March 11, 2009

I'll take Albert Pujols or David Wright before any pitcher, but as the draft rounds go by (or as money evaporates from the auction table), the importance of Stud Starting Pitchers ("SSPs") makes a difference. SSPs in fantasy baseball usually have three things in common: (1) they pitch for a good team (sorry, Jake Peavy); (2) they create copious amounts of strikeouts (sorry, Chien-Ming Wang); and (3) they have a proven track record (sorry, David Price). And more important to you, they're all gone by the eighth round.

My basic rule is to come out of the first three rounds with one SSP, and two after the sixth. You could conceivably have three by the sixth round, but that likely means you've hurt yourself offensively, and will be forced to trade an SSP by July. And conversely, if you don't take two by the sixth round, you'll spend your season trawling the waiver wire and opponents' lineups trying to upgrade your pitching staff.

So you've followed the Two-in-Six SSP rule. Now what? Unless you're following a variation of the "Two SSPs plus Two Closers plus Five Stud Middle Relievers" model to cheat your way to winning the ratios categories (see my "Men in the Middle" column for more specifics), you'll likely pick up two-to-four more starters. And while the two SSPs make you competitive, the next four starters you take will either make you a winner or an also ran.

Let's look at some of the possible hidden gems in the 10th round or lower who could make a difference for you. For each pitcher I've included their Average Draft Pick as reported by Mock Draft Central, which I translate into rounds by assuming a 12-team league. And if you haven't gone to and participated in a couple of mock drafts before conducting your real one, you're just not trying this year (and no, I hold no stock in the company).

Every year I'm high on Harden, but this year there are reasons for it. First, he plays for one of the top three teams in the NL and is in his walk year. Some people debunk the contract year hypothesis, but I'm not one of them. His overall 2008 numbers were good, but his Cubs numbers were incredible (5-1, 89 K in 71.0 IP, 1.77 ERA, 0.972 WHIP). His win total was kept low by bad luck, but luck tends to be transitory. Some sites will use his composite '08 numbers, ranking him lower than he deserves. The health factor is an appreciable risk, but seeing 25 starts last year was encouraging. If healthy, he's a top five Cy Young candidate.

While not an obscure name, he's a prime post-hype sleeper candidate for a team that may be the second best in the NL West. The Giants won't catch the Dodgers, but they will compete with the rest of the division. Their strong pitching (for all starters whose last names start with the letter "Y" or before, that is) will keep them in games, and they'll either win 3-2 or lose 2-1. But what's important for Johnson is he's healthy, motivated and pissed off at his former employer (think how he pitched for Houston after leaving Seattle). And with Tim Lincecum, he has the perfect object for his internal competitive fires to burn. Lincecum will be his Curt Schilling, with Randy forgetting about 300 wins and concentrating on 200 strikeouts. And if anyone can transition Jonathan Sanchez from a thrower to a pitcher, it's Johnson, so keep an eye on Sanchez as well.

I recently did a mock draft and picked Kyle Lohse in the later rounds. The person after me picked Carpenter. I can only guess my Lohse pick reminded him about the biggest late-round sleeper in the National League. Along with Harden and Johnson, Carpenter is a health risk, having started only four games in the past two seasons, but he's looked sharp this spring. He may not be ready to pick up where he left off in '06, but he could see 15 wins in 180 IP.

If you got Harden or Johnson you should shy away from adding to your injury risk by taking Carpenter. So instead, wait a couple more rounds and take a look at Lohse. He seemed washed up until he landed at Dave Duncan's doorstep. Duncan has resurrected more careers than Botox. And the great thing about pitchers who come to the Cardinals is that they give up fewer walks (compare the change in BB/9 for Lohse, Braden Looper, Joel Pineiro and Todd Wellemeyer). And in my best Yoda voice: walks lead to baserunners, baserunners lead to runs, runs ... lead to unemployment. So I buy Lohse's improved pitching, as should you.

This isn't your father's Pedro, but then again, who is? Word is St. Louis is looking at Pedro, and after his pitching against that powerhouse Netherlands team, others may also. You have to love the combination of a humbled Pedro with Dave Duncan. Watching him on the mound for the Dominican Republic, he had confidence and appeared to throw without pain. Give serious thought to using your last (or penultimate) pick on Pedro, who most will have forgotten about, unless they're watching the World Baseball Classic.

OK, so you took Verlander early last year and he killed you. You were out of contention by say, July, right? Or worse, you traded for him in May thinking you had stolen an ace that got off to a bad start. Either way, Verlander was terrible as an SP1, but OK as an SP5. The difference in his pitching was simple: comparing '08 to '07, he turned 20 strikeouts into 20 walks ('07: 201.7 IP, 183 K, 67 BB, 82 ER; '08: 201.0 IP, 163 K, 87 BB, 108 ER) in basically the same number of innings, which led to more runs (see Lohse discussion above). His control will come back for a Detroit team that Jim Leyland will ensure is better this year, but unfortunately like last year, beware the bullpen.

Even though I'm a big fan of the World Baseball Classic (yes, I'm the fan), you have to like Danks turning down Team USA to concentrate on pitching for the Sox. He's become a tougher pitcher, as his improvement against righties illustrates ('07 against RHB: .292 AVG, .350 OBP, .512 SLG; '08: .240/.295/.375). He also pitched better than his 12-9 record, going 1-0 in five June starts while only giving up seven ER (or about as many as Daniel Cabrera gives up per game). Along with Scott Baker, he's primed to be one of the two big breakout AL pitchers for '09.

When everything else around us is changing, the Twins are the one constant in our lives. They will have good pitching and defense and score just enough runs to be in shouting distance of the AL Central lead come September. Speaking of which, Baker went 3-0 with a 2.53 ERA last September and has been looking like an ace candidate for '09. Like all good Twins starters, he won't hurt your ratios and will likely end up on the healthy side of 14 wins. If he sees 200 IP, he could also give you 170 K. Francisco Liriano may still be the ace as he is likely to come back to form, but he's being taken too early in drafts for my tastes.

I'm trying not to overload this list with DL guys as every year we think they're all going to come back strong and only about half of them do. And yes, Bedard plays for what likely will be a bad team (I say the A's win that division over the Angels, and even Texas plays better baseball this season). However, Bedard is in a non-pressure situation in Seattle and appears to be past his injury. He is the perfect post-hype sleeper who could be the AL's Harden for a worse team (think 13 wins, not 20, but just as many K).

Smoltz is another pitcher that I tend to go gaga over, but he rarely lets me down. Sure he can see the end of his career coming over the horizon, but not yet. He won't be ready for the start of the season, but you have two choices: don't draft him and then be a day late and a dollar short picking him up off the waiver wire in May, or go ahead and stash him and fill the DL spot with someone else for a couple of months. And if his first start or two are awful, keep the faith as he has a tendency to do this.

Before I go let me clarify one thing: yes, David Price (TB) and Tommy Hanson (ATL) should be major contributors this year, but beware taking them earlier than rookies should be taken. Let someone else take the risk.

You May Like