February 24, 2014
State of the Position
For the earlier articles in this series, click below:
For the first time in years, fantasy owners are spending high draft picks/auction money on big-time pitchers. This isn’t merely limited to Clayton Kershaw, but extends to a core group of pitchers that the market believes will have staying power. Fourteen of the top 60 picks in this year’s mixed LABR were pitchers; this is a departure from prior seasons when only a handful of top pitchers would go in the first 3-4 rounds because the market was willing to wait.
Your philosophy on pitching should be different depending on if you are participating in a draft or an auction. In drafts, using earlier picks on a starting pitcher is fundamentally sound, particularly if other owners are spending early picks on pitchers. You don’t want to find yourself in a position in which your ace is a second-tier starter like Alex Cobb. In auctions—where you can allocate your money as you see fit—the smarter play is to wait if people are reaching early with big bids. Staring pitching isn’t only strong at the top but deeper than it has been in years. You don’t want to find yourself in dollar derby with your entire rotation, but you could build a relatively strong staff for $60 or so if you play your cards right.
It is easy to take the rosy view in late February; we know that there are going to be several disappointments once the season begins taking its predictable twists and turns (last July, it was a foregone conclusion that Matt Harvey would be a top-30 pick this year). But let’s stop for a moment and look at and appreciate the list of the top 13 pitchers taken in LABR mixed:
There are a couple of graybeards here, but on the whole this is a young group. Barring injury, most of this core is going to be with us—and dominating the pitching scene—for the next few years.
It isn’t merely the aces that are cause for excitement either. There is an up-and-coming crop of young pitchers led by Gerrit Cole, Michael Wacha, and Julio Teheran (among others) who are poised to join the elite cadre above. Again, it’s not a mortal lock that all of these pitchers will thrive; there are failures every year that we cannot see coming. Nevertheless, there is more cause for optimism on the pitching side of the fantasy ledger than there has been in years.
The League Breakout
If you don’t have the stomach to pay $25-plus or spend a pick in rounds 1-4 for an ace, instead of pushing for youth look toward reliable stalwarts like James Shields or Anibal Sanchez. While not quite as high end, dependable arms like Hideki Kuroda and C.J. Wilson can also be had at a discount relative to the aforementioned young arms above.
The back of an AL staff is where much of the danger lies. You typically need to hit an innings requirement but can’t carry 180 horrible innings from one awful starter without ruining your season. You are going to have gamble, so it’s better to roll the dice on pitchers like Phil Hughes (good park/change of scenery) and Rick Porcello (strong skillset and good park) at the right price than it is to just stick any old fifth starter on your staff.
The NL is so deep that there are some pitchers who earned $20 or more last year who could be undervalued depending upon your league. Jordan Zimmermann, Zack Greinke, Mike Minor, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Patrick Corbin, and Francisco Liriano all cracked $20 last season. The temptation to pay $40 for Kershaw or $30 for Lee or Wainwright is understandable, but if you can grab two of the aforementioned pitchers for between $30-35 total, your staff might be better off for it. Kershaw’s awesome season was worth $41 in NL-only last year; in 2009’s more hitter-oriented context, he would have been worth $45. Kershaw’s an anchor, but the better the league’s average pitcher is, the lower the ceiling is on any ace’s earnings.
As mentioned above, young pitchers in the National League definitely have more potential for fantasy gold (it doesn’t hurt that they get to face the opposing pitcher once or twice in every game). Cole is everybody’s darling, but plenty of younger arms could emerge quickly. Even better than young arms are young arms with experience that have already arrived but aren’t going as high in drafts. Andrew Cashner took a big step forward last year, and while Lance Lynn and Jeff Samardzija aren’t regarded as sexy picks, the potential for a 200-strikeout season is huge, even in an era where pitching is gaining ground.
The back-end workhorses in the National League seem to have more reliability as well. Bronson Arroyo and Kyle Lohse are boring to watch, but each pitcher earned $16 in NL-only in 2013. Mike Leake, Dillon Gee, and Jorge de la Rosa also managed to earn in double digits despite getting paid an average salary in the single digits by the experts. There is opportunity in NL-only on the back end.
The Strategy in Mixed Leagues
The Long-Term Outlook
The prospect side is also flush with pitching, with many arms poised to debut in 2014. Taijuan Walker, Archie Bradley, Kevin Gausman, Yordano Ventura, Jameson Taillon are all top 20 Baseball Prospectus prospects who could make a significant impact in 2014. Trying to project long-term rotation fixtures from a fantasy perspective is a fool’s errand, but Noah Syndergaard, Lucas Giolito, and Robert Stephenson are three names that jump out from the Top 101 who could be the next big aces.
A Closing Haiku