Commentary

Sixty Feet, Six Inches: The search for this year's Cliff Lee

Updated: April 21, 2009, 2:12 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

We aim to please.

All right, sometimes in our attempts to do so, we actually end up annoying people. Apparently, if the ESPN Conversation page is any indication, a whole bunch of you get annoyed when looking at my starting pitching rankings every week. That's cool. Nevertheless, we aim to please.

Hence my topic for this week's edition of Sixty Feet, Six Inches. In my Monday morning chat, I was asked a variation of the same question perhaps 20 times (at least 20 that I saw … remember, when 1,500 questions come in per hour, it's impossible to read 'em all), and it went something like this: "Which under-owned starter will be this season's [insert name here]?" The inserted name was someone like Cliff Lee, Jon Lester or Ricky Nolasco. In other words: "Find me the next breakout starter before he breaks out."

This is tough stuff, of course. Perhaps like Eric Cartman of "South Park," you are convinced redheads possess mystical powers and that I am, therefore, clairvoyant. I can assure you that is not the case. To proclaim with absolute certainty which starters will come from nowhere and contend for the Cy Young Award? Impossible. But it's still an interesting question to take a shot at, and I'm giving myself five bullets.

That's five shots at finding the guy nobody expects to be awesome but who winds up being awesome. What are the chances I will nail it? Pretty low. Given this opportunity last season, I wouldn't have said Lee, Lester or Nolasco. Heck, I was doubting Lee in July last season. Still, I'm taking my hacks. It's an interesting exercise. Try it yourself. In fact, I want to challenge my Conversation users to do this. Yeah, yeah, I'm an idiot, Scott Kazmir shouldn't be ranked so low, I should be fired, I'm the stupidest person on ESPN.com, blah, blah … well, you post your fave five, the five starters owned in less than 50 percent of ESPN.com standard leagues who could be stars this season. And just to make it tough, I'm not allowing myself to answer David Price or Tommy Hanson. Here are mine:

Manny Parra, Brewers (24.4 percent owned): I don't know what has happened to Parra's control. In stops at Double-A and Triple-A between 2006 and 2007, he walked 41 batters in 138 innings. In his big league career, he has walked 93 batters in 202 2/3 innings. He is a lefty who throws in the mid-90s and has mounting ground ball tendencies, and he's 26, so it's not like we have to be concerned that he's too young. He has been unsteady in two '09 starts, but the skills are there.

Wandy Rodriguez, Astros (46.2 percent owned): Rodriguez is 30 now, so he's not exactly a bonus baby. He has broken a lot of fantasy hearts in his day. But his strikeouts per nine innings rate has increased from 5.6 in 2005 to 6.5 in '06 to 7.78 in '07 to 8.58 in '08. And even more significant, his walks per nine innings rate has decreased the past three seasons. He has trended positively toward forcing more ground balls, and he's actually good at that Minute Maid bandbox. His problems? He has been bad on the road, and he was hurt last season. But there's some pretty big upside here.

Rick Porcello, Tigers (4.5 percent owned): Sure, he's a 20-year-old rookie who had never pitched above Class A before this season. No, I don't believe in him enough to start ranking him in the top 80. But if this kid's career prospects are as good as the scouts say, it's possible his future could be now. He crushed the Mariners on Sunday, allowing one run in seven innings. He's not showing elite strikeout stuff yet, but he has been a pretty extreme ground ball pitcher, at least through two starts.

Anibal Sanchez, Marlins (7.8 percent owned): He now is a year further removed from his 2003 Tommy John surgery, and he had labrum surgery in 2007. While Sanchez's top-line numbers at the end of '08 stunk to high heaven, he did fan 50 in 51 2/3 innings, a sign that the changeup that made him a future fantasy stud hasn't left him entirely. His 7-6 strikes-walks ratio so far in '09 doesn't exactly inspire confidence, but this list isn't made for sure things. His ceiling: He fired a no-hitter in 2006.

Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (2.5 percent owned): In a standard ESPN league, it's tough to roster a guy who's not in the majors, and Buchholz burned a lot of folks last season. So I'm not saying you have to go get him. But I am saying that considering how shaky the Red Sox rotation has looked occasionally (especially Daisuke Matsuzaka and Brad Penny), more reinforcements will be needed. Buchholz probably would have gotten the call this week to replace Dice-K, but he tweaked a hammy over the weekend. He threw gas and located his curve in spring training. He has an ace's arm. It could happen.

Top 80 starters

Note: Christopher Harris' top 80 starters are ranked for their expected performance from this point on, not on the statistics they have already accrued. (Previous ranking is in parentheses.)

1. Johan Santana, NYM (1)
2. CC Sabathia, NYY (2)
3. Tim Lincecum, SF (3)
4. Roy Halladay, TOR (4)
5. Jake Peavy, SD (5)
6. James Shields, TB (6)
7. Dan Haren, ARI (8)
8. Brandon Webb, ARI (7)
9. Chad Billingsley, LAD (12)
10. Cole Hamels, PHI (9)
11. Roy Oswalt, HOU (10)
12. Josh Beckett, BOS (11)
13. Francisco Liriano, MIN (14)
14. Felix Hernandez, SEA (15)
15. Adam Wainwright, STL (13)
16. Javier Vazquez, ATL (16)
17. Zack Greinke, KC (17)
18. Rich Harden, CHC (18)
19. Kevin Slowey, MIN (19)
20. Yovani Gallardo, MIL (20)
21. John Lackey, LAA (21)
22. Joba Chamberlain, NYY (22)
23. Derek Lowe, ATL (23)
24. Cliff Lee, CLE (25)
25. Scott Baker, MIN (24)
26. A.J. Burnett, NYY (27)
27. Gil Meche, KC (28)
28. Brett Myers, PHI (26)
29. Scott Kazmir, TB (30)
30. John Danks, CHW (32)
31. Ted Lilly, CHC (33)
32. Clayton Kershaw, LAD (35)
33. Erik Bedard, SEA (50)
34. Ricky Nolasco, FLA (29)
35. Josh Johnson, FLA (36)
36. Aaron Harang, CIN (34)
37. Justin Verlander, DET (31)
38. Matt Cain, SF (37)
39. Wandy Rodriguez, HOU (41)
40. Jon Lester, BOS (38)
41. Ryan Dempster, CHC (39)
42. Max Scherzer, ARI (43)
43. Ervin Santana, LAA (42)
44. Edinson Volquez, CIN (44)
45. Daisuke Matsuzaka, BOS (40)
46. Johnny Cueto, CIN (46)
47. Jered Weaver, LAA (45)
48. Randy Johnson, SF (47)
49. Matt Garza, TB (48)
50. Mark Buehrle, CHW (51)
51. Hiroki Kuroda, LAD (52)
52. Carlos Zambrano, CHC (53)
53. Andy Sonnanstine, TB (56)
54. Kenshin Kawakami, ATL (59)
55. Andy Pettitte, NYY (60)
56. Manny Parra, MIL (54)
57. Chris Young, SD (55)
58. Jair Jurrjens, ATL (62)
59. Dave Bush, MIL (58)
60. Paul Maholm, PIT (64)
61. Chien-Ming Wang, NYY (57)
62. John Maine, NYM (61)
63. Justin Duchscherer, OAK (65)
64. Jeremy Guthrie, BAL (66)
65. Oliver Perez, NYM (67)
66. Sean Marshall, CHC (68)
67. Fausto Carmona, CLE (69)
68. John Smoltz, BOS (70)
69. Chris Volstad, FLA (NR)
70. Chris Carpenter, STL (49)
71. Brett Anderson, OAK (71)
72. Koji Uehara, BAL (72)
73. Tommy Hanson, ATL (74)
74. Bronson Arroyo, CIN (73)
75. Joe Saunders, LAA (75)
76. Armando Galarraga, DET (NR)
77. Kyle Lohse, STL (76)
78. Jord. Zimmermann, WAS (79)
79. David Price, TB (80)
80. Kyle Davies, KC (NR)

Fortunes rising

Erik Bedard, Mariners (Rank: 33): Bedard makes this list for the second straight week; he has gone from 55th to 33rd on my list in two weeks. With Bedard having a 1.86 ERA, a 0.98 WHIP and 23 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings, there's an argument to be made (and many angry folks have made it in Conversation) that I'm -- let me see whether I can get the quote right -- "an idiot" for not having Erik the Great even higher than this. When he's right, he's a strikeout-per-inning monster. I'm not even that concerned about wins, which conceivably could be limited if the Mariners can't keep up their hot start. But look at Bedard's innings pitched, and you see a guy who has failed to get beyond 150 innings in three of his five seasons. Sure, the Orioles babied him a little early on, but he needed babying. His health concerns mean I'm not going to be able to give Bedard his full due for another month or two. I'm just not.

Kenshin Kawakami, Braves (54): Fifteen strikeouts in 12 innings have my attention. (Unfortunately, so do seven walks.) I was higher on Kawakami than most (well, not higher than the Braves) before the season started, thanks to Japan League numbers that indicated a tantalizing combination of control and strikeouts. He probably is not this dominant, whiff-wise, and both the Nationals and the Marlins hit him in his first two starts. But I also don't think he'll walk hitters at this rate. Kawakami is one of those marginal guys I'm kind of going out on a limb for this season, but he's owned in only 17 percent of ESPN leagues, and he should be picked up in deeper leagues. I think an ERA around 4.00, a WHIP around 1.25 and 140 strikeouts in 175 innings is reasonable for Kawakami.

Chris Volstad, Marlins (69): "No Volstad?!?!" was the most common lament in the Conversation for last week's column. Listen, I like Volstad's career arc a lot. I touted him quite a bit last summer and benefited from his sub-3.00 ERA in 84 1/3 innings after his call-up. But he hasn't become the ground ball pitcher we assumed he'd be, not yet, and contrary to what many readers seem to believe, he's not projected to be a high-strikeout guy. A combination of low strikeouts and a lot of fly balls in a kid who is 22 years old and making his first full tour of the majors isn't a winning recipe. This is why I have Volstad as low as 69th. But I admit, those first two starts this season were really nice. (How'd that most recent one taste?) Volstad deserves to be a factor in deeper mixed leagues.

Fortunes falling

Justin Verlander, Tigers (37): The strikeouts have been there for Verlander (he has eight in each of his past two outings), and that's why he still is worth owning in all leagues. But assertions that he is completely over what ailed him in '08 don't seem true. In his most recent start, Friday against the Mariners, Verlander was cruising through four innings and then got lit up for five runs in the fifth. There doesn't seem to be a strong consensus on what plagued Verlander last season. Was it a dead arm? Was it a big innings leap coming back to roost? I won't be surprised if he's able to put aside his two poor efforts in three starts so far this season because he does seem this close. But I'm concerned.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox (45): Regular readers know I wasn't high on Dice-K to begin the season, but even I didn't believe he'd come away from the World Baseball Classic with such a tired shoulder that he'd have to go on the DL. Matsuzaka is expected to begin a throwing program some time this week, but there's really no schedule for his return, and we all know the Red Sox are infamous for taking it slow with their injured pitchers. In Matsuzaka's absence, Justin Masterson has gotten the first crack at the rotation, and he pitched pretty well against the Orioles on Monday. I still worry Masterson will have trouble getting lefties out, as he did last season, so I wouldn't recommend him in shallow leagues.

Chris Carpenter, Cardinals (70): Manager Tony LaRussa seemed to know almost instantly that Carpenter's oblique tear -- he hurt himself swinging the bat April 14 -- was going to keep Carpenter out a long while. That ain't good. The Cardinals currently put the star-crossed Carpenter's absence at four to eight weeks, but that is highly subject to change, and there'll be no guarantee he won't reinjure himself later in the summer. Hold on to Carpenter if your league has DL spots, because he was off to a fantastic start. But if you're pressed for a roster spot in a shallow league? Maybe drop him. P.J. Walters got the first crack at the Cardinals' fifth-starter job and fanned seven Cubs, but now St. Louis is reportedly leaning toward giving Mitchell Boggs a start Saturday. You probably don't need to own either of those guys.

Comings and goings

Brandon Webb threw 22 pitches off flat ground Sunday and reportedly felt fine. He will throw a bullpen session Tuesday. There's a chance Webb will need a rehab start, but it looks like he'll be back next week either way.

Josh Beckett originally was suspended six games for throwing behind Bobby Abreu's head, but the league reduced the suspension to five games, meaning Beckett won't miss a turn.

• The Rockies will recall Franklin Morales from Triple-A Colorado Springs on Tuesday to face the Diamondbacks for the second time this season. He was excellent his first time out in '09, allowing one run in six innings. I remain an admirer of his long-term prospects but want to see better control from him before I grab him in a shallow league.

• The Nationals recalled prospect Jordan Zimmermann for Monday night's game in D.C., which, after a long rain delay, finally did take place. Zimmermann pitched well (six innings, six hits, one run, one walk, three strikeouts). Granted, after a spring training that saw him fan 20 batters in 14 1/3 innings, maybe this was a little bit of a letdown. Still, it was a good start.

• With Jo-Jo Reyes struggling badly in his first turn as the Braves' fifth starter and Tom Glavine talking about retirement if his throwing program continues to cause him pain, speculation has increased that Tommy Hanson could come up soon. There's no solid news yet, though.

John Smoltz threw 20 pitches in batting practice Saturday and said he wasn't thrilled with his mechanics. He's expected to throw batting practice one more time before going out on what figures to be a somewhat extended minor league rehab assignment. A late May return still seems possible.

John Lackey and Ervin Santana each threw a successful, extended bullpen session Saturday. Lackey is expected to begin his rehab assignment in the minors as soon as the next couple of days, and Santana might get to that point by this weekend. In the meantime, Dustin Moseley had to go on the DL because of tightness in his right elbow; Darren Oliver joined the rotation over the weekend and pitched four innings Saturday. Oliver could continue to get starts as the Angels try to make it through the next week or two while waiting for Lackey and Santana.

• The Astros called up Felipe Paulino to take the rotation spot of Brian Moehler, who is out with an injured knee. Paulino turned in a nice first outing against the Reds on Sunday, allowing no runs in six innings. Paulino isn't an elite prospect or a high-strikeout guy, but he could catch lightning in a bottle for a few starts if Moehler stays out.

• As a result of Monday night's rainout, the Yankees will skip struggling pitcher Chien-Ming Wang the next time through their rotation. I know it's tempting to completely give up on Wang, and he's never going to be an elite fantasy pitcher regardless, but I recommend just leaving him on your bench until he figures things out. Everyone associated with the Yankees insists Wang isn't injured.

• The Mets skipped Mike Pelfrey's turn Sunday because of elbow tendinitis they say has contributed to his struggles to start the season. At this point, they don't think a trip to the DL is necessary for Pelfrey, which would mean he might start as soon as this coming weekend. Stay tuned.

Kris Benson will miss his scheduled start Wednesday because of elbow tendinitis. The Rangers don't think he'll have to go on the disabled list, but the real reason this is interesting is that prospect Derek Holland could get a look as a starter if Benson misses more time.

Alfredo Simon went on the DL for the Orioles because of what the team is calling a "degenerative" condition in his elbow. Yikes. Brad Bergesen will be called up Tuesday to take Simon's place.

• Padres fifth starter Walter Silva went on the DL because of a strained forearm, and San Diego recalled Josh Geer from Triple-A Portland to take his place. Greer was scheduled to start Monday night, but the Padres' game with the Phillies was rained out.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.

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