Fantasy Keepers: Starting Pitchers

Well, it’s taken me a lot longer than I expected it to, but I’m finally done with all of my fantasy keeper rankings. Without further ado, here are my top 25 starting pitchers to keep.

1. Johan Santana, Twins: This is pretty much a no-brainer. There were two starting pitchers in 2004 who were heads and tails above the rest of the field, and one of the two was 15 years younger than the other one. Basically, there’s nothing not to like about Santana. He’ll only be 26 years old when the 2005 season starts and in his time as a starting pitcher the last three seasons, he has a 2.77 ERA and 463 strikeouts in 413 innings.

Last season, he went 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 265 strikeouts in 228 innings despite the fact that his ERA was a scary 5.61 after 61 innings in April and May. If you were thinking there’s no way he can be as good as he was again, you might want to think again. He probably won’t have a four-month stretch as good as he did from June through September, but he also probably won’t have a two-month period as bad as he did to start last season.

Barring injury, you should be able to expect at least 17 or 18 wins, an ERA below 3.00, a WHIP below 1.00 and 250 or more strikeouts, and you should be able to count on him as a top pitcher for several more years.

2. Mark Prior, Cubs: You may have forgotten since it’s been a whole year and all, but Prior was the consensus top fantasy pitcher in baseball last off-season before he suffered his injury. Then, of course, the injury cost him much of the season and he only managed six wins, a 4.02 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP.

Why do I think he belongs here after a sub-par season? Let’s recap. He’s only 24 years old, he has a 3.08 career ERA (even taking last year’s 4.02 into account), he has a 1.18 career WHIP (even taking last year’s 1.35 into account) and he has 531 strikeouts in 446.2 career innings.

His injury wasn’t an arm injury, so I see no reason to expect him not to be healthy this year. And if he’s healthy, I’d expect 18-20 wins, a 2.50-2.75 ERA, 1.05-1.10 WHIP and 225-250 strikeouts. And I’d expect him to keep putting up seasons similar to that (as long as he’s healthy) for several years.

3. Jason Schmidt, Giants: He’s not young at 32 years old and he has a long injury history, but even with that history, he’s thrown 618 innings over the last three seasons. And in those 618 innings, he’s posted a 2.99 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP while striking out 655 hitters.

Schmidt has turned into an elite pitcher since turning 29 and he’s somebody you can count on to put up big numbers. He should win 16-20 games with a 2.75-3.25 ERA, 1.00-1.10 WHIP and 225-250 strikeouts this year.

4. Ben Sheets, Brewers: Sheets was every bit as good fantasy-wise (and even better in real life) than Schmidt last year and he’s five and a half years younger than Schmidt, so why do I have Schmidt as the better keeper? Well, over the first three years of Sheets’ career, he gave no indication that he could be this good, so I want to see another season before I proclaim him an elite pitcher.

His strikeout rates his first three years were 5.59 K/9IP, 7.06 K/9 and 6.40 K/9. Last year, it was 10.03 K/9. His walk rates his first three years were 2.85 BB/9IP, 2.90 BB/9 and 1.75 BB/9. Last year, it was 1.22 BB/9, so at least he started to show some improvement there before last season.

I expect Sheets to be a very good pitcher again, but I don’t know that he’s quite as good as he looked last year and the first three seasons of his career do give me some reason to be concerned that last year was something of a fluke.

5. Randy Johnson, Yankees: The other starting pitcher who was heads and tails above the rest of the field, Johnson shows no signs of slowing down at age 41. His ERA and WHIP will go up at least a little and his strikeout total will fall at least a little from his switch to the American League, but that switch should also make the 16 wins he picked up last year the absolute low end of what you could get from him this year.

The only problem is that he does have a bit of an injury history and his age. As players get past 30 years old, they tend to start declining and becoming bigger injury risks. As they get past 40 years old, well, there’s a reason most of them have retired by then.

Johnson could certainly be an anomaly like Nolan Ryan was and Roger Clemens is, but you’d be foolish to just ignore the fact that he’s an old guy. All that said, while he’s fifth on this list, there probably aren’t many leagues where you wouldn’t want to keep Johnson if you have the opportunity to do so. You might not want to keep him next year, but worry about that after getting another excellent year out of him this season.

6. Roy Oswalt, Astros: The good news? Oswalt was healthy enough to top 200 innings (237) for the second time in his career. The bad news? His ERA was a career high, and nearly half a run higher than his previous worst. The other good news? Despite that, his ERA was still only 3.49.

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Oswalt’s only 27 years old and he has a 3.11 career ERA with a 1.17 WHIP and 666 strikeouts in 739 innings. In his two healthy seasons, he’s pitched 233 innings and won 19 games and pitched 237 innings and won 20 games.

If he’s healthy, Oswalt will be a top-10 fantasy pitcher even if he doesn’t improve his ERA. If he does improve his ERA, he could be a top-five fantasy pitcher. The only reason he’s not one of my top five keepers is the “if he’s healthy” part.

7. Oliver Perez, Pirates: Perez flashed his potential his first two seasons in the majors with 235 strikeouts in 216.2 innings. Unfortunately, he also showed his youth and inconsistency. He posted a nice 3.50 ERA in 90 innings in 2002, then slumped to a 5.47 ERA in 126.2 innings in 2003.

The biggest problem? Walks. He had 48 (4.8/9IP) in 2002 and 77 (5.5/9IP) in 2004. Last year, he cut back to 81 walks in 196 innings (3.7/9IP). When he combined that with a strikeout rate (10.97 K/9IP) even higher than what he had in his first two seasons, the result was an excellent 2.99 ERA and a solid 1.15 WHIP.

Perez is only 23 years old, and he has amazing stuff. Maybe he won’t pitch quite as well as he did last year, but what if he continues to improve his control? Scary thought. The only real drawback for Perez is that he pitches for the Pirates, which will probably limit his win total at least slightly.

8. Pedro Martinez, Mets: Martinez is coming off a sub-par (for him) year, he’s 33 years old and he has an injury history, but just because the Mets probably overpaid to get him doesn’t mean he’s not a top keeper. Even if he had stayed with Boston, I would have expected Martinez’s ERA to drop by at least half a run (it was 3.90 last year). With the move to the National League and Shea, I expect it drop by about a run or more.

As disappointing as last year was, he still struck out 227 hitters in 217 innings and only walked 61. With the Mets, I expect him to win 16-20 games, post an ERA of 2.75-3.00 and a WHIP of 1.00-1.05 while striking out 250-275 hitters.

The only reason he’s not higher on this list is because he does come with some injury concerns. So, while he is a very high-reward pitcher, he’s also a pretty high-risk guy.

9. Carlos Zambrano, Cubs: Zambrano’s only 23, he’s been a good pitcher for three years now and he was one of the 10 best fantasy pitchers in baseball last year, so you might think he should be ranked higher than fellow 23-year-old Oliver Perez. While I’ll admit that Zambrano may be a safer choice than Perez, he simply doesn’t have Perez’s upside.

Last year, Zambrano struck out 188 hitters in 209.2 innings (8.07 K/9IP) and that was the best strikeout rate of his career. Now, that’s certainly not a bad strikeout rate and you can be a very good pitcher striking out 7-8 hitters every nine innings, but you have a much bigger margin for error if you strike out about better than a hitter an inning like Perez does.

I think Zambrano will continue to be a very good pitcher, but probably not quite as good as last year. I’d expect 16-18 wins, a 3.00-3.25 ERA, 1.20-1.25 WHIP and 160-180 strikeouts. The main difference between him and Perez is that I don’t think Zambrano’s capable of doing much better than he did last year and I think Perez is capable of getting even better.

10. Jake Peavy, Padres: Another impressive 23-year-old, Peavy took a huge step forward last season. He posted the highest strikeout rate (9.36 K/9IP) of his young career, the lowest walk rate (2.87 BB/9IP) and by far the lowest home run rate (0.70 HR/9IP). That led to a major-league leading 2.27 ERA.

The only problems I have with Peavy are that he only pitched 166.1 innings last year due to injury, and that he wasn’t quite as good as that ERA indicates. He had a 1.20 WHIP, which isn’t great, and his DIPS ERA was 3.21, which gave him the second-biggest difference between ERA and DIPS ERA among starters last year.

Still, he’s young, has great stuff, pitches in a good ballpark and has a career 3.53 ERA. He’s likely to keep pitching very well, and doing so for several more seasons.

11. Curt Schilling, Red Sox: When he’s healthy, Schilling has become about as consistent as they get. He’ll give you at least 18-20 wins, a 3.00-3.25 ERA and a 1.05-1.10 WHIP. His strikeout total has taken a bit of a hit from age and/or moving to the AL, but he should still be good for around 200.

The only problems with Schilling are that he’s 38 years old, which means he could start declining rapidly at any moment, and he’s recovering from off-season surgery. It sounds like he’ll be ready for Opening Day, but that’s hardly a given, and it might be a few starts before he’s 100 percent even if he does start that first game.

12. Kerry Wood, Cubs: As much talent as he has, there are starting to be some disappointing aspects to Wood’s career. He’s never won more than 14 games in six seasons, he’s only pitched more than 175 innings twice and he’s only had a WHIP below 1.22 once (and that was 1.19).

Still, he’s only 27 years old, his lowest strikeout rate in his career is 8.67 K/9IP (the year after returning from missing the 1999 season) and his career ERA is 3.63. He appeared to be on the way to the best season of his career last year before he got hurt in May. His final stats of a 3.72 ERA and 1.27 WHIP weren’t that impressive, but only 51 walks in 140.1 innings was a huge improvement for him.

If he can stay healthy and keep that improved control for this season, he could be in for a big season. Either this season or next season, Wood will probably establish where he belongs in the fantasy hierarchy. He should either develop into a true ace or prove that he’s a good-but-not-great pitcher.

13. Tim Hudson, Braves: Hudson is 92-39 in his career with a 3.30 ERA, and he’s only 29 years old. So why isn’t he higher on this list? Well, he’s coming off a season in which he had some injury problems and only made 27 starts. Also, his strikeout rate that had been falling since his rookie year hit rock bottom last year when he only struck out 4.91 hitters per nine innings.

A couple things I do like about Hudson are that with the change to the National League, his strikeouts should tick back up at least a little. Also, working with Leo Mazzone is never a bad thing for a pitcher. I think Hudson will be a good pitcher for quite a few more years, but I also think he has a few more question marks than I’d really like.

14. Roger Clemens, Astros: His ability warrants a higher spot on this list, but there are two things working against him. First, he’s 42 years old, and while his age hasn’t hampered him at all yet, it could all fall apart without much notice. Second, he’s planned on retiring two off-seasons in a row, and he may actually go through with it at some point. If he’s only pitching for one more season, he’s not nearly as valuable a keeper as he would otherwise be.

Just going on results, you can’t complain about Clemens. He won 18 games with a 2.98 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 218 strikeouts in 214.1 innings. I don’t expect him to be quite that good this year, but he should provide at least 15 wins, an ERA below 3.50, a WHIP below 1.20 and at least 200 or so strikeouts.

And, of course, there’s a chance that he could continue to defy both old age and his apparent urge to retire, pitching until he’s closer to 50 than 40 and continuing to contend for Cy Young awards. It’s certainly not likely, but nothing about his career has really been likely.

15. Josh Beckett, Marlins: I warned everybody at this time last year not to go too crazy on Beckett based on his playoff performance because he hadn’t ever pitched a full season and, sure enough, he didn’t pitch a full season in 2004 either. In fact, his 156.2 innings was a career high, as were his 26 starts.

Beckett also didn’t pitch as well last year as the year before. His ERA went up to 3.79 (from 3.04), his strikeout rate dropped a little to 8.73 K/9IP (from 9.63) and his home run rate jumped up to 0.92 HR/9IP (from 0.57).

Still, Beckett has a world of talent, he’s only 24 years old and one of these years he might actually stay healthy. He has a career 3.49 ERA to go with a 9.22 K/9IP and 2.67 K/BB rate. He’s got too many question marks to be an elite keeper, but he’s got too much talent and potential to not be in the top 15 or so.

16. Rich Harden, A’s: If you read my columns last season, you know that I was pretty down on Harden, saying that I expected him to eventually become a good pitcher, but not until he dramatically cut back on his walks. Well, over the second half of the season, he dramatically cut back on his walks.

Before the All-Star break, he issued 48 walks in 91.2 innings (4.71 BB/9IP). Afterwards, he issued just 33 walks in 98 innings (3.03 BB/9IP). His strikeouts also fell by 15 after the break (from 91 to 76), but I expect the improved control to be a more permanent thing than the decrease in strikeouts.

If he can stay in the 3-3.5 BB/9IP range and the 8-8.5 K/9IP range, he should greatly improve on last season’s 3.99 ERA and 1.33 WHIP. And with Oakland’s apparently improved offense, he should win at least 15 games rather than the 11 he won last year. Oh yeah, he’s only 23 years old as well.

17. Roy Halladay, Blue Jays: Last season was pretty much a lost year for Halladay due to injury, but he’s only a year removed from winning a Cy Young award. From 2001-2003, Halladay posted a 3.11 ERA in 610.2 innings, winning 46 games in 86 starts.

Halladay had a 4.20 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP last year, but his ERA was 3.58 in April and May before he really started having injury issues. If he’s healthy this year, he should be a very good pitcher, with 17-20 wins and a 3.00-3.50 ERA. Also, he’s still only 27 years old and last year’s injuries may have helped him by not putting much mileage on the arm after consecutive seasons with more than 235 innings pitched.

18. Kelvim Escobar, Angels: Escobar gets overlooked a lot as a quality pitcher, but he really is. He’s been inconsistent, but over the last four years his ERA is 3.99 and he’s averaged 8.44 K/9IP over that time. Last year, he posted a 3.93 ERA and 1.29 WHIP with 191 strikeouts. That he only won 11 games as Anaheim only scored 3.93 runs per game for him, meaning only three qualified starters got less support last year.

Escobar’s certainly not a great pitcher, but he’s got a lot of talent. If he continues to pitch consistently, he could certainly win 15-18 games with a 3.50-3.75 ERA, 1.20-1.25 WHIP and 175-200 strikeouts. If he realizes his full potential, which I don’t think he’s done, he could be even better. At worst, he should give you a league average ERA with above average strikeouts and wins.

19. Mark Mulder, Cardinals: Mulder is a huge question mark right now. He’s very appealing because he’s averaged 18 wins a season over the last four years, with an ERA of 3.65 over that time. He’s very concerning because of what happened in the second half of last year.

Basically, Mulder just fell apart after the All-Star break. His ERA jumped from 3.21 to 6.13, his strikeout rate dropped from 6.29 K/9IP to 4.60 K/9IP, his walk rate jumped from 2.80 BB/9IP to 4.02 BB/9IP and his home run rate jumped from 0.62 HR/9IP to 1.53 HR/9IP.

If he’s recovered from whatever went wrong last year, he’ll be a very good pitcher who’s still only 27 years old. If he’s not, he’ll be a big disappointment, depending on just how much whatever was affecting him is still affecting him. Personally, I think he’ll bounce back at least enough to be a good pitcher. Ultimately, the potential that he could go back to being an elite pitcher for the next few years keeps him on this list, but the risk that he could be terrible keeps him from being higher on the list.

20. A.J. Burnett, Marlins: Burnett was on his way to stardom in 2002 when he put up a 3.30 ERA with 203 strikeouts in 204.1 innings. Unfortunately, the reason he only pitched 204.1 innings is that he missed nearly a month late in the season due to an injury, and then suffered an even more serious injury the next April that cost him more than a year.

He finally came back at the beginning of June last season, and went on to post a 3.68 ERA with 113 strikeouts in 120 innings. Burnett’s obviously had injury problems, but pitchers are usually at no more risk after Tommy John surgery than any other pitcher, they just need time to recover. Burnett’s in the second season after the surgery now, and that’s generally when pitchers get back to feeling the way they should.

Burnett’s still only 28 years old and he’s got great stuff and great potential. If he can stay healthy, there’s no reason he can’t win at least 15 games with a 3.30-3.70 ERA and about a strikeout an inning. If he can keep his walk rate around where it was last year (2.85 BB/9IP), that’s even better.

21. Freddy Garcia, White Sox: After the 2001 season, Garcia looked like he was on his way to becoming an elite pitcher. Then he had two sub par seasons in a row. Last year, he appeared to have gotten back to his previous form with the Mariners, but then he struggled after the trade to Chicago.

He finished the year with 13 wins, a 3.81 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 184 strikeouts, which was good enough to make him one of the top 20 fantasy starters. The question is whether this season and his immediate future looks more like what he did with Seattle (3.20 ERA) or Chicago (4.46 ERA).

Want to know a secret? It doesn’t matter. Garcia pitched 107 innings with Seattle and 103 with Chicago. For both teams, he gave up 96 hits and 32 walks. He had 82 strikeouts with Seattle and 102 with Chicago (surprised?). The only thing he did worse in Chicago is give up more homers, 14 compared to eight in Seattle. Basically, he outperformed his DIPS a bit before the All-Star break and underperformed it a bit afterward and it looks more stark because it’s essentially split up by which team he played for.

Garcia should at least be a solid pitcher, and he has the potential to be a really good pitcher. If he pitches like he did last year (i.e., finishes with an ERA around 3.75) and gets better run support (he had the fifth-lowest support in the majors last year), he should win at least 15 games.

22. Matt Clement, Red Sox: Much has been made this off-season about Clement’s 69-75 career record, the fact that he’s never won more than 14 games and the fact that he was 9-13 last year. Last year, only eight pitchers received less run support than Clement (4.03). The least supported Boston starter, Martinez, received 5.60 runs per start.

Since Boston’s offense doesn’t look appreciably worse than it was last year, Clement can expect at least a run and a half more per start to work with. So while he might not match last year’s 3.68 ERA or 1.28 WHIP or 190 strikeouts (numbers that put him among the top 25 fantasy pitchers despite his win total), he should win at least half a dozen more games.

Also, I wouldn’t even expect Clement to be that much worse. Moving to the AL will hurt him, but he should still be able to keep his ERA in the 3.75-4.00 range with a WHIP around 1.30 and about 175 strikeouts. Combine that with 15-plus wins and you’ve got yourself a very nice pitcher for the next few seasons.

23. Mike Mussina, Yankees: Mussina is 36 years old and he only pitched 164.2 innings last year and he ERA was an unimpressive 4.59, but there are some things to consider. First, he really turned things around at the end of the season, posting a 2.14 ERA in six September starts and a 3.66 ERA in three postseason starts. Second, last season was the first time since 1994 that Mussina wasn’t able to pitch 200 innings (and I think something may have happened at the end of the 1994 season that made him stop pitching).

Mussina is still capable of being a very good pitcher, something along the lines of 15-18 wins, a 3.50-3.75 ERA, 1.20-1.25 WHIP and 175-190 strikeouts. He’s also not going to retire soon as he has two years left on his contract, after which he’ll be 38 years old and will probably need fewer than 60 wins to get to 300. I’m guessing he’ll want to get as close as possible.

Finally, while pitchers in general and older pitchers in particular are risky propositions health-wise, there’s no real reason to think Mussina is very likely to break down. He’s been very healthy throughout his career, and just because his most reason season contained injuries doesn’t mean his next one will as well.

24. Mark Buehrle, White Sox: His name doesn’t often come up in discussions of the best fantasy pitchers, but he’s been very solid the last four seasons, posting 65 wins and a 3.73 ERA in that time, with at least 220 innings pitched in each season. Also, when this season kicks off in about a month, Buehrle will still only be 26 years old.

Buehrle’s big fantasy drawback (at least in 5×5 leagues) had always been that he doesn’t strike anybody out (about five per nine innings). But last year, Buehrle bumped his strikeout rate up to 6.05 K/9IP, which gave him a much more acceptable total of 165. He’s not going to be a star, but he’ll give you innings and above-average production, and that’s nice to be able to count on.

25. Livan Hernandez, Nationals: This guy is really a marvel. The highlight of his career was eight years ago, and he’s still only 30 years old (or listed at 30 years old anyway). He’s pitched an amazing 1,171 innings over the last five years, showing no sign of being bothered by it. And after appearing to be on the verge of falling off the map in San Francisco, he put up a 3.41 ERA in two years in Montreal.

I’m not sure exactly how he’s been successful or how he’s avoided injury, but he has. He takes the ball for every start, and recent history has suggested that he’ll finish the season with solid numbers. You can’t expect him to be an elite pitcher, but you can probably bank on nice production and a lot of innings.

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