Quick: Which pitching staff leads the American League in ERA?
No fair peeking. You read the title of this article.
That's right, as of Monday's games, the Detroit Tigers had the best group ERA in the hard-hitting AL: 3.87. Some credit should be given to the unexpectedly stout bullpen (Fernando Rodney, Ryan Perry and Joel Zumaya have combined for a 2.83 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 57 1/3 innings -- just don't mention Brandon Lyon's horrible 6.43 ERA and 1.57 WHIP). But most of the surprises have come in that youthful rotation. Heck, some of 'em are even fantasy-worthy. Let's look at the Tigers' starting five, plus one:
Justin Verlander: After two scarily bad outings to begin the season, Verlander has killed it. In May, he went 5-0 with 56 strikeouts and 11 walks in 41 1/3 innings. It's looking more and more like 2008's quasi-disastrous numbers (4.84 ERA, 1.40 WHIP) were about an injured shoulder, and not a permanent regression in Verlander's skills. He's back where he was in '07 (when he won 18 games) and looks like a candidate to lead the majors in strikeouts. Even when he's off, as he was Saturday against the Orioles, he's still walking very few batters (only 20 this season, compared to his big league-leading 90 strikeouts) and he's winning. If some of the other guys in my top 10 hadn't had terrific weeks, too, Verlander would be inside that group already. It shouldn't be much longer.
Verdict: Too late to trade for him; hopefully you believed early.
Edwin Jackson: Jackson hasn't been quite the strikeout artist Verlander is (57 K's in 74 1/3 IP), but he has bettered the Detroit ace in the control category (just 18 walks). I can't oversell how amazing this is. Entering 2009, Jackson's career BB/9 was 4.52, which was the biggest contributing factor toward creating a 1.63 career WHIP. Despite his 14 wins in Tampa last season, he was borderline unownable in any league. Now get this: in '09, Jackson's BB/9 is 2.30. Wow. He turns only 26 in September, so it's possible he's turned a corner in his development, and (as they say) "owns this skill set." The fact is that while Jackson's BABIP is .261, that's not ridiculously lucky, and nothing else in his peripherals indicates this breakout isn't real. Those expecting him to "finally" flop (I've been among them) have been frustrated. It's looking more and more like a sub-4.00 ERA and a sub-1.20 WHIP is possible.
Verdict: With that control, I believe.
Rick Porcello: The 21-year-old rookie had never pitched above Class A before this year, yet entering Tuesday night's start against the Red Sox, he's got a 3.48 ERA and a 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Porcello was a can't-miss bonus baby, so this kind of production was something the Tigers could foresee, but even they'd admit it's come quicker than expected. He's an extreme ground-ball pitcher (54 percent of batted balls, a rate that puts him fourth in the AL and ninth in the majors) who doesn't get those fantasy-juicy strikeouts at a high rate (32 in 51 1/3 innings), but he has almost completely avoided rookie hiccups through his first two months. I grant you that Porcello does have a slimmer margin for error than a lot of fantasy pitchers, but he certainly deserves to be owned in more than 43 percent of ESPN.com leagues.
Verdict: He should be owned in just about all leagues.
Armando Galarraga: Galarraga was my whipping boy this winter. Despite some nice top-line numbers in 2008 (13 wins, 3.73 ERA, 1.19 WHIP), Galarraga -- along with Daisuke Matsuzaka -- was a poster child for lucky underlying numbers. He had a .247 BABIP, tied for second-luckiest in the majors. In '09, as his BABIP has climbed back to a more neutral number (.298), surprise, surprise, he's sitting at a 5.50 ERA and a 1.56 WHIP. Galarraga is actually still owned in more leagues than Porcello. He shouldn't be.
Verdict: In shallow mixed leagues, there's no reason to still own him.
Dontrelle Willis: Everyone likes Dontrelle. He's a smart guy, a sensitive person who deserved his early-career success. But I still maintain Jack McKeon burned him out in Florida. That seven-complete-game season in 2005 was a rough one, all right, and Willis hasn't been the same since. Now he's overcome an anxiety disorder to make it back to the majors in Detroit, but the results have been inconsistent to say the least: two nice outings sandwiched by two hellaciously bad ones. With 10 strikeouts and 10 walks in 22 2/3 innings, Willis isn't setting anyone's fantasy heart ablaze.
Verdict: Only a flier in the deepest AL-only leagues.
Jeremy Bonderman: Bonderman is coming off relatively major shoulder surgery, and the Tigers have been taking it slow with him, but he threw eight shutout innings for Triple-A Toledo on Sunday, which got the fantasy world in a bit of a tizzy to begin this week. But Bonderman's velocity is reportedly still not quite back yet, despite the fact that his nasty slider has pretty much returned. His 60-day DL stint ends on June 15, whereupon the Tigers will have a decision to make; it's possible that either Galarraga or Willis could wind up losing his rotation spot.
Verdict: Worth adding speculatively in an AL-only league, but not in a mixed league.
• David Price, Rays (52). That collecting whoosh you hear emanating from fantasy nation came because Price struck out 11 Twins on national TV on Saturday, looking every part the ace we've all been told he'll soon be. But just as I advised you not to get too low about his debut a week ago Monday, let's not give this guy five straight Cy Youngs just yet. This is what happens with most young pitchers. They either have it or they don't. And when they don't, they get hit. Want to hear something wacky, though? Price is unowned in nine percent of ESPN leagues. Go get him, people!
• John Maine, Mets (54). Maine had to come out of Sunday's outing after throwing six scoreless innings because of a stomach virus, but that's about the only upsetting thing that's happened to his fantasy owners these past few weeks. He's only had one shaky start in his past seven, a span that's seen him post a 2.36 ERA, a 1.24 WHIP and 30 K's in 42 IP. You'd like to see somewhat better control (he has 23 walks in that same span), and his BABIP for the year is just .252, which is a bit of a warning sign. But he looks healthy, and to me that means he could duplicate his fine 2007.
• Mike Pelfrey, Mets (70). Owned in fewer than 10 percent of ESPN leagues, Pelfrey has fanned six batters in each of his past two starts, and he's walked either one or two hitters in each of his past five outings. Hey, I know we got gun-shy on this guy after a couple poor starts in early April, but it's time to take another look. His ERA has gone down after literally every outing since April 13, and unlike Maine, he's not just a six-inning pitcher (he's gone at least seven in four of his past five). Pelfrey probably won't give you the strikeouts Maine will, so he's got a slimmer margin for error, but he actually might be pitching a bit better overall right now.
• Ervin Santana, Angels (47). Well this has been disappointing. If you waited for Santana to get healthy this spring, you're about ready to punt, and I don't blame you. You should probably hang onto Santana to see what happens next: Will his injured elbow land him back on the DL, or will he work his way back into some semblance of shape? After two nice starts, he's been brutalized in two straight: 6 1/3 IP, 15 ER, 19 H, 4 BB, 3 K. Hoo. I wouldn't drop him, but also wouldn't have him active for his next start, against the Tigers.
• Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox (48). To me, this is less unexpected. The World Baseball Classic probably didn't help Dice-K, but as I mentioned earlier when I was talking about Armando Galarraga, Matsuzaka was a big-time candidate for a fall. He's fallen. His last time out against Toronto was simply painful to watch. He was all over the place. His shoulder is reportedly fine, but his confidence seems shaken, and he's an inveterate and unrepentant nibbler. I know things will get better for him eventually, but everything's relative.
• Brett Myers, Phillies (NR). Ouch. I had Myers ranked 34th last week. Now he's almost certainly done for the year with a torn labrum and bone spurs in his right hip. He can safely be dropped in all fantasy leagues. Now the question is whether his short-term replacement, prospect Antonio Bastardo (really), can make a fantasy dent. I added Bastardo in a very, very deep mixed league (where most viable big-league players are already owned), but otherwise, you can probably stay away until we see what he can do. This development may put the Phillies squarely in the middle of the trade situation, with Erik Bedard rumored to be of interest.
Comings And Goings
• The Reds activated Edinson Volquez from the 15-day DL, and he started Monday night against the Cardinals. Volquez had been out with a sore back, and returned in the minimum amount of time, but unfortunately appeared to re-injure himself after just one inning. He was seen stretching uncomfortably in the dugout, but according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Volquez actually came out because of numbness in his pinkie and ring finger. Stay tuned.
• The Dodgers activate Hiroki Kuroda from the DL after he missed nearly two months because of an injured oblique. Kuroda faced the Diamondbacks on Monday night, and allowed two runs, three hits and three walks in five innings, while striking out six.
• Brandon Webb told the Arizona Republic that he felt very good throwing a long toss last week, and that he believes he'll return before the All-Star Break. That gives him a month. We'll see.
• Andy Pettitte had to leave his start last Friday because of a back injury; if he can't take his turn on Wednesday, the Yankees probably will go with Chien-Ming Wang in his place. Wang has been quite good in his past two extended relief efforts, allowing no runs, three hits and a walk while fanning five in five innings.
• The Cardinals announced that while Kyle Lohse (forearm) fortunately will be able to make his next start Wednesday, Joel Pineiro will miss his turn because of back spasms. In his place, Brad Thompson is expected to start Tuesday night against Cincinnati.
• The Marlins will activate Anibal Sanchez from the DL to face the Brewers Tuesday night. Sanchez was one of my April candidates for, ahem, a shocking breakout season. While that may no longer be in the cards, it'll be good to see him back from his shoulder strain.
• According to the Chicago Tribune, the Cubs will remove Sean Marshall from their rotation once Carlos Zambrano (suspension) and Rich Harden (DL) are ready to return. That means Randy Wells will stay in Chicago's rotation for the time being.
• The Dodgers put Eric Stults on the DL because of his injured thumb. Eric Milton has taken his place in L.A.'s rotation, and pitched well, posting two wins. You probably don't want any part of him in a mixed league, though.
• The A's need a pitcher from the minors to start Tuesday's game against the White Sox. The San Francisco Chronicle originally speculated that it could be Dana Eveland, but instead the A's announced Monday night it'll be Vince Mazzaro, who was held out of his game at Triple-A Sacramento on Monday. Mazzaro, 22, is yet another legit big-league pitching prospect in the Oakland system, though he may only be up for this one start.
• The Rangers put Matt Harrison on the 15-day DL with a sore shoulder, retroactive to May 26. He could return next week; in the meantime, Derek Holland seems likely to hold down his rotation spot for the first-place Rangers.
• Triple-word-score Seattle pitcher Chris Jakubauskas has been banished from the rotation, in favor of Garrett Olson in the short term, with Ryan Rowland-Smith scheduled to come back to the majors on June 11. RRS has been out since April with an injured triceps.
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.