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Mound Musings: The Dream Staff

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

For more than 25 years, pitching guru Brad "Bogfella" Johnson has provided insightful evaluation and analysis of pitchers to a wide variety of fantasy baseball websites, webcasts and radio broadcasts. He joined RotoWire in 2011 with his popular Bogfella's Notebook.

Now here's something that might be fun to follow - I'll call it "Dream Staff" and will plan to revisit my mound corps as the season progresses. Obviously anyone can put together a hypothetical dream fantasy pitching staff by listing a collection of the top arms, but I want mine to be a little more realistic. In other words, let's build a staff that is at least theoretically possible to own. To do that, I broke starting pitchers into three tiers: upper-draft starters, mid-draft starters and bargain-basement starters. I selected two from each tier and added a starting pitcher as a DL slot. For relievers (assuming no holds in the scoring scenario) I also broke the pitchers down into three tiers, and selected one from each tier, plus a reserve "handcuff" selection. In total, including the DL slot and the reserve slot, the staff is comprised of 11 pitchers heading into the 2013 season. Let's take a look, and you tell me, how does this staff fare?

The Fantasy 2013 Dream Staff

Starting Pitchers - Tier 1:
This was a marginally tough choice for me because I am a huge Clayton Kershaw fan, but I couldn't let Stephen Strasburg end up on another team's roster, so Strasburg steps into my "ace" slot in the rotation. He has the potential to lead the major leagues in strikeouts, should provide very good ERA and WHIP peripherals, and he pitches for a team that figures to be in contention all season, which will hopefully net him a fare share of wins. Many readers will recall my golden rule - always take the arm with the highest ceiling - and Strasburg fits that strategy perfectly. Since it would be unlikely that one team could grab both Kershaw and Strasburg, I dug a little deeper for my second tier-one candidate, and selected Yu Darvish to serve as my No. 2 starter. His overall numbers from 2012 were good but not great, however most of the less appealing stats could be attributed to a mediocre first half. Again, looking for a high ceiling, he fits very well if you assume, as I do, that he can take a big step forward this year. With Strasburg and Darvish in the fold, strikeouts should be a plus category if the pitchers from the next two tiers can contribute a fair punch out count, and that is a category I always like to focus on when building a staff.

Starting Pitchers - Tier 2:
Moving on to the next level of starting pitchers, those more likely to be available as the draft moves into the middle rounds, I'm going to drop my perennial favorite, Brandon Morrow, into the third (or fourth if that makes you more comfortable) slot. His WHIP is improving as he masters command of the strike zone, reducing walks and hopefully reducing pitch counts, which will allow him to get deeper into games. His strikeout rate dipped somewhat last season, but that was likely due to a concerted effort to pitch to contact, and there is a very good chance his K/9 ratio will rebound in 2013. There is no question Morrow has the stuff to be dominating, and I am willing (again) to take the chance that this will be the year he shows it consistently. With three power pitchers at the top of my rotation, I'll add a finesse guy as my fourth starter. In fantasy, mixing pitcher types is not really important, but I like Ian Kennedy to have a solid bounce-back season after a disappointing 2012. Kennedy reminds me of a young and developing Greg Maddux with his modest stuff, but an excellent command of the zone, and, most important, with his approach to the task at hand. He always seems to be a couple of pitches ahead of the hitter with his plan, and that is a huge plus in my evaluation process. It's a bit risky with him because he pitches in a hitter's park so he can't afford too many mistakes. That will be the key to his success.

Starting Pitchers -
Tier 3: Here the challenge increases. In most cases, it's not the tier-one pitchers that separate you from your fellow owners in the standings, it's the tier two and, perhaps even more importantly, tier three or back-of-the-rotation selections that make all the difference. Still in search of upside, I'll add a young and sometimes erratic southpaw who pitches in a hitter's paradise (not the safest combination to be sure) as my next starter - Derek Holland. I love his stuff, and when he's on his game, he's a hitter's nightmare. That makes him my kind of guy. As I have mentioned many times, lefties often require more time to develop. They tend to get out of synch more often, and that can result in extended periods of only marginal effectiveness, or worse. The test is trying to predict when it will all come together for the best of them, and I'll give Holland a chance to take that next step on my 2013 Dream Staff roster. And, for the last rotation spot, I'll add an annual disappointment named Rick Porcello. While it seems he has been around for a long time, he is still just 24 years old, and he continues to tease us with the stuff that made him an elite prospect. I don't particularly care for the way the Tigers rush their top pitching prospects to the majors because it can be devastating to their confidence, but Porcello appears to be handling the on-the-job training fairly well, and his command of the strike zone could very well pay off in the near future. While he is definitely a ground ball pitcher, I also expect his strikeout rate to improve. But even if it's a bit below grade, I should have enough punch outs from the top of the rotation to make his contribution less critical. I'll also use this opportunity to fill my DL spot with the Padres' Cory Luebke. I waited for him to get a rotation spot in 2011, and then greatly anticipated his 2012 campaign only to see it cut short by Tommy John surgery. He's not expected back until around July, and will probably be used judiciously when he does return, but he could be a nice boost in the second half.

Relief Pitcher - Tier 1:
The last couple seasons finding effective and durable closers has been a week-to-week proposition, but I'll take a shot at the Nats' new end-gamer Rafael Soriano, who stepped in admirably when future Hall-of-Famer Mariano Rivera went down with an injury for the Yankees last season. As he proved again last year, he can clearly handle the job when healthy, and he pitches for a team that should give him plenty of save chances. That said, I am also going to use my reserve "handcuff" spot on his primary backup, Drew Storen. It was a bit of a head scratcher when Washington signed Soriano, given the success Storen has already enjoyed at this stage of his young career, but he makes a nice handcuff because, if Soriano does catch the injury bug, he should step in easily, and if Soriano doesn't need any time off as the season progresses, he could be a very viable trade commodity for another team searching for a competent closer. It's a potential win/win scenario.

Relief Pitcher - Tier 2:
Some might argue that this next reliever is at least a borderline tier-one closer because he has a relatively solid hold on the gig as long as he stays healthy. However, his reputation for sometimes being a bit fragile often pushes his ADP lower, so J.J. Putz might be a sneaky pick to serve as a second closer on your fantasy staff. Putz is often overlooked, and he has the ability to provide solid peripherals to go with a very respectable save count. There were others I considered for this spot - like Grant Balfour, Greg Holland and Casey Janssen - but I was looking for someone with a bit more job security. If I miss my draft-round expectations with Putz, Balfour might very well be the guy I would have given the second spot to since he doesn't have a lot of competition pushing him in Oakland. All things considered, a combo of Soriano and either Putz or Balfour should keep my team competitive in the category, and if we can uncover one more contributor, this could actually be a strong suit.

Relief Pitcher - Tier 3:
Third-tier closers typically come with big question marks. They either don't have the job, they are experiencing injury problems or they have a very tenuous hold on the role because they have struggled in the recent past. My choice for this slot falls into the first category. Kyuji Fujikawa was signed by the Cubs in the offseason after being one of the premier closers in Japan for several years, but the Cubs have announced that incumbent closer Carlos Marmol will get the call in the ninth inning with Fujikawa serving as his primary setup man. It would be hard to imagine any closer with a more volatile track record than Marmol, so it's possible they would like to showcase Marmol for a trade, or perhaps they simply want to let Fujikawa have some time to acclimate himself to the game on this side of the Pacific. The biggest obstacle on draft day will be getting Fujikawa at a setup man's price, since Cubs management might be the only people on the planet who believe Marmol will hold the job long term, and in reality, they may not truly believe it either.

The Endgame Odyssey:

The biggest endgame news focuses on Aroldis Chapman returning to closing duties for the Reds. It is probably for the best as it will allow him to let it all out every time he steps on the mound, but it does put a serious dent in the value of Jonathan Broxton who now returns to a setup role. ... On the injury front, the Cardinals Jason Motte is out indefinitely with a "slight tear" in his elbow. That sounds ominous to be sure so Motte owners should probably be scrambling to grab Mitchell Boggs. ... In one of the more intriguing spring job battles, Toronto's Casey Janssen was slow to get into game action following offseason surgery, but he has looked good in his first couple of appearances so it's likely, barring a setback, that he will get the nod over Sergio Santos when the season begins. ... There are quite a few other scenarios I feel need to be monitored as well. For example, I'm not sure Greg Holland is "locked in" as the closer in Kansas City, and while the popular buzz guy is Kelvin Herrera, I actually lean toward Aaron Crow as a possible benefactor should Holland stumble. Houston is going with Jose Veras, but I like a serious sleeper in Chia-Jen Lo. And, what's the over/under for the number of days Brandon League keeps Kenley Jansen in a set-up role with the Dodgers? I'll say 30-45, and I would guess under.

Next week we'll apply this famous quote to the art of scouting pitchers in this amazing game of pro baseball: "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." - Albert Einstein. You won't want to miss this edition as it uncovers some of the most dynamic applications involved in going well beyond analyzing the past and into an exercise for rationally predicting the future.