Five NL Starters You Shouldn’t Draft

Every year, a number of starting pitchers get drafted higher than they should because of their successful performances the year prior. Call me crazy, but I tend to avoid these pitchers. Why? Because the expected cost outweighs the projected output. Instead, I set my sights on pitchers still on the upswing, and even a few coming off disappointing seasons who are likely to bounce back.

Not every pitcher can be Roy Halladay or CC Sabathia, guys who can actually sustain their peaks across multiple years. But that doesn’t stop owners from latching onto a pitcher following a big season, or even an outlier season, hoping that said pitcher has established a new talent level. In most cases, though, the wave has already crested.

This strategy gets tricky because it requires: 1) distinguishing between pitchers still capable of better and those about to take a step back; and 2) accepting that there are simply some pitchers you won’t own come draft day. The five below fall into that category for me this year.

My cohort Mr. Podhorzer covered some lower-level overvalued players earlier today, but here are five candidates who rank a bit higher. As a bonus, I’ve included a pair of lower-tiered options (by RotoGraphs standards) that could provide better value.

In short, let other owners grab these guys.

Mat Latos, Padres RHP
The Padres ace busted out in a big way last year, joining some elite company, as colleague Mr. Axisa noted. But Latos is pretty much the poster boy for this, well, post for a few reasons. First, his innings increased by more than 60 from 2009 to 2010, a jump that typically signals an adjustment is coming. (Familiar with the Verducci Effect, right?). In fact, it started to show at the end of 2010, when Latos clearly tired from the workload even though San Diego tried to limit his innings: Over his final seven starts, he went 1-5 with a 5.66 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP. On top of that, Latos’ team is unlikely to repeat the success of last year—much of which is owed to him—meaning it will be harder to come by wins, giving him a smaller margin for error. And yet the righty is still a sexy pick, going as early as Round 6.
Alternative Options: Safer, more proven pitchers in better situations who have just as much upside in 2011, like Roy Oswalt or Yovani Gallardo.

Matt Cain, Giants RHP
Strike One: Owners have gone from long-underrating Cain (his 26-42 record from 2006-08 had a lot to do with it) to overcompensating by giving him too much fantasy love this year. Strike Two: He threw a career-high 244 and 2/3 innings last year, and while he actually had a 0.00 postseason ERA and is a genuine 200-inning horse, Cain has now piled up a whopping 1,070+ innings over five seasons. Do you want to gamble in Round 8 that he can tack on another 200 and have a career year? Strike Three: Really, still? Then allow me to point out that the guy is dealing with elbow inflammation this spring.
Alternative Options: Chad Billingsley or Matt Garza, two still-underrated workhorses with less wear and tear and tendencies to dominate for stretches.

Tim Hudson, Braves RHP
This is no knock on Hudson, who couldn’t care less about this sort of thing, but he is the prototype better-in-real-life-than-in-fantasy pitcher. Look, his 2.83 ERA and 1.15 WHIP from 2010 are shiny, as are his 17 wins. What’s not? His K/9, which was 5.5 last season and hasn’t topped 6.0 since Moneyball came out. Now that pitching is plentiful and oodles of starters can help bring down your ERA and WHIP, Hudson’s skill set is no longer as valuable, especially in leagues that use strikeout rate as a category or have an innings cap, thus making K/9 more of a focus. A year ago, owners could sneak Huddy with late-round pick (remember, he only made seven starts in 2009 while returning from TJ surgery), but now, he’s going in Rounds 12-14.
Alternative Options: Hiroki Kuroda’s similarly sturdy ERA and WHIP—and slightly higher K/9—will be available a few rounds later, as should the “other” Hudson, Daniel, who may be primed for a breakout as a D-back.

Jaime Garcia, Cardinals LHP
Another innings increaser. Except in Garcia’s case, the hike alone—125 and 2/3 innings!—should scare the bejesus out of you. Paired with the fact that the Cardinals can’t afford to limit the 24-year-old’s innings like they did at times last season—losing Adam Wainwright’s 230 will do that—and things get even more frightening. While there are positives here, like his 55.9% ground ball rate, Garcia’s splits (1.74 ERA and 1.15 WHIP at home vs. 3.82 and 1.51 on the road, which jibe with ESPN’s park factors for Busch Stadium) indicate we may be looking at merely a very good spot starter rather than a potential stud-in-the-making. You should shoot for more than that with a mid-round pick.
Alternative Options: Jorge de la Rosa and Anibal Sanchez have their flaws, but they offer upside—de la Rosa has a 9.0 K/9 rate since 2008, while Sanchez’s improving fastball could hint at bigger things to come—and both can be drafted later.

Bronson Arroyo, Reds RHP
How does Arroyo do it? Over the past three seasons, he’s picked up 47 wins with a 4.25 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. Spiffy digits, especially in NL-only leagues. He consistently outperforms his xFIP by half a run or more, owing to his typically low BABIPs (.239 in 2010 was MLB’s second-lowest). That suggests this wily vet knows a thing or three about making hitters get themselves out—after all, his strikeouts plummeted to 5.05/9—while tossing 88 mph fastballs, lots of change-ups (career-high 25% last year) and plenty of other junk. Still, as a pitcher with this profile is wont to do, Arroyo also walks a very thin line between mastery and disastery. If he tricks enough hitters again, you’re missing out on a mid-3s ERA and strong WHIP available as late as Round 20, but if he proves more fool and less gold, at least you won’t have to worry about spending a month recovering from one bad outing.
Alternative Options: Owners have trouble trusting Javier Vazquez
after A Bronx Fail: Part 2 or Jason Hammel and his cringe-worthy surface stats, but either would be a better upside play this late.

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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

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Tom B
Guest
Tom B

Garza and Billingsley must be ecstatic to be mentioned in the same sentence as Cain. Neither of them have even sniffed Cain’s level of success in any year of their careers.

Tom B
Guest
Tom B

I would be interested in some analysis of if the park factor adjustment for Garza outweighs the NL-switch? Does going from one of the most pitcher friendly parks (the trop) to one of the worst (wrigley) outweigh the lack of DH?

DrBGiantsfan
Guest

Cain’s elbow inflammation coupled with his workload is certainly cause for pause, and I respect Billingsley. Billz was a beast at times last year for long stretches last year. Having said that, the elbow issue seems to be a trivial concern so far. I think it’s pretty common for pitchers to have a twinge here and there and it not be anything serious.

I can see the Billz recommendation, especially if he’s available later in the draft. Garza in no way should be mentioned in the same class as Matt Cain, especially pitching in that park. He shouldn’t have a big regression from TB, but it’s also unlikely he’ll be much better.

Mattsd
Guest
Mattsd

Cain and Billingsley are pretty remarkably comparable.

Both are big righties drafted in the middle of the first round out of high school by NL West teams. Both dominated the minors and were top 10 overall prospects according to BA by the end of their time in the minors. Both have outperformed their xFIP significantly due to lower than normal HR/FB rates.

Career numbers:
Billingsley has a 3.55 ERA, 3.68 FIP, and 4.05 xFIP in 825 innings.

Cain has a 3.45 ERA, 3.84 FIP, and 4.43 xFIP in 1095 innings.

Billingsley gets more strikeouts, Cain has better command, and Billingsley gets more ground balls, but their profile is still very comparable.

The fact that mentioning Billingsley alongside Cain engenders this kind of reaction among many fans is EXACTLY the point of articles like these. Cain and Billingsley are very similar, but the perception of them is very different. This is precisely what makes Billingsley a better value in fantasy. He is available later and is a good bet to produce similar output.

Joe P.
Guest
Joe P.

“Neither of them have even sniffed Cain’s level of success in any year of their careers.”

To add on to your excellent response, I’d point out that Bills has exceeded 4 WAR in a season twice in his career, something Cain’s yet to do.

saint
Guest
saint

now compare them using rally’s war (available on b-ref).

Travis
Guest

Billz is a better pitcher in real life than in fantasy. WHIP is the most predictive fantasy stat, especially H2H leagues, so I stay away from pitchers with a high WHIP. Over the past 3 years Cain has been much better than Billingsley in fantasy production.