It’s finally done! After 27,776 words, the 11 part epic on starting pitchers is complete. Below is final piece that covers the upper echelon, the cream of the crop, the aces. Here are the other 10 parts and I hope you’ve enjoyed the series.
Echelon 1 – Aces
15. Josh Johnson, 26, Florida Marlins – Johnson finally got a full season of play under his belt and he did not disappoint. He improved significantly upon the skills he had shown in his previous 272 innings spread across four years since 2005. The results were a 15-5 record with a 3.23 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 8.2 K/9 and 3.3 K/BB. Don’t think that his presence on a small market team will leave him under the radar. He is toting a 71 ADP, good for 13th among starting pitchers. At 26, there’s reason to believe there is actually another level of improvement left in Johnson’s game, but even a carbon copy of 2009 would easily be enough to lead your staff in 2010. One potential concern is the 122 inning spike from ’08 to ’09, but I wouldn’t dismiss based on that as there is no solid evidence that a spike automatically yields a dip in performance. If you have an equally excellent starter in mind with Johnson and that pitcher doesn’t have the spike, then maybe you let it be the deciding factor.
14. Tommy Hanson, 23, Atlanta Braves – His rookie season couldn’t have possibly went better if you scripted it. Well maybe in the script he wouldn’t have been completely jipped out of the Rookie of the Year Award that he most certainly deserved ahead of Chris Coghlan. And yet he finished behind Coghlan AND J.A. Happ. Sweet brains, voters. At any rate, Hanson met the lofty expectations set upon him and dominated the league to the tune of a 2.89 ERA with a 2.5 K/BB rate in 128 innings. There is no doubt more to come from the former Top 5 prospect, too. His ERA was a bit fortunate last year, but his strikeout and walk rates could very improve with a year under his belt and offset any correction forthcoming and lead to another sub-3.00 ERA. I wouldn’t bet on the sub-3.00 ERA, rather I’d look for something around 3.30-3.50, but don’t be surprised if he tops a 3.0 K/BB and throws up another absurd season across the board.
13. Adam Wainwright, 28, St. Louis Cardinals – I have been a huge fan of Wainwright’s since for three years now. I really liked him coming into the 2007 season after watching his nasty stuff shut down my Tigers at the end of games in the 2006 World Series. I have continued to drive the Wainwright Bandwagon and last year was the biggest payoff yet with a Cy Young-worthy season that yielded 19 wins, a 2.63 ERA and a career-best 8.2 K/9 rate. He flat out ridiculous in the second half with a 1.97 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 119 innings as every facet of his game improved down the stretch. He built up to this point with small steps each year since 2007 and now 2010 will be a “do it again” season where he will be asked to show that his elite status is for real. There is nothing within his profile to suggest he won’t be able to meet that challenge. He is also a great example of how sometimes it takes even the highly touted prospects a while to develop. He was a 4-time Top 100 Baseball America prospect from 2001 to 2004, but he didn’t even get going in the majors as a starter until 2007. Now, he’s an ace-level frontline starter for one of the best teams in baseball.
12. Jon Lester, 26, Boston Red Sox – There was really only one improvement from 2008 to 2009 for Lester. Of course, it was massive as he raised his K/9 from 6.5 to an eye-popping 10.0. Oddly enough, it didn’t yield any improvement in his ERA (3.21 in ‘08, 3.41 last year), but adding 73 strikeouts absolutely raised his fantasy value. A guy with this kind of incredible stuff on a team like the Red Sox is pure gold. They have a tremendous defense as well as a very supportive offense which should put him in line to win more often than not. There’s no reason to believe a spike in K rate would be fluky and as such Lester moved into the bona fide ace list for 2010. Bid with confidence.
11. Cole Hamels, 26, Philadelphia Phillies – Hamels had identical skills from 2008 to 2009 yet his ERA rose from 3.09 to 4.32 thanks to an overcorrection on his fortunate hit rate from 2008. Everyone seems content to blame the ERA jump on the high workload from 2008 that included a World Series run, but I really don’t think that was it. His skills didn’t depreciate at all; in fact he actually trimmed his walk rate slightly leading a jump in K/BB. The beauty of his 2009 “struggles” is that he is now a tremendous value for 2010. His 98 ADP has him sitting as the 20th SP off the board. He has Top 5 skills and I would have put him higher if it weren’t for the amazing depth at the top. There are just so many quality arms this year that there are really clusters of like pitchers more than ever, especially in these final two echelons. Hamels is a huge value in 2010, but don’t let him sit too long or else someone will snap him up before you can.
10. Wandy Rodriguez, 31, Houston Astros – What exactly does Wandy have to do to get some legitimate credit for his work? He has improved his K/BB rate every year since 2005 and his ERA every year since 2006 and his HR/9 has improved or stayed flat each year since 2005 yet he is still the 28th SP off the board with a 126 ADP. I realize he plays for a garbage team so it’s hard to see much win potential, but if that’s how you pick your starting pitchers then you should find a different game because that’s a fool errand to be sure. He may not have the name recognition or the high profile team, but Rodriguez is most certainly among the elite starting pitchers in baseball with a skillset that continues to improve and could see yet another uptick in 2010. Enjoy the huge profit he turns as he gets passed over by your entire league several times over.
9. Johan Santana, 31, New York Mets – He hasn’t posted the elite K/9 rate for two years settling in at 7.9 after six years between 9.2 and 11.4, but you’d think he was at 4.2 K/9 the way some talk about him. Last year was a tough year for him including missed time to injury, but he is said to be 100% healthy for 2010 and that means another Johan-esque season. He posted a league-best 2.53 ERA with the 7.9 K/9 two years ago so even though your bottom line isn’t getting 235+ strikeouts, he can still log 200 with a sub-3.00 ERA and double-digit wins. His WHIP trend hasn’t been promising having gone up yearly since 2004, but even with that he has only topped out at 1.21 which is still Top 15 among starting pitchers. Another reason I still really like Santana is that he has at least one more insane season in his arm and the downside of investing in him in hopes of being the benefactor of that season is very slight. I wouldn’t be happy if he only pitched 167 innings like he did last year, but if that’s a bad season then I’m investing in him every chance I get.
8. Justin Verlander, 27, Detroit Tigers – I wonder how many times a pitcher has gone from leading the league in losses one year to leading the league in wins the very next. But that is exactly what Verlander did as his 2009 picked up where 2007 left off. The biggest improvement in Verlander’s game was mental, at least as far as I could tell. He labored through April (6.75), but was pitching pretty well below the surface (10.9 K/9, 3.8 K/BB) so instead of letting the ERA get to him and imploding his whole season, he handled the adversity with maturity and he was virtually unhittable for the remainder of the season. There is some concern about his high pitch count games and his batters faced total, but I think it could be a bit overblown. Yes there were several pitch counts into 100s, but he wasn’t struggling through those starts or pitching tired, his arm wasn’t being slagged. He was still throwing fluidly and bringing it at 97-100 MPH. Pitch counts and innings totals on their own mean little, it’s the state of the pitcher as they get higher that matters. I’m not just being a homer, either. I watched every one of his games during the season and watched them again on MLB.tv this offseason so I stand behind the analysis. Overall, he only threw 39 more innings than in 2008 and he’s no longer in the age range that is most at risk for high inning counts year after year.
7. Josh Beckett, 30, Boston Red Sox – Is Beckett actually so good that he has become a boring pick at age 30!? It’s really hard to believe he has a 5.01 ERA season on his resume when you consider that his K/BB has never been below 2.1 and sits at 3.1 for his career. This is as consistent a profile as you can find for a starting pitcher and I am actually surprised that he is the 15th SP off the board, especially on such a high profile team like the Red Sox. He’s got a sub-3.00 ERA season lurking in there somewhere, it could be 2010.
6. Dan Haren, 29, Arizona Diamondbacks – Everyone knows that Haren’s seasons are often a tale of two halves where his ERA seems to rise year after year once the All-Star Break hits. But let’s not confuse that fade with some kind of skills implosion where you should instantly deal him in June. His ERA split was 2.19/4.09 from the first half to the second, but he had equal 7-5 records, still notched 110 strikeouts in 114 innings and his WHIP was still a very solid 1.20. Trying to trade Haren around the All-Star Break is probably a stupid idea when it comes right down to it because anyone with a brain knows about his second half “swoons” and you probably won’t get enough value to merit trading an ace starter. So instead of trying to outsmart yourself, just hang onto Haren and get ready for a fourth straight brilliant season of mid-teens wins, sub-3.50 ERA, 200+ Ks and 1.20 or better WHIP.
5. Zack Greinke, 26, Kansas City Royals – It was really nice to see the Cy Young voters actually get it right for once and make sure the American League’s best pitcher got the award even though he only had 16 wins. Greinke absolutely deserved the award with an amazing season that included a mind-numbing 9.5 K/9 rate. In fact, his K/9 has risen yearly since 2005 and while it might have peaked in 2009, no one is complaining with a better than one per inning rate. Greinke’s ERA can and probably will move up a full run in 2010 and he will still be an unquestioned ace, that’s just how good he was in 2009. Don’t worry about trying to guess how many wins he will get with the Royals and just draft him for his dazzling skillset.
4. C.C. Sabathia, 29, New York Yankees – There isn’t a lot left to be said about Sabathia. He is as consistent as they come having logged fewer than 193 innings just twice in his career and those were seasons of 188 and 180 innings, respectively. His 3.37 ERA last year was the highest mark in four years and he hasn’t had a WHIP higher than 1.17 in the same span. He’s a perennial Cy Young candidate with plenty left in the tank and he deserves every bit of his Top 5 ranking. The ridiculous offense behind him does set him up to potentially garner more wins than the average starter, but his ability to go deep into games has always put him in position for the decision so adding the league’s best offense only makes things better.
3. Tim Lincecum, 26, San Francisco Giants – This is pretty blasphemous to some I presume, huh? I’m not down on Lincecum just because I put him here; I just think there is a pair of guys who could top him in 2010. I think he will be truly remarkably yet again, but the other two will be their league’s Cy Young winners. With a pair of seasons like the two Lincecum has had, I can see why some are tempted to take him in the first round of their draft. It’s not something I would ever do, with him or the other two guys yet to be listed, but I can understand it. The fact that he got better from 2008 to 2009 is just sickening. Some skeptics are still predicting a breakdown in the near future, but I don’t see him as any more susceptible than every other pitcher. His ERA might tick above 3.00 this year, but he is still a mortal lock for at least 240 strikeouts.
2. Felix Hernandez, 24, Seattle Mariners – How is he only 24 years old?? Last year he finally put it all together for the world class season everyone had been expecting for a few years now. As young as he is, there is no reason to believe he won’t continue to improve, too. He’s got the best profile for continued growth, too: power/groundballer. A 2009 carbon copy would not surprise me, nor would improvement upon last year’s elite season. He’s going 5th among starting pitchers in the latest ADP, but I would only take one guy ahead of him…
1. Roy Halladay, 33, Philadelphia Phillies – Matthew Berry of ESPN put in his bold predictions column that Halladay could win 25 games this year and I couldn’t agree more. He doesn’t strikeout as many as Tim Lincecum or even Felix Hernandez, but he had back-to- back ERAs of 2.78 and 2.79 in the American League East. Re-read that last part again. His walk rate has been above 1.9 once in the last seven years and his WHIP has been above 1.19 just twice in the last nine years (1.24, 1.35). In other words, he is the game’s best pitcher and now he moves into an easier division in the much easier league. He may begin challenging Lincecum and Hernandez in strikeouts with the cozier environment. And he can definitely challenge the 25-win mark that Berry floated out there for him. If you want to venture out and grab a starting pitcher early, make it Halladay.