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AL Starters: Day One
by Tim Polko

Today's Fantasy Rx

Another small change in the presentation of these reviews hopefully will allow us to provide all these columns in the timely fashion you expect. We'll spend this week on AL starters, then a week on NL starters, two weeks on AL relievers, and finally two weeks on NL relievers leading into the roll-out of our official 2006 projections.

We again use a simple formula to separate starters from relievers to make these reviews easier to use: if a pitcher appeared in the majors and started half or more of his big league appearances, he's listed as a starter; everyone else heads to the roto bullpen. Since most pitchers will shift between starting and relieving at least once, we only intend this delineation to simplify the grouping of pitchers rather than to provide an objective evaluation of their skills. All such comments will remain in the reviews.

American League Starting Pitchers with Positive Draft Value

Quick Key to the tables:
W = Wins.  S = Saves.  ERA = Earned Run Average (ER*9/IP).
WHIP = (Walks + Hits)/IP aka Ratio.  K = Strikeouts.  BB = Bases on Balls aka Walks.
H = Hits.  IP = Innings Pitched.  P = Pitches.  B = Bats.
Age = Player's Age as of October 2, 2005.
4x4 = BA, HR, RBI, and SB in 12-team, $260 leagues with 23-man rosters in 2005.
5x5 = BA, HR, RBI, SB, and R in 12-team, $260 leagues with 23-man rosters in 2005.
RAR = Runs Above Replacement in 2005; Adjusted RAR = RAR modified to
consider whether a pitcher qualified as a starter in Scoresheet fantasy baseball .

We ranked players in order from the highest draft value in a 4x4 league to the lowest. As the majority of fantasy leagues allow you to keep anyone traded to the other league, we listed each player in the league where he started the season.

Johan Santana1602.870.9723845180231.2
MIN Twins4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 26P:L    B:L252475.975.9

Reduced offensive and defensive support from his Twins' teammates emerged as the biggest factor in the mild downturn in roto value for Santana, who again ranked as the AL's most valuable pitcher by any useful metric. His home run rate remains acceptable despite a below-average ground-fly rate, and with Minnesota looking surprisingly healthy on both sides of the ball, we may see his first-half 3.98 ERA creep toward his 1.59 second-half mark. I no longer harbor any injury significant concerns here, so unless an expected WBC outing affects his preparation, Santana should remain among the top half-dozen pitchers in the game for a long time to come. We still haven't seen the best years from this rising superstar.

Mark Buehrle1603.121.1814940240236.2
CH White Sox4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 26P:L    B:L181770.470.4

Even emerging as the primary starter on the first Chicago champion in more than three generations couldn't bring Buehrle out from the shadows as three of his teammates also pitched complete games in the ALCS. The Sox's true ace merely racked his third sixteen-win season while somehow dropping his ERA near 3.12 by cutting his homer rate from 1.2 HR/9 to a .8 mark He could increase his dominance, but given Buehrle's effectiveness in relying on his defense, I see no reason for an overt change in his numbers. Only unforeseen health problems might prevent him from developing into a Tom Glavine clone.

Bartolo Colon2103.481.1615743215222.2
LA Angels4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 32P:R    B:R181956.456.4

Although Colon certainly didn't deserve the AL Cy Young over Johan Santana, he still enjoyed an excellent season that easily justified his free agent contract from the previous year. Career-best control drove this breakout, and given Colon's usual consistency, he shouldn't regress to more than a 4.00 ERA assuming his should recovered from his post-season injury over the winter. The biggest problem you face here is that his projected 2006 stats don't warrant more than a $15 bid, a price under his likely draft salary in almost every league.

Roy Halladay1202.410.9610818118141.2
TOR Blue Jays4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 28P:R    B:R171654.454.4

Nearly 100% healthy and the leading Cy Young candidate until July 8th, when a Kevin Mench line drive broke his left tibia, ending the season for Halladay. The good news is that he owned perhaps the best skill set of his career in the first half and enjoyed a relatively light year of arm stress by not pitching after July. Although the Jays' moves leave Halladay with a worse defense, the improved bullpen and run support should send him back to 20 wins as one of the most valuable pitchers in fantasy baseball.

Jon Garland1803.501.1711547212221
CH White Sox4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 26P:R    B:R171855.355.3

Five straight seasons we've seen Garland lower his walk rate, reaching a very impressive 1.9 BB/9 in 2005. Improved hit and homer rates combined with his great control to cut his ERA to a career-best 3.50, an unsustainable mark yet still a reasonable target in future seasons. He hasn't accumulated bizarrely high IP totals and now enjoys the comfort of a new three-year deal that keeps him in a very welcoming environment. I see no justification for expecting anything more than a mild regression while also understanding that Garland still will contend for another Cy Young sometime in the next few years.

Randy Johnson1703.791.1321147207225.2
NY Yankees4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 42P:L    B:R171948.548.5

Historic dominance for over a decade forces this season to pale in comparison to his recent efforts, however Randy did not pitch badly at all in his return to the American League. Remember that he never actually hit the DL despite suffering from back problems for much of the second half. That injury proved remarkably fortuitous as his performance markedly improved down the stretch, his ERA dropping from a 4.17 first-half mark to a more understandable 3.31 in the second half. I just can't consider this 42-year-old phenomenon that risky due to his consistent skills and overall refusal to succumb to the normal effects of age. Bid for a 3.25 ERA in 200 IP and be pleasantly surprised if he ekes out one last campaign with a sub-3.00 ERA in close to 250 IP.

Kevin Millwood902.861.2214652182192
CLE Indians4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 30P:R    B:R131363.263.2

Signing with the Rangers for $50M over five years may set the Millwood clan for decades, but his new deal both destroys any vestige of a chance for a Hall of Fame career and renders him a virtual roto pariah. Watching legions of pitches fall victim to the Ameriquest arm shredder leaves no wiggle room in envisioning a reasonable performance estimate for the new Texas ace. Erosion of his hit and homer rates will lead both to control and further injury problems as he attempts to avoid entering the bottom of the first in a 3-0 deficit every evening. Last year he won the ERA crown yet barely scratched into the teens due to shockingly bad luck in the run support the Indians afforded him. Now Millwood finally may win twenty games, but the pending destruction of his qualitative contribution forces all save the most avid risk-takers into no higher than a hard $9 ante.

Barry Zito1403.861.2017189185228.1
OAK Athletics4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 27P:L    B:L13144747

Only the promise of a World Series ring will allow Billy Beane to keep Zito into free agency. Of course, thanks to last off-season's deals and this winter's accumulation of big league depth, the pieces all appear in place for another Oakland playoff run. With his homer rate finally peeking above 1.00 for the first time, Zito now only needs to reduce his walk rate to gain plenty of consideration for another Cy Young. With an injury-free arm, very strong skills, and outstanding offensive and defensive support, expect him to enjoy one last summer with the Athletics before possibly securing only the second $100M deal for any pitcher.

Cliff Lee1803.791.2214352194202
CLE Indians4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 27P:L    B:L131343.443.4

Some of Lee's skills still seem a little shallow, but with generally strong development in his sophomore seasons, he appears on track to enjoy an extended run as the best pitcher on one of baseball's best teams. Another fifteen wins seems certain, and although he lacks overt dominance at the moment, Lee should develop into a true ace as he approaches free agency at the end of the decade. Even the potential of a consolidation season in 2006 for Lee can't keep me from recommending bids around $15 due to the upside present here if his strikeout rate rebounds.

Rich Harden1002.531.061214393128
OAK Athletics4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 23P:R    B:L131347.347.3

Long-term contract in hand, Harden headed to Hudsonland, missing a dozen starts to injury yet ranking among the game's best pitchers when healthy. Workload ranks as an obvious concern considering he only turned 24 in November, however he underwent labrum surgery in October and seems on track to start the season. All reports indicate Harden looks recovered and should resume his position near the front of Oakland's loaded rotation. Only a general belief that he could miss another month this year keeps me from telling you to push $20 if seeking an ace for your staff.

Danny Haren1403.731.2216353212217
OAK Athletics4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 25P:R    B:R131448.148.1

As expected, the Athletics easily won the Mulder-Haren swap even before considering the depth provided by Kiko Calero and the long-term promise of Daric Barton. Finally allowed to spend a full season in a big league rotation, Haren blossomed into one of the league's best starters, even improving his control down the stretch. He earned a four-year extension that should keep him in Oakland through 2010, so anyone that failed to draft him last spring missed out on a superb keeper. With nearly all his skill trends headed in the right direction, Haren easily could drop toward a 3.00 ERA and as many as several more wins on his way to an extended stretch in the $20 range.

Jose Contreras1503.611.2315475177204.2
CH White Sox4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 33P:R    B:R131448.648.6

Turning 34 in December suggests this level of effectiveness as a plateau for the veteran, but a bunch of positive skill trends instead offer hope for future improvement here. Contreras continues to cede dominance for less walks and homers, a useful tradeoff in general and often a necessary one for aging hurlers. However, he also pitched great last year outside of June and July, compiling a 2.96 second-half ERA on an 82:27 K:BB in 103.1 IP with 91 H and 7 BB that led to an 11-2 record and his elevation among Chicago's reputed aces. Rumored deals to places like Philadelphia and Houston concern me, yet since he looks equally likely to land in a superior environment on the Mets or Nationals, pushing to the teens in the hope of a repeat performance isn't a bad idea.

AL Starting Pitcher Week continues tomorrow.

Today's Fantasy Rx: Oakland's increasing emphasis on defense and dominant relievers continues to raise the upside of guys like Zito, Harden, and Haren. Chicago pitchers enjoy similar support, but a less-friendly home park and generally weaker skills create more room for doubt. If you don't roster a perennial Cy candidate like Santana or Halladay, stocking as many A's as possible looks like the safest alternative to obtaining top marks in all pitching categories.

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