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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
Orioles' Mike Wright called up on Friday, leaves game with cramp
by Jason Lempert | Staff Writer
(8:58 pm ET) Orioles pitcher Mike Wright , who was called up from Triple-A on Friday, left the game with a left calf cramp. Wright came into the game against the Tigers in the fourth inning after starter Wei-Yin Chen struggled.

Wright got out of the fourth, but was pulled with one out in the fifth due to the injury. It is not yet known when Wright is expected to make his next appearance for the Orioles.


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by Jason Lempert | Staff Writer
(8:42 pm ET) The Rockies have made a change in the back-end of their bullpen. Manager Walt Weiss has removed John Axford from the closer's role, after he record his fifth blown save of the season, and fourth in a row on Thursday.

"I had a conversation with John a little earlier and I told him I was going to get him out of that ninth inning for a little bit and let him catch his breath," Weiss said Friday, per The Denver Post.

Axford, who once saved 46 games in a season, got off to a blazing start in 2015. He had converted each of his first 12 save opportunities and gave up just one earned run over his first 20 appearances.

But he has struggled lately, posting a whopping 12.15 ERA over his past nine outings.

"I'm not so bullheaded as to say that I want to pitch in the ninth inning and that's how it has to be," Axford said. "I have pitched in other innings and I've had success in other innings. A lot of my success has come in the ninth, but that's also where some of the pain comes.

"Stepping away definitely could be beneficial. It's worked before for me. It worked in 2012."

Weiss indicated he will likely go with a closer-by-committee approach, with the likes of Rafael Betancourt, Tommy Kahnle and Justin Miller as potential ninth-inning options. 

"We have a few different options down there, so it will probably come down match-ups and who is available," Weiss said. "So there will be a few different guys throwing at the end."


Dodgers option Mike Bolsinger and Zach Lee to Triple-A
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(8:15 pm ET) The Dodgers optioned RHP Mike Bolsinger and RHP Zach Lee to Triple-A Oklahoma City, the team announced on Friday.

Bolsinger was 5-3 with a 2.83 ERA in 16 starts this year. Lee was 0-1 with a 13.50 ERA in his only start with the Dodgers.  


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by Jason Lempert | Staff Writer
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Dodgers 3B Justin Turner placed on 15-day DL with skin infection
by Jason Lempert | Staff Writer
(7:50 pm ET) Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner was placed on the 15-day disabled list due to a skin infection on his right thigh. Turner was sent to the emergency room on Tuesday when a pimple on his leg developed into an infection.

The move to the DL is retroactive to Tuesday. 


Phillies place newly-acquired Matt Harrison on disabled list
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(7:44 pm ET) The Phillies placed left-handed pitcher Matt Harrison on the 15-day disabled list, per the News Journal.

Harrison was just acquired by the Phillies, from Texas, for Cole Hamels. He hadn't appeared in a game for the team. He's suffering from lower back inflammation. 


Dodgers CF Joc Pederson sits on Friday amid struggles
by Jason Lempert | Staff Writer
(6:27 pm ET) Struggling Dodgers center fielder Joc Pederson is not in the starting lineup for Friday's matchup with the Angels. Pederson, who was recently moved out of the lead-off spot in the order, will take a seat with left-hander Hector Santiago on the mound for the Halos.

Pederson, who has just six hits in his last 33 at-bats, is hitting .233 with three home runs against southpaws this season. The rookie center fielder was held hitless over his last three games.

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Orioles DFA Chris Parmelee to make room for Gerardo Parra
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(6:24 pm ET) Outfielder Gerardo Parra reported to the Orioles and will be active on Friday, the team announced.

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To make room, the Orioles designated infielder Chris Parmelee for assignment. Parmelee was hitting .216 for the Orioles this season. 


Dodgers' Scott Van Slyke in the starting lineup Friday
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(6:23 pm ET) Dodgers outfielder Scott Van Slyke has returned to the starting lineup for Friday's matchup with the Angels. Van Slyke hadn't started a game since July 24 due to a neck injury.

He was used as a pinch-hitter a couple of times this week, and he has made his way back into the lineup as the starting left fielder and clean-up hitter on Friday.


Dodgers 3B Justin Turner still out of action on Friday
by Jason Lempert | Staff Writer
(6:19 pm ET) Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner remains out of the starting lineup due to a skin infection on his leg. Turner will miss his third straight game with the issue which put him in the emergency room on Tuesday.

His current condition has not been revealed by the team, and it is not known when he is expected to return to the lineup.

Alex Guerrero will get another start at the hot corner on Friday against the Angels. 


 
 
 
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