Bargain hunting for starting pitchers

Josh Beckett

All 2009 Fantasy Articles | 2009 Position Rankings

As someone who loyally subscribes to the “wait for pitching” strategy on draft day, I’m always on the lookout for value starters. Experience has shown me that there are plenty of nice starting pitching bargains in the middle and late rounds every year, and if I’m diligent enough, I can also add pitching via the waiver wire during the season. All of which allows me to load up on as much hitting as I can in the early rounds, understanding that the more offensive firepower I have on my roster, the easier it will be to trade for a top-line starter should I find myself in need of reinforcements for the stretch run.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I ignore pitching on draft day. Far from it. Those SP bargains I mentioned above are available each year, if you know what to look for. Sure, it’s nice to have a reliable horse like Johan Santana or Brandon Webb anchoring your pitching staff, but the cost of adding someone like that is usually a little too steep for my tastes. So instead, my goal is to take five to seven solid starters who can deliver quality ratios while racking up strikeouts. Ideally, I also look for guys who pitch for successful teams, hoping that will translate to wins for my team.

The guys I target tend to fall into one of four categories: Young Guns, Rebound Vets, Undervalued Arms and Late Steals. As I’ve admitted in previous posts, I’m a sucker for upside but that doesn’t mean I’ll fall for any promising youngster with a lively arm. I’m also a sucker for a good revival story so I’m always looking for veterans with a solid track record whose stock has fallen because of an off year, while guys in the undervalued category tend to fly under the radar despite their consistent production. Finally, I try to wrap up every draft with one or two late-round picks that could pay off big in the long run.

Below, I’ve listed several pitchers I’ve got my eye on in each of these four categories, using the Average Draft Position (ADP) from ESPN’s draft kit as a guide. I’ve included the ADP as well as the SP rank (SP13, for example) for each of the 16 starters below. These aren’t, of course, the only guys who would qualify in these categories, just the ones at the top of my list. If you’re thinking about stockpiling bats early in your draft, maybe they should be at the top of your list too.


Felix Hernandez, Mariners
ADP: 67.5, SP13

Felix HernandezI was tempted to go with Francisco Liriano, another enticing youngster with loads of upside, in this slot but ultimately sided with King Felix’s healthier track record. While a seventh-round pick isn’t exactly chump change for a guy who’s never won more than 14 games in a single season (he went 9-11 last year) and whose hype has far outweighed his production to this point in his career, don’t forget Felix will be just 22 on Opening Day. In fact, he’s two years younger than Tim Lincecum, but he’s made 47 more starts than San Fran’s ace and he’s going five rounds later than Lincecum in most drafts. Clearly, Lincecum has been more productive to date but Felix arguably has just as much raw talent and, if he can lower his walk rate, he could become a top-five starter as early as this year. If and when this kid finally breaks out, you’ll want to be onboard.

Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
ADP: 101.3, SP20

Gallardo was one of the most popular preseason sleeper picks last year, and after a knee injury limited him to just four starts in ’08, many are again anticipating a breakout season for the 23 year old. Gallardo put up superb numbers in the minors and, if he can stay healthy, he looks like a future ace with excellent strikeout potential and a potent offense behind him. He’s being drafted as a top-25 pitcher so the hype is considerable, but if you can handle the risk, the reward could be huge.

Edinson Volquez, Reds
ADP: 123.4, SP27
Johnny Cueto, Reds
ADP: 221.6, SP71

I like both of Cincinnati’s young power arms, but considering their respective ADP’s, I’d rather own Cueto this year. That’s not meant as a slight to Volquez, who won 17 games last season with a 3.21 ERA and 206 strikeouts after likely going undrafted in most leagues. The talent is undeniable but it also will come at a premium on draft day, whereas Cueto largely flew under the radar after earning some early raves during his rookie campaign. The 9-14 record and 4.81 ERA pale in comparison to Volquez’s sterling numbers, but don’t overlook Cueto’s solid 158-68 K/BB ratio (compared to his teammate’s 206-93 mark). If Cueto can cut down on the 29 homers he coughed up last year, he’ll easily outperform his draft position.

Max Scherzer, Diamondbacks
ADP: 162.7, SP39

I’m generally leery about starters with injury concerns, but Scherzer’s talent is simply too tantalizing to ignore. The 24-year-old righty was shut down in January after experiencing some shoulder soreness but all reports indicate that he’ll be ready to step in as the D-Backs’ fifth starter when the season starts. Scherzer failed to win any of his seven starts last year but his 3.05 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 66 strikeouts in 56 combined innings between the rotation and bullpen point to his immense potential. His ADP may seem a little high considering his limited track record, but the back end of your draft is the perfect time to roll the dice on a young talent like Scherzer.


Josh Beckett, Red Sox
ADP: 76.9, SP16

I’ve never been the biggest Josh Beckett fan, primarily due to his sketchy injury history, but after following up his Cy Young 2007 campaign with a largely disappointing performance last season, Beckett may well be the biggest potential SP value in the first half of your draft. Granted, an eighth-round pick is nothing to sneeze at but, at just 28, Beckett could easily deliver second- or third-round stats if he avoids the injury bug. While some would classify that as a big “if,” don’t forget that Beckett logged 200-plus innings in his first two seasons with Boston. There’s some risk here to be sure, but also a golden opportunity to buy low on one of the game’s elite starters.

Justin Verlander, Tigers
ADP: 154.4, SP38

Justin VerlanderWhere did that come from? The 26-year-old Verlander seemed primed to claim his spot among the top starters in all of baseball, but thanks to a drop in velocity and a bout of wildness, he instead sabotaged the title hopes of many fantasy owners with an 11-17 record and 4.84 ERA. Most concerning was that his strikeouts dropped by 20 (183 to 163) and his walks rose by 20 (67 to 87). But as with Beckett, this could be a prime chance to buy low on a young starter with a solid track record. Spring results have thus far been mixed and I’m certainly not suggesting you break the bank for Verlander, but as a fourth or even fifth starter, there’s a lot to like here.

Erik Bedard, Mariners
ADP 175.4, SP45

Of the four starters in this group, I’m the least confident about Bedard. He’s never crossed the 200-innings threshold, his K/BB ratio dipped from 3.88 to 1.95 last year, he has one complete game in 126 career starts, and he has a mediocre offense backing him up. Doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement, I know, but if the goal is to buy low and sell high, there’s never been a better time to invest in Bedard. There’s no guarantee that his should problems are behind him but he’s looked healthy so far this spring and, after signing a one-year deal with Seattle, he’s playing for his next contract. That’s music to any fantasy owner’s ears who hopes that an 18th-round investment can result in a repeat of Bedard’s 2007 performance (13-5, 3.16 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 221 K).

Aaron Harang, Reds
ADP 176.2, SP46

Harang makes for an interesting story. After three consecutive 200-inning, sub-4.00 ERA seasons that yielded 43 wins and a 597-159 K/BB ratio, he entered the 2008 campaign as one of fantasy’s most underrated starters. But a forearm injury contributed to a lost season for the 30-year-old righty as his numbers fell across the board en route to a 17-loss campaign. All of which means Harang is more undervalued than ever. His weak spring numbers are a bit concerning and some say all the innings he threw from 2005-07 are finally catching up to him, but there was no indication of any sort of decline in 2007. After posting a 3.07 ERA in six September starts last year, I like Harang’s chances for a rebound.

Javier Vazquez

Javier Vazquez, Braves
ADP: 149.5, SP35

Some (including former manager Ozzie Guillen) may argue that Vazquez is actually overrated, considering the 32-year-old right hander has posted an ERA above 4.40 in four of the last five seasons. It’s a valid criticism, but keep in mind that Vazquez also has averaged 197 strikeouts per year since 2005 and his WHIP is generally solid. He won’t anchor your staff, but a move to the National League and into a more pitcher-friendly home stadium should help Vazquez outperform his reasonable ADP.

Randy Johnson, Giants
ADP: 172.7, SP44

Speaking of moving to a better home park, Johnson should enjoy his new digs in San Fran after coughing up 16 of his 24 home runs at Arizona’s Chase Field in 2008. The lanky lefty’s ADP suggests that many owners didn’t notice just how effective Johnson was in his desert return, to the tune of 11 wins, 3.91 ERA, 1.24 and 173 strikeouts. He may be 45, but as his 2.41 second-half ERA suggests, the Big Unit clearly has plenty left in the tank.

Brett Myers, Phillies
ADP: 180.7, SP48

After getting shifted back to the rotation following the Brad Lidge acquisition, Myers was positively brutal in the first half last season, posting a 5.84 ERA through June that earned him a demotion to AAA. The 28 year old was much better upon his return, winning seven games to round out the season with an ERA of 3.06 and a WHIP of 1.17. The overall numbers (10-13, 4.55 ERA, 1.38 WHP) clearly are scaring owners who have forgotten that Myers was very good in 2005 and 2006 before the Phillies moved him into the closer’s role. He’s always been susceptible to the long ball, even during his best years as a starter, but when you’re looking to round out your rotation in the middle rounds or later, Myers’ track record and strikeout ability should plant him squarely on your radar.


Chris Young, Padres
ADP: 219.2, SP69

Chris YoungIn the “What have you done for me lately?” world of fantasy baseball, Chris Young is getting very little respect. Granted, we’re not talking about a staff ace but once the surefire starters are off the board, a guy with Young’s ability and track record should be an appealing option. Unfortunately, that track record includes several stints on the DL, which may be the only reason the 6-10 righty hasn’t officially broken out yet. He’s been good for nearly a strikeout per inning over the last three years and his spacious home park only adds to his value. The injuries are a legitimate concern but if Young gives you 30-plus starts (which he did from 2005-07), you’ll have yourself a huge bargain.

John Smoltz, Red Sox
ADP: 220.2, SP70

The obvious caveat with Smoltz is that you’ll need to be prepared to wait if you decide to take a flier on him. Reports as of this writing say he won’t be ready to take the mound for the Red Sox until late-May or into June. So let’s say he returns around the All Star break and goes on to give you 100 innings. Would you take that from a pitcher with a 3.26 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over his 13-year career? Yes, he’s 41 but he also was an extremely effective fantasy starter for the three years prior to last season’s shoulder injury. Draft Smoltz late, stash him on your DL for the first half of the season, and then smile as he solidifies your rotation down the stretch.

John Maine, Mets
ADP: 224.9, SP75

Maine plummeted from chic preseason pick to late-round afterthought thanks to his underwhelming performance last season. But here’s the thing: he wasn’t all that bad. He wasn’t all that good either, but that’s what makes him such an intriguing flier this year. After striking out 180 batters in 191 innings two years ago, he maintained a solid 7.84 K/9 ratio in 2008 despite battling a shoulder injury for much of the season. Fortunately, the injury wasn’t all that serious and Maine has been healthy (albeit a little rusty) so far this spring. As with most pitchers at this point of your draft, Maine won’t anchor your staff but, at just 27 years old and with serious strikeout potential, you won’t find many arms with as much upside in the 23rd round.

Kelvim Escobar, Angels
ADP: 260, SP97

Escobar just barely slides into the top 100 at his position, but he’s owned in just 1.8% of ESPN leagues. That will change if the talented 32 year old can stay healthy. Of course, that’s always been the kicker with Escobar, who’s logged more than 200 innings just once in his career, but his recovery from August shoulder surgery looks to be on track, with early estimates saying he could take the mound by May. His return won’t match Smoltz’s in terms of fantasy impact, but as a guy who won 18 games in 2007, hasn’t had an ERA above 3.93 since 2003, and is always good for a healthy number of strikeouts, he makes for an appealing DL stash to round out your draft.

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