Coming off elbow surgery, is Matt Harvey too big a risk in fantasy?

Should Matt Harvey's Tommy John surgery scare you off in fantasy leagues, or is the ace worth a big investment?
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With fantasy baseball drafts on the horizon, Michael Beller will answer a series of burning questions leading up to the start of the MLB season.

More often than not, players returning from serious injury are the hardest to value. The fantasy community usually hasn't seen such a player in action for at least a year, and there's no telling what the injury and time off did to his ability. The nature of the injury and age of the player also come into account: An older pitcher coming back from an arm injury is very different than a young position player returning from an ankle issue. No two injury situations are exactly the same, and there really isn't a cookie-cutter approach for fantasy owners to use when evaluating players making their way back to the field.

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This calculation becomes even more challenging, not to mention important, when considering a star player. No matter how good a player is, if he's coming back from a serious injury, he's going to come at a discount from his previous value. If he can fully rebound and be his former self, however, that player will be among the most profitable in the game. If he doesn't, his owner will look back at a gamble gone awry.

All of that makes Matt Harvey one of the most intriguing players in fantasy leagues this season. In this entry of our 2015 Burning Questions series, we ask: Just how highly should owners value Harvey?

The last time we saw Harvey, he was busy dominating the league at 24 years old. Harvey made 26 starts in 2013, compiling a 2.27 ERA, 2.00 FIP, 0.93 WHIP and 191 strikeouts against 31 non-intentional walks in 178 1/3 innings. He finished fourth in Cy Young voting, one spot behind fellow young gun Jose Fernandez.

• ​POSITION PRIMERS: SP | RP | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | C

Those raw numbers, ridiculous as they are, don't even come close to telling Harvey's entire 2013 story. He racked up six double-digit strikeout games, tossed two complete-game shutouts and allowed two earned runs or fewer in 18 of his 26 outings. He also did stuff like this to some of the game's top hitters.

And this:

Oh, this too:

Before going under the knife to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, Harvey was one of the most electrifying pitchers in the game. Whether or not he can return to those heights is front and center in a lot of fantasy owners' minds.

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Harvey's average draft position in STATS NFBC leagues is 69.78, making him the 16th starting pitcher off the board in a typical draft. The three pitchers directly in front of him are Jon Lester, Cole Hamels and Jordan Zimmermann—excellent pitchers in their own right, but guys who would likely slot after Harvey had he never been injured. At the same time, it's not like Harvey is coming at some bargain-bin price, nor should he. The Mets' ace is still going to cost you a good amount, just not as much as he would if he didn't have a new ligament in his elbow.

Back to the question at hand: How exactly should owners value Harvey? Should they try to get him at his average price? Should they jump in even earlier? Or is it too great a risk, given all the other fish in the sea, as well as the associated opportunity cost?

The answer? Get Harvey.

All signs point to Harvey being 100 percent on Opening Day. He has hit every single rehab milestone in his path and will make his first Grapefruit League start on Friday. The Mets could end up limiting him to 160 or 170 innings this season, depending on how his elbow is holding up, but he only needed 178 1/3 frames in 2013 to be one of the best pitchers in baseball. If he is indeed all the way back, owners will get a monster return on investment, potentially one of the greatest in the league. Even if he only produces at 80 percent of his '13 level, he'll be worth his typical draft-day price. Rarely has there been so little downside investing in a player returning from Tommy John surgery, but, then again, rarely has there been a pitcher as good as Harvey was in his age-24 season.


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What's more, the nature of the pitcher position allows and behooves you to take exactly this type of risk. In the incredibly unlikely event of Harvey falling flat on his face this year, you'll have plenty of opportunity to offset his bust. The following pitchers were all late-round picks or waiver-wire additions last year who went on to be ranked in the top 25 at the position: Corey Kluber (fourth), Garrett Richards (15th), Jake Arrieta (16th), Doug Fister (17th), Collin McHugh (19th), Tanner Roark (20th), Matt Shoemaker (23rd), Tyson Ross (24th), and Alex Wood (25th). Fully 40 percent of the top-25 starting pitchers were deep picks in fantasy leagues last season. From that group of 10 to Phil Hughes, Jacob deGrom, Dallas Keuchel and many others, there is always a surprise pitcher to be had.

Starting pitchers are inherently risky. As we discussed in the draft strategies column, the one great advantage hitters have over pitchers for fantasy purposes is that their performance is far more bankable from year to year. Individual risk is less threatening at the pitching position, as there's a baseline risk involved with every pitcher in the league. It's a high-attrition position, both from an injury and skill standpoint. The greater the risk, the greater the payoff, and when everyone is forced to roll the dice at the position, you don't necessarily lose anything by embracing risk.

Of course, Harvey could make this entire discussion of risk and position depth moot by continuing on the trajectory he set for himself in 2013. He was already one of the best starters in the league, and the only thing that could slow him down was a serious injury. Now that he's back on the mound, he looks ready to pick up right where he left off. If he does, he'll be a member of a lot of fantasy championship teams this season.

BURNING QUESTION I: Is Miguel Cabrera still a first-round pick?
BURNING QUESTION II: Will Kemp and Braun live up to their price?
BURNING QUESTION III: Will Harper reach superstar status this year?
BURNING QUESTION IV: Worth it to draft the oft-injured Tulowitzki?
•​ BURNING QUESTION V: Coming off surgery, how big a risk is Harvey?
•​ BURNING QUESTION VI: Invest in Adam Jones's boring consistency?
•​ ​BURNING QUESTION VII: Could Strasburg emerge as No. 1 fantasy SP?
•​ BURNING QUESTION VIII: Will Alcantara emerge as a top-10 2B?