Before we get to the third tier of NL starters, I will tell you that this set is filled with a lot of tweeners. Thursday’s fourth tier will be filled with guys I strongly considered for a spot here, but passed over, typically due to relatively poor strikeout numbers. Stephen Strasburg is one that isn’t likely to underperform this ranking, and I expect everyone on this tier to be right in this area, but if someone from four rises to replace someone that’s presently on three, it won’t shock me too much.
A reminder of the upper strata of this list:
and now, Tier Three:
Stephen Strasburg — $7
I could spend 2,000 words raving about Strasburg, but I’ll save you the time and just go with this: He has become the pitcher I’m most willing to drop everything to watch. His stuff is electric, the Nats are a team on the rise — provided they can keep their team healthier than they have in the past — and there isn’t much of a drawback anywhere in his game. So why is he on the third tier?
This isn’t some insult, the NL has talent to spare when it comes to pitching, and much of it is concentrated on high-exposure staffs. Strasburg’s weakness right now, and it could be gone by this time next year, is just a little bit of uncertainty. His MLB high for innings is 68, an inning fewer than Halladay threw in his first nine starts of the 2011 season. I’m not portending doom for him, but there’s just no way to know if we’ll start to see his stuff fade a little as fatigue hits or when that fatigue will hit. Throw in the fact that the Nationals have already indicated that they’ll be careful with Strasburg next year in much the same way they shut down Jordan Zimmermann early in 2011 and he has a little bit of a handicap when compared to Halladay, Lee, Lincecum, et al. Assuming he gets shut down around the same time Zimmermann did, Strasburg will essentially give owners the polar opposite of what he gave them this year: a strong regular season, but no help in the playoffs.
When the shackles are finally off and we’ve seen him throw a full, healthy year, I fully expect him to be tiered higher than this, but for now, I’m very comfortable with this position.
Matt Garza — $11
I will admit to being bullish on Garza, who I think was underrated this year in part because of his 10-10 record. I expected an improvement from Garza last season with his move away from the AL East, and we saw some of what I expected with the drop in his home run rate and the associated drop in his ERA, which actually fell less than I expected it might. His WHIP was at almost the exact same point it has been for the last four seasons despite a BABIP 30 points higher than in any of those four seasons. Some of that was bad luck, some of it was due to the Cubs’ poor defense, but I expect that rate to normalize next year and bring his WHIP down a little bit.
Garza induced groundballs at nearly a career-best rate, which is a trait that will serve him well in Wrigley Field if he can keep it up. Yes, this does give his defense more chances to fail him, but I suspect he can live with that if it means keeping the ball off of Waveland Ave.
His strikeout rate also rose by a huge amount, and while that doesn’t always translate year-to-year, Garza’s seems to be built on some repeatable pieces. His swinging-strike rate was well above league-average for the first time in his career and he allowed hitters to make contact at a career-low rate. Both rates would seem to be attached to the increased use and effectiveness of his slider. Garza had never thrown it for more than 19 percent of his pitches, but threw it 23 percent of the time in 2011, frequently in favor of his fastball, which he threw a career-low 53 percent of his pitches. While his slider has vacillated between being a weapon for Garza and a weapon that has been used to his detriment, it was very good in 2011, and he used it effectively.
While some of his swings-and-misses could be due to hitters being unfamiliar with him, I don’t think it was a big enough factor as to warrant tempered expectations for Garza. If his flyball rate creeps back up or his slider isn’t as good next year, however, those are legitimate causes for concern.
Tommy Hanson — $8
The numbers on Hanson are very good — 9.8 K/9, a WHIP below 1.2, and a decent ERA — but his motion scares the heck out of me. The shoulder injury that shut him down for the last few weeks of the 2011 season shouldn’t cause him further problems unless he picked up some mechanical change as he tried to make it back for the stretch run — which I highly doubt he did — but the way he whips his arm through on some of his offspeed pitches makes me twitch nervously. His numbers are too good to ignore, and not everyone with nontraditional mechanics goes down, which is why he’s ranked this high.
I wish I had a better sense of for how long his shoulder had been bothering him, because we saw his numbers trending in the wrong direction for a month before he actually went on the disabled list for the second time. In his last five starts of the season, Hanson allowed an OPS of .996 and a WHIP of 1.76. He struck out a solid number of hitters in those starts, but was clearly coming apart at the seams in retrospect. If that’s due to his shoulder inflammation, I’m less concerned, but if that’s a combination of a shoulder that wasn’t quite right and fatigue, then that’s a red flag to me. He showed in 2010 that he could take on a large number of innings, but if he starts wilting in the summer heat again next year, your best play might be to trade him and capitalize on his banked value.
Daniel Hudson — $14
So 2011 wasn’t quite the full-season version of his 11 starts in 2010 with the Diamondbacks when he posted a 1.69 ERA, a 0.84 WHIP, and a 7.9 K/9, but Hudson still formed a capable second starter behind Kennedy. His ERA, WHIP, and K/9 were all in the good-if-not-spectacular range and he grabbed 16 wins, which made him a contributor in pretty much every category.
What gives him this ranking is his age. On one hand, at just 24, he still has three years to hit his theoretical peak. I do expect him to continue to improve overall, but especially in his strikeouts. On the other hand, he saw his innings more than double from 2010 to 2011, which can be an omen for regression next season. I like his long term potential a lot, but there’s enough uncertainty with how he’ll handle that big jump that I feel god about ranking him here.
Adam Wainwright — $0
I’ve already covered Wainwright in some detail, but the Reader’s Digest version of it is this: I’m not terribly worried about his ability to come back. He was a top-shelf pitcher before his injury, and while I believe that he’ll continue to be a top-shelf pitcher after it, there is some risk involved. I’ll be interested to see how he pitches in camp and whether it takes him 2-3 starts in April to really get back into game shape.
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