(Ed. note – This will likely be it for the week on PaulSporer.com. I was going to split it up, but decided to give you all 5,000+ words at once. I may have something up for Friday, otherwise look for my stuff at BP and then back here next week.)
We have flipped the calendar to July, we’re officially beyond labeling a player’s stat line as a hot or cold “start”*, the All-Star break is right around the corner and trade season is kicking into high gear in both fantasy and real baseball. With that, I wanted to take an opportunity to highlight my favorite starting pitcher trade targets. Why 24? Because it’s my favorite number, that’s really the only reason.
* let’s be honest, this probably should’ve stopped around Memorial Day, but I heard it a lot throughout June.
There is a range of talent within this list so it’s not just a bunch of aces leaving you saying, “No f’n duh!” though some will be entirely unsurprising (“what, Paul likes Hamels?? Weeeiiirrrdddd”), but they represent the group of guys I’d be buying via trade or definitely hanging onto if I already had them on my team.
They aren’t necessarily ranked in order, but look at it more as a talent spectrum with the better guys clustered near the top and the riskier, less-established arms in the 20s. The exclusion of guys doesn’t mean I don’t like them (obviously acquire Justin Verlander if you can at a reasonable price, but he’s guaranteed to cost two arms and nine legs), these are just my 24 favorites to target.
1. Cole Hamels – I didn’t waste any time with him, did I? I still don’t think he is universally treated like the ace that he is and that means you may not have to pay ace-level prices for him via trade. This is especially true with Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee pitching at peak, which they obviously aren’t with the former on the disabled list and the latter struggling at times and not getting any support when he’s excelling.
This doesn’t mean you are going to steal him from a leaguemate for Carlos Lee and Justin Masterson, but he rarely costs a price commensurate with his value like a Verlander or Stephen Strasburg. He is a four-category star (10 wins even on the Phillies, while Lee has 0 showing you just how random the stat can be) with bankable strikeouts, ERA and WHIP and pacing toward a career-high in wins after reaching 15 just once in his career.
2. Madison Bumgarner – Despite posting great ratios (2.96 ERA, 1.15 WHIP) in his first four starts, his peripherals were a bit wobbly (4.6 K/9, 1.6 K/BB) which was a bit unnerving especially for those expecting an ace-level season out of him. Since then he has a 2.81 ERA and 1.03 WHIP backed by 8.5 K/9 and 5.4 K/BB rates in 86.3 innings of work.
That is despite giving up exactly four runs in five of the 12 outings. He has been virtually unhittable in the other seven giving up an average of 1 run (four w/1 ER, one w/2 ER and a shutout). He has three double-digit strikeout outings in that span as well. In short, he has been the beast we were hoping to see in 2012. The best part is that he is just 22 years old so he works for those trading for 2012 and those trading with an eye on 2013.
3. David Price – Price is rounding into form as the season wears on. While his strikeout rate and WHIP improve month over month, his ERA is incrementally on the rise, though a 3.29 peak as we saw in June is hardly reason for concern. I’m far more interested in the first two factors as he continues to miss more bats and allow fewer baserunners.
As the Rays move toward being whole again (namely getting Evan Longoria back) and stabilizing the defense, his and this next guy’s improved groundball rates will pay bigger dividends. This franchise isn’t used to spotty D in recent years, but the shuffling in and out of reserves who were supposed to play sparingly throughout the year has compromised their usually razor-sharp defense. Price could actually get better in the dog days and improve upon his 2.92 ERA, while this guy almost assuredly will…
4. James Shields – Another guy that anyone who has read my work for a while is completely unsurprised to see gracing a list like this. I’m a huge Shields fan and while things haven’t gone exactly according to plan this year, I foresee improvements in the near future. He, too, will benefit from a more solid defense as his groundball rate is at a career-high 54%, up from last year’s 46% which was a previous career-high. Meanwhile he has improved his strikeout rate with only little harm to his walk rate (2.8 BB/9, up from 2.4).
He is the first guy on the list who you can probably acquire at a significant discount compared to his value since the 4.04 ERA and 1.40 WHIP are pretty ugly right now. The danger is that this become a mini-2010 as his skills were great that year yet he ended up with a 5.18 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. I don’t see a 5.18 ERA coming, but he needs the defense to start turning his groundballs into more outs and he himself needs to sharpen up with runners on. I believe he will.
5. Johnny Cueto – Being the unabashed strikeout love I am, you might be surprised to see Cueto on this list, but I just love what he is doing these days. I’ve watched his last few outings to get a better feel for the 2012 iteration and I came away impressed. What he lacks in strikeouts (6.6 K/9), he makes up for in groundballs (49%) which is my second favorite skill of a pitcher. He has a four-seamer and sinker that both sit around 93 MPH and he peppers the zone with both. Meanwhile he pounds his 83-84 MPH changeup low in the zone, but also down out of the zone (22% of them are out of the nine square strikezone).
He continues to lower his walk rate, too, dropping down to 2.1 BB/9 this year making his strikeout rate more palatable. He is going deeper into games this year as well averaging 6.7 innings per outing, a number on the rise yearly since 2009. His next hurdle is a 200-inning season, a figure he is tracking toward this year (on pace for 223 innings in 33 starts). Obviously if strikeouts are your main need, Cueto isn’t for you, but he delivers everywhere else.
6. Josh Johnson – The start of a player’s season, whether good or bad, can have a lasting effect that often skews the perception of that player for the rest of the season. Take Johnson for example. I think a lot of folks in the fantasy community would say he’s having kind of a “meh” season (if not worse) if you asked them their thoughts on him without showing them a stat sheet. If you brought his 3.80 ERA and 1.37 WHIP into the mix, they would probably feel justified in their assessment.
However, a look into his game log shows that he struggled to work the kinks out after spending most of 2011 on the shelf, but turned a corner in early May and has been quite excellent since then. The Padres tattooed him for six runs in 2.7 innings in Petco back on May 4th pushing his ERA up to 6.61. To that point, he had gone more than six innings just twice and completed the seventh just once. Since then he has a 2.47 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 66 innings across 10 starts going fewer than six innings just once and going seven or more in six of the 10.
His strikeout rate is at 7.8 K/9 in that stretch with a strong 3.0 K/BB. The strikeouts aren’t up a ton from those first six starts (7.5 K/9), but his walks are done a ton (2.2 K/BB) as he has walked 19 in the 10 starts after 12 in those first six. He isn’t 100% back to 2010-2011 Josh Johnson, but he isn’t far off and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ran off a stretch of vintage JJ starts at some point later this season.
7. Yovani Gallardo – I know I have been beating this drum since early May, but if you lift Gallardo’s two starts against the Cardinals and look at his numbers, he has a 2.80 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. His walk rate also drops from 4.1 BB/9 to 3.7. I realize you can’t cherry-pick starts, but if you just avoid his St. Louis starts (he’s always struggled against them), then Gallardo is still the stud we expected him to be this year.
Even with the Cardinals starts, his bottom line numbers are palatable (3.87 ERA, 1.39 WHIP), though hardly star level. His walk rate has regressed severely after he showed tons of improvement down to a very strong 2.6 BB/9 last year. He can be successful walking that many, but it obviously eats into his margin for error. He can be a star if he just gets it back to 3.5 or better. I am still all-in on Gallardo.
8. Mat Latos – I have stood by Latos all season long and it is finally paying big dividends with back-to-back complete games (1 ER in each). Home runs look like the primary culprit for his 4.42 ERA as he has allowed 1.6 HR/9, however it isn’t really a consistent issue so much as it is a few bouts of gopheritis really hampering him. He has allowed 2+ home runs three times this year and those are three of his four worst outings (the other was against those blasted Cardinals).
He allowed five solo shots to the Rockies (not in Coors believe it or not), three in Cleveland and a pair to the Astros at home. In those outings, he gave up five, seven and five earned runs. Also of note is that his problems are incorrectly being tied to his shift into the Great American Ballpark. He has actually fared much better at home (3.47 ERA) than on the road (5.92) despite a better strikeout rate (9.7 compared to 7.4 at home) and nearly equal K/BB rate (3.2 compared to 3.3 at home).
His 3.61 road xFIP suggest brighter days ahead away from home. Meanwhile, after an ugly 5.7 K/9 in April, he has a 9.4 K/9 in 69 innings since so he could be in for a huge second half as an across-the-board contributor. On the heels of those complete games, his price has likely risen, but you may also have the effect of some wanting to parlay the outings into an opportunity to dump Latos at a peak. I think there are more peaks in his future.
9. Adam Wainwright – Getting pummeled by the Pirates (7 ER on 11 H in 5 IP) might seem like the end of the world for someone of Wainwright’s caliber, but you might be surprised to learn that the Pirates scored the most runs in baseball during the month of June (146) and led the NL in home runs (39). So it’s not as bad as it would seem at first blush. Wainwright has been a rollercoaster ride during his return from Tommy John Surgery, which shouldn’t be too surprising.
Expected him to be vintage Wainwright right out of the gate would be stupid. So while the peripheral skills have been pretty close to 2009-2010 Wainwright, he still has his off games. For example, he had a stretch of four starts in June where he posted a 2.70 ERA with 27 Ks in 27 innings, but he sandwiched that run with a pair of 7 ER outings (including the most recent one against the Pirates).
He is still a work in progress in terms getting back to his elite level, but I think the flameout starts will be fewer and farther between as the season wears on. I think the Cardinals have handled him masterfully with just two starts over 110 pitches and only seven over 100. He didn’t even hit the century mark until his sixth start. As much as they need him with Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia on the shelf, they know that pushing him beyond his limits will only result in him joining his fallen teammates on the disabled list.
10. Ian Kennedy – Kennedy was amazing last year, there is no denying that: 2.88 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and a 21-4 record in 222 innings. He had an 8.0 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9. His BABIP, LOB and HR/FB rates all beat league averages which aided his 2.88 ERA compared to his 3.50 xFIP. His skills have actually been a tick better this year (8.1 K/9, 2.0 BB/9) yet his ERA has skyrocketed to 4.20 thanks in part to a leveling out of his BABIP, LOB and HR/FB rates. His 3.96 xFIP says the ERA probably regressed a bit too far.
These are skills to invest in and now is the optimal time with his ERA up over 4.00. You’re unlikely to find someone selling him at a bargain basement price, but there is no way you still have to pay for 2011 Kennedy and he could be that guy from here on out. We even saw glimpses of it in June, but he was just inconsistent as you can see from earned runs allowed in the month: 0, 6, 2, 5, 1.
He seems to have worked through the home run issue that got him throughout May as he allowed 2 HR in three of his six outings. And as a flyball pitcher in that home ballpark, home runs will be a big key to his success for better or worse. I’m betting on better.
11. Matt Garza – Cherry-pick alert. Garza was brilliant through his first seven starts (2.58 ERA, 1.04 WHIP) before suffering through his worst two outings of the years during which he allowed 13 runs (12 earned) in eight innings thanks in large part to five home runs. Since then, he has been solid with a 3.72 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 36.3 innings. The kicker? Those two outings were against Houston and Pittsburgh, both on the road so you can’t blame the wind in Wrigley. Minute Maid can be prone to longballs, but PNC Park is a pitcher’s haven.
I know boiling it down to two starts seems simplistic, but he allowed five of his 12 home runs in that outing and he has been a 3.09 ERA, 1.09 WHIP pitcher outside of those outings. He basically had a bad week. A couple of rough outings can still skew the bottom line enough to distort how good someone has been as I mentioned with Gallardo and his St. Louis starts, and also Garza in these two starts.
12. Matt Moore – I know better than to jump on the hype train with unproven pitchers, but I still fell victim to it with Moore. His incredible stretch at the end of last year was a limited sample, but he was so good and those flawless mechanics are hypnotizing. As much as I bought in on him, I was at all surprised to see him stumble out of the gate because that’s just how it goes so often with inexperienced pitchers. That said, he is immensely talented and even while struggling he was showing positive signs. I firmly believed early on that he would get better as the season progressed.
So far that is how it has played out. He sprinkled a few good starts in during his first nine, but still finished the run with an ERA slightly north of 5.00 at an ugly 5.07 in 49.7 innings. He hadn’t completed seven innings to that point. He did so for the first time in his 10th start (the incredible Memorial Day showdown between he and Chris Sale) and has done so three other times since then, too. In those seven starts, he has a 3.18 ERA in 45.3 innings with 45 strikeouts and just 18 walks (compared to 27 in those first 49.7 innings).
Moore still has room for growth this year, specifically with the walk rate as a 3.6 BB/9 (his rate in the 45.3 IP sample) is hardly special. You aren’t going to see Moore discounted even a little bit in keeper leagues (which doesn’t deter me from buying), but the ERA north of 4.00 after 95 innings has very likely lowered his price (which was sky-high on draft day) in re-draft leagues and I’d be ready to take advantage of that.
13. James McDonald – I am not averse to buying high on guys when I believe they are for real and as the driver of the James McDonald Bandwagon, I obviously believe in him, but his inclusion is as much about letting fantasy managers know they don’t have to sell high for fear of a second half implosion. There were 16 pitchers with a sub-3.00 ERA last year and there are 21 in the 2012 group. There is no reason McDonald can’t be one of the 2012 group by season’s end.
For me, command and control were the missing ingredients for McDonald to reach his potential so it’s no surprise that chief among his improvements this year include a career-best 2.7 BB/9, down from 4.1 BB/9 a year ago. Meanwhile, his breaking stuff has been downright unhittable, especially his curveball. In the 73 plate appearances ending on a curveball, batters have a .096/.096/.192 line with 31 strikeouts. They haven’t fared much better against his slider: .143/.194/.222 with 29 strikeouts.
This isn’t smoke and mirrors. He has made some real improvements as a pitcher and should remain a quality asset for the remainder of the season.
14. Jonathon Niese – Niese is posting a career-high strikeout rate thus far at 8.6 K/9 aiding career-bests in ERA (3.55) and WHIP (1.27), too. The intriguing part is that he is some home run bad luck (19% HR/FB rate) away from an even lower ERA as we see from his 3.36 xFIP. Always a groundball pitcher, Niese has taken it to new heights the last two years at 52% and 51% the last two years (identical 1.8 GB/FB rates).
Niese is hovering around 50% availability at ESPN and Yahoo! and I just don’t get it. This lefty seems to be improving year over and year, plus at 25-years old, he has keeper potential, too. He is someone to invest in regardless of league type. By the way, I typed the Niese portion on Tuesday afternoon and then he went out and threw eight innings of 1-run ball against the Phillies. Not the stiffest competition, but that should cut into his availability at ESPN and Yahoo!, so act quickly.
15. Dan Haren – I know, you’re surprised that Haren wasn’t listed immediately after Hamels. I haven’t completely lost faith in my boy Haren, but I am at least a bit concerned. I know he was dealing with some back soreness early in May when he labored through a trio of starts that he would normally cut through with ease (6.61 ERA at Min, vs. Oak and at SD). He bounced back with a 1.29 ERA in his next three including outings against the Yankees and Rangers.
Since then he has just been bad (7.94 ERA in four starts) and while you can give him a break for going into Coors, that one was actually his best outing in terms of earned runs (4). He allowed five earned runs to the Dodgers which I believe accounted for 68% of their June runs. Through it all, he is still fanning more than last year (7.7 K/9) and maintaining an elite K/BB ratio (3.7) and I just can’t quit him.
His value may never be lower so now is the time to buy in if you’re a believer like me. I also typed Haren’s piece Tuesday afternoon and he went out and had yet another garbage outing further depressing his value. You may have to hold your nose while proposing a trade to acquire him, but I don’t think we’re at Tim Lincecum levels with him. The All-Star break will hopefully help him get right.
16. Jordan Zimmermann – I put some lofty expectations on Zimm heading into the 2012 season and he has essentially delivered. No one is complaining about a 2.77 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, but a meager 4-6 record and modest 6.0 K/9 have kept him from a truly special season. The former is hardly his fault as the Nats don’t have a great offense and have often scratched out wins late in the game. The latter seems to be more of a choice by Zimmermann.
He seems to be one of those guys who will go for the strikeouts when he needs them and take them when hitters are vulnerable, otherwise he is plenty happy to induce weak contact and conserve pitches through shorter at-bats. He has outings with 9,7, 6, 6, 6, 6 & 5 Ks all in seven or fewer innings. He also has a pair of 1 K outings during which he induced 16 and 14 groundballs, including his start in Colorado where keeping the ball down is paramount to succeeding (to wit he threw seven 1-run innings).
He is probably going to be a guy in the 6.0-6.5 K/9 range, which I can live with if he maintains a 50% or better groundball and sub-2.0 BB/9 rates to go with it. He essentially becomes a Cueto-type at that point. These kinds of guys have to be seen to get a better handle on their game because those who just look at the stats will be unsatisfied and automatically assume regression is coming since their ERAs have such big splits from their xFIPs.
17. Edwin Jackson – He was in the midst of a special first half before falling victim to Coors Field (8 ER in 3 IP). In his other 14 starts, he allowed more than three runs just twice. He continues to develop as a pitcher and get incrementally better. For the first time since his season in Detroit, he has a WHIP that doesn’t hurt you, in fact it is very helpful at 1.13. He has become a rather reliable asset since 2009 and at 28, there is still a bit of upside, too. That is exactly the kind of guy to invest in, especially since he never carries an exorbitant price tag.
18. Phil Hughes – Home runs are really the only thing keeping Hughes from a great season. He gave up at least one in each of his first 12 starts, snapped the streak for just a game and then gave up four to the Braves during a home run derby in Yankee Stadium with temps pushing up toward 100. He doesn’t get a reprieve just because of the park and weather, though, if for no other reason than the fact that he will have to deal with both all season long.
He has finally had back-to-back homer-less games and unsurprisingly he has managed 16 innings of 2-run ball with 12 strikeouts and just two walks. And both games were at home, so that is also encouraging. He came out of his May 1st start with a 7.46 ERA, but has a 3.34 ERA since despite that stretch including outings with seven and six earned runs. In other words, he has been great in his last 11 starts.
A heavy flyball pitcher with home run issues in that ballpark means there is probably a cap on how low his ERA can go (probably around 3.70 or so). To reach that mark for the season he would be around 3.00-3.10 the rest of the way, but even if he is just a 3.70 guy for the remainder of 2012, he still has plenty of value with his strikeouts (8.5 K/9) and heightened win potential as a Yankee (9 W already this year).
19. Gavin Floyd – Despite the best strikeout rate of his career (8.3 K/9) and a walk rate right in line with what we have come to expect from Floyd (2.7 BB/9), he has posted his worst ERA since 2007 (4.91). He just hasn’t been consistent this year. Every time he appears to get going, he flames out for a start or three. So why am I buying? Well, apart from the quality skills profile (which also includes a consistent groundball lean; 1.1 GB/FB this year), Floyd has also shown himself to be a better pitcher later in the season.
For his career, he has a 4.87 ERA, 6.8 K/9 and 2.0 K/BB in 620 first half innings and a 4.06 ERA, 7.4 K/9 and 3.1 K/BB in 435 second half innings. Half-season trends aren’t the most stable splits so I don’t trust them blindly, but Floyd’s skills are such that I would be buying anyway and his penchant for turning it up in the second half only adds to the desire to acquire him.
20. Doug Fister – One of the worries for the 2012 season was that the infield defense of the Tigers would heavily impact both Fister and Rick Porcello negatively as groundball pitchers. Unfortunately, that has played out as both have bloated .339 BABIPs with Fister allowing 10.7 H/9 and Porcello at 11.2 H/9. Still, I look at Fister’s peripherals and see someone who has to be better than his 4.61 ERA. He has a 7.6 K/9 and 3.8 K/BB in 54.7 innings, but the hits just pile up and lead to meltdown innings.
Anecdotally, the defense has extended approximately 53 of the 55 innings he has pitched in with poor defense giving the opposition a fourth, fifth or twelfth out. Rumors are swirling that the Tigers will look to address second base during the trade deadline and hopefully they look for a defense-first option. Jhonny Peralta has been fine at shortstop, not great and not awful (-0.1 UZR), but the corners have been as bad as feared with both Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder posting -3.6 and -3.9 UZRs.
UZRs aren’t terribly trustworthy in full year samples let alone three month samples, but as someone who has watched every Tigers game, those numbers feel pretty accurate. All that said, the defense was garbage during his first eight starts and he had a 2.72 ERA.
His start in Texas was the worst of his career and that can’t be laid at the feet of the defense and he followed that up with an outing that just went off the rails after three excellent innings. He was singled to death in fourth inning some of which was poor defense. Anyway, I’m rambling at this point. On the heels of two of the worst starts in his career, now is the time to buy. He will be fine with these skills.
21. Jarrod Parker – A hard-throwing super prospect with great stuff and a favorable home park is easy to get behind. Walks are an issue (4.4 BB/9), but he showed some improvement there from May to June (he only had six innings in April). I think they will remain his biggest issue this year, but that park can cover a lot of mistakes so the key to his success will be keeping his head afloat on the road which he has done with aplomb thus far including seven shutout innings in Coors Field.
He has given up more than two runs just twice this year (though both were 6 ER outings) leading to a 1.54 ERA in seven home starts. Both of the ugly outings are on the road, but he has still maintained a 3.74 on the road. At the very least, he is a worthy home-only spot starter for those of you in leagues where such roster management is possible (10/12 mixers, ideally with daily transactions). I also see him adding strikeouts as the season wears on, too.
22. Michael Fiers – Where the heck did this guy come from? At 27, Fiers feels like a journeyman, but he was drafted at 24 so it’s not like he has labored through the minors year after year. He raced through the minors with impressive numbers at each level, though his age kept him from being much of a prospect and likely had some discounting the performance.
He doesn’t have overly impressive stuff, either, which is another reason he wasn’t exactly a blue chip prospect for the Brewers. You can’t argue with the major league results, though. It has been a tiny 39-inning sample, but he is striking out 9.4 per game and walking just 1.8 leading to a 2.29 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. He has been a good bit below average with his HR/FB rate (4%), especially as a flyball pitcher so we can probably expect some regression there.
But the skills are rock solid and he should be usable across all formats even if he is more a 3.60ish ERA pitcher the rest of the way. He has shown to have strong command and control throughout his pro career and a deception in his delivery that keeps hitters guessing. Those elements do a lot to cover up a lack of raw stuff.
23. Brandon McCarthy – It’s not about skill with McCarthy, it’s all about health. And right now, his health simply cannot be relied upon. That makes him a worthy trade target though because it lowers the price. By the way, if for some reason it doesn’t lower the price in your league, then just move on. Love the pitcher, love the potential, hate the shoulder. I didn’t deep dive into the numbers here because there is no real need, they’re great and they will likely continue to be great when he is pitching. It’s just a matter of keeping him on the field consistently.
24. Joe Blanton – Maybe I’m just being sucked in by an NL-best 5.9 K/BB (OK, not maybe, I am), but I think Blanton’s best work is still ahead of him. He doesn’t walk anyone (1.3 BB/9, also an NL-best) and he misses plenty of bats with a 7.7 K/9. His 9.6% swinging strike rate is on a four year rise, too. On the downside, perhaps he is finding his pitches in the zone too often as his 19 home runs and 115 hits are also “lead” the NL. Of course, you don’t want to be leading those categories.
The control is there, he can miss bats and he limits walks, but in order to push these skills into better results, he needs to show some better command and put the ball where he wants it more often within the zone as opposed to where the hitters want it. He is a speculative play worthy of NL-only leagues or deeper mixed leagues. If you’re in dire need of WHIP with few options available to you, you could do worse than Blanton (1.25) especially since he brings some potential ERA upside along with him.
This will likely be it for the week on PaulSporer.com. I was going to split it up, but decided to give you all 5,000+ words at once. I may have something up for Friday, otherwise look for my stuff at BP and then back here next week.