It's Time to Start Evaluating Pitching Depth as a Fantasy Tactic
You all know the routine - draft your starting lineup, then fill your bench with marginal players, often part-timers in deeper leagues. The best, or perhaps the apparently most valuable, qualify at multiple positions so they can back up more than one starter, and with a little luck, they will get into around half of their team's games over the next few weeks. They might steal a base, maybe they'll pop one over the fence, but their overall contribution to your fantasy numbers is likely to be minimal. And, the worst part is, they generally took up an increasingly valuable spot on your roster when they weren't playing, before making the nominal contribution when they were forced into action. That bothers me. I've done it, but when I had an injury to one of my starting position players, I look at the waiver wire, and even in very deep leagues, there are usually a handful of players available who could give me similar stats. That roster spot is worth more, especially these days, because pitchers really are getting more fragile, and it's a lot harder to find a viable replacement when you lose one from your rotation. Maybe there is an alternative to carrying that fringy utility guy? Let's take a look.
First Rule, Do No Harm
Regular readers know this is a Bogfella Commandment. Always take upside over proven mediocrity (or worse), and do everything possible to avoid adding an armed time bomb to your fantasy rotation. Unlike that fringy utility guy who may not contribute a lot, but usually doesn't propel you into a nosedive in multiple categories, a bad pitcher can be a huge anchor to drag around. How many outings by a fill-in starter of three-plus innings with a dozen base runners and seven earned runs allowed does it take to make you forget how good that Clayton Kershaw start was this week? Hey, look on the bright side, he didn't last long enough to even qualify for a win, but after all, he did get you one strikeout! That pitcher did a LOT of harm.
So the thought is, would I rather carry the generic utility player who won't help much more than the fodder on the waiver wire, if I even need him, or would I prefer to use a couple of those bench spots to carry high upside arms that were bypassed by most owners on draft day because they were on the disabled list and expected to miss a few weeks early, or because the team wanted to save some salary down the road and sent them back to Triple-A for a little seasoning in April and May? Granted, in most keeper and dynasty leagues those high impact kids are probably on fantasy rosters, but in redraft leagues, there is a very good chance they are available. Pitchers are going to be injured. Maybe the best strategy is to plan for it?
How Bad Is It?
I think Kris Medlen, Patrick Corbin, Jarrod Parker, Brandon Beachy, Cory Luebke and perhaps Danny Hultzen sounds like a pretty nice fantasy rotation nucleus - just not in 2014. As you know, especially if you own one or more of them, they will all miss this entire season. And, the list will undoubtedly grow as the season gets under way. The additions to the list may or may not be out for the rest of the year, but even a month on the disabled list rudely exposes your fantasy squad to that potential ticking time bomb I mentioned earlier. Replacing your No. 2 or 3 starter with what equates to a seventh or eighth starter (or worse) is a formula for pitching category disaster.
Knowing it's going to happen - you will need a pitcher or two to step into your rotation at some point during the season - perhaps you can stash a couple of arms on the bench for when that time comes. Besides following baseball, I am a big fan of dog sled racing. In the longer races like the 1,000 mile Iditarod, the drivers strategically place supplies in caches along the route, knowing they will need them as the race progresses. I try to do the same with pitchers. If I can estimate a quality pitcher's return from the disabled list or the debut of a young arm I feel can make a positive impact right out of the gate, I'll try to roster a couple of those guys for use when things get rough for my regular rotation. Worst case scenario, all my arms stay healthy, and I have some VERY valuable trading chips to acquire other needs later in the year.
Here are Just a Few Potentially Stashable Pitchers to Consider
Noah Syndergaard - Right at the top of the list, he is a very capable arm and he's MLB ready. The Mets have opted to have him spend some time in the minors, but he should be up and in their rotation by June.
Derek Holland - A knee injury sidelined him for the first half of the season, but he can be a huge help to the Rangers and your fantasy team when he comes back, probably around July.
Kevin Gausman - A lot depends on what the Orioles opt to do in April. He may be in their rotation but that's a little bit unlikely. Look for him to start the season at Triple-A or in Baltimore's bullpen, but a rotation spot will be his soon.
Gavin Floyd - I like the change in scenery for him, and he should be back by early May. Given his lackluster numbers with the White Sox last year and the injury he has been forgotten in many leagues.
Jameson Taillon - The only kid arm higher on my list than Syndergaard, and it's VERY close. He is not yet quite as polished as the Mets stud-in-waiting but I still want him later this year - even more so in a keeper.
Hisashi Iwakuma - What you saw last year was the real deal. A finger injury has taken some of the spotlight away so there is a chance he could be available in your league and he should be back on Seattle's mound by May.
Jhoulys Chacin - I don't like shoulder injuries because they can linger making it difficult to predict a return date, and that is what has happened to Chacin. The Rockies say early May and that could be a nice time to have his services.
Mat Latos - He's probably too healthy to be overlooked at this stage, but he is a top of the rotation guy that might be discounted a bit because of his minor knee and back issues. If for some reason people are staying away, jump on him.
Alex Meyer - The Twins will have plenty of room for him in a shaky rotation and they are just biding their time to avoid early arbitration. The extra time in the minors will only help him lock in his delivery so he should be a June debut.
Dan Hudson - He's a little more "hidden" than most but he is scheduled to throw off a mound very soon and could be back in Arizona in June or July. I've been keeping an eye on his progress and you should too.
Matt Harvey - It's probably 50/50 whether he pitches at all this year. If he does it won't be until August or September, but given his bulldog approach I'm not going to rule it out. How nice would it be to have him for the stretch run?
The Endgame Odyssey
Things are beginning to jell in the bullpens of most teams. As expected, Joakim Soria has won the closer's gig in Texas while Neftali Feliz is now just trying to find his name on the major league roster. ... It's no surprise that Addison Reed will begin the season at the back of the Diamondbacks bullpen, and barring injury, I would expect him to be there all season. ... With Aroldis Chapman out for the first couple of months, the Reds will likely go with either Jonathan Broxton or J.J. Hoover. Broxton will probably get the nod when he's healthy but that may not be on Opening Day. ... Huston Street is already a little banged up but the groin injury he suffered in early spring is mending and he should be ready for the regular season. Still, if I owned Street I'd really be a lot more comfortable if I also owned Joaquin Benoit too. ... There is no question Joe Nathan will have a long leash in Detroit, but heir apparent Bruce Rondon is having Tommy John surgery and has been lost for the year. A sneaky add as insurance here might be the somewhat rejuvenated Joba Chamberlain. ... The White Sox have to be getting close to making it official - Nate Jones will open the season as their closer. He's by far their best option and should do a respectable job. ... I'd like to see more from Rafael Soriano before the season starts, because if he isn't back to his former self, I'm going to continue to watch Drew Storen as a possible sleeper for saves, even over the more highly touted Tyler Clippard. ... Finally, in the musical bullpen to stay away from category, the Astros may have been leaning toward Chad Qualls but they are now supposedly in committee mode. That may last a long time. I'm not a fan of Qualls, I'm only slightly more enthralled with Josh Fields, and their best options aren't in the spotlight. Jesse Crain is still hurt, and Chia-Jen Lo has more to prove. Bullpens and starting rotations have much in common.