Through an accounting error, my friend, while in college, was delivered two subscriptions of Playboy Magazine for free – for six years! I'd like to say the deals to be had for starting pitching in '07 fantasy drafts are on a level with my buddy's surprise good fortune but, frankly, I've never encountered a better deal in my life. That said, pitching is as seemingly plentiful this season as it's been at any point in my lifetime.
When looking at the position, consider this: rookies Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Chien-Ming Wang, Chuck James, Rich Hill, Scott Olsen, Jeremy Sowers and Chad Billingsley combined for an '06 post-break record of 66-32 with an ERA under 3.20. The supply of young, but helpful, hurlers seemed never-ending in '06, especially when you add in the sterling debut campaigns of Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver and Josh Johnson. Oh, and let's not forget the limitless, but yet to be fully tapped, potential of Felix Hernandez, the dominance of starter-turned closer (turned starter again) Jonathan Papelbon, the … well, you get the idea. There's plenty of pitching to be had, so don't empty your wallet early trying to acquire it on draft day.
Obviously, Johan Santana is head of the '07 class, and he was the top fantasy player last season according to most player rankers – he warrants a first-round pick. And Chris Carpenter's top-level consistency since joining the Cards makes him a viable second- or third-round value. But after those two, starting pitching is a mid-round or later proposition, with Jake Peavy, Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay Carlos Zambrano and Brandon Webb the only others worthy of reaching for inside the top 50-60 picks.
One could argue that foregoing starting pitching until after the top 100 picks are off the board is a reasonable plan of attack. Looking at ADP values, Mike Mussina, Jered Weaver, Bronson Arroyo, Curt Schilling and Chris Young all finished among the top 16 starters in the Yahoo! game last season and can currently be had outside the top 100 picks on draft day. And the tier table (right) shows many more promising arms that can be landed in the later rounds.
In addition, this year's rookie class, while maybe not as deep as the '06 crop, does offer up a handful of arms with potential impact – Homer Bailey, Tim Lincecum, Mike Pelfrey, Phillip Hughes and Matt Garza get top billing. For more on those future aces, the rising stocks and those falling like rocks, read on …
|2007 Starting Pitchers: On the Rise|
|Outlook: The NL's version of Jonathan Papelbon has followed a similar starter-reliever-starter path early in his career. Wainwright, last year's World Series star, made 135 minor league starts before sliding into the Cards bullpen in '06, culminating with a dominating run as the fill-in closer for Jason Isringhausen in the postseason (9 G, 9.2 IP, 7 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 15 K, 4 saves). The 25-year-old has carried over his success into the spring, where he started Grapefruit League play with 11.2 scoreless innings. Wainwright gets good movement on a low-to-mid 90s fastball and, as we saw last October, his curveball can render hitters dead on arrival. He also mixes in a nice change, and he's a good athlete, to boot. As St. Louis' No. 4 starter, he has the potential for 12-14 wins, an ERA in the upper 3s and 140-150 Ks if circumstance allows him to stick in the rotation.|
|Outlook: Like my ex-girlfriend, Bush is a control freak, as evidenced by his 4.37 K/BB ratio last season, fourth-best among qualified starters. He made a solid fantasy impact in WHIP (1.14), Wins (12) and Ks (166), but his ERA wallowed in the mid 4s because of his inability to pitch effectively outside of Miller Park – 3.53 ERA at home, 5.38 ERA on the road. Even with his road anomalies, Bush was still a top 21 starting pitcher in the Yahoo! game last season. If he only repeats his production from a year ago, the fact that more than 50 starters are being selected ahead of him on average in Yahoo! live drafts makes Bush a screamin' deal. But his peripheral numbers suggest that Bush may be even better in '07, especially if his road splits normalize.|
|Outlook: In fantasy baseball, a pitcher's K/9 rate is like a weightlifter's bench press max – it defines the power of the man. And in that regard, Olsen's got some pumped up muscles. He cleaned and jerked hitters to the tune of an 8.27 K/9 rate a year ago, ninth-best in the league among qualified starters. The lefty has had a tendency to be a wild thing, and his 75 free passes in '06 were topped by just 14 other starters. That said, he's only 22 years old, and batters have hit just .241 against him through his first 36 big league appearances. Like Bush, he's a guy that was much more valuable last year than his current ADP range suggests. Given his youth, improvement is expected, making Olsen a very nice upside play late in drafts.|
|Outlook: Crank up the Lynyrd Skynyrd and sing along … "Ooh, ooh, that Snell … Can't you smell that Snell ..." OK, so Pittsburgh's Snell doesn't have much in common with some drugged-out dude with the Angel of Darkness upon him, as the song suggests, but it's a catchy play on words to be used when you steal the Pirates pitcher in your fantasy draft. Snell used a mid-90s fastball and a biting slider to rack up 169 Ks and 14 wins last season. But his penchant for walking batters and giving up the long ball led to a bloated 4.74 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. His minor league numbers suggest that those ratios may be no more than major league growing pains, though. At 25 years of age, armed with confidence and a taste of what it takes to be successful on the big stage, Snell should be able to at least repeat his Win and K totals while taking a step forward in WHIP and ERA.|
|Outlook: Hensley is being ignored in the not-so-deep mixed league formats, but fantasy owners need to have this guy on their radar, if only as a spot starter-extraordinaire. Playing his home games at San Diego's pitching-friendly Petco Park, Hensley tallied eight wins and a 3.10 ERA in 14 home starts in '06. Using a fastball, sinker, slider, change-up combination, Hensley keeps the ball down in the strike zone – he allowed just 15 HRs in '06, a mark bested by just three qualified starters. In addition, the heady hurler showed an uptick in his K rate in the second half of last season – K/9 of 4.8 before the break, 7.1 after the break. With high marks for his make-up, and pitching in an ideal environment, Hensley is a worthy Mr. Irrelevant pick on draft day … oh, and it doesn't hurt that Zen-master Greg Maddux will be a rotation partner in '07.|
|2007 Starting Pitchers: On the Decline|
|Outlook: Don't get too worked up about Buehrle being in a contract year. Dollar motivation may not be able to rekindle the southpaw's fantasy game after he suffered through a career full-season worst campaign that included 12 Wins, a 4.99 ERA, 1.45 WHIP and just 98 Ks in 204 IP. Prior to '06, much was made about Buehrle's iron-man makeup that, up to that point, included five consecutive seasons of 32-plus starts and a stretch in which he pitched at least six innings in 49 straight appearances. That kind of workload is nice for major league managers, but when it comes with a career 5.2 K/9 rate and more hits allowed than innings pitched, fantasy managers would be better off turning their attention to someone else as opposed to banking on a rebound effort – for what it's worth, Buehrle opened Cactus League play by allowing 11 earned runs in his first nine innings pitched.|
|Outlook: Never in a million years would I have predicted Prior's rapid demise. After winning 18 games with 245 Ks and a 2.43 ERA in '03, Prior has gone 18-17 with a 4.27 ERA combined in the three seasons since, thanks to a myriad of injuries, including shoulder problems in '06. The jury is out on Prior this spring, as he tries to prove he's healthy once again. He was rocked in his spring debut as he struggled with pitch location and a fastball that barely reached the upper 80s. No doubt, there is talent buried in Prior's arm, just don't buy into it with anything more than a late-round flyer in deeper leagues.|
|Outlook: Let's hope that Barry Zito doesn't suffer the same decline that has befallen the other former members of Oakland's once-vaunted Big Three after leaving Oak-town. While Mark Mulder did achieve some success when he made the free agent jump to St. Louis before injuries took a bite, Hudson has really been no better than average from the moment he crossed the line into the National League. Like Buehrle, Hudson could simply be the victim of too many pitches too early in his career. After averaging almost 34 starts from '00-'03, Hudson suffered a sharp decline in his K rate and increase in his Opponent's BA in his final season in Oakland in '04. And despite the advantage of facing pitchers in the NL, Hudson's K rate and his oppoent's ability to stick him have remained problems in his two seasons in Atlanta. At this point, rather than banking on a sleeper performance from Hudson in '07, you'd be better off letting this sleeping dog lie.|
|Outlook: Since fanning 161 hitters in 179 innings in '04 (8.1 K/9), Lee has seen a sharp decline in his strikeout rate in the past two seasons – 5.78 K/9 last season. Lee is a fly-ball pitcher – his 320 fly balls in '07 led the league – so missing fewer bats does him no favors, as his 29 HRs allowed would indicate. He's also slated to start the season on the DL with an abdomen strain which will keep him out the first couple weeks of April. For a long, lanky type like Lee, an injury to the mid-section is an ominous way to kick things off in '07.|
|Outlook: Contreras had a 17-game win streak that stretched from the second half of '05 into the first half of '06, but after the All-Star game, the big Cuban went 4-9 with a 5.40 ERA. It would be easy enough to write off the poor second half last season to back and hamstring injuries, but Contreras is 35 years old and, with health and consistency never being virtues of his to begin with, the odds are long that he'll ever approach his promising '05 numbers again.|
|2007 Starting Pitchers: Top Prospects|
|Outlook: The two-time Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year was considered one of the most Major League-ready prospects coming out of the '06 amateur draft. Standing just 6-foot, 170 pounds, Lincecum uses a corkscrew, high leg-kick windup to generate near 100 mph gas. And his curveball rates among the best in the business. Lincecum has turned heads with his amazing stuff and unorthodox style in spring training, and if he can't crack the rotation out of camp, don't be surprised if the Giants use him out of the pen. A Papelbon-like move to the closer role to cover for the degenerating Armando Benitez would not be a shocking development.|
|Outlook: With his name, he couldn't be anything but a baseball player. Unfortunately, this player will likely start the year in the minors after getting roughed up early on in camp and all but taking himself out of competition for a rotation spot with the Reds. That's alright, though. Bailey can use some Triple-A time to hone his craft after laying waste to Double-A competition last year – 68 IP, 7-1, 1.59 ERA, 22 BB, 77 K at Chattanooga. As it stands, Kirk Saarloos (career 4.79 ERA) is the leading candidate to earn the Reds' No. 5 spot in the rotation, so there'll be a ripe opportunity for Bailey to bring his upper 90s heat and hammer curveball to the show before the All-Star break if he can acquit himself in Louisville.|
|Outlook: A power pitcher who is able to dial up high 90s heat, Garza was a combined 14-4 between three minor league stops and was leading the minors with 154 strikeouts before being called up by Minnesota last August. Inexperience and exhaustion likely explain Garza's 50-inning stint with the Twins that produced an ERA of 5.76 and an opponent's BA of .301. Garza entered spring training as a likely candidate for the '07 rotation, but a sore neck has impeded his progress and could lead to opening the year in Triple-A. Like Bailey, there'll be opportunity for Garza's power repertoire in Minnesota early on if he can find a groove.|
|Outlook: A consensus top 10 minor league prospect heading into '07, Hughes has amassed a 21-7 record with a 2.17 ERA and .181 Opponent's BA in three seasons in the Yankees system – he closed out '06 with a 10-3 record at Double-A Trenton. With a professional 5-to-1 K:BB mark, Hughes is nearly ready to cut his teeth in the Majors. He just needs to work on refining his off-speed stuff. Given the injury history of Carl Pavano and Andy Pettitte, as well as the unknown factor of Kei Igawa, Hughes is worth keeping on the fantasy radar – shoot, anyone who stands to get the kind of offensive support the Bronx Bombers offer is worth keeping tabs on.|
|Outlook: After a 21-inning cup of coffee with the Mets last season, Pelfrey hopes to earn the No. 5 spot in the Mets rotation when camp breaks. A solid Grapefruit League start has him squarely in the mix, but there's a good chance the Mets will let him open the year at Triple-A to further hone his breaking stuff, consider the one still-suspect aspect of his repertoire. Pelfrey has a dominating mid-90s fastball and already has a handle on a solid change-up. Those pitches helped the Wichita St. product to a 7-3 record, 2.43 ERA and 109-to-33 K/BB rate (96 IP) in his four-stop pro debut. Like Hughes, the possibility of landing in a Mets lineup with the support of Reyes, Beltran, Delgado and company has to pique the interest of fantasy owners.|