On March 2, we released our 2010 starting pitching tier rankings.
In the five weeks in between, we’ve seen some surprisingly dominant performances and some lingering injury concerns, both of which have had an effect on our top 50 rankings for starting pitchers.
The top 10 remain relatively unchanged, the only difference being Jon Lester’s 200-plus strikeouts supplanting Chris Carpenter’s dominant ERA and WHIP. However, the top 10 are only a small portion of the pitchers we need to be concerned with, so in this weekly article we’ll profile the position as a whole and name some players who are rising or falling as well as updating injury situations and bringing up a few names in the minors that you’ll soon need to know.Surging
Ricky Nolasco, Florida Marlins
In our composite preseason tier rankings, George, Chris and I had Nolasco ranked 24th among starters and knocking on the door of tier two. With an absolutely lights-out spring (25.1 IP, 21 K, 1 BB, 1.78 ERA) and great peripherals in 2009, I’m pushing the Marlins co-ace up 11 spots to 13. Among all starters I have ranked from 12 on, Nolasco has as much or more upside than any of them, and that goes for Tommy Hanson and Brett Anderson as well. Nolasco was eighth in xFIP last season despite an ERA over 5.00 and he has impeccable control. In fact, his strikeout-to-walk ratio over the last two seasons is 4.43. If you’re not letting batters put the ball in play and you aren’t issuing free passes, you’re going to put up great numbers.
Brett Anderson, Oakland Athletics
I just mentioned Anderson in passing, but he is more than an afterthought. Our composite tier rankings had him ranked 31st, but I’m pushing him up to 19. If you haven’t noticed I’m a sucker for potential, but I’m not an idiot. Anderson is as good an option as any pitcher outside of the top tier because he has dominant stuff and plenty of poise on the mound. His strikeout-to-walk ratio as a rookie was 3.33, which is good, but it pales in comparison to his 5.06 career minor league ratio. Plus, Anderson finished strong last year with a 3.48 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 86 strikeouts in 88 second-half innings. Even if he fails to improve upon those numbers during his sophomore season, you’re still looking at a top-30 starter. I’ll take the chance he can be better.
Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins
Liriano had 30 strikeouts in 20 innings this spring. His stuff looked better than it has since surgery derailed his promising career, and you can still get him at a reduced price. Every fantasy owner should be trying to buy this guy right now, and the only thing hurting his ranking is the uncertainty that comes along with his left arm. If healthy Liriano could provide a return as a top-10 starter, but he could also blow up in April and spend the rest of the season trying to come back.Falling
Cliff Lee, Seattle Mariners
I’ll admit I am still skeptical over Lee’s success these last two seasons. He won a Cy Young Award in the American League and then was traded to a hitter’s haven in Philadelphia and pitched better than ever. Why am I so nervous about this guy? Honestly, I shouldn’t be, but his recent injury is finally giving me an excuse to not like Lee. As Chris said in our podcast preview of starters, an oblique injury is particularly troubling for a pitcher. You can’t mask the pain or change your delivery to lessen the strain since every pitch involves a twisting motion. I think it’s fair to say that reduced velocity and bite on his pitches is a legitimate concern, and until he proves he’s healthy, I’m not risking a top pick on Lee.
Brandon Webb, Arizona Diamondbacks
Any surprise here? Webb’s timetable keeps getting pushed back – or so it seems – but that may be more of an illusion than anything. Team doctors said Webb was overly optimistic about an early-April return so when news came out that he was going to be sidelined longer, fantasy owners didn’t take it well. Still, I don’t like taking a chance on a starter who made one start last year and has taken over a full 12 months to recover.
Josh Johnson, Florida Marlins
To be fair, I thought it was a bit premature to put a red arrow next to Johnson’s name. Consider this his final warning. I’ve been cautioning fans all winter about relying too heavily on Johnson’s overworked right arm, and then he comes up empty against the Mets in the season opener. With four walks and four earned runs in five innings pitched – including a home run to David Wright – Johnson was far from the ace he needs to be, both for the Marlins and for fantasy owners. He’s barely clinging onto top-20 status as Cole Hamels, Hanson and Anderson are ready to jump at the chance to pass one of 2009’s breakout starters.On the mend
Ted Lilly, Chicago Cubs
Original reports said that Lilly would miss all of April and return sometime in May. Go ahead and push that timetable up a month. Lilly is scheduled to join the Cubs’ rotation before the end of April, and he’ll immediately assume his former role of “most underrated fantasy starter.” Why don’t people take this guy more seriously? In his three seasons with the Cubs, Lilly is 44-22 with an ERA around 3.50 and a WHIP of 1.15. Seriously. Why?Down on the farm
With mid-90s heat and great control, keep an eye on Jeremy Hellickson.
Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays
You can’t say enough about the job that the current Rays ownership has done with this once embarrassing franchise. They changed the team’s name and logo, reinventing the organization and reinvigorating the public, but then they were able to follow that up with a complete overhaul of their management philosophy. Instead of signing high-priced, over-the-hill veterans like Wade Boggs, Vinny Castilla and Fred McGriff, they elected to build from within with solid drafts and outstanding player development. The result is a yearly title contender that somehow keeps getting better.
Behind the current batch of potential stars, guys like Wade Davis, David Price, James Shields, Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist, and Matt Garza (even though he came over in a trade for another highly touted prospect, Delmon Young), there is another set of future stars. Leading this bunch is the oft-named but not-currently-valued Jeremy Hellickson. Should Davis falter or someone goes down with an injury and a rotation spot opens up, there is a good chance the Rays could call up Hellickson. In 461 minor-league innings, all Hellickson has done is post a 2.71 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.07. His MLB.com scouting report only adds fuel to the fanfare:
Stuff plus a feel for pitching can be a lethal combination and Hellickson has them both. He can get his fastball into the mid 90s and he can throw both his curve and changeup for strikes, the latter of the two now a plus offering. He’s got great command and goes right after hitters.
When he gets a chance, Hellickson is a must-add along the lines of Mat Latos, Brian Matusz, and fellow-Ray, Davis.