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AL Starters: Day One
by Tim Polko

Today's Fantasy Rx

As previously mentioned in our hitter reviews, another season brings another major change to our annual off-season player reviews. Expanding our player tables allows us to include our 2006 projected statistics and fantasy values, when available, above each player's actual 4x4 and 5x5 dollar values, runs above replacement, and adjusted runs above replacement, which takes into consideration whether a pitcher qualified as a starter in Scoresheet's fantasy baseball.

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 2007 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:
P = Pitches.  B = Bats.  Age = Player's Age as of October 1, 2006.
Proj. = Rotohelp's projected 2006 stats and fantasy values for each player.
2006 = Each player's final 2006 stat line and fantasy values.
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.  
4x4 = BA, HR, RBI, and SB in 12-team, $260 leagues with 23-man rosters.
5x5 = BA, HR, RBI, SB, and R in 12-team, $260 leagues with 23-man rosters.
RAR = Runs Above Replacement; aRAR = RAR adjusted 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.

1.  Johan SantanaMIN TwinsAge: 27P:L   B:L

With only two years now remaining until free agency and a prospective financial bonanza for possibly the best pitcher of his generation, Santana won his second Cy Young in three seasons, and if not for the ridiculously anachronistic voting habits of writers stuck in the last century, Santana would own three straight trophies. He won the pitchers' Triple Crown by leading the AL in ERA, strikeouts, and wins, though he did tie Chien-ming Wang in the last category. Santana also led the AL in WHIP, hit rate, and strikeout rate, topping the circuit in each for the third straight years. The Twins' ace even bumped his ground-fly rate to 1.06 G-F, portending a homer rate drop in 2007. Despite the likely decrease in Minnesota's offensive output this summer, I see no reason for Santana's value to fall far below $30, and though we generally won't outlay that much cash for a pitcher, he currently appears as reliable an investment since Greg Maddux left the Braves.

2.  Roy HalladayTOR Blue JaysAge: 29P:R   B:R

Doc began last season by signing a three-year extension for $40M that keeps him in Toronto through 2010. Unlike the previous two campaigns, he didn't miss any extended action until sustaining a line drive to his shoulder in September, costing him about four starts down the stretch. Unfortunately, his good health also cost dominance as Halladay posted his lowest strikeout rate since his rookie season. Higher hit and walk rates also lower his likely upside, but considering the paucity of established AL aces, Halladay should remain right behind Johan Santana among AL starters, worthy of $20 bids in any league.

3.  Mike MussinaNY YankeesAge: 37P:R   B:L

One of the most underrated pitchers of the last decade, Mussina finally rebounded following two down years just in time to land a two-year extension with the Yankees for $23M that now appears a giant bargain. Yes, the 38-year-old seems due to regress in 2007. He also remains quite vulnerable both to the longball and any defensive lapses behind him. However, by posting his best strikeout and walk rates in a few years, Mussina at least should be able to stay in the $10-15 range, though bidding above that maximum leaves you little chance for a profit.

4.  Francisco LirianoMIN TwinsAge: 22P:L   B:L

Seemingly developed similarly to Johan Santana, Liriano's move from the bullpen into the rotation on May 19th keyed all of Minnesota's success over the balance of the year. Unfortunately, despite spending more than two months as perhaps baseball's best pitcher, Liriano hit the DL with elbow pain in early August that eventually necessitated Tommy John surgery, though not before he rushed a return in September that further exacerbated the injury. In hindsight, an insanely questionable series of actions last spring led to that issue as Liriano accepted an invitation to pitch in the WBC, was arrested for drunk-driving right after making the Twins, and apparently unwilling to otherwise risk his spot on the time at any point, he hid his elbow pain from the team later that summer. I do not trust Liriano. Yes, the kid only turned 23 in October, but considering his long-term potential following his superb 2005 campaign, anyone who makes such a series of purely short-term decisions at the very least can't be counted upon to anchor a fantasy team. Unless you can grab him for less than $5 with the absolute intention of dealing him to a rebuilding team for in-season help, don't bother rostering him in 2007.

5.  C.C. SabathiaCLE IndiansAge: 26P:L   B:L

Considering his workload since joining the Indians and the fact he doesn't turn 27 until this July, Sabathia's success in remaining healthy continues to amaze. Last season was his first major league campaign with fewer than thirty starts, and he still managed 192.2 IP with a career-best 3.22 ERA. Cleveland once again possesses a team worthy of his talents, and as potentially the most dominant left-handed in baseball not pitching for the Twins, Sabathia appears to lack only consistent run support to mount a Cy Young campaign. The arthroscopic knee surgery he underwent in September should prevent any cascade injuries, allowing me to heartily endorse him as the best established ace capable of fronting your rotation for less than $20.

6.  Chien-ming WangNY YankeesAge: 26P:R   B:R

The Cy Young runner-up despite a paltry 3.1 K/9, Wang appears little more than the Yankees' soft-tossing answer to watching Derek Lowe pitch for a decade in Boston. Wang's 3.06 G-F feeds a fairly reliable infield corps that featured four potential Hall of Famers last year, and though he appears completely incapable of developing into a dominant arm, he looks like ideal rotation filler for New York. Pitchers that prevent runs always will remain employable regardless of their strikeout potential, yet after he tied for the AL lead in wins and garnered the publicity of a Cy campaign, Wang appears certain to cost more than he merits in virtually all leagues. I consider bidding into the teens for him a mark of media-fueled overaggressiveness considering the strong likelihood he'll finish 2007 with a 4.00 ERA and no more than 15 wins.

7.  John LackeyLA AngelsAge: 27P:R   B:R

Lackey strongly echoed his 2005 performance, and if not for an awful August in which he allowed 57 hits in 34.1 IP, he could have coasted to an ERA near 3.00. Instead his current stats appear fairly close to his ceiling, especially given his static skill rates. Of course, I still really like him and heartily endorse him for owners looking for an ace around $15. He just needs plenty of support from his teammates to bridge the gap to $20, a potentially impossible goal in 2007 following the departure of pitching coach Bud Black to manage the Padres. Pushing the price on any Angels' starter seems somewhat risky since Mike Butcher didn't exactly wow anyone as Tampa's pitching coach in 2006, his sole previous year as a major league coach.

8.  Jered WeaverLA AngelsAge: 23P:R   B:R

Placed into the tough situation of essentially forcing his brother Jeff out of a job in the Angels' rotation, Jered quickly emerged as a possible franchise savior, providing the production necessary to keep the club in the playoff race into September despite a multitude of other problems. Stolen by the Angels with the 12th pick in the 2004 draft, Weaver signed after a year of negotiations, then proceeded to impress everyone in the California and Texas Leagues. Sent to AAA Salt Lake(PCL) to begin 2006, he compiled a stunning 1.99 ERA on a 93:10 K:BB in 77 IP with 63 H and 7 HR allowed in 11 GS(12G) before his inevitable promotion to the majors for good in June. While biceps tendonitis slowed him in July, he otherwise thrived in the majors, finishing among the ten best AL fantasy starters despite spending more than two months in the minors. Other than a strong flyball tendency, no obstacles appear present to prevent Weaver's development into a perennial Cy Young contender. Consider $15 a reasonable ante given the moderate risk associated with drafting any young pitcher with Weaver's workload and general lack of experience.

9.  Kenny RogersDET TigersAge: 41P:L   B:L

Yes, Rogers enjoyed a mountain of unwanted media attention during the playoffs after he apparently scuffed the ball in Game 2 of the World Series. He also managed a 23-inning playoff scoreless streak that ranks as the third best post-season mark ever, so regardless of how he remained effective, he belongs in any discussion of the most reliable starters in the game. Moving to Comerica National Park provided Rogers a needed additional comfort zone after years in the Rangers' bandbox, and with plenty of bullpen options to help limit his workload, he remains a reasonable solid bet. My major concern only involves his advanced age, but I still see no reason not to bid around $10 to secure his services as your second or third starter.

10.  Dan HarenOAK AthleticsAge: 26P:R   B:R

Right behind Jeremy Bonderman on my list of top long-term starters to own in the league, Haren improved his strikeout rate to 7.1 K/9 while similarly cutting his walk rate. If not for a seemingly fluky increased in his homer rate, he appeared prepared to drop his ERA below 3.50. Few trades look worse in recent memory than the Cardinals' giveaway of Haren, Kiko Calero, and Daric Barton for an injury-prone Mark Mulder two winters ago, and since we expect Haren to emerge as a true ace this summer, even Billy Beane's failure to net any decent return for Tim Hudson won't affect the franchise's future. With Haren signed through 2010, an impressive defense and relief corps in place, and no obvious health issues, purchasing him now anywhere around $15 will look like a good investment for the length of that contract.

11.  Curt SchillingBOS Red SoxAge: 39P:R   B:R

Turning 40 in November apparently convinced Schilling to pitch beyond 2007, especially since he seems certain to receive a multi-year extension along the lines of the deal Arizona just gave Randy Johnson. While he tired in the second half last year, the 10-3 record and 3.61 ERA he compiled in the first half, which included a superb 115:15 K:BB in 127.1 IP, demonstrates still belong in any discussion of baseball's aces. Schilling's real enemies remain age and the accompanying injury concerns. A sore back limited him to two starts in September, and given Schilling's health history, a return to 200 innings would shock me. The Red Sox fortunately appear unconcerned given the rotation depth amassed by the team this winter. Expect about 160 high-value innings from Schilling, perhaps culminating in a 3.50 ERA and 12 wins, stats that merit bids no higher than the low teens despite the upside inherent in any pitcher with his superb command.

12.  Justin VerlanderDET TigersAge: 23P:R   B:R

The second player selected in the 2004 draft, one pick after San Diego took Matt Bush, Verlander fairly breezed to the majors, signing that fall and then splitting 2005 between the Florida State and Eastern leagues, along with two spot starts in Detroit. He similarly sailed into the big league rotation last spring, and until tiring down the stretch, and appeared as much a Cy Young candidate as a Rookie of the Year contender. Verlander's only injury issues of note were the shoulder fatigue he reported in each of the last two Augusts, but with an otherwise clean bill of health, he appears quite capable of emerging as the Tigers' long-term ace. Of course, despite a surprisingly balanced skill set, he possesses less dominance than Jeremy Bonderman even though Verlander's only four months younger. His Rookie of the Year award and 17 wins also should inflate his price to untenable levels. While Verlander's future appears quite bright, he unfortunately looks like a terrible gamble in single-season leagues due to the low likelihood that he'll manage much more than a 4.00 ERA and 14-15 wins, numbers more deserving of $10 bids than the $20 he'll command in many leagues.

13.  Ervin SantanaLA AngelsAge: 23P:R   B:R

For some reason Santana's somewhat mediocre 2005 big league stats soured the fantasy public on a pitcher projected as a Pedro clone only a couple of years ago. While we saw his strikeout and walk rates slightly slump, improved ground-fly, homer, and hit rates suggest plenty of upside for the youngster. Even some second-half difficulties don't particularly concern me given Santana's overall skill level and development curve. He should emerge as no less than an excellent #2 starter by 2008, making him an excellent pitcher to own now anywhere in the $10-15 range.

14.  Nate RobertsonDET TigersAge: 29P:L   B:R

An impressively dominant southpaw in 2004 with a strikeout rate over 7.0 K/9, Robertson quickly moved to a more finesse-oriented approach, failing to each even the 6.0 mark in each of the last two seasons. Thanks to the Tigers' improved defense, he saw his ERA drop from 4.90 to 3.84 over that span, though without any specific skill growth to note, I won't be shocked if his ERA bumps back over 4.00. Robertson just doesn't look like a good long-term investment, and while I don't believe he'll hurt you at over a $10 salary, you stand a much better chance of seeing a profit if you stop bidding by $8.

15.  Kelvim EscobarLA AngelsAge: 30P:R   B:R

Last year I touted Escobar as a potential Cy Young winner following in the path of former Toronto teammate Chris Carpenter. While he didn't experience that desired breakout, his overall performance represented a welome rebound from an injury-plagued 2005 campaign. Of course, he also missed time with a sore shoulder, elbow, and knee, so we can't consider him particularly reliable, but with a strong all-around skill set and little obvious downside, consider him a steal at any salary below the teens.

16.  Jeremy BondermanDET TigersAge: 23P:R   B:R

I consider Bonderman a solid a long-term bet as any pitcher in baseball. He didn't turn 24 until completing his fourth big league season last summer, in which he posted the best all-around skill rates of his career. Pitchers who gain both dominance and an increased groundball tendency as they mature only need fear bad health as they approach their primes. Bonderman, strongly riding both trends on a suddenly competitive Tigers' team and recipient of a four-year contract that secures him in Detroit through 2010, appears a lock to post 15 wins and an ERA under 4.00 for the first time in 2008. Don't let him go for less than $15 in your league.

17.  Erik BedardBAL OriolesAge: 27P:L   B:L

Bedard quietly emerged as the Orioles' ace last summer, adding improved control and a welcome 1.70 G-F to a strikeout rate seemingly stuck in the immediate vicinity of 7.8-7.9 K/9. Increased consistency appears the only obstacle between Bedard and Cy Young contention, especially with a revamped Baltimore bullpen offering plenty of support for the southpaw. While his previous health issues still mildly concern me, Bedard also turns 28 during spring training, both scouts and stats support his continued development, and his dominance leaves a 4.00 ERA as his downside. Acquiring him anywhere in the low teens appears a good investment.

18.  Barry ZitoOAK AthleticsAge: 28P:L   B:L

The laidback Oakland ace hasn't started fewer than thirty-four games in any of the past six seasons. Despite walk rate, homer rate, and even strikeout rate problems, his outstanding health and general effectiveness largely justifies the seven-year, $126M contract lavished upon Zito by a San Francisco franchise desperate to add one long-term building piece. No available pitcher appeared a safer investment than Zito, so despite a skill set that doesn't really qualify him as an ace, the move to the NL alone makes him a good frontman for a rotation that should include Matt Cain Noah Lowry, Matt Morris, and Tim Lincecum by year's end. Talk up Zito's WHIP issues at your auction in an attempt to land him for less than $15, though don't be surprised if all the publicity he received boosts his salary beyond that acceptable maximum.

19.  Freddy GarciaCH White SoxAge: 30P:R   B:R

I don't entirely understand Chicago's rationale for trading Garcia to Philadelphia for Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez. Both Floyd and Gonzalez possess plenty of long-term upside, but Garcia ranks among baseball's most consistent pitchers, compiling over 200 innings for six straight years while generally posting an ERA around 4.00. Yet I like this move from a fantasy perspective considering that CB Park is no worse than equal to the hitter-friendly Cell. The Phillies' home also should lower Garcia's homer rate even before we take into account the dozen starts he'll make in all the welcoming NL pitchers' parks. Take into account that Garcia's pitching for massive free agent dollars, and I wouldn't be surprised if he approaches $20. Grab him immediately if bidding stalls in your league near $10.

AL Starting Pitcher Week continues tomorrow.

Today's Fantasy Rx: Considering the bids I expect to see placed on many of these pitchers, Bonderman and Haren top my list of starter recommendations for 2007, followed fairly closely by C.C. Sabathia and Kelvim Escobar. NL owners should target Freddy Garcia, whose trade to more pitcher-friendly environment in Philadelphia seemed largely lost in this winter's free agent frenzy.

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