- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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I wrote about Giants starters Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum a few weeks back, how a pair of major strikeout guys were being projected by many to fall short of winning 20 games combined, and thus became way too undervalued in drafts. Sure, their win potential isn't as great as someone on the Yankees, but on fantasy draft day, I just don't think that way. When you draft skills in fantasy, you might be surprised at how many wins a pitcher on a seemingly bad team might get.
If one had to name the American League version of the lowly Giants, they'd probably pick the Kansas City Royals. At least you would have two weeks ago, before the Royals began their season so strong it looks like they can pull off a year like 2003, when they won more than they lost. It's the only time that happened since 1994. Bob Hamelin was the team's slugger that year, and David Cone was the ace.
Now it's Zack Greinke and Alex Gordon. Or is it Brian Bannister and Billy Butler? You know, these Royals, with a better record than the Red Sox and Yankees, aren't so bad. With the Giants, at least they entered the season with a pair of aces, along with an extreme pitcher's park at their disposal. One could understand how unlucky Cain was to win a mere seven games in 2007, yet his other stats were nice. Who did the Royals have to pull something like that off?
They didn't appear to have anyone. I'm more surprised by the pitching numbers the Royals are producing than the hitting. I had Gordon pegged as a sophomore star, Butler could always rake, Jose Guillen was a wise addition who should go 25-95 and Mark Teahen, David DeJesus and Mark Grudzielanek are capable players. On the mound, however, who were fantasy owners really targeting? Gil Meche was decent in 2007, Joakim Soria had the peripherals of a top-10 closer, but not the save total, and what else was there? Bannister was the trendy pick of fantasy owners for most likely pitcher to avoid this year. Greinke seemed a sleeper, but it wasn't reflected in the ESPN average live draft results. Only 72 starting pitchers show up there, and Greinke came in at No. 62, Meche a spot behind. They weren't Cain and Lincecum, that's for sure.
So what do we think now? Here are the five Royals pitchers I predict will be fantasy relevant this season, in order of final Player Rater value.
1. Joakim Soria: This one is easy, because he's the closer, and he's really, really good. Soria has pitched in seven games so far, saved five, and in his seven innings he's permitted two singles and no walks, striking out 10. I think he'll end up with 35 saves, and more strikeouts than innings pitched. Look at what Takashi Saito did a year ago, subtract some saves, Soria can be that good, and a top-10 closer. Too many fantasy owners avoided Soria because they figured he wouldn't get enough saves on a bad team. It's just not true, that he won't get the saves, and that it's a terrible team. By the way, if you're looking for a safe middle reliever and all the big names are gone, both Leo Nunez and Ramon Ramirez are legit and could end up with 20 holds.
2. Gil Meche: Surprise! Look, I won't listen to any arguments about the current statistics. It's just too early. Meche is not off to the same start as last year, of course, when his April ERA was 2.18, and if you remove that month from his 2007 ledger, his final ERA jumps from 3.67 to 4. Maybe he is just average. Isn't that OK? I have no problem that he is, because Meche is relatively safe at the back end of a fantasy rotation. He's the most experienced pitcher on the Royals staff, about the only one capable of strikeouts, and obviously he's the one making all the money. Don't blame him for that! Sometimes I do think fantasy owners let stuff like that cloud their decisions. Meche is not a fantasy ace, but he remains a solid No. 4, and judging by his ownership figures (23 percent in ESPN standard leagues), he's not very popular. I had him ranked ahead of Greinke and Bannister even before his Wednesday performance, which was his best one yet, and I expect 12 wins and an ERA around 3.75 with 150 strikeouts. I guess that means I don't expect any other Royals starters to reach those figures.
3. Zack Greinke: I feel like I need to make something clear before discussing Greinke's statistics. Yes, it's a nice story. He's back on the team, and reaching his potential. It's all the Royals could hope for. Like Boston's Jon Lester, I can't imagine what he went through to get back to baseball, and his off-field issues come first. However, also like Lester, I wonder if the great story overshadows the harsh reality of what statistics do to a fantasy team. Greinke is a valuable fantasy commodity, a starting pitcher who induces ground balls and is off a wonderful start. He's not going to finish the year with a 0.75 ERA and 0.92 WHIP, this is pretty obvious, but is there anything we can learn from three outings? He should be durable. Let's remember the missed time the past few years was not because of arm woes, but personal problems. He will induce ground balls and rely on his defense. I have no issue with this. Tony Pena is a vacuum at shortstop, and Esteban German is not playing second or third base. Greinke's problem could be strikeout rate. It wasn't an issue a year ago, though, so what happened? He's doing the smart thing, preparing for 200 innings and keeping pitch counts low. He was able to finish his most recent start because he was under 100 pitches (and also because the Royals had a four-run lead, not three, meaning Soria didn't have to pitch). I like Greinke. I think he's a sell high guy in fantasy based on the numbers, but I could see the same stats as Meche here, except for the K's. Sorry, but that makes Meche more valuable, or better yet a better value.
4. Brian Bannister: It's only three starts, and so far the guy has looked great. I get that. There's also little chance I'd trade for the guy. The numbers just don't add up. As fantasy owners we need to project ahead, and while Bannister has allowed a mere 10 hits in 21 innings, unhittable is hardly one of the words people would use to describe him. He's hittable. Very hittable. His stuff is average, and at some point, the fancy ERA and WHIP have to come back to earth. Look at last September, when Bannister won one of five starts and had a 7.30 ERA. Optimists suggest he was simply tired, while realists figure it's the kind of month we should expect more often. Bannister is not Greg Maddux. Nobody is. We can call him smart and wise and someone who "knows how to pitch," but the fact is his skill set should lead to more home runs allowed, more hits than innings pitched, and probably a higher walk rate than he's currently at when he has to nibble more. I'm not paying much attention to what he did for the Mets in 2006, when he walked more than he fanned. That wasn't reflective of his minor league stats. Also, there is little relevance in discussing his father, former major leaguer Floyd Bannister. Dad is a lefty and had some big strikeout totals. Son is right-handed and might not top 100 K's in 200 innings. Bannister is not Chien-Ming Wang or Carlos Silva in terms of ground ball rate, so eventually, he's going to have some tough outings. Be careful.
5. Luke Hochevar: Nothing against the rest of the rotation, but I think the first overall pick from 2006 is going to make a larger impact. Hochevar had a decent spring, and if not for his relative inexperience, I think he would have made the team. I didn't want to see him buried in the bullpen, either. Hochevar is emerging with command of three pitches (curveball, slider and 92-93 mph fastball), and after tossing six shutout innings at Triple-A Omaha Wednesday, I'd say he could be promoted to the big club at any point. Kyle Davies could also get the call. Hochevar would probably lead this staff in strikeouts if he received 30 starts, and he projects as an ace. Brett Tomko isn't the worst No. 5 starter in the game, but you shouldn't trust his current numbers. He does this from time to time, and normally ends up with a WHIP in the 1.50 range. Lefty John Bale isn't walking people or allowing home runs, but he's been way too hittable so far and the news that he's dealing with a dead arm isn't a positive harbinger. Hochevar could replace either guy anytime.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.