Entering the 2009 season, which teams did you think would have the best starting rotations in baseball?
My picks were the Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs. They each had five starting pitchers in my initial top-80 starting-pitcher rankings back on April 7 and three starters in my top 40. And while injuries and occasional bouts of ineffectiveness sometimes have limited New York and Chicago, I'd say they basically have lived up to their hype. CC Sabathia currently is six spots lower than I ranked him to begin the season, but A.J. Burnett is six spots higher, and Joba Chamberlain is still in the top 40. And only recent injuries have taken Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster out of their respective grooves, while Rich Harden has found himself the past few weeks and Carlos Zambrano has been above average.
But the Red Sox? Outside of Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, who else is there? Granted, those guys have been among the most valuable starters in fantasy this season, but Daisuke Matsuzaka was awful and then got hurt. John Smoltz has a good 28-5 strikeout-walk ratio in his six starts since he's come back to the majors, but he also has a 7.04 ERA and a 1.53 WHIP, and could be another start or two from losing his gig. Tim Wakefield is on the disabled list, Brad Penny is Brad Penny, and Clay Buchholz has one good start and one bad one since his recall. For my money, the big-budget Sox have been just about the most disappointing rotation in fantasy baseball.
There's only one rotation that's disappointed worse.
The Minnesota Twins placed only three starters in my initial Sixty Feet, Six Inches rankings back in April, but all three of them were 25th or higher. Now, only Scott Baker is in my top 40, and he's at No. 31. Kevin Slowey hurt his wrist and likely is out for the season, and Francisco Liriano has driven his fantasy owners crazy all year. (More on both of those guys in a moment.) Sure, Glen Perkins and Nick Blackburn provided some respite early on, but each of those puff-ballers has faltered to varying degrees lately. The Twins, who looked loaded for bear in the winnable American League Central, barely are hanging on now, and it's mostly due to those disappointing starters.
On the flip side, which are the most surprising starting staffs so far in '09? I'll give the Rockies one honorable mention slot; I had Aaron Cook as the only positive mixed-league contributor to start the season, but he is not even on my list any longer, and has been replaced by the startling troika of Ubaldo Jimenez, Jorge De la Rosa and Jason Marquis, each of whom rates at least No. 62 in my shaken-up rankings this week.
The Tigers also deserve a nod. Justin Verlander has been better than even the glass-half-fullest Detroit fan could have imagined, jumping from No. 31 in April to his current No. 6 spot on my list. Edwin Jackson has vastly improved his control and made his first All-Star Game. And while 20-year-old rookie Rick Porcello might be slowing down a bit now, he still is worth owning in deeper leagues.
But my most shocking starting fantasy staff so far this season is the White Sox. Mr. Perfect Mark Buehrle has been mostly stellar; a 3.28 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in the AL is nothing to sneeze at. He's not a strikeout guy (5.1 K's per nine innings), but he's jumped from No. 50 in April to No. 29 on my list. John Danks has overcome a shaky start to post a 3.05 ERA and 1.10 WHIP since June 1, and provided the circulatory problem that bothered him last week is under control, he looks like a continued terrific bet going forward. Gavin Floyd has become a dramatically more effective and consistent starter over the past two months; since May 22, his ERA is 2.44, his WHIP is 0.96, and he's fanned 71 and walked only 23 in 85 innings. Heck, even Jose Contreras has come back from oblivion to contribute some.
Do the White Sox have the league's most dominant starters? No. But nearly every time they run a guy out there, he's contributing positive fantasy stats, half the time in a ballpark that isn't conducive to pitching excellence. Pitching coach Don Cooper and general manager Kenny Williams deserve a ton of credit, and heck, let's give Ozzie Guillen a nod, too. I most certainly didn't expect to have three White Sox pitchers in my top 44 at this point in 2009.
• Jarrod Washburn, Mariners: I give up. It makes me a little sick to elevate a guy who's struck out just three batters in each of his past four outings 15 spots in the starting pitcher rankings, but there are so many injuries and so many starters who, to coin a phrase, inhale backward, that I don't see much choice. Washburn's sinker is dominating teams, to the tune of a 1.47 ERA and a 0.76 WHIP in five July starts. You won't win a strikeout title relying on Washburn, and I actually think his value could diminish just a bit if he gets dealt away from roomy Safeco and Seattle's superb outfield defense. But we're in the season's final third, and it's time to stop ignoring a guy who, according to our Player Rater, has been the 16th most valuable starting pitcher in baseball, despite a strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate of only 5.57. Incredibly, Washburn is available in 45 percent of ESPN leagues.
• Jason Marquis, Rockies: Another white flag. This dude has 12 wins, so I suppose you have to take his top-30 Player Rater status with a grain of salt. But it's hard to argue with a 58.3 percent ground ball rate, second best in the league to Joel Pineiro, and the underlying numbers don't indicate Marquis' performance has been fluky. Sure, there's a bit of concern since he had to miss his start Friday because of a blister, but he is scheduled to pitch against the punchless Mets on Tuesday, which seems to indicate his injury isn't a big deal. Like Washburn, Marquis isn't a good source of strikeouts (4.18 K/9), but otherwise, he seems solid. Despite all those wins (which, as always, you shouldn't chase), Marquis is available in more than half of ESPN leagues.
• Joel Pineiro, Cardinals: Speaking of Pineiro, it's tough not to be impressed by the sport's most favorable ground ball-to-fly ball ratio (2.65). Pineiro's strand rate is low -- only 65.3 percent -- which is one factor that prevents me from ranking him where his top-line numbers say he should be (he's working on a 2.95 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP for the entire season). And his K/9 is only 3.79. But all Pineiro seems to do is pound the corners with mid-80s fastballs and cutters, and it's working. He's available in 77 percent of ESPN leagues.
• Francisco Liriano, Twins: This hurts, but it's time. Liriano was making progress, having allowed three runs or fewer in five straight starts, before he allowed six runs, eight hits and two walks in 5 1/3 innings Friday night against the Angels while fanning only two. And so while I'm not saying, "Drop him," I am saying, "I was wrong." It was wrong to consider Liriano a top-25 starter for a good chunk of this season, even when his numbers were awful. Mea culpa. He hasn't come back from Tommy John surgery as well as many pitchers do or as well as the Twins hoped. That's not to say he can't be a great pitcher again, but the deck seems stacked against him. His fastball now lives in the low 90s instead of the 94-95 mph average he boasted before his injury, and his slider doesn't have the same consistent bite it used to. He's got 52 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings since June 1, but it just hasn't translated to unhittability. His fastball is getting tattooed.
• Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals: One of my favorite rookies this year, Zimmermann wasn't quite himself for three starts and then went on the DL with what the Nationals are calling a sore elbow. That leaves him pretty much in limbo. The team thinks it might be a few weeks before he can pitch again, but why take chances with your future No. 2 starter when you're the worst team in baseball? I've dropped Zimmerman 25 spots in the rankings, but it doesn't rule out his return entirely. If he does come back in, say, September, you'll at least know the kid doesn't have any pain, because presumably Washington won't be taking chances with him.
• Kevin Slowey, Twins: It's truly a day for heartache. If you've read this column at all this year (or watched any of the many TV segments in which I hyped him), you know I'm a big fan of Slowey's low-WHIP, low-walk, decent-strikeout act. Unfortunately, his wrist has really bugged him for maybe half the season, which helps explain a downturn that struck him around the second week in June. The Twins had been hopeful Slowey would be able to begin a rehab start last weekend, but he couldn't even play catch without pain Friday, leading to the revelation that he has loose bone chips in his pitching wrist. On Monday, the team announced he will undergo surgery and likely will be done for the season. He can be dropped in all leagues.
Comings And Goings
• The Cubs put Ted Lilly on the DL this weekend, as their fly-ball-prone lefty needs surgery to repair a cartilage problem in his left knee. Lilly also had been dealing with a sore shoulder, although the assumption might be that the shoulder issue came about because Lilly was overcompensating for the wounded knee. Lilly is expected to miss between three and four weeks at a minimum, which definitely puts a hurting on his fantasy value. Kevin Hart has come out of the bullpen and pitched passably well in his first three big league starts, allowing four runs (but 14 hits and 11 walks) in 16 innings. He should stick in Lilly's place.
• Erik Bedard went back on the 15-day DL with shoulder soreness, which pretty much ends the notion that the Mariners will be able to trade him before Friday's deadline. The team believes Bedard can miss only two starts and then return to the rotation, but forgive me if I don't scramble to bite that line. If for some reason Bedard winds up not pitching again for the Mariners, it will close the chapter on what will someday be known as one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history, in which the Orioles received Adam Jones, George Sherrill, Chris Tillman, Kameron Mickolio and Tony Butler. At this point, only Butler doesn't look like a major part of either Baltimore's present or future. In the meantime, Jason Vargas figures to take Bedard's rotation spot in Seattle.
• In related news, Tillman apparently will make his big league debut for the Orioles against the Royals on Wednesday. He featured a 2.70 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP with 99 strikeouts and 26 walks in 96 2/3 innings at Triple-A Norfolk this year, and expectations are high. However, it's unclear whether anyone will be bumped from the Baltimore rotation or whether the team will go with a six-man rotation, if only temporarily.
• John Danks skipped his turn in the White Sox rotation Wednesday because of a circulatory problem in his finger. The team recalled Carlos Torres, who made his major league debut in Danks' place and was decent (six innings, six hits, three runs, three walks, three strikeouts). However, Danks was able to pitch Monday night; he gave up two runs and six hits in seven innings, although he struck out only three Twins, which was a bit disappointing.
• The Kansas City Star reports that Gil Meche was able to throw a bullpen session Friday without any pain in his ailing back. If Meche can get through one more such throwing session, he'll rejoin the Royals' rotation next weekend.
• Ryan Dempster's broken toe has healed well, and he is scheduled to start Tuesday's game against the Astros.
• Kevin Millwood had to come out of his start Sunday after only two innings because of tightness in his gluteus muscle. This pain in the butt figures to be an issue for the Rangers, who already lack rotation depth. The team hasn't announced yet whether Millwood will have to miss more time.
• In other Rangers news, Vicente Padilla was diagnosed as having contracted swine flu late last week. He missed his start Wednesday with the illness but reportedly was able to work out this weekend and should make his start Tuesday night against the Tigers. In addition, Matt Harrison was diagnosed as needing surgery on his ailing right shoulder and is done for the season.
• The Red Sox put Tim Wakefield on the DL with a bulging disk in his back, the same problem that has bothered him in each of the past two seasons. Wakefield needed a cortisone shot in his back and hasn't thrown since before the All-Star break. He was supposed to try to throw off a mound Monday but wasn't able. Boston recalled Clay Buchholz to take Wakefield's spot in the rotation.
• Jonathon Niese returned to the majors for the Mets on Saturday, and allowed one run and four hits in seven innings against the Astros. Given that John Maine is visiting Dr. James Andrews to find an explanation for his ailing pitching shoulder, Niese stands a good chance of sticking with the big club for a while and could be a decent NL-only option.
• Bartolo Colon will face the Twins on Wednesday while Jose Contreras gets the Yankees on Thursday; for the moment, this leaves Clayton Richard out of the White Sox rotation. However, Richard was so good Sunday night against the Tigers -- allowing just one run, five hits and two walks in eight innings -- that the team might look to shake things up after Thursday, depending on how those two outings go. Richard is certainly considered part of Chicago's future, while Colon and Contreras aren't. Of course, the Sox are very much in the thick of the race for the AL Central crown.
• The Reds' Micah Owings had to come out of his start Sunday against the Cubs after 66 pitches because of tightness in his pitching shoulder. You'll recall that Owings had his '08 season cut short by shoulder troubles, too. He went on the DL because of the injury late Monday afternoon.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.