30 Questions: Are any Yankees starters worth drafting?
Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.
Ah, remember the good old days ... like, just a few years ago, when Yankees starting pitchers were the cream of the crop, with uber-talent and a solid rotation top to bottom? Wins, good percentage numbers, strikeouts ... they did it all.
Then the love hangover stretched into 2004 and beyond, when fantasy owners were drafting Yankees starting pitchers just because they were: (a) paid well; and (b) played for the Yankees, who were almost assured of 100 wins.
Big contracts have a way of making a player seem a little better than he is, and the thought process for many owners, myself included, was, "Hey, even if he doesn't pitch that well, at least he's gonna win 15 games." Picking a Yankees starting pitcher was, more or less, a safe pick, even if it was an underachieving Javier Vazquez. Or Jeff Weaver. Or Mike Mussina. Or David Wells, Jon Lieber, Kevin Brown, Orlando Hernandez, Jose Contreras ... even Ted Lilly.
Rarely did that work out well. I mean, those guys individually and collectively posted some great seasons, but rarely did they live up to the hype and "reach" draft pick slot at which they were often taken. Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens did, relatively speaking (thanks in large part to their K's), but not the rest of 'em. In their Yankees years, they just were missing a little something, outside of wins that would have made them an elite pitcher. For instance, I picked Vazquez very high in 2004, only to watch him win me 14 games, with good K's, but with a 4.91 ERA and 1.29 WHIP. Sigh.
That luster has apparently worn off. Not for the lineup, mind you; fantasy owners know the Yankees' offense is still top-rate and will win plenty of games because of it. But the starting rotation is virtually getting ignored in mixed-league drafts. The Yankees' No. 1 pitcher, Chien-Ming Wang's average draft position (ADP) in ESPN leagues is 139.6, or the end of the 14th round in our standard 10-team format. No. 2 man Andy Pettitte checks in at 211.2 (22nd round), and up-and-comer Phil Hughes is at 181.3 (19th round), while neither Mike Mussina nor Ian Kennedy, the projected No. 4 and 5 starters, respectively, stretch into the top 238 total picks.
That's what a couple years of mediocre (or downright awful, in some minds) starting pitching will do for you. After finishing in the top 12 in starters' ERA each season from 2001-2003 (the glory years), the Yanks have finished in the top 15 just once (2006) since then. The collective starters finished 26th in K's (and K/9, in case you were thinking it was because of fewer innings) and 20th in WHIP in 2007. And it wasn't just last season. Just to pull out a few numbers, Yankees starters finished 22nd in batting-average-against in 2005 and just 23rd in Ks in 2006.
So they've been bad, and yet the Yankees have somehow managed to win 101, 95, 97 and 94 games, respectively, from 2004-07. Even the injury-plagued 2007 rotation went 65-47 as a group, while the White Sox finished with a better starters' ERA and went 53-65.
Obviously, the team's offense is the primary reason for this, but why the sudden chill, fellow owners? Sure, the disappointment of the guys listed in the third paragraph still linger in my mind, too, but so does the reason for liking them in the first place: They each have a good shot at 15 wins. And I actually think the rotation could shape up to be a lot better than expected in the other categories, too.
Chien-Ming Wang: OK, so I'm not an annual Wang owner. I prefer to get a decent K rate from my mixed-league pitchers, and Wang finished in a tied for 83rd in the majors with 104 K's. I mean, Byung-Hyun Kim struck out more hitters, and he threw 81 fewer innings. But I've gotten to the point that I know no longer snicker when somebody takes him, no matter how early, and I consider that progress. Maybe it's his major league-leading 38 combined wins over the past two seasons. Or the 3.67 ERA, which is better than such players as Aaron Harang and Carlos Zambrano. Or the minuscule 2.39 BB/9 rate. The guy is 27, he's healthy ... and he plays for the Yankees. I certainly could justify selecting him in about Round 11 or 12 in a 10-team mixed league.
Andy Pettitte: He handled the Mitchell Report the right way, but that's beside the point. Looking for signs of a decline in the 35-year-old Pettitte? You won't find many. He is 46-31 over his last three seasons (after missing much of 2004 because of elbow problems), and his 3.53 ERA during that span is better than any other three-year stretch he had prior to his elbow troubles. Not bad, and his 171 and 178 strikeouts in 2005 and 2006 were two of his three best K seasons. Sure, his K numbers fell a bit with the Yankees last year, but nothing else fell, even despite the move back to the AL. More importantly, he still won 15 games. Look for him to post at least one more solid season.
Phil Hughes: There's a reason the "play-for-now" Yankees wouldn't even discuss Hughes in trade talks. He has fantastic stuff, pinpoint control, a great "pitcher's body" (6-5, 220) and mound savvy ... which helped him become Baseball America's No. 4-ranked prospect (No. 2 if you excluded Delmon Young and Daisuke Matsuzaka, which some rankings did) heading into last season. And he didn't disappoint, posting a 1.91 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in the minors before being rushed to the Yankees. He struggled in his first start, injured his hamstring while in the middle of a no-hit bid in his second start, then struggled again in a handful of outings after returning from the injury, but he finished September with a 3-0 record and 2.73 ERA. The Yankees have taken care of him, and this kid is already in line for a breakout. I was ecstatic he fell to me at pick No. 163 of our recent mock draft. He should be picked way before that.
Mike Mussina: Moose has a career record of 250-144; the .635 winning percentage places him eighth among active pitchers with at least 140 decisions. So he still knows how to win, as evidenced by his 11-10 season in 2007, in which he had his worst stats of his career. But the awful (5.15 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 91 K's) year he had is a concern, as were the early reports of a decreased velocity this spring training. But it's worth noting that his .323 BIPA (balls in play average) was the fourth worst in the majors among pitchers with 140-plus innings, which indicates bad luck. You could do a lot worse with a late-round (or reserve) pick than a guy who still could win 11 games for this team with his eyes closed.
Ian Kennedy: Kennedy is drawing Greg Maddux comparisons because of his relatively slight build (6-0, 190) and movement on his pitches. That, of course, has been a kiss of death in recent seasons (Kirk Saarloos, anyone?). But Kennedy has both the minor league and major league track record to be worth a look. In 149 minor league innings, he has posted a 1.87 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 9.97 K/9 rate. So he jumped up to the majors -- and posted a 1.90 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and respectable 7.11 K/9 rate with the Yankees. As long as he can nail down the fifth starter's job, he deserves your attention as a late-round sleeper.
That's a pitching staff with some upside ... and all of them can be had in the middle rounds or later. Giddy up!
Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy.