Roy Halladay still a top-12 starter

Entering the 2012 season, Philadelphia Phillies hurler Roy Halladay was the top-ranked starting pitcher in ESPN.com's preseason rankings. He checked in at No. 11 among all players, carrying a hefty $29 auction value in mixed leagues. Heading into this year, Halladay is ranked No. 21 among starting pitchers, 75th overall and worth just $14 in 12-team auctions. Does he really deserve to fall this far from grace?

I don't think so, which is why, despite last year's struggles with back and shoulder problems, I was happy to grab him 70th overall (the 17th starting pitcher taken) in our Feb. 14 mock draft. Fantasy owners seem to agree with me that Halladay is ranked just a bit too low in the ESPN.com rankings; Halladay is currently being taken 17th among starting pitchers and right around No. 64 overall in ESPN live drafts. And I think even that's too low for him. In fact, I think he's still a top-12 fantasy starter.

In terms of starting pitching, I think there is a definitive top six of Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez, David Price and Matt Cain. But I believe Halladay deserves to be among the top of the next tier of aces. To justify this opinion, I took the 14 starters ranked ahead of Halladay in the ESPN.com rankings and conducted a numbers comparison from the past three seasons, using these key categories: wins, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and K/BB ratio. And yes, I did include Halladay's subpar 2012 campaign. Note that Adam Wainwright missed all of the 2011 season, Yu Darvish has pitched just one season in the major leagues and Chris Sale's numbers are only as a starter, which he has done for just one year.

ESPN Fantasy starting pitcher rankings

Three-year statistical comparison (2010 to 2012)

The following table shows where the 15 pitchers rank when compared with one another in these same categories, in a roto-style scoring format where the best statistic in a certain category receives 15 points, second best gets 14, going all the way down to 1 point for the least effective pitcher in a category:

ESPN Fantasy starting pitcher rankings

Three-year roto comparison (2010 to 2012)

So even with last year's struggles, Halladay still ranks third on this list behind teammates Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. And if you discard the lesser-used K/BB statistic, Jered Weaver also finishes ahead of Halladay. The only other pitcher close to Halladay is 23-year-old Chris Sale, who ties him in the other four categories when we eliminate wins. With his youth and tremendous strikeout rate, one could certainly be justified in taking Sale ahead of the man who is a dozen years older than him.

Even if Halladay is behind Lee, Hamels, Weaver and Sale, that still leaves Halladay as the No. 11 starting pitcher. The next closest pitcher in the table (CC Sabathia) is significantly below Halladay in all four qualitative categories listed above, besting him only in wins. And no other pitcher ranked between No. 10 and No. 20 in ESPN.com's rankings is within 20 total ranking points of Halladay in the comparison table.

Of course you can't base a fantasy projection solely on the past three years alone, because all that matters is what the player will be projected to do this coming season. Assuming his back holds up for 32 starts may be a big assumption, but then again, all players carry a risk of injury. Since 2006, Halladay has been on the DL just twice, last year with his back problems and in 2007, when he missed 18 games due to appendicitis. In these seven seasons, he has averaged more than 224 innings. In addition to this amazing durability, the 35-year-old -- he turns 36 on May 14 -- has some other positive aspects working in his favor as he enters his 16th major league season.

First off, he's in a contract year and needs 225 innings pitched for his $23 million vesting option for 2014 to be activated. Even if he doesn't reach this threshold, he'll be playing for a new contract.

Halladay has started spring training on a high note, with a 1.15 WHIP and five strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings against two quality lineups (New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers). But more importantly, he reportedly has felt great physically and is already registering low-90s on the radar gun.

After starting the past 10 Opening Days, Halladay likely be the Phils' No. 2 starter this season, as the Phillies' coaching staff prefers to put him between southpaws Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in the rotation. This may not mean much later in the year, but for the first month, Halladay likely will be facing mainly opposing No. 2 and No. 3 starting pitchers, which for many teams is a huge drop-off from the ace.

With the major league schedule so division-heavy, Halladay certainly should benefit from pitching in the NL East. The Miami Marlins finished second-to-last in the majors in runs scored in 2012, and the lineup likely will be much weaker without the departed Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio, not to mention starting a season without Hanley Ramirez for the first time since 2006. The New York Mets had the sixth fewest runs in the majors last year and could be even worse this year with David Wright being the only legitimate hitter in this lineup. The Atlanta Braves made some power upgrades by adding both Justin Upton and B.J. Upton, but they could struggle to get on base consistently. The Washington Nationals should boast the best offense in the NL East, but Halladay has dominated the Nats in his career, going 12-2 with a 2.55 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 7.6 K's per nine innings and a 6.2 K/BB ratio against them.

The Phillies still aren't a great defensive team, but the addition of CF Ben Revere from the Minnesota Twins will certainly help. Revere finished second among all major league players with 24 total zone runs, defined by baseball-reference.com as "The number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of plays made." Only Michael Bourn had a higher number than Revere last season.