The Stephen Strasburg era is about to resume.
In one of the more unexpected developments of 2011, Strasburg, fantasy's most anticipated rookie of 2010, has progressed quickly enough in his rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery that he might yet make major league appearances before the season's end. After undergoing the operation Sept. 3, 2010, Strasburg resumed light throwing in early February, hurling off a mound in mid-May and pitching to live hitters July 13, then advanced to a minor league rehabilitation assignment in Class A, where he has already made two starts: Aug. 7 and this past Friday.
As minor league rehab stints can last no longer than 30 days, not to mention Tommy John surgery alumnus Jordan Zimmermann is nearing the final starts of his own season, Strasburg's anticipated return to the Nationals looks like it might be sometime around Labor Day. He might in fact be directly handed the baton once Zimmermann gets shut down. And at his current rate of progression, Strasburg might yet make four or five major league starts before season's end.
Remarkable, considering that six months ago, when spring training camps opened, it didn't look like Strasburg would even be healthy enough for 30 days of rehab in the minors, let alone pitch for the Nationals.
It's for that reason that I'm declaring today your last chance to snatch up Strasburg on the cheap, primarily from a keeper league angle but also directed at those of you in NL-only or deep mixed leagues.
Consider the possibilities with Strasburg: Combined in his two rehab starts, the first for Class A Hagerstown and the second for Class A (advanced) Potomac, the right-hander has faced 20 hitters, recorded 14 outs, struck out nine and allowed one run and five hits. Per ESPN Stats & Information, he has thrown 51 of his 64 pitches for strikes, and seven of his nine strikeouts were swinging. In his most recent outing, he didn't allow a single ball in play to leave the infield.
Tiny as that sample is, and granted against Class A competition, that's still a 1.93 ERA and 17.36 strikeouts-per-nine ratio, numbers that are decidedly "Strasburg." Remember, this is a pitcher who in 2010 had the best K's-per-nine ratio (12.18) and 15th-best ERA (2.91) among starters with 60-plus innings. There's little question that a healthy Strasburg can be a top performer in each of those categories.
Why today, then? It's simple: Strasburg remains available in 68.0 percent of ESPN leagues, but that number has dropped by 16.3 percent in the past seven days. In addition, he's a day from his next rehab start, scheduled again with Class A Hagerstown on Wednesday and should be of greater length, perhaps four to five innings. The buzz is growing, and if Strasburg throws, say, four innings of eight-strikeout baseball, the headlines would only grow larger and you'd hear more comments like, "Strasburg is almost here!"
To be clear, I don't regard Strasburg's value as much in shallow mixed leagues, especially those with stringent innings caps. A four-to-five-start stretch by Strasburg might result in a mere 20-25 innings total and spread out over about five per outing, potentially a waste to owners who have to carefully count their starts. Perhaps in standard ESPN leagues, he'll have only minimal value.
But what about NL-only leagues, where the pool runs deeper? What about leagues with daily transactions yet no innings cap, where streaming is a viable strategy? Surely in those, Strasburg has value. Isn't it a smarter strategy to chase five innings of outstanding strikeout totals from the right-hander rather than rolling the dice on the likes of Paul Maholm, Joe Saunders and Jason Hammel?
It's the keeper leagues where your window is rapidly closing, because the closer Strasburg gets to active duty, the more confident his owners become. He has long been hailed a potential top-10 fantasy starter, a dynasty league foundation piece, and I ranked him accordingly in my midseason keeper top 250. Get him now, because by Thursday, your opportunity might have already passed.
Strasburg isn't the only pitcher for whom I declare today your last chance. Here are three others you should snatch up while you still can:
Ivan Nova, New York Yankees: Thank the Yankees and their six-man rotation for your buying opportunity, because if there were any clarity in their group of six, Nova might already have been scooped up in all ESPN leagues as opposed to the 80.8 percent he is today. He has already answered the primary question surrounding him in 2010: After managing .208/.282/.299 numbers in the first three innings of his starts but .306/.375/.447 thereafter, he has narrowed those margins to .245/.309/.359 in his first three and .274/.343/.409 thereafter this season. The stamina criticism is no longer valid; he has lasted into the seventh inning in 10 of his 19 starts and each of his past three. Nova also has improved his breaking pitches -- curveball and slider -- to the point where he has thrown them 30.3 percent of the time, up from 24.5 in 2010, and limited opponents to .193/.216/.252 rates in the 125 plate appearances that have ended with either. Nova might still be fully adapting to the big leagues, but he's also backed by one of the game's best offenses, as evidenced by his 11 wins. There's plenty of value.
TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants: Keepers, keepers, keepers. Obviously everyone knows about Bumgarner at this point; he's claimed in 99.6 percent of ESPN leagues and ranks 45th among starting pitchers on the Player Rater. But his listing here is a signal that he's a viable keeper-league prospect, although some might believe otherwise. Here's the reason: He has the 10th-best WAR (wins above replacement) of any starting pitcher, primarily because that category values the "three true outcome" categories: strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed. Bumgarner has the sixth-lowest homers-per-nine ratio (0.43) and ninth-best K's-per-walk ratio (4.06). He also has ramped up his fastball velocity (91.8 mph on average) and has a career-high 22.2 miss percentage on swings. This is a skill set trending toward that of a perennial fantasy ace.
John Danks, Chicago White Sox: He's one of the forgotten men of the top 40 fantasy starters probably because of either the five wins he has in 20 starts or the near month he spent on the disabled list thanks to an oblique injury around the All-Star break. Danks has pitched well since his return, however, with two wins, three quality starts, a 3.16 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in five starts, including that challenging matchup versus the New York Yankees on Aug. 2 (6 IP, 9 H, 4 ER). Most importantly, however, he has 34 strikeouts compared to nine walks in 31 1/3 innings, showing a propensity for K's that wasn't apparent earlier in his career. Danks might not be an elite keeper, but from a re-draft perspective, he might be one of the sneakier options out there. After all, last week's column showed that the White Sox have one of the more fantasy-friendly schedules for pitchers down the stretch.
Mark Buehrle, Chicago White Sox: He's your classic put-the-ball-in-play pitcher, and those types tend to be susceptible to streaks, primarily because they have to rely so much upon the defense behind them or be pitch-perfect with their command. Consider that among active pitchers with at least 1,000 innings since 2000, Buehrle has the fourth-lowest strikeouts-per-nine ratio (5.06). He's a pitcher with a slim margin for error, but lately, he's toeing that line rather effectively. He's in the midst of an eight-quality-start streak, during which he has four wins, a 1.89 ERA and 1.00 WHIP yet merely a 5.37 K's-per-nine ratio. Two things stand out as strengths of Buehrle's during that span: A 1.42 walks-per-nine ratio, seventh-best among pitchers with 50-plus innings; and a 57.7 percent ground ball rate, 11th-most and very out of character for the left-hander. So long as Buehrle is commanding the strike zone this effectively while keeping the ball down, he can be of help even in shallow mixed leagues. (But a streak it probably is.)
Jeff Niemann, Tampa Bay Rays: Speaking of streaks, this is quite the hot one that Niemann is currently riding, six quality starts and five wins in his past seven starts, during which time he has a 1.65 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. But two things stand out as oddities for him: He has averaged 8.08 K's-per-nine and has a 48.3 percent ground-ball rate in those seven outings, significantly higher than the 6.43 K's-per-nine ratio he had in his first 74 big-league appearances and the 43.6 percent ground-ball rate he had in 69 outings from Opening Day 2009 to June 30, 2011. Niemann has been using his curveball more to generate strikeouts -- he has a 32.1 percent swing-and-miss rate with it, up from 26.3 percent in his previous 69 outings -- and his two-seam fastball is responsible for the increase in grounders. Don't dismiss this as a fluke; he might yet be able to sustain value all year.
Javier Vazquez, Florida Marlins: Fantasy owners might have long written him off -- he's owned in only 15.3 percent of ESPN leagues -- but in recent weeks we've seen a version of Vazquez much closer to the strikeout artist of his prime years. In six starts since the All-Star break he has 38 whiffs in 38 1/3 frames, including a pair of 10-strikeout outings (July 16 @CHC, Aug. 13 vs. SF), and a 3.29 ERA and 1.10 WHIP to go with it. In fact, in his past 11 starts, Vazquez has a 2.36 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. A large number of soft matchups have contributed, but he's also generating more swings and misses (32.7 percent in his past six turns), which backs up the increased strikeout rate. Considering the Marlins still call a pitchers' haven their home, Vazquez might yet finish 2011 on a high note.
Gio Gonzalez, Oakland Athletics: Monday represented Gonzalez's fifth consecutive outing where he failed to meet the quality-start minimums, and during that time he has lost all five starts with a 7.90 ERA and ghastly 5.93 walks-per-nine innings ratio. Walks have always been his undoing; he averaged 5.49 per nine in 30 games between 2008-09, when he was adapting to major league competition, and that resulted in a 6.24 ERA in those years. Blame the matchups if you want, as there was a Yankees outing and one in Toronto mixed in there, but how about that Safeco Field start where he surrendered six runs on 10 hits in 6 1/3 innings? During his five-start slump, Gonzalez has thrown 57.4 percent strikes, 44.9 percent pitches in the strike zone and 50.8 percent first-pitch strikes; his numbers in those categories were 60.4, 47.0 and 53.6 in his first 19 outings. Until he restores his command to 2010 and early-2011 levels, he can't be trusted in fantasy leagues.
Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins: At what point are fantasy owners as a whole going to give up on this guy? Liriano might have notched his eighth win of the season on Monday, and pitched a quality start before that, but in each of those outings as well as the one before it, there were nothing but warning signs. On Monday, he served up five runs on nine hits, two of them home runs, in six innings of work, most notably serving up 11 fly balls, odd for a pitcher who at his best posts ground-ball rates greater than 50 percent. In the outing before that, he had seven walks in six innings, and before that he allowed seven runs and 10 hits in five frames in a truly ugly outing. Liriano has been great on rare occasions this season, but they have been few and far between; he hasn't had a streak of greater than two quality starts all year and has 11 quality starts total in his 22 starts (50.0 percent). He was at serious risk of dropping out of my rankings altogether.
Jonathan Sanchez, San Francisco Giants: Barry Zito's sprained right ankle, suffered during a rehabilitation stint for Triple-A Fresno, buys Sanchez more time in the Giants' rotation, but at some point he's going to need to provide them results. In two starts since his return from a biceps injury, Sanchez has a 9.00 ERA and six walks in nine innings. His fastball has averaged 89.3 mph, and during that time he has allowed six line drives on 15 balls in play (40.0 percent) and a .375 well-hit average. Perhaps time is all Sanchez needs to recapture his 2010 form, but until he shows improvement, he can't be trusted in any format.
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 email him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.