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NL Starting Pitcher Keeper Rankings: Tier Five

We are getting into pitchers that may or may not be National League eligible next year, particularly Hiroki Kuroda and Javier Vazquez. Until we know for sure what’s happening with retirees, I’m going to leave them out, though it’s worth mentioning that I don’t think I’d keep anyone who has talked about retiring or generally leaving MLB, unless someone has declared their intent to retire and I missed it. Unlikely.

A lot of these pitchers are guys I’d like to have on my staff, but it’s a value question. Anibal Sanchez could be a really nice strikeout option, but there’s no way I want him at or near the cost of Zack Greinke. If you can keep Vance Worley at one round earlier than you drafted him last year — likely the last round, since he wasn’t often drafted — I’d do it. If you have to use a 5-6th round pick to keep him, I’m much less interested.

A reminder of those who have gone before:

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
Tim Hudson

Tier Four:
Jordan Zimmermann
Brandon Beachy
Chris Carpenter
Mat Latos
Josh Johnson

Presenting: Tier Five!

Anibal Sanchez

On July 1, Sanchez owned an ERA of 2.82, he was averaging 6-7 strikeouts per start — 9.1 K/9 — and his WHIP was 1.13. He was producing in nearly every category at or above a tier two level. Two terrible starts — one in July of 7 ER in 3.2 IP, one in August of 5 ER in 1.2 IP — made his overall line look far more pedestrian than it really was.

He did regress some in the second half. His ERA rose by .2 runs and his WHIP rose by .11, but those two disaster starts made the summer seem extremely unkind to him, until he found his form with back-to-back 6+ IP, 0 ER starts to open September. His strikeouts never wavered though, and he’s one of very few starts with a K/9 in the 9-10 range that isn’t an immediately recognizable name, which can make him a good value pick.

I’ll be very interested to see how Miami’s new park will play in terms of run scoring. The dimensions make it look more pitcher-friendly than the Marlins’ current digs, with an extra 60 feet in left-center, an extra 12 feet in center, and an extra 31 feet in right-center. The extra space may not help Sanchez if he’s giving up shots to the alley that roll to the wall, but it should help him keep down his home runs.

Vance Worley

The Phillies probably would have been pretty upset by the performance Joe Blanton gave them, save for the bespeckled Worley’s emergence as a better-than-average option at the back end of the rotation.

A 3rd round pick in the 2008 draft, Worley wasn’t even on Baseball America’s top-10 list of Phillies prospects, but with Blanton’s and Roy Oswalt’s extended absences, someone had to take the ball. Worley made 21 starts, posting a 3.01 ERA with a 1.23 WHIP, and those in wins-based leagues surely loved his 11-3 record.

The strikeouts are something of a puzzle. At 8.13 K/9, Worley was certainly not hurting owners in that category, but it was something out of line with his minor league rates. In 2010, he struck out 5.8 per 9 between Double- and Triple-A and in 2009 he struck out 5.9 per 9 in a full year at Double-A. It’s good to see that he’s trending up rather than having had a constant rate in the minors that simply exploded in the majors, but it is somewhat remarkable that he has become more strikeout-heavy as the difficulty of competition increases.

He has just turned 24, so there’s potential to dream on for sure, but since he was an unheralded prospect and has had such success so soon after making the majors, I wonder if he’ll be in a fight to maintain this level of efficacy rather than improve steadily towards his peak.

Shaun Marcum

It goes somewhat without saying that we expect pitchers to pitch well in games they win and poorly in the games they lose. Still, looking at win/loss splits can be somewhat informative if you remember that you’re essentially looking at a split of good/bad starts. Marcum was, in many ways, Wadsworth’s Little Girl with a Curl: When he was good, he was very good; when he was bad, he made it nearly impossible for the Brewers to win.

His overall line was solid: 3.54 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and a 7.1 K/9 that remained almost constant, win or lose. When he won, Marcum’s ERA dropped to 2.05 and his WHIP dropped below 1.00 down to 0.89. When he lost, his ERA rose to 5.36 and his WHIP ballooned to 1.51. This trend exacerbated in the last month of the season when in his five starts he gave up, 0, 5, 5, 1, and 7 earned runs.

Looking at his peripherals, I don’t see much that would lead me believe that he’ll be a tremendously different pitcher next year, for good or for ill. His BABIP is startlingly low at .261, but that was actually only 8 points lower than his career average of .269. His walk rate was slightly lower than it had been in the past, but he supplemented it by walking a few more hitters to give him nearly the same WHIP he had last year. If he continues to walk hitters at the increased rate and his BABIP swings back the other way, Marcum could find himself in a bit more danger next year than he did this year, but we’re not talking about huge swings in WHIP, BABIP, or BB/9, so I don’t expect a big change even in the worst case scenario. The big thing to take away from Marcum’s 2011 campaign is that he was finally able to put together back-to-back seasons near 200 innings for the first time in his career.

Ted Lilly

I can’t blame anyone who drafted Lilly, then dropped him early because of his poor start to the year. In his first 10 starts, Lilly allowed 30 ER, struck out just 39, and allowed 75 base runners in just over 57 innings, meaning owners got — on average — a 4.60 ERA, 3.9 K, and 1.30 WHIP start from Lilly heading into the end of May. That’s not a good ERA, a WHIP above expectations, and not nearly enough strikeouts to make him worth the risk.

In the second half, however, Lilly rewarded those who stuck with him or made a savvy waiver claim. His ERA dropped from 4.79 to 2.94, his WHIP dropped from 1.29 to 0.99, and his K/9 rose from 6.6 to 8.4; essentially, he went from a pitcher you hoped wouldn’t kill your numbers when he started to a valuable contributor. It’s hard to see whether he did the exact same thing last year because he changed teams about the same time I’d be expecting the resurgence, but there is still some evidence to suggest that this is something of Lilly’s MO right now. If he’s still sitting there come the last couple rounds of the draft, I can name a number of players I like him better than, but there’s almost no way I’m going anywhere close to his 2011 ADP of 126.

Cory Luebke

The numbers are there for Luebke and they’re there in spades — 3.31 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and a 9.9 K/9 — but 17 starts isn’t really a robust sample size. I can see his auction price or ADP fluctuating wildly from draft to draft depending on the league’s overall level of risk tolerance, because he has just 20 major league starts over the last two seasons and is about to turn 27, which is his theoretical peak season.

If there’s anything that gives me hope for Luebke’s continued success — beyond playing his home games in PetCo of course — is that he was almost exclusively a starter in the minors. His numbers were good, but the high strikeout rate is something that’s rather new, so be warned that he may keep his WHIP and ERA low, but lose part of what differentiates him from the players ranked in this area.

Before you bite the bullet and take him, the question you need to ask yourself is: Can you live with a slightly higher ERA and WHIP, but a K-rate closer to 7 or 7.5? If the answer is yes, you may be rewarded with better than predicted strikeouts, but if the answer is no, you’re better off making sure you grab a more stable strikeout arm, though you’ll likely pay for the privilege.