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Thursday, September 22, 2011
Early 2012 starting pitcher ranks

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

It was the "Year of the Pitcher, Part II."

Major League Baseball continued to gravitate toward pitching in 2011, more so, in fact, than ever before. The game's 3.93 ERA in 2011 (through the games of Sept. 21) was noticeably lower than its 4.08 ERA of 2010 -- that year also called the "Year of the Pitcher" -- and in fact is its lowest number since 1992 (3.75).

60 Feet 6 Inches

The ever-shifting baseball landscape has spawned countless debates about the worth of pitchers in fantasy. Are you among those who believe that, as the tides turn toward pitchers, you should follow suit and shift more of your investment to pitching? Or are you of the mind that increased richness in pitching means more bargain-bin candidates to bolster the patchwork-pitching strategy, thereby detracting from the overall value of the game's elite?

There are valid points on both sides, but one thing has become clear: Make sure you add more "fine teeth" to your comb, because success on the pitching side has become all the more critical in this "Era of the Pitcher," a time when workloads have come under careful scrutiny, and advanced statistics have given us an edge on evaluating pitchers that was never present before.

In this final 2011 edition of "60 Feet 6 Inches," what better topic than to help get you started on your 2012 planning? As with "Relief Efforts" and "Hit Parade" before it, today's edition provides preliminary rankings for next season and next season alone. Player value encompasses standard ESPN rules: rotisserie 5x5 scoring, traditional rosters.

In addition, let's make some early predictions on some expected 2012 trends, some of the same ones discussed in "Hit Parade," with a few new wrinkles:

Questions

Three pitchers who cracked my top 50 for 2012 finished this season prematurely -- or, in one case, at least appears done for the year -- due to injuries. In order of ranking, here are their prognoses:

Tommy Hanson
A shoulder injury has limited Tommy Hanson to just 130 innings in 2011.

Tommy Hanson, Atlanta Braves: While there is a chance he might return to the Braves in time to pitch in the postseason, you can be sure they won't risk anything if he experiences a flare-up of the shoulder injury that first landed him on the disabled list in June, then returned him there last month. His keeper-league -- and prospective 2012 -- owners would love to see him make a few October outings. He'll enter next season facing more questions if he doesn't, especially considering the risky long-term nature of shoulder issues. Hanson's upside when healthy, however, is immense. Consider this: Over a 33-start span between the 2010 and 2011 All-Star breaks, he had 22 quality starts, a 2.47 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 7.87 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio. The Braves might be more cautious with him in 2012, considering he'll still be 25 years old and coming off a season of only 130 innings pitched, but his top-10 upside remains apparent.

Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals: So far, nary a whisper of any problems with his rehabilitation from Feb. 28 Tommy John surgery. In fact, things have gone so well that all indications are that the Cardinals will pick up the two-year, $21 million option on his contract this winter, despite his not having thrown a single pitch in a competitive game this season. That decision might have a huge bearing on Wainwright's fantasy outlook; if the Cardinals are confident in him, then we should follow suit. The track record of pitchers returning from the surgery is also encouraging, as so many in the past have recaptured peak form, if not immediately thereafter then a few seasons down the road. But here's the primary reason Wainwright earned only a No. 39 ranking, quite a bit lower than his No. 2 ranking among starting pitchers on the 2010 Player Rater: Since the one-year anniversary of his surgery comes at the beginning of the 2012 exhibition season, Wainwright might be a candidate for a DL stint to open the regular season, and it's possible that he won't immediately return to must-start status once activated. This is a pitcher who might not be his true self until June 1, so understand that if you pick him, you'll need to exercise patience.

Josh Johnson, Florida Marlins: I'm much, much more concerned about Johnson's injury than either of the two pitchers mentioned above, but at the same time, if I knew all three of these pitchers would be 100 percent healthy for the entire 2012 season, there's no question I'd take Johnson first. Heck, he'd probably be a top-10 pitcher in these rankings, in that event. Consider this: Among pitchers with at least 400 innings pitched since the beginning of 2009, Johnson's 2.64 ERA ranks fourth and his 1.11 WHIP seventh, and the Marlins might very well open their wallets this winter to bolster their lineup as they move into their new digs. But Johnson has a Tommy John surgery on his résumé, plus this shoulder problem that cost him the final four-plus months of 2011. There might not be more of a boom-or-bust candidate in all of baseball entering next season.

Unranked value picks

Extending the rankings 75 starting pitchers deep greatly reduces the number of "sleeper" candidates, considering three of my favorites for 2012, Matt Moore, Julio Teheran and Drew Pomeranz, already made the cut. But among the pitchers who "just missed," here are three I'll be monitoring closely this winter:

James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates: He came close to the top 75; ultimately, the 1.48 WHIP was what kept him beneath the cut. That said, the Pirates demonstrated this season their potential to take another step forward in 2012, meaning the prospect of more run support for McDonald, who has made some advances during the second half of 2011 despite the team having crumbled around him. Since the All-Star break, McDonald's walk rate is 3.56 per nine, and he has averaged 5.69 innings per start despite the Pirates' having not allowed him to throw more than 99 pitches in a single outing. The problem is the home runs: He has allowed 24 this season, or 1.30 per nine innings. Lowering that homer rate is the key to McDonald's breaking out in 2012.

Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves: The Braves have a deep, rich rotation, and for that reason it's difficult to completely invest in Minor, though I'm confident he'll earn a rotation slot to begin the 2012 season. Since his recall in August, he has a 4.03 ERA and 9.27 K's-per-nine ratio, numbers that look better if you consider that the Braves have been conservative to McDonald-like levels with his pitch counts; Minor hasn't thrown more than 99 pitches in a single outing and has averaged 92.8 per start. That Minor has averaged only 2.62 walks per nine during that span is also a plus. Control has been the big question with him in the past, as that number tended to be closer to 3.0 in previous stages of his professional career. Now 23, Minor, Hanson and Teheran give the Braves three excellent, front-of-the-rotation arms for the next decade, with all three playing bigger roles in 2012.

Luke Hochevar, Kansas City Royals: It sure has taken awhile for this No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft to realize his potential, and looking at his lifetime 5.29 ERA and 1.40 WHIP, it's not difficult to imagine fantasy owners at large completely skipping him over in the spring. Hochevar's cumulative 4.68 ERA, plus the fact that he pitches for the Royals, a team that has long been ignored in fantasy, works against him, but look closer. The Royals have an up-and-coming offense, likely to finish in the top 10 in baseball in runs, and Hochevar himself has finished the year on a high note, winning six of 12 starts with a 3.52 ERA and 1.13 WHIP after the All-Star break, during a span in which his schedule was not the easiest. With continued progress in the spring, he might warrant a late-round pick, albeit more so in AL-only leagues than mixed. Regardless, Hochevar should not be ignored.

Hot stove impact

There's one pressing question when it comes to this winter's free-agent class, and it's whether the top name on the list, CC Sabathia, will opt out of the final four years and $92 million remaining of his contract with the New York Yankees. If he does, that puts a bona fide ace on the market, giving us two, depending upon your opinion of the No. 2 name on this list. Let's go pitcher-by-pitcher in order of Player Rater ranking, and take a look at potential free-agent ramifications:

CC Sabathia
Will CC Sabathia be in pinstripes next season?

CC Sabathia, Yankees: Even if he opts out, chances are he'll only do so in order to get more years at similar money to remain with the Yankees, perhaps another seven years at $161 million, a move not unlike Alex Rodriguez's following his 2007 MVP season. But what if there's another suitor? The advantages the Yankees provide a pitcher in fantasy are run support -- only one team has averaged more than their 5.34 runs per game this season -- and a bullpen headed by the most reliable closer in baseball history in Mariano Rivera. That makes Sabathia one of the few "safe" 20-win candidates, which he might not be with a lesser team, and it's not assured that his ratios would drop away from homer-happy Yankee Stadium. After all, he's 26-7 with a 3.08 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 0.65 homers allowed per nine innings in 47 career starts there, but 33-16 with a 3.27 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 0.75 homers per nine in 54 road starts as a Yankee. Chances are, if he leaves New York, the net result would be the same stats but two fewer wins, and that's still going to be a clear top-10 starting pitcher.

C.J. Wilson, Texas Rangers: If Sabathia stays put, Wilson moves to the head of the free-agent class, and in spite of his widely criticized 2010 workload, he has actually been more effective this year than last. He has a lower ERA (2.97 in 2011, 3.35 in 2010), WHIP (1.18, down from 1.25) and walk rate (2.93, down from 4.10), and a higher strikeout rate (8.38, up from 7.50) and innings-per-start average (6.71, up from 6.18). Wilson is going to command the big bucks, and if it's with another team, the ballpark factor, while irrelevant with Sabathia, does have an impact on Wilson. He has a 3.70 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 0.66 homers-per-nine ratio in 35 home starts since the beginning of last season, compared to 2.59-1.17-0.43 numbers in 31 starts on the road. Of course, the Rangers support him as well as anyone, so the net result, if he does leave, might be moot. Bottom line: Wilson should remain a top-20 starter.

Hiroki Kuroda, Los Angeles Dodgers: He'll he 37 by next Opening Day, so maybe annual one-year deals might be the norm for the remainder of his career. We'd sure love to see him remain in Los Angeles, however, and preferably in one of those three pitching-friendly venues in the National League West. He has a 3.28 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 69 combined starts at Dodger Stadium, AT&T Park and Petco Park, compared to 3.84 and 1.27 in 44 games everywhere else. Something else to consider: He has a 4.33 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 1.18 homers-per-nine ratio in 11 career starts against American League teams, compared to 3.39-1.20-0.77 against NL foes. Where he lands will impact his 2012 draft appeal.

Javier Vazquez, Florida Marlins: The question here is, which Javier Vazquez is an interested team getting: the one who had 11 quality starts in 44 tries, a 5.29 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and whose fastball averaged 88.9 mph from the beginning of 2010 through the 2011 All-Star break … or the one who has 12 quality starts in 13 tries, a 2.16 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and a fastball averaging 91.2 mph since the All-Star break? Though the numbers suggest otherwise, it's difficult to imagine Vazquez having found some sort of miracle cure for his lost velocity during a three-day break, not at the age of 35. Unless he's throwing exactly as hard next spring, and for a team in a pitching-friendly venue, he's due for a decline.

Bartolo Colon, New York Yankees: Talk about "miracle cures," Colon's elbow surgery, during which he had fat and bone marrow stem cells injected in his elbow and shoulder, has returned him to the realm of useful fantasy pitchers; his 2.9 WAR (wins above replacement) is his best number since his Cy Young award year of 2005. At the same time, let's not overlook that he's 38 years old, and he has a 4.52 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in 14 starts since returning from his June hamstring injury. He might not be physically capable of handling much more of a workload than the one he has endured this year, and he's not going to get quite the run support if he doesn't return to the Yankees. Tread carefully.

Ah, but aren't you forgetting someone?

Yu Darvish
Yu Darvish has put up phenomenal numbers in Japan.

Why yes, yes I am. Expect a buzz to surround Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish, who, according to many reports, might be posted by his team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, this winter. Darvish is a name with whom many fantasy owners might be familiar; we've profiled him on ESPN as far back as 2008. His potential arrival in the States has been speculated upon for multiple years, and with word this summer that Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos traveled to Japan to scout the right-hander, expect such talk to only heat up in the coming weeks.

Heck, I'm on the Darvish bandwagon: I ranked him among my top 250 keepers in my midseason update, under the assumption that he would be pitching in the United States as early as the 2012 season.

Darvish's potential is immense, and his statistics in Japan show it: This season he's 16-5 with a 1.45 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 235 K's in 199 innings, and in the past five years he's a combined 74-27 with a 1.73 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 9.46 K's-per-nine ratio in 124 appearances. In four of those five years he has struck out more than 200 batters, four times his WHIP has been sub-0.90, and he has 14 shutouts combined. And remember, Japanese "aces" typically throw only 25 games, compared to the 33-35 that we've come to expect from U.S. aces. Conversely, that spawns the inevitable question about possible late-season fatigue in the U.S. game.

Darvish has generated countless comparisons to Daisuke Matsuzaka, and considering the direction in which Matsuzaka's career has headed the past three years, that might be regarded a black mark by many. But don't forget the impact "Dice-K" had in his first two seasons in the States: He won 15 games with 201 K's as a rookie in 2007, and he won 18 games with a 2.90 ERA as a sophomore in 2008. By many accounts, Darvish's potential exceeds even that of Matsuzaka's.

Plus, Darvish is only 25 years old, a year younger than Matsuzaka at the time he made the leap to the U.S.

You'll notice that Darvish didn't crack my initial top 75 for 2012, and the reason is that there has been no official word that he's headed here this winter. As most keeper leagues have rules that prevent teams from signing foreign talent before their arrival in the States, there's little purpose in ranking him yet. But if you're curious about his possible impact in the event he does arrive here before the spring: I'd rank him 30th, right behind Stephen Strasburg.

Who is 2012's "Jordan Zimmermann"?

This is both a positive and a negative, as while Zimmermann was on track to become one of 2011's greatest breakout stories entering the All-Star break -- at the time he ranked 14th in ERA (2.66) -- innings-cap concerns during his first full season back following Tommy John surgery quelled any excitement shortly thereafter. He had a 4.47 ERA in his next eight starts, pitched on more than five days' rest three times and was ultimately shut down for the season following his Aug. 28 turn, finishing with 161 1/3 innings.

With pitching usage as under-the-microscope as ever, here are my top three candidates to suffer the "Zimmerman treatment" in 2012, meaning careful management of their innings totals that might adversely impact their fantasy value:

Stephen Strasburg
Stephen Strasburg is looking good again, but the Nats might put an inning cap on him next season.
Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals: He's coming off the same surgery that Zimmermann did, he pitches for the same team as Zimmermann, he's younger than Zimmermann (23, compared to 25), and he has thrown fewer innings in his first year back than Zimmermann did (34 1/3, compared to 70 2/3). Oh, and the Nationals already showed us during his rookie season in 2010 that they're uber-cautious about his workload. Could there be a more obvious innings-cap concern -- in any year -- than Strasburg? He'll be one of the best on a per-innings basis in 2012, but he's not going to give you more than 160 frames.

Drew Pomeranz, Colorado Rockies: That he was able to make any starts for the Rockies this year is somewhat remarkable; remember that at the time of an emergency appendectomy in mid-August, he was deemed out for the season. That limited Pomeranz's minor league innings total to 101, and he has tacked on 10 2/3 innings for the Rockies at the age of 22. He has the kind of stuff that could succeed right away, even at Coors Field, but he might not be afforded more than 160 innings.

Manny Banuelos, New York Yankees: He might not break camp with the team, but considering the state of the back end of the Yankees' rotation, Banuelos will get a long look for a spot during spring training, and his wins/strikeouts potential -- remember, the Yankees offer run support -- will make him an attractive sleeper in many drafts. But here's the problem: Banuelos has thrown just 129 2/3 innings as a 20-year-old this season, has topped 100 innings only twice in four professional seasons and, due to his command issues, tends to throw a greater number of taxing pitches over a smaller number of innings. The Yankees were cautious with Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes before him. They'll be the same way with Banuelos.

Others to monitor: Matt Moore (159 1/3 innings pitched this season at the age of 22), Brad Peacock (153 at age 23), Julio Teheran (161 1/3 at age 20), Jacob Turner (140 2/3 at age 20) and Alex White (82 2/3 at age 23).

Are 2011 innings bumps really that troublesome?

The "Verducci Effect" has been discussed at great length in the fantasy baseball community during the past decade, and while innings-pitched bumps of 40 or more do bear watching when it comes to the pitcher's following-season outlook, the truth is that few of 2010's examples actually suffered statistically in 2011.

Last season, in the final edition of "60 Feet 6 Inches," I published a section entitled "Pitchers whose 2010 innings could signal trouble," and listed 15 pitchers who endured an innings increase of at least 40 from 2009 to 2010. The three who finished highest among starting pitchers on the Player Rater in 2010, Mat Latos (13th), Jaime Garcia (40th) and Phil Hughes (46th), all finished with a lower Player Rater score in 2011 than 2010. Garcia's, however, didn't decline by a substantial amount.

Interestingly enough, those were the three pitchers for whom the debate about innings workloads rung loudest. Their teams employed obvious strategies late in the season to keep their innings totals in check.

Eight of the 15, however, improved in terms of Player Rater value this season, and five of those did so by a substantial margin: Madison Bumgarner, Jeremy Hellickson, Ian Kennedy, Justin Masterson and Ivan Nova. Kennedy and Masterson both rank among the top 20 in baseball in terms of innings pitched, Bumgarner is a virtual lock to top 200 innings, and Masterson is the only one of the quintet to have a September ERA higher than 2.18, eliminating any argument that workload increases result in late-season fatigue the following year.

Couldn't it be argued, then, that the pendulum has now swung so far to the other side that teams who excessively maintain pitchers' workloads from one season to the next actually don't do them any greater service than the teams who abuse their young arms without care for future consequences? That might be an extreme opinion, but those 2010-11 examples don't exactly fuel the theory behind the "Verducci Effect."

As innings caps remain a factor in our game, however, I'd be remiss not to publish the list of "abused" arms heading into 2012. These are the notable pitchers whose 2011 innings totals exceeded their 2010 numbers by at least 40 frames, as well as set new professional highs in the category, among those aged 25 or younger:

(Ages are as of Sept. 22)

Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals (age: 25; 2011 innings: 161 1/3; 2010 innings: 70 2/3; difference: +90 2/3; previous pro high: 106 2/3)
Derek Holland, Texas Rangers (age: 24; 2011 innings: 193; 2010 innings: 123; difference: +70; previous pro high: 150 2/3)
Danny Duffy, Kansas City Royals (age: 22; 2011 innings: 147 1/3; 2010 innings: 78; difference: +69 1/3; previous pro high: 126 2/3)

Here's who could reach an increase of 40:

Mike Leake, Cincinnati Reds (age: 23; 2011 innings: 175; 2010 innings: 138 1/3; difference: +36 2/3; previous pro high: 138 1/3)
Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners (age: 22; 2011 innings: 171; 2010 innings: 139 1/3; difference: +31 2/3; previous pro high: 138 1/3)

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.