Everyone preaches patience when it comes to drafting pitchers, especially after The Year Of The Pitcher. Well, if you’re in an AL-only league, I submit that you throw that strategy out the window. Owners whose player pools are confined solely to the Junior Circuit realize just how shallow starting pitching is. Aside from having to face better teams as well as designated hitters, both of which negatively impact fantasy categories (i.e. AL: 4.14 ERA, 6.8 K/9 vs. NL: 4.02 ERA; 7.4 K/9), there’s also the simple fact that the AL has two fewer teams, and thus at least 10 fewer starters. Bottom line: Legitimate starters are all the more valuable, and the well runs dry pretty quickly.
Keep that in mind as we look at three arms you’ll have to consider drafting in the same range.
Clay Buchholz, Red Sox RHP
Among the three starters here, Buchholz not only earned the highest rank from the RotoGraphs staff, he’s also being drafted first—typically near Round 10. That’s big-time like from owners who are fighting over the shotgun seat on the Buchholz Bandgwagon after his long-awaited breakout season. But caution: The 2.33 ERA may be larger than it appears. Buchholz’s FIP (3.61) and xFIP (4.20) were good-not-great, the BABIP (.261) was low and the K rate dropped to a career-worst (6.22/9). And yet his strengths are what you want from a pitcher: ground balls and velo. He generated worm-burners at his usual above-average rate last year (50.8%), so he’s still good at that. More interesting? His fastball velo (94.1 mph) was a career-high, as was his slider velo, which jumped—count ’em—four ticks to 90.0 mph, making it one of the harder ones in the game. It seems Buchholz recognized this, too, since he threw it a lot more: 18.7% of the time, up from 11.3% in 2009. Now if he can just get batters to whiff more, rather than put his better sliders in play (career-high 69.2 O-Contact%). Until then, though, expect a K total in the 130-150 range (even if he reaches 200 innings for the first time), and the projections all have his ERA increasing at least a run (hey, mid-3 is still quality), meaning Buchholz isn’t close to being a fantasy ace, even in AL-only leagues.
John Danks, White Sox LHP
Though he lacks Buchholz’s upside and the sexy factor of the third pitcher in this post, Danks is as solid and safe as an American League starter can be. Drafting Danks is like ordering the yoosh from your favorite restaurant—you know you’re going to get. In this case, that translates to 12-15 wins with a mid-3 ERA, a WHIP around 1.25 and 150 strikeouts on the side. With no real fluctuations in his peripheral stats, more of the same should be expected, and that’s exactly the case according to projections from Marcel (12 Ws, 3.54 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 145 Ks), Bill James (12, 3.92, 1.33, 173) and ZiPS (15, 3.82, 1.27, 161). About the only thing to remember is that U.S. Cellular has become baseball’s most homer-prone park. Given that Danks is somehow still only 25, it seems possible that there is actually some room for growth as he blossoms into a legit No. 3 starter in mixed leagues and a perfectly good No. 2 in AL-only leagues. He’s going in the Round 12 range, but considering that monotony tends to be under appreciated at drafts, Danks could fall a round or two lower while being passed over in favor of someone like this next pitcher.
Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays RHP
Pop quiz, hot shot: Who led all starters in strikeouts per nine last season? Okay, so not such a great quiz when the answer precedes the question, but the point still holds. Morrow has rocketed up draft boards this year—he’s going as early as Round 12—on the strength of his rocket right arm, which he used to strikeout 10.95/9 last year—more than a full K over Tim Lincecum’s 9.79 ratio. Seems everyone is drafting him off of that stat, as well as the lasting memory of his gem of all 2010 gems (per Bill James’ Game Score) last Aug. 8. Last year was Morrow’s first as a full-time starter, and before he was shut down in early September to limit his innings, he provided almost as much frustration as excitement for owners. His biggest hurdles, though, are not likely to simply evaporate. To wit, because of his spotty control (4.1 BB/9), he reached the 7-inning mark only six times, meaning he’ll struggle to win more than low double-digit games; and he was downright atrocious on the road, with a 6.72 ERA and 1.74 WHIP. Ideally, you’re not using a 12th-rounder on a guy with built-in limitations who you can only start half the time. All that said, there’s still something very appealing about a pitcher who could provide 230 Ks even if he pitches fewer than 200 innings, especially in the AL, where only 21 of the 62 starters in 2010 who had K/9 rates of 7+ currently reside. Fact is, you’re going to pay for what Morrow might do, but if you believe in his improvement—and can build a credible staff to counter some of his weaknesses—the payoff could be huge.
Jason Catania is an MLB Lead Writer for Bleacher Report who also contributes to ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Insider and MLB Rumor Central, focusing on baseball and fantasy content. When he was first introduced to fantasy baseball, Derek Jeter had 195 career hits, Jamie Moyer had 72 wins and Matt Stairs was on team No. 3. You can follow him on Twitter: @JayCat11