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February 24, 2014

Fantasy Players to Target

Starting Pitchers

by BP Fantasy Staff

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You know how everyone waits on pitching in drafts every year? Don't feel the need to wait on these pitchers.

Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates
Seasoned fantasy players often avoid taking young arms early in drafts, and for good reason. Prospect hype can lead to inflated ADP and auction prices, and owners can get caught paying for perceived performance rather than likely results. I'm advocating for throwing caution to the wind with Cole, though, and I think his current aggregate ADP (courtesy fantasypros.com) of 103 is quite reasonable. Some people got bored with Cole in the minors as he ever put up huge stats, but he's an absolute horse who's fully capable of notching 200 strikeouts, 15-plus wins, and a sub-3.50 ERA as soon as this year. He may not be a bargain where he's being drafted right now, but you won't have to reach for him either and he's an excellent no. 2 fantasy starter with top-10 SP upside. The term "ace" gets overused a lot, but Cole could become one in short order. —Ben Carsley

Marco Estrada, Milwaukee Brewers
With Yovani Gallardo blowing up everybody’s WHIP, Marco Estrada could soon emerge as the Brewers’ best starting option. The 30-year-old made 21 starts for Milwaukee last season, posting a 3.87 ERA and 1.08 WHIP to go along with 118 strikeouts and 28 walks in 128 innings of work. After returning from injury in early August, Estrada recorded a 2.15 ERA in 58-plus innings (compared to a 5.32 ERA in his first 69-plus innings), and saw his strikeout rate increase from 20.7 percent to 26.7 percent over his final nine starts. PECOTA predicts a 3.90 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 126 strikeouts in 148 1/3 innings, but I see him pitching closer to his second-half performance from last year. Post-All-Star break, Estrada’s 11.8 percent swinging-strike rate was seventh-best in baseball, and he displayed elite control with only 11 walks in 58 2/3 innings. Home runs in Miller Park are the biggest concern for Estrada, but, again, that was less of a problem in the second half, as he cut down his HR/9 dramatically, from 1.82 to 0.77. I'm looking for close to a strikeout per inning, a 3.50 ERA and a sub-1.10 WHIP out of Estrada in 2014. With an ADP of 220.77 (NFBC), there's serious value to be had. —Alex Kantecki

Jose Fernandez, Marlins
Some of the pomp and circumstance of Jose Fernandez' season long Debutante Ball was missing because he played in South Florida, but it's not exaggeration to say that it was one of the best rookie seasons we've seen from a pitcher in the last 25 years. And despite how impressive it looks on the surface, when you dig a little deeper, it looks even better. As a 20-year-old who hadn't even thrown a pitch in Double-A, Fernandez should have had an adjustment period when he hit the major leagues. During April and May, Fernandez had a 3.78 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 52 strikeouts in 52 1/3 innings—which was far more impressive than anyone was anticipating.

But little did we know, that was his adjustment period, as Fernandez was nearly untouchable from June 1st on. He made 18 starts and went 10-3 with a 1.50 ERA, 0.86 WHIP (!), and 135 strikeouts in 120 1/3 innings. He allowed three runs in a start only once in that stretch. He didn't register a Game Score of below 50 once in that stretch. The only thing that kept him from having 18 straight quality starts to end the season were two outings of five innings, in which he gave up one and two runs respectively.

Right now, Fernandez is the fourth starting pitcher off the board per the latest NFBC data and although that may seem like a strong statement to some, it's a statement that makes a whole lot of sense. Even with some regression in his BABIP, which likely won't stay around .240, Fernandez still has the potential to put up the best ratios in the game and strikeout around 220 batters. As far as wins go, while he's certainly more valuable in a QS league, he did win 12 games for a terrible Miami team last year with only 28 starts and a governor on his early outings. The more I write here, the more thrilled I continue to be about getting him in the fourth round (54th overall) of LABR. —Bret Sayre

Doug Fister, Nationals
Stemming from his Seattle days, Doug Fister was overlooked for much of his career. He was a fine pitcher in Detroit last year as he crossed the 200-inning threshold while carrying a 3.67 ERA and a strong 3.61 K:BB ratio. He’s moving from the AL to the NL and the defense behind him will be improved, especially on the infield. As was noted in the annual, Fister’s BABIP on groundballs was 47 points higher than league average. He will provide good value in terms of ERA, wins and I think he should round back into the 1.20 range in terms of WHIP. His lack of strikeouts (18.1 percent rate) hurts his overall stock, so he’ll never be an SP1 or 2 option, but he’s worthy of reprising a Tim Hudson role on any fantasy staff. —Mauricio Rubio

Mike Minor, Braves
Minor ran into one of the unluckier patches you're liable to see in the first half of 2012, when he allowed 18 home runs in an 11-start stretch. That can happen when you're a fly-ball pitcher. But since then he's allowed just 30 in 303 1/3 innings (0.89 HR/9) while improving virtually every other indicator you look for along with it. Last year he eclipsed 200 innings for the first time while boosting his whiff rate up to a stellar 8.0 per nine while cutting his walk rate down to 2.0 per nine. He lost some of his strikeout mojo as the season wore on, but if he can take another step forward and keep that rate in the 8.5-per-nine range where it sat for the first half of last season he's got legit fantasy ace potential. Given that he struck out 10.0-per-nine over his minor-league career, there's certainly a case to be made for optimism. He'll pitch this season at age 26 after returning the 16th-most value among pitchers last season, and he's got room for a slightly higher ceiling moving forward. He's currently going off the board 22nd in NFBC drafts, making him a strong target as a no. 2 starter in most standard leagues. —Wilson Karaman

Tyson Ross, Padres
I hate the term “sleeper” with a white-hot passion; chances are good if your favorite fantasy baseball website is talking about someone as a sleeper, then everyone else in your league knows it and that player no longer is. But Ross is that rare pitcher who might fit the sleeper bill in all but the deepest formats. Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley did a terrific job getting both Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross to utilize their sliders more in 2013, but while Cashner is (justifiably) getting all sorts of fantasy love, Ross has been a bit of a forgotten man. Ross has never hurled more than the 125 innings he tossed at the major league level last year, so there certainly is some risk, but between the mid-90s fastball, a slider he’ll throw at any time in the count, and the tasty home venue, Ross is being severely under-drafted this spring. —Mike Gianella

Chris Tillman, Orioles
Tillman suffers a bit from being a post-hype prospect. He didn’t pan out when he was supposed to and now he’s being devalued. Sure, he’s got some flaws (lots of home runs), but he’s also gotten his strikeout rate up over 21 percent while keeping his walks at a league average rate. Compare this to a guy going 14 spots ahead of him per fantasypros.com aggregate ADP, in Yovani Gallardo. Gallardo walks slightly more batters and strikes out three percentage points fewer, in addition to posting an ERA nearly half-a-run higher. It’s fair to point out their FIPs, but Tillman has outperformed his FIP to a significant margin two years in a row now (only 292 innings, though). Tillman’s homers will always play poorly with FIP, which means he might be the type to outperform it on a consistent basis.

Tillman isn’t a godsend by any means, and his willingness to pitch up in the zone makes him susceptible to the long ball, but it also helps his strikeouts. He did increase his GB:FB ratio in 2013, so there’s a chance he’ll be better than anticipated. —Craig Goldstein

BP Fantasy Staff is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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