That, of course, is only the first part of building your staff. The second part, which is the fun part in my opinion, is going on a starting-pitcher, bargain-bin shopping spree as the draft progresses. These under-the-radar guys are going to fill out your rotation. Realistically, not all of them are going to stick. But if you can hit on a couple, you've built a competitive staff at a discount price.
Since these guys go so late, they're also easy to target. If you go into your draft or auction with a list of six or seven cheap pitchers to grab, odds are you can get at least three or four of them. Here's the list of guys I'll be targeting to round out my staff (if you're in a league with me, this is where you stop reading).
Bud Norris, Astros -- My favorite sleeper this season. Forget about last year's high rates and focus on the strong K rate. Norris struck out 158 batters in 153.2 innings last year. The high rates were a product of not only his youth, but an unlucky .314 BABIP. He outpitched his ERA, evidenced by a 4.17 FIP, nearly a full run lower than his ERA. He keeps the ball in the park, allowing a shade over one homer per nine innings last year and posting a ground ball/fly ball ratio of 1.11, a necessary skill for survival in Minute Maid Park. On a team like Houston, the wins will be hard to come by, and he's never going to have a sterling WHIP due to command issues, but Norris' strikeout ability makes him one of the best return-on-investment guys out there.
Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals -- All the Stephen Strasburg hype muted the rise of Zimmermann. When targeting a pitcher this late, the first stats to look for are K/9 innings and K/BB ratio. He lost a lot of 2010 due to injury, but if we combine his stats from the previous two years, Zimmermann's 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings last year are nice, but look even nicer next to his 2.9 K/BB ratio. He'll be in Washington's rotation from the start of the season, has the top-prospect pedigree and plenty of room for growth entering his age 25 season. He gave up 2.3 homers per nine innings last year, but that could be a result of his return from injury, as that number more than doubled from '09. More than half of the balls put in play against Zimmermann are on the ground, so the home run rate should regress a bit this season.
Javier Vazquez, Marlins -- Two years ago as a member of the Braves, Vazquez was one of the most pleasant surprises in the majors. He put up Cy Young-worthy numbers, posting 238 strikeouts in 219.1 innings to go along with a 2.87 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. Unfortunately, he ended up back in the American League in '10, and you could see the disaster coming as clear on the first day of Spring Training as it was by the All-Star break. His K-rate plummeted (down to 6.9/9 innings from 9.8) and his walk rate soared (up to 3.7 from 1.8). His ERA jumped two-and-a-half points, and his WHIP was up nearly half a point. The most troubling stat was that his velocity dropped and he failed to throw 200 innings for the first time since '04, when he logged 198. Vazquez is dependent on a power fastball, but his average heater was down to 88.7 MPH in 2010 after being 91-plus in every year of his career. The end result was a ticket back to the National League East and a clearance price on draft day. Remember, Vazquez dominated this same division in '09. Keep an eye on him in spring training. If the velocity returns, so should his success.
Ian Kennedy, Diamondbacks -- When you draft Kennedy, you know you'll have to deal with wildness from time to time. I'm not too worried about that because he really seemed to put it together in '10's second half. Opposing hitters posted a .219/.292/.334 slash line against Kennedy in 14 starts after the All-Star break last year. In those starts, he racked up 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings and boosted his K/BB ratio to nearly 2.5. His BABIP was a likely unsustainable .256, but we have some minor league data that suggests he can consistently post low BABIPs. At this stage of the draft, I'm more than willing to bet the Kennedy of last year's second half is here at the start of the '11 season.
Daniel Hudson, Diamondbacks -- After coming over from the White Sox in the Edwin Jackson trade, Hudson absolutely shined for Arizona. In 13 starts after the break, Hudson held opposing hitters to a ridiculous .193 batting average with a .548 OPS. You read that right. Five-Freaking-Forty-Eight. Just for some context (not a suggestion Hudson can sustain that over a full season), Roy Halladay's OPS against last year was .645. Adam Wainwright's was .604. Felix Hernandez' was .585. In that same timeframe, Hudson struck out 3.3 batters for each one he walked. Entering his age 24 season, Hudson's breakout is right on the horizon.
Michael Pineda, Mariners -- There's a good chance Pineda starts the season in the minors, so your league rules will have to allow for drafting a minor leaguer and stashing him if you want to grab him in March. If you can, you should. The 22-year-old Pineda is just the type of guy who swings fantasy championships as a mid-summer call-up, along the lines of Tim Lincecum in '07. Elbow soreness limited him in '09, but he came back strong last year, striking out 154 batters in 139.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Pineda is a physical presence on the mound at 6-foot-5, and his fastball sits in the mid-90s to go along with a plus-slider and improving changeup. As long as you've got a roster spot you can use on a stash guy, Pineda should be your target.
Scott Baker, Twins -- "Hi. My name's Michael, and I'm a Scott Baker-aholic. I've been addicted since '08, when he struck out 7.4 batters per nine innings and posted great rates of a .345 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. I keep expecting him to take the leap, but it hasn't happened either of the last two years. Maybe I should quit Baker, but when the familiar feeling of spring rolls around, he inevitably ends up on my roster. Can you blame me? His velocity has improved each of the last three seasons, with his average fastball topping out at 91.4 MPH last year. He has always been an extreme fly ball pitcher, which doesn't necessarily play well when your corner outfielders are Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer, but he had the best ground ball to fly ball ratio of his career last season. Isn't it possible he was just unlucky last year when his ERA rose to 4.49 and his WHIP spiked at 1.34? I mean, he outpitched his ERA with a FIP of 3.96, and his BABIP was .323 while his line drive percentage remained steady. Isn't that BABIP going to regress to the mean this season? I think so. Thanks for listening. I look forward to the next meeting."
Follow Michael Beller on Twitter @MBeller.