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2014 Draft Prep: Starting pitcher profiles

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Al's profiles: Cs | 1Bs | 2Bs | SSs | 3Bs | OFs | Ps

Once again, we face the perennial question of whether it is wise to pursue the top Fantasy pitchers aggressively and early in drafts.

If we were to judge this season's starting pitcher pool by last season's results, we would include just three pitchers among the elite. Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Adam Wainwright pulled away from the field, making them appear to be rare talents worthy of claiming with a first-round pick. At least for them, an aggressive approach would appear to be valid, but appearances can be deceiving.

All three are certainly worth considering in the early portions of drafts, but the urgency to claim one of the trio isn't as great as last year's final rankings would suggest. With better run support, Cliff Lee, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner, Cole Hamels and Stephen Strasburg could have owned better records and joined the elite tier. With better luck or defensive support, Felix Hernandez (.320 BABIP) could have risen up the ranks as well. Then add in the possible comebacks that Justin Verlander and David Price could enjoy, and the steps forward that Yu Darvish and Jose Fernandez could take, and suddenly there is a wealth of potentially elite options from which to pluck your Fantasy ace.

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That means owners have a chance to take a legitimate No. 1 starter several dozen picks into the draft, but they may have to move quickly in filling out the next couple of spots. By the time 30 starters have come off the board, there may be few, if any, proven and healthy arms available. Then your choices are likely to come down to selecting from a cohort of several high-upside, inexperienced pitchers (i.e., Gerrit Cole, Michael Wacha, Sonny Gray, Masahiro Tanaka, Tony Cingrani, Danny Salazar, Shelby Miller) or a large group of solid but unspectacular rotation staples (e.g., Jon Lester, R.A. Dickey, C.J. Wilson, Doug Fister).

I've been using this space to delve into some of this year's tougher projections to make, and because the starter pool is littered with pitchers who are either green or highly inconsistent, there is simply not enough room to get into all of the most perplexing cases. Nonetheless, the six pitchers included represent the young (Fernandez and Wacha), the largely-unknown (Tanaka), the erratic (Anibal Sanchez and Jeff Samardzija), and the just plain baffling (Matt Cain).

Jose Fernandez, Marlins

2014 5x5 projections: 16-10, 2.86 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 206 Ks in 195 innings pitched
2014 overall value (projected): 14.3 Standings Gain Points (5x5), 7th among all pitchers; 551 Fantasy Points, 12th among starting pitchers

Fernandez had just over one year of professional experience -- and none of it in the upper minors -- when he arrived at Marlins camp last spring. Only because of injuries to Henderson Alvarez and Nate Eovaldi did he make the opening day roster. It certainly seemed like the 20-year-old would need some more minor league seasoning, especially after running into trouble in some of his early starts. By mid-May, that was clearly not the case, as Fernandez snapped into domination mode.

Seeing what Fernandez accomplished, particularly over 23 starts from May forward, there is little reason to expect him to finish outside the top dozen starters this season. Because of his lack of experience (and the frequent pattern of young players taking steps backwards after an initial breakout), I went a little conservative on Fernandez's strikeout (206) and walk (61) projections. If he pulls a Mike Trout on us and improves on an impossibly-good skill set at age 21, he could easily wind up as a top five or six pitcher. Fernandez was so proficient at throwing strikes that there is little reason to question his command, but as good as he is, he probably won't hold opponents to an .065 average on flyballs in play again or strand as many as 80 percent of his runners. Even an improved Fernandez is practically assured of some ERA and WHIP regression this year.

And for those who are skeptical of Fernandez's projected 16-10 record, recall that he did go 12-6 last year despite an utter lack of offensive support. The Marlins' offense still has major holes, but it should be a little better than last year.

Anibal Sanchez, Tigers

2014 5x5 projections: 14-9, 3.19 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 210 Ks in 195 innings pitched
2014 overall value (projected): 11.8 Standings Gain Points (5x5), 23rd among all pitchers; 504 Fantasy Points, 24th among starting pitchers

Sanchez has been on-again, off-again as a strikeout pitcher, but it's easier to buy into a 9.0- plus K/9 ratio now that he is throwing harder. According to FanGraphs.com, Sanchez's average fastball velocity jumped from 91.8 mph in 2012 to 93.0 last year, and he produced a 13.6 percent swinging strike rate that was the highest of his career.

Given his history of inconsistent Fantasy production, owners may look for Sanchez's value to dip this year, but if they're looking for substantially fewer strikeouts, they're looking in the wrong place. Sanchez's ERA and WHIP were helped last season by a 6.3 percent home run-to-flyball ratio (HR/FB) and 79 percent strand rate. Neither is likely to be repeated. So even though the Tigers' defensive upgrades should help to reduce Sanchez's .312 BABIP from a year ago, he is still at risk of seeing his ERA and WHIP head northward.

Despite swing-and-miss stuff and strong command, Sanchez should be treated as a second-tier starter, unless he somehow strengthens his ground ball tendencies or exceeds 200 innings for the first time in his career.

Matt Cain, Giants

2014 5x5 projections: 13-9, 3.31 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 186 Ks in 215 innings pitched
2014 overall value (projected): 11.6 Standings Gain Points (5x5), 26th among all pitchers; 531 Fantasy Points, 16th among starting pitchers

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A beacon of consistency, Cain essentially photocopied his 2010 season and turned it in for both 2011 and 2012. That made his 2013 early-season faceplant all the more difficult to understand, especially when his struggles persisted deep into the summer. Cain was hit by the home run bug early, but he didn't really hit his stride until late July. He lacked his typical control and allowed hitters to square up on the ball more often than usual, as was reflected by unfavorable line drive and popup rates (at least by his standards).

Cain offered owners some reassurance over his final 10 starts, during which he threw roughly two- thirds of his pitches for strikes while issuing only 14 walks over 67 1/3 innings. According to BaseballReference.com, Cain was still allowing line drives at a 25 percent rate over that stretch, but he compiled a 12 percent popup rate that kept his BABIP at a svelte .265 -- right in line with his normal rates.

Cain's slump was extended to the degree that it's hard to forecast a full return to his typical ERAs around 3.00 and WHIPs below 1.10, but his late-season return to form gives me confidence to project him at a level just a shade below his established norm.

Michael Wacha, Cardinals

2014 5x5 projections: 13-9, 3.46 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 196 Ks in 190 innings pitched
2014 overall value (projected): 10.7 Standings Gain Points (5x5), 36th among all pitchers; 474 Fantasy Points, 31st among starting pitchers

No matter how highly touted a prospect may be, there will be some risk involved in reaching for him when he's produced a grand total of 170 2/3 regular season innings as a professional, with 106 of those coming in the minors. That's all we've seen from Wacha ... well, that plus 30 2/3 innings of postseason work. Despite the inexperience, it's hard to resist Wacha once the established studs are gone, as he has excelled at every level. While detractors may point to his mediocre 7.7 K/9 ratio in Triple-A, he showed his potential for strikeouts with an 11 percent swinging strike rate (per StatCorner.com).

Despite a thoroughly impressive, albeit limited, track record, Wacha is not without potential pitfalls. He showed occasional bouts of wildness last season and was fortunate to have thrown only 18 2/3 of his 64 2/3 regular season innings away from pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium. He does seem to be a safe bet to strike out more than a batter per inning and reach his projected 190 innings, and his overall projection lands him among the top 40 starters. That status likely represents his floor.

Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees

2014 5x5 projections: 13-9, 3.55 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 173 Ks in 195 innings pitched
2014 overall value (projected): 9.7 Standings Gain Points (5x5), 54th among all pitchers; 459 Fantasy Points, 42nd among starting pitchers

Tanaka has received attention for his $155 million contract from the Yankees and 24-0 season in the Japanese Pacific League last year, and both have helped to create expectations he will be a top 25 pitcher, at least judging by his current ADP (22nd in Roto, 23rd in Head-to-Head). While he has put up some tidy stats in Japan, Tanaka was not the strikeout pitcher there that Yu Darvish was, but he did exhibit exceptional control. Simply because of the money that Yankees have invested in Tanaka, Fantasy owners may be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume he will fulfill his potential right away. However, he may not provide a full return on the Yankees' investment until some point later in his seven-year deal.

Success overseas doesn't always translate into instant success in the majors. Recall that even Darvish struggled for much of his 2012 rookie season and Hisashi Iwakuma only showed glimpses of his pinpoint control in his rookie year. Though Tanaka could make a quick and smooth transition to the majors, it's probably too optimistic to expect him to reach the strikeout-per-inning threshold or rank among the WHIP leaders this year, even though he could do both eventually. A top 25 ranking feels like Tanaka's upside, so it may pay off in single-season leagues to let someone else draft him in that stratum.

Jeff Samardzija, Cubs

2014 5x5 projections: 11-12, 3.73 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 205 Ks in 210 innings pitched
2014 overall value (projected): 9.5 Standings Gain Points (5x5), 62nd among all pitchers; 464 Fantasy Points, 36th among starting pitchers

Through the first three months of last season, Samardzija was the mayor of Breakout City, riding an enhanced ground ball rate to a 3.34 ERA. When the calendar flipped to July, Samardzija suddenly lost his command and migrated to Slumpsville, where he posted a 5.47 ERA. Even though he continued to induce grounders, he started giving up more extra-base hits, allowing more walks and missing fewer bats.

So which Samardzija shows up for the 2014 season? The main source of his second-half problems appeared to be a sinker that lost some of its sink. Batters feasted on the flatter version of the pitch, putting up a .202 Isolated Power on it over the last three months versus an .085 mark between April and June, according to the PitchFX data on BrooksBaseball.net.

We can't know if and when Samardzija will start offering a more deceptive sinker again, but as Fantasy analytics pioneer Ron Shandler has posited, once a player demonstrates a skill, he owns it. That's why I have Samardzija projected for a performance more in line with his earlier work from last year, though I've hedged my bets on his ERA just in case he needs time to regain his form.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Al at @almelccbs .

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Player News
Cubs not sure when Neil Ramirez (shoulder) will return
by Sean d'Oliveira | CBSSports.com
(9:08 pm ET) Cubs manager Joe Maddon said the club is not sure when pitcher Neil Ramirez will be able to return to the team, reports CSN Chicago.

"Status quo," he said. "Nothing awful, nothing a lot better, pretty much still in that limbo state."

Ramirez is on the disabled list and he has not pitched since April 15 because of shoulder inflammation.


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by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(8:45 pm ET) Padres pitcher Brandon Morrow will throw a bullpen over the weekend, per the Union-Tribune

Morrow is battling shoulder inflammation that landed him on the disabled list. He threw his first bullpen session on Thursday.

Assuming the weekend's session goes well, the team plans to have Morrow pitch a simulated game next week.  


Angels' deciding if C.J. Cron should sit bench or play in minors
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(8:31 pm ET) Angels DH C.J. Cron is mired in a slump to start the season. Cron is hitting .200 with a .496 OPS. 

As a result, Cron has seen his playing time dwindle, starting just twice in the last 10 games.

Of course, with limited at bats, it will be tough for Cron to find his swing. The question the Angels must answer is whether Cron should stay on the Major League bench or go down to Triple-A to get regular playing time. 

"If you are getting at bats at the major league level you don’t have to get them seven days a week, but if you are getting them one day a week then there’s a discussion of what’s best for the team and what’s best for the player," manager Mike Scioscia said, per the Orange County Register. "C.J. has gotten enough at-bats where if he’s swinging like he can, he’d be contributing, but he hasn’t found that swing yet."


Dodgers trade Blake Smith for White Sox's Eric Surkamp
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(8:00 pm ET) The Dodgers traded pitcher Blake Smith for White Sox pitcher Eric Surkamp on Friday, the clubs announced.

Surkamp began the year on the 15-day disabled list before being optioned to Triple-A Charlotte by the White Sox. With the White Sox a year ago, he posted a 4.81 ERA in 35 appearances. 

According to SB Nation's True Blue LA, Surkamp will report to Triple-A Oklahoma City

With Charlotte, Surkamp posted a 2.81 ERA in 11 appearances. 


Hunter Strickland will join Giants as 26th man on Saturday
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(7:27 pm ET) Pitcher Hunter Strickland will join the Giants for Saturday's doubleheader. 

Strickland will be called up for the day, taking advantage of MLB's "26th man rule" for the doubleheader. 

Strickland announced the news on Twitter.

Strickland is 1-1 with five saves and a 1.66 ERA at Triple-A Sacramento this season.  


Cubs' Mike Olt taking batting practice again
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(7:22 pm ET) Cubs Opening Day third baseman Mike Olt is making progress in recovering from a fractured wrist, suffered in the second week of the season. 

Olt got the cast off of his wrist last week and took batting practice for the first time this week. 

When Olt returns, he'll find out that his spot has been filled by rookie Kris Bryant

"Kris is doing a great job right now, and I’m just making sure I get this back to 100 percent and be able to play with that team wherever they need me," Olt said, per the Chicago Sun Times.

There's a possibility Olt may play the outfield when he returns to the Cubs. 


Astros Brett Oberholtzer to throw minor league BP
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(7:16 pm ET) Astros pitcher Brett Oberholtzer will throw live batting practice at Triple-A Fresno in the next few days, according to a report by the Houston Chronicle.

Oberholtzer is recovering from a blister on his finger that landed him on the disabled list. He'll likely throw BP on either Sunday or Monday. 


D-Backs David Hernandez could join club next week
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(6:56 pm ET) Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale said pitcher David Hernandez will likely re-join the club next week, according to the team's website.

Hale said Hernandez's next stop will be with Double-A Mobile before returning to Arizona. Hernandez has been dealing with an elbow injury and has been unable to pitch for the Diamondbacks yet this season. 


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by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(6:48 pm ET) The knee inflammation that has plagued White Sox right fielder Avisail Garcia recently has him scratched from the Friday night game against Minnesota, per the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

J.B. Shuck is set to play in his place.

Garcia had been hot at the plate, but struggled mightily in a four-game series against Cleveland with just one hit in 14 at-bats. He still owns a fine slash line of .319/.359//451.


Phillies SS Freddy Galvis: Cold weather made me cold at plate
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(6:41 pm ET) Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis has blamed the cold weather in Colorado for turning him cold at the plate.

All four games against the host Rockies were played in low 50-degree temperatures, leaving Galvis to tell the Philadelphia Inquirer that his poor series was due to it being "really cold."

Galvis was 3-for-20 in the series and is now 3-for-23 in his last five games. He is still leading all National League shortstops with a .319 batting average, but it was at .353 a week ago.

Ryne Sandberg said he expected Galvis to maintain a shorter swing and "pepper the ball" this weekend against Washington.


 
 
 
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