I enjoyed ranking the Top 25 for you last week, but whether I rank Roy Halladay second or fourth probably isn’t going to help you win your fantasy league. On the other hand, correctly identifying the $6-10 mixed league pitchers could be a difference-maker.
26. Roger Clemens: The list begins with a bang, as two-thirds of a Clemens season sits at #26. How’s this going to play out in your league? If he sits out the season til June, do you get to use an injury replacement? In a vacuum, I see 140-odd innings of the Rocket as a $10 value. As they say, half a loaf is better than none. He should post an ERA near 3 (I’ll eat my hat if it’s under 2 again) and a WHIP below 1.15. The Ks will be healthy and he could win as many as twelve games with normal luck. Good waiver wire starters are plentiful in mixed leagues, so if you can couple one with Clemens it may be worth upwards of a $15 bid.
27. C.C. Sabathia: After bursting on the scene with an 8.5 K/9 rate, Sabathia dipped down to 6.39 and has steadily progressed back upwards. He took a big step forward with his control in 2005 and is still only 25. He’s a fairly underrated pitcher and should post his best ERA since 2003. Look for something near 3.70 with a WHIP under 1.30. He has a decent shot at winning 15 games again. All told that’s about a $10 value, and some magazines are bafflingly listing him as a one-dollar pitcher. I guess that’s what we call a sleeper.
28. Dan Haren: Acquiring Haren probably ranks as Billy Beane’s best trade. The 25-year-old had an excellent 2005, and I expect a very similar year in 2006. Perhaps the WHIP will rise a tick, but I don’t want to nit-pick. Problem is, one of last year’s very best sleepers is now a known commodity after winning 14 games. You’d probably have to go past $10 to get him, and that won’t result in positive value.
29. Freddy Garcia: A reliable innings muncher who gets his 12-15 wins while keeping his ERA and WHIP respectable. Garcia is moving away from strikeouts and towards control and groundballs, but the value should still be transferred to his ratios. I’d pay up to $9 for him, and I think the asking price is lower than that in some leagues.
30. Josh Beckett: Beckett should be a hugely middle-rotation fantasy starter. He will most certainly pitch less than 200 innings, hurting his win total and the value of his ratios. While the Ks are nice, his ERA and WHIP will most definitely increase in Boston. I can see 3.80 and 1.26. He’s a $9 pitcher in my book, meaning he’s unlikely to be a bargain in most leagues.
31. Greg Maddux: Mad Dog is hardly a fitting nickname for such a stodgy, drab fantasy pick. He hasn’t posted a sub-4 ERA since 2003, but I think it can be done at age 40. I have him at 3.85 with a 1.21 WHIP, and that could be leveraged over 220+ innings. He could easily win 15 again and be an $8 mixed league starter. Fortunately for you less daring types, all of the magazines are putting him right around that price.
32. Ryan Madson: How will his mojo hold up over six inning stints? He’s adding a curveball, and I think he’ll make for a solid mid-rotation pick. I project him pitching about 175 innings with a 3.70 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. An estimable K rate complements his value nicely, and he should be worth $8 with room for growth. You might be concerned that he could set a career high in innings or be shipped back to the bullpen. I acknowledge that, but you have to take some well-informed gambles if you want to come out ahead.
33. Joe Blanton: Blanton had a ROY worthy 2005, and most folks think he can’t possibly repeat his 3.53 ERA. That should rise a tick, but it’ll still be around 3.70. His WHIP should be under 1.30 and he could win 14 games. Blanton is another former sleeper to which most fantasy players are now wide awake. With a value around eight bucks, it’ll be tough to find positive value with Blanton.
34. Jose Contreras: Contreras is the White Sox pitcher most likely to be dealt this season. A trade to Philadelphia would be out of the frying pan, into the fire, as far as home ballparks, but anywhere else would probably be considered a benefit. I think he’ll be a touch worse than last year, as his walk rate should rise. He’s probably an $8 pitcher, but his track record is anything but consistent. There is significant upside and risk with Contreras, so he makes an intriguing pick.
35. Brad Penny: Health woes have stopped Penny from becoming the ace a lot of us thought he could be. He’s well above average in ratios and strikeout rate, but hasn’t pitched 200 innings since 2001. At 28, there’s still time for Penny to build stamina have a dominant season. However, if he authors a good first half, the best bet is to trade him before he wears down. I’d certainly take a gamble on him late in the draft.
36. Scott Baker: While he’ll always be overshadowed by Francisco Liriano, Baker is a very solid lesser-known choice. He’s got the inside track for the Twins’ fifth starter job and could post a 3.50 ERA with a 1.20 WHIP. That could mean 12-14 wins. Baker is one of my very favorite sleeper choices for a few bucks late in the game. More enthralling guys like Daniel Cabrera and Scott Kazmir will most certainly be drafted ahead of Baker.
37. Jeremy Bonderman: Here’s what I call The Bonderman Paradox. Coming off a 4.89 ERA in 2005 but with a healthy K rate and a solid second half, 22 year-old Bonderman is labeled the sleeper darling of forecasters and fantasy baseball magazines everywhere. Pervasive breakout expectations rocketed his price to a level where a standout season was all but required for his owner to break even. It was a recipe for negative value, and Bonderman complied with a 4.57 ERA and 1.35 WHIP. He’s a good pitcher, and everyone still thinks he’ll put it all together in 2006. But when you step back and realize you’re rooting for this kid to finally post a 3.90 ERA and a WHIP under 1.30, maybe it’s time to move on to another “sleeper.”
38. Bronson Arroyo: Surprisingly, my projection ranked Arroyo as an $8 pitcher and one of Boston’s best. An ERA under 4 with a respectable WHIP and 15 wins is a distinct possibility if a few less hits drop in this year. I don’t see Bronson getting that kind of respect in most mixed leagues.
39. Jae Seo: Popular perception seems to be that Seo has been lucky to manage a 3.85 ERA in 400 career innings. I’ll give you that last year’s 2.59 ERA was more than a tad fortunate, but Seo remains in a pitchers’ park and has demonstrable skills. His rough 2004 looks like an anomaly, as he’s fairly tough to hit and has competent control. That translates to a surprising candidate for a 3.60 ERA, 1.20 WHIP type season. He won’t net you the Ks, but I’d take him for a few bucks.
40. Kevin Millwood: Some fantasy players cross Texas pitchers off their cheat sheets by default. Don’t make this mistake with Millwood, who remains middle-rotation material in mixed leagues. I’ve pegged the ERA champ to come up to 3.90 with a 1.30 WHIP and perhaps 16 wins. His K total will be decent, and a full 210-inning season from him should be worth upwards of $7.
41. John Lackey: Analysts are on the fence as to whether Lackey just had his breakout season in 2005. I think he did, and should have a hard time posting an ERA under 3.50 while allowing so many baserunners. The 200 Ks are beautiful, and World Series memories might inflate his price some more. Maybe he builds upon the 3.44 ERA, but I’m leaning more towards 3.94.
42. Paul Byrd: Another one of those dull low K, low WHIP guys. You need one or two starters like this, and they’re always affordable. Byrd could win 15 games for the Tribe and earn $7. Of course, he is a health risk.
43. Daniel Cabrera: Everyone’s favorite sleeper is reaching Bonderman heights in many leagues. Given that you may pay full price and then some for D-Cab, you’re almost counting on a breakout from him. Sure, I like him – a strikeout per inning and a 3.50 ERA are feasible if Mazzone’s magic helps him limit the walks. But the WHIP will still be high. I mean, Mazzone can lead Cabrera to the water but he can’t make him drink. Even with improvement I see him around seven bucks. If you get him for less, by all means give him a shot.
44. Zach Duke: Duke’s not a strikeout pitcher, but he’s a mature 22-year-old and should have a laudable sophomore season after lighting the world on fire as a rookie. I’m thinking a 3.60 ERA and 1.25 WHIP with at least 12 wins.
45. Curt Schilling: Schilling is a daunting projection. Elite control and plenty of strikeouts should be a lock. I’ve got him down for 180 innings and an ERA around 4; it mostly depends on his hit rate. He could still win a decent number of games, and maybe that ankle is really A-OK and he’s ace material one more time. Anything in the low teens is worth the venture given the possibilities. He says he can repeat ’04 and has looked good in early exhibition play. This projection could be bumped way up before the season starts.
46. Scott Kazmir: Kaz is another Daniel Cabrera type, with expectations a mile high. He’ll probably give you 200 Ks and a sub-4 ERA this year but with a WHIP north of 1.35. With a win total suppressed by the D-Rays, he may only be worth $6. He’ll be smashing one day, but probably not in 2006.
47. Noah Lowry: Lowry had a streaky 2005, so stick with him through the thick and thin. He needs to trim the walks to get his WHIP under 1.30, but his ERA is decent and he could approach 200 Ks. Double-digit wins are a given and he should be at least a six-dollar pitcher. He had some issues outside of his home ballpark and quite the heavy workload, so there’s reason for caution.
48. Brad Radke: A reliable low WHIP character due to pinpoint control. Should pull that ERA back under 4 and win double-digit games. I’d pay $5-6 for Radke and rest easy with that rotation spot. Another member of the humdrum, underrated group.
49. Jon Garland: Most folks expect a slight regression for Garland, and I’m no different. Still, a 3.80 ERA and solid WHIP seems likely. He could win 13 or 14 games and is another six-dollar guy.
50. Anthony Reyes: A healthy Reyes would probably be the Cards’ second best starter, but he’s fighting Sidney Ponson for the fifth starter spot. This projection assumes he gets 160 innings one way or another. A 3.70 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and very healthy K rate are in the cards (no pun intended!) and even the abbreviated performance could be worth $6. Sooner or later La Russa will wake up and let this kid pitch.