Move over, Philadelphia Phillies, you're not the only pitching-rich team in the National League East.
While the Phillies and their "four aces" garnered all the preseason headlines, it's actually their division rivals, the Atlanta Braves, who have snuck in as fantasy baseball's richest rotation. The Player Rater alone tells quite a story: All five members of the Braves' rotation rank among the top 41 starting pitchers, and to put that into perspective, consider that no other team in baseball had more than three within the top 50, and other than the Braves and the Phillies, no other team had more than three within the top 70.
In addition, through five-plus weeks of the season, Braves starters lead the majors in shutouts (6, tied with two other teams), WHIP (1.09) and OPS allowed (.606), rank second in both ERA and batting average allowed with numbers better than those of the Phillies (2.90 and .228), and rank second in baseball behind the Phillies in wins (16).
Having top-to-bottom rotation depth has played a large part in the Braves' success; how many other teams can claim they don't even have room for two pitching prospects like Mike Minor and Julio Teheran? Minor and Teheran, incidentally, are a combined 4-1 with a 1.87 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 3.33 strikeouts per walk in 10 starts for Triple-A Gwinnett. In most any other organization in baseball, at least one -- and probably both -- would already be in the big league rotation.
But neither is in the Braves' current starting five, and with good reason: a 24-year-old No. 5 starter named Brandon Beachy.
Though not as heralded a prospect as Minor or Teheran -- Baseball America ranked Beachy the Braves' No. 8 prospect, compared to No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, for Teheran and Minor -- Beachy hardly could be described as devoid of talent. He was not only regarded a top-10 prospect within the organization, as well as Jason Grey's No. 28 fantasy prospect entering 2011, he had a 2.55 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 4.65 strikeouts per walk during his minor league career. In a sense, Beachy suffered the misfortune of being the least attractive prospect of the three, but all he did was breeze through Double- and Triple-A, pitch well during a late-season trial with the Braves last September and outpitch his competition during spring training, his 0.90/0.80/5.25 numbers in the aforementioned categories earning him his current No. 5 spot.
TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS
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.
Beachy has done nothing but thrive in the role.
In addition to registering five quality starts in seven tries, including in each of his past four appearances, Beachy has a 2.98 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 4.09 K's per walk this season, scoring himself the No. 35 starting pitcher spot on our Player Rater. Three things have spawned his success:
• His fastball has been remarkably effective; he has thrown it 62.8 percent of the time, has allowed only .171 BA/.224 OBP/.243 SLG rates with it and has induced swings and misses 26.2 percent of the time, tops among starting pitchers, according to Inside Edge.
• He has remained consistently ahead in the count, his 61.9 percent rate of first-pitch strikes ranking him 34th of 121 qualified pitchers, according to Fangraphs.
• He has demonstrated little to no difference in his walk rate between the majors and minors, his 2.34 walks per nine from this season barely higher than the 2.12 he averaged in 208 career minor league innings.
Whether Beachy can keep those things up during the course of a six-month season is a fair debate, but there's little doubt that he's a quality contributor in terms of ERA, WHIP and strikeouts, especially the latter two, since his command is as sharp as it is. He should be a fantasy mainstay, certainly a pitcher you should have active for the time being, though he's not without risk, which is the lone reason he ranks just 52nd this week. Among those risks: He has never pitched more than 134 1/3 innings in a single professional season (2010); he has gone from 12 to 76 2/3 to 134 1/3 innings in his first three pro years, and therefore might face a late-season innings cap, perhaps in the 175 range. He's also subject to the adjustment period that practically every rookie pitcher faces, which could even coincide with the point at which the Braves begin skipping his turn to keep his innings in check.
In other words, Beachy is a prospect whose fantasy potential isn't much unlike that of Jaime Garcia or Phil Hughes, to steal two of 2010's biggest breakout candidates. Garcia and Hughes combined for a 2.92 ERA and 1.22 WHIP before the All-Star break last season; together they had 4.27/1.37 numbers after the break, as their teams continually altered their pitching schedules.
But if the Braves fully commit to Beachy breezing past 180 innings without capping him, then all bets are off.
What of the Braves' other starters? Here's a quick examination of the progress of each so far this year:
Tommy Hanson: He's looking quite the part of the "next ace," a top-10 possible fantasy starter, winning three in a row with a 1.35 ERA, and turning in a 2.63 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 3.73 K's per walk in his first seven starts.
Tim Hudson: He continues to induce a crazy-high number of ground balls (62.1 percent so far, fourth-highest in baseball) and has walked even fewer hitters this year (1.43 per nine) than last (2.91). Isn't it time to simply accept that his 2010 wasn't a mirage, and that he's a bona fide top-20 starter candidate?
Jair Jurrjens: Perhaps as much of a surprise as Beachy, Jurrjens, since his return from an oblique injury, has shaped up as every bit the solid fantasy option he was in 2008-09. A soft schedule has helped -- his first three turns were against the New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres -- but Jurrjens' 1.50 walks per nine and 50.4 percent ground-ball ratios look like those of a pitcher who should maintain at least NL-only and deep-mixed value.
Derek Lowe: The obvious reaction to his performance is, "Oh, he's Derek Lowe, he can't keep this up, so I should sell." To a degree that's true, except for this nugget: According to Fangraphs, he has thrown his cutter 10.0 percent of the time, up from 4.5 percent in 2010 and 1.5 in 2009. Whether that's a product of misclassifying the pitch or an actual change in approach, Lowe has limited left-handers to .250/.313/.330 rates, and his .642 OPS allowed is his second-lowest number since 2003, hinting that maybe he actually has improved his arsenal. If true, Lowe's 3.22 ERA and 1.25 WHIP might not be far off from what his season-ending numbers should be.
Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds: After five weeks lost to the disabled list due to a shoulder injury, Cueto finally made his 2011 debut on Sunday, and what a debut it was: six shutout innings of five-hit baseball, a considerable improvement upon the 6.28 ERA and 1.74 WHIP in four rehabilitation starts for Triple-A Louisville. (For the record, he had 0.40/1.07 ratios in his final two, so this didn't come completely out of nowhere.) That almost entirely restores the breakout potential he possessed in the spring, prior to his injury, as there were hints of greatness present in the outing: Per ESPN Stats & Information, Cueto threw 49 offspeed pitches (48.0 percent), his highest rate of those in a start since June 2010. His slider and changeup were superb; he got 52 percent strikes with his slider to right-handers, despite only 30 percent of those being in the strike zone, and his changeup averaged 7.1 inches horizontal and 3.4 vertical break, nearly double his 4.0 and 2.0 averages in 2010. Those hint that Cueto's injury issues might be entirely behind him, and if so, there's reason to believe his ceiling is that of a top-40 starter. Frankly, he's ranked only 65th here because one start doesn't restore a season. In terms of upside, he's easily worth a ranking in Scott Baker (No. 41) territory.
James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates: Speaking of preseason breakout candidates, McDonald is restoring some of his stock, with three consecutive quality starts. It's that most recent one, this past Sunday, that's the one worth examining, and that's in spite of the fact that all three came against below-average offenses. ESPN Stats & Information notes that, despite his throwing a season-low 43 percent first-pitch strikes in that game, McDonald had only five 2-0 counts and no 3-0s the entire day. That helped lead to eight strikeouts compared to only two walks, and if you think that's insignificant, consider that the right-hander had just 20 K's compared to 17 walks in his first six turns combined. McDonald is a pitcher whose upside you bought strictly because of his strikeout potential; the seeds might finally be sprouting, judging by his recent returns.
Tim Stauffer, San Diego Padres: So I waffle on Stauffer a lot; he's a lower-ranked pitcher -- bottom half of the top 100, usually in the 75 range -- so I reserve the right to do so. (Aren't all No. 75 overall pitchers somewhat enigmatic?) He's also a Padres pitcher, meaning run support -- and therefore win potential -- is practically nonexistent, a problem in a standard rotisserie format. In his past four starts, however, Stauffer has restored much of his preseason stock, thanks to a 1.37 ERA and 0.76 WHIP, but perhaps more importantly, 6.00 K's per walk and a 53.7 percent ground ball rate during that span. This is a pitcher who thrives on throwing strikes and generating grounders, and when he's doing so this efficiently, Petco is going to make the rare mistake almost unnoticeable. Stauffer won't win a Cy Young and might never get close to top-25 status, but as a guy you use to stream or round out your staff, he's an excellent choice.
Derek Holland, Texas Rangers: So much talent, such inconsistent results. After getting off to a hot start his first two times out, Holland has slumped to a 6.37 ERA and 1.75 WHIP in his past five starts, and only one of those -- a May 2 assignment in Oakland -- fit the quality-start definition. Complain about the rough schedule during that five-start span if you wish -- he had to face the New York Yankees twice and Toronto Blue Jays once -- but the Oakland game was a comparably easy matchup and it's Holland's command, generally regarded as his strength, that has failed him during his slump. During a nightmarish outing against the Yankees this past Saturday, he walked five batters in three innings and threw 54.5 percent strikes, easily a season low for the left-hander. Holland needs to be sharper than that, as a pitcher who doesn't necessarily overpower, and until he corrects it, he doesn't belong near any fantasy lineups.
Brett Myers, Houston Astros: Phillies fans probably aren't at all surprised to hear that Myers is slumping; that word "enigmatic" mentioned above is a perfect adjective to describe the veteran right-hander. Myers has had his career high points -- 2010 an ideal recent example -- but at other times he can be rather ordinary, a replacement-level option in a mixed fantasy league. A tough-as-nails schedule has contributed, including two starts apiece versus the Reds and Milwaukee Brewers and another at Philadelphia, but there are bothersome developments as well: A 2.00 K's per walk rate, his lowest since 2004; a 42.0 percent fly-ball rate that, per Fangraphs, represents a career high; and diminished fastball velocity, an average of 88.2 mph, down from 90.5 in his career. It's not time to give up on Myers completely, but he sorely needs a bounce-back start in the next couple of turns.
Roy Oswalt, Philadelphia Phillies: He doesn't remotely warrant criticism for what has been a rough patch in his season, during which time he has had to deal with understandable off-the-field distractions, but in fantasy the fact remains that we must evaluate a pitcher's statistical potential, and those very issues do decrease his value somewhat. After taking a leave of absence from the team to tend to his family in Mississippi, Oswalt returned only to immediately land on the disabled list with a back problem, something that should keep him out for at least another week. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Oswalt could be on track to return to the Phillies' rotation next week, but the question remains: What kind of adverse impact might a back injury have upon his performance? It's a fair point to question how much he might help between now and Memorial Day. That's not enough to drop him several tiers in the rankings, but certainly out of the top 20.
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.