2012 NL Starting Pitching Keeper Rankings: Tier Two

First things first: As Howard Bender noted yesterday, we’ve decided to move away from a rigid tiering system into something with a little more flexibility. At this point, very little changes in what’s already out there. I still like Ian Kennedy a lot because of the production you get for his value and for some of the reasons I’ll get into with Tim Lincecum below.

I’m still going to list the values for those interested, just know that if a $13 player is listed above a $16 player, it isn’t a typo.

In fact, without further adieu, let’s jump right into the melee.

Tim Lincecum — $19

Lincecum was always going to be the border between tier one and tier two. His resume is strong, but the cost is high, and it’s going to be for the foreseeable future — barring some catastrophic collapse, of course. Lincecum had so much success early in his career that people don’t dig as closely into his numbers as perhaps they ought to, instead just assuming that he’s been good enough and will continue to be so. To the point, coming off the worst season of his career, he was still one of just three pitchers taken before the third round of most drafts.

In 2011, his strikeouts declined for the third straight year, his walks ticked upwards, and the apparent drop in WHIP was likely due to a 30 point swing in BABIP from 2010 to 2011. Throw in serious questions about the Giants offense — if your league counts wins and losses — and perhaps my reasoning for not considering him clearly a top tier option becomes more understandable.

But here’s the flip side of the coin: Decisions, for good or ill, are pretty much beyond his control; despite the three year drop in strike outs, he’s still at 220, a more than respectable figure; and walk issues aside, his 1.21 WHIP is still solid. His change up is still one of the best in baseball and his slider grades out as well.

I have no vendetta against Lincecum, but he’s expensive and hasn’t lived up to that cost in either of the last two seasons. In that sense, he’s the anti-Kennedy, the guy who put up top class numbers despite going 40 picks after Brett Myers in most drafts.

It’s a drum I beat on Tuesday, I’m beating today, and that I’ll beat long into the future: Pitching is so deep right now that overpaying is foolish. I think it’s likely that 4 wins is about Lincecum’s floor for 2012 — normal caveats about health apply — and that he’s likely to be closer to 5 wins with strong strikeout numbers. If that’s worth a second round pick to you, that’s fine, but I’d rather grab a bat in the second and compose a staff in the middle rounds of guys like Gallardo, Greinke, and Garza, not one of whom was consistently taken before the end of the 6th round. Opportunity Cost is the name of the game here.

Matt Cain — $19

His strikeout numbers increased a bit, his walk rate actually rose as well, yet Cain went from being a 3.7 win pitcher to being a 5.2 win pitcher seemingly without making a major change to his pitching. The driving force behind Cain’s bountiful harvest was the drop in his home run rate — from 0.89 last year and 0.74 for his career to 0.37 in 2011. If he can keep it below 0.5 next year, which allows for some regression towards his career level, he should still be an easy 4-5 win option.

He’s actually a year younger than Lincecum, but because he didn’t burst onto the scene as a back-to-back Cy Young candidate the way his teammate did, Cain has lived out of Big-Time Timmy Jim’s shadow for the last few years. It lowers his draft cost, so perhaps shadow-dwelling isn’t such a bad thing.

He lacks the gaudy strikeout numbers that Lincecum has, which is why I’ve placed him a slot lower. His WHIP and ERA are going to be commensurate with Lincecum’s or lower, but the same concerns about a struggle for wins I mentioned with Lincecum applies to Cain — and Madison Bumgarner below — apply here as well. If the Giants make a couple good moves in free agency, perhaps I’ll be less concerned.

Madison Bumgarner — $14

The phrase “an embarrassment of riches” was made for times like this. Most teams would love to have just one of Lincecum or Cain, let alone both, but to add the 22-year-old Bumgarner as the team’s third starter is almost unfair. In his first full season in the Giants’ rotation, Bumgarner put up strong strikeout, WHIP, and ERA figures and he did it in way that looks repeatable. His BABIP and strand rate don’t look out of sorts and his line drive rate is actually a little high.

At 22 years old, there’s every reason to believe that he’ll be even better next year and there’s still a chance you’ll be able to get him at a low rate, though I doubt that will be the case much longer. His slider is a solid weapon, a swing-and-miss offering that will drive hitters crazy. If he can set it up with a better fastball or improve his changeup, it will make him that much harder to hit, and set the stage for an increase in his strikeouts.

Zack Greinke — $13

The playoffs were unkind to Greinke, who allowed 15 runs, 12 of which were earned, in under 17 innings of work. It’s a shame that those three poor starts will color how people remember his 2011 season, which was a strong showing overall, but which started late and didn’t end well. The move to the National League did Greinke’s strikeouts some good, which is what we’ve come to expect for pitchers moving from the AL to the NL. His home run rate took a curious upwards turn, even as his overall hit rate dropped, something that contributed to some of Greinke’s good starts taking a sinister turn rather quickly.

For much of the season, Greinke struggled with one bad inning, typically during his second time through the order. The first time they faced Greinke in a game, opponents hit .230/.282/.347; the second time through the order, that line rose to .266/.329/.491. Even more specifically, the fourth inning gave Greinke fits. He gave up more than a third of the year’s home runs in the fourth as part of an overall line of .310/.352/.628.

I still have a lot of confidence in Greinke to settle in and turn in a better season next year. His early season injury didn’t exactly set him up to make an easy transition to his new team, and I have a hunch his altered schedule played into some of his fatigue issues in the later parts of the season. If I have any concerns about Greinke it’s that his velocity was down across the board. While he doesn’t need to be throwing 98, I’d feel better if he’s back up in the 93-94 mph range on his fastball next year, rather than being down closer to 91 or 92.

Yovani Gallardo – $15

Gallardo bears a lot of similarity to his Brewers teammate, Greinke: Strong strikeout numbers — 200 or more in three consecutive years — to go with a solid ERA and a solid WHIP. His WHIP was, in fact, a career low, thanks to a big drop in his walk rate. The Brewers’ defense may not have been baseball’s best, but they handled the additional balls in play well, as Gallardo’s hit rate dropped as well.

It’s a good thing that he limited his base runners, because also like Greinke, he saw his home run rate jump this year. He has struggled with the long ball in the past, but seemed to have a better time of it last year, before reverting to his old ways again this season. Thankfully, Gallardo isn’t a big flyball pitcher, but it’s still one of the things that’s keeping him from being higher on this list and a better top-of-the-rotation pitcher for the Brewers.

Everything else looks good for Gallardo. As a groundball-heavy pitcher, Gallardo’s WHIP is going to be intimately tied to the Brewers’ infield defense, which wasn’t particularly good this year. If they can bring in a better glove man to replace Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop, that will do Gallardo some good, but he obviously isn’t suffering greatly as it is. If he can get his home run issues under control the way he did in 2010, while keeping the low walk rate he had in 2011, he’s primed to be a real ace. If only one of those things is possible, I’d rather see him limit his base runners. If he gives up 20 solo home runs, well, so be it.

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Dan enjoys black tea, imperial IPAs, and any competition that can be loosely judged a sport. Follow him on Twitter.

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Tommy Hanson?


Shoulder injury?