This part finishes off Echelon 2 and then Part 11 will be Echelon 1 all by itself.
Echelon 2, Part II – Kings
25. Chad Billingsley, 25, Los Angeles Dodgers – A brilliant 2008 season left many wondering the heights Billingsley would reach in 2009 as he had lowered his ERA and BB/9 while raising K/9 each year in the league to that point. Well the strikeout and walk rates ticked a bit in the wrong direction, but the ERA unnecessarily shot up (4.03) nearly a full run thanks to a very unlucky second half. Despite the uptick in ERA, he isn’t being overlooked by the fantasy community as his ADP (123rd) puts him 27th among starting pitchers. Clayton Kershaw gets most of the attention, and with good reason, but the Dodgers have dual aces with him and Billingsley. If you miss out on Kershaw, grab Billingsley 2 ½ rounds later.
24. Kevin Slowey, 26, Minnesota Twins – I really hate that Slowey pitches for the Minnesota Twins. I am a huge fan of him as a player, but his success is a detriment to my team, the Detroit Tigers. I just pray for him to be on the losing end of 2-1 battles against the Tigers that way my team wins and my fantasy team gets some value out of it. I was very high on Slowey last year (21st) and I remain so this year as you can see with the top 25 ranking. He is coming back from an injury riddled 2009 where a 4.86 ERA has driven down his value. He’s the 53rd SP off the board on the latest ADP list which is absolutely crazy. He posted his second season in a row with a 5.0 K/BB and took his strikeout rate up over seven to 7.4 which over the course of a 200 inning season would be about 165 strikeouts. He has yet to post an ERA below 3.99 because the longball still plagues him. That is the hurdle between Slowey and a sub-3.50 ERA season. He was excellent at limiting home runs in the minors so getting that skill to translate to the majors seems to be within the scope of his talent. His skillset is too good to be posting 4.00 ERAs and I think at age 26 with 318 innings under his belt, Slowey finally puts together a complete breakout season.
23. Scott Baker, 28, Minnesota Twins – He and Kevin Slowey are thought to be synonymous with one another so why not bundle them together here on the list? I’m not just doing it for the sake of ease or anything, either. I believe they belong together and Baker is just a bit further along so he gets the nod over Slowey. His K/BB is 3.4 for his career and has only once been below that mark (2.3 in 54 innings back in 2005). His K/9 rate has been above 7.0 for two straight seasons and he has managed to pound the strike zone without being overly hittable. After posting back-to-back hit rates above 10.0 in 2006 and 2007, Baker now pushed back below 9.0 for two straight seasons while sacrificing only somewhat on the walk rate (1.8 BB/9 06-07; 2.2 08-09). Baker isn’t coming at quite the discount of Slowey, but he is still a nice value as the 33rd starting pitcher off the board.
22. Jake Peavy, 29, Chicago White Sox – Moving from PETCO and the National League to US Cellular and the American League is about as drastic a move as you can make for a starting pitcher, but Peavy isn’t former teammate Chris Young who needed PETCO to have any real success at all. I am not foolish enough to think we will see sub-3.00 ERAs like we saw four out of the last six years from Peavy, but I don’t think he becomes Daniel Cabrera, either. Yes he did benefit from PETCO, everyone does, but for his career he has managed a 3.79 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 8.3 K/9 and 2.6 K/BB in 622 road innings. Peavy has the talent of a top 10 pitcher, but moving to the AL will make it tougher to post those overwhelming top 10 numbers in 2010. Luckily he’s coming as the 23rd SP off the board.
21. Cliff Lee, 31, Seattle Mariners – I moved him down a bit because of the strained ab that will likely put him on the DL to start the season. It is problematic enough that the M’s have been rumored to be searching for another pitcher perhaps even bringing back Jarrod Washburn. Obviously I don’t think it will be catastrophic because I still rated him 21st, but injuries are scary for a pitcher, especially an elite one. Lee’s ADP is still very high at 57, making him the 10th SP off the board. There is absolutely no way I would go that high for him with the insane depth at SP this year. Fanball.com’s Ray Flowers said he saw Lee go in the 11th round of an NFBC draft this past weekend which I think it veers toward the other end of the spectrum as I’d take him in the 8th-9th without worrying. Nothing within his skillset scares me even the move back to the American League, so if he does get a clean bill of health with a defined timetable for how long the strain will shelve him between now and your draft day, bump him back up into the top 15 without question.
20. Clayton Kershaw, 22, Los Angeles Dodgers – Tough to resist the urge to place him much higher than 20th, but he’s not a finished product just yet. That is scary for the rest of baseball because of how great he is already. He has a tendency to labor at times and rack up his pitch count which limited him to just 5.7 IP per start. His control would abandon him and lead to those blown up pitch counts and he ended up walking 4.8 batters per nine. When you strikeout nearly 10 batters per nine (9.7 K/9), you can sustain that kind of walk rate but you’re only going to post a sub-3.00 ERA with that walk rate if you have a very fortunate hit rate. In fact, Kershaw led all of baseball with a miniscule 6.3 H/9. He was aided by a 27% hit rate, but that isn’t overwhelmingly lucky so the correction won’t do much damage to him, especially if he does see some gain in his control. Overall, this is a very strong profile that will only get better as he continues to learn at the major league level. There may be hiccups here & there, but nothing devastating. Look for his first 200+ inning season in 2010.
19. Javier Vazquez, 34, New York Yankees – I was so upset when the Yankees reacquired Vazquez this past offseason. Not because it’s the Yankees getting better or anything silly like that (though they did give back virtually nothing… get real with Melky Cabrera), but because Vazquez is a Cy Young candidate in the National League just as he was last year. There was tough competition so he didn’t quite nab the award, but he was one of my best predictions from 2009 as I rated him 18th. Headed back to the Bronx has scared many because of his results the last time he was a Yankee (4.91 ERA), but he’s a different pitcher five years later and even though his ERA was bad the first time around, he still had a 2.5 K/BB rate. The move back to the AL hasn’t put him at any type of discount because he joined the highest profile team and that’s fine. I don’t think he will be the 12th SP as his ADP projects, but I do think he will be much better than he was the first time around for the Yankees back in 2004.
18. Ricky Nolasco, 27, Florida Marlins – You are reacting one of two ways to seeing Nolasco this high: a) “WHAT?!?! This guy had a 5.06 ERA last year and you are ranking him 18th overall!?!???!” Or b) “Dangit, even Paul is onto Nolasco’s awesomeness, there’s no way I am going to sneak him despite that 5.06 ERA last year.” Nolasco is Exhibit A of why ERA isn’t at all representative of a pitcher’s effectiveness. It can tell you if a pitcher has been good or bad at times, but looking at it alone will get you in trouble. Nolasco posted a career best 9.5 K/9 offsetting the minor bump in BB/9 to 2.1 giving him his second straight season of 4.4 K/BB rate. Nolasco was sent down at the end of May when his ERA was 9.07 and he had given up eight runs in back-to-back starts of fewer than four innings. He worked out some kinks, came back and for the final four months of the seasons he went 141 innings with a 3.83 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 10.1 K/9 and 5.1 BB/9. He posted those fantastic numbers even with three starts in which he gave up 7, 7 and 10 runs. Nolasco has the skills of a sub-3.50 ERA pitcher with 200 strikeouts. Don’t let him sit out there too long in your draft.
17. Ubaldo Jimenez, 26, Colorado Rockies – If I had told you a few years ago that soon there would be a pitcher from the Colorado Rockies who would crack the top 20 of a starting pitchers list, you would have laughed in my face. Yet here we are. Jimenez has tamed Coors Field for 506 innings so if you’re still skeptical, you’re obviously never going to be convinced. Last year was a big step forward as he pushed his K/9 up over eight (8.2) and posted his first sub-4.0 BB/9 (3.5). Not only is he a high strikeout power pitcher, but he also has a fantastic groundball rate (54% and 53% the last two years) that allows him to rack up outs in spades. Simply put, he’s got the best kind of profile to invest regardless of his home stadium. Go the extra dollar.
16. Chris Carpenter, 35, St. Louis Cardinals – Carpenter probably single-handedly won some fantasy leagues with the overwhelming value he delivered last year. He was definitely a late round, low dollar pick up having essentially missed two full seasons (21 IP across 2007 and 2008) and he went out and threw 193 brilliant innings and nearly won the Cy Young Award. The only reason I have him this low is because the injury risk is always present with him, especially at his age. Plus, as I’ve mentioned a thousand times already, the pool of starting pitching is so deep that you can place someone with Carpenter’s talent at 16th and it’s not out of place. Another reason he’s a tick lower than the next 15 is that he doesn’t strikeout a ton of batters. He’s no slouch with a 6.7 K/9 last year and better than 7.5 in each of his last three full seasons prior to last year, but as you will soon see those ahead of him are posting strikeout rates better than 7.5 ranging as high as 10.0.