Ben’s 2012 wish list: starting pitchers

Yu had me at konnichiwa. Yu had me when I saw him hit triple digits back in the 2008 World Baseball Classic at the tender age of 22. Yu had me when I realized that his 6-foot-4 frame and repeatable delivery was much more akin to the Western style of pitching than the unorthodox Japanese release points and windups.

Yu had me when I watched him dominate Japanese hitters with a deadly shuto (backwards slider) and other above-average off-speed stuff. Most of all, Yu had me when I heard that he didn’t need to come to America to prove his worth.

But when will the majors have Yu Darvish? Speculation has begun that 2012 finally will be the year we get to see this great talent make the jump across the Pacific. We, as fantasy baseball enthusiasts, are a buzz with when and where this talent will land. I liken his talent level to Stephen Strasburg. That me be blasphemy to some, but I’m all in on Darvish.

I know there is warranted hesitancy when assessing Japanese pitchers now that we’ve seen several expensive mistakes over the past few years. Darvish is different. He’s young enough (25) and doesn’t put himself through all the stressful pitching regimen that his countrymen submit their arms to. Now nothing has been set in stone, but if Darvish makes the jump to the show, we will see him claim a front-end-of-the-rotation role and a $100 million price tag.

For fantasy purposes, Darvish gives great talent at what should be a discounted price. He’ll most likely find a draft position in the Daniel Hudson realm when the season draws closer. My head-over-heels feelings about him will not make me overreach like I might for Strasburg, but I will have my draft trigger firmly pressed if Darvish has the value I anticipate he will in 2012.

Clayton Kershaw SP LAD – I like Kershaw for a multitude of reasons. He’s a top-five guy in every sabermetric category. He was a 21-game winner in 2012, but I have a feeling most still will rank him outside their top three starting pitchers. For me, he’s the No. 1 pitcher to own. I like Roy Halladay and Justin Verlander, but if I decide that my fake team needs the best pitcher in the game, I will bypass those two for Kershaw.

He strikes out batters (9.57 K/9). He keeps the ball in the park (6.7 HR/FB). He’s a left-handed 24 year old. What would you not like when projecting him for 2012? He’s healthy and doesn’t have the mileage on his arm that some of the other top starting pitchers do. He’s great defensively (Gold Glove winner). I’m done talking about him. That should be enough to convince all of you that he’s worthy.

Now it’s time for some bounce-back studs.

Tommy Hanson SP ATL – Once thought of as the next great Atlanta Braves pitcher, Hanson has seen those expectations wane amidst injuries. My belief is the talent that had us all infatuated remains in the arm of Hanson. He has had to deal with several issues, but these injuries don’t necessarily lend to inconsistencies, or rather, consistently bad play. Of his 22 starts in 2011, he gave up more than three earned runs in only four starts. That’s awesome.

To give you an example, Verlander had seven starts out of 34 in which he gave up more than three earned runs. So Hanson had fewer bad games using this math than Verlander. (Of course, Verlander pitched more innings in his starts on average than Hanson.) The point is that Hanson is still a front-end-of-the-rotation guy you shouldn’t eliminate from your cheat sheet.

Zack Greinke SP MIL – I know we’ve all heard the phrase “outkicked coverage.” Well, Greinke “underkicked” his coverage. In what one could call the best pitched season with the worst results, Greinke showed why most thought he would find success in Milwaukee. He led baseball in K/9 with a 10.54 mark. His xFIP was also tops with a staggering 2.56. Greinke’s ERA of 3.83 will scare off the ignorant drafters, but his advanced statistics point to a stellar 2011 season.

One thing he will need to control to help offset that ERA and xFIP discrepancy is the flyball in order to keep the ball in the park. Similar to the next guy on this list, Greinke should have tons and tons of value at the draft table. I am assuming, of course, that your leaguemates don’t read my columns. I think Greinke will be very good in 2012, and I’ll have him ranked in my top seven or so, no lower than 10.

Josh Johnson SP MIA – What better way to give a guy confidence than to surround him with tons of offensive talent. If the offseason has shown us anything so far, it is that the Miami Marlins are going to spend what it takes to do just that. It will be scary to see what a healthy Johnson and a formidable lineup might be capable of.

I don’t think anyone can debate the talent level of Johnson when he pitches. He wasn’t quite as flawless in his shortened 2011 season as he was in 2010, but he was not nearly human enough to question his deity. Seriously, Johnson is as talented a starting pitcher as there is in baseball unless you consider health a skill.

Normally, I will not factor injuries into my evaluation of a player, but there are some guys like Grady Sizemore who force you to pay attention. Johnson is that kind of player. For every bit of skill that he has, he has an equal amount of risk. I won’t reach for Johnson in 2012, but if given the choice between him and a safer play with less talent, I will take Jonson all day, every day.

Tim Lincecum SP SFO – What happened to Lincecum in 2011? Maybe even worse, why could the Giants not give him support? It’s pretty incredible when a starting pitcher has a 2.74 ERA and a losing record in the same season. Granted, this was Lincecum’s worst season since his sophomore year. He posted his lowest strikeout rate and highest walk rate in that span.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

That’s where my criticism will end. Lincecum is a competitor in every sense of the word. He is the definition of ace and doesn’t miss time to injury.

The walks don’t scare me, and the innings don’t either. I will have Lincecum back in my top five pitchers to begin the year, and I think that most drafters will let him slide. I think he had trouble locating his curveball and, therefore, was forced to lean more heavily on his slider. I expect him to take the offseason to bring that curveball back up to snuff, which should help his fastball by keeping the batters honest.

I’ve always loved Lincecum, and he may be the most likely of all these guys to find his way on all my teams in 2012.

Jon Lester SP BOS – Lester had a slight velocity drop (about 0.5 mph) on his fastball, which may or may not be to blame for his regression in strikeouts. In fact, Lester’s 2011 season was much more similar to his 2008 season than the dominant two-year stretch 2009-2010. He gave up a tad more home runs, but he had his best line drive rate of his career (15.9 percent). That at least tells me they weren’t hitting the ball hard against him.

It’s going to be a tough sell if you think Lester will be drafted as a top-10 pitcher like he was last year, but if you believe as I do that he’ll find a much more favorable value in 2012, then he should garner attention moving forward. I love his mentality and style of play. His cutter wasn’t as effective as it has been in the past, but Lester still has the makings of a top pitcher on your fantasy staff.

David Price SP TB – Price is from my home town, so I must say I’m slightly partial, but what some may see as a regression year for Price, I saw as growth. He had a better WAR, xFIP and K/9 and a lower BB/9, and he maintained his stellar .227 batting average against in the tough AL East. At just 26, Price should really start coming into his own. I think the progression of James Shields should only further Price’s growth in 2012.

I don’t think he’s necessarily a head case, but it seems that in high-stress situations, Price can struggle. Now, I know he had success in that role during the 2009 playoff run, but when he played for Vanderbilt and even last year down the stretch, he seemed to pitch better when the game wasn’t as crucial. That’s just my casual observation and doesn’t have much of anything to do with his 2012 fantasy value.

I really struggle to find holes in Price’s game. My rose-colored glasses will always want him on my fantasy teams, and his continued growth will keep him there.

If you can walk out of a draft with Lincecum or Kershaw, Johnson, Lester, Hanson or Price, and Strasburg or Darvish, I promise you will have the best staff in your league. Now, to be a dominant all-around team, there must also be some balance, and I would never advise wasting all your money on front-line starters. It’s not ridiculous to think that you could grab three to four of these guys without compromising the integrity of your hitting.

Please let me know if you input any of these guys into your own draft strategy. It will be interesting to see if my draft process hunches will play out. Stay tuned for the “Ben’s 2012 Wish List: infielders” edition.

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I dont believe in taking starters before the 6th rd but having said that I have my eyes set on Greinke for that spot. I think he might just drop to that spot. I think he will have an exceptional year.