Jackson, Kazmir trending downward


Today's the day we roll out our updated top-300 rankings.

You'll notice that many things have changed since March, particularly on the pitching side. As we say many times on these pages, pitching is much more volatile than hitting, hence significant swings in starting-pitching rankings. But being able to separate short-term cold spells from long-term downward trends is critical at the position; you must ensure you're free of the latter.

As with Tuesday's Hit Parade, let's examine some of the pitchers whose rankings have most changed for the worst. These pitchers' sluggish starts -- at least upon surface appearance -- are the most disconcerting, be it due to injury, diminished skill or lesser role, as opposed to bad luck or random statistical fluctuations.

If you own any of them, you might want to make plans to sell them now, if you still can, or replace them outright with a more reliable arm.,/p>

Edwin Jackson, Arizona Diamondbacks: His adjustment to the National League hasn't gone close to as smoothly as expected, though much of the reason for his bloated 6.33 are two disastrous back-to-back starts in Colorado's Coors Field and Chicago's Wrigley Field, in which he allowed 18 runs in 6 1/3 innings combined. Remove those and he has a 3.78 ERA. Not that fantasy owners get the luxury of removing selective starts, not without deeming a pitcher a matchups type, but what if Jackson's true value is exactly that? It's not nearly what people drafted him as, but it's not the throwaway he has appeared to be to date.

Scott Kazmir, Los Angeles Angels: Pitch efficiency has always been a problem for Kazmir, but particularly so this season. Per Inside Edge, Kazmir has taken 24 percent of his plate appearances to three-ball counts, up from 21 percent last season, and he has retired the first batter he has faced in an inning only 58 percent of the time, his worst rate since those stats were available in 2007. Kazmir seems not to have grown as a pitcher since his debut with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2004, even if his brief stint with the Angels late last season hinted otherwise. It's time to let go of the hope he'll someday develop into a Cy Young candidate. He might even have a hard time cracking the top 50 starters at this pace.

Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds: There are two problems facing Chapman, one being that Aaron Harang is the only current Reds starter deserving of a demotion from the rotation, the other that Chapman has failed to wow people in Triple-A, at least not to the level of Stephen Strasburg (whom we'll get to later in the column). Through seven starts for Triple-A Louisville, Chapman has a 4.63 ERA and 1.63 WHIP, and while his 10.5 strikeouts per nine is a plus, his 5.4 walks per nine is not. Command was always something the scouts worried about with Chapman, who let's not forget is still only 22 years old, and that might mean a rough adjustment period even when he finally reaches the majors. It makes plenty of sense for the Reds to keep him in Triple-A deep into June for financial reasons, but at this pace he might be there longer than that.

Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta Braves: His hamstring injury seems like a greater concern than he initially let on, but I've also got my worries about the shoulder trouble he battled during spring training. Jurrjens averaged 4.1 walks per nine compared to 5.6 K's per nine in his first five regular-season starts before landing on the disabled list, numbers out of line with his previous two years with the Braves (3.2 and 6.5 in 2008-09). One other warning sign: He has allowed fly balls on 51.3 percent of all his balls in play, per FanGraphs, a vast increase from his 34.9 percent career rate. Maybe Jurrjens' DL stint will give his shoulder enough rest to return at 100 percent in a few weeks, but make him prove his health to you for a couple starts before you consider any sort of buy-low investment.

Javier Vazquez, New York Yankees: Another pitcher whose command numbers are nothing like his usual self, Vazquez has walked 5.0 batters per nine innings, more than double his 2.4 career number in the category. His average fastball velocity is also significantly down, at 88.9 mph (compared to 91.2 since 2002), which hints that maybe there's an underlying physical problem. It's so easy to say with a pitcher like Vazquez that "oh, he'll turn it around," but if the Yankees are already skipping his rotation spot like this, don't you think they have their own concerns about him? Unless you can fetch him at less than top-50 starting pitcher value, you're taking a significant risk.

Gavin Floyd, Chicago White Sox: I'm tempted to dismiss Floyd's slow start, recognizing that it was just about this date last season that he turned things around. As of this date in 2009, he had a 2-4 record, 7.71 ERA and 1.87 WHIP in eight starts, and his command rates weren't as good (4.7 walks, 7.1 K's per nine). Still, I admit it's a leap of faith of sorts, as struggles versus the Kansas City Royals in two of his past three starts are troublesome. One year also doesn't make a pitcher a historical slow starter, so it's tough to make the case that he always struggles into Memorial Day. Inquire with Floyd's owner about a buy-low opportunity, but if you do so, make sure it's at the price of a pitcher outside the top 50.

Rick Porcello, Detroit Tigers: Anyone who had been hoping for a boost in his strikeout rate has been sorely disappointed, as his K's per nine (4.7) are identical to that of his rookie year. Porcello's walk rate is also up, from 2.7 per nine to 3.3, a little high for a pitcher who typically relies on putting the ball in play and allowing his fielders to do much of the work. Bad luck might be partly responsible for his 5.93 ERA and .319 batting average allowed, as he has a .352 BABIP and 63.2 percent strand rate, but as a pitch-to-contact, ground-ball type, he's more reliant on luck than your typical pitcher. If you're considering acquiring him, don't do it under the assumption he's taking the next step this year. At best, he might only match last year's numbers looking forward.


Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.

Four up

Johnny Cueto, Reds: Now there's the dominating version of Cueto we became familiar with the first half of last season. In his past three starts, he has turned in a quality start each time, allowed a 1.64 ERA and 0.82 WHIP and struck out 23 batters in 22 innings. What's more, Cueto is averaging only 2.4 walks per nine innings thus far, which easily represents a personal best. It remains to be seen whether he can keep this up for a full 162-game schedule -- he had trouble doing so last year -- but there's nothing wrong with riding the hot streak in the short term, and considering a sell-high opportunity in several weeks.

Mat Latos, San Diego Padres: So much for the threat of a demotion; since that disastrous April 26 outing at the Florida Marlins (7 ER in 2 2/3 IP), Latos has turned in four consecutive quality starts, during which time he has a 1.24 ERA and 0.66 WHIP. He has filthy stuff, but most importantly he's working consistently ahead in the count, with only 19 percent of his plate appearances reaching a three-ball count. An innings cap remains a long-term worry with Latos, but he probably still has a little more than 100 to go with which to help you.

Jeff Niemann, Rays: If not for his having been hit on the right shoulder by a line drive during his 2010 debut, after having pitched 1 1/3 perfect frames, Niemann might have joined an exclusive club of pitchers who are 8-for-8 in terms of quality starts (Ubaldo Jimenez, Tim Lincecum and Roy Oswalt are the only three). That's how hot his start has been. Niemann might be the least-regarded of the Rays' five starters, but he's pitching every bit as competitively as the other four.

Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals: What else does he have to prove in the minors? Nothing, but the Nationals will probably still keep their prized prospect down until the calendar flips to June, if only to attempt to rein in an extra arbitration year. The good news: Several sources hint that his big league debut will come on June 4, which would give him two starts at Nationals Park before hitting the road for a turn in Detroit. In addition, Strasburg has been every bit as unhittable in two starts in Triple-A as he was in Double-A. In seven starts combined between those two affiliates, he has held opposing hitters to a .121 batting average, no homers and 40 K's in 116 at-bats (one per 2.9).

Four down

John Lackey, Boston Red Sox: He hasn't been quite the addition the Red Sox were hoping when they inked him to a five-year, $82.5 million contract, as Lackey already has both the worst strikeout rate (5.6 per nine) and walk rate (3.8) of his career, not to mention he's coming off back-to-back poor outings. Of course, he has endured rocky spells in the past, then roared back with a dominating several-week hot streak, and his schedule to date hasn't been especially easy. But in the American League East, can it be said his schedule will ever be easy?

Derek Lowe, Braves: Hopefully you weren't fooled by his 3-0 start, because most every other peripheral statistic of Lowe's hinted it was a mirage. Sure enough, in his nine starts to date he has shown every bit the level of regression he did in the second half of last season; his 4.2 walks per nine currently represents a career worst, and a sub-60 percent ground-ball rate (58.4) looks definitively not vintage Derek Lowe. This version of Lowe is much more susceptible to the ugly inning -- and therefore the ugly outing -- meaning his value is primarily in NL-only leagues, not shallow mixed.

Max Scherzer, Tigers: Tired of his persistent struggles adapting to the American League, the Tigers demoted Scherzer to Triple-A, where he'll work with Toledo pitching coach A.J. Sager and roving minor league pitching coach Jon Matlack on fixing his arm slot, increasing his fastball velocity and improving the effectiveness of his slider. That doesn't sound like work that can be completed overnight, does it? This might be a several-week project, and there's no guarantee of instant success, either. A pitcher as talented as Scherzer needs be monitored throughout his minor league stint, but if you're in a standard ESPN league, don't hold your breath waiting for him to help you soon.

Randy Wolf, Milwaukee Brewers: In three starts in May, Wolf has allowed 10 walks and five home runs in 16 innings, and don't forget that one of those outings came in San Diego's Petco Park. He's not overpowering opposing hitters to the levels he did with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, which serves as a reminder that he's not necessarily a top-40 fantasy starter. Wolf has his value in deeper leagues, but remember that he was in much more favorable circumstances last year.

Pickups of the week

Mixed: Derek Holland, Texas Rangers. He was last week's AL-only pickup, and now the time has come to fully endorse him as a mixed-league addition. In his first two starts since being promoted from Triple-A ball, Holland is 2-0 with a 2.38 ERA, both of those coming at Rangers Ballpark, not the friendliest of environments for a young pitcher. Holland's fantasy owners from 2009 might recall his 6.12 ERA and 1.50 WHIP as a rookie and flee in terror, but don't overlook that he has also gone 7-2 with a 1.31 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 11 starts combined between the Double- and Triple-A levels between this and last season, not to mention the fact he was widely regarded as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball entering 2009. Fully adapting to life in the major leagues is not easy for a young pitcher, and one shouldn't be condemned simply because he struggled in his first taste of the bigs.

AL-only: Armando Galarraga, Tigers. Here's a real flash from the past. Galarraga, a 13-game winner who managed a 3.73 ERA and 1.19 WHIP out of nowhere two short years ago, returned to the Tigers' rotation Sunday, defeating the Boston Red Sox behind 5 2/3 innings of one-run, three-hit baseball. After falling short in a bid for a rotation spot during spring training, Galarraga went 4-2 with a 3.92 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in seven starts for Triple-A Toledo, earning another shot. Most notable during his Toledo stint was that his command was much sharper than it was during his dreadful 2009; his walk rate was just 2.8 per nine innings, a significant improvement upon his 4.2 with the Tigers last season. Galarraga is not an overpowering pitcher, painting the picture of a matchups type, but his 2008 demonstrated just how good he can be when he has full command of his arsenal. Isn't that worth a roll of the dice in AL-only formats?

NL-only: Jeff Francis, Colorado Rockies. He's now three years removed from a 17-win season, but don't let that dissuade you from taking a chance on Francis, too. At full health he's every bit the pitcher who managed a 4.19 ERA and 1.33 WHIP during the 2006-07 regular seasons, not to mention he dominated the Phillies and Diamondbacks in two of his three playoff starts in 2007. Of course, that Francis missed the entire 2009 season recovering from shoulder surgery raises some lingering doubts about his health. So far, however, so good, as Francis, coming off two strong rehabilitation starts for Double-A Tulsa, allowed just one run on seven hits while striking out six in seven innings during his return to the Rockies' rotation Sunday.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.