP, which standardizes a pitcher's home run rate. With his slider emerging as a strong complement to his slider, he'd be a nice fifth or sixth starter in AL-only leagues.



Matthew Pouliot is the Executive Editor of RotoWorld.com and has been doing the site's baseball projections for the last 10 years. Follow him on Twitter at matthewpouliot.
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