Jake Peavy is now the best in the business in the Senior Circuit.
We’re ramping up our rankings as Spring Training nears. Today, we’ll tackle starting pitchers, of which there is an exciting cadre of youngsters who have taken over from the old guard. It’s a brave new world for young arms, and keeper league owners in particular need to take a closer look at the number of money-in-the-bank options that are currently out there. Next up, watch for our relief pitchers rankings, but for now, enjoy your fix of SP talk.
1. Johan Santana, MIN – Despite what has to be perceived as an “off year,” Santana managed to raise his K rate and win at least 15 games for the fourth straight season. He’s become slightly more hittable three years running, but at the age of 28, he could still get better. If he lands on the Yankees, BoSox or Mets – the three main suitors currently after him – watch Santana’s wins go through the roof. In very early mock drafts, Santana has been lasting surprisingly long, so it’s a situation an astute owner may be able to capitalize on.
2. Jake Peavy, SD – Peavy earned the NL Cy Young after enjoying a career year, setting new personal bests in wins and strikeouts. Home park advantage, talented, improving, durable and young. Peavy has the potential to be one of our generation’s finest pitchers before all is said and done.
3. Brandon Webb, ARZ – Because of his workhorse tendencies, Webb really racks up the decisions, certainly a consideration in leagues where losses factor in. I’m a bit worried about the mileage on his arm, but he’s shown no signs of letting up, and as the ace of a strong Diamondback rotation, Webb should remain among the best bets in the NL for years to come.
4. John Lackey, LAA – After enjoying a career season, this bulldog of a pitcher is just coming into his own as an elite fantasy stud, and an AL Cy Young wouldn’t be surprising at all in 2008. Lackey, who has become much more of a pitcher than a thrower in recent years, leads a very strong Angels’ rotation.
5. C.C. Sabathia, CLE – Vastly improved command allowed Sabathia to take his game to the next level last season despite the highest BAA of his career. The big man has done a consistent job keeping the ball on the ground and out of the seats the past few years and that’s allowed him to become the ace of what’s shaping up as a solid Indian staff. Sabathia may have a tough time defending his AL Cy Young title, but unless his command deteriorates, expect similar quality results in 2008.
6. Josh Beckett, BOS – Beckett rebounded brilliantly after a tough first season in Boston, chalking up a Cy Young-worthy season. Completely over the blister problems that plagued him earlier in his career, Beckett is just coming into his own as a true ace, capable of racking up 200 innings consistently and learning to pitch with the kind of pinpoint control that should make him a big-time winner for years to come.
7. Erik Bedard, BAL – Fresh off his finest – albeit injury-shortened – season, Bedard is drawing tons of interest as a potential trade target, so his value will definitely be affected by wherever he lands, if Baltimore does in fact move the lefty. It’s worth noting that his ERA was well over half a run higher away from Camden Yards, so watch this situation closely.
8. Carlos Zambrano, CHC – Big Z frustrated the hell out of his owners last year by starting like a stuck pig, then becoming the hottest pitcher in the game for two months, only to finish like a bum. Despite his scattered season and the highest ERA he’s had in a full season, Zambrano had a career high in wins.
9. Justin Verlander, DET – Verlander showed nice progress in his sophomore season, reducing the number of long balls he allowed and tossing in a no-hitter for good measure. Just 24, there’s plenty of room for growth for the Tigers’ ace.
10. Dan Haren, ARZ – Haren enjoyed a tremendous season, overcoming an increase in walks by upping his Ks. Arizona opened its prospect vault to land him, but note that Haren was only a slightly above average starter after the break. Don’t go too crazy in expecting another low-3.00 ERA this year.
11. Roy Oswalt, HOU – I have my concerns about a severe weakening in Oswalt’s command and slightly more hittable stuff in 2007. Fortunately, it didn’t skew his results too much, given that he compensated somewhat by surrendering less home runs. Overall, Oswalt has been a very consistent pitcher throughout his career, and if he can continue on this track for another seven or eight years, he might be worthy of Hall of Fame attention.
12. Roy Halladay, TOR – Although his groundball rate has decreased the past two years, Halladay is still one of the best in the business in terms of using his fielders. That’s one of the main reasons for his owners to get excited about having the Doc pitching in front of Scott Rolen instead of Troy Glaus. A major workhorse, Halladay did a much better job of keeping the ball in the park last season – a good thing considering the normally stingy Toronto ace was guilty of issuing a few more walks in 2007.
13. Felix Hernandez, SEA – At the tender age of 21, King Felix has already shown himself to be a durable starter with tremendous potential as a power pitcher. Although his strikeout rate slipped, I’m stoked about his increasing groundball rates and corresponding decrease in homers allowed. Be patient – Hernandez will break through very soon, quite conceivably this season.
14. Scott Kazmir, TB – Kazmir finally stayed healthy and began to really start to deliver on his tremendous promise. He’s going to be arbitration eligible after this season, so it’s time to start wondering how long he’ll remain a Ray. Another season of progression – especially if he continues to trend into more of a groundball pitcher – will make him a rich young man very soon.
15. Cole Hamels, PHA – Hamels took a huge step forward in 2007, and I believe he’s poised for another big leap in 2008, but he’ll have to remain healthy. Long balls will continue to be an issue as long as he pitches out of CBP, but Hamels is yet another young arm ready to lead the next generation of pitching studs.
16. John Smoltz, ATL – Combining with Tim Hudson, Smoltz gives the Braves one of the better one-two punches in the National League. Sure, he’s 40, but the man can still eat up the innings, and judging by a second half in which he fanned 101 batters in 100 innings, Smoltz is still capable of dominating.
17. Fausto Carmona, CLE – The smartest thing the Indians did was end the Carmona-as-closer experiment from 2006. Moved back to starting full time last year, Carmona simply took off, quickly developing into a major workhorse. I’m a bit worried about his ability to take the ball every fifth day given his massive increase in workload last year, but Carmona’s second half numbers showed no signs of wear.
18. Aaron Harang, CIN – Harang has quietly turned into one of the most consistent and quality starters in the game. He’s durable and could still have a bit of room for improvement, but even if he’s leveled off, Harang is a very solid bet in the sea of uncertainty that is the starting pitcher pool.
19. Javier Vazquez, CWS – Not only did Vazquez improve his control last year, but he upped his K rate as well. Had he not been pitching for a substandard White Sox team, he would have likely set a new career high in wins. Chris Young’s emergence in Arizona last year must have stung the Sox, as he was a key part of the package needed to land Vazquez, but Vazquez’s solid season took the edge off that somewhat.
20. Tim Hudson, ATL – Three seasons after being offloaded by the A’s, Hudson enjoyed his finest NL season to date. The gopheritis problems he experienced during his first two seasons in Atlanta completely evaporated, and the substandard results – especially from 2006 – followed. Hudson’s K rate slipped significantly, but he’s learning to keep the ball on the ground even more than normal to compensate for this deficiency.
21. Brett Myers, PHA – The addition of Brad Lidge will send Myers back to the rotation, where he is sure to have much more value. I’m concerned about the increased workload he’ll be taking on, and the fact that he missed a year of development as a starter during a key time in his career. Still, Myers could very easily pull a Smoltz here.
22. A.J. Burnett, TOR – Well, Burnett stayed a bit healthier in his second season with the Jays, and when he pitched, he was very solid, but I still worry about his long-term future. With his talent, the fact that the Jays’ No. 2 starter is barely churning out double digits in wins is cause for concern.
23. Matt Cain, SF – The trade rumours involving Cain just won’t seem to go away, but given his development into a young workhorse, I’m not overly concerned about the prospect of him potentially leaving a great pitcher’s park, especially since he was actually much harder to hit in his road starts last season.
24. Daisuke Matsuzaka, BOS – Should we be disappointed with Dice-K’s results considering how high the expectations were? Hey, he still had a decent ERA, struck out over 200 batters and won 15 games, all the while dealing with the glare of the spotlight. Clearly, Matsuzaka tired down the stretch, a situation I expect he’ll be better prepared for this year.
25. Chris Young, SD – Young, a 6’10”, 260-pound behemoth of a man, deserved a much better fate than the nine games he won last year. He did a fantastic job keeping the ball in the park, set a new career high in Ks, and was harder to hit than ever before. If Young can avoid the nagging injuries, there’s no reason he shouldn’t set a career high in wins in 2008.
26. James Shields, TB – The Rays uncovered a real gem in Shields, a 16th round pick way back in 2000. After enjoying a breakout campaign last year, Shields looks poised to continue his development as a workhorse starter capable of helping in big way in both Ks and wins.
27. Chien-Ming Wang, NYY – Wang, the likely Opening Day starter for the Yankees (barring a deal for Santana, of course), has proved durable and consistent since joining the Pinstripers. He deserved a lower ERA last season, based on being harder to hit, improving his modest K rates, and surrendering fewer homers. A 20-win, 3.50 season is definitely reasonable in 2008, especially if he avoids the DL.
28. Ben Sheets, MIL – The Brewers’ ace continues to find it difficult to make it through a full season. He enjoyed the best record of his career, but his K/9 dropped significantly and he’s trending more and more into a flyball pitcher, so I have some concerns here as the homer total rises.
29. Kelvim Escobar, LAA – The former Jays’ closer has become a very dependable tier two starter. He’s not exactly a workhorse, but he’s been consistent enough to be a solid fantasy bet. Escobar’s K/9 bounced back a bit after sliding in 2006, and that helped him put a very strong season – one that would have been even greater if not for a late-season swoon.
30. Tim Lincecum, SF – Lincecum has quickly become one of the most popular Giants after turning in a very strong rookie year in which he averaged better than a strikeout per inning. I love the fact that after his first rough patch (in June), he was able to bounce back and pitch brilliantly in July, leading to a excellent second half. Once his control is sharpened, the sky is the limit with this kid.
31. Brad Penny, LAD – Pitching to contact suited Penny, as he enjoyed the finest season of his career, despite a much-reduced strikeout rate. However, by proving less hittable and doing a superb job of luring groundballs at a higher rate than ever before, the Dodgers’ ace was able to enjoy a tremendous season, especially for those in 4×4 leagues.
32. Jeff Francis, COL – This Canadian southpaw has become a real workhorse, enjoying a nice hike in his strikeouts last season. The homers surrendered are a concern, but might have been an anomaly given Francis’ rising groundball rate. It’s unfortunate that Francis took a bitch slapping in his World Series start, because the world deserves to know how good he’s become.
33. Oliver Perez, NYM – Perez certainly seemed to return from the abyss last season after a couple of years of complete fantasy irrelevance. His strikeout rate was back up, his command was finally acceptable and he won 15 games for the first time. I’d definitely like to see him revert back into more of a neutral pitcher as opposed to a flyball pitcher, but 2007 was an extremely promising year for Perez, who is still just 26.
34. Mark Buehrle, CWS – Buehrle wasn’t quite as durable as normal last season, but he’s still started at least 30 games in seven straight years, winning double digits each time. You’ve got to go back almost 50 years to find the last White Sox starter to enjoy seven consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins. That kind of consistency is worth bidding on.
35. Chad Billingsley, LAD – After the Dodgers shifted him to the rotation full-time, Billingsley really settled into the role in the second half. A veritable babe in the woods, Billingsley displayed much-improved command, a definite sign he’s well on his way to becoming a front-line starter.
36. Jeremy Bonderman, DET – Bonderman looked to be breaking out in the first half, but he crashed and burned bad after the break, and ultimately had to be shut down. But he’s just 25, so let’s not dare think of giving up on him. Once he achieves a modicum of consistency, Bonderman will take the next step forward.
37. John Maine, NYM – Where would the Mets have been last season if not for Maine’s tremendous breakout campaign? While I’d like to see Maine reduce his walks, he definitely made up for it with a massively improved strikeout rate. He was a bit more hittable last season, but has quickly established himself as a tremendous source of wins on a great Mets’ squad.
38. Dustin McGowan, TOR – This young starter took a huge leap forward in 2007, and likely deserved better results given his superb .230 BAA. I’m expecting him to build on this campaign in 2008. Major sleeper alert here.
39. Yovani Gallardo, MIL – Part of a great young core of Brewers who have helped reshape this sad-sack organization into a contender, Gallardo was quite impressive in his rookie season, proving to be very difficult to hit. Considering how well he handed the bigs at the age of 21, we’re looking at a very special pitcher here, one who will likely be top 25 or better by season’s end.
40. Rich Hill, CHC – Hill not only showed workhorse potential, but he displayed signs of becoming a big-time strikeout pitcher. If he can keep hitters off balance, he has a great chance to be a big winner on a strong Cubs’ team.
41. Pedro Martinez, NYM – Pedro hurt a lot of owners last season, taking nearly all year to make it back. But when he did finally get back on the mound, he showed no rust at all. Don’t expect miracles this year, but as Pedro nears the end of his excellent career, he’ll still be capable of helping your fantasy team.
42. Derek Lowe, LAD – Lowe’s peripherals last year actually surpassed his solid 2006 season, but long ball issues really hurt him. If he can address that problem, I’m expecting a major bounce back from one of the Dodgers’ top arms.
43. Andy Pettitte, NYY – The former All-Star returned to where it all began last season and he proved he can still be a valuable innings eater, enjoying a fine campaign in New York. Being on the Yanks pretty well guarantees him value as far as wins go, but it will be interesting to see how the Mitchell Report fallout affects Pettitte.
44. Ted Lilly, CHC – As long as you keep him away from his buddy John Gibbons, Lilly should be fine. He showed tremendously improved control in returning to the NL, allowing him to match his career best in wins. I’m worried about his trending into a flyball pitcher, however.
45. Joe Blanton, OAK – His record didn’t indicate it, but everything else pointed to a tremendous recovery for Blanton after a substandard 2006. He’s become a real workhorse and being less hittable with better control sure helped. Blanton has been discussed in plenty of trade rumours this offseason, but the latest indications are that he’ll be sticking around Oakland, which is a damn good thing when looking at his 2007 splits (2.69 at home; 5.11 on the road). Keeper league owners better watch this situation closely.
46. Ian Snell, PIT – Forget about his record; in looking at Snell’s constantly improving command – now almost at elite levels – the results will follow, don’t worry. VORP heads out there will be all over Snell – he was the Pirate leader in this department.
47. Adam Wainwright, STL – Now that Wainwright has established himself as a fine starter, making the transition back from closer, the Braves may be ruing the day they dealt him to St. Louis. I’d like to see Wainwright cut the walks, but I believe he has the chance to be an ace very soon.
48. Gil Meche, KC – Many eyebrows were raised when the Royals shelled out $55 million for Meche last offseason, but he came through with his finest season, earning the nod as KC’s Pitcher of the Year. Meche was quite successful pitching to contact, as his K rate slipped but he drew ground balls at a higher rate than ever before. If he can duplicate or better these results in 2008, you can definitely expect more than nine wins.
49. Tom Gorzelanny, PIT – Part of a strong front four on the Pirates, Gorzelanny drew plenty of interest from opposing teams this offseason, but Pittsburgh wisely decided to hang on to its young arms. With his improved strikeout rate, Gorzelanny was able to do something no other starter could do on the sub-70 win Buccos – finish with a winning record.
50. Jered Weaver, LAA – A key component of the Angels’ rotation of the next few years, Weaver suffered through some definite sophomore slumping, with his walk rate inching up, his Ks slipping and his hit rates rising dramatically. Expect him to improve upon his 2007 numbers this year, but it will be highly unlikely to touch what he did in 2006 any time soon.
51. Clay Buchholz, BOS – Because of the no-hitter, it’s easy to forget that this kid is a rookie with just three big-league starts under his belt. Buchholz will need to improve his control over the course of a full season, but it’s clear he has the stuff to move to the head of the class. Buchholz is yet another piece of evidence that the future of pitching is in good hands.
52. Joba Chamberlain, NYY – Chamberlain busted onto the scene last year, proving virtually untouchable down the stretch as a great bridge in the Yankees’ pen to Mariano Rivera. But now New York wants to make him a starter. Good idea? Time will tell, but you can rest assured the team will baby his arm this season.
53. Jon Garland, LAA – Dealt to the Angels this offseason for shortstop Orlando Cabrera, Garland gives the Halos a quality innings eater who has won double digits six years running. He was harder to hit last season, but mostly he was tough at home, despite pitching in a hitter’s park. I don’t expect his BAA to change much in LA, but Garland will likely benefit from a reduction in homers allowed pitching at Angel Stadium.
54. Barry Zito, SF – Zito is one of the highest paid arms in the game, but he certainly didn’t pitch like it in his first season in San Francisco. A K/9 that’s dipped three straight years worries me, but a second half in which he was harder to hit suggests that as the season progressed, Zito was beginning to learn how to pitch with the weight of his immense contract.
55. Phil Hughes, NYY – Hughes is a potential “ace” pitching prospect who, at 21, is still learning to deal with the day-to-day inconsistencies that come with youth. A strained hamstring injury in mid-summer certainly limited his effectiveness. The fact that Hughes was the subject of off-season trade rumours to the Twins for Santana, certainly illustrates that highly sought after future potential seen in him.
56. Jon Lester, BOS – Lester was definitely one of the feel good stories of the 2007 season. Diagnosed with lymphoma in September 2006, Lester managed to report to camp cancer free. An early forearm problem and inconsistencies plagued him in 2007. Lester has to limit those free passes to be effective, something he didn’t achieve last season. Cutting down on the walks would make Lester a very solid No. 3/4 starting pitcher in 2008.
57. Chuck James, ATL – The Braves’ southpaw had a challenging 2007, fading badly down the stretch. The sore shoulder that caused him to miss his final several starts was confirmed as a slight tear in his rotator cuff. If healthy, James has the potential to revert back to those 2006 numbers, making him a solid option at the back end of the rotation.
58. Francisco Liriano, MIN – Coming off a lost year due to Tommy John surgery, Liriano looks to be on schedule for Spring Training 2008. Without a doubt, the Twins will be very cautious early and probably have him on a strict pitch count. Still only 24, if Liriano can bounce back to anywhere near those amazing 2006 levels of production, you’ve got a major steal on your hands here. Watch the situation closely this spring.
59. Curt Schilling, BOS – Coming off a very solid 2007 campaign, at the age of 41, Schilling looks to be the most likely benefactor of that potential six-man rotation in Boston. The drastic reduction in that K rate should be of some concern, but was more than offset by his usual impeccable control. One of these years it most certainly will all end, but I’m not betting on that happening in 2008.
60. Zack Greinke, KC – A very inconsistent start to the 2007 campaign landed Greinke a place in the bullpen where he flourished, going 4-1 with a 3.54 ERA in 38 appearances. Thrust back into the rotation in late August, he tossed six quality starts and, heading into 2008, he looks poised to show off that high ceiling we’ve been expecting for what seems an eternity.
Best of the Rest
61. Tim Wakefield, BOS
62. Rich Harden, OAK
63. Noah Lowry, SF
64. Wandy Rodriguez, HOU
65. Dontrelle Willis, DET
66. Scott Baker, MIN
67. Hiroki Kuroda, LAD
68. Ian Kennedy, NYY
69. Matt Garza, MIN
70. Randy Johnson, ARZ
71. Shaun Marcum, TOR
72. Carlos Silva, SEA
73. Jeremy Guthrie, BAL
74. Ubaldo Jimenez, COL
75. Boof Boonser, MIN
76. Greg Maddux, SD
77. Sean Marshall, CHC
78. Randy Wolf, SD
79. Dave Bush, MIL
80. Bronson Arroyo, CIN
81. Gio Gonzalez, OAK
82. Joel Pineiro, STL
83. Shawn Hill, WAS
84. Brian Bannister, KC
85. Jason Bergmann, WAS
86. Mark Prior, SD
87. Tom Glavine, ATL
88. Jeff Suppan, MIL
89. Scott Olsen, FLA
90. Doug Davis, ARZ
91. Mark Mulder, STL
92. Jarrod Washburn, SEA