Even the least risky pitcher is risky compared to a position player, making the fantasy draft even that much more important as far as who you pick and when. Worse, the replacement level for pitchers is a steep slope; it’s not so bad when a team is forced to replace its fifth starter, but there are no aces in reserve. The ability to keep the aces and big-dollar pitchers healthy is non-democratic, and means that more than a few fantasy GMs will be taxed by throwing big dollars at non-aces. It makes pitcher development once a pitcher makes the majors even more important, a factor that’s often overlooked by teams and fantasy owners alike. We also know that players like roles, so noting new roles for players is important, though from the outside it’s often tough to tell exactly who’s where. These factors are often the difference between winning and losing, so it’s worth taking some time to check all of these things out.

One other note: risk is not the same thing as certainty. It’s the chance that an event–in this case, an injury that lands a pitcher on the DL–will occur within a pretty small population. If half the red pitchers end up on the DL, remember that also means that half of them didn’t.

Normal risk is Green light, elevated risk is Yellow light, and high risk is Red light. For more on the system, please check out the introduction.

Josh Beckett Green light: He pitched past blisters, and apparently forgot that keeping the ball in play helps. Something as simple as band aids on his fingertips during warm-ups kept him healthy, which tips the fact that much of his time on the DL was calculated. A key to his season is new pitching coach John Farrell; Beckett can lose interest if he doesn’t click with a coach.

Chien-Ming Wang Yellow light: He’s as good as his run support, so he’s not too much of a concern aside from workload. Between Wang and Webb, scouts are wondering if this is an era of sinkerball dominance.

Roy Halladay Yellow light: There are better things for the Blue Jays to do than pick a fight with me over cramps. Halladay started relying more on his cutter, a pitch that he moved with fingertip pressure. That application of pressure caused some cramping in his forearm. Many forearm problems wind up being precursors of elbow problems, and I said so, but Halladay’s problem was nothing more than that. The problem continues, and while it hasn’t gotten better, it also hasn’t gotten worse either. If you add that to his history of arm injuries and the ball’s magnetic attraction to his body, you’ll wonder why this isn’t red. The answer? He just missed.

Scott Kazmir Yellow light: He was traded because of his mechanics, and they remain his only major worry. While at least one pitching coach was worried, the Rays medical staff was the secret weapon that has made the trade for Kazmir work.

Jose Contreras Yellow light: That big, softball-eating hand of his gives him a particularly nasty splitter. It also causes some soreness with the whip that the pitch causes. We don’t know what kind of workload he really had back in Cuba, though I doubt it’s much of a factor at this stage. He’ll probably miss a start or two at some point.

Johan Santana Yellow light: Think anyone noticed that the same mechanics that cost Francisco Liriano a year of pitching are almost identical to Santana’s? What makes Santana good also has given him bone chips twice, and their recurring is a best-case scenario. The Twins–or whoever he pitches for in the future–would do well to buy MRI time in bulk as a precaution.

Gil Meche Red light: I hope it doesn’t end up as bad as this looks, if only for Dr. Jazayerli’s sanity, but Meche has such a history of injury that the idea that he makes it through the next five years is almost inconceivable. I don’t think this will be as bad as Darren Dreifort‘s deal, if that’s any consolation.

C.C. Sabathia Green light: Mea culpa, big man. Mea culpa.

Rich Harden Red light: IHSH. It’s never going to be the acronym that VORP is, but I’m just hoping to save some keystrokes. IHSH is “if he stays healthy,” a phrase that could be tagged on any pitcher, but Harden is the poster boy for it. No one questions his talent, his drive, or his stuff, just his durability. He looked headed for Kerlan-Jobe last season, only to come back and pitch during the playoff run like he’d never missed a day. Your fantasy decision on Harden comes down to whether you think he’s going to stay healthy–if so, he’s second to none.

Felix Hernandez Red light: He is what we thought he was. If you want to crown him, go ahead and crown him! Whoa, sorry. I went back into football mode for a second there. He’s got the nickname, but the only way he’ll earn it is by staying healthy. Even more than Harden, Hernandez is dangerous. In fact, his injury history is the only thing keeping this red light from going wherever on the spectrum is next.

Bartolo Colon Red light: He’s coming back from a rotator cuff tear. All reports are that he’s done well, but this is roughly equivalent to what Pedro Martinez and Mark Mulder are dealing with, and you see when they’re due back. I fully expect Colon to either start the year on the DL or be back on it quickly, making him a fantasy nonfactor.

Kris Benson Yellow light: He wasn’t worse, but he wasn’t helped by the Mazzone method either. At 32, he was sliding towards being just another boring pitcher, before he was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff. He’s trying to rehab it to preserve some possibility that he’ll pitch in 2007, but he’s probably done for the year. Consider his pre-injury yellow as a reminder that yellow still involves considerable risk.

Curt Schilling Red light: It took him until midseason to really be stable on the legendar ankle. Add his age and all of his offseason interests into the equation, and I think his conditioning and desire have to be called into question. I think he has answers to those questions, but he’s supremely risky, especially early in the season.

Mike Mussina Yellow light: The yellow is more about age than anything else. Is he the best #3 starter in the history of the game?

A.J. Burnett Red light: Burnett looked like a complete pitcher at the end of last season, precisely what everyone saw in him in bursts before coming to Toronto. He’s completely on board with what Brad Arnsberg is trying to do with him, a definite plus. As risky as he remains, he could fulfill his potential if he holds onto the improvements we saw in the second half.

Casey Fossum Yellow light: He’s not as young as he once was, but he is as skinny. Fossum dances on the edge between crafty lefty and batting practice, so his tendency to fatigue quickly isn’t likely to change.

Mark Buehrle Yellow light: He was worn down last year, and for the best pitcher of the Cooper era, he’s actually the type of pitcher that Cooper doesn’t seem to work well with. Assuming the rest was all Buehrle needed, he should be solid in his contract year. That said, I’m not convinced that the bad habits he developed trying to overcome the fatigue will all be gone. He’s someone I’ll be watching closely in early season action for his shoulder placement.

Carlos Silva Red light: He went from insanely efficient when he pitched with a bad knee to something much less last season. Could he actually pitch better when hurt? Probably not, but he didn’t pitch better when healthy. It’s certainly an odd pattern, though I’m watching his elbow.

Odalis Perez Red light: Consistently inconsistent, he’s never been the same after a great year in 2002, when he took a big leap up in his innings pitched. He hasn’t been over 130 innings since 2004, but he’ll be asked to do that and more this year.

Justin Verlander Red light: I’ve pointed out the uphill pitching style, the drooping elbows, and the scapular concerns that I have with Verlander. I’ve talked about the innings jump and the problem of going deep into the playoffs. I’m not sure if he’s Kevin Millwood, like PECOTA thinks, or Jack McDowell, who he reminds me of.

Jarrod Washburn Yellow light: He ended the season with a “thumb-sized hole” in his calf. That’s not good. Add in knee problems that he claimed plagued him from spring training, and the forecast only gets worse.

John Smoltz Red light: If you’re expecting big things for Jonathon Papelbon, Smoltz’s last couple years have to make you feel good. If you’re hoping for big things from Smoltz, his problems at the end of last season have to make you wonder if you could trade him for Papelbon. Add in a change in routine for Smoltz this year, and he’s a low-grade red. Given his age and history, that’s not so bad.

Tom Glavine Yellow light: See above, minus the pending divorce.

John Patterson Red light: Not only is he coming back from arm problems, there’s really no one else in Manny Acta’s rotation that can be expected to go out deliver a winnable game. The handling of Patterson is going to be the biggest challenge of Acta’s first year. Given the team’s history with pitchers, that challenge is really, really big.

Dontrelle Willis Green light: Over the winter, a doctor showed me a comparison between Dontrelle Willis and another pitcher. The mechanics, once you got around the leg kick, were almost identical. You wouldn’t figure Willis and Greg Maddux would have that much in common.

Carlos Zambrano Red light: Big Z might just be the kind of freak that can take this workload and never notice. Some forearm problems over the last few seasons haven’t amounted to anything, but as he heads towards free agency, the risk looms large. I think he’s the exception, the big strong stud starter that people point to when they argue against pitch counts. A word of caution, though: just look at his comps. The guy might be Don Drysdale, or he might be Jose Rijo.

Ben Sheets Yellow light: He’s missed big chunks of the last two years after tearing a muscle in his shoulder. Once back, it took a while for him to get comfortable with his newly-altered motion.

Roy Oswalt Yellow light: He’s been the reliable ace of the Astros for the past couple years, becoming a vocal leader during last season’s charge. The workload usually leads to a late-season problem or two, but not usually much that could be classified as serious, and even when it does, he’s shown the ability to pitch through it. He’s as low a yellow as can be, even with his history.

Zach Duke Blue light: I’m stunned that Tom Glavine is only his #9 comp. If Glavine wasn’t still alive, I’d swear he’d been reincarnated as Duke. Duke doesn’t throw near 100%, sometimes not even as much as 85%, letting him throw easy stuff to his spots. It’s hittable when he’s not dead-on, but the only difference between the two might be experience and the effect of Questec.

Jason Schmidt Yellow light: It’s not often that a pitcher signs somewhere because of a trainer. That should tell you a lot about the skill of Stan Conte, and the trust that his players have in him. Schmidt’s not getting any younger, and needs the type of close monitoring that Conte provides, so it’s an ideal situation to help him overcome the risks that come with age.

Tim Hudson Yellow light: The skinny guy looked lost mechanically last season, something which many blamed on the loss of Leo Mazzone. Fact is, Hudson and Mazzone didn’t get along well. The better fact to note is that Billy Beane seems to know that trading someone a year early helps with worker’s comp premiums.

Orlando Hernandez Red light: If there’s ever going to be a crafty righty, it will be El Duque. Age questions aside, he’ll have his seemingly normal problems that will cost him some starts.

Chris Capuano Blue light: Introduced to Capuano, I was told he’s “kinda weird.” Asked what that meant, I was told “he’s always reading books.” The Duke-educated lefty probably remembers what was written inside the temple at Delphi, and that phrase is one of the reasons he’s so effective and healthy.

Ian Snell Red light: Snell is about as high-effort as they come in terms of his delivery. He has very good stuff when his mechanics align, but the effort is taxing when they’re off. The PECOTA comps are scary good for his style.

Bronson Arroyo Red light: He’s got the big extension in his back pocket now, and having made 40-inning jumps the past three seasons, he’s shown that he can be durable. Another 200-220 innings is likely, even probable, but he’s going to need to be more efficient to not leave something behind.

Randy Johnson Red light: He’s not the pitcher he once was, but hey, 75% of Johnson’s peak is still pretty darn good. He wasn’t asking for the extension because he thinks he’s done. Johnson came back from similar back surgery with no problems, so we can actually predict that he should have no problems. Watch to see if he re-establishes his fastball in the spring before pushing him up your draft board.

Matt Cain Yellow light: The Giants sure know how to pick first-round pitchers, it’s just too bad they don’t do it more often. Cain’s only here because the system doesn’t see that he threw 145 innings in the minors during 2005, making his apparent jump in innings last year something of a discrepancy. See, this is why you want to read the notes and not just look at the colors.

Aaron Cook Red light: His injury history alone is worth the red, no matter how inspiring it was to see him back on the mound.

NL Green light:

Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks
Derek Lowe, Dodgers
Barry Zito, Giants
Chris Young, Padres
Brett Myers, Phillies
Aaron Harang, Reds

AL Green light:

John Lackey, Angels
Dan Haren, Athletics
Erik Bedard, Orioles
Kevin Millwood, Rangers

Next: The rest of the starting pitchers.

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