Johan Santana will drink your milkshake. He'll drink it up.
Ambitious, pernicious and delicious, the normally mild-mannered southpaw is a ruthless mound baron whenever his foot toes the rubber. His blazing mid-90s fastball, impeccable command and untouchable change mows down hitters as though they are obstacles in his pursuit of boundless riches.
The proof is in the numbers.
The multi-million dollar Met has averaged more wins (17) and strikeouts (239) than any other hurler in the game over the past three seasons. And his ERA (3.00) and WHIP (1.01) averages are superior to any pitcher that's compiled 160-plus innings since 2005.
It's undeniable. In fantasy terms, the Mets' cherished offseason acquisition is Daniel Plainview. And rest assured, New York will be his "Little Boston."
Of the 57 pitchers from 2000-2005 that have made the transition from the AL to the NL, their combined ERAs plummeted from a mark of 4.79 in their final junior circuit year to 3.94 in their first senior circuit season.
Based on these revealing numbers, it's highly likely Santana will trim significant fat off his career-worst 3.33 ERA (as a starter) from a season ago. Keep in mind, Shea did favor batters slightly more than the Metrodome in '07, but it's historically been a pitcher sanctuary.
Despite Santana's anticipated decline in ERA and WHIP and expected stratospheric K/9 totals, he, like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning in football drafts, is completely avoidable in the first round.
There are several hidden gems available after pick 100.
According to Matt Buser's always resourceful Splitsville column, winning teams in Y! public leagues averaged a total of 83 wins, 1,059 strikeouts and tallied ERA and WHIP stats of 3.39 and 1.19, respectively. Using these numbers as a statistical baseline, it's conceivable you could completely circumvent starting pitching in the first eight rounds of standard 12-team mixed league drafts.
Instead of chasing overpriced hurlers Santana, Jake Peavy and Erik Bedard, owners can construct staffs of quality No. 3s (e.g. Rich Hill, Chad Billingsley, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Francisco Liriano, James Shields, etc.) and still be very competitive in all four starter scoring categories. As Buser emphasizes, the margin of error in ERA and WHIP categories is relatively small, but by interlacing standout middle relievers (e.g. Heath Bell, Pat Neshek or Jonathan Broxton) into rotations, ballooned ERA and WHIP totals can be deflated.
Still not convinced?
Examine the numbers below. The first line is the aforementioned average winning total among Y! public league owners in 12-team mixed formats a season ago. Meanwhile, the second line notes numbers based on combined CHONE projections for bargain tossers Daisuke Matsuzaka (ADP: 98.3), Rich Hill (115.6), Matt Cain (130.1), Chad Billingsley (149.7), Tom Gorzelanny (223.8), Zack Greinke (250.7), B.J. Ryan (205.4), Brian Wilson (225.2) and Heath Bell (271.9).
Note: Because CHONE doesn't forecast wins, projected victories were taken from the "Bill James Handbook." Numbers in parentheses indicate projected categorical rankings based on last year's average totals in Y! public leagues.
Line 1 – Wins: 83, Ks: 1059, ERA: 3.39, WHIP: 1.19
Line 2 – Wins: 87 (1st), Ks: 908 (4th), ERA: 3.92 (7th), WHIP: 1.30 (6th)
Bottom line: you can afford to wait on starters. Assuming the offensive firepower you draft over the first eight-plus rounds can fend off the pesky injury imp and reach certain categorical benchmarks, it's not utterly moronic to punt upper-tiered pitchers in favor of early-round lumber.
Remember, in theory, your goal is to remain competitive in starter categories and let your offense be the bulk of your team's muscle. Sure, Santana will be an unmitigated force, but bypassing a Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder or Carl Crawford to acquire his services is not a particularly sensible decision.
Even fictitious oil tycoons would agree.
Here is a preview of the risers, fallers and baby crawlers on the mound this season:
|2008 Starting Pitchers: On the Rise|
|Lowdown: Provocative pictures of Hill encased in hearts still decorate the pages of my fantasy diary. In his first full season with the senior club, the 28-year-old southpaw showed significant growth. Plagued by long-balls in '06, Hill dramatically trimmed his FB% (flyball) from 51.6 to 42.9, generated more groundballs (GB% '06: 30.0, '07: 36.0), sliced his BB/9 from 3.5 to 2.9 and cut his HR/9 from 1.45 to 1.25. The remarkable lack of run support he received (3.65 RS/9, 57th in the NL) suppressed his win totals, but the addition of Kosuke Fukudome and improved pop of Geovany Soto should boost that number close to 15 in '08. Given Hill's knee-buckling 12-to-6 hammer and ability to throw off hitters with an effective 89-91 mph fastball, he could develop into a top-tiered No. 2 in mixed leagues if he can continue to refine his command. Pitchers capable of 200-plus strikeouts and serviceable ERA/WHIP numbers shouldn't be available after pick 100.|
|Fearless Forecast: 195 IP, 14 W, 3.79 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 190 K|
|Lowdown: Nicknamed "The Franchise," Tiny Tim could be just that for fantasy owners this season. In his first taste of the bigs, the diminutive fireballer was, as expected with any inexperienced arm, erratic at times. Occasionally he posted masterful performances like his May 17 tilt with the Astros (7 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 10:1 K:BB), while in other outings his untamable control bedeviled him. Lincecum's blinding 95-plus mph fastball, filthy curve and hard slider make him incredibly deceptive, but he must improve his control (4.00 BB/9) to be dominant. His ability to keep the ball in the park (0.74 HR/9) and generate ample groundballs (47.0 GB% in '07) are positive signs of his potential. If he can scissor his BB/9 under 3.00, he'll be a top ten starter this season. Because the Giants offense will likely be abominable, Lincecum's wins total may suffer, but abundant punchouts and superb ERA/WHIP totals are in the forecast.|
|Fearless Forecast: 170 IP, 10 W, 3.51 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 168 K|
|Lowdown: Despite consistently racking quality starts, Cain, much like Hill, was constantly dealt seven-deuce by his teammates last year. Among starters that accumulated 120-plus innings, Cain ranked 59th in the NL in run support. Because of his disgusting 7-16 record, many owners have been obtusely turned off by the 23-year-old former top prospect. His peripherals last season showed tremendous promise. His BB/9 dropped from 4.11 to 3.56, his GB% rose nearly four points from 35.6 to 39.4 and his HR/9 plummeted from 0.85 to 0.63. Although Cain's K/9 mark surprisingly dipped ('06: 8.45, '07: 7.34), there's a great deal to like about the Giants' Clydesdale. If he can continue to corral his control, a banner season is on the horizon. Equipped with a hard sinking mid-90s fastball, an effective curve and an elusive change, Cain has the stuff and mental make-up to be a top-flight fantasy No. 2. Go the extra mile to get him.|
|Fearless Forecast: 205 IP, 12 W, 3.49 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 185 K|
|Chad Billingsley||SP, RP||29||149.7||12.4|
|Lowdown: The 23-year-old flamethrower has the skills to pay 'da fantasy Bills. In 20 starts in Dodgers blue, the youngster from Defiance, Ohio won eight games and posted a libido-driving 3.38 ERA. Even more eye-popping, Billingsley's K/9 rose sharply from 5.90 in '06 to 8.61 last year. Although he shaved nearly 1.9 points off his BB/9 ('06: 5.8, '07: 3.9), his issues with free passes, and subsequent WHIP totals, are still somewhat disconcerting. Billingsley's devastating arsenal – mid-90s fastball, fantastic curve, strong slider – is All-Star caliber, but until his command improves some owners will be afraid of him. Don't be that incompetent. Billingsley's strong second-half last season coupled with the Dodgers beefed up lineup should rocket him up the ranks. Even more enticing, he's also eligible at RP in Y! leagues.|
|Fearless Forecast: 170 IP, 12 W, 3.80 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 159 K|
|Zack Greinke||SP, RP||56||250.7||20.8|
|Lowdown: Greinke, confounded by the burdensome effects of depression and social anxiety two seasons ago, has exorcised his psychological demons. The Royals' once treasured top prospect is on the verge of tapping into his projected top-of-the-rotation potential. Demoted to the bullpen in May last year, Greinke found his niche, reconstructed his confidence, sharpened his command (BB/9 '06: 4.26, '07: 2.66) and emerged as a strikeout machine. Shockingly, his fastball occasionally reached unforeseen heights, peaking at 99 mph. When Greinke returned to the rotation in August, he posted a sparkling 1.85 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 in 34 innings. His 45.5 FB% is unsettling, but only 24 years old, improvement should be expected. Because Greinke dons Royals blue many will avoid him in drafts, but the his lethal repertoire and renewed mound moxie are indications he's on the verge of busting out.|
|Fearless Forecast: 170 IP, 10 W, 3.96 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 147 K|
|2008 Starting Pitchers: On the Decline|
|Lowdown: When "sore" and "shoulder" are used in the same sentence about any pitcher, the end result is most often unfavorable. Escobar's continued shoulder inflammation, which curtailed his innings late last year, should be viewed with uneasiness. On Feb. 16 the L.A. Times reported that Escobar won't begin a rehabilitation program until at least mid-March, keeping him away from the Angels rotation until mid-May. His career-best 18 wins, sharp decline in HR/9 ('06: 0.81, '07: 0.51) and sustained strong GB% (44.0) from last year are commendable accomplishments, but he's now discounted damaged goods. When Escobar does return, don't be shocked if his 7.36 K/9 from last year deteriorates well below 7.00. If he slips past Round 18, obviously grab and stash him. Otherwise, let someone else roll the dice.|
|Fearless Forecast: 125 IP, 8 W, 3.91 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 95 K|
|Lowdown: First Chris Shelton, now Bonderman. Pasty white players seem to burn out quickly in Tigers white. Bonderman, the ultimate fantasy Jekyll and Hyde, posted two polar opposite halves last season. Practically immaculate in the first half, he notched nine wins, a 3.48 ERA and 98:24 K:BB in 106 innings. After the break, he was dreadfully revolting, totaling just two wins, a 7.38 ERA and 47:24 K:BB in 68.1 innings. His second-half nosedive was attributed to a sore elbow that Bonderman didn't disclose until August. The 25-year-old's severe downturn in K/9 and rise in HR/9 are worrisome, but after following a strict regimen of exercises geared to building forearm strength this past offseason, he's healthy and hungry. Outside of his elbow concerns, Bonderman was one of the unluckiest pitchers in the game last season, posting a BABIP of .329. Assuming the injury imp doesn't sink its teeth into his right arm, a return to No. 4 respectability is probable. But be cautiously optimistic.|
|Fearless Forecast: 177 IP, 13 W, 4.09 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 149 K|
|Lowdown: Sheets is the Eric Chavez of starting pitchers. For the third straight year, the injury-plagued hurler failed to reach 160 innings pitched. Bizarrely, none of the injuries he's suffered during that span have specifically afflicted his throwing arm. Instead he's been snake bitten by back, shoulder, finger and hamstring setbacks. The former Olympics gold medal winner failed to recapture the magic of 2004 even when healthy last year. His peripherals showed an ugly transformation. Sheets' K/9 ('06: 9.85, '07: 6.75) and GB% (40.4, 36.5) spiraled downward, while his BB/9 (0.93, 2.96) and FB% (40.4, 44.5) acutely increased. In his contract year, the 29-year-old enigma will need to stay immune from the injury imp if he has desires of purchasing an expensive yacht. Going in the mid-10th round in 12-team mixed league drafts, the upside is tantalizing, but there will be more trustworthy options (e.g. Hill, Cain and Francisco Liriano) available at that time.|
|Fearless Forecast: 165 IP, 12 W, 3.78 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 129 K|
|Lowdown: Penny is more overrated than Dodgers stalker Alyssa Milano's looks. On the surface, the 29-year-old's '07 campaign was unmistakably the best of his career, but underneath his misleading exterior there are plenty of peripheral numbers that raise suspicion. For starters, Penny's K/9 rates declined dramatically from a mark of 7.05 in '06 to 5.84 in '07. Meanwhile, his BB/9 tally increased sharply from 2.57 to 3.16. Although he saw terrific growth in GB% (43.5 to 48.7) and sliced nearly six points off his FB%, his damning K/9 and BB/9 splits creates a sense of apprehensiveness. Because Penny stranded an abnormally high number of runners last year, it seems highly unlikely his ERA will come anywhere close to 3.03 again. Since people are paying on a career year, his ADP is terribly inflated. Phil Hughes, Adam Wainwright and Jeff Francis are more attractive commodities who'll likely be available some 30-50 picks after the Dodgers downer.|
|Fearless Forecast: 195 IP, 13 W, 3.86 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 137 K|
|Lowdown: Not even the healing powers of the mullet gods could save the 44-year-ancient Johnson from the detrimental effects of Father Time. Although he was hampered for much of '07 by a herniated disc, the Big Unit proved he could still be lethal in small doses, compiling an 11.44 K/9, 3.81 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 56.2 innings pitched. More amazing, his .339 BABIP suggests his ERA could have flirted with 3.00 if he were not overcome with rotten luck. Bob Melvin remarked that Johnson "came out throwing bullets" in his first bullpen session of the spring, which is an excellent sign his body is responding positively to conditioning drills. Label him a medium risk, medium reward back-of-the-rotation dinosaur who could produce sensational strikeout totals.|
|Fearless Forecast: 130 IP, 8 W, 3.92 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 122 K|
|2008 Starting Pitchers: Prospects to Watch|
|Lowdown: With Curt Schilling's feet hovering above the fantasy grave, owners and SAWKS fans alike hope the buck stops with Clay. The latest in a long line of Texas flamethrowers, the 23-year-old gunner possesses an arsenal that could frighten any confident batter – mid-90s four-seamer, nasty slider, filthy 12-to-6 hammer and a plus change. Before being shut down in late September, the lusty rookie posted a sparkling 1.80 ERA in three big league starts, including the first Red Sox rookie no-hitter, tossed September 1 versus Baltimore. Prior to his brief stint with the senior club, Buchholz dominated Double and Triple-A hitters, notching an eye-popping 12.30 K/9 in 125.1 innings. Once he cuts down his walks (3.97 BB/9 in '07) and masters his command, he'll be one of fantasy's brightest stars. As for this year, occasional bumps are forecasted. Although he'll likely not exceed 170 innings, owners should count on him as a strong No. 4.|
|Fearless Forecast: 160 IP, 10 W, 4.01 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 148 K|
|Lowdown: Morales will soon be worth the mint in fantasy circles. The Venezuelan southpaw greatly impressed late last season, posting a respectable 3.43 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 5.45 K/9 in 39 innings with the Rocks. As with many underdeveloped pitchers, his command is still a work in progress, indicative of his 3.20 BB/9 last year. However, his ability to generate abundant groundballs (54.9 GB% in '07) and fearless attitude should shrink his developmental curve quickly. Morales possesses a vast array of hard-cutting pitches – a 92-94 mph fastball, two beguiling curves (one sweeping, one tight) and a plus-change. He'll need to make strides in his consistency and delivery, but his ability to keep the ball in the park (0.46 HR/9 in '07) is a major plus playing at Coors Field. His discordance will be frustrating at times, but the 22-year-old has the potential to be a Rock solid back-of-the-rotation contributor in deeper 12-team mixed leagues.|
|Fearless Forecast: 130 IP, 8 W, 4.17 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 101 K|
|Lowdown: The much ballyhooed Bailey's rocky debut is exactly why you don't invest lavish sums in premature pitching talent. In 45.1 innings last season, the Texas native's first taste of the Majors was forgettable, posting a 5.76 ERA and 1.57 WHIP. More disturbing, his 5.59 K/9 was identical to his BB/9 mark, a clear sign of gross inexperience. Despite his unexciting entrance, Bailey will eventually develop into a top-of-the-rotation star. His mid-90s fastball, nasty 12-to-6 hammer and high-80s cutter are above-average pitches. Once he refines his change and general approach, his appalling walk rate will plummet and spectacular numbers will follow. Barring a collapse this spring, he should break camp as the Reds fourth starter. Still, at a tender 21, don't expect miraculous strides, yet. At this point, he's worth a late-round flier in mixed league drafts and a $7-$10 bid in NL-only leagues. We can only pray Dusty Baker doesn't turn his arm into Jell-O.|
|Fearless Forecast: 145 IP, 9 W, 4.48 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 111 K|
|Lowdown: Billy Beane's desire to acquire Gonzalez was the tipping point in the Nick Swisher trade with the White Sox back in early January. Similar in style and substance as Rich Hill, the left-handed A's prospect possesses a devastating, downward-spiraling curveball, which he offsets effectively with low-90s heat. Scouts have remarked that his smooth, fundamentally natural delivery is effortless and impressive. However, G-squared's command is still relatively raw. In 150 innings last season with Double-A Charlotte, he posted a 3.42 BB/9. However, his 11.10 K/9 mark from last year points to his No. 3 fantasy upside. The 22-year-old future 'K' king will get a long look in spring training, but is expected to begin the year at Triple-A Sacramento. With one of the following boring options, Dana Eveland, Dallas Braden or Dan Meyer, expected to be the A's rotation caboose, the uber-talented Gonzalez will likely get an opportunity by midseason.|
|Fearless Forecast: 82 IP, 6 W, 4.06 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 85 K|
|Lowdown: Much like Cole Hamels two years ago, Price is the next man-crush fostering "it" pitcher. The No. 1 pick in last year's draft, the 22-year-old Vandy dandy is the ultimate combination of polish and power. In Commodores gold and black, the refined prospect posted a silly 13.1 K/9 and 2.33 ERA in 133 innings pitched last year. His deadly package of pitches is mouth-watering – 92-95 mph fastball with late life, biting high-80s slider and deceptive change. The youngster has already captivated observers this spring with his cerebral approach and dizzying velocity. Rays manager Joe Maddon commented on Feb. 20 that "it's not a stretch" that he could join the Rays rotation as early as midseason. Price is expected to start the season at Double-A, but if he thrives there, a big league promotion will be imminent. Price's electric arsenal and advanced mindset could turn him into a fantasy darling by September. He could be the best $2 spent in AL-only auctions.|
|Fearless Forecast: 58 IP, 4 W, 3.45 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 60 K|