2010 Echelons of Starting Pitching: Part 6

Sorry for the delay in posting lately, but I have been busy with some other things including auction/draft prep for the leagues I commission as well as taking over the reins at Eye of the Tigers.com, the Detroit Tigers blog in the Fanball Blog Network. Plus I have started my two weekly columns over at OwnersEdge.com for Fanball, too. Fear not, though. I am going to finish the list.

This part will take us up to the top 100 so we are in the homestretch.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Echelon 3, Part I – Prince or Frog?

Can you believe that we have looked 144 pitchers already and we are only into the third echelon of five? I told you this year’s list was huge. Last year I covered 154 arms total and I’m only 10 away from that mark with three full echelons left. In part 1, I describe echelon 3s as “a mix of young guys on the rise still putting it all together and crafty veterans capable of eating a boatload of innings without destroying your team”. These guys either have a guaranteed spot or a clear line to a guaranteed spot that doesn’t include several injuries and a leap of faith from their management (the one exception being Jarrod Washburn who has yet to sign). Talent wise, the upside for these guys ranges from solid, useful piece (i.e. someone you wouldn’t stream based on matchup) to game-changer who could essentially make your season and take a long toward the championship you so desire. But that is upside which means perfect health, reaching their skill ceiling and a healthy dose of luck mixed in. So they aren’t without risk, but that risk lessened considerably as compared to their 4th and 5th echelon brethren. There are 119 pitchers left in the list, so with Echelon 3, I will begin to count them down.

119. Jose Contreras, 38, Philadelphia Phillies – Every time we try to bury this guy he comes back and shows a glimmer and looks rosterable. He seems to either dominate for six or seven innings or give up six or seven runs in one inning.

118. Jarrod Washburn, 35 years old, Free Agent – The aforementioned Washburn has yet to find a club, but the latest rumors have the Orioles interested if his price drops. He should learn from Johnny Damon and Orlando Hudson that digging your heels will keep you at home this season, so if he wants to play just sign a reasonable one year deal with someone. Washburn had a rebirth with the Mariners last year thanks in large part to their stellar defense, but he fell apart after being traded to Detroit mostly because he was giving up home runs at a ridiculously high rate (2.5 HR/9). He’s a flyball pitcher who looked to be fully entrenched in the twilight of career until that 133 inning outburst with Seattle, but anything short of a return there will bring him back to the mid-4.00s, low strikeout pitcher he had been the three years prior to 2009.

117. Chien-Ming Wang, 30, Washington Nationals – Reports suggest that Wang will miss at least the first and possible the second month of the season as he returns from shoulder surgery that cost him most of what was already a dismal 2009 season. When healthy, he will slot into the Nationals rotation almost instantly. Wang’s name recognition from his time with Yankees will keep him from sneaking up on anyone, but he could easily turn into a legitimate fantasy asset as he was back in 2006 and 2007. It is virtually impossible to project wins, but I don’t think it is wrong to suggest that they will be a bit tougher to come by with the Nationals than they were with the Yankees when he won 19 in consecutive years. He would be worth a buck or two in an NL-Only league where you could store on a disabled list or reserve roster and wait for him to return.

116. Ian Snell, 28, Seattle Mariners – This one time fantasy darling has burned the bridge with many fantasy owners across the world so much so that he has been banished to a Do Not Draft Under Any Circumstance list. I try not to do that with anyone because I am always trying to win so if someone can further that cause then I will roster him. Even Derek Jeter or Milton Bradley. He had a breakout skills wise in 2007 with 7.7 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9. Since then, his walk rate has skyrocketed in each of the past two years with 4.9 in 2008 and 5.2 last year. His strikeout rate has fallen, too, but the first it was just to 7.4 while last year’s was a big drop down to 5.5. He owns 7.0+ K/9 skill and that shouldn’t be entirely ignored. A skills return combined with the Seattle defense could result in a nice season.

115. Kyle Davies, 26, Kansas City Royals – Interesting note: his first name is Hiram. Obvious note: average control with a mid-6.0 K/9 rate leads to a modicum of success. And that’s exactly what Davies managed to do in 2008, but the control left him again in 2009 and so did the success. Still just 26, his success or failure in 2010 will hinge solely upon his ability to command the strike zone. Well I shouldn’t say solely. If he walks 2.5 batters nine innings, but has matching homerun and strikeout rates, then it won’t be a very good year. If he can walk 3.5 or fewer per nine while matching his career strikeout rate of 6.3, then he has a shot at being useful.

114. Aaron Laffey, 25, Cleveland Indians – On the surface, this might look like someone worth investing in: 7-9, 4.44 ERA in 122 IP last year; 4.39 career ERA in 265 IP. But he has a plummeting K/BB rate thanks to a dismal K/9 that hasn’t topped 4.5 since his debut 49 inning stint back in 2007. Sinking in concert with that K rate is his groundball rate which used be excellent at 62% when he first came up, but has moved to 51% and 49% the last years, respectively. You can get by with a lame strikeout rate if you’re topping 55% in groundball rate, but that is no longer the case for Laffey leaving him with a scary profile worth very little. Pass until groundball returns and/or strikeout rises dramatically and his minor league record (6.3 in 663 IP) says don’t bet on the latter.

113. John Lannan, 25 Washington Nationals – Lannan’s profile is very similar to Laffey’s except he is holding steady or at least not falling as quickly in the key areas making him someone worth at least keeping an eye in deeper NL-Only leagues. His K rate tumbled dramatically from 5.8 to 3.9 last year, but his groundball rate held steady from 54% in 2008 to 52% last year. And he has improved his walk rate each year in the league including a 3.0 BB/9 last year. If he can hold those control gains, maintain his 50%+ groundball rate and get back to that 5.8 K/9 then he becomes a very nice low-cost option for the back end of your rotation. If not, then his sub-4.00 ERAs will quickly become a thing of the past.

112. Ross Ohlendorf, 27, Pittsburgh Pirates – His 2009 results will likely drive his price too high considering they were a bit lucky. His 1.3 HR/9 is scary especially considering the 5.6 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9 that supported it are just OK. A severe flyball pitcher with middling skills doesn’t inspire too much confidence, but if he could drop that HR/9 below 1.0, then he could be onto something legitimate.

111. Kyle Lohse, 31, St. Louis Cardinals – A rich man’s John Lannan, Lohse has strung together four straight seasons of a better than 2.0 K/BB rate including a very sharp 2.4 in 2008 that led to his career year 15-6 record with a 3.78 ERA. Injuries kept him from getting anywhere near that in 2009 (118 IP), but his skills weren’t markedly different. He should continue with his 2.0 K/BB again in 2010 leaving his HR/9 to inevitably decide his fate as either a 3.78 ERA pitcher (0.8 HR/9 that year) or 4.74 ERA pitcher (1.2 HR/9). Lohse’s value pretty much just depends on how much you buy into the Dave Duncan Magic Machine.

110. Zach Duke, 27, Pittsburgh Pirates – Can you really have a breakout season when you lead your league in losses? Sure and it’s just another example of how misleading a W-L record is when judging a starting pitcher. Duke even made the All-Star Game last year thanks to a 3.29 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and eight wins for the lowly Pirates. Things unraveled a bit after the break, but the year ended up as his best full season (he went 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA in 85 innings his rookie year). Like so many at the bottom of this tier, he is a low strikeout, control artist type reliant upon limiting free passes and keeping the ball in the yard for his success. Last year was his first 2.0 or better K/BB since that rookie stint and not surprisingly it yielded his best results yet. I have a hard time trusting sub-6.0 K/9 guys myself, let alone sub-5.0 guys like Duke, but if he can get back up to his previous 51% groundball mark and continue to shave down his H/9 (9.8 H/9 in 2009 came after 10.7, 13.5 and 11.2 marks from 2006-2008), then he can have some value. Right now his value lies as a home/away spot starter: 4.44 ERA at PNC, 4.86 elsewhere in the last three years and a 3.85/4.28 split in 2009.

109. Doug Davis, 34, Milwaukee Brewers – Davis is to WHIP what a Jack Cust or Carlos Pena is to batting average. Allowing at least a hit per inning on average and walking more than four per nine has led four straight seasons of 1.50+ WHIP for Davis. His WHIP is like death and taxes, you can set your watch to it, but that doesn’t make him completely worthless. In that same four year stretch, he has just one completely unusable ERA (4.91 in 2006), otherwise his 4.25, 4.32 and 4.12 marks the last three years over an average of 181 innings has legitimate value. He will strike a decent number of batters out, too, with a career 6.7 mark. He returns to Milwaukee this year where he had that ugly 4.91 ERA, but also where his two best seasons took place the two years prior to that blowup. In 2004 and 2005, he threw 430 innings of 3.62 ERA with a non-Davis-like 1.30 WHIP thanks to just 3.6 BB/9. He also struck out nearly eight batters per nine innings. I’m not saying he will recapture that magic in 2010. Pay for 2009 repeat, but pray for some of the Miller Park magic where he has posted a 3.37 ERA in 372 innings.

108. Vicente Padilla, 31, Los Angeles Dodgers – No one wants to take Vicente Padilla in their league, but he has some value especially now that he is back in the National League. I don’t think he can go through a whole season posting an 8.7 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9 as he did in 39 innings with the Dodgers last year, but his AL ERA pushed 5.00 while his NL mark sits below 4.00. You can do worse than his 4.25 ERA and 6.5-7.0 K/9 in 175 innings.

107. Mike Pelfrey, 26, New York Mets – I got away from the low K/control artist types there for a second with Davis, but we’re headed back that way with Pelfrey. He’s got the low strikeout part down, but his walk rate jumped up over 3.0 last year (3.2 in 184 IP) which is a fair bit higher than the rest of the group. He excels over the group in limiting home runs though having never been above 1.0 in the majors. His groundball rate is also improving, which helps lessen the impact of the low strikeout rate. If he could just get to that 6.0 K/9 level and keep everything else the same (or better, obviously), then he could be well on his way to building upon that 3.72 ERA from 2008. He is coming absolutely dirt cheap (432 ADP) because of the 5.03 ERA last year, but he was very unlucky in the second half despite actually taking his K/9 to the aforementioned 6.0-mark. He could make a very nice endgame option, even in very deep mixed leagues.

106. Jason Marquis, 31, Washington Nationals – Another 2009 All-Star ranked in the 100s, but not without good cause. Marquis racked up the wins (11 before the break) thanks to a career-best groundball rate (56%) and a tiny HR/9 of 0.6 (also a career-best). Alas, Marquis has topped 5.0 K/9 just once in the last five years (5.1 in 2007) and his K/BB rate hasn’t topped 1.45 since 2004 and even that was a weak 1.97. Yes those round up to 1.5 and 2.0, but I’m using two decimal places to make a point: Marquis has an incredibly weak skills profile making him a scary investment unless he can maintain or increase the 56% groundball rate. Not a bad innings-eater option, but 2006 shows what can happen if the ball doesn’t stay down (6.03 ERA in 194 IP; 43% GB rate). Be careful.

105. Kenshin Kawakami, 35, Atlanta Braves – His skills suggest more a 4.40 ERA pitcher than the 3.86 he managed, especially considering the loss of K rate as the season wore on. He fits the general tenor of this grouping, he’s a solid if unspectacular option used best in single leagues that could get hot for short periods of time, but could also get rocked for 6 ER in 2+ innings in any given outing.

104. Randy Wells, 27, Chicago Cubs – A surprise breakout rookie in 2009, Wells posted a 3.05 ERA thanks to decent skills (2.3 K/BB, 0.8 HR/9) and a fair groundball rate. The general marketplace doesn’t appear to be charging a premium for his 2009 stats, which is good because it wouldn’t be worth the cost. There is room for a little skill growth, specifically in the K rate. If he got that up near 6.5, he could be a nice cheap endgame option.

103. Nick Blackburn, 28, Minnesota Twins – Is anyone keeping track of how many times I called a low strikeout control artist a “Nick Blackburn-type” so far in this list? Back-to-back seasons with 4.5 and 4.3 K/9 rates doesn’t really jump off the page at anyone, but when you can push 2.5 K/BB rate because of the sub-2.0 BB/9, he is at least given a modicum of value. Again, from a personal preference standpoint, I avoid these types but that doesn’t mean that you have to, too. I’d strongly recommend it as his margin for error is paper thin as evidenced by his second half (5.02 ERA despite better base skills), but over the course of a whole season he will have streaks of effectiveness. For his career, his ERA is more than a run better at home (3.57 to 4.64), but changing from the Metrodome to Target Field kind of makes it tough to follow that trend for spot starting purposes.

102. Derek Holland, 23, Texas Rangers – Though a direct comparison for 2009 shows me losing out, I would rather use my endgame dollars on the Derek Hollands of the world (7.0 K/9, 3.1 BB/9) than the Nick Blackburns (4.2, 1.8) because the skills of the former will win out more often than not. Holland was mauled by a 1.7 HR/9 which left him with a 6.12 ERA. The two are being valued nearly the same over at MockDraftCentral.com so far this season yet I’d take Holland 100 times out of 100 even if he cost two-three rounds more than Blackburn. Holland was blistered by bad luck in addition to that ugly home run rate, but he showed flashes of the kind of quality pitcher he can (and likely will) be in the near future. He’s worth investing in now before the results catch up with the minor league hype and raise the price.

101. James McDonald, 25, Los Angeles Dodgers – Call me crazy, but I like guys who strike out 9.9 batters per nine innings in 503 minor league innings and then come up to the majors and have pretty decent success in a role that is new to them. His totals were depressed by an awful first month he spent working the kinks out and getting used to working from the bullpen. In April he threw 14 horrible innings in which he allowed 13 runs on 13 hits, walked 14 and struck out just six. From then on he threw 49 innings with a 2.76 ERA while striking out 48 (8.8 K/9) and walking 20 (3.7 BB/9; 2.4 K/BB). He’s got a legitimate shot to enter the rotation in 2010 as the fifth starter and I think he is poised for a breakout season, especially if he earns that spot. He is costing next to nothing as he doesn’t even register on the NL-Only ADP at MockDraftCentral.com right now. He is a prime endgame target who you could feasibly steal for a dollar if your league is napping and end up not only turning a profit this year, but also in 2011. That said, if another owner or two has the same idea as you, I’d go the extra buck to land him because unless you get into an inflation-driven bidding war, he will still be undervalued.


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