Every year at this time fantasy baseball columnists write their keeper columns and tell you who is a keeper and who isn't. However, part of their calculus that's usually missing is what the player's contract for next year means in terms of where (or even if) they'll play. For starting pitchers this is important as the stats we normally use as categories -- wins, ERA and WHIP -- are team-dependent. If he's a sinkerballer, he needs a good defense behind him. If he's been the recipient of inflated wins because he plays for a strong team, his value will decrease if he's not re-signed. And if he's going to be a free agent (sorry, one more year in Toronto, Roy Halladay), where he goes is key.
So let's at least look at the probability that a player will or will not remain with their team in 2010 and what that could mean to their value next season. For each pitcher listed below, I've included their '10 contract salaries, also noting if a player is arbitration eligible (and which of the three years of eligibility he'll be in) or has not logged enough major league time to reach arbitration eligibility ("Pre-Arb"). If '10 is an option year ("Opt"), I've noted whether that option can be exercised by the player ("Pl"), the team ("Tm") or both ("Pl/Tm"), and the number following the option amount is the buyout amount. Free agents in '10 are noted as "FA".
Brandon Webb (Tm Opt $8.5M/$2.0 M)
The real question is whether the team picks up Webb's option, which will be decided by his health. If they do, but still trot out this same team, Webb and Haren may be the biggest waste of SP1/2 talent in either league. Scherzer is the true SP3 here, and is gold in NL-only leagues for his strikeouts. However, if the team doesn't improve, he may only be worth a late-round pickup in mixed leagues. The team will likely try to re-sign Davis, but he doesn't have much fantasy value.
Derek Lowe ($15.0 M)
Lowe's numbers got worse in the second half but his wins got better (thanks to Rafael Soriano). He's what you expect: an SP2 masquerading as an SP1. As long as you draft him accordingly, he's got some value. This team has three verifiable studs in Vazquez, Jurrjens and Hanson. Hudson is playing for his option right now and likely gets it, but I hate him pushing his arm so soon after his 12-month rehab ended. Considering his lack of strikeouts, he's not worth the fantasy risk next year unless he's still around when the SP4's are taken. If Hudson can contribute, their rotation is set and Kawakami would get packaged. Unless he goes to the Dodgers or Mets, his value will drop even more.
Carlos Zambrano ($18.875 M)
When I think bad contracts, I think Cubs. Both Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano will make more than Albert Pujols next season, Milton Bradley will get $10.33 M in '10, and Ryan Dempster will be paid $28 M over the next two seasons and has a $14 M player option waiting for him in '12. And if that's not enough, they're paying Jason Marquis almost a million dollars to pitch Colorado into the playoffs. Now that's a stimulus package! Lilly is the only true ace, and along with Wells, the only good deals for the Cubs. If the Cubs sign a free agent ace, Harden goes elsewhere. If not, they re-sign him. Zambrano is showing the effects of mileage and likely either sees another DL stint next year, or about the same numbers as this year, which isn't SP1 material. Gorzelanny is an intriguing fantasy pick for next year and should be drafted late.
Aaron Harang ($12.5 M)
This may be the most cost-effective rotation in the NL, especially when including Justin Lehr and Matt Maloney in the mix. However, it's not good enough to win the Central. Volquez will be out next year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and Harang has been hit hard. If the Reds are on top of things, they ship Arroyo out and make room for the youngsters. And as much as I like Owings, it's about time he takes a page from the Rick Ankiel story and play the field so he can hone his batting.
Aaron Cook ($9.833 M)
This is a good rotation for the Rockies and Coors Field, and if they re-sign Marquis, Francis will be trade bait (don't draft Francis either way). Jimenez may be the best deal for any team on this list and is a serious SP2 next year (and likely a year away from being a true SP1). The real wild card is Marquis, who could likely command $12-15 M per year on the open market (or $18.5 M from the Cubs - I kid because I care), but likely will be offered $10-12 M from the Rockies. He's a New York kid who grew up a Yankee fan, and both the Yankees and the Mets could make a play for him, likely looking at his success at Coors Field this season and thinking, "If he can make it there, he can make it anywhere." But the Red Sox, should go after him hard considering his numbers at Fenway. Considering he's pitching for his fourth club, perhaps staying with a strong Colorado team is his best bet.
Josh Johnson (Arb 2)
Yes, this is a cost-effective rotation. No, I don't like it. Of course Josh Johnson is a stud and should be drafted despite this team's obvious flaws (defense, bullpen), but the rest are over-hyped youngsters who are yet to accomplish anything. Nolasco, Sanchez, and Vandenhurk will have a great game or two, but they're aberrations. West was touted as a "must have" when he came on the scene, but that was only because those people missed out on JA Happ and Randy Wells. West is good, but isn't quite there yet. Volstad might have draft potential, but he has to cut down on the walks and homers.
Roy Oswalt ($15.0 M)
If I were a pitching coach or a front office person, the job I'd want in the NL for next year would be with the Astros. Their team is just 2 or 3 players away from being a playoff contender if they just make the right offseason moves. The rotation has the chance to be sneaky good with Rodriguez now the ace and Oswalt his SP2. If Moehler could realize he's a groundballer, and if the Astros could improve the defense behind him, he'd be a true SP3 rather than an innings eater. Hampton will be gone and riding the DL for some cheap team that likes risk (think Diamondbacks, Pirates, Padres, Mariners, A's). You shouldn't be that team in your fantasy league. Bazardo is likely not the answer, but Norris might be if he can keep the ball in the park. Oh, and Astros, don't go after Marquis as he's awful at Minute Maid Park, but bring back Randy Wolf, who'd be perfect (and I gave you that one for free).
Chad Billingsley (Arb 1)
If the Dodgers miss the playoffs, some fingers will be pointed at Billingsley, who has a WHIP big enough to tame lions. As a youngster he can work out of it, but he's no SP1. The team should make it a priority to re-sign Wolf, and then bring in a stud ace (or if they can't, get Marquis who has awesome numbers at Dodger Stadium and knows the NL West). That would make Wolf their lefty SP2 and Billingsley would have less pressure as an SP3. Kuroda would be the SP4 (if he can stay healthy) and perhaps they keep Padilla around to job share with Kuroda (but I have no faith in Padilla doing what he's doing right now). Kershaw would be the SP5, so the whole rotation would have MLB experience and would be a mix of firepower and finesse. Easy, right? Garland was a quick fix and likely won't be back, but his time in LA has shown what he can do with a good infield behind him. If he stays, he has value. If he goes and the IF is good, the same result. If he goes and the IF is bad, run away. I'm not sure if Schmidt's MLB career is over, but his fantasy one definitely is.
Jeff Suppan ($12,75 M)
If the Brewers wonder why they can't make the playoffs, they should start with a look at their rotation. They have no true SP1 or SP2 (Gallardo and Looper are marginal SP2's). Yes, Sheets wasn't on the Brewers this year, but I had to put him somewhere. He should be rehabbed from his flexor tendon surgery next season, and could be a factor for someone. Or not. He seems like a bargain basement find for a team that like to take those chances, meaning the same teams that will give Mike Hampton a look. Keep him in mind unless he goes to the AL.
Johan Santana ($21.0 M)
I could list about three other pitchers, but the Mets will be buyers for veteran arms this offseason (I see them making a serious run at Marquis and perhaps even Pedro Martinez again). While no pitcher may ever be worth $21 M, it refreshing to see a team with a true SP1 to build around. Imagine this rotation for the Mets: Santana, Marquis/Martinez, Maine, Garland, Nieve/Pelfrey/Redding (yes, I think this is the place for Garland -- if they replace Luis Castillo). If they could get their offense healthy again, they could be back in the playoffs.
Cliff Lee (Tm Opt $8.0 M/$1 M)
Lee has looked bad his last three starts, but they were against Houston, Atlanta and Washington, three teams that have no problems with lefties. He's still a strong SP1. If Hamels could right his ship and the team re-signs Martinez (which they should), then they could have a very strong Lee-Martinez-Hamels-Happ-Blanton rotation to carry them through the NL East next year. And as for Moyer, well, just because someone will pay him to play it doesn't mean he should take it. It's time to do the farewell tour and take a front office job.
Paul Maholm ($5.0 M)
This is the K-Mart of pitching rotations, with the team's highest paid players on the same salary level as the Cubs' bench (again with the Cubs). Nobody will be leaving this team, much to their disappointment, and don't expect this team to be much better next year unless the payroll doubles. That's a shame for Maholm, Ohlendorf and Dumatrait who could be getting JA Happ-type press if they played for a team with a defense, an offense and a bullpen.
Kevin Correia (Arb 3)
This team won't be much better next year. It's relegated itself to the bargain bin and has no true SP1. They may even be in more dire straits than Washington and Pittsburgh. Young, Latos and Richard should have value next year, but Young is becoming an injury liability and may become trade bait. This team won't win more games next year than it did this year, and there' no need to take their pitchers for anything more than a spot start with a favorable matchup (unfortunately, the Padres don't play themselves).
Tim Lincecum (Arb 1)
Now that's a rotation! I still think they are most deserving of the NL wild card with Atlanta close behind, but that might just be because I picked them second in the West back in march. Lincecum and Cain are money players, and even though Zito will never earn that contract, he's a good lefty for that team and an SP3 consideration for you. Johnson is too much of an injury problem, so he shouldn't be re-signed (and don't draft him even if he goes elsewhere). The question is whether to re-sign Penny, and the answer is a very loud "YES!" He has great numbers in San Francisco. If he stays, you should draft him as an SP3. If he goes, but stays in the NL, he's worth a pickup in a pitcher's park but not in a hitter's one. If he goes back to the AL, run screaming. Sanchez's numbers aren't too much different from Zito's except for the walks. More control and a few more ground balls and he's a potential SP2 (note the word "potential").
Adam Wainwright ($4.838 M)
This team's priority should be to re-sign Pineiro, to give them a strong 1-2-3 punch, and some insurance against the inevitable Carpenter DL stint. From Pineiro's point of view, he should adhere to the Jeff Weaver Doctrine: Leave Dave Duncan after he resurrects your career at your own peril. If they do re-sign him, he's worth an SP2/3 pick. Lohse is not a deal at that price but his start to the '09 season was so good that he has a chance to earn his pay. Smoltz probably doesn't have too much left in the tank, but if he can empty his passion bucket in this year's postseason, he should probably hang them up. Here's one team that won't be going after Marquis: they left him off the postseason roster when they won the World Series. Even though they gave him a full share, I can't imagine that wound has healed.
John Lannan (Pre-Arb)
Talk about cheaping out on pitching. And this is a team that is paying Wily Mo Pena $2.0 M to not play baseball (Hey, Mike Rizzo, I'd sit for half of that). Their best fantasy pitcher, Zimmerman, won't be back next year while he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. Lannan is likely the most reliable while Martis probably has the highest ceiling. In NL-only don't forget about Chico late. The Nats have no intention of holding onto Hernandez. He was simply an arm to throw so their bullpen didn't totally implode.
Thanks go to the "Cot's Baseball Contracts" Web site, which is an invaluable resource if you have salary or contract questions. Any errors in this column are mine, not theirs. See you next week.