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January 19, 2012

The Keeper Reaper

Starting Pitchers for 1/19/12

by Mike Petriello

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I was looking at the list of available free agent starters today, and man, is it barren out there if you're still hunting for starters. Other than Roy Oswalt and Edwin Jackson, your best bet is… Zach Duke? Jeff Francis? Kevin Millwood? It's like the Island of Misfit Toys out there. Let's get started on this week's Reaper with two user requests, and as always, I'm happy to take other suggestions in the comments.

Matt Harrison | Texas Rangers
Sh
allow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: NO
AL-only:
 NO
Super Deep:
BORDERLINE

After pitching just 225 innings in his first three seasons due to multiple left arm injuries, Harrison finally stayed healthy for a full season in 2011, helping the Rangers to the playoffs with 14 wins and 185 2/3 innings of 3.52 FIP ball. Health aside, it doesn't take a whole lot of detective work to see why Harrison succeeded when he had struggled previously—he struck out more batters (6.1 per nine compared to 4.9 between 2008-10), walked fewer (2.7 per nine, down from 3.7), and cut his homer rate in half (0.63 per nine, down from 1.2). If you're issuing fewer free passes, not allowing batters to take you deep, and picking up more strike threes, it's pretty easy to see that you're going to be a more effective pitcher. (In addition, it certainly doesn't hurt to be a groundball type of guy and pitch in front of Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, and Ian Kinsler. Keep that in mind, C.J. Wilson.)

The question is, does he have more left to offer? If not, how valuable is that type of pitcher in fantasy? I'm inclined to think that the Harrison of 2011 is the pitcher he's going to be and that any leap forward we may have seen is largely due to the fact that he was finally able to pitch without continued shoulder woes. Looking at his minor league statistics, you can see that this is basically the type of pitcher he's always been, generally striking out between six and seven per nine, keeping his walks around two per nine, and limiting home runs.

Back in October, BP's Jason Parks—the go-to guy around here when it comes to all things Rangers—was asked about Harrison's season in a chat:

Or (DENTON!!): Matt Harrison's K/BB ratio in the last three months: 3.7/1. Is his breakout real? Can Harrison be a good 3/solid 2?

Jason Parks: Solid #3; he's basically showing his sustainable ceiling as we speak. As I've been saying for a while, Harrison has great stuff; even better than Holland. He just couldn't put it together. Harrison has always been in his head, not showing much fortitude in the face of failure. He was a different arm this season. He stopped nibbling and started trusting his stuff. He took a major step forward.

I agree with Jason about this likely being Harrison's ceiling, and that's in no way a bad thing—who wouldn't take 180 or more innings of 3.50-4.00 FIP ball from a lefty just entering his age-26 season? (With a massive "if healthy" caveat, of course.) However, that does put him squarely in "more valuable in real life than fantasy" territory for me, because his relatively low strikeout rate and spotty health history does hurt his fantasy value. Besides, I feel like Harrison gets a bit lost among all the stars in Texas—especially now with Yu Darvish coming—and it's not hard to see him being undervalued in drafts. (ESPN doesn't even have him on their list of top 75 starting pitchers—a list that includes such question marks as Phil Hughes and Zach Britton.) I'd be happy to pick him up cheaply in the draft but wouldn't be all that enthusiastic about expending a keeper spot on him in all but the deepest of leagues.

Johan Santana | New York Mets
Sh
allow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: NO
NL-only:
 NO
Super Deep:
NO

Clearly, I would never recommend keeping a soon-to-be 33-year-old pitcher coming off of major arm surgery that's kept him out of the big leagues since September 2010. Santana is on the comeback trail, though, and he was asked about in this space, so I'm happy to take a quick look at him.

If there's good news here, it's that Santana's injury was so long ago that he's had plenty of time to rehab; he made a few minor-league appearances late last season and aims to be ready for the start of Mets camp next month. The bad news is, after a stellar Mets debut in 2008, Santana had already been slowly declining even before he was injured. As BP2011 put it…

Santana was nowhere near as good as his 2010 ERA suggests: he whiffed a below-average number of hitters and gave up 13 homers on the road as compared to just three in the expansive Citi Field. Those missing strikeouts aren't a problem that will vanish, either, as his punchout rates have fallen each of the last three years, and his fastball now sits around 90 mph. Santana also ran into some trouble with the law, as he dealt with a sexual assault allegation in August. All in all, it just wasn't a banner year for the Mets' ace, and this may be the state of things from now on.

Remember, this was before it was known he'd miss the entire year due to surgery, not just the first half as was previously reported. The obvious comeback to that is, "well, maybe he was pitching while he was hurt and that curtailed his effectiveness." This is absolutely possible, and perhaps he comes back healthy and productive. But if you read the uncertain quotes in the story I linked to above, realize that the track record for pitchers of his age returning from such a long layoff isn't great, and then when you think about how atrocious the 2012 Mets are likely to be… well, let's just say my hopes aren't high. Santana is a $1 shot in the dark at best in early drafts, and even then only if you have DL spots to spare.

Daniel Hudson | Arizona Diamondbacks
Sh
allow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: NO
NL-only:
 YES
Super Deep:
YES

Hudson was dealt to the desert in exchange for Edwin Jackson in the middle of the 2010 season and exceeded everyone's expectations the rest of the way, going 7-1 while posting a delicious 70/16 K/BB mark and a somewhat undeserved 1.69 ERA. (What, you really thought a .216 BABIP and 91.5 left on base percentage were both sustainable?)  Hudson experienced some expected normalization that placed his ERA at a much more appropriate 3.49 in 2011 but solidified himself as a viable front-end starter while tossing 222 innings—more than double his career total before the season.

Though Hudson saw his strikeout rate drop by a full one per nine as compared to 2010, he made up for it by also limiting his walk rate, with the ensuing 2.0 BB/9 coming in as a top-ten National League mark and his 3.38 K/BB representing a career-best. With fewer strikeouts, the outs and subsequent run prevention naturally have to come from somewhere, and Hudson made strides in becoming more of a groundball pitcher, with grounders outdoing flies for the first time in his short career.

Like Harrison, the lack of elite strikeout numbers holds him back somewhat in fantasy terms. Hudson does at least have a history of generating whiffs in the minors—364 in 310 1/3 innings—but his swinging strike rate dropped from 2010, and he's not regarded as having a truly elite out pitch, so it seems unlikely that he'll produce the kind of punchout numbers he did on the farm.

Now, I like Hudson quite a bit, but he seems to be overvalued in early drafts, probably because he managed 16 wins for a playoff team. For example, I've seen him being valued higher than Madison Bumgarner in some places, which I can't quite support. That being the case, he's worth keeping in NL-only and deeper leagues and could carry trade value that makes it worth moving him. Just do better than Edwin Jackson, okay?

Hiroki Kuroda | New York Yankees
Sh
allow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: NO
AL-only:
 N/A
Super Deep:
YES

I've been waiting all winter to include Kuroda here but obviously didn't want to do so until we knew if he'd be returning to Japan. Over the last four seasons, Kuroda had been an exceptionally reliable starter for the Dodgers, posting a 3.55 FIP that's in line with his 3.45 ERA. His win-loss record of 41-46 looks poor yet was completely misleading, since you don't need to watch as many Dodger games as I do to realize just how inconsistent the Divorce McCourt era Dodger teams have been. Without losing anything off his famous control, Kuroda managed to improve his strikeout rate over his last two years as opposed to his first two in America.

Now he'll be headed across the country to the Bronx, and there's both good and bad in that. The good news, of course, is that the Yankees are a far superior club to the Dodgers, much more likely to bash out a few runs for him on offense and offer superior bullpen support behind him, which could turn decisions that might otherwise have been losses in Los Angeles into wins. But New Yankee Stadium is hardly as pitcher-friendly a home as Dodger Stadium was, and I certainly need to remind you that pitching in the American League (and the AL East, specifically) offers more of a challenge than Kuroda had found in the National League. In addition, Kuroda will be 37 in a few weeks, and while he's managed to avoid the disabled list for the last two seasons, he's dealt with several minor neck and disc concerns.

Still, Kuroda's been a quietly effective pitcher for the Dodgers, and that ought to continue in New York. Expect his ERA to rise and his strikeouts to fall, but his win-loss record could improve slightlly. Throwing a total spitball at that, that might give you something like 14-16 wins and an ERA in the high 3.00s approaching 4.00. That's hardly a stud, and not someone you keep in very shallow leagues, but that unquestionably carries value with it.

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

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