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2012 NL Starting Pitcher Keeper Rankings: Tier Four

As a reminder of something I said in the last column, these are guys who very easily could be part of tier three, in fact, if it makes you feel better, consider this less “Tier Four” and more “Tier Three (b)”. Because of the depth of pitching, I find it somewhat unlikely that I’ll be targeting many of the guys in the first two tiers, not because I don’t like them, but because I expect their costs to be high. You can build a staff out of this extended third tier for a much more reasonable cost and you aren’t likely to see a pronounced drop in quality.

A reminder of how we started this list.

Tier One:
Clayton Kershaw
Roy Halladay
Cliff Lee
Cole Hamels
Ian Kennedy

Tier Two:
Tim Lincecum
Matt Cain
Madison Bumgarner
Zack Greinke
Yovani Gallardo

Tier Three:
Stephen Strasburg
Matt Garza
Tommy Hanson
Daniel Hudson
Adam Wainwright

Und jetzt, on to tier four!

Jordan Zimmermann — $8

After watching Zimmermann’s return from Tommy John surgery, I was certain he was a player worth targeting for 2011. His ADP — 218.5 according to ESPN — made him a pretty low risk wager, and I doubt anyone who drafted him spent the season ruing the fact that they missed out on A.J. Burnett or Derek Lowe. Zimmermann was even better than expected, posting a 3.18 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP, and a 6.9 K/9. His 6-11 record didn’t help anyone who uses decisions as a category, but such is life for Nationals pitchers. His huge drawback last year was, of course, the fact that he was on a fairly strict innings limit, something that left a few owners high-and-dry last year as he threw his last pitch not long before playoffs started.

That limit won’t be a factor this year as the reins are off and the Nationals are expecting him to lead their rotation as they are still planning to keep Strasburg on a restricted plan. As much as it hurt owners last year, myself included, I think that innings cap will pay off this year. Yes, he still threw 70 more innings last year than he had previously, but he didn’t seem to exhaust himself and so I’m less concerned about fatigue getting to him early this year.

One thing I am concerned about is his shrinking strikeout rate. Before his surgery, Zimmermann struck out more than 9 hitters per 9, and immediately after his return to the majors, he was at 7.8 per 9. In his first real, full season, his K/9 dropped again, down to 6.9, which isn’t bad, but isn’t particularly compelling either. Now in his second full season, I don’t think it’s irrational to hope that he’ll settle down and rack up a few more strike outs, but there’s certainly no guarantee that will be the case. It bodes well that prior to his injury he had high strikeout numbers in the minors, but that may be a thing of the past.

One other thing to watch out for is his HR/FB rate. He’s a bit flyball prone, but just 6 percent of his flyballs left the park last year. If that rate gets close to league average, he’ll see an unwelcome rise in ERA. It’s not something that should keep you from drafting or keeping him, just something to watch out for in the early part of next season.

Brandon Beachy — $6

Atlanta has a lot of good, young pitchers in their system and while that’s never going to be a bad thing, it doesn’t always translate to having a good, young rotation. If you don’t believe me, ask a Cubs fan about Wood, Prior, and Clement. Having Beachy make the jump to the big leagues and still be effective is the first step towards making that great system into a dominant rotation.

The numbers for Beachy were good, 3.68 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP are always workable, but especially when they’re accompanied by a 10.7 K/9. At 25, there’s definitely some projectability left, though I think expecting him to induce swinging strikes on more than 12 percent of his pitches is a bit greedy. There’s every reason to believe that his long-term potential is good.

Looking specifically at next year, it’s worth noting something I’ve mentioned before, namely the huge innings increase he saw from 2010 to 2011, which can cause problems for some young pitchers the next season. Thankfully, assuming the rotation is healthy, the Braves don’t need Beachy to throw 200 innings next year and can afford to be careful with his arm if he’s showing signs of overuse. If the Braves’ rotation again struggles to stay healthy, however, Beachy could be pressed into a larger role.

Tim Hudson — $16

As much trouble as the Braves had keeping their pitching staff healthy this year, Hudson’s last two seasons are a credit to both his surgeon, the Braves’ rehab team, as well as the team’s Trainers. He has been a workhorse for them even in his mid-30s, and doesn’t show signs of slowing down yet.

As Jeff Zimmerman highlighted previously, a good part of Hudson’s success was due to an exceptionally high groundball rate, which helped keep his WHIP and ERA low despite a relatively low strikeout rate. No one will confuse him for Brad Penny, but neither so was he Kershaw, though he was better this year, striking out 6.6 per 9 as opposed to 2010 when he struck out just 5.5 per 9. Again, no one is confusing him for a high-strikeout arm, but every little bit helps.

I must admit that I have trouble getting excited about Hudson in a fantasy context; I feel much the same way about Chris Carpenter. Both guys are fantastic options in real life — something that has a tendency to inflate a pitcher’s value — and the types of fantasy pitchers who round out really good rosters, but who just don’t strikeout enough to be dominant options.

Chris Carpenter — $10

Like Hudson above, Carpenter’s upside is related more to his ERA, WHIP, and potential Wins than to his strikeouts, though he’s vastly superior to someone like teammate Kyle Lohse, who lives and dies by his BABIP.

I do wonder to what extent his postseason success will inflate his value come draft time. Veteran fantasy players are likely to be familiar with what Carp brings to the table, but newcomers may just remember that he was very good in the playoffs and assume he’s worth dropping a goodly amount of auction money on. As always, know your league-mates when outlining a strategy. Carp has the most name recognition of anyone in this tier, and, to be frank, probably the lowest upside.

Mat Latos — $11

The Dr. Latos/Mr. Hyde routine probably burned a number of owners who bailed on Latos after his rough first half, and who could blame them? Prior to the All-Star break, Latos had posted a 4.04 ERA, a 1.36 WHIP, and a .720 OPS against, but after the break, he looked much better with a 2.87 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, and a .582 OPS against. Some of that resurgence was due to a BABIP that went from .314 before the break to .258 after it, but it wasn’t a simple change of luck.

Latos’ strikeout numbers have remained solid whether he’s in a peak or trough at around 8.5 per 9, and he gets substantial benefit from his home park in his ERA, which means at worst he’s a valuable in two categories even if his WHIP is in the wrong phase. At 23, there is still plenty of growth potential and he’s past the point of needing to be wary of big innings increases — he threw just shy of 200 innings last year anyway, so there’s not too many innings left on the table.

Even though he has a season and a half of effective work behind him, Latos could be a steal in this year’s drafts. He was bad enough in the first half that even non-owners may have noticed that he wasn’t up to snuff. Add in the fact that San Diego was out of any and all races by the time he started his resurgence — which was really evident in September — and there’s a chance that he’ll come cheaper than his numbers warrant on draft day.

Josh Johnson — $1

As of June 15 of last year, almost exactly a month after Johnson went on the DL, the Marlins were expecting that he would return shortly after the All-Star break. Instead, setbacks in his rehab prevented Johnson from taking the mound again in 2011. He never had surgery on the shoulder, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Avoiding surgery and potential complications is always a good thing, which is why most teams opt for a rehab strategy rather than always jumping into the surgical path right away. On the other hand, we don’t have a definitive timetable for his return the way we do with someone like Wainwright.

Every report I’ve seen says that he will report to camp in February ready to rock and roll, which is good new, but you’ll forgive me if I’m just a bit wary. Because of the setbacks in his rehab, Johnson wasn’t really throwing until August and didn’t hit the mound until September. The winter gives him plenty of time to get ready for Spring Training, but I do consider him riskier than Wainwright. If you’ve hung on to him this long, now’s not the time to cut bait, but if you’re trying to figure out whether or not to draft him, don’t decide until he’s shown up in camp and actually thrown a few pitches.