If you have finished our pontification on prime-time 27-year-olds, maybe even buying into the logic, we might have a harder sell with a close second in our list of Fantasy rules of thumb: the breakthrough of the third-year starting pitcher.
Save for World Series hero Cole Hamels and his Series counterpart James Shields of the Rays, it was a down year for pitchers in their third season. Sure, two of them helped their teams to league championships, but because of the case of Justin Verlander, you might be inclined to mock our theory as the breakdown of the third-year starter.
The big fat bust cost many owners their Fantasy seasons. Among the top 130 most-owned players on CBSSports.com last season, only the teams that rostered Robinson Cano, A.J. Pierzynski, Derek Jeter and Torii Hunter had worst winning percentages than Verlander's.
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That is the same Verlander who was No. 2 in our top 10 third-year starting pitchers last spring, behind Jered Weaver, who seems to have leveled off. Others in the top 10, John Maine, Matt Cain, Rich Hill, Ian Snell, Boof Bonser and Scott Olsen, weren't their best either.
Have you heard about how risky pitching is in Fantasy Baseball?
We are not going to give up on targeting third-year starting pitchers, though. Doing so would make us hypocrites.
It is still our belief those with between 40-70 career starts, starting pitchers roughly in their third season, have survived the learning curve and are now conditioned to reach Fantasy ace status -- especially in relation to a full season of starts (30-plus) and innings (200-plus).
It cannot be forgotten the legendary Fantasy L.I.M.A. Plan (Low Investment Mound Aces, named by Ron Shandler) was derived from Jose Lima, who broke through at 21-10 with 187 strikeouts and a 3.58 ERA in 1999. He entered that year with 54 big-league starts under his belt.
The L.I.M.A. strategy suggests you pick starters on the cheap because breakouts can come from the depths of the position and risk is heavier among the elite pitchers as opposed to hitters. That is for you, disappointed Verlander owners.
Unlike hitters, where we define a players prime at a specific age, pitchers develop at varying ages. We spoke to Billy Beane about this topic last September and he agreed: There is no optimal age for pitchers.
Instead, Beane suggested you simply buy pitchers in bulk. Apparently, Beane has been using Shandler's strategy. Get them on the cheap and see how some of them pan out.
And, as for how Beane weighs which pitchers to buy, he says judge them by looking at:
|Age is age on opening day|
- History of work.
- History of health.
Come 40-70 starts, or what amounts to a couple full seasons on the back of the baseball card, we finally have some bit of history of work and health to weigh.
There are theories out there suggesting 500 innings is where a pitcher has arrived -- roughly the amount of innings after a third season -- but it is tough to believe it takes that long when you see the quick success of NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, Dodgers ace Chad Billingsley and no-hitting Red Sox star Jon Lester had last season. They are highly valued commodities this spring after Year 2, but our third-year starting pitcher list is about finding Fantasy breakthroughs before they happen.
Below is a ranking of the top 10 third-year starting pitchers for 2009. They have varying degrees of draft value, but the ranking is a projection of the rewards you can expect out of them as sleepers. Therefore, you won't see the likes of Lincecum, Edinson Volquez and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who are more likely to disappoint than surprise you.
Maybe we should be careful of pitchers who ramped their innings up past 200 too quickly. The shoulder is an intricate mechanism that needs to be built up and conditioned with care. You don't jog a 5K and then go out and run a marathon. Similarly, pitchers should stretch out their shoulder gradually -- daily, monthly and annually -- rather than overload it without the proper conditioning.
Remember those coaches who made you stretch? To avoid injuries, you need to condition yourself.
See, we did learn something from last year and the disappointment of early rising, lately sinking Verlander. But we will bet our Fantasy season the 2009 version of third-year starting pitchers list will look more prophetic than pathetic this time around.
1. Adam Wainwright
Right-hander | St. Louis Cardinals | Age 27
You just know we couldn't help ourselves, ranking a 27-year-old as our favorite third-year starting pitcher to target this spring. But, Wainwright also helps us explain another dilemma with young pitching.
See, Wainwright was pretty cocky about going from reliever to starter after his World Series season in 2006, ramping his innings from 75 to 202 in a hurry. He was right when he told us in spring training he had no doubts he would go 200 innings in his first year as a starter.
We should have asked how many innings would he be able to handle the year following that. It turns out just 132 last season -- albeit really good ones. He went 11-3 with a 3.20 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP in 20 starts, Cy Young splits.
Reaching 200 innings was his first order of business and then dominating the league was second. Year 3 it is to dominate the league for over 200 innings.
Since his injury was with his finger and not his shoulder or elbow, we are now the ones that have no doubts he will do so. Our modest projections rank him just outside of the top 25 starting pitchers to target on Draft Day, but his learning curve continues, he will be a Carpenter-like Cy Young front-runner this season and perform like a top 10 Fantasy ace.
2. Mike Pelfrey
Right-hander | New York Mets | Age 25
While Wainwright is a fairly obvious Fantasy ace, Pelfrey is just now looking capable of becoming one. He always had the hard-sinking 96 mph stuff, so it was just a matter of time.
At the end of last May, Pelfrey was just 2-6 with an awful 5.33 ERA, looking more ready to be a Triple-A rotation ace than a major league one. After that point, though -- right around the change of the Mets' coaching staff -- Pelfrey went 11-5 with a 3.20 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. Those are Wainwright numbers right there.
Strangely the best part about Pelfrey is he actually pitches to contact and doesn't strike hitters out. Among this year's crop of third-year starters, he has one of the highest batting-average against figures. It doesn't worry us, though, because pitching to contact means Pelfrey won't be working as many deep counts and should be able to pitch deep into games with his hard sinking stuff. Plus, the Mets have a very good defensive team Pelfrey is allowing batters to hit into.
We project Pelfrey to be a 15-game winner with a sub-4.00 ERA -- a top 50 option -- but many drafters are going to look at his full-season stats of 2008 or even his career numbers and see a far less capable Fantasy starter. But you know the splits and you know pitchers with 40-70 career stats are finally conditioned to put everything together. Pelfrey just needs to do it for a full season to finish among the top 25 starters in Fantasy.
We clump these two burgeoning White Sox aces together because their development last season make them just so similar -- even if they pitch from opposite sides of the rubber.
Floyd's path to his "third" season was far more circuitous, having been unable to prove capable before winning 17 games in his first full season after a few partial ones. Floyd was pretty steady last season, though, until having his first so-so month in September (2-2, 4.81).
Danks, meanwhile, was dynamic in the first half (7-4, 2.67 with a .234 batting-average against) before being a little more middlin' after the break (5-5, 4.26, .268). But, among pitchers with 40-70 career starts, Danks is the youngest and still with plenty room to grow.
Both of these pitchers will be around the top 50 starters picked on Draft Day, but their continued development and presence in the rotation of a contender make them candidates to perform on a top 25 level.
4. Matt Garza
Right-hander | Tampa Bay Rays | Age 25
If you watched Garza last postseason, you got a real appreciation of what the right-hander can do -- to the point where you are wondering why the Twins ever gave up on him for disappointing Delmon Young. Unlike most young pitchers, Garza seemed to get better as the season, and his games, went on. That is a sign of a future Fantasy horse.
Garza was at his best in the big games, picking up seven of his 11 victories against AL East foes and winning the ALCS MVP award on the strength of two dynamite starts, including a Game 7 clincher. Garza is prepared to reach the all-important 200-inning plateau and should push 15 victories with the elite contender now in Tampa Bay.
His postseason success put some extra innings on his arm that don't show up in his season stats, so we are a little worried about that, but that contender he pitches for should help him stay healthy in Year 3 and be a consistent winner.
5. Ubaldo Jimenez
Right-hander | Colorado Rockies | Age 25
Jimenez was the Garza-like postseason breakthrough one year prior. The power right-hander is one of the burgeoning aces of baseball and capable of striking out 200 batters.
He does have some reasons to be cautious, though. One, he walked an alarming 103 batters; and two, he works half his games in hitter-friendly Coors Field. But, ironically, he handled the rare air even better than he handled the road, going 7-4 with a 3.31 ERA and a .223 batting-average against at home vs. (5-8)-4.72-.266 away.
In another strange Garza-like twist, Jimenez got stronger as last year went on as he reached his career high in innings, going (8-3)-3.68-.221 after the break vs. (4-9)-4.22-.262 before it. His splits home-away and first half-second half bode well for continued improvement and future dominance for Fantasy owners.
Consider him a high-ceiling pick after the top 50 starting pitchers are off the board on Draft Day. No one would blame you for taking a shot on him even earlier.
6. Josh Johnson
Right-hander | Florida Marlins | Age 25
Unlike all the others on this list, Johnson has already gotten his Tommy John surgery out of the way. That is the good news, along with how the perceived injury risk will weigh him down on Draft Day.
We don't see him jumping from less that 88 innings to over 200 in one year, but Johnson has been great when he has pitched to date. He is 19-11 in his career with a 3.54 ERA and 234 strikeouts. That is quite a season.
Since injury has been a factor, we project 13 victories, 151 strikeouts and a 3.34 ERA this season in 175 innings. Because he is a workhorse when healthy, though, he could easily beat those modest expectations.
The numbers make him a top 35 Fantasy starting pitcher even if he isn't quite a household name yet. With a year of health, he could become one.
7. Fausto Carmona
Right-hander | Cleveland Indians | Age 25
In the same vein as Wainwright, Carmona went from reliever to starter from 2006 to 2007, making an unadvisable innings bump that could have contributed to his injury-plagued second full season last year. Carmona was a 215-inning horse and a Fantasy MVP for his production in relation to his draft position.
Then the 2007 breakout pitcher of the year wound up being arguably the biggest bust of 2008. Not only did he battle injury, but he was also pretty ineffective when he was on the hill, too, posting a career worst 5.47 ERA and 1.63 WHIP. Those were just a tad worse than his 2006 rookie season, where he failed as a closer and looked like a bust of a prospect. That has to scare you.
Which is the real Carmona, the 2006/2008 version? Could 2007 have been the fluke? We think Carmona is somewhere in between behind the 19-win, 3.06 ERA breakthrough and a complete pile of Fantasy trash.
The talent and potential make him a top 50 starting pitcher to target, as we project 14 victories and an ERA around 4.00, but there is some obvious risk with taking him in such a prominent draft position. If our theory on third-year starting pitchers holds, Carmona is due for a big bounce-back year.
8. Sean Marshall
Left-hander | Chicago Cubs | Age 26
The Cubs dealt away Jason Marquis and passed on a deal for Jake Peavy, presumably because they are comfortable with Marshall competing with Jeff Samardzija for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. You have to like the wins potential of every starter on the Cubs this season, especially one possibly coming out of obscurity in Marshall.
He runs the risk of taking on too many innings after his year as a spot starter and long reliever, but before 2008, Marshall had proven to be a steady starter for the Cubs and Fantasy owners. Remember his fast start out of the gate in 2006, when he was looking like a Rookie of the Year candidate through April.
Marshall is the first starter on this list that needs to earn a rotation spot before he truly can be considered viable in most Fantasy leagues, but that kind of question mark can be just enough to make him a great sleeper for you on Draft Day.
9. Micah Owings
Right-hander | Cincinnati Reds | Age 26
If only there were Fantasy points awarded for a pitcher's offensive numbers, Owings would be a gem on Draft Day. He is such a good hitter, he was at times the first bat off the bench last season.
As it is, the Reds pulled off a coup sending free-agent-to-be Adam Dunn to the D-Backs before the Aug. 31 trade deadline for a package that included Owings. The big, powerful right-hander has long-term potential to be a Fantasy ace and should be one of the Reds' five starters out of spring training. That is a non-contender that plays its home games in arguably the best hitter's park in baseball, though, so bid with caution on the slugging pitcher.
Owings could be a real steal in deeper formats, especially long-term keeper and NL-only leagues. Unlike at the plate, Owings hasn't come close to scratching the surface of his real potential on the mound.
Another combo pick among teammates, this one because they might actually be competing for one rotation spot this spring. Like Floyd and Danks, they are as different as they are similar, if that is even possible.
Reyes is all hard stuff, and stubborn enough to get his backside traded out of St. Louis because he wanted to pitch his way -- the hard way. Sowers is a control-and-command lefty, a Jeff Francis-type, who paints it black but sits more around 90 mph.
To us, Reyes has Ben Sheets-like potential, while Sowers could suddenly find his niche like Francis did in his third season as a starter. That was in 2007 when Francis went 215 innings, going 17-9 and leading his team to the World Series.
Both Reyes and Sowers have yet to prove anything over the course of a full season, but their trio of partial seasons has them in the 40-70 career starts area and could lead to a big breakthrough this season.
Our list of pitchers in this category is quite large this season and ranging from the aces of Lincecum, Volquez, Dice-K, Billingsley and Lester to the relief retreads of Todd Wellemeyer and Braden Looper. You might even be able to put together an entirely different top 10 breakouts and sleepers, which is partially the reason we are so willing to overlook last season's third-year starting pitcher disasters. There are just so many promising pitchers to buy in on with a middle-to-late pick.
The following sortable stats feature all of the starting pitchers with 40-70 career starts. Like 27-year-olds, it is our suggestion you highlight these guys on your cheatsheets and target them periodically during your draft because they have the potential to surprise and outproduce their draft position.
|Third-year starting pitcher stats|
|Sowers, Jeremy||5/17/1983||49||49||276 2/3||12||19||.387||5.14||123||4.00||80||2.60||1.410||.283|
|Owings, Micah||9/28/1982||51||45||257 1/3||14||17||.452||4.97||193||6.75||91||3.18||1.325||.254|
|Pelfrey, Mike||1/14/1984||51||49||294 2/3||18||20||.474||4.31||168||5.13||115||3.51||1.473||.284|
|Jimenez, Ubaldo||1/22/1984||51||50||288 1/3||16||16||.500||4.06||243||7.58||143||4.46||1.387||.238|
|Kendrick, Kyle||8/26/1984||51||50||276 2/3||21||13||.618||4.78||117||3.81||82||2.67||1.464||.294|
|Johnson, Josh||1/31/1984||53||43||272 1/3||19||11||.633||3.54||234||7.73||117||3.87||1.399||.260|
|Garza, Matt||11/26/1983||56||54||317 2/3||19||22||.463||4.02||233||6.60||114||3.23||1.391||.267|
|Chacin, Gustavo||11/4/1980||58||58||331 2/3||25||15||.625||4.18||185||5.02||118||3.20||1.381||.268|
|Lincecum, Tim||6/15/1984||58||57||373 1/3||25||10||.714||3.16||415||10.00||149||3.59||1.213||.223|
|Baek, Cha Seung||5/29/1980||59||44||279 2/3||16||18||.471||4.83||184||5.92||81||2.61||1.341||.268|
|Lester, Jon||1/7/1984||60||59||354 2/3||27||8||.771||3.81||262||6.65||140||3.55||1.393||.265|
|Matsuzaka, Daisuke||9/13/1980||61||61||372 1/3||33||15||.688||3.72||355||8.58||174||4.21||1.324||.230|
|Hill, Rich||3/11/1980||64||57||337 2/3||18||17||.514||4.37||309||8.24||137||3.65||1.268||.232|
|Saunders, Joe||6/16/1981||64||64||385 1/3||32||15||.681||4.04||227||5.30||120||2.80||1.342||.268|
|James, Chuck||11/9/1981||64||55||315 2/3||24||19||.558||4.48||234||6.67||128||3.65||1.372||.256|
|Bannister, Brian||2/28/1981||67||65||385 2/3||23||26||.469||4.81||209||4.88||124||2.89||1.372||.270|
|Gorzelanny, Tom||7/12/1982||67||65||374 2/3||22||25||.468||4.78||245||5.89||172||4.13||1.511||.273|
|Nolasco, Ricky||12/13/1982||74||58||373 2/3||27||21||.563||4.12||296||7.13||92||2.22||1.250||.262|
|McGowan, Dustin||3/24/1982||75||56||353 2/3||20||22||.476||4.71||285||7.25||141||3.59||1.374||.256|
|Mitre, Sergio||2/16/1981||78||52||310 2/3||10||23||.303||5.36||188||5.45||108||3.13||1.545||.298|
|Marshall, Sean||8/30/1982||79||50||294 1/3||16||22||.421||4.62||202||6.18||117||3.58||1.413||.263|
|Marcum, Shaun||12/14/1981||89||64||396 2/3||24||17||.585||3.95||314||7.12||141||3.20||1.283||.244|
|Carmona, Fausto||12/7/1983||92||61||410 1/3||28||25||.528||4.19||253||5.55||162||3.55||1.401||.265|
|Bergmann, Jason||9/25/1981||95||50||339 1/3||10||19||.345||5.04||257||6.82||127||3.37||1.397||.265|
|Bonser, Boof||10/14/1981||96||60||391 2/3||18||25||.419||5.12||317||7.28||125||2.87||1.448||.281|
|Billingsley, Chad||7/29/1984||96||68||437 2/3||35||19||.648||3.33||401||8.25||202||4.15||1.401||.251|
|Hensley, Clay||8/31/1979||106||40||323 2/3||15||18||.455||4.09||206||5.73||150||4.17||1.406||.252|
|De La Rosa, Jorge||4/5/1981||125||64||404||25||31||.446||5.55||324||7.22||221||4.92||1.651||.282|
|McClung, Seth||2/7/1981||136||49||368 1/3||23||31||.426||5.55||274||6.70||215||5.25||1.569||.260|
|Hennessey, Brad||2/7/1980||148||44||360 2/3||17||23||.425||4.69||192||4.79||147||3.67||1.489||.278|
|Wellemeyer, Todd||8/30/1978||167||43||433 2/3||22||19||.537||4.42||340||7.06||213||4.42||1.430||.250|
|Looper, Braden||10/28/1974||636||63||981 1/3||58||58||.500||3.93||569||5.22||309||2.83||1.350||.268|
You can e-mail us your Fantasy Baseball questions to DMFantasyBaseball@cbs.com. Be sure to put Attn: Third-year SPs in the subject field. Please include your full name, hometown and state. Be aware, due to the large volume of submissions received, we cannot guarantee personal responses to all questions.