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NL Starters: Day Two
by Tim Polko

Today's Fantasy Rx

National 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.

20.  Jeff FrancisCOL RockiesAge: 25P:L   B:L

The combination of the Jason Jennings trade and the four-year deal inked by Francis for $13.25M elevate the 26-year-old southpaw to the Rockies' staff ace after just two full seasons in the big league rotation. While his strikeout rate continues to decline, Francis otherwise improved his skills across-the-board, leading to an excellent ERA and an always-rare double-digit fantasy value for a Colorado starter. I still see a lot that worries me here, from his unimpressive command to overall dominance far below his minor league levels and the ever-present threat of an altitude-inflated ERA spike. However, some owner will roster Francis in every NL league, and if you see him slip into the end round, I won't advise against grabbing him for anything under $5.

21.  Matt CainSF GiantsAge: 22P:R   B:R

Widely touted prior to the season, Cain seemingly slid under the radar in a season that saw the emergence of a multitude of comparable young pitchers in the American League. Yet the Giants' future ace didn't turn 22 until the last day of the season, posted an 8.0 K/9, and most importantly, didn't see any real increase in workload from 2005. After the break he cut his ERA from 5.12 to 3.26, a figure far more in line with his impressive skill set. Other than general concerns regarding his age and injury risk, I see no reason not to push into the teens to obtain Cain's services.

22.  Clay HensleySD PadresAge: 27P:R   B:R

After breaking into the majors in 2005 as a middle reliever, Hensley opened 2006 in a similar role as the Padres first allowed Dewon Brazelton to spend a month starting. Meanwhile Hensley appeared a little lost in the bullpen, though his move into the rotation in mid-April led to him compiling a 3.56 ERA on a 112:72 K:BB in 177 IP over 29 GS with 158 H and 15 HR allowed. Yes, both his strikeout and walk rates worry me, though thanks to a 2.10 G-F, we don't need to worry about excessive homers. With control artists Greg Maddux and David Wells prepared to tutor the youngster this summer, we should see Hensley's walk rate head toward his far more impressive minor league marks. Drafting him looks like a little bit of a gamble, but I have a very good feeling here that merits bidding into the teens.

23.  Woody WilliamsSD PadresAge: 40P:R   B:R

Signing with his hometown Astros for $12.5M over two years at least provides Williams a comfortable retirement, but Minute Maid also appears a terrible fit for an increasingly injury-prone 40-year-old who didn't impress in baseball's best pitchers' park. A torn calf muscle sidelined Williams for the last six weeks of spring, and although he pitched effectively down the stretch, his career-worst 4.5 K/9 leaves him little margin of error, a definite concern with a likely home run spike looming. Plus, with an IP total in freefall, dropping from 220.2 in 2003 to 189.2, 159.2, and finally 145.1 last year, Williams appears on pace for as little as 120 innings with an ERA as high as 5.00. Perhaps he'll provide the Astros with the starts they need to replace Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, however Williams simply appears too risky to own in any standard fantasy league even if he remains available during Dollar Days.

24.  Scott OlsenFLO MarlinsAge: 22P:L   B:L

With Josh Johnson leading the majors in ERA for a couple of months, Anibal Sanchez tossing a no-hitter, and Dontrelle being Dontrelle, Olsen rather quietly may have registered the best debut of the Marlins' young pitchers. Only a mildly high walk rate provides any real cause for concern as the club also nicely limited his workload after a troublesome 2005 campaign. Considering that Olsen held his ERA under 3.50 in four months of the year, and below 2.50 in three of those months, improved consistency should allow him to emerge as a replacement ace once Dontrelle inevitably heads elsewhere. Obtaining Olsen anywhere around $10 will look like a great bargain by the fall.

25.  Jason JenningsCOL RockiesAge: 28P:R   B:L

Dan O'Dowd stole the Astros blind by netting Jason Hirsh, Taylor Buchholz, and Willy Taveras for Jennings, who heads to free agency in the fall and doesn't appear much better than Hirsh at the moment. However, for a Houston club desperate to give Craig Biggio one more shot at a title, Jennings isn't a bad fit, especially since his return to his Texas home seemingly gives the Astros an edge to re-sign him. He returned to full strength following the fluke broken finger that ended his 2005 campaign to post the best overall season of his career. Better support from his offense and bullpen should have resulted in a dozen or more wins, a total that looks like a reasonable floor for him in Houston. With Minute Maid playing fairly neutral these days, Jennings also receive a massive boost from the change in parks, giving him every chance to plow toward $15 as a solid sleeper in any NL league.

26.  Dontrelle WillisFLO MarlinsAge: 24P:L   B:L

While Willis won't hit free agency until the fall of 2009 and he just turned 25 last month, he already costs $6.45M this year despite a skill set subservient to both Scott Olson and Josh Johnson. He posted the worse walk and hit rates of his career in 2006, and considering his high workloads over the past few years make him a significant injury risk, Willis appears a bad target even before considering his media-inflated fantasy value. The Marlins really should to start shopping him in the hope of obtaining both a replacement starter and a long-term centerfielder, then using his salary to cover Miguel Cabrera's continued raises. Unless the bidding on Willis somehow stalls below $13, an unlikely occurrence given he at least theoretically could reemerge as a Cy Young candidate, let someone else run the risk of owning him, particularly if you lose players dealt to the AL in your league.

27.  Pedro MartinezNY MetsAge: 34P:R   B:R

Pedro's career-worst ERA bore little relationship to his skills as high hit and homer rates, coupled with general bad luck, accounted for most of the damage. He really pitched just fine until a sore hip began slowing him in June, leading to cascade injuries that included a torn tendon in his left calf and a torn rotator cuff only discovered at the end of the season. Rehab from the latter surgery should sideline him for much of the first half, but everything we've seen suggests he should return to his pre-injury form for at least a couple of more years. Purchasing Pedro for anything under $15 either provides you with superb trade bait this summer to rebuilding clubs or a welcome second-half boost who also will rank as an outstanding keeper next spring.

28.  Brad PennyLA DodgersAge: 28P:R   B:R

While Penny sporadically complained of a sore shoulder and back problems, he still managed some of the best skill rates of his career despite a second half that saw him register a 6.25 ERA on a 66:26 K:BB in 81.2 IP over 15 GS with 103 H and 12 HR. However, he remains under the Dodgers' control through 2009 at an extremely affordable rate, and I just don't see many promising pitching prospects ready to contribute in Los Angeles following the promotion of Chad Billingsley. Penny gives the franchise a superb third starter behind Jason Schmidt and Derek Lowe, a pitcher only lacking consistency to emerge as top-of-the-rotation starter. Anything below the teens seems a fair price to pay for the risk/reward inherent in drafting Penny.

29.  Chuck JamesATL BravesAge: 24P:L   B:L

Owner of a .50 G-F that still really scares me, James otherwise adjusted nicely to the majors, breaking camp in the bullpen, spending six weeks in May and June first on the DL with a hamstring and then at Richmond building his arm strength, and finally securing a rotation spot in mid-June. While he didn't dominate as a starter, compiling an 11-4 record and 3.93 ERA on an 85:42 K:BB in 108.2 IP over 18 GS with 95 H and 18 HR, he certainly pitched well enough to enter 2007 as the Braves' undisputed fourth starter. With impressive minor league stats also supporting his case for continued success, James just might emerge as Atlanta's best homegrown starter since Kevin Millwood. As he shouldn't succumb to any workload-related injuries sooner than 2008, he appears a solid investment for around $10.

30.  Ben SheetsMIL BrewersAge: 28P:R   B:R

In 2005 a torn back muscle limited Sheets, but he appeared recovered from that surgery by the time he debuted last April. Shoulder tendonitis then drove him to the DL four starts later, keeping him out until the second half and effective costing Milwaukee a real shot at contention. However, once healthy after the break, he registered a 3.15 ERA on an 88:10 K:BB in 85.2 IP over 13 GS with 78 H and 8 HR. His improved command more than compensates for a dropping ground-fly rate, elevating Sheets to the rank of true aces when not injured. Gambling owners should feel free to push well into the teens to secure his services at the front of your rotation.

31.  Cole HamelsPHI PhilliesAge: 22P:L   B:L

Injuries limited Hamels to a total of 64 innings over the previous two seasons, so his emergence from an A-ball starter to perhaps the Phillies' best pitcher over the course of last summer rather shocked us. On his way to the majors he posted a 1.77 ERA on a 29:9 K:BB in 20.1 IP over 4 GS for A+ Clearwater(FSL) and an unbelievable 0.39 ERA on a 36:1 K:BB in 23 IP over 3 GS for AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre(IL). The two weeks Hamels missed in May with a strained shoulder didn't affect his performance as he finished the season with a 9.9 K/9, a 3.3 BB/9, an 8.0 K/9, and a 1.3 BB/9 that might make him perhaps the most dominant pitcher to debut in a year that saw multiple rookies vie for the Cy Young award. Unfortunately, Hamels still faces significant questions regarding his health, age, maturity, and overall development curve, but if he avoids further injury, he'll give Philadelphia a pure ace, albeit one with a value notably diluted for fantasy purposes by the poor pitching environment in CB Park.

32.  Andy PettitteHOU AstrosAge: 34P:L   B:L

The Yankees admitted their mistake in allowing Pettitte to depart New York by giving him $16M for 2007 and a $16M player option for the following year, though considering Pettitte's impressive performance since returning home to Houston, his decision to chase more money once again definitely surprised me. Not only does he lack the consistency he demonstrated during his previous run with the Yankees, facing the significantly tougher AL lineups could lead the worst ERAs of his career. Yes, I suspect he'll exceed 15 wins, but Pettitte also appears unlikely to push his fantasy value back into the teens. He isn't someone to target in most leagues, rather acquire him only if the development of your draft leaves him available to you right around $10.

33.  John MaineNY MetsAge: 25P:R   B:R

Swiped from the Orioles with Jorge Julio for Kris & Anna Benson last winter, Maine opened yet another season in the International League, where he compiled a 3.49 ERA on a 48:20 K:BB in 56.2 IP with 55 H and 2 HR over 10 GS for AAA Norfolk. Initially promoted to replace Brian Bannister, Maine overcame a brief DL stint for an inflamed finger to reemerge as one of the Mets' most reliable starters down the stretch. He pitched solidly in three playoff starts, even a winning Game 6 of the NLCS to force a final deciding game. Now he enters camp as the heavy favorite for the third starter's job in New York, and other than a high homer rate, I see no reason he shouldn't flourish in that role, providing a nice bridge between the 40-year-old veterans and the #1 draft picks on the cusp of the majors. Consider Maine an excellent investment anywhere under $10.

34.  Aaron CookCOL RockiesAge: 27P:R   B:R

Completely recovered from the blood clots in his lungs that threatened his career and even his life in 2004, Cook continued his emergence as the Rockies' most reliable starter. Yes, his 3.9 K/9 and 10.2 H/9 leave him little long-term upside, but a 2.3 BB/9 and outstanding 2.77 G-F similarly limit his downside. Cook even might be a $20 pitcher if traded to a real pitchers' park. Unfortunately, as Colorado's second starter, he remains mostly responsible for keeping the Rockies competitive for six or seven innings until the hard-throwing relief corps assumes command of the game. Unless the prospect of adding ten wins to your roster provides adequate compensation for the negligible qualitative benefit of owning Cook, he probably doesn't belong on your roster as anything more than occasional roster filler.

NL Starting Pitcher Week continues tomorrow.

Today's Fantasy Rx: Roughly half of these pitchers qualify as very solid investments, a group led by potential Cy Young candidate Ben Sheets. Matt Cain, Clay Hensley, Scott Olsen, Chuck James, John Maine, and even Pedro Martinez also all appeal to me, particularly Pedro if his injuries scare off the competition since he only should need three months to approach another $10 of stats. Lastly, Jason Jennings and Brad Penny rank as the highest risk/reward guys here since the former could blossom after departing Coors while the latter only needs good health and apparently the confidence of management to return $15 on your investment on him.

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