Commentary

2009 Positional Previews: Starting Pitchers

Updated: February 11, 2009, 2:59 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Would you rather have Chad Billingsley or Josh Beckett? Jon Lester or Derek Lowe? David Price or Chien-Ming Wang? Would you rather have the young Turk who hasn't fully shown what he can and can't do in the majors? Or would you have the veteran whose ceiling might be precisely known, but who'll rack up some relatively secure stats barring injury?

See how they all stack up:
• Starting pitcher rankings
• Projections and Profiles

To some extent, of course, this is a false dichotomy. On one hand, young players aren't always callow and unreliable (witness Tim Lincecum's insane 2008 season). And on the other hand, veterans aren't always bastions of dependability (could someone please explain any aspect of Oliver Perez to me?).

To another extent, this question of veterans-versus-kids isn't particular to starting pitchers. It is, in fact, the ghost that haunts all of fantasy baseball. We're trying to amass statistics, and some of us find it just a little bit boring to take guys with whose numbers we're already eminently familiar. Mark Buehrle and his 13 wins? Ho-hum. Ted Lilly and his sub-4.00 ERA? Blah. Randy Johnson and his sub-1.20 WHIP? Yawn. That Clayton Kershaw kid, he could win 25! Max Scherzer might throw five no-hitters! Joba Chamberlain could strike out 300!

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This is one of the themes that runs through our ESPN.com rankings meetings. We have to strike a balance between what we've seen and what we've been told, what a veteran's big league averages say and how tantalized we are by some kid's Double-A 12.5 K/9. There are a lot of experts in that Bristol room, and we don't all share the same tolerance for risk. Some of us thirst for the Next Big Thing, the bang that will catapult us up our fantasy standings in one fell swoop. Others worry about overpaying for kids who aren't ready, and would rather play it slow and steady, drafting primarily for value.

The story of 2009 starting pitching might, in fact, be about whether the Kids Are All Right. Here are the pitchers entering 2009 in their age-25 season or younger who made ESPN.com's list of top 50 starters:

Now for comparison's sake, let's look at how many starting pitchers 25 years or younger ended the '08 season in ESPN.com's Player Rater's top 50:

Finally, let's compare our projected youth performance for 2009 with how things actually worked out for young pitchers in 2008:

As a group, are we at ESPN.com a bit Pollyanna-ish about young starting pitching? Maybe a little, yeah. Of course, one season doesn't make a valid sample size, and it's also worth noting that 11 of the 13 "youthful" pitchers who numbered among 2008's starting-pitching elite are still 25 years or younger this year. Since those kids have already tasted success, you'd imagine they're all the more likely to repeat in '09.

Still, I have to admit that my personal tastes run toward lower-risk veteran hurlers who aren't backed by the hype that surrounds a Price, a Billingsley, a Chamberlain or a Kershaw. My own personal ranks of starting pitching probably wouldn't see 18 "kids" in my top 50. But I understand where our group rankings are coming from: an effort to catch lightning in a bottle, rather than relying on slightly-above-league-average starters who'll merely eke their way toward fantasy glory.

So let's take a closer look at the phyla and genera that make up this season's fantasy starting-pitching species. Age is certainly one distinguishing characteristic, but we'll also look at injury history, team changes and overall historical reliability.

The Elite

Johan Santana
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesJust imagine what Johan Santana could've done if the bullpen hadn't cost him a handful of wins.
Do you really need me to tell you Johan Santana is good? I'm betting you do not. Santana did fail to strike out more than a batter per inning for the first time since he's been a big-league starter, and he's 30 this year, but come on. The Mets' new stadium could actually wind up being a better pitcher's park than Shea, and moving to the National League in '08 allowed Santana to post the lowest ERA of his career (2.53). Because of his excellence, reliability, experience and age, Santana should be the first starter off the board in all standard leagues. Heck, there's an argument to be made that this year he could be the first player taken overall.

Of course, Santana didn't win the NL Cy Young last year; Tim Lincecum did. Lincecum won 18 games for a 72-win Giants team, posted a 2.65 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and only allowed a .221 opponents' batting average. Most impressive, though, were those 265 strikeouts in 227 innings. I mean, wow. That was 29 percent more strikeouts than any other pitcher in the National League, and the most in the majors since 2004. And the guy was just 24. What pushes Lincecum just a notch behind Santana are concerns about his workload: he jumped 80 2/3 innings last year, an increase of 55 percent over his '07 output. Lincecum has a funky delivery that experts say won't lead to arm problems, but of course, we've heard that before.

Next comes a pair of AL aces: CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay. Sabathia has workload concerns of his own: He has eclipsed 241 innings in consecutive seasons, and if you include the '07 and '08 playoffs, Sabathia has thrown 513 innings the past two years combined. Yikes. He'll turn just 29 in July and certainly has the massive frame to withstand some pressure. (But by the same token, can't being, er, zaftig eventually work against Sabathia's longevity?) He has a great team behind him and fanned 251 hitters last year. Halladay now ranks among the elite because of an incredible '08 season that would have granted him his second Cy Young if not for Cliff Lee's unconscious campaign. What had been missing from Halladay's arsenal the past few years were strikeouts, but he whiffed a career-high 206 batters in '08 in 246 innings, posting the best strikeout rate in any season in which he's made 17 starts or more.

And I'd put five more NL aces among the draft-'em-and-you'll-be-happy-no-matter-what crowd. Brandon Webb won 22 games last year, and but for a few bad late-season outings, might have been able to lay claim to a second Cy Young himself. All he does is make 33 starts, toss 230 innings and whiff 180-plus, with an ERA around 3.00 and a WHIP around 1.20. Cole Hamels finally overcame questions about his back to pitch a dominant season that saw the Phillies win a World Series; his changeup is among the three or four nastiest in baseball, and his WHIP was a sick 1.08. Jake Peavy lost a bit of luster because of a sore elbow that caused him to miss a month in '08, but he's still a strikeout machine who probably won't see the high side of a 3.00 ERA. (Note, however, that a change in home parks via trade, for instance to the Cubs, would potentially drop Peavy's fantasy value.) Dan Haren was a fantastic Sundance to Webb's Butch: His 206-to-40 walk-to-strikeout ratio was among baseball's gaudiest last year, and he actually has room for ERA growth in his second NL season. And Roy Oswalt shrugged off his doubters and stuck in the stratosphere, winning 17, exceeding 200 innings for the fifth straight year, and dropping his WHIP from 1.33 in '07 to 1.17 in '08.

Rock Solid

John Lackey
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesJohn Lackey got a late start to the season because of injury but posted solid numbers when he returned.
Once you get outside your draft's first few rounds, you'll still have a chance to nab a couple of starting pitchers who are likely to give you consistent, solid production with relatively low risk. John Lackey seems to lead this category every year: He'll fan around seven batters per nine, post an ERA in the high threes, a WHIP in the mid-1.20s and win 15 games every season, like clockwork. He did miss the '08 season's first six weeks because of a triceps strain, but he proved completely healthy thereafter, and doesn't look like much of an injury risk for '09.

James Shields was the Rays' most important pitcher during their surprise AL East title run last year, pitching 215 innings for the second straight season, keeping that WHIP way below 1.20 and fanning 160 batters while walking just 40. He doesn't give you the mega-strikeouts you need from a true fantasy ace, but because his '08 numbers looked so similar to his '07 breakout campaign, it's safe to say we're looking at one of the best No. 2 pitchers fantasy has to offer.

Considering the category following this one is titled "Young Guns," it's rather ironic that I'm including a 23-year-old under the "Rock Solid" heading. But Felix Hernandez is no regular 23-year-old. He's already made 104 career starts, has thrown 666 1/3 innings and has an American League career ERA well under 4.00. Now, King Felix owners didn't like seeing his walk total spike from 53 in '07 to 80 in '08, and those WHIP-related worries are what keep Hernandez from elite fantasy status. (That and the fact that the Mariners figure to be awful again this year.) But you like the fact that Felix is a high-strikeout, high-ground-ball (58 percent for his career) guy. That'll pay off more often than not.

Among other top fantasy starters, I'll be honest: There aren't many candidates you can feel good about plunking in the bank and watching the stats roll in. I'm tempted to place a pitcher like Josh Beckett here, because we all know that when he's right, he's a Cy Young candidate. But will he be right in '09? Back, arm and oblique problems plagued him in '08. Can Cliff Lee really be considered rock-solid, given how poorly he pitched in '06 and '07? It's close, because Lee was exceptional in '05, too. Ervin Santana? Zack Greinke? Daisuke Matsuzaka? Adam Wainwright? I'm tempted by each of them, but each comes with question marks.

No, I have to dip all the way to ESPN.com's No. 28 and 30 starters to find the kind of boring veteran who will just yawn his way to fantasy pay dirt every season. Derek Lowe (late of the Braves) and Ted Lilly (of the Cubs) are by no means spectacular, but boy, they get the job done, and they're always undervalued in fantasy drafts. Lowe just goes out there with his heavy stuff every year and induces 200-plus innings' worth of grounders, keeping his ERA beneath 4.00 and striking out just enough hitters (usually more than six batters per nine innings) to help. And Lilly is that rarest of birds: a fly-ball pitcher who has actually flourished at Wrigley Field. He'll give you more strikeouts than will Lowe (184 in 204 2/3 innings last year), walk fewer than three per game and survive the more-than-occasional gopher ball to win 15-plus games.

Young Guns

It's important to be able to separate young fantasy pitchers (all young fantasy players, really) into two categories: those whose potential you love, and those who are ready to act on it this year. It's so easy to fall into the trap of expecting Homer Bailey to be Tom Seaver in his first few outings, or grumbling when Phil Hughes isn't Ron Guidry right away. When drafting young pitchers, separate your excitement over their careers from what they're capable of giving you this season.

(In addition, because, as I chronicled above, ESPN.com's top 50 starters are so top-heavy with pitchers 25 or younger, I'm not going to extol the virtues of the very best guys, like Lincecum, Cole Hamels or Felix Hernandez.)

Fracisco Liriano
Jack Rendulich/Icon SMICan this finally be the season we get a full healthy season from Francisco Liriano?
Francisco Liriano was over-drafted last season by fantasy owners who believed he'd be ready to return from Tommy John surgery right away. The problem, of course, was that while Liriano didn't have pain in his elbow, he also didn't have the kind of control he needs to be a star. He walked 13 batters in 10 1/3 innings' worth of April big league starts, looking overmatched and underprepared, which explains why the Twins sent him to the minors for three months. When he finally returned in August, he was better (2.74 ERA, 1.19 WHIP), but he didn't quite have the strikeout stuff he had in 2006 (that year, he featured a sparkling 10.7 K/9 ratio, and after his '08 return he posted an 8.22 K/9). I'm not ready to say Liriano is a 20-game winner or 200-strikeout guy waiting to happen just yet, and even ESPN.com's No. 13 ranking of him among starting pitchers seems high. But it should go without saying that he'll be a factor in every fantasy league on the planet.

Chad Billingsley had a terrific third season in '08, whiffing 201 hitters in 200 2/3 innings, winning 16 games and posting a 3.14 ERA. His area for improvement will be walks: He issued 80 last season, which forced his WHIP up to 1.34 despite a .248 batting average against. Billingsley's dominant stuff is without question, but he'll need better control to take the next step; in addition, he slipped on a patch of ice this winter and broke his left fibula. He's supposedly going to be fine for spring training, but that is a piece of drama his fantasy owners would gladly do without. Zack Greinke of the Royals looked to be on his way out of baseball a few years ago because of personal issues, and while he's not a horse like Billingsley, he has groundball-intensive stuff and fans around eight batters per nine innings, while keeping his walk total under check better than Billingsley does. Yovani Gallardo, Scott Kazmir, Jon Lester, Joba Chamberlain … they're all known quantities who figure to be anchors of a lot of fantasy staffs this year.

So let's jump down our list a bit and try to find some lesser-known young starters in whom you can believe for '09. Kevin Slowey doesn't have a sexy fastball, which means he'll never come close to the league leaders in strikeouts. That means he has to be precise with his control, and he is: In 160 1/3 big-league innings last season, Slowey walked just 24 batters. Ridiculous control like that means Slowey's WHIP is always going to be a fantasy helper (it was 1.15 in '08). John Danks plays in one of the hitting-friendliest parks in baseball, but the fact that he used a new cut fastball to dramatically increase his ground-ball rate (from 34.8 percent in '07 to 42.8 percent in '08) and reduce his fly-ball rate (45.8 percent to 35.4 percent) makes him a safer play than you might expect. Max Scherzer has excellent, flame-throwing stuff; the only worry I have about him for '09 is a continued lack of stamina: He failed to get beyond the sixth inning in any of his seven major league starts last season. Still, he whiffed 11, nine and eight batters in three of his final four starts last year, which means he's a guy whose upside is worth paying for, as is Josh Johnson's, who seemed to circumvent the usual control problems that come with returning from Tommy John surgery.

As for the kids whose name recognition will outstrip their performance in 2009? I worry about Clayton Kershaw's lifelong control problems, and believe his WHIP issues will prevent him from being a contributor this season. Johnny Cueto made a huge splash in the first half last season, and his high-strikeout stuff can't be completely ignored either, but he's another guy who's too wild for his own good. Like Kershaw and Cueto, Jair Jurrjens is burdened with heavy walks. Jesse Litsch won 13 games with an ERA (3.58) that was 13th-best in the AL, but the fact that he's not a strikeout guy and gave up more than a hit per inning cautions us about a repeat. Clay Buchholz, Phil Hughes, Homer Bailey, Franklin Morales, Gio Gonzalez and Nick Adenhart are all names you know, but probably won't contribute enough in '09 to be draftable.

And finally, there's David Price, the first overall pick of the '07 draft, whose bullpen heroics in the playoffs last year made him an instant hero in Tampa. When the Rays moved Edwin Jackson to Detroit, they were essentially making room in their rotation for Price, and he should be owned in all fantasy leagues. But I don't think I'd draft him, simply because someone in your league is going to spend a mid-round pick on him. Listen, the sky's the limit for Price. But he's thrown all of 14 innings in the majors, and only 75 innings above Class A. Price will probably win 10 games and post an ERA around 4.00, which sounds great. But like so many young kids, he's likely to struggle with his control at times, which could escalate his WHIP into frightening territory.

Too Old For Those Clothes

Harris' Bests

Mid-round sleeper: Kevin Slowey
Late-round sleeper: Justin Duchscherer
Prospect: Tommy Hanson
Top-20 starting pitcher I wouldn't draft: Daisuke Matsuzaka
Player to trade at the All-Star break: Justin Duchscherer
Player to trade for at the ASB: John Smoltz
Biggest risk: Rich Harden
Home hero: Jake Peavy
Road warrior: Tim Lincecum
Player I like but can't explain why: Andy Sonnanstine

Randy Johnson throwing 184 innings for the Diamondbacks might have been the biggest upset of 2008. After all, the Big Unit had managed only 56 2/3 in '07, and still had major questions after back surgery. Johnson takes his flame-throwing act to San Francisco this season in search of his 300th win, which we're quite sure he'll get in the season's first half. But is that a good thing? Johnson's a tough competitor, so I'm not trying to say he'll dog it once he reaches 300. But if his back is killing him again, and the Giants are way out of contention, might the Unit decide he's had enough? We won't go so far as to say Johnson shouldn't be drafted (in fact, we have him 44th among starters), because he's still a strikeout guy who doesn't walk many hitters. But in what figures to be his final season, he comes with a heck of a lot of risk.

Kevin Millwood is a name you know, but he's 35 now and all those high-WHIP, high-stress innings he's thrown have seemingly caught up with him. In his past two seasons in hitter-friendly Texas, he has posted WHIPs of 1.62 and 1.59, and the problems haven't been walks. He's just not fooling anyone any longer. The same can't quite be said for Andy Pettitte, who returns to the Bronx at age 37. Now, like Millwood, Pettitte has been way too hittable in his past couple of seasons: The AL hit .286 off him in '07 and .290 against him last year. But because he goes deep into games and plays in front of a stellar offense, Pettitte is always good for 14 wins or more, so if you use him strictly as a late-round play, he could be usable in a fantasy league. Jamie Moyer finally got a World Series ring last year at age 46, and in winning 16 games actually provided a bit of fantasy bang off the waiver wire. Still, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was basically 2-to-1, he allows a ton of baserunners and he plays in a bandbox. Don't be tempted.

Finally, what about a pair of Red Sox? Tim Wakefield just keeps cranking out 180-inning seasons despite the fact that he turns 43 this year. He's had problems staying on the field toward the end of each of the past two years, first because of back problems and then because of shoulder woes, but that 1.18 WHIP from '08 was nothing to sneeze at. He probably won't win 17 again as he did two years ago, but double digits are likely with that offense. In deeper mixed leagues, Wakefield is still hanging on as a late-round option. And finally, there's John Smoltz, who turns 42 in May. After major shoulder surgery last summer, Smoltz is unlikely to be ready to pitch in April, and in fact might be held out until June, so he's certainly not among our elite fantasy pitchers, the way he was last year. But you won't find many guys with strikeout and walk rates this favorable, and stuff this consistent, toward the end of your draft. You'll have to stash him away for a couple of months, and there's obviously no guarantee when it comes to his shoulder, but we view Smoltz as a highly relevant fantasy pitcher for four months of 2009.

Injury Risks

If you like to live dangerously, here are some names with terrific upsides but death-defying downsides, on whom you should wager at your own risk.

Rich Harden
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireRich Harden can put up lights-out numbers when healthy, but how many starts will you get from him?
Rich Harden has to top any list of injury-prone hurlers, because he's a walking Gray's Anatomy. Sure, he got himself together enough to throw 13 dominant starts for the A's last year, which earned him a ticket to the Windy City, where he made 12 more with the Cubs. But where was he come playoff time? When he's right, you can make the argument that nobody's got more dominating stuff, but when has he ever been consistently right? Entering '09, Harden reportedly has a "small tear" in his shoulder joint, one which is just on the verge of needing surgery, but which can also be treated with a strengthening program. Great. Hey, we've got the guy rated No. 23 on our list, so we obviously are enamored with the upside. But we're also guessing Harden goes before 23rd among starters in most drafts, as it only takes one risk-taker. We wouldn't be that risk-taker.

Meanwhile, Ben Sheets saved many people a lot of trouble by deciding in early February to have surgery on a balky elbow that caused him to miss a few starts last September as well as fail a physical with the Rangers. Sheets isn't expected to be back until the middle of the season at best, and even then the one-time Brewers ace and current free agent would still be looking for a team to sign him.

A.J. Burnett was able to throw 221 1/3 innings for the Blue Jays last year, the third time in his 10-year career he's passed the double-century mark. Is it a coincidence that it was a contract season? Like the other guys on this list, when he's on Burnett gives you the kind of high-strikeout love that builds fantasy winners, to go with a sub-4.00 ERA. But he does suffer from high walks (86 last season, helping lead to a 1.34 WHIP), plus there are all those injuries. As a new Yankee, Burnett has an upside as tantalizing as anyone in the AL. But it'll take stones to shrug off his past and draft him in the fifth or sixth round, which is probably where you'll have to take him.

Carlos Zambrano had two separate bouts with tendonitis in his rotator cuff last year, which might mean those five consecutive 200-plus-inning seasons finally caught up with him. Big Z only turns 28 in June, but that arm might as well be 35. He's had severe walk-rate troubles of late, and frankly looked cooked at times in '08.

And how about Erik Bedard, proclaimed by some (yours truly included) to be a top-five starting pitcher last season? Oh, how quickly we forget how injury-prone guys can bite you. Bedard was hurt from the very beginning last year, and wound up needing surgery to repair a fraying labrum. On the positive side, he's a free agent at the end of this season, which often prods guys to new heights (see Burnett, A.J.). On the negative side, he's pitching for what promises to be a dreadful Mariners squad, and has never reached 200 innings.

With what we know about them as of this writing, we'd label guys like Chris Carpenter, Jeff Francis, Freddy Garcia, Dustin McGowan and Kelvim Escobar as too risky, injury-wise, to have on an Opening Day fantasy roster. But there's a lot of time between now and April, and a lot can change. If the health fortunes of any of these guys take an upturn, they might be worth considering. In addition, if your league allows you to pick a guy near the end of your draft and then stash him away on a disabled list, one or more of these pitchers could be very nice late-round gambits.

Auction Strategies

Work backward. You've got a $260 budget, and the average drafter tends to split between hitting and pitching at about a 65-35 ratio. (There are alternate strategies, but this serves as a decent benchmark.) That means you'll spend around $170 on hitting and around $90 on pitching. A good closer will run you more than $20 (and the best might verge on $30), which leaves in the neighborhood of $70 or less for at least eight pitchers, many of whom will be starters. If you're going to break the bank and spend upwards of $30 for a Santana or a Lincecum, you have to reconcile yourself to the idea of not having any other starters who'll cost you more than, say, $15.

We don't mind that strategy. Overpaying for one of the surer things in the game (our "elite" level) is a fine way to go; it simply puts pressure on you to root out starting-pitcher bargains later in your auction. If you do pay for a stud, you're probably not going to be able to afford one of our "rock solid" guys, and you might even be priced out of many of the "young gun" starters detailed above. On the other hand, if you avoid the studs (while maybe even helping drive their prices up a bit before bowing out of the bidding), you might be able to afford two "rock solid" starters, or dabble in the market for a couple of those always-tempting "young guns."

What you shouldn't do is wrap up $40 to $50 in two starters. It's comforting to own both Brandon Webb and CC Sabathia, but for all their goodness, your ratios will still suffer because of the guys with which you'll fill in the rest of your staff. In addition, we hate paying "stud" money for speculative pitchers. For example, we're betting that Francisco Liriano winds up going for $25 or more in a lot of auctions this spring, and while we love his future, we wouldn't pay that kind of cash for him. Again, it's all about spreading out risk, and refusing to reach, even when you have a love affair with a certain pitcher. Set prices for your favorites and try not to exceed them, and resist the temptation to spend too much too soon on starters. Bargains will inevitably be there at auction's end, and the fewer big, higher-dollar risks you take early, the more comfortable you'll be with those low-dollar flyers late.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.