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While Clayton Kershaw remains a dominant fantasy force, so much so that he was drafted third overall in the recent LABR mixed-league draft, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner and MVP is just one of several elite starting pitching options we NL-Only owners have the opportunity to draft this upcoming fantasy season. As Mike Gianella reviewed in his Fantasy Tiered Rankings, Starting Pitchers article from Feb. 19th, the NL boasts seven Five-Star fantasy starting pitchers heading into 2015 drafts, as well as nine additional Four-Star arms. The NL starting pitching pool is an embarrassment of riches compared to its American League brethren, and Nick Shlain examined this further in the AL-Only Starting Pitching Landscape earlier this week. Not only has the senior circuit added the services of Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields, 2015 also yields promise we see full seasons from the talented young arms of Matt Harvey, Gerrit Cole, and Jacob deGrom, who only started a combined 44 games in 2014. Despite the wealth of pitching in the upper tiers, there are several reliable fantasy arms, along with potential gems in the mid and lower tiers as well. With such a deep talent pool, the opportunities to find value increase, and there is no reason not to be able to build a top NL pitching staff while still maintaining a conservative pitching budget.

As mentioned, the upper tier of starting arms in the NL is impressive and led by Kershaw. There really is not much to add about a pitcher who has cracked $35 in earnings in standard NL-Only 5×5 leagues in three of the past four seasons. Coming off a spectacular $41 5×5 season in 2014, his price will be high and deservedly so. However, paying for a repeat of his magical season would be a tad risky, as no pitcher in the Live-Ball Era has had three consecutive seasons with a sub-2.00 ERA, and you can never predict another 21-win season. That said, Kershaw remains the top pitcher in fantasy and is a top five pick in NL-Only drafts and worthy of a $35-$37 bid in auction leagues.

There were two other 20-game winners in the NL last year in Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto, and they also joined Kershaw as the only pitchers to surpass $30 in earnings in NL-Only formats. Wainwright is coming off minor elbow surgery and currently dealing with abdominal discomfort, so there is some hesitation when preparing a valuation on the Cardinals ace. Despite his 2.38 ERA last year, there are concerns that his consistently heavy workload is finally catching up to the 34-year-old based on the drop in his strikeout rates and his struggles last postseason. Health is obviously the key factor with all pitchers, and if Wainwright’s elbow shows no sign of further damage, he remains a top-five pitcher in NL-Only leagues. Just be prepared for the Cardinals to possibly limit his innings so he can remain fresh when St. Louis makes its annual postseason run.

As we did for the outfielders in the last NL-Only piece in the series, for a point of reference when preparing your SP valuations, let’s take a retrospective look back to 2014 to see where auction dollars were allocated at the position. Below are the 2014 values for the top 20 NL starting pitchers in terms of salary in the expert leagues CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars (as prepared by Mike Gianella). “Earnings” are based on Mike’s Rotisserie-style, 4×4 and 5×5 formulas he provided in his Retrospective Player Valuation article from November 20th:

Rank

Player

Salary

5×5 Earnings

+/-

1

Clayton Kershaw

$35

$41

+6

2t

Stephen Strasburg

$27

$24

-3

2t

Adam Wainwright

$27

$31

+4

4t

Jose Fernandez

$26

$9

-17

4t

Cliff Lee

$26

$4

-22

6

Madison Bumgarner

$25

$27

+2

7

Zack Greinke

$20

$25

+5

8

Matt Cain

$19

$3

-16

9t

Gio Gonzalez

$18

$14

-4

9t

Jordan Zimmermann

$18

$25

+7

9t

Cole Hamels

$18

$22

+4

9t

Gerrit Cole

$18

$12

-6

13t

Homer Bailey

$17

$10

-7

13t

Michael Wacha

$17

$9

-8

15t

Mat Latos

$16

$8

-8

15t

Julio Teheran

$16

$24

+8

15t

Mike Minor

$16

$0

-16

18t

Tony Cingrani

$15

$-1

-16

18t

Shelby Miller

$15

$9

-6

20t

Doug Fister

$14

$21

+7

20t

Andrew Cashner

$14

$12

-2

Obviously, those who invested heavily in Fernandez, Lee, and Cain were not happy campers, as all three pitchers dealt with injuries last year that resulted in big losses for their owners. But there were further disappointments from the listing above, as only eight of the top 20 starting pitchers returned a profit. The losses accumulated in terms of salary vs. fantasy earnings for the remaining pitchers on this list was a staggering -$131, or on average an $11 loss per starting pitcher. With about one-third of all pitchers currently on major-league rosters having undergone Tommy John surgery at some point in their careers, we know that building your rotation can be a roll of the dice at times. However, there was more earning stability with the veteran starters than their less-experienced counterparts a season ago, and that is a trend to consider when building your staff. Of the six NL starting pitchers with less than three seasons starting in the majors ranking in the top 20 in average salary in 2014, only Julio Teheran retuned a profit. Conversely, seven of the 14 starting pitchers with three years or more of starting experience on this list posted a positive ROI, and three others (Strasburg, Gonzalez and Cashner) had just nominal losses. I have always believed that you should be wary of extending yourself with pitchers with a limited résumé in the big leagues. These pitchers tend to be high risk/high reward, and often the wiser choice is to go with your sheet price on a less-sexy, reliable veteran.

To piggyback off that last thought, let’s now take a look at the 2014 season for NL starting pitchers based on the top 20 earners:

Rank

Player

5×5 Earnings

Salary

+/-

1

Clayton Kershaw

$41

$35

+6

2

Johnny Cueto

$38

$13

+25

3

Adam Wainwright

$31

$27

+4

4

Madison Bumgarner

$27

$25

+2

5t

Zack Greinke

$25

$20

+5

5t

Jordan Zimmermann

$25

$18

+7

7t

Stephen Strasburg

$24

$27

-3

7t

Julio Teheran

$24

$16

+8

9

Jake Arrieta

$23

$0

+23

10

Cole Hamels

$22

$18

+4

11t

Doug Fister

$21

$14

+7

11t

Tanner Roark

$21

$2

+19

13t

Tyson Ross

$20

$11

+9

13t

Lance Lynn

$20

$11

+9

15

Alex Wood

$19

$8

+11

16t

Hyun-Jin Ryu

$16

$13

+3

16t

Kyle Lohse

$16

$6

+10

16t

Edison Volquez

$16

$0

+16

16t

Jacob deGrom

$16

$0

+16

20t

Ian Kennedy

$15

$8

+7

20t

Henderson Alvarez

$15

$4

+11

20t

Alfredo Simon

$15

$0

+15

Of the top 10 NL- Only SP fantasy earners a season ago, nine were veterans of three full seasons or more. The top six NL SP fantasy earners from last year have combined for 13 $25-plus seasons and three more $20-plus earning seasons in the last four years in standard NL-Only 5×5 formats. That is the consistency you look for when molding your staff and it’s fine to adjust your raw bids a tick or two for a veteran pitcher for that consistency. With Lester, Scherzer, and Shields (respective 2014 AL-Only 5×5 seasons of $30, $27 and $21) providing additional veteran stability to the NL starting pitching pool, this should further hinder the urge to splurge on a less-proven commodity. While I am extremely high on Cole this year, he does not rank in my top 12 NL-Only pitchers. I am also a big believer in deGrom, who I FAAB’d last season in my home NL-Only after his first career start, but he is on the outside of my top 15 list looking in. There are simply many more reliable options available—all seasoned starters with a history of proven results—to justify selecting either Cole or deGrom that high from my perspective.

Among the surprises last year who should remain high on your 2015 draft sheets are Cueto and Arrieta. Sure, Cueto’s $38 season was certainly not predicted and aided by a league-leading BABIP and 82.5 percent strand rate, but Cueto has delivered multiple $20 fantasy seasons in NL-Only for his owners and has now posted four consecutive seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA. He probably won’t be a $30 pitcher again this year, but a year in the mid-$20s seems like a safe bet. Arrieta turned out to be waiver wire gold last year, as the former top prospect finally put it all together after parts of five disappointing seasons between the Orioles and Cubs. Last season was not a mirage: Arrieta is for real, folks. He is a top-10 NL-Only pitcher this year, so do not underestimate him come draft day. Roark was another pleasant surprise last year, starting 31 games for the Nationals and winning 15 games with an impressive 2.86 ERA and 1.09 WHIP on his way to a $21 season in NL-Only 5×5. Unfortunately, the addition of Scherzer bumps Roark to the bullpen, so unless there is an injury or the Nationals decide to trade either Strasburg or Zimmermann, Roark’s chances of starting seem to be nil. He will still have value out of the pen, but his price drops dramatically.

The mid-level tiers offer several enticing options, especially if you participate in standard 5×5 leagues. Francisco Liriano, Zack Wheeler, Ross, and Gonzalez all had K/9 rates above 9.0 last year, and while Lynn’s K/9 dipped to 8.0, he has recorded 180 strikeouts or more in each of the past three seasons, so he is likely to reach that total again in 2015. As for the higher-profile pitchers coming back from injuries, Harvey should have the biggest upside this season. Based on his current NFBC ADP rank of 69, many fantasy owners feel the same way, so if you want Harvey, he will not come cheap. Fernandez is coming of Tommy John surgery, and while he will pitch this season (the Marlins are targeting a first-half return if there are no setbacks), it is difficult to expect much from the talented youngster. He’s currently ranked as the 30th NL SP being selected in NFBC drafts, and that’s probably about right. Lee and Cain both dealt with injuries in the first half that cut their respective 2014 seasons short. It’s difficult to project the upcoming seasons for a pair of veteran hurlers coming off elbow injuries, but I would be willing to roll the dice on both. The investment should be modest, but the upside could be quite nice. I am a little more willing to take a gamble on a pitcher of Lee’s or Cain’s ilk.

From a 4×4 vs. 5×5 value perspective, pitching is where you really see a variance in values, and the difference in your player valuations between the two formats can be significant. While you may think strikeout pitchers would always earn more in standard 5×5 formats than in 4×4 that is not always the case. Kershaw for example, was so dominant in the other three standard SP categories last year that he earned a whopping $46 in 4×4, $5 more than what he earned in 5×5 even with his 239 strikeouts. Cueto led the league with 242 strikeouts, but he earned $3 more in 4×4, making him a $41 pitcher. Wainwright also earned more in 4×4 (a $5 bump), so you will see strikeout pitchers who excel in the other three standard SP categories will be worth a little more in 4×4 leagues. We saw the higher strikeout totals shift the balance in favor of 5×5 for those pitchers who might not have the sparkling ERA’s or WHIP or high win totals. Pitcher’s like Strasburg, Gonzalez, Lynn, and Kennedy were much more valuable in 5×5 a season ago for this reason. While Kennedy only earned $8 in 4×4 formats, his 207 strikeouts last year made him a $15 5×5 pitcher. Strasburg was a $19 pitcher based on 4×4, but earned $24 in 5×5. In contrast, Fister had a $5 spike in 4×4 and earned $26 in that format. Even though Fister’s other stats were elite, his meager 98 punchouts really knocked down his value in 5×5. That’s just a friendly reminder to study a pitcher’s career scan when preparing your starting pitcher valuations for multiple scoring formats.

While this is probably “Roto 101” for most of you, I only bring this up based on my experience: Every year, “non-strikeout” pitchers like Fister are typically undervalued in 5×5 formats. The stigma with these pitchers is that because they do not amass impressive strikeout totals, they have less value in 5×5 leagues. For example, the knock on Kyle Lohse for years have been his low K/9 rates (among other things), so he is typically undervalued in 5×5. We saw that again last year when Lohse went for an average salary of $6 in expert leagues. Despite posting a lackluster 6.4 K/9 last year, Lohse still earned $16 in 5×5 NL-Only. So what did he earn in 4×4? Answer: $14. Oddly enough, with only a 6.1 K/9 in 2012, Lohse racked up $22 in earnings in 5×5 NL-Only. Believe me, Lohse isn’t the only pitcher with whom we have seen this, as Mike Leake (career 6.2 K/9) and Henderson Alvarez (career 4.8 K/9) went for $3 and $4 on average, respectively, last year, and both proved to be bargains in 5×5. As we saw in the earlier list I provided, Alvarez was a top 20 5×5 NL-Only SP in 2014. You certainly do not want a staff stockpiled with these low K/9 hurlers, but do not over look their value. Low strikeout rates or not, if a pitcher is able to produce serviceable ERAs and WHIPs over 30 starts, those innings are quite valuable regardless of the scoring format. So the message here to my fellow NL-Only 5×5 players is that it’s okay to show a little love for those starting pitchers that do not rack up the big strikeout totals; they are usually cheap and very profitable.

As mentioned, the NL pitching pool has the potential to offer many bargains, and most you will find in the later rounds of your drafts. Below are some names to keep in mind that might fly under the radar but could prove to be solid complimentary pieces when building your staff. Again, “Earnings” are based on Mike Gianella’s Rotisserie-style, 4×4 and 5×5 formulas he provided in his Retrospective Player Valuation article from November 20th.

A.J. Burnett – Pirates
4×4 earnings: -$10 / 5×5 earnings: $3

I wrote about Burnett in my Pittsburgh Pirates Fantasy Team Preview article from December 22nd. Burnett returns to Pittsburgh and will be reunited with pitching coach Ray Searage, under whose tutelage Burnett enjoyed two fine seasons before leaving for Philadelphia last offseason. Burnett’s struggles in 2014 can be attributed to pitching all of last year with a sports hernia, a terrible defense behind him and no run support (he had the league’s lowest run support at 3.21 runs per game). He had successful surgery in September for his sports hernia and will be healthy heading into 2015. Despite his age, he is as durable as they come with seven straight seasons posting 30 or more starts. A healthy Burnett back in Pittsburgh with Searage and a better team around him makes him a solid fantasy option with his continued solid ground-ball and strikeout rates.

Jorge De La Rosa – Rockies
4×4 earnings: $7 / 5×5 earnings: $11

De La Rosa has anchored the Rockies staff the past two seasons, posting a 30-17 record over 62 starts. Like most Rockies pitchers, the home/road splits have really impacted the lefty’s numbers… just not as you would expect. Over the past two seasons at Coors Field, De La Rosa has put up a remarkable 20-3 record with a 2.92 ERA and 1.24 WHIP (and only 12 home runs allowed) over 29 starts. While his days of big K/9 rates are probably over, his grounder rates have jumped the past two years, and he has certainly figured out the formula for pitching in Coors. De La Rosa has put up double digits in earnings in 5×5 NL-Only leagues the past two seasons, and while his peripherals will limit his overall value, he has proven to be a safe option considering his price ($2 average salary in 2014). The past two seasons illustrate you should not be afraid to consider him because of the park he pitches in; in fact, based on his splits you might want to reserve him when he pitches on the road.

Mike Leake – Reds
4×4 earnings: $7 / 5×5 earnings: $12

As mentioned earlier, Leake is usually undervalued come draft day. Coming off a 14-7 season with a 3.38 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 2013, he still just went for an average salary of $3 in auctions last year despite earning $11 in 5×5 in 2013. Leake has averaged 30 starts a year in each of his first four big league seasons and has cracked double digits in earnings in three of his first four seasons (including the past two) in NL-Only 5×5 formats despite the less than stellar strikeout totals. What provides some excitement going forward is Leake’s spike in his K/9 rates last year (striking out a career high 164), he upped his grounder rate to 53 percent, and he is entering the important age-27 season. Leake should be another solid play at a reasonable price.

Jon Niese – Mets
4×4 earnings: $7 / 5×5 earnings: $11

While not exciting, Niese is extremely reliable averaging 28 starts and 10 wins with a sub-4.00 ERA and solid K/:B ratios the past five seasons for the Mets. No, he does not throw hard, so the lefty relies on his arsenal of breaking pitches and cutter to attack opposing hitters. His K rates are modest, but he induces a high percentage of groundballs (ranked 14th among all NL pitchers in 2014) and also improved upon his BB/9 rates last year. He had a solid first half posting a 2.96 ERA and 1.210 WHIP over 17 starts, but struggled right after the break over a handful of starts before finishing the season strong in September. While he has never accumulated elite numbers, he has always posted positive earnings in NL-Only 5×5 formats. His consistency will make him a nice addition to round out any fantasy staff and won’t cost you that much.

Here are three additional deeper starting pitching plays to target later on in your drafts if you are looking to take a flier on a low risk, modest upside arm. These pitchers are probably better suited for leagues that allow for reserves:

Travis Wood – Cubs
An All-Star in 2013, Wood’s ERA jumped nearly two full runs in 2014 and had his worst season of his five-year career, After a solid start in April over his first four starts (28-to-4 K:BB ratio and 2.52 ERA in 25 innings), he was extremely inconsistent over his next 27 starts and was a big disappointment for his fantasy owners. Wood was absolutely awful last season, but it’s too early to write him off. He did post the best strikeout rate of his career at 7.6 K/9 and the numbers say he was a tad unlucky, based on nearly a 50 point jump in BABIP from his career averages. Wood slots in as the favorite to win the fifth spot in the rotation this year, which is a better fit than having to face the opponents’ no. 2-3 starters every fifth day. Wood has a career WHIP of 1.288 so last year looks to be an anomaly to me. He will be available for a song after last year’s debacle and worth the gamble considering the risk is very low.

Brett Anderson – Dodgers
Signed by the Dodgers this offseason to a one-year deal, the oft-injured lefty appears to be the favorite to win the Dodgers fifth spot in the rotation. Anderson has only managed 19 starts over the last three seasons due to injuries, but has been effective when healthy. If he has no setbacks this spring from his back surgery that ended his 2014 season, he’s worth a late-round pick in hopes he can actually stay healthy for a full season.

Bronson Arroyo – Diamondbacks
Over his 11-years as a starting pitcher in the majors, there is only one season that Arroyo did not post positive earnings, and that was in 2011 when he was diagnosed with mono before the season. Yet, he still pitched through the illness making all 32 starts that season. He is recovering from Tommy JOhn surgery, but said he hopes to be ready for opening day. Even if he is not ready for opening day (May or June seems more realistic), Arroyo is someone you can either grab for $1 in the end game or draft on your reserves, stashing him away until he comes back. Arroyo has turned himself into a ground-ball pitcher, as his worm-killer rates have increased in each of the past four years, including inducing groundballs at a 54 percent clip in 2014. Arroyo was coming off back-to-back $12 seasons in NL-Only 5×5 formats before he went down with the UCL injury last year. He will put up a couple of stinkers each year, as most pitchers do, and give up his share of long flies, but in the end, he grinds out positive innings year in and year out.