March 18, 2009

Welcome back to another fantasy baseball season. In the off-season we saw the Yankees spend half a billion dollars on free agents, the best player (arguably) in baseball admit to taking steroids and the introduction of the greatest television channel ever created, MLB Network. As to the latter, I could watch Harold Reynolds and Hazel Mae all day (OK, just Ms. Mae). If you don't have it on your cable/satellite system, start making some calls.

To ease ourselves into the season, let's look at the National League rotations this week, and the American League ones the next. Keep in mind that most teams won't need their SP5 until the latter part of April, and may wait until then to name that pitcher.

SP1: Brandon WebbSP2: Dan HarenSP3: Doug DavisSP4: Jon GarlandSP5: Max ScherzerAlso: Yusmeiro Petit

Don't underestimate the impact of losing Orlando Hudson to the division-rival Dodgers. Webb's ERA with Hudson behind him in '08 was 2.93, but 4.24 after Hudson hit the DL. Think closer to 15 wins rather than 22 for Webb. The rotation goes from sinkerballer (Webb) to multi-pitch (Haren) to off-speed (Davis) to groundball (Garland) to flamethrower (Scherzer), which will keep teams off-balance. Some are mentioning Scherzer as a closer, but his highest and best use is as a starter, unless they can't keep him healthy. Take Scherzer later in the mid-rounds and enjoy the strikeouts.

SP1: Derek LoweSP2: Javier VazquezSP3: Kenshin KawakamiSP4: Jair JurrjensSP5: Tom GlavineAlso: Tommy Hanson

The improved rotation and a healthier bullpen should make the Braves more competitive, but they still have an embarrassing lack of power in the outfield. With Lowe and Vazquez, the Braves have two SP2's rather than an ace and second place. Take Vazquez over Lowe for the strikeouts and 13 wins. Kawakami is a wild card, but no matter how he does, expect a second-half fade from the long season. Hanson is the real deal, but without a job so far, don't take him before the 13th round in mixed leagues (but be aggressive in NL-only).

SP1: Carlos ZambranoSP2: Ryan DempsterSP3: Ted LillySP4: Rich HardenSP5: Sean MarshallAlso: Aaron Heilman

I was wrong about Lilly and Dempster last year. Dempster has shown the better understanding of pitching that comes with age, but I still maintain Lilly is always one bad night's sleep from a 10 ER/3 IP game. Don't forget Marshall, who, with Arizona's Scherzer and SF's Jonathan Sanchez, may be the strongest SP5 fantasy option in the NL. On just about any other team Heilman would start, but the Cubs' rotation is too strong.

SP1: Aaron HarangSP2: Edinson VolquezSP3: Bronson ArroyoSP4: Johnny CuetoSP5: Micah OwingsAlso: Homer Bailey

The front of Cincinnati's rotation is a gamble with an ace who hit the wall (Harang), a sophomore who had a dismal second half (Volquez), and a pitcher who killed your ERA with a single inning (Arroyo). The end of the rotation -- Cueto and Owings -- is better suited to succeed in. I'm betting on Owings getting that last slot, but the best rotation likely includes both Homer Bailey and Owings. Don't be afraid to take Cueto in the mid rounds and Owings or Bailey late.

SP1: Aaron CookSP2: Ubaldo JimenezSP3: Jason MarquisSP4: Jorge De La RosaSP5: Greg SmithAlso: Glendon Rusch

Cook has looked great this spring, but the rest of the rotation has been, well, rocky. What makes matters worse is the bullpen has been downgraded with the replacement of Brian Fuentes with Huston Street (Manuel Corpas likely closes) and the injury to Taylor Buchholz. The back end of the rotation looks awful, with Jason Hirsh still being mentioned despite being shelled in spring training.

SP1: Ricky NolascoSP2: Josh JohnsonSP3: Chris VolstadSP4: Anibal SanchezSP5: Andrew MillerAlso: Burke Badenhop

The top three in the Marlins' rotation will likely have fantasy value if the team can win as many games as last year. However, the offense is spotty, and if the injury to Matt Lindstrom is long-term, there could be problems in the bullpen as well. Avoid Sanchez, who is living off the reputation of his no-hitter and being a former Red Sox prospect. He was bad last year after coming back from surgery and will likely have control issues.

SP1: Roy OswaltSP2: Wandy RodriguezSP3: Brian MoehlerSP4: Mike HamptonSP5: Brian BackeAlso: Jose Capellan

Besides Oswalt -- who may be regretting that contract with the Astros -- the arms in the rotation are not worth pursuing. Sure, Rodriguez has shown flashes of competence, and the bullpen may be strong this year, but the team has huge holes around some good offensive parts and won't be competitive. Backe likely starts the year on the DL, which puts the SP5 spot up for grabs between Russ Ortiz and Capellan. Luckily Capellan has looked good this spring as it would have been tragic to give Ortiz a starting gig anywhere.

SP1: Chad BillingsleySP2: Hiroki KurodaSP3: Randy WolfSP4: Clayton KershawSP5: Eric StultsAlso: James McDonald

Pedro Martinez would likely thrive in L.A., so take him late (but not early) as he will pitch somewhere in '09. While we know Billingsley is a true SP1, it's Kershaw who has greatest value on this staff as the second-best NL SP4 behind Harden. Wolf is pitching with his head and could continue his good work from '08. Schmidt is out of the running for a regular rotation spot, which might be good news for either Stults or McDonald. Whomever gets the SP5 spot has decent value in NL-only leagues.

SP1: Jeff SuppanSP2: Yovani GallardoSP3: Manny ParraSP4: Dave BushSP5: Braden LooperAlso: Seth McClung

I distrust this bullpen, and it will be responsible for dragging the Brewers back down to the lower half of the N.L. Central. Having said that, the rotation is also unimpressive. The only starters that merit fantasy consideration are Gallardo and Parra. Take Gallardo as he may be one of the best strikeout values in the N.L., but avoid Parra as he likely finds a way onto the DL during the season. I have McClung penciled in as the next in line for a starting job, but he has looked awful this spring.

SP1: Johan SantanaSP2: John MaineSP3: Oliver PerezSP4: Mike PelfreySP5: Livan HernandezAlso: Jonathon Niese

Santana is usually gone by the middle of the second round of mixed drafts. While Santana's win total should be higher with a better bullpen supporting him, keep in mind his ERA was low for his WHIP last year, and those ratios would have made him great, but not stellar. Perez changed his delivery last year, but looked only slightly better after the All Star break. He had three months with an ERA over 5.00 and never had more than two wins in a month. Expect mediocre ratios and wonderful strikeouts, but a few more wins this year. Tim Redding has been shut down indefinitely. No need to draft him.

SP1: Cole HamelsSP2: Brett MyersSP3: Jamie MoyerSP4: Joe BlantonSP5: Chan Ho ParkAlso: J.A. Happ

Hamels felt a twinge, but doesn't he always? He did throw 261.1 innings last year, including the playoffs, and doesn't have the muscle-bound body to absorb that much wear. This is not his first elbow issue, so don't take Hamels in the first three rounds. However, if he slips to the fifth (unlikely but possible), take the chance on him. Kendrick has been awful and should be off your depth chart (perhaps this year they really do send him to Japan). Park is doing his usual trick of being tantalizingly good in March. While I like his groundouts, his WHIP has been sizable the past eight years. Come talk to me in July about him. J.A. Happ may be the beneficiary of a Hamels' injury and has looked good so far.

SP1: Paul MaholmSP2: Ian SnellSP3: Zach DukeSP4: Russ Ohlendorf SP5: Jeff KarstensAlso: Tom Gorzelanny

Maholm had a breakout season in '08, and looks primed to pick up where he left off. Where did he leave off? Good ratios, decent strikeouts but only nine wins in 31 starts. That sounds about right for a team mired in the bottom of the N.L. Central. Ohlendorf is getting favorable reviews out of camp, and there are some skills. However, if the SP1 is capped at nine or 10 wins, what chance does the SP4 have? Gorzelanny worked hard in the offseason to tone up his body to rebound from his awful '08. Looking at his spring training numbers, it may be time to hit the Twinkies again (the snack food, not the team in Minnesota). He'll be doing so in the minors, as the Pirates sent him down to the farm Wednesday. Karstens may take Gorzelanny's spot, but we've seen his ceiling already.

SP1: Adam Wainwright SP2: Chris CarpenterSP3: Kyle LohseSP4: Todd WellemeyerSP5: Joel PineiroAlso: Mitchell Boggs

This staff is set in stone, but injuries are always a concern. Wainwright has looked shaky in spring training, but being assured of a spot means he can work on certain pitches. Don't be concerned. Carpenter appears to be almost back to form. He has missed a lot of bats, but his control numbers aren't quite there yet. As you may know from my preseason column I'm high on Lohse. I just need to enter a league where I can draft him before others take him. I know we're talking starters, but draft Jason Motte late and thank me later.

SP1: Jake Peavy SP2: Chris YoungSP3: Cha Seung BaekSP4: Kevin CorreiaSP5: Josh GeerAlso: Matt Leblanc

The last time Peavy pitched in a World Baseball Classic he had an awful MLB season. Factor in the Padres' fight to achieve 70 wins, and the top of the rotation won't be worth their draft spots and the back end won't be worth taking. Most are expecting a Young renaissance after coming back from an injury-plagued '08. While I respect his determination for returning from that awful comebacker, he still pitches like he intermittently loses control over his body. Expect middling to bad ratios. The rest of the rotation has no business on a mixed league team, but some value in NL-only.

SP1: Tim LincecumSP2: Matt CainSP3: Randy JohnsonSP4: Barry ZitoSP5: Jonathan SanchezAlso: Noah Lowry

Lincecum, Cain, Johnson and Sanchez will be strikeout kings, and the team will create just enough offense to win half their games. Realistically, Johnson will have to work hard to hit 150 IP (he already has a hurt arm this spring), but that still means 120-plus strikeouts and 10 wins. Lincecum is young enough to absorb his increased innings, but beware if he does it three years in a row with that slight body. If you're looking for real value, Sanchez will be a better pitcher after time under Obi-Unit Johnson's tutelage. Don't expect a dead cat bounce from Zito, whose numbers trend in the wrong direction. Lowry is experiencing arm pain, but that doesn't affect you.

SP1: John LannanSP2: Scott OlsenSP3: Daniel CabreraSP4: Barry ZitoSP5: Jordan ZimmermannAlso: Collin Ballester

I want to like these pitchers, but there won't be many wins to be had. However, there are three names you should know. First is Lannan, whose numbers are headed in the right direction and as Washington's SP1, could be a good SP3/4 for you. Second is Cabrera, whom you should never draft under any circumstances, even if he starts the year looking strong. Third is Zimmermann, who has been the surprise of spring training and could be the cheapest source of strikeouts in the NL. Take him in NL-only and monitor him in mixed.

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