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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
D-Backs SP Josh Collmenter throws six solid innings in loss
by Ted Leshinski | Staff Writer
(12:33 am ET) Diamondbacks starter Josh Collmenter (1-3) gave up three runs on six hits in six innings on Friday in a loss to the Pirates.

Collmenter gave up the runs in the first two innings, surrendering an RBI single to Neil Walker and a two-run double to Josh Harrison. 

Collmenter's next start is set for Wednesday against the Rockies.


Twins SP Phil Hughes suffers complete-game loss Friday
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(12:30 am ET) Twins starting pitcher Phil Hughes had his finest start of the season Friday at Seattle and was deserving of his first win. Unfortunately, Hughes was opposing Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, who was just that much better in a 2-0 win for Seattle.

Hughes (0-4) allowed just two runs on six hits and no walks in eight innings, while striking out nine. However, Hernandez threw a five-hit, complete-game shutout. He also had nine strikeouts.

Hughes' only mistakes Friday were solo home runs to Nelson Cruz and Logan Morrison. Despite the loss, he lowered his ERA from 5.30 to 4.39.

The right-hander had his fourth-career complete game Friday. He will look for his first win in his next scheduled start Wednesday vs. Detroit.


Pirates starter Gerrit Cole keeps rolling with win on Friday
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(12:30 am ET) Pirates starter Gerrit Cole (3-0) allowed one earned run and struck out seven in seven innings on Friday to defeat the Diamondbacks.

After taking a no decision in his first start this year, Cole has won three starts in a row.

Cole returns to the mound for his next scheduled start Wednesday in Chicago against the Cubs.

Mariners ace Felix Hernandez throws complete-game gem Friday
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(12:25 am ET) Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez threw his 10th-career complete-game shutout during a 2-0 win Friday against the Twins. Hernandez, who also had his 24th career complete game, allowed five hits and no walks, while striking out nine.

Hernandez (3-0) was dialed in from the start Friday. He struck out the side in the first inning and didn't allow his first hit until Trevor Plouffe's two-out single in the fifth inning.

Hernandez put two baserunners on in the sixth and seventh innings, but he escaped both jams unscathed. He retired the final seven batters he faced.

The Mariners ace threw 73 of 102 pitches for strikes. He lowered his ERA to 1.61. He will be back on the mound Wednesday at Texas.


Adam Ottavino closes door for Rockies to notch save
by Ted Leshinski | Staff Writer
(12:05 am ET) Adam Ottavino (S,3) locked down the Rockies' ninth-inning lead on Friday to collect a save.

Ottavino allowed one hit and struck out one in the outing.

Giants starting pitcher Chris Heston knocked around in loss on Friday
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(12:00 am ET) Giants starting pitcher Chris Heston (2-2) was knocked around for six runs on 11 hits in 5 1/3 innings on Friday to take the loss against the Rockies.

Rockies leadoff hitter Charlie Blackmon hit a second-inning solo homer against Heston.

Heston posted three strong starts to begin the season before Friday's shaky performance.

Heston's next start is set for Wednesday in Los Angeles against the Dodgers.

Rockies SP Eddie Butler gives up four runs, takes win on Friday
by Ted Leshinski | Staff Writer
(4/24/2015) Rockies start Eddie Butler's (2-1) four runs on nine hits in six innings Friday was good enough to earn the win over the Giants.

Two of his four runs allowed came off a two-run homer from right fielder Justin Maxwell.

Butler returns to the mound for his next start Wednesday in Arizona.

Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal earns seventh save on Friday
by Ted Leshinski | Staff Writer
(4/24/2015) Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal (S,7) put down the Brewers in order in the ninth inning on Friday to collect the save.

Rosenthal is now seven for seven in save opportunities and has allowed just one run in 8.2 innings (1.04) this season.

Cubs RP Pedro Strop held out Friday due to foot injury
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(4/24/2015) Cubs reliver Pedro Strop was unavailable to pitch Friday against the Reds due to a sore foot. However, the right-hander said after the game he expects to be available Saturday, per The Chicago Tribune.

Strop hasn't allowed a run through nine relief appearances (7 1/3 innings). He has 10 strikeouts to two walks. He has allowed just two hits.


White Sox SP Jose Quintana brings ERA down to 6.55
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(4/24/2015) White Sox starting pitcher Jose Quintana had a decent outing Friday against the Royals. Unfortunately, he had to settle for a no-decision, as Royals starting pitcher Danny Duffy was also pretty effective.

Quintana outlasted Duffy, who allowed an unearned run in 5 1/3 innings. However, Quintana left the game in a 2-all tie, so he didn't factor into the decision, despite allowing just two runs in seven innings. He gave up seven hits and one walk, while striking out five.

The left-hander gave up an RBI single to Alcides Escobar in the third inning and an RBI single to Paulo Orlando in the fifth inning.

The game was eventually suspended after eight innings due to inclement weather with the game tied at 2. Play will resume in the ninth inning Saturday afternoon.

Quintana did manage to lower his ERA from 8.40 to 6.55. Quintana's next scheduled start is for Wednesday at Baltimore.


 
 
 
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