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December 17, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Hot Spots: Starting Pitchers

by Bill Baer

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Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies

Cliff Lee is back in Philadelphia, playing 1b to Roy Halladay's 1a at the top of the Phillies' starting rotation. Along with Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, the Phillies figure to have an historically great starting rotation. That does not affect Lee's fantasy value, unfortunately.

Lee finished each of the past three seasons with a well above-average SIERA: 3.57 in 2008, 3.70 in '09, and 3.03 last year. Despite his rocky stint with the Texas Rangers, 2010 was arguably Lee's finest season of his career -- even better than '08, when he won the AL Cy Young award.

In 2010, Lee set a career high in strikeout rate (7.8 per nine innings) and a career low in walk rate (0.8 per nine). In fact, Lee's control was among the best ever. Per Baseball Reference's Play Index, Lee became the ninth pitcher to toss at least 150 innings and issue 18 or fewer walks. He also set the third-lowest walk rate since 1940 among pitchers with 150 IP, bested only by Bret Saberhagen in 1994 and Carlos Silva in 2005.

What does this mean for Lee's fantasy value? Barring injury, he will be among the best in ERA and WHIP and will punch quite a few batters out. The wins will be subject to the potency of the Phillies' offense sans Jayson Werth. However, with everything else staying constant and a healthy squad heading into 2011, you can still pencil the Phillies in for around 4.5 runs per game -- more than enough to push Lee to 20-plus wins.

Lee is about as close to a sure thing as you can get for a pitcher in fantasy baseball, let alone real baseball.

Vicente Padilla, Los Angeles Dodgers

Vicente Padilla is expected to pitch a majority of his innings in relief, but will be the top option to fill in for a spot start or to replace an injured starting pitcher. He has spent time on the disabled list in each of the past four seasons, which should be concerning to anyone intending to pick him up for relief pitching purposes. However, he may be one of the better options available later in the season if he happens to be re-inserted in the starting rotation.

Padilla set a career high in K/9 and K/BB ratio and a career low in BB/9 last year. There are two things to be aware of, however: he was benefited by a .261 BABIP, and -- with a five percent increase in curve ball usage -- he significantly lowered his ground ball rate from a career average 46 percent to 40 percent. More fly balls means more chances for home runs, which means a chance for an inflated ERA.

Still, there are few pitchers out there with similar skill sets that will come as cheaply as Padilla. Keep him in your periphery during the season.

Scott Olsen, Pittsburgh Pirates

A once-promising arm that broke out in 2006 with the Florida Marlins, Scott Olsen has since been trying to resuscitate his baseball career. He will attempt to put himself back on the map in 2011 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. It will be tough: in each of the past two seasons, Olsen landed on the disabled list with problems with his pitching shoulder.

In '06, his K/9 finished at 8.3; in '10, it finished at 5.9. The good news is that he still has slightly above-average control and bumped up his ground ball rate to 46.5 percent last year.

Olsen is the type of pitcher you pick up off the scrap heap in fantasy baseball and hope he can work some magic for a start or two before discarding him. With the Pirates' awful offense and defense supporting him, his fantasy value drops further into the abyss. In a pinch, he is worth a look in NL-only leagues, but in mixed leagues -- even deep ones -- you can find similar pitchers with better supporting casts.

Bill Baer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bill's other articles. You can contact Bill by clicking here

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