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Johnny Cueto's move to the Kansas City Royals makes him a top-five fantasy pitcher for the rest of 2015. 

By Michael Beller
July 27, 2015

The first two major deals of the trade season took place last week, both involving pitchers who can swing the pennant race in the American League. First, the Astros acquired Scott Kazmir from the A’s, bringing the veteran lefty home to help in their quest to make the playoffs for the first time since joining the AL. That deal may have been overshadowed a few days later, but don’t sleep on what this does for the Astros. Kazmir is in the midst of potentially the best season of his career, posting a 2.24 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 104 strikeouts in 116 2/3 innings thus far. He shut down the Royals in his first start for the Astros, throwing seven shutout innings and earning his sixth win of the season.

It was those Royals who upstaged the Astros, a team they could very well meet in the playoffs, by acquiring Johnny Cueto over the weekend. The Royals sent three minor league pitchers, (most notably Brandon Finnegan, who pitched relief during the World Series last year), to Cincinnati to pull off what may go down as the biggest coup before this season’s trade deadline. 

While the Cueto trade undoubtedly makes the Royals better, it also greatly improves the teams of Cueto's fantasy owners. If the star right hander proved one thing during his time with the Reds, it’s that he doesn’t need ideal conditions to succeed on the mound. Year after year, Great American Ballpark ranks as one of the best hitters’ parks in the league. That didn’t seem to matter when Cueto was on the bump. In more than 600 career innings at Great American Ballpark, Cueto totaled a 2.91 ERA, 3.53 xFIP and 1.08 WHIP. In other words, Great American Ballpark was a hitters park as long as Cueto wasn’t pitching.

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Even the best pitchers will be better with help, though, and Cueto will have decidedly more of that in Kansas City. First of all, Kauffman Stadium is much softer on pitchers than Cueto’s old home in Cincinnati, especially ones that allow as many fly balls as Cueto does. The only park that boosts home run power more than Great American is Coors Field. Kauffman, meanwhile, is the eighth-stingiest home run park in the majors. On top of that, Cueto will now have one of the best defenses in the majors behind him every time he takes the ball.

According to Fangraphs, the Royals lead the league in ultimate zone rating and UZR/150, which normalizes for playing time. Fangraphs has its own overall defense rating, which combines defensive runs saved and UZR. Again, the Royals are tops in the league here. What’s striking, though, is how much of a gap there is between them and the second-place Rays. The Royals’ defensive rating is 43.1, while the Rays check in at 25.9. There’s the same gulf between the Royals and the Rays as there is from the Rays to the 11th-place team, the Diamondbacks. Even without Alex Gordon, the Royals’ outfield defense is arguably the best in the league.

Cueto didn’t need any more help to shut down opposing lineups, but that’s exactly what he got when he became a member of the Royals. That could very well be enough to make him a top-five fantasy pitcher for the rest of 2015.

Pitchers of the Week 

Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies: 9 IP, 1 W, 13 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.22 WHIP

If Hamels’s start against the Cubs over the weekend was indeed his last with the Phillies, he made it a memorable one. Hamels fired a no-hitter in the middle game of the Phillies’ sweep of the Cubs, striking out 13 batters and walking two. It was the first time the Cubs were no-hit in 50 years, a stretch covering 7,920 games. Hamels put on a show for one of the teams reportedly interested in acquiring his services, though there are a number of teams that have put in their due diligence on the lefty. The 31-year-old has the pedigree and playoff experience that every legitimate contender would love to add at this point of the season. He’s also under contract through 2018, which could make him more attractive than the recently-traded Johnny Cueto or David Price, both of whom will be free agents after this season.

Jacob deGrom, New York Mets: 13 2/3 IP, 1 W, 16 K, 1.32 ERA, 0.51 WHIP

The Mets bolstered their woeful offense by trading for Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe last week, but maybe what they really need is to figure out a way for deGrom to pitch every other game. The righty had another excellent week, first holding the Nationals to two runs on three hits in six innings, striking out eight and walking nary a batter. He followed that up with 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball against the Dodgers, fanning eight more batters while issuing two walks. What’s more, his RBI fielder’s choice in that game ended Zack Greinke’s scoreless innings streak at 45 2/3. There doesn't seem to be any sophomore slump for deGrom, who was named NL Rookie of the Year last year, and who has become a legitimate ace in his second season, compiling a 2.05 ERA, 2.95 xFIP, 0.88 WHIP and 128 strikeouts in 127 1/3 innings.

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers: 9 IP, 1 W, 11 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.33 WHIP

For the balance of Kershaw’s start against the Mets on Thursday, it looked like he had a date with destiny. He was perfect through six innings, and it seemed that the Mets had no hope of avoiding the record books. It was not to be, as Curtis Granderson broke up the perfect game with a single leading off the seventh inning, but that didn’t exactly derail Kershaw. He ultimately allowed all of three hits while striking out 11 batters in a complete game shutout. In his last three starts, Kershaw hasn’t allowed a run and has 38 strikeouts against zero—yes, zero—walks in 26 innings. On May 21, his ERA sat at 4.32. That’s down to 2.51, to go along with a 1.89 xFIP, 0.94 WHIP and 185 strikeouts in 140 innings. The National League isn’t short on Cy Young candidates this season, but if Kershaw keeps pitching this way it might be hard for the voters to deny him. 

Pitchers of the Weak

Ubaldo Jimenez, Baltimore Orioles: 2 1/3 IP, 3 K, 30.86 ERA, 4.71 WHIP 

The Yankees knocked around Jimenez last week, getting to him for seven runs on eight hits and three walks in just 2 1/3 innings. It was the second straight start in which Jimenez allowed seven runs while going fewer than five innings. His ERA has increased a full run as a result of the consecutive poor outings, jumping to 3.81 from 2.81. The Orioles are now seven games behind the Yankees in the AL East and 3.5 shy of the Twins for the second Wild Card. Jimenez has been a bright spot in the rotation all year, but they’ll be in serious trouble if he continues to pitch the way he has in his last two starts. He next takes the ball against the Braves on Tuesday. 

A.J. Burnett, Pittsburgh Pirates: 11 2/3 IP, 1 W, 10 K, 8.49 ERA, 1.97 WHIP

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It’s not often that a pitcher who gets a win makes this list, but Burnett didn’t exactly earn that win on his own merits. He did beat the Royals in his first start of the week, but he allowed six runs on 11 hits in six innings in that game. Thanks to the Pittsburgh offense giving him 10 runs of support, however, he came away with his eighth win of the season. Other than the win, he didn’t give his fantasy owners anything that helped. Burnett then surrendered five runs on 11 more hits in 5 2/3 innings against the Nationals on Saturday. It wasn’t a total loss since he racked up eight strikeouts, but that was a very thin silver lining for owners who have come to expect more from the veteran righty. His ERA is up to 2.68 while his WHIP has climbed to 1.29 after he allowed 23 baserunners in his last 11 2/3 frames. Burnett’s next scheduled start is Friday against the Reds.

Jason Hammel, Chicago Cubs: 8 2/3 IP, 7 K, 7.27 ERA, 1.96 WHIP

Hammel’s owners had to be dreaming of a monster week with starts against the Reds and Phillies on the slate. Instead, he went 0-1 didn’t make it into the sixth inning in either start, and ultimately got roughed up by the lowly Phillies. Hammel simply wasn’t sharp in Cincinnati, giving up five hits and walking three batters in five innings. He managed to escape allowing just one run, but it was clear from the outset that he didn’t have his good stuff. He was even worse against the Phillies, surrendering six runs on eight hits in 3 2/3 innings. The Phillies got right to him in the first scoring three runs, two of which came on a homer by Maikel Franco. Hammel hasn’t been nearly as good in his last nine outings as he was in the first 10, but he still has an impressive 3.20 ERA, 3.26 xFIP and 1.02 WHIP while striking out just shy of one batter per inning. His next scheduled start is Friday against the Brewers.

Buy, sell or hold

Buy: Ervin Santana, Minnesota Twins

Santana was dominant in his last start, tossing eight shutout innings while allowing just four hits and striking out seven against his former employer, the Angels. Since returning from suspension, Santana has made three great starts and one bad one. In the three positive outings, the veteran righty has allowed two runs on 12 hits and four walks in 23 2/3 innings, amassing 16 strikeouts. Even with a four-inning, six-run start against the Tigers on the ledger, he has a 2.60 ERA and 0.98 whip in 27 2/3 innings this year. Santana had an xFIP of 3.69 or better in each of the last two seasons, and is perfectly capable of pitching at that level for the remainder of 2015. He’s still widely available in fantasy leagues, and even in ones where he is owned he probably won’t cost too much in a trade. If you’re looking to shore up your rotation for the final seven weeks of the fantasy regular season, Santana is a cheap and effective way to do so.

Sell: Jeff Samardzija, Chicago White Sox

Over the last month, Samardzija has finally looked like the pitcher the White Sox thought they were getting when they traded for him during the offseason. In his last four starts, he as allowed a total of six runs while striking out 20 batters in 31 2/3 innings. That’s good for a 1.71 ERA, and also enough to catch the eye of a number of teams that are looking for rotation help before the trade deadline. That’s where things could get sticky for Samardzija. One team rumored to be very interested in him is the Blue Jays. The team with the longest active playoff drought is desperate for another starter, but may not want to pay what it would take to get Cole Hamels or David Price. The Rogers Centre is a tough place to pitch, and Samardzija’s fantasy stock would take a hit if he ends up a member of the Blue Jays by the end of the week. The Rangers and Yankees are also in the market for a pitcher, and neither of their home stadiums are exactly pitching havens, either. Combine the potential trade partners with the fact that Samardzija is pitching over his head at the moment, and he becomes prime fantasy trade bait. 

Hold: Drew Smyly, Tampa Bay Rays

Smyly made his first rehab start with Triple-A Durham as he continues his recovery from a shoulder injury. The results weren’t good—he allowed four runs on three hits in 2 1/3 innings—but he made it through the start in perfect health. Smyly will make two or three more rehab starts before getting back into the Tampa Bay rotation, but if all goes well he should be in the majors by mid-August. That’s great news for a pitcher who really looked to be putting together a breakout year, going back to the second half of last season after he was a centerpiece of the trade that landed David Price in Detroit. In 47 2/3 innings with the Rays last year, Smyly had a 1.70 ERA, 0.76 WHIP and 44 strikeouts. He seemed to be building on that this season, totaling a 2.70 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and 21 strikeouts in 16 2/3 innings before suffering the injury. If you have an available DL slot on your roster, Smyly is one of the best stashes you can make with an eye on the fantasy playoffs.

Prospect Watch

Jon Gray, Colorado Rockies

It has been a long time since the Rockies had a legitimate frontline starter at the top of their rotation. That fact was undoubtedly on the collective mind of the front office when it selected Gray with the third overall pick of the 2013 amateur draft. Many observers figured that Gray wouldn’t be there for the Rockies with the pitching-needy Astros and Cubs picking first and second. After the Astros grabbed Stanford pitcher Mark Appel, however, the Cubs zagged by going with Kris Bryant out of the University of San Diego. That left Gray available for the Rockies.

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The 23-year-old has suffered through growing pains in the minors, but that shouldn’t really come as a huge surprise. The transition is easy for a tiny group of players at the extreme upper bound of talent. Most players need some time to adjust in the minors before they can make it to The Show. That has been true for Gray, who put together a nice season at Double-A Tulsa last year, posting a 3.91 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 113 strikeouts in 124 1/3 innings. He began this season with Triple-A Albuquerque, and after a rough start, he has begun to turn things around of late. In Gray’s last five starts, he has a 3.24 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 25 innings. The Rockies are yet again out playoff contention heading into August, so they may want to see what they have in Gray. At this point, it would be a mild surprise if they didn’t call him up eventually to get his feet wet in the majors. If and when that happens, he’ll be immediately relevant in deeper re-draft mixed leagues. Those of you in shallow keeper leagues where he isn’t already on a roster should have him on your radar, as well. He could be a cheap impact pitcher for 2016.

GIF of the Week 

This space has typically been reserved for a GIF of a nasty breaking ball this year. With this being the final Pitching Report of the 2015 season, we thought it might be nice to give some love to an overpowering fastball. Of course, it helps when the batter is Bryce Harper. Gerrit Cole shutdown the Nationals over the weekend, striking out eight in 7 2/3 innings. One of those was Harper, who couldn’t lay off as Cole climbed the ladder with his heat.

Two-start pitchers

  1. Sonny Gray
  2. Jose Fernandez
  3. David Price
  4. Masahiro Tanaka
  5. Jordan Zimmermann
  6. Noah Syndergaard
  7. Lance Lynn
  8. Jeff Samardzija
  9. Collin McHugh
  10. Trevor Bauer
  11. Jaime Garcia
  12. Edinson Volquez
  13. James Shields
  14. Anibal Sanchez
  15. Chris Young
  16. Hisashi Iwakuma
  17. Chris Heston
  18. Kyle Hendricks
  19. Alex Wood
  20. C.J. Wilson
  21. Ubaldo Jimenez
  22. Mike Leake
  23. Julio Teheran
  24. Mike Montgomery
  25. Ivan Nova
  26. Robbie Ray
  27. Kevin Gausman
  28. Nate Karns
  29. Charlie Morton
  30. Jorge De La Rosa
  31. Joe Kelly
  32. John Danks
  33. Raisel Iglesias
  34. Wade Miley
  35. Cody Anderson
  36. Kyle Lohse
  37. Matt Harrison
  38. Mike Pelfrey
  39. Martin Perez
  40. Felix Doubront
  41. Adam Morgan