Deeper look at pitcher keeper rankings

It's a keeper-league theme this week, with the seconds ticking down to the trade-deadline clock in standard ESPN formats: It arrives Friday at noon ET.

As we did yesterday in "Hit Parade," let's take a closer look at the thinking behind some of my keeper rankings, this time focusing upon the starting pitchers:

Clayton Kershaw (No. 33): There's little doubt his stuff can rival most anyone's, and if the past complaint about him was that he didn't work deep enough into starts, it sure seems he's on the right track in that department this year. An eight-game winner in 2009, Kershaw is ranked 37th in quality-start percentage (65.2 percent) and 52nd in innings per start (6.25) this year, after ranking 62nd (53.3) and 93rd (5.63) in those categories last season. He already has 10 wins despite being backed by an offense ranked only 17th in runs per game (4.37), so clearly he's making important advances as a pitcher.

Stephen Strasburg (No. 41): Speaking of "stuff," Strasburg's could support his case for a ranking within the top 10. So why only 41st? It's as simple as this: his 2010 innings cap, which lends itself to questions about whether he'll be freed up to toss a full 200 frames in 2011, and his recent shoulder inflammation, which bears watching. After all, in his first start back from the injury on Tuesday, he pitched terribly. If you believe that Strasburg's injury is of no long-term concern and that the leash comes off next year, by all means invest the entire future of your team with him. Talent-wise, he's worth it. But I've got ever-so-slight worries.

Mat Latos (No. 46): It's more a concern about his franchise than his talent, as the San Diego Padres have a limited budget, so one must wonder how long they'll continue to surround him with quality pieces. They currently sport the game's best bullpen, but their offense is 18th in terms of runs per game (4.36), and that's with Adrian Gonzalez, whom they might no longer be able to afford beyond next season. My distaste for hunting for wins has been well-documented, but (sigh) it's still a Rotisserie category, so some caution is understandable.

Chris Carpenter (No. 60): Though he'll turn 36 next April and has a checkered injury history, let's not overlook the fact that he hasn't missed a start since last May, totaling 51 starts, 40 quality starts and 29 wins, while registering a 2.62 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. What gives us any right to declare him an imminent health risk?

Johan Santana (No. 88): Some might recall my preseason statement: "Johan Santana's downside is a finish outside the top 100 players of 2010," which is why this ranking might actually be surprising. Fact is, Santana didn't exactly reach his downside, but he's nearing it, and if not for his calling Citi Field his home, I'd probably be far less apt to want him as a keeper. He's the one pitcher on this list whose stock is plummeting, perhaps significantly with each passing year.

Tim Hudson (No. 110): People keep waiting for him to cool off due to his low strikeout rate, but Hudson keeps excelling, maintaining an ERA no higher than 3.28 in any month all season. He's your classic ground-baller, essentially a "lite" version of Brandon Webb (the good, healthy one, I mean), so while his 2011-13 ceiling isn't sky-high, why expect significant regression?

Trevor Cahill (No. 115): I'm a fan, and I think this is actually a pretty generous ranking considering his experience level. Cahill might seem like a similar type to Hudson, but through two big league seasons he hasn't seemed quite the pound-it-into-the-ground type that Webb or Hudson have been over the years. Besides, it's not like they all thrive over the long haul; remember that Fausto Carmona, Chien-Ming Wang and Justin Masterson have had their issues.

Colby Lewis (No. 121): If you refuse to believe he's a totally different pitcher today than the one he was during his last stint with the Texas Rangers in 2002-04, you're simply being bullheaded. Let's look at his numbers in terms of ERA and K's per nine since his move to Japan in 2008: 2.68 and 9.25; 2.96 and 9.49; 3.37 and 8.96. Yes, Colby Lewis is for real.

Javier Vazquez (No. 127): His contract expires after the season, and that means while he could escape the cozy confines of Yankee Stadium, he might also lose the New York Yankees' elite level of run support backing him. The uncertainty about his 2011 whereabouts makes him a riskier keeper, as does his age (34).

Brett Anderson (No. 134): He's a top-50 talent with about as much health risk as any pitcher on the list, having dealt with elbow problems on multiple occasions this season, lending itself to the prospect of future surgery. If you're feeling lucky, go get him while the prices remain reasonable, but he's out of my top 100 because he could make 33 elite starts in 2011 … or five.

Brandon Morrow (No. 136): His 10.67 K's-per-nine ratio for the season is tops among qualified starters, and since Memorial Day he's 6-2 with a 3.03 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 12 starts. If you're looking for negatives with Morrow, it's the prospect that he'll get hurt over the long haul, but that's a risk with a heck of a lot of young pitchers. I'd take the chance, the way his career is trending.

Jeremy Hellickson (No. 147): His upside might be as great as any of the Tampa Bay Rays' current starters, except perhaps David Price. Injuries to Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis should give him a long-term audition now for us to evaluate his 2011 prospects. I think Hellickson might finally be up for good.

Edinson Volquez (No. 192): It's the right time to buy in 2011: his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, his second year overall having recovered from the surgery. Volquez might be a WHIP risk, but he's a legitimate 200-strikeout contender when healthy.

Interesting just-missed names

Mike Leake: His upside might be that of a No. 3 starter, meaning he's an intriguing keeper because of his young age; however, it seems unlikely that he'll be among the top 25 starting pitchers in 2011. Leake's innings might top out around 150 this season, in which case he might be held short of 200 next year, too.

Scott Baker: His command numbers have always been exceptional and are even more so this season, but as always, the thing keeping his ERA/WHIP from being among the league's elite is his propensity for serving up home runs. Now 28, Baker might always be merely a very good -- but never an elite -- fantasy starter.

Wade Davis: One year ago, I'd have considered him a stronger candidate for the top 200. Today? The precipitous decline in his strikeout rate is troubling, making it difficult to write off his 2010 struggles as a mere adjustment period. Davis might yet rebound for a lengthy, productive career, but he has a lot of work to do.

Jordan Zimmermann: We're going to get a glimpse of him in a big league uniform before the season ends, and that's a good thing; it means he'll have some innings under his belt already to help give us a window into his 2011 potential. He'll have an innings cap next year for sure, which is partly the reason for his exclusion, but a Shaun Marcum-like recovery from Tommy John surgery is possible.

Omitted players I've been asked about

Josh Beckett: It's not merely the health issues he has battled for much of the season; it's that when he has been healthy, he hasn't looked close to being the same pitcher he was during productive 2005, '07 and '09 campaigns. His velocity is down and with it his strikeout rate, and he's getting clobbered by lefties (.306/.371/.531 AVG/OBP/SLG rates), which is out of character for him. If you believe in things like "even-year/odd-year" pitchers, be my guest, but excluding him is meant to remind you that he's much riskier than people think.

Jake Peavy: Talk about risks: Peavy will be coming off shoulder injury so serious, he had to insist at the time of his operation that it wasn't career-ending. Doesn't sound like the kind of thing that results in a guarantee of being on the 2011 Opening Day roster, does it? Peavy seemed out of place with the Chicago White Sox and at homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field before he got hurt anyway, so there was a limit to how much value he'd have provided in the first place.


Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward this season only, and are not to be confused with the keeper rankings for 2011-13.

Four up

Brett Anderson, Oakland Athletics: As hinted above, Anderson's elbow bears watching over the next several weeks -- and the next couple of seasons at that -- but as things stand right now, he's looking pretty healthy. Though he suffered a tough loss Tuesday tangling with Felix Hernandez, his seven innings of one-run, five-hit baseball represented back-to-back quality starts after a so-so return from the disabled list July 30. That Anderson's past two opponents were the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners means it's not time to declare him fully "back," but his 11 K's compared to three walks in those outings say he's just about there.

Trevor Cahill, Oakland Athletics: Few pitchers have performed as well as Cahill during the past month; he hasn't allowed an earned run since the sixth inning of his July 23 start versus the Chicago White Sox, and has a 1.38 ERA in the past 30 days. Here's how you can tell when Cahill has his best stuff, and resides in must-start status, as he does currently: He generates ground-ball outs in the double digits, as he has in every start since June 26. Fifty-five percent (121 of 220) of his balls in play during that time have been grounders, in fact. Even in road games he's a valuable play, evidenced by his eight-shutout-inning, two-hit masterpiece at Rangers Ballpark on July 28.

Chris Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals: Remember back in early July, when Carpenter was hit in the forearm by a batted ball, struggled through a couple of so-so starts (by his standards) and entered the All-Star break surrounded by questions for the first time in more than a calendar year? Worry no longer. With Monday's win on the road against the rival Cincinnati Reds, Carpenter now has six quality starts since the All-Star break, four wins, a 1.79 ERA and 0.95 WHIP. His strikeout rate -- 5.56 per nine -- isn't quite as strong as it was pre-break (7.73) and the competition he has faced hasn't been overly difficult, but for a pitcher about whom most fret the injury big, it's certainly a promising sign for his upcoming turns.

Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays: Shocking -- his stock is on the rise after a 17-strikeout near-no-hitter. It's absurd to think Morrow can offer fantasy teams that kind of outing on a start-to-start basis, but it did demonstrate his vast upside. Incidentally, to the inevitable follow-up questions about the division in which he plays, therefore increasing the level of difficulty of his remaining schedule, keep this in mind: His masterpiece came versus the Tampa Bay Rays, a playoff team as things stand today, and during the 12-start hot streak mentioned above, he turned in another quality start versus the Rays (May 31), one against the New York Yankees (June 6), one at Coors Field (June 12) and one versus the St. Louis Cardinals.

Four down

Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals: He hasn't looked nearly like the standout he was before the All-Star break, turning in just two quality starts in five post-break appearances, registering a 4.73 ERA, 1.54 WHIP and 19 K's in 26 2/3 innings. It was unrealistic for anyone to expect Garcia to maintain a 2.17 ERA, which was his first-half number, but then again, no one really expected him to. But didn't people think he still had value to offer in the second half? His workload is probably the primary strike against him. The Cardinals are already thinking about skipping his turns down the stretch to keep his workload in check -- acquiring Jake Westbrook to go along with rehabbing Kyle Lohse affords them the luxury -- as Garcia is on pace for 182 innings after throwing just 37 2/3 at any competitive level in 2009. There's a good chance that fatigue could be a factor in his recent slump.

Zack Greinke, Kansas City Royals: This guy is the defending Cy Young winner? Really? A scary fact: Greinke is only the 25th-best American League starting pitcher on our Player Rater (he's outside the top 50 overall), and he's the AL's leader in losses (11). OK, forgive him the losses, because that's a partial product of his team's performance, but when a guy who was the league's unquestioned best drops 24 slots in the rankings, there's clearly a problem. Greinke is 2-3 with a 5.73 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in five starts since the All-Star break, including a miserable outing at Seattle's Safeco Field in his most recent turn. That's not the kind of performance that inspires hope of a bounce-back finish.

Rich Harden, Texas Rangers: He's clearly thriving on name value and name value alone, as he remains owned in 39.6 percent of ESPN leagues, yet his owners certainly wouldn't tolerate his year-to-date numbers from a less-accomplished starter. Is it the strikeouts you crave? A fact: Harden's 7.75 K's-per-nine ratio this season represents his worst career number, he has only five whiffs in 9 1/3 innings in his two starts since returning from the DL and his fastball is a good two ticks lower in velocity this season (90.5 mph average, per FanGraphs, compared to 92.8 career). It might be time to give up on him for this year, because the Rangers, a contending team, certainly seem ready to.

Mike Leake, Cincinnati Reds: Speaking of workload concerns, there are whispers that the Reds might soon shift Leake to the bullpen to cap his innings. A 2009 first-rounder, and one who has never thrown an inning in the minor leagues, Leake has logged 129 2/3 frames as a rookie and is on pace for 183. Sure enough, he has cooled considerably in recent weeks, turning in a quality start only twice in his past 10 tries, while registering a 5.72 ERA and 1.68 WHIP during that span. The Reds have already begun tinkering with their rotation to give Leake additional rest, and if you need an example of the downside of such a strategy, look no further than the Yankees' treatment of Joba Chamberlain in the second half of 2009. Leake, whose rookie year already has to be considered a positive, might be nearing the end of his usefulness in fantasy this season.

Upgrade your roster

Add: Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves
Drop: Brandon Webb, Arizona Diamondbacks

With Kris Medlen out for the season and perhaps headed for Tommy John surgery, Minor, the Braves' top pitching prospect, has a wide-open rotation spot to strut his stuff for the season's final two months. He's plenty deserving; this No. 7 overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft tore through the upper minor league levels this season, finishing with a 4-1 record, 1.89 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in six turns in Triple-A ball.

Minor's most valuable asset is his strikeout ability; he averaged 10.92 K's per nine during his minor league career (all 25 starts of it), and didn't decline much at all in the category in Triple-A, with a 9.99 ratio there. It's not a product of blowing hitters away; it's his changeup that's most lethal, and that's a good sign because it increases the chances he won't be a victim of extreme splits between lefties and righties. To that point, in his major league debut on Monday, he limited right-handers to .188/.235/.313 rates in their 17 times at the plate against him.

NL-only and keeper-league owners need to scoop Minor up immediately, if he's somehow still available, and those in mixed leagues probably want to stash him on a reserve list at the bare minimum. He wouldn't be tossed into a pennant race like this if he didn't boast the talent that the Braves trust would help him succeed.

As for Webb, he admitted to the Diamondbacks' website in the past week that if he returns at all this season, it would be as a reliever. "I think starting is now out of the question," Webb said. "Starting is unrealistic." Keeping a potential middle reliever on a DL spot in a standard ESPN league is a foolish move, not to mention that the Diamondbacks have no need to rush their former ace, as poorly as they have performed this season.

Also consider adding …
Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays: In addition to being a quality keeper prospect, Hellickson warrants an immediate pickup in all redraft formats, especially after throwing seven shutout innings of three-hit, seven-strikeout baseball in his second big league start Tuesday.
Wade LeBlanc, San Diego Padres: Is he one of the unluckiest pitchers in the game or what? LeBlanc ranks 121st in terms of run support (3.3) out of 135 qualified big league starters, whereas none of the other Padres starters has a number beneath 3.8. Not to suggest he's equal in talent to a Latos, Clayton Richard or perhaps even Jon Garland, but LeBlanc can still be a productive pitcher who benefits from his spacious home ballpark. Be selective, but don't dismiss him.
James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates: Fresh surroundings might help this hard-throwing right-hander, and if you need evidence of that, look no further than the six shutout innings of eight-strikeout baseball he tossed in his Pirates debut Aug. 5. NL-only owners should at least stash this guy on a bench.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.