Welcome, welcome, welcome back! I hope you all enjoyed your brief intermission. For those needing to be caught up, the Cafeholics here at the Fantasy Baseball Cafe have created a compilation of positional rankings, of which, we’ve successfully made our way through each and every offensive position. If you’ve missed any of the action, don’t be left in the dark and take a peek back at our archive (C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF)!
We turn our attention today to a different beast entirely. If ranking batters is checkers, ranking (scratch that, accurately ranking) starting pitchers is chess, Russian roulette, and Mahjong all rolled into one. With the parity that exists in the realm of starting pitchers from year to year, and with some, start to start (somewhere, Brandon Morrow just flinched), ranking them in March can be viewed as an exercise in futility. In compiling these, it was apparent that the views on different pitchers are vastly opposing, which is why you’ll see Mean and Median scores that vary widely in range. It was not my job, however, to be subjective, but to simply compile the data and present it, which is exactly what I’ve come to do. One last thing; in an attempt to not do a disservice to the lower ranked players in such a large and important player pool, I’ve elected to look at starters in two parts. Today, we look at the Top 50.
Natural Tier 1
How is it possible that a team that is widely considered to be pretty terrible, who is in financial crisis, has arguably both the best offensive player and pitcher in all of fantasy baseball? I can’t even wrap my mind around that. Kershaw was unanimously ranked No. 1 by our Cafeholics, and I can’t really blame them. From the day he was called up to the Big Show, he was expected to excel. He’s gradually improved over the last few seasons and grown into one of the most dominating pitchers in the game. The icing on the cake? He’s just shy of his 24th birthday. He’ll continue to have ample opportunity to beat up on the rest of the NL West teams, so there’s no reason to expect anything less from Clayton than a low-2 ERA, 200-plus Ks, and a WHIP scraping 1.00. Winning 20 games, who knows, but there’s no reason he won’t pitch well enough to if his teammates cooperate. If you can have any pitcher on your team this season, it’s Kershaw. And if you’re in a keeper league, forget about it. The gap only widens.
Natural Tier 2
Is this trio a tier of talent below Kershaw? No. Not by any measure. But as far as comfort of rankings, they’re just not sharing the same oxygen as young Clayton. That’s not to say any of these aren’t quite a comparable consolation prize, but if you wish to obtain any, it will cost you an early pick or a hefty chunk of change. Verlander harnessed some of the absolute filthiest stuff I’ve ever seen last season, but I’m not sure if that was his career year or if he just elevated his game to a level he can perform year in and year out. I’m comfortable with both Phillies over Verlander, because if I’m going to burn a second Round pick on a pitcher, I want to feel confident that he won’t regress or end up on the shelf (as if either of those are possible to be confident in).
Natural Tier 3
You’re still in the neighborhood of legit fantasy ace here, and really, a little beyond. Zack Greinke has huge expectations for 2012 after the peripherals he displayed in 2011, while I see 27-year old Tim Lincecum as the cream of this crop. With 250-K ability in his arm, he presents a level of dominating play that the others, good as they are, just don’t. Like the previously discussed Kershaw, he also has the benefit of pitching in the NL West, and should feast upon their offensive ineptness down the stretch (he did this against SD and LAD last season, but struggled with ARI). For the price and potential, Lincecum is the guy I want here, and the one I see as most likely to finish as a top-five SP in 2012.
The Phillies again possess three of the top ten-ranked starters in all of baseball. Stop and think about that for a minute. Not since the days of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz have we seen as deadly a trio. Hamels is a horse, and is a good bet for 30-plus starts and in the neighborhood of 200 Ks with excellent ratios. Don’t be fooled; just because he’s the No. 3 on his own team doesn’t mean he can’t be the No. 1 on yours.
Natural Tier 4
It’s a very strange dynamic that CC Sabathia finds himself in. Entrenched in the biggest market on Earth, he’s done nothing but perform, perform, perform. He does it against the toughest competition, in the toughest division to pitch in in baseball. And while his ERA and WHIP might suffer minutely because of this, he is still an unbelievable starting pitcher who can anchor your staff. He doesn’t offer the low to mid-2.00 ERA that some of the aforementioned names do, but he’s a 200 plus-K gunslinger whose ratios are always kept in check. If he’s the 10th pitcher off your draft board, chances are he’s going to be a great value for whoever snatches him up. And you know who could be a mirror image of Sabathia, performance-wise? You don’t have to look far; you don’t even have to leave the division. David Price, at the ripe old age of 26, is absolute filth. In this tier you’re weighing the probably ratio differential between a guy like Cain, who has a noticeable edge, with the 40 or so strikeouts that you’re leaving on the table by passing on a Sabathia or Price. Haren seems to be the happy medium between them all.
Natural Tier 5
This is the last tier I’d really consider “safe,” which again, is a relative term when it comes to SPs. Wilson and Latos both found new homes, and I anticipate them both excelling in their new digs. Lester should be alright if he lays off all the KFC and beer. The two sexiest names here for my money are phenom Stephen Strasburg, who has the ability to be a top-five pitcher or better, and young Madison Bumgarner. Strasburg’s ability to strike batters out is unbelievable, and if he remains healthy, even if he’s put on a strict innings limit, should be a fantasy monster (this would kill his H2H value, unfortunately, though). Bumgarner’s most memorable outing from 2011 for those outside the Bay Area may be the night he retired just one single batter, allowing nine hits and eight earned runs. The out he recorded was at least a strikeout. Bumgarner possesses all the tools to be the breakthrough pitcher of 2012, though. 200-plus Ks with peripherals in line with some of the bigger names already mentioned, he could be an absolute steal come draft day.
Natural Tier 6
This group is riddled with a potpourri of circumstance. Guys coming off career performances, breakout players, players coming off of injury — there’s not much this group doesn’t have. Both Wainwright and Johnson have shown Top 10 stuff, but it is uncertain how Wainwright will return from Tommy John surgery, a procedure Johnson himself had and rebounded successfully from four years ago. It may seem like a long time ago, but last season Johnson took a no hitter into the fifth inning in four of his first five starts. His season would be cut short just four starts later, so the gamble with him is really just that his shoulder will hold up, cause when he’s healthy he’s absolutely filthy. Tommy Hanson is rumored to have a fresh new delivery designed to keep him off the DL. Whether or not that is the case, and if said delivery is effective, is another thing. He’s a guy I’m just avoiding this year because I see him being a headache, but maybe that’s just me. As a “Big Game” James Shields owner last year, it was fun watching him just dominate all season, especially when he would shut down New York or Boston, but I’m skeptical that we’ll see a repeat performance in 2012. I think I’d rather gamble on the health of Wainwright or Johnson. Michael Pineda turned plenty of heads in Seattle last season. The Dominican native was part of the off-season’s biggest trade that sent heavy hitting mega-prospect Jesus Montero from the Yankees to Seattle for Pineda, which suddenly had the whole baseball world buzzing over whether or not his rookie success would translate to the big market and small ballpark in the Bronx. One thing I’m certain of is even if he regresses, the Yankee offense should provide him with better than the 9-10 record he carried with the M’s a season ago.
Natural Tier 7
This tier contains three of the big “man crush” names in many fantasy baseball circles for the 2012 season. Brandon Beachy, Matt Moore, and Corey Luebke have high expectations from many prognosticators, despite all three having small Major League sample sizes of performance. Each offer high-K upside but risk regarding whether they can harness their short-term success and carry it out over a 162-game season. There’s been an interesting Gio Gonzalez vs. Jordan Zimmermann debate going on now that they’ve landed on the same team together. Zimmermann was impressive last season, though some believe the move to the NL coupled with the higher K rate may make Gio the more valuable of the two this season, despite his proclivity to putting men on base. Ubaldo Jimenez is a bit of a Wild Card here. In 2010 he was dominant, throwing a high-90’s cutter and making bats flail and fan often. 2011 was a bit of a different story as he struggled early and often. Things only got worse after he was traded out of Colorado and into the American League and Cleveland. Some of his peripherals indicate Jimenez may have had some bad luck last season, but a move to the AL is rarely a good thing for a pitcher, especially one coming off as down a year as Ubaldo.
Natural Tier 8
The final tier in this Part 1 is where you really start drafting guys and hoping for the best. Most of these guys won’t be every time out starts, but they should be useful most of the time. Tim Hudson had an excellent 2011 campaign and has been one of the most consistent high level pitchers over the past half-decade, but he opens 2012 still sore from November back surgery and may not see live action until mid-May. Japanese import Yu Darvish crash lands in two-time defending American League Champions Texas, and anybody who is confident in how he’ll perform this season is simply lying. We’ve all seen what he’s capable of on YouTube, the World Baseball Classic, etc., but how that translates to a Major League schedule against Major League competition is unknown. Some feel he’ll hit the ground running and be a Top 20 pitcher right out of the gate, while others feel he’ll suffer growing pains that severely limit his upside for the 2012 season. Which it’ll be I honestly have no clue, which means chances are he won’t be on any of my teams this season.
Brandon Morrow continues to be the guy who defies sabermetrics, consistently under-performing in every single way what his peripherals indicate he should be doing. He’s been downright dreadful pitching out of the stretch and lacks consistency, blanking the Yankees one night and getting shelled by the Orioles the next, but at just 27 years old, this could be the year he pulls it all together and turns ace-like stuff into ace-like production. It’s interesting seeing Johnny Cueto struggle to crack the Top 50 after posting a 2.31 ERA and 1.09 WHIP a season ago, but a .249 BABIP can do that to a pitcher, and his 3.45 FIP and 3.90 xFIP are more indicative of what to expect out of Cueto this season. Couple that with a K/9 of just 6, and while he may be a little low being at the very bottom of this tier, this is the tier he belongs in.
And with that, we conclude Part 1 of our Cafeholic Rankings on starting pitchers. Fifty players down and fifty more to go in Part 2! Stay tuned!
Brendan Horton is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. You can catch up with Brendan in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of bigh0rt.
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