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NL Starters: Day One
by Tim Polko

Today's Fantasy Rx

National 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.

Chris Carpenter2102.831.0621351204241.2
STL Cardinals4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 30P:R    B:R232468.868.8

Finally fulfilling his longtime promise after nearly a decade of inconsistency, Carpenter stayed healthy all year to hit a career high by more than twenty-five innings and win the NL Cy Young on the strength of a 21-5 record. Although he didn't match the overall performance of Clemens, Pettitte, or Willis thanks to a September meltdown likely due to general exhaustion, Carpenter demonstrated a superb all-around skill set that fully supports his ranking atop all starters in NL roto. I certainly expect obvious regression here as his innings should settle near two hundred, however with excellent support from his teammates and plenty of positive skill trends, Carpenter still will retain plenty of value this summer. Feel free to bid into the high teens.

Roger Clemens1301.871.0118562151211.1
HOU Astros4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 43P:R    B:R232485.185.1

Already clearly ranked among the best half-dozen pitchers ever, Clemens merely added one of the top seasons for any modern pitcher to the end of his lengthy stat line. I don't even truly mind that he missed the Cy he clearly deserved given that he won in 2004 despite much better numbers from Randy Johnson. Clemens avoided any significant injury and shockingly kept his ERA below 2.00 in every month save September, when hamstring problems severely limited his effectiveness. Yet he also missed his best chance at bringing a title to Houston, and after the terrible run support he received last summer, he needs two more seasons to vault into the top five in career wins. Perhaps the presence of son Koby in the organization provides the best reason to believe Clemens will achieve that milestone, but given his uncertain contract status and the inconceivable notion that he'd join any team other than the Astros, we can't expect more than 160 innings of a 3.00 ERA. Bidding to $15 ranks as one of the most severe high-risk, high-upside gambles available this spring.

Andy Pettitte1702.391.0317141188222.1
HOU Astros4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 33P:L    B:L232375.575.5

I fail to understand why Pettitte heads into the last season of his three-year deal without a contract extension. Only Roger Clemens clearly outperformed him among all starters, and with no physical problems occurring, he looks like the perfect complement to club ace Roy Oswalt. Plus, with the exorbitant contracts of Jeff Bagwell, Richard Hidalgo, and even Clemens all virtually off-the-books, Houston has the cash to keep Pettitte at home indefinitely. Perhaps waiting a couple more months will prove fortunate for the Astros since some regression appears inevitable, but nothing here suggests Pettitte shouldn't head into the high teens without much difficulty.

Dontrelle Willis2202.631.1317055213236.1
FLO Marlins4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 23P:L    B:L222273.273.2

Any pitcher with this skill set merits an automatic berth in national challenge leagues, however few players concern me more than Willis right now. He accrued 209 IP at age 21, 197 at 22, and now over 236 at 23. A bigger problem involves his position as the lone remaining established starter on a staff filled with inexperienced pitchers, as well as more than eighty percent turnover among Marlins' position players. While Willis maintains a very impressive skill set, we must expect increased defensive miscues and reduced run support, which could lead Willis to push himself right into a cascade injury. Pitching for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic also won't help matters, so despite plenty of long-term upside here, I strongly recommend against selecting Willis in any standard single-season league and generally caution you against offering any significant long-term contract in keeper leagues.

Pedro Martinez1502.820.9520847159217
NY Mets4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 33P:R    B:R222362.162.1

I doubt many people realize that Pedro hasn't started fewer than 29 games in any of the past four seasons. Although his record appears unimpressive due to a combination of comparatively early game departures, inconsistent support from his teammates, and the obvious downside of diminishing dominance, Pedro's overall skill level still ranks among baseball's best pitchers. Consider 180 innings of a sub-3.00 ERA with no less than a dozen wins a minimum level for Pedro, worth about twelve bucks in most leagues. If he seems healthy when you draft, add two dozen innings and three more wins to those expectations, allowing anyone seeking a dependable ace to bid toward $20 for the increasingly underrated ace.

Roy Oswalt2002.941.2018448243241.2
HOU Astros4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 28P:R    B:R192065.565.5

Although I generally see less upside for Oswalt than similar developing aces due to his home park and both slipping hit and strikeout rates, back-to-back twenty win seasons suggest a very valuable level of consistency. Given his apparent health and extremely low downside, I view him as the safest starter that warrants bids near $20 this spring. The expected mid-season return of Roger Clemens also will alleviate any pressure on Oswalt, giving him a superb opportunity to relax down the stretch instead of slumping as fall approaches. John Sickels predicted Oswalt would win multiple Cy Youngs when the rookie starter first broke into the majors, and after five very impressive campaigns, Oswalt shows no indication that he can't meet that expectation.

Jake Peavy1302.881.0421650162203
SD Padres4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 24P:R    B:R182056.556.5

No NL team offers a safer environment for pitchers than the Padres, who possesses the league's best pitchers' park, a couple of excellent relievers, and a significantly improved defense that could sharply minimize base hits. With a career-best 9.6 K/9 leading sterling across-the-board skills, Peavy remains in perfect position to take full advantage of San Diego's amenities. My only real concern here involves Peavy's persistent health problems, however if you appropriately discount your IP expectations to roughly 180, he remains worthy of a significant investment of your pitching dollars.

John Smoltz1403.061.1516953210229.2
ATL Braves4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 38P:R    B:R17185959

The Braves badly erred by returning Smoltz to the rotation. Although he compiled very impressive stats, his absence in the bullpen proved far more detrimental to their post-season success than the benefits he offered as a starter, especially why he tired down the stretch after almost exceeding his combined IP total from the past three years. Of course, two more years of starting will provide the twenty-three wins he needs to exceed two hundred career victories, which combine with his 154 saves and 3.26 career ERA to insure significant Cooperstown consideration. Given his age and expected skill erosion, consider anything more than two hundred innings and perhaps a 3.50 ERA merely a nice bonus on a somewhat limited investment in the low teens.

Carlos Zambrano1403.261.1520286170223.1
CH Cubs4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 24P:R    B:S161751.751.7

Zambrano looks like the only truly dependable pitcher in an organization seemingly overflowing with pitching merely a couple years ago. He cleared thirty starts and two hundred innings for the third straight season while hitting career-best strikeout and hit rates. Increasing longball problems concern me, especially given Zambrano's historical workload, but his overall dominance indicates that a more consistent approach could translate into 250 innings of a 2.50 ERA and twenty wins. Some year very soon Zambrano will explode into the middle of the Cy Young race, and although he also may suffer an extended stint on the DL in the near future, gamble on the former result for 2006 as you push above $15 in most leagues.

Josh Beckett1503.381.1816658153178.2
FLO Marlins4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 25P:R    B:R121438.938.9

Nearly every story discussing Beckett's move to Boston mentions that he never exceeded 180 innings in a season, however his 42.2 post-season innings in 2003 give him 184.2 total IP that year. With 157.2 IP in 2004 and 179.2 IP in 2005, I see no problem with projecting Beckett to miss no more than a month of action this summer. Granted, the Red Sox don't want him to miss any time, but if both they and his fantasy owners adjust their expectations accordingly, Beckett should provide a very solid return on a comparatively minimal investment. Even pushing toward $20 in 5x5 leagues doesn't appear unwarranted.

Brandon Webb1403.541.2617259229229
ARI Diamondbacks4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 26P:R    B:R121345.345.3

Although Webb's ERA barely budged, his jump from seven wins to fourteen victories helps depict his developing skills. He cut his walk rate from 5.1 BB/9 to a 2.3 mark while boosting his tremendous ground-fly rate to a shocking 4.34 G-F. Arizona's inconsistent defense helped give back much of the WHIP gains his improved control secured, but Webb still owns one of baseball's best skill sets, giving him an excellent foundation for future progress. The developing Diamondbacks' offense could make him an annual 15-game winner, so if his ERA returns near 3.00 as we expect, he could begin a long string of $20 seasons this summer. Bid to $15 without reservation.

John Patterson903.131.1918565172198.1
WAS Nationals4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 27P:R    B:R121449.149.1

Always a dominant pitcher despite repeated bouts of injury with Arizona, Patterson avoided the DL for most of 2005, quickly emerging as one of the league's best young starters. The friendly environs of RFK mitigated his weak .61 G-F, but aside from that long-term longball concern, Patterson's skill rates remained impeccable. Combining an 8.4 K/9 with a 3.0 BB/9 establishes an excellent base skill level, so if the Nationals ever offer him strong run support, twenty wins will appear on his radar surprisingly soon. Even mild skill regression won't prevent Patterson from looking like a great bargain anywhere below the teens.

Ben Sheets1003.331.0714125142156.2
MIL Brewers4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 27P:R    B:R121234.934.9

Accumulating over five hundred big league innings before his twenty-fifth birthday obviously placed plenty of strain on Sheets' young arm, and his failure to avoid injury last year appears the direct result of his heavy workload early in his career. Of course, he also developed superb skills during those seasons, effectively insuring that Sheets now remains among baseball's best starters whenever healthy. While I really don't trust him in single-season leagues, his long-term future looks as bright as the Brewers' potential playoff prospects. Aggressive owners should bid toward $20 and simply plan for Sheets to miss a month of action at some point. At least he'll offer great stats when in your lineup.

Brett Myers1303.721.2120868193215.1
PHI Phillies4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 25P:R    B:R111437.737.7

Myers overcame the negative effects of CB Park by boosting his strikeout rate to a career-best 8.7 mark. He ranks as one of the year's true breakout pitchers despite his surprisingly small win total. However, since Myers appears fully capable of maintaining his improved command, I view a 4.00 ERA and a dozen wins as his likely minimum annual totals for the rest of the decade. With his fantasy upside far above that $10 level of performance, bidding into the teens to secure Myers' services makes plenty of sense in most leagues.

Jon Lieber1704.201.2114941223218.1
PHI Phillies4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 35P:R    B:L111225.225.2

The Yankees' failure to exercise Lieber's 2005 option ranks as one of the clearest blunders by that team this decade as the veteran right-hander easily earned his new three-year contract from the Phillies. He even cut his ERA by a dozen points despite moving into a far tougher ballpark. Of course, Lieber also turns 36 this spring, shouldn't return to 17 wins again, and appears quite vulnerable to qualitative deterioration due to his unimpressive dominance. Don't bid much more than $10 on someone who truly only qualifies as an inning eater.

Jeff Weaver1404.221.1715743220224
LA Dodgers4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 29P:R    B:R111225.525.5

One tiny problem prevented Weaver from posting the sub-4.00 ERA that could have guaranteed a contract no less than what Jarrod Washburn received: a jump from a .8 homer rate to a 1.4 mark despite no other significant skill change. Actually Weaver managed to cut his walk rate from 2.7 to 1.7 BB/9 while maintaining his other skill ratios, so perhaps his departure from Dodger Stadium won't trash his numbers. The veteran inning eater still looks like an ideal #3 starter given his durability and overall effectiveness, so I see no reason why Weaver shouldn't stay with brother Jered to provide the Angels with tremendous middle-of-the-rotation consistency through the end of the decade.

A.J. Burnett1203.441.2619879184209
FLO Marlins4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 28P:R    B:R111343.743.7

Although I don't hate Burnett's five-year deal with Toronto given the Jays' overall financial picture, he still qualifies as a tremendous risk considering he never really exceeded $15 despite an extended run for a perennial playoff contender in a great pitchers' park. Thankfully Burnett's career-best 2.42 G-F provides a strong indication that he might overcome his harsher home environment, but he still suffers from inconsistent control and isn't assured of great run support. I doubt he'll merit a significant investment in any league that values pitchers highly, so exercise plenty of caution as bidding heads into double digits.

Derek Lowe1203.611.2514655223222
LA Dodgers4x45x5RARAdj. RAR
Age: 32P:R    B:R111241.941.9

Perhaps no one expected nearly a two-hundred point drop in Lowe's ERA, but a mark in the neighborhood of his 3.88 career average seemed surprisingly likely due to the shift from Boston to LA. Further improvement similarly seems possible as Lowe's 1.1 HR/9 appears somewhat incongruous with his 2.92 G-F. Since I also expect nearly across-the-board rebounds from everyone supporting Lowe on the Dodgers, a $15 campaign this summer appears on the low end of Lowe's likely performance. Take advantage anywhere you can grab him in the low teens.

NL Starting Pitcher Week continues tomorrow.

Today's Fantasy Rx: With so many of the NL's top pitchers either returning from injury or looking like obvious DL risks, plan to risk an extra buck or two on those that best combine excellent skills with good health. Roy Oswalt, Brandon Webb, Brett Myers, Derek Lowe, and new Angel Jeff Weaver stand out as the best gambles of this generally high-risk, high-upside cadre of arms.

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