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NL Starting Pitcher Tiered Rankings

Posted By Dan Wade On April 3, 2012 @ 3:15 pm In Starting Pitchers | 30 Comments

There will be something of a change from last year’s NL SP tiered rankings, namely, I’m going to be more flexible with the number of pitchers in each tier. I hate lists where tier four has 13 pitchers and while each isn’t that different from the one above him, the last player listed is nowhere near as good as the first. I tried to combat that by sticking with rigid size on the tiers, but it really just created the opposite problem and I was stuck with the bottom of one tier and the top of the next looking awfully similar. C’est la guerre, but it’s not a mistake I’m going to make again this year.

Tier One

Clayton Kershaw
Roy Halladay

I go back and forth on which of these two I’d rather have, but at the end of the day, it’s a coin flip you can’t lose. I’m giving Kershaw the slight nod here because of his slightly higher strikeout rate, but he needs to keep his walk rate low to keep pace with the notoriously stingy Halladay.

Tier Two

Cliff Lee
Tim Lincecum
Cole Hamels
Madison Bumgarner
Zack Greinke
Yovani Gallardo

I toyed with pushing Lee up with Halladay, and if he can repeat the strikeout numbers he posted last year, he’ll be up there by mid-May. I’m just a little skeptical that will happen. When the Staff Predictions come out, my vote for NL Cy Young will go to Greinke, but he falls to seventh on this list because of that hint of uncertainty. I think having a full spring training will help him avoid some of the issues he had in the first half of last year, but his penchant for having a blow up inning can’t be easily hand-waived away.

Tier Three

Matt Cain
Matt Garza
Stephen Strasburg
Ian Kennedy
Daniel Hudson
Mat Latos

As I’ve discussed before, Strasburg is a killer. In head-to-head, the fact that he misses the playoffs makes him tough to swallow given where he was drafted, and even in roto, that innings cap is such a barrier to ownership. If I knew every one of his 160 innings was going to be magic, maybe I’d be higher on him, but the reality is that everybody has at least 1-2 poor outings, even in the context of an 8-9 win season. This is really a median value for Latos: On talent, he could be higher than this, but the move from PETCO to Great American sours me on him a little bit, as does the fact that in both 2010 and 2011, Latos had rather sizable first half/second half splits. I’d really like to see him put together a full season of excellence, but my sense is that it won’t happen this year.

Tier Four

Jordan Zimmermann
Adam Wainwright
Tommy Hanson
Gio Gonzalez
Brandon Beachy

Zimmermann is another player that really puzzles me. His monthly K-rate fluctuated between 4.2 to 8.8 K/9; if he can establish himself in the high 7s or low 8 range, then I could see him rising in this list. Chris Carpenter proved he could anchor the Cardinals rotation without his partner in crime backing him up, now Wainwright will get a chance to do the same. He is another who could easily move up with some consistently solid work in the first part of the season. I’m still slightly skeptical about Hanson’s new motion, but he had a strong spring, albeit an abridged one. Gonzalez and Beachy are two of my absolute favorite pitchers this year, but there just isn’t anyone above them I think is particularly vulnerable right now.

Tier Five

Cory Luebke
Josh Johnson
Johan Santana
Anibal Sanchez
Shaun Marcum
Jaime Garcia

I believe in Luebke, but I have concerns about what will happen as teams see him a few more times, which is why he falls slightly lower than I had him initially. My hunch is that this is the lowest Johnson will be this season. Either he’ll stay healthy, pitch well, and work his way up, or he’ll get hurt and fall off the list entirely. Whether that’s good news or bad news depends on your risk tolerance I suppose. I wanted Marcum to be higher, but the early season track records of guys who miss as much of spring training as Marcum did aren’t good. Add in any lingering shoulder soreness or inflammation and he necessarily falls down the list.

Tier Six

Mike Minor
Johnny Cueto
Juan Nicasio
Wandy Rodriguez

Minor is definitely king of the morlocks here, as he’s one of the last players in this set that have both a decent strikeout rate and reason to believe that his rate stats will come down, and yet he doesn’t even have a guaranteed rotation spot as of this writing. I’m surprised to be ranking Nicasio this early in the season after the way his 2011 ended; he was making a great impression then and I do expect him to continue to pitch well now that he has returned. Cueto was outstanding in parts of last season, but his last eight starts were much more pedestrian. His lack of strikeouts will always make him a second-rate fantasy option, but another season of persistent groundballing would make him a more appealing option.

Tier Seven

Edwin Jackson
Jair Jurrjens
Jhoulys Chacin
Ted Lilly
Mark Buehrle
R.A. Dickey

It’s good for Chacin that his groundball rate increased last year, but the reality is that he’s going to give up more than a few home runs because of his home park, which makes it all the more important that he start limiting base-runners rather than always having to pitch out of trouble. I want Buehrle to be better than this, and I think he could be, but as consistent as he’s been over the last decade, his lack of strikeouts kill his fantasy value. Ted Lilly could easily be a tier above this one, but his starting the season on the DL made me err on the side of caution.

Tier Eight

Ricky Nolasco
Ryan Dempster
Bud Norris
Vance Worley
Edinson Volquez

I’ve heard the arguments for Nolasco, but I am still not a believer. Since his breakout season in 2008, his strikeouts have fallen and his WHIP has gone up. Despite what his FIP seems to indicate, I am just not buying that everything suddenly turns around for Nolasco this season. This could be a disservice to Dempster, who didn’t pitch that badly last year, but who will struggle to get wins again this year. The Cubs’ defense will have improved over last year, but not by such an amount as to make a huge difference for the individual pitchers on the staff.

Tier Nine

Jonathon Niese
Erik Bedard
Drew Pomeranz
James McDonald
Dillon Gee
Trevor Cahill

Thankfully, Niese’s groundball tendencies should save him from too much extra damage caused by Citi’s new fences, but just because the ball stays in the ballpark doesn’t mean hitters aren’t making solid contact off his pitches. I’ll admit to wishcasting some with the Pirate pair, but especially with the league switch, I actually like Bedard a fair amount. The story of his career will always be injuries, but a healthy season at age 33 would help change that at least a bit. I’m a little bit hopeful on Pomeranz as well, but his college and minor league strikeout numbers give me hope that he’ll at least contribute there while he finds his legs in Denver.

Tier Ten

Mike Leake
Tim Stauffer
Randy Wolf
Tim Hudson
A.J. Burnett
Ryan Vogelsong
J.A. Happ

Leake took a few steps forward last year, albeit somewhat small ones, but if he does that again in 2012, he’ll start to become a nice sleeper option. He’s just not there yet. Hudson and Burnett are both better than this, but both are out for the foreseeable future. I expect Burnett to return first, but his timetable is something of a fluid one. Hudson should be back by early May and once he establishes himself, he’ll probably jump 20 or so slots.

Tier Eleven

Joe Blanton
Chad Billingsley
Jeff Samardzija
Jeff Karstens
Carlos Zambrano

I’ve written about Samardzija before and nothing has changed; I still don’t have a great handle on how he’s going to perform, but I’m skeptical for the time being. I still believe there’s a chance that Zambrano turns things around in Miami, but after a spring where he both struck out and walked a batter per inning, my belief is waning.

Tier Twelve

Kyle Lohse
Paul Maholm
Bronson Arroyo
Clayton Richard
Tyler Chatwood
Mike Pelfrey

Lohse was a nice deep option last year, but his .269 BABIP isn’t going to be repeatable this year and he doesn’t strikeout enough hitters to survive a jump in both his ERA and WHIP. Maholm put together a workable season last year, but like Lohse, I think he’ll regress. Richard gets a huge boost from his home park, but it is what it is, and owners may as well use that to their advantage.

Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-List: Chris Carpenter.

Carpenter’s history is…checkered. At best. This latest injury scares me in general — a lack of a timetable is never a good sign — but in light of his previous issues, I’m pulling him off the list. When we get a solid return date, he’ll find his way back into the pack, but not until then.


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