Fantasy: Starting Pitchers, Part One

We’re almost done here. If you still haven’t drafted by then, check back Monday for part two. (Note: Rankings based on 5×5 Rotisserie scoring.)

1. Johan Santana, Twins: This one was pretty easy. Santana was essentially tied for the best fantasy starter last year, and he has the better chance of matching that success this season. He’s only 26 years old, and his incredible season last year was actually dragged down by a terrible start to the season.

So, even if Santana isn’t quite as dominant this year as he was after the All-Star break last year, he’s also not likely to have an 11-start stretch where he goes 2-3 with a 5.61 ERA again. I’m expecting 20-22 wins, a 2.50-2.75 ERA, 0.95-1.00 WHIP and 250-270 strikeouts in 220-230 innings.

2. Randy Johnson, Yankees: Johnson was obviously the other member of last year’s top two, and while he’s obviously a great pitcher, he’s also more risky because he’s 41 years old. He’s also changing leagues and will likely see an increase in ERA and WHIP and a decrease in strikeouts that will only be partially offset by the fact that New York’s offense should help him win more.

The biggest key for Johnson, however, is just staying healthy. If he can, he’ll give you 18-20 wins, a 2.75-3.00 ERA, 1.00-1.05 WHIP and 250-270 strikeouts in 220-230 innings, which is almost as good as Santana.

3. Jason Schmidt, Giants: Schmidt has been one of the best pitchers in baseball the last three seasons despite the fact that he has trouble staying healthy. He’s only averaged 30 starts the last three years, but he’s posted 48 wins with a 2.99 ERA and 655 strikeouts in 618 innings.

He’s still an injury risk, but his injuries haven’t been crippling to his value recently. He should be good for 16-18 wins, a 2.80-3.20 ERA, 1.05-1.10 WHIP and 225-240 strikeouts in 210-220 innings.

4. Curt Schilling, Red Sox: Schilling will open the season on the disabled list, but it doesn’t sound like he’s going to miss more than two or three starts. He successfully made the switch from the NL to the AL last year, finishing second in the Cy Young voting despite making only 32 starts.

He’s 38 years old, but he’s pitched exceptionally well whenever he’s been able to take the mound the last four years, and this year should be no different. I’d expect 17-19 wins, a 3.00-3.25 ERA, 1.00-1.05 WHIP and 200-210 strikeouts in 210-220 innings.

5. Pedro Martinez, Mets: I actually think Martinez will probably outproduce Schilling this year, but he’s more of a risk because nobody really knows how healthy his shoulder is. Still, I would have expected Martinez to knock half a run off last year’s 3.90 ERA even if he had stayed in Boston.

With the move to the National League, and a pitcher’s park, he could drop a full run. I’m expecting 16-18 wins, a 2.90-3.10 ERA, 1.00-1.05 WHIP and 220-230 strikeouts in 200-210 innings.

6. Roy Oswalt, Astros: Just take a look at Oswalt’s career numbers after four seasons. He’s 63-27 with a 3.11 ERA and 666 strikeouts in 739 innings. And that’s despite the fact that he’s only pitched more than 150 innings in two of the four seasons.

When Oswalt’s healthy, he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball, and I’d expect him to improve on last year’s 3.49 ERA. He should be good for 17-19 wins, a 3.00-3.25 ERA, 1.15-1.20 WHIP and 180-200 strikeouts in 200-220 innings.

7. Ben Sheets, Brewers: Based on what he did last year, Sheets should probably be a little higher than this, but I’m being cautious. First of all, his strikeout-to-walk ratio last year (8.25 K/BB) was so off-the-charts good that any pitcher would have trouble duplicating it. The next-best last year was 6.59, and only five other pitchers were above 5 K/BB. Only two other pitchers have been above 7 K/BB the last five years: Schilling twice and Martinez once.

Also, Sheets was so much better last year than he had been in any of his three previous seasons that you have to be at least a little concerned. I don’t think last year was a fluke, but I wouldn’t look for those kind of numbers every year. I’m expecting more like 12-14 wins, a 3.00-3.25 ERA, 1.05-1.10 WHIP and 200-225 strikeouts in 220-230 innings.

8. Carlos Zambrano, Cubs: If you had told me last year that Zambrano would be my highest-rated Cubs starter this year, I wouldn’t have believed it. But he was excellent last year while Mark Prior and Kerry Wood struggled, and are still struggling, with injuries.

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Zambrano’s walks still concern me somewhat and I don’t think he’ll be churning out sub-3.00 ERAs every year, but he’s a very good pitcher. He should be good for 15-17 wins, a 3.00-3.25 ERA, 1.20-1.25 WHIP and 175-190 strikeouts in 200-215 innings.

9. Jake Peavy, Padres: After a solid season in 2003, Peavy had a breakout season last year that was slightly shortened by injury. He only pitched 166.1 innings, but he led the majors with a 2.27 ERA and had 173 strikeouts.

Peavy’s only 24 years old and he’s going to continue to be a very good pitcher, but his ERA is going to shoot up. Based on how he pitched last year, Peavy’s ERA probably should have been a little over 3.00 instead of what it was, so it’s not smart to expect another ERA below 2.50. I’m expecting 15-17 wins, a 3.00-3.25 ERA, 1.20-1.25 WHIP and 185-200 strikeouts in 190-200 innings.

10. Oliver Perez, Pirates: Like Peavy, Perez broke out in a big way last year. He had shown off amazing stuff before, but his lack of control was a concern. Last year, he limited the walks somewhat (81 in 196.1 innings) and was able to post a 3.25 ERA to go with his 239 strikeouts.

The concerns about Perez are that he plays for the Pirates and won’t get much support, and that he needs to keep the improved control or else he’ll probably struggle again. I’d expect 12-14 wins, a 3.25-3.50 ERA, 1.15-1.20 WHIP and 225-240 strikeouts in 200-210 innings.

11. Tim Hudson, Braves: Hudson wasn’t quite as good as normal last year. He posted his highest ERA (3.53) since 2000 (4.14), he only made 27 starts and pitched 188.2 innings and his strikeout rate dropped below 5 K/9IP (4.91).

Since then, of course, Hudson has switched teams. Now he’ll be pitching in the National League and working with excellent pitching coach Leo Mazzone. Between those two things and the fact that he was already a really good pitcher, he should bounce back nicely from a somewhat off year. I’m expecting 15-17 wins, a 3.00-3.25 ERA, 1.15-1.20 WHIP and 125-150 strikeouts in 200-220 innings.

12. Mark Prior, Cubs: Much like last year, Prior sent Cubs fans everywhere into a panic with a preseason injury. However, it looks like he’ll be back in action in mid-April, so it shouldn’t hurt his value too much. Of course, last year he wasn’t supposed to be out as long as he ended up being out.

Prior’s a difficult guy to rank. He has the talent to be the best pitcher in baseball, but he’s turned into a big-time risk at the young age of 24. This year, I’m looking for 13-15 wins, a 3.00-3.25 ERA, 1.05-1.10 WHIP and 200-215 strikeouts in 175-200 innings, but he could be much better or he could get hurt again — or stay hurt — and be much worse.

13. Roger Clemens, Astros: After retiring ever so briefly last offseason, Clemens came back to win yet another Cy Young award with 18 wins, a 2.98 ERA and 218 strikeouts in 214.1 innings. He may be 42 years old, but he doesn’t seem to be losing anything.

Of course, last year was significantly better than what he did the previous two seasons, so there’s no guarantee he can match it. And since he’s getting old, his risk of sudden decline or injury is higher than normal. I’d expect 15-17 wins, a 3.50-3.75 ERA, 1.20-1.25 WHIP and 200-215 strikeouts in 200-210 innings. I think you’ll be disappointed if you count on a repeat of last year.

14. Kerry Wood, Cubs: Like Prior, Wood is also dealing with some injury problems this spring, but he’s also optimistic that he’ll return pretty early in April. There’s no questioning Wood’s talent, but he’s been maddeningly inconsistent.

He’s never won more than 14 games, he’s alternated seasons with an ERA below 3.50 with seasons with an ERA above 3.50 and he’s only pitched more than 200 innings twice. A safe expectation is probably 12-14 wins, a 3.50-3.75 ERA, 1.20-1.25 WHIP and 200-215 strikeouts in 180-200 innings.

15. Roy Halladay, Blue Jays: Halladay struggled with injuries last year and finished with eight wins and a 4.20 ERA in 133 innings, but don’t forget how good he was the previous two seasons. He pitched an amazing 505.1 innings and won 41 games with a 3.10 ERA and 372 strikeouts.

I don’t know if he’ll be quite as good as he was those two seasons, but he’s only 27 and he’ll definitely be better than he was last year. I’m expecting 15-17 wins, a 3.25-3.50 ERA, 1.15-1.20 WHIP and 150-160 strikeouts in 200-215 innings.

16. Mike Mussina, Yankees: Mussina had his worst season since 1996 last year, but it’s not all bad news. He was dealing with some injury issues, and he finished the season strong, with a 2.14 ERA in six September starts and a 3.66 ERA in three postseason starts.

He’s 36 years old now and he’s more of a risk than he used to be, but I think he’ll definitely recover from last year. He should be good for 15-17 wins, a 3.50-3.75 ERA, 1.15-1.20 WHIP and 170-185 strikeouts in 190-210 innings.

17. John Smoltz, Braves: Smoltz is possibly the most difficult player in baseball to project this year. He used to be a great starter, then he missed an entire season, then he became a great closer. Now, he’s a starter again, and there are a lot of questions.

Can he be as good as he used to be? Can his arm withstand a full season of starting? Is his age (38 in May) a big concern? I’d advocate a somewhat conservative projection of 13-15 wins, a 3.50-3.75 ERA, 1.15-1.20 WHIP and 160-175 strikeouts in 175-190 innings. That way, you’re not completely devastated if this switch doesn’t work out well.

18. Rich Harden, A’s: Harden showed some potential in 74.2 innings in the majors in 2003, but he walked way too many hitters (40). He still walked quite a few batters last year, but it wasn’t nearly as bad with 81 in 189.2, and his ERA dropped from 4.46 to 3.99 as a result.

Harden’s only 23 years old, and I think he’ll keep getting better, especially if he keeps making significant progress with his control. This year, I’m expecting 14-16 wins, a 3.60-3.80 ERA, 1.25-1.30 WHIP and 180-195 strikeouts in 190-210 innings.

19. Livan Hernandez, Nationals: Why is he good? I have no idea. But he’s posted a 3.41 ERA in 488.1 innings the past two seasons. I’d say he’s not that old either, but I don’t even know if he’s really 30 or not.

All I know is that he seems to be capable of pitching a ton of innings with no repercussions and that he’s recovered from a terrible 2001 season to be very good the last two seasons. This year, he should be good for 13-15 wins, a 3.50-3.75 ERA, 1.25-1.30 WHIP and 170-185 strikeouts in 230-250 innings.

20. Mark Buehrle, White Sox: Buehrle had a strange injury this spring, where he went from being out six weeks to being perfectly fine and ready to go on Opening Day. That’s excellent news because he’s been a very reliable pitcher the last four years.

It was starting to look like his low strikeout rate might cause his decline, but he upped the strikeouts last season (165 in 245.1 innings) and dropped his ERA from 4.14 in 2003 to 3.89. This year, I’d expect 15-17 wins, a 3.75-4.00 ERA, 1.25-1.30 WHIP and 145-160 strikeouts in 225-240 innings.

21. Mark Mulder, Cardinals: Mulder had a very strange year last season. He started the season 13-2 with a 3.21 ERA in 140 innings and looked like a candidate for a Cy Young award. From that point on, however, he was 4-6 with a 6.41 ERA in 85.2 innings. The question you have to ask, then, is what happened?

Coming into last season, he had had three straight seasons with an ERA under 3.50, and it looked like he would easily make it a fourth. Then it all fell apart. He’s a risk this year just because nobody really knows why he struggled so badly after the All-Star break.

I think he should be good for 16-18 wins, a 3.80-4.20 ERA, 1.25-1.30 WHIP and 150-160 strikeouts in 200-220 innings. He could definitely be better, but you can’t really expect much better than that because then you’ll be in big trouble if it turns out he’s had an injury all along.

22. Javier Vazquez, Diamondbacks: Vazquez actually had a season somewhat similar to Mulder’s. He started the season 9-5 with a 3.42 ERA in 108 innings. After that, however, he went 5-5 with a 6.70 ERA in 90 innings. And like Mulder, he got traded to the National League during the offseason.

As with Mulder, I think moving to the NL can only help Vazquez, and I do expect him to bounce back somewhat. He should be good for 12-14 wins, a 4.00-4.25 ERA, 1.20-1.25 WHIP and 185-200 strikeouts in 210-220 innings. I actually think he’ll be a bit better than that, but you have to hedge your bets somewhat in case there was really something wrong with him last year.

23. Barry Zito, A’s: I worried about Zito last offseason because of his low strikeout rate, but he actually brought that back up from 5.67 K/9IP in 2003 to 6.89 K/9IP last year. The problem was that he gave up a lot more hits than normal and a lot more home runs.

I don’t think Zito will ever duplicate that Cy Young season, but I do think he’s a better pitcher than he showed last year. He should be good for 13-15 wins, a 3.75-4.00 ERA, 1.25-1.30 WHIP and 160-175 strikeouts in 210-220 innings.

24. A.J. Burnett, Marlins: Burnett was a very promising young pitcher before he missed almost all of 2003 with an arm injury. He came back last year and posted a solid 3.68 ERA in 120 innings. Now he’s nearly two years removed from the injury, and he should be back to full strength.

One thing he showed last year was an improved walk rate over his pre-injury days, so it will be interesting to see if he maintains that. Either way, I expect him to win 11-13 games with a 3.50-3.75 ERA, 1.20-1.25 WHIP and 170-190 strikeouts in 175-200 innings.

25. Matt Clement, Red Sox: Clement’s been a very good pitcher two of the last three seasons, and he was a decent pitcher the other year. He walks a lot of batters, but he makes up for it with a lot of strikeouts. He hasn’t won many games, but that should change this year with a great offense backing him up.

Clement probably won’t match last season’s ERA because he’ll be in the AL facing tougher lineups this year, but he should be able to handle the transition and be a solid starter. I’m expecting 14-16 wins, a 3.75-4.00 ERA, 1.25-1.30 WHIP and 185-200 strikeouts in 190-210 innings.

26. Josh Beckett, Marlins: Beckett has still yet to have a really good regular season. He only pitched 156.2 innings last year, and that was a career high for him. He also saw his ERA rise from 3.04 in 2003 to 3.79 last year. There’s no questioning his ability, but you have to consider him a risk until he actually pitches a complete season.

I think he’ll probably set a career high in innings again, but I’m certainly not comfortable penciling him in for 200 innings. I’m expecting 10-12 wins, a 3.50-3.75 ERA, 1.20-1.25 WHIP and 160-180 strikeouts in 160-180 innings.

27. Kelvim Escobar, Angels: Escobar hasn’t been the most consistent pitcher in the world, but he’s put up solid numbers the last four seasons. Last year, he only won 11 games, but that wasn’t his fault as he had a 3.93 ERA that should have earned him at least 14 or 15 wins.

This year, since the Angels still have a very good offense, I’m expecting Escobar to get better run support and I’m expecting him to once again pitch well. He should be good for 13-15 wins, a 3.80-4.20 ERA, 1.25-1.30 WHIP and 180-200 strikeouts in 190-210 innings.

28. Greg Maddux, Cubs: People keep talking about how much Maddux has slipped, and it’s true that he’s no longer a top-caliber pitcher. But he still gets the job done, especially for fantasy purposes. In each of the last two seasons, he’s won 16 games and posted an ERA right around 4.00 in 210-220 innings. That’s very valuable.

Maddux turns 39 in April, but there’s no reason to think he’s going to suddenly lose his ability to pitch. He won’t be a great pitcher and he might even decline a little from the last two years, but he’ll still win games and give you solid numbers. I’m expecting 14-16 wins, a 3.90-4.10 ERA, 1.15-1.20 WHIP and 135-150 strikeouts in 200-210 innings.

29. Odalis Perez, Dodgers: Perez must have been one of the most unlucky pitchers in baseball last year. He posted a 3.25 ERA in 196.1 innings, but he was only able to win seven games. This yeah, his luck should be at least a little bit better.

Perez struggled with injuries some this spring, but it doesn’t sound like he’ll miss time. And his ERA has been 3.25 or better two of the last three seasons, so I think he’s more likely to have another good year than to slip back to the 4.52 ERA of 2003. I’m expecting 11-13 wins, a 3.40-3.60 ERA, 1.15-1.20 WHIP and 120-140 strikeouts in 185-200 innings.

30. Brad Radke, Twins: Radke had easily the best season of his career last year, but he’s been pretty solid in general over the years. He’s not going to win a ton of games or post ridiculously low numbers, but he won’t kill your ERA or WHIP either.

He’s not a particularly big risk since he’s pitched at least 200 innings eight of the last nine years, and I don’t think he’s likely to decline an excessive amount at age 32. He should be good for 13-15 wins, a 3.75-4.00 ERA, 1.25-1.30 WHIP and 125-140 strikeouts in 200-220 innings.

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