One of the keys to being successful in fantasy is being able to assemble a competitive pitching staff while not compromising your offense, especially early on. It is a delicate balancing act, trying to find the right time to add an arm you like or predict when a run on starters may occur. While most drafters have strong opinions about which "Aces" they'd like to anchor their respective squads this season, often they don't spend near enough time thinking about who they will target later on to fill out their fantasy rotations. Most seasoned players already have a very good feel for the pitching inventory at this early point and likely already have a couple “real” drafts on the books. It is not surprising that the early 50 round Draft Champions format is taking hold over at the NFBC. These are the best money players in the land, and they are drafting these early leagues to re-acquaint themselves with the player pool, get a reading on early market trends and get an edge on you. In fact, these leagues are getting so popular they are providing enough data to set their own market trends. At the same time, projections, rankings lists and early mock draft results are popping up left and right. Magazines will be hitting the newsstands any day now. All this information helps flesh out a general overview, and to some degree can help you map out a strategy and build a plan to hopefully calmly “attack” pitching in your drafts rather the panicking because you keep missing on all your targets. Panic leads to mistakes and mistakes lead to wasted picks. The key to avoiding falling into this trap is to not be scrambling at the draft table. That means knowing who you like and why you like them.
Today we are going to start off looking at some pitchers further down the list of the American League starting pitching ranks. These are just some of the names you will want to examine further and form your own opinions on between now and draft day, especially in AL-only leagues where you will not have the luxury of avoiding them or taking them all in the reserve rounds. I’ve chosen one late round target and one sleeper per team to get you started.
Baltimore Orioles – Wei-Yin Chen – Chen was one of two international imports the Orioles brought in this off-season, the other being Tsuyoshi Wada. Of the two, Chen has the most upside, with a good fastball, breaking ball and excellent command. Chen posted a 2.68 ERA in 164 innings in Japan last year.
Sleeper – Brian Matusz – Many will write of Matusz after an injury-filled season to forget. Still, he has more raw talent than anyone in the rotation and will get a chance even if he doesn’t break camp with a rotation spot.
Boston Red Sox – Daniel Bard – As of this writing, both Bard and Alfredo Aceves are penciled into the back of the Boston rotation. Bard has the more exciting skills of the two and would seem a better bet to have success as a full-time starter. The Red Sox may grab another starter from free agency, sending someone back to the bullpen. A lack of a clear role may hold Bard’s price down, but his skills will deliver useful stats in whatever role the Sox use him in.
Sleeper – Felix Doubront – Doubront will be the first one called upon should injuries hit or the Bard/Aceves experiments go awry.
Cleveland Indians – Derek Lowe – The Indians obtained Lowe to give a stabilizing veteran presence to a young rotation. His job will be to make 35 starts, gobble up innings and try to regain some of his lost command. A consistent winner before last season, the price is right to see if he can right the ship somewhat in his return to the AL.
Chicago White Sox – Chris Sale – Sale isn’t flying under anyone’s radar heading into draft season, but at the same time most are hedging their bets on him until they know what his role will be. While he won’t be super cheap to roster, he has the upside to be one of the bigger bargains on draft day. If he can somehow lock down a rotation spot, 200 K’s could be on the horizon.
Detroit Tigers - Rick Porcello – Although his ERA and WHIP don’t show it, Porcello made some nice strides last year for the Tigers. Still only 23 years old, he enters his fourth year poised to take a big step forward. His command improved, he finally topped 100 K’s, and backed by a great offense he should once again be a great source of cheap W’s.
Sleeper – Jacob Turner – Turner enters the year as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball and will be given a chance to compete for the 5th starter’s job.
Kansas City Royals - Felipe Paulino – It could be argued that the entire Royals staff are potential bargains this year. This could just as easily be Jonathan Sanchez, but I’m going to spotlight the less sought after Paulino instead. He has always had a great fastball (95 mph) and finally started to show some control and better complimentary pitches last year. This is the type of arm you want to take a chance on late as he has the potential to rack up a ton of K’s, and you can hide him on reserve until needed.
Sleeper – Danny Duffy – He had some success in his 20 starts last year but doesn’t have a lock on a rotation spot.
Los Angeles Angels – Jerome Williams – Were it not for Ryan Vogelsong, Williams may have been the big redemption story last year. He hadn’t appeared in the Majors since 2007, but went 4-0 for the Angels down the stretch last year and will get first crack at holding down the 5th starter’s job. If you are going to speculate, it never hurts to go shopping on winning teams, especially ones that just added Albert Pujols to the lineup.
Sleeper – Garrett Richards – If Williams can’t do the job, Richards will be next in line. He showed some promise in his late season call-up and makes an interesting stash on draft day.
Minnesota Twins – Francisco Liriano – Having to write about Liriano as the guy from the Twins to keep an eye on late in drafts speaks to the lack of upside talent at the back of their rotation. The roller-coaster ride he has taken fantasy owners on the last five years makes him a risky bet. Still, it should be noted, he is entering his contract year, so the incentive will be there for him to perform. He’ll be cheap again this spring, so taking a shot will be that much more tempting.
Sleeper – Anthony Swarzak – With Liriano and Jason Marquis always a threat to land on the DL, Swarzak will see the mound at some point this year. He’s not that exciting, but he can be a serviceable back-end starter.
New York Yankees – A.J. Burnett – Much like Liriano, he’s one of those guys that no one will want to draft this year. Two straight years of ERA’s north of 5.00 will do that. His stuff is still good, so he can still give you some value at a bargain basement price this year. The Yanks are talking about trading him, but he’s owed $32 million over the next two years, making it very likely he starts the year in the Bronx. I’d rather gamble on him getting his head straight than Phil Hughes staying healthy.
Sleeper –Manny Banuelos – If the Yankees are able to trade Burnett, Banuelos could get a chance to compete for the 5th starter’s job as early as this Spring. I like him a bit more than fellow phenom Dellin Betances simply due to him being a lefty who can induce ground balls.
Oakland Athletics - Brad Peacock– Jarrod Parker will get all the hype in drafts this spring, but Peacock could very well end up having a better year at a fraction of the price. He came over to the Athletics in the Gio Gonzalez deal and now has a clear path to a rotation spot. The move to the Coliseum will help keep a few more fly-balls in the park and his excellent control and good curveball makes him a nice arm to take a chance on late.
Seattle Mariners - Hector Noesi – Noesi, who came over in the Michael Pineda-Jesus Montero deal, looks headed for the Mariner rotation out of camp this year. He’s not an overpowering pitcher, relying instead on pinpoint control and a four-pitch repertoire to keep hitters off-balance. Safeco Field and good defense will only help him.
Sleeper – Danny Hultzen – Hultzen will be competing for a rotation spot this spring, and even if he starts the year in the Minors, Kevin Millwood won’t be able to hold him back for very long. He is part of the reason Seattle wasn’t afraid to deal away Michael Pineda.
Tampa Bay Rays – Jeff Niemann – I could write about Matt Moore, but his stock has already shot into the upper ranks. The Rays have been shopping Wade Davis, and that would just clear the way even more for Niemann to stake a claim to a rotation spot. An injury plagued '11 will hide how good he was once he came back healthy. Go look at the splits, then make sure to grab him late on draft day. He could be one of the best bargains of 2012.
Sleeper – Chris Archer – Archer was the key piece in the Matt Garza deal from 2011 and should be able to force his way onto the roster in the second half, likely in the bullpen.
Texas Rangers – Matt Harrison – While others chase Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando, my advice is to sit back and wait for Harrison. The Rangers will want to keep another lefty in the rotation if possible, and I think Ogando is better suited to work out of the bullpen, which is what I think will happen to start the year. Ogando might be used to monitor both Feliz’s and Darvish’s innings, meaning Harrison could stick all year.
Sleeper – Martin Perez – The best young arm in the Rangers system, Perez is more of a keeper prospect. Still, he’s an exciting arm to keep tabs on this spring.
Toronto Blue Jays – Dustin McGowan – Henderson Alvarez is another intriguing arm on the roster, but I’m not convinced he’s going to build that much on last year’s performance. I’m much more intrigued by McGowan, who finally made it back after three years of injuries. He is the classic end game lottery ticket that could pay off big time for the cost of a reserve pick.
Sleeper – Kyle Drabek – He stumbled after a quick start and found himself back in Triple-A for the rest of the year. Toronto hasn’t given up on him and he’ll get another chance to prove himself this year.
Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments sections or post a question about a specific pitcher on our message boards.
Next Week: Back to the infield with a look at 2B.