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2012 NL Starting Pitching Keeper Rankings: Tier One

Being tasked with ranking the NL starting pitchers is a mixed blessing.

On one hand, there’s so much talent here, I don’t have to worry about having to recommend someone like Derek Lowe as a tier three pitcher, which is nice, since Lowe really isn’t a SP3 option in any sense of the term. On the other hand, someone like Matt Garza may end up in the fourth tier or perhaps even the fifth, which always gets someone’s goat. I love Garza — and I’m quite sure I’d never trade him for Theo Epstein — but if you’re giving me the choice between Garza and Roy Halladay, suddenly I love Garza a lot less.

Tiers are derived from Zach Sanders’ retrospective auction values. If I think a guy isn’t likely to stick near the same level next year — either that he’s tiered too high or too low — I’ll let you know in the comments, but this is reflective of what they did this year.

Joining the chorus of keeper rankings that have popped up over the last day or two, here are your NL starting pitching ranks.

Clayton Kershaw — $35

Not much to argue about here. Kershaw may not have saved many games, but he dominated the other four standard pitching categories with nearly 250 strikeouts, an ERA of 2.28, a WHIP under 1.00, and more than a quarter of the Dodgers’ wins this season. He was good last year, so it isn’t as though his success is unexpected, but he took a huge step forward this year and should continue to be dominant for the foreseeable future. If he’s the first pitcher off the board next year, I can’t say I’d disagree with that choice. He’s just 23 after all, it’s entirely possible that he’ll improve from here, which has to be a downright terrifying thought for the divisional rivals that have to see him multiple times a year. Projecting someone to reach Pedro Martinez’s level of outrageous dominance is foolhardy at best, but if I had to put money on some current pitcher to get there, Kershaw would be hard to pass over, though Stephen Strasburg makes a compelling case as well.

Roy Halladay — $30

Doc set a career high in strikeouts last year with 219, then bested that record this year with…220. Ok, he didn’t exactly blow away that mark, but the strikeouts are a relatively recent addition to Halladay’s arsenal, which has made him more valuable in almost every format over the last two seasons; clearly, the move to the National League did him some good, but facing a pitcher instead of a DH will do that. I’m not at all portending doom for Halladay in the near future, but next season will see him turn 35. It’s entirely possible to pitch well at ages more advanced than that, but not everyone ages so well. Of the 10 best seasons since 1960 turned in by a pitcher age 35 or older — determined by ERA+ — Randy Johnson owns five, Roger Clemens and Kevin Brown each have a pair, and Whitey Ford has the remaining one. Halladay looks like he could turn in a season good enough to join the list, but we’ll see what next year brings.

Cliff Lee — $30

Like his teammate Halladay, Lee set a career high in strikeouts this season with 238, and unlike Halladay, it was an appreciable improvement over his previous career high of 185. Concerns over Lee moving to hitter-friendly Citizen’s Bank Park proved to be overblown as his H/9 dropped to a near career-low 7.6 and he allowed opposing hitters to slug just .339 against him. In fact, Lee pitched much better at home, allowing hitters just a .559 OPS in Philly compared to .672 on the road. No one will mistake the Phillies’ rotation for a bunch of college kids, but there’s no reason to believe Lee is going to suddenly “regain” his 2007 form.

Ian Kennedy — $25

There’s no surprise that Halladay and Lee were among the top five pitchers this season; Kershaw and Hamels weren’t givens to join them, but were obviously capable. Kennedy is the man who looks out of place in this list, but he certainly earned it. His H/9, HR/9, and BB/9 all dropped from 2010 while his K/9 rose; the 21 wins are just the icing on the cake. In an objective sense, there are other players who might be better than he is, but if he can keep his strikeout rate reasonably high, there are few who can match his combination of low acquisition price and high production.

Cole Hamels — $24

Hamels did lose a few strikeouts this year, but in exchange he also gave up fewer hits, fewer home runs, and fewer walks. Given that he had strikeouts to spare last year, it seems like pretty a fair trade off to me. He still struck out nearly 200 hitters, so it isn’t as though he turned into Livan Hernandez, and the balance made him a better option across the board. He’s the youngest of the Phillies’ Four Aces, so he’s got that going for him. If he can add in the strikeouts he lost this year, while keeping the other peripherals down, I see no reason he can’t be even higher on this list next year.