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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
Nationals 3B Yunel Escobar out of game after HPB on hand
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(9:04 pm ET) Nationals third baseman Yunel Escobar has been removed from the game Thursday night against San Diego after getting hit in the hand by a pitch, per Comcast SportsNet.

He remained on the bases, but left when his team took the field in the bottom of the inning.

The specifics of the injury have yet to be revealed.


Marlins' Jarred Cosart (vertigo/ear) pitching in rehab games
by Jason Lempert | Staff Writer
(8:49 pm ET) Marlins pitcher Jarred Cosart has started his minor-league rehab assignment. He began the rehab stint with the club's rookie team in the Gulf Coast League on Saturday. The right-hander tossed four innings of scoreless ball, allowing two hits and a walk while striking out a pair.

Cosart moved his rehab to Class A Jupiter on Thursday, when he allowed four runs on five hits over five innings. 

Cosart, who was optioned to Triple-A New Orleans in early July, is currently on the 7-day disabled list in the minor leagues. He is recovering from a severe battle with vertigo and an inner ear infection.


Padres OF Matt Kemp day-to-day with sore shoulder
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(8:22 pm ET) The absence of Padres slugger Matt Kemp from the lineup Thursday against Washington was due to a sore shoulder sustained on an awkward landing while trying to catch a fly ball Wednesday.

Kemp remained in that game, but is now considered day-to-day.


Nationals CF Denard Span (back) not starting on Thursday
by Jason Lempert | Staff Writer
(8:21 pm ET) Nationals center fielder Denard Span was out of the lineup for Thursday's series-finale with the Padres due to a recurrence of his stiff back

Span just returned from a 40-game stint on the disabled list due to back tightness, but he was expected to experience residual discomfort following his activation.

"We certainly want him back as quickly as possible," Manager Matt Williams said, per MLB.com. "If he feels good enough to go, we have to make sure we monitor it as we go."


Pirates' Francisco Cervelli ejected for contesting balls and strikes
by Jason Lempert | Staff Writer
(8:08 pm ET) Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli was ejected in the third inning of Thursday's game against the Marlins. Home plate umpire Alan Porter gave Cervelli the hook for arguing balls and strikes.

Cervelli was 1 for 2 with a triple, a run scored and a strikeout before his ejection. Chris Stewart took over behind the plate.


Orioles send RP Jorge Rondon down to Triple-A
by Jason Lempert | Staff Writer
(7:47 pm ET) The Orioles have optioned right-handed reliever Jorge Rondon to Triple-A Norfolk. Rondon pitched two innings of relief in Thursday's 5-3 loss to the Royals, allowing one run on three hits.

The team has not announced a corresponding roster move at this time.


Cubs option RP Zac Rosscup, designate RP Brian Schlitter
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(7:16 pm ET) The Cubs have optioned Zac Rosscup three days after promoting him and designated for assignment fellow reliever Brian Schlitter.

Rosscup did not receive an opportunity to pitch in his latest stint with the team. Schlitter did - and that was a problem. He compiled a 7.36 ERA before his demotion in mid-June.


Mariners send RP Fernando Rodney to Cubs
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(7:10 pm ET) The Mariners have dispatched veteran reliever and former closer Fernando Rodney to the Cubs for a player to be named, per the Chicago Sun-Times. He had been designated for assignment Saturday.

The 38-year-old Rodney has seemingly run out of gas this season. He owns a 5.68 ERA in 50 2/3 innings. He has tossed just one clean inning since Aug. 4.


Orioles CF Adam Jones improves after scary collision
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(7:02 pm ET) The Orioles appear likely to have dodged a bullet in regard to center fielder Adam Jones, who left the game Thursday in Kansas City after bashing into the wall chasing a ball hit by Ben Zobrist.

X-rays on Jones were negative, per MLB.com. Buck Showalter declared after the game that Jones was feeling better. How he's feeling Friday will determine if he can play in the series opener at Texas.


Bad stretch dooms Orioles SP Chris Tillman in Kansas City
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(6:56 pm ET) The swoon continued Thursday for Orioles starter Chris Tillman. The hope for a second-half surge that appeared quite possible earlier this month has faded away.

Tillman was rolling merrily along for three innings in Kansas City before giving up four runs over the next three. He finished having given up nine hits while walking one and whiffing one. The loss evened his record to 9-9.

He allowed one hit in each of those first three innings, then two doubles, single and sacrifice fly put two runs on the board in the fourth. Two singles resulted in another run in the fifth and a Paulo Orlando homer in the sixth all but drove him from the game.

Tillman has yielded 14 runs over his last 22 innings to raise his ERA to 4.58.


 
 
 
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