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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
Mets P Jerry Blevins excited about chance with the team
by Dave Peters | CBSSports.com
(12:21 am ET) Mets pitcher Jerry Blevins is excited about his opportunity with the team, report ESPN.

"I see a huge opportunity with this organization," said Blevins, who is eligible for free agency next winter. "They've got a lot of talent and high expectations. I'm here to do my part. ... We have a chance to shock some people in the East. We've got such high talent. I'd put this rotation against anybody's, and this experience."

In eight innings pitched this spring, Blevins has an ERA of 9.00 with 11 strikeouts and two walks. He has given up eight earned runs and four home runs.


Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka doesn't impress scouts
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(3/31/2015) Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka was 1-1 with a 1.74 ERA this spring. More importantly, he remained healthy, despite the partially torn ligament in his elbow.

But scouts contacted by the Daily News weren't impressed with Tanaka's stuff. 

"I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt based on what he did last year," one Major League scout said. "But would I be worried based on what I’ve seen lately? Yeah, I’d have to be a little worried. ... He’s either saving himself for the season or he’s protecting that elbow a little bit, because his fastball has been around 89-90 (mph), with no life on it today. Two-seamer or four-seamer, it was flat and hittable."


Diamondbacks 1B Paul Goldschmidt goes yard in win over Angels
by Dave Peters | CBSSports.com
(3/31/2015) Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt homered in the team's 8-7 victory over the Angels on Tuesday, reports Rotoworld.

Goldschmidt, 27, also hit two singles, going 3 for 5 on the day. His performance raised his batting average to .255 this spring. The right-hander also has two home runs and five RBI this offseason.


Clint Barmes shaking off slow spring start
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(3/31/2015) Padres infielder Clint Barmes is heating up as spring training closes. 

After getting just four hits in his first 23 at bats, Barmes is four for his last 10. Barmes had no extra base hits in his first 23 at bats, he has a double and a solo homer in the last 10. 

"It's just continuing to work on timing and get my legs underneath me, especially early on in the spring," Barmes said, per U-T San Diego. "Once I felt like, a couple weeks in, I started to get my legs underneath me, then it's just been a process of getting the timing down, defensively as much as offensively."


Braves A.J. Pierzynski catches all nine innings, drives in two runs
by Dave Peters | CBSSports.com
(3/31/2015) Braves catcher A.J. Pierzynski caught all nine innings on Tuesday for the club, reports MLB.com.

Pierzynski went 2 for 5 from the plate, adding two RBI. For the spring, the 38-year-old is batting .344 on 11 hits with one double and one strikeout.


Rays pitchers Colome, McGee, Moore throw bullpen sessions
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(3/31/2015) Rays pitchers Alex Colome (illness), Jake McGee (elbow surgery) and Matt Moore (Tommy John surgery) were each able to throw bullpen sessions Tuesday as a part of their rehab, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

"(Colome) looks like he feels really good," manager Kevin Cash said. "It's exciting to see."

The trio has yet to see any action this spring as they recover from elbow injuries.


Report: Nationals will pay Rich Hill retention bonus
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(3/31/2015) The Nationals will pay pitcher Rich Hill a $100,000 retention bonus if he doesn't make the team, according to a report by the Washington Post, citing a source. As part of the collective bargaining agreement, Hill will receive a June 1 opt-out date, if he isn't called up to the Nationals by that date. 

Report: Kelly Johnson will make Braves' Opening Day roster
by Shawn Krest | CBSSports.com
(3/31/2015) Kelly Johnson will make the Braves Opening Day roster, according to a report by Yahoo's Jeff Passan.

Johnson's versatility helped earn him the spot--he can play three infield positions as well as the outfield. The decision to keep Johnson could be a bad sign for Joey Terdoslavich, who was believed to be competing with him for a bench role. 


Mariners trade Erasmo Ramierez to Rays for Mike Montgomery
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(3/31/2015) The Mariners have traded pitcher Erasmo Ramirez to the Rays in exchange for pitcher Mike Montgomery, the teams announced.

Ramirez posted a 1-2 record with a 6.23 ERA and seven strikeouts in five spring training appearances while Montgomery posted a 2.38 ERA with nine strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings pitched.


Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman fine after 'miscommunication'
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(3/31/2015) Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman was believed to have suffered a slight hamstring injury in Tuesday's game against the Brewers, but manager Bryan Price may have misunderstood the pitcher, reports MLB.com.

"We went out there to check on him and the hamstring came up, and just with that history we were extra cautious," Price said. "And by the sounds of it, it may be a non-issue completely."

Chapman was visibly upset with Price when he decided to remove him from the game after facing just one batter.

"By the time the smoke cleared, Chappy was back in the dugout and Brayan got back in the dugout after the half-inning, I just think there might've been a misunderstanding," Price said. "So it's fine. It's frustrating for Chappy but in the big picture, nothing critical."


 
 
 
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