It wasn’t that long ago, really, that we were paying homage to the home run. The American pastime had become an American afterthought after the 1994 lockout wiped out a World Series. We, as a collective fan base were holding out for a hero to resuscitate the sport. Enter Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds … and the steroids scandal.
Nowadays, baseball no longer needs the home run as a crutch to hobble along with. The 2010 season was all about pitchers. Perfect games. No hitters. The Giants winning the World Series without an offensive player worth a bag of Crackerjacks.
Fantasy baseball in 2011 will again be riding the wave of pitcher, and the following is my guide to the top 30 starting hurlers in fantasy baseball for this season:
1. Roy Halladay, PHI. There is no doubt that he deserves the top spot in all league formats here (short of AL-only, of course). His move to Philly only enhanced what was already shaping up to be a potential Hall of Fame career. Amazing at his age how the ERA consistently keeps dropping and the strikeouts keep going up. Short of some freak injury, there are few things less certain than Doc Halladay having an elite 2011 season.
2. Felix Hernandez, SEA. As many were patiently waiting for, King Felix had a career year last year for the lowly Mariners. Too bad the team couldn’t help him pad his wins totals. We all know he has the talent to keep pitching at an elite level, and while he doesn’t have the lengthy track record of a Halladay or the run support of Halladay, there is little to think he’ll regress too much in 2011.
3. Cliff Lee, PHI. Perhaps higher than some, I’m loving the change back to the NL on a team he obviously wants to play for (hence the reduced contract over what he could have received with the Yankees). He’ll be pitching from the No. 2 hole, inflating his win opportunities. Short of an injury, Lee is due for a big, big season.
4. Adam Wainwright, STL. Two seasons that are nearly mirror images of each other in terms of quiet dominance, and people still aren’t totally ready to rely on Wainwright. I’m not going to blow a high pick on him when there is some solid depth at the position, but Wainwright has shown he can be counted on for an ERA in the mid-2.00s, more than 200 strikeouts and 17 or more wins. ***BREAKING NEWS: Adam Wainwright has ligament damage in right elbow and could be lost for 2011 season. Watch situation closely for updates before your draft! ***
5. Zack Greinke, MIL. To those outside of the www.chinstrapninjas.com inner circle, I preface this ranking by pointing out that I’m a Brewers fan (Yankees first, Brewers second). However, there have been ample situations where pitchers go from the AL to the NL with great results. No DH, no problem! Plus, Greinke will have the run support that he never did in Kansas City and a very good chance at playing towards a playoff berth for the first time in his career. We all saw what sort of numbers Greinke can produce when motivated (2.16 ERA, 242 strikeouts for Royals in 2009). Add in the other variables, and Greinke could be a good value come draft day.
6. Tim Lincecum, SF. Lincecum falling to sixth has more to do with the wealth of talent at the position and not as much, in my opinion at least, with the struggles he faced late last season before the playoffs began. He did right the ship in the playoffs and can be as unhittable as anyone in the game at any point. His smaller frame and some small maladies early this preseason (sore neck earlier this week keeping him out of practice) make some worried about his long-term durability. I’m more interested in his nice track record of quality production.
7. Clayton Kershaw, LAD. Again, not a matter of him being less talented, but Kershaw falls here due to quality depth at the position. And, Kershaw has a much smaller sample size to look at. The 212 strikeouts and 2.91 ERA in 2010 were impressive. Just give me another year of that production before I consider him a top 5 fantasy player at the position.
8. Justin Verlander, DET. I find it surprising how Verlander is seemingly forgotten on most expert rankings. The guy has seen a three-year drop in ERA (3.37 in 2010), a more than adequate 219 strikeouts and a second season of nearly 20 wins. The Tigers have plenty of potential to keep Verlander relevant, and while others are paying for higher priced commodities from this list, you can snag Verlander a little bit later and feel good about your situation.
9. Jon Lester, BOS. Perhaps this is my Yankee anti-Boston sentiment flaring up, but I just can’t put Lester higher on this list. His numbers are very similar to Verlander’s, except he has a little bit smaller sample size to show us. The Red Sox will win games (unfortunately) and Lester has matured into the team’s ace, and like I’ve mentioned several times already, guys on this list could easily move up if it wasn’t for such a log jam of talent near the top.
10. Ubaldo Jimenez, COL. Another young pitcher with plenty of talent, Jimenez showed plenty of flash in 2010. His 214 strikeouts and 2.88 ERA in 221 innings pitched was very commendable, and one would expect those number to improve with more work and maturity. Rumor out of Colorado suggests that Jimenez has put a lot of work into the offseason, so the momentum should continue into 2011.
11. CC Sabathia, NYY. Again, not a knock on his talent or his chances of posting a solid season. You could easily make a case for the past seven guys to be interchangeable. Sabathia has allegedly cut some weight during the offseason and is ready to pitch with a passion in 2011. Perhaps recent news that he may opt out of his contract at season’s end in an attempt to collect a bigger pay day is playing a part in that.
12. Josh Johnson, FLA. Last season’s NL ERA leader with a sick 2.30 posted more than 185 strikeouts for the second consecutive season. Many have him higher on their respective lists, but I still can’t get over the way he struggled to consistently strike people out during his minor league days (7.41 K/9) and I wonder if he’ll regress a little. Add in the fact that he’s on a mediocre squad facing the Phillies and Braves among others, and Johnson could be a bit short of the hype this year, especially with so many other quality options at the position.
13. Cole Hamels, PHI. Three Phillies in the top 13? Yep. So much is going right for the squad, and the addition of Lee means Hamels will be pitching out of the third rotation spot, a place where he should reap plenty of wins. The stinker of a 2009 is somewhat worrisome, I suppose, but Hamels is playing for a new contract (or auditioning for a new team at the end of the season), and I can’t imagine he’ll regress too much at this point.
14. David Price, TB. Nineteen wins and 188 strikeouts while posting a 2.72 ERA shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who followed Price throughout his career. He has tons of raw talent and plays on a pretty good Rays squad. Of course, he has plenty of games against the Yankees and Red Sox to weather, but managed OK with that hurdle last year.
15. Jered Weaver, LAA. He who will get overlooked on draft day posted 233 strikeouts and a 3.01 ERA in 2010 pitching for a floundering Angels squad. While LA hasn’t done much to resurrect the team’s chances for 2011, Weaver should continue to post decent numbers in a streaky AL-West.
16. Matt Latos, SD. Another underappreciated commodity, Latos did very well in 2010 to the tune of a 2.92 ERA, 189 strikeouts and 14 wins. His home games are played in a pitcher-friendly park. His team will struggle to give him much run support, especially with Adrian Gonzalez off in Boston.
17. Matt Cain, SF. While his ERA spike a little in 2010 (3.14 compared to 2.89 in 2009), Cain did manage six more strikeouts. Not a guy who will win you 20 games on a team that doesn’t have much of an offense, Cain has been a pretty good source of fantasy production and can be had much cheaper than you’d think.
18. Tommy Hanson, ATL. The Braves are a team that are ready to break out this year. Veteran leadership such as Dan Uggla have been added and young players are starting to mature and show their talent. Hanson is one of the latter. In 202 innings pitched during 2010, Hanson posted 173 strikeouts and a 3.33 ERA. Those numbers will improve as Hanson continues to mature and as the Braves come together as a team.
19. Yovani Gallardo, MIL. It is hard to gauge what to expect out of Gallardo in 2011. He had streaks of brilliance in 2010, followed by mediocrity. His second consecutive 200-plus strikeout season is a major plus, and pitching out of the Brewers’ No. 2 hole should help him win a few more games. There is definite upside here.
20. Chris Carpenter, STL. There is something to be said about players that help you without putting you at major risk. Carpenter is one of those players. He consistent posts decent ERA, can strike out batters with authority when on and is good for 15-plus wins a season. Staying healthy is his X-factor, but the Cardinals have been cautious with him lately and he is playing for a new contract at season’s end.
21. Francisco Liriano, MIN. Would put him higher if it weren’t for concerns of his ERA blowing up in your face. Liriano was always a high strikeout guy, and if he can stay healthy, he should be able to whittle away at the 3.62 mark he put up in 2010.
22. Roy Oswalt, PHI. Having perhaps his best season in more than a half-decade, Oswalt posted a 2.76 ERA with 193 strikeouts in 2010 with the Phillies. Protection from a stacked squad definitely benefited Oswalt, and pitching from the Phils’ No. 4 slot will definitely help him win his fair share of games.
22. Dan Haren, LAA. Strikeouts haven’t been an issue for Haren lately. Keeping his ballooning ERA in check has been. The Angels aren’t exactly a world-beater of a team, but Haren will still provide some quality stats as long as you factor in an extra strong dose of earned runs along the way.
23. Max Scherzer, DET. Another young pitcher with plenty of upside, Scherzer improved his ERA in 2010 (3.50 still needs some work, but is better than the 4.12 in 2009) while gaining in strikeouts for the third consecutive season. The Tigers will win enough games to help Scherzer gain momentum this year and he has a bright future ahead.
24. Brett Anderson, OAK. Looking at the stats he was able to produce in between injuries in 2010, Anderson showed a lot of promise. If he can stay healthy, and if the Athletics can put him in some positions to win, he could be a nice sleeper play this year. Of course, those are some major ifs.
25. Madison Bumgarner, SF. Many rankings will overlook Bumgarner considering his stuff is so raw and we don’t have a full season to evaluate him off of yet. However, his talent is unquestioned and he should be able to build off a solid end to the 2010 season.
26. Chad Billingsley, LAD. Three years removed from a 200-plus-strikeout and 3.14 ERA, Billingsley’s stock has slipped some with an expanding ERA and diminishing strikeout total the past two seasons. At 26, he’s young enough to right the ship, however, and only signed a one-year contract, so he has plenty to play for in 2011.
27. Colby Lewis, TEX. Another under-valued pitcher, Lewis accumulated 196 strikeouts in 201 innings with a 3.72 ERA. With Cliff Lee back in Philly, Lewis becomes the defacto ace of the Texas staff (with C.J.Wilson). If he can continue to chip away at his earned run total, he could be a sneaky good play in many fantasy formats.
28. Shaun Marcum, MIL. Another pitcher who jumps from the AL (Toronto) to the NL, Marcum is starting to show up on some sleeper lists. Mine included. His overall 2010 stats aren’t awe-inspiring (3.64 ERA and 165 strikeouts in 195 innings pitched), but if you remove his stats against the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, his averages are borderline elite. Since the NL Central is a far cry from the AL East, and because the Brewers have plenty of talent, both offensively and on the mound, Marcum could be a great asset this year out of the No. 3 rotation spot.
29. Wandy Rodriguez, HOU. His 3.60 ERA in 32 games started during 2010 wasn’t stellar, but his 178 strikeouts weren’t too shabby and he projects as the team’s ace pitcher yet again. Of course, the Astros are a far cry from what they once were during the Killer B’s era, but Wandy will still get his share of stats.
30. Gio Gonzalez, OAK. There were plenty of guys I considered for this spot. Ricky Nolasco has loads of potential, but was a total head case last year. Ricky Romero showed some signs of promise for Toronto. However, Gonzalez had the better season overall and has been consistently trending in the right direction in each stat category during his just under three seasons of action. If the A’s can produce something offensively, Gonzalez could see another stat improvement.