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Fantasy Baseball Preview: Starting Pitchers

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Johan SantanaWhile we listed more pitchers in the stud category this year, it doesn’t mean that starters are any more reliable than they’ve been in years past. The fact of the matter is that after Johan Santana, starting pitchers are still a crapshoot, and that even includes 19-game winner Jake Peavy and 20-game winner Josh Beckett. And how about Santana? Sure, he totaled 235 strikeouts and 15 wins, but he also lost 13 games and his ERA finished north of 3.00 for the first time in three years. Was he worth a first-round pick?

Trust your instincts, but don’t commit yourself to drafting pitchers in the first three rounds if hitters are flying off the board in droves. There are so many choices, and there’s a good chance that the pitcher you tabbed as a No. 2 or No. 3 actually turns out to be the ace of your staff.

With that said, you know who the studs are: Santana, Peavy, Beckett. After that, we’ve listed a handful of pitchers in our “stars” category who could wind up with similar numbers to the aforementioned trio. Guys like Dan Haren, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander are all young and possibly ready for career years.

In the “No. 2s” section, you’ll find – you guessed it – quality No. 2 pitchers with the potential to become No. 1s with good seasons. The “Could-Be-Greats” are all youngsters who could be primed for a breakout year, while the No. 3s offer above-average production and the fallbacks are quality, but likely come with some question marks, too.

*NOTE: All analysis based on standard 5x5 roto leagues

The Studs

Johan Santana, New York Mets
15-13, 3.33 ERA, 1.073 WHIP, 235 K, 52 BB, 33 GS, 219 IP
Johan will have new digs in 2008, but it’s the same ol’ story on the mound – he’s good -- really good. His 15 wins, 3.33 ERA and 1.073 WHIP was technically a down season for him, but most pitchers would consider that a banner year. With better offensive support and easier competition in the NL, we expect Santana to get his WHIP back down around 1.000, as well as posting 15-plus wins and an ERA in the 3.20-range.

Jake PeavyJake Peavy, San Diego Padres
19-6, 2.54 ERA, 1.061 WHIP, 240 K, 68 BB, 34 GS, 223.3 IP
There’s no other way to say it: Peavy was a stud last year. He topped the majors in ERA and strikeouts, while also becoming the 10th different pitcher to win the NL Triple Crown. Peavy should have no problem sniffing 20 wins again in San Diego’s pitcher-friendly Petco Park, and he might even top his strikeout numbers from a season ago. Some argue he’s a better fantasy option than Santana, and based on the numbers it’s hard to refute that. Either way, you’re getting a quality pitcher.

Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox
20-7, 3.27 ERA, 1.141 WHIP, 194 K, 40 BB, 30 GS, 200.7 IP

Boy, how good was Beckett last year? He missed time because of a shoulder injury (he’s healthy again, don’t worry), but in 30 starts, he won 20 games. He’s the only ML pitcher to win 20 games since 2005, and he’s the youngest to reach 100 wins since Greg Maddux did it when he was 27. Given his offensive support, he’s an easy No. 1. While he might not reach 20 wins again, he should come awfully close.

The Stars
Take 'Em Aaron Harang, Reds
We know he’s a Red and plays in a hitter’s park, but so what? He’s quietly one of the best pitchers in the NL and sure to get you 15-plus wins and more than 200 Ks.

John Lackey, Angels
He’s posted 46 wins and a 3.33 ERA since 2005, numbers only Johan Santana can match in that time period. He’s consistent, people.

Tim Hudson, Braves
He’s baaaack. Don’t lose sleep over the paltry strikeouts because he should more than make up for it with a ton of W’s.

Leave 'Em Ben Sheets, Brewers
He hasn’t averaged more than 21 starts in three seasons and always seems one injury away from spending significant time on the DL. Plus, he might only top out at 12 wins. Some ace.

Jeremy Bonderman, Tigers
He was absolutely brutal in the second half last year and sports a high ERA. Will the possibility of 15 wins be worth it? Over-er-rated.

Oliver Perez, New York Mets
Don’t fall for his 15-win season last year! He only had three wins in 2006! He’s a con artist! Must…not…draft… Oliver…Perez….

Brandon Webb, Arizona Diamondbacks
18-10, 3.21 ERA, 1.189 WHIP, 194 K, 72 BB, 34 GS, 236.3 IP

Will it be another banner year for Webb? In each of the last three seasons he’s set career highs in innings, wins and strikeouts. And only Santana’s combined 3.04 ERA in 2006 and 2007 was lower than Webb’s 3.06 mark. He’s a ground ball pitcher, so he might not get you as many strikeouts as you’d usually want out of a No. 1, but he should at least match his 18 wins from a year ago. He also pitches in the NL, which makes him more attractive than Josh Beckett and C.C. Sabathia.

C.C. Sabathia, Cleveland Indians
19-7, 3.21 ERA, 1.141 WHIP, 209 K, 37 BB, 34 GS, 241 IP

Sabathia turned in another great year in 2007, leading the ML in innings pitched with 241, all while posting a dazzling 19-7 record and 209 strikeouts. Perhaps what’s most impressive about Sabathia’s season is that even with all those innings, he still only walked 37 batters. Now at 27 and in a contract year, it’s safe to assume Sabathia’s in for another great season. He should have no problem clearing 15 wins with 200 Ks and a 3.20 ERA again in ’08.

Erik Bedard, Seattle Mariners
13-5, 3.17 ERA, 1.088 WHIP, 221 K, 57 BB, 28 GS, 182 IP

Remember Bedard’s struggles in April last year? Neither do we. After posting a 6.09 ERA in the first month of the season, he rebounded to a 2.49 ERA for the rest of the season until an oblique strain shut him down in August. His ERA, WHIP and strikeout numbers have improved every season and he should get more offensive support from the M’s than he did from the O’s. We think he can reach 15 wins again this season like he did in 2006, as well as post an ERA and WHIP similar to that of 2007.

Dan Haren, Arizona Diamondbacks
15-9, 3.07 ERA, 1.208 WHIP, 192 K, 55 BB, 34 GS, 222.7 IP

At first look, Haren’s 15-9 record doesn’t stand out. But when you consider he played on a bad A’s team last year and still posted a fantastic 3.07 ERA and 15 wins, you understand why many think Haren’s the next big ace. He should get more run support in Arizona, and now that he’s in the NL, it’s not out of the question to think he’ll come close to 20 wins and total over 180 strikeouts.

Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies
15-5, 3.39 ERA, 1.124 WHIP, 177 K, 43 BB, 28 GS, 183.3 IP

Hamels is a star in the making, but he doesn’t come without his drawbacks. For one, he was shut down with an elbow strain for the last month of the 2007 season and he still has a lingering back issue. Expecting him to better what he did last year is probably a stretch, but he should total 15 wins again, and while his ERA might rise as hitters get more accustomed to his tendencies, he should keep it in the 3.60 range.

Roy OswaltRoy Oswalt, Houston Astros
14-7, 3.18 ERA, 1.325 WHIP, 154 K, 60 BB, 32 GS, 212 IP

Mr. Reliable. Oswalt has a major league-high 112 wins since 2001 and a sub-3.50 ERA every season. He’s often overlooked for more dominant pitchers, but there’s no denying how consistent Oswalt has been over his career. Even though he posted a career-worst in wins, strikeouts and innings pitched last year, his overall numbers were fine in the end. Draft him and you’re essentially assured around 15 wins, 160 strikeouts and an ERA just north of 3.00.

Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs
18-13, 3.95 ERA, 1.331 WHIP, 177 K, 101 BB, 34 GS, 216.3 IP

Zambrano proved again last year that he’s a top-10 fantasy pitcher, although his strikeout numbers dipped and he once again walked a ton of batters. With more run support and a contract situation behind him, he could entertain 18 wins again and his strikeouts should reach 200. While his average of 109 pitches per game is a concern, don’t fret too much because he’s proven that he’s incredibly durable.

Value Alert
Aaron Harang, Cincinnati Reds
16-6, 3.73 ERA, 1.144 WHIP, 218 K, 52 BB, 34 GS, 231.7 IP

While he doesn’t get a ton of recognition due to the club he plays on, Harang was a strikeout and innings-eater monster in 2007. The Reds went 24-10 in games he started last year, while 48-80 in others. He’ll probably get you 15-plus wins again and another 200 strikeouts, which is more than enough for a No. 1 pitcher. Don’t pass on him because of who he plays for and don’t brush him off because he plays in a hitter’s park either; he’s been consistently good there the past couple of years.

Roy Halladay, Toronto Blue Jays
16-7, 3.72 ERA, 1.243 WHIP, 139 K, 48 BB, 31 GS, 225.3 IP

Fantasy owners seem to shy away from Halladay because they think he’s injury-prone, but that’s not entirely the case. While he did miss chunks of the 2004 and 2005 seasons, he’s been mostly healthy over the past two years and still remains a top fantasy pitcher. What owner would pass up 17 wins, 140-plus strikeouts and an ERA around 3.20? Yes, his strikeout numbers haven’t been sparklingly and his ERA rose last season, but he’s still one of the best pitchers in the league and fully capable of having an above-average year at only 30 years old.

Felix HernandezFelix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
14-7, 3.93 ERA, 1.377 WHIP, 165 K, 53 BB, 30 GS, 190.3 IP

Hernandez is a tough pitcher to rank because while he has already proven he has electric stuff, injuries and inconsistency have plagued him. He could win 20-plus games just as easily as he could post 10 in another injury-plagued season. Throw caution to the wind while selecting him in early rounds, but just know that if he does reach his full potential, look out. He could be a pitcher who posts 17 wins, an ERA in the 3.50 range and 200 strikeouts.

John Lackey, Los Angeles Angels
19-9, 3.01 ERA, 1.210 WHIP, 179 K, 52 BB, 33 GS, 224 IP

How good has Lackey been over the past couple of years? He’s posted 46 wins and a 3.33 ERA since 2005, numbers only Johan Santana can match in that time period. Lackey has turned into Mr. Reliable and a sure-fire ace. He’s improved each of the past five seasons and pitches for a contender, making him a candidate to win 15-plus games again and post another 180 strikeouts.

Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
18-6, 3.66 ERA, 1.230 WHIP, 183 K, 67 BB, 32 GS, 201.7 IP

So much for Verlander being an injury risk in his sophomore season – he followed up a fantastic rookie campaign in 2006 with a career-best 18 wins and 183 strikeouts in ‘07. We think it’s safe to say that he’s the real deal, and pitching for a stacked Tigers’ lineup should allow him to sniff 20 wins this year. Now that he’s shown his durability, it’s also realistic that he could turn in his first 200-strikeout season, all while keeping his ERA around 3.50.

The No. 2's Letdown Alert
Scott Kazmir, Tampa Bay Rays
13-9, 3.48 ERA, 1.379 WHIP, 239 K, 89 BB, 34 GS, 206.7 IP

You know the story on Kazmir: sick strikeout numbers and 15-win potential, but he's wild and walks a ton of batters. He’s also had injury issues this spring, which certainly has slowed his progress. He’s only 24, however, so his ceiling is unworldly high and if he played on a better team, he could probably sniff 15-plus wins on a yearly basis and be considered a No. 1 option. Assuming he’s healthy in time for opening day, he should post another 10-plus wins, 250 strikeouts and an ERA around 3.64, which are solid No. 2 numbers.

John Smoltz, Atlanta Braves
14-8, 3.11 ERA, 1.181 WHIP, 197 K, 47 BB, 32 GS, 205.7 IP

Don’t age discriminate, folks – Smoltzy can still get it done. Sure, he might not post close to 200 strikeouts again this year, but he’ll win 10-plus games and his ERA isn’t likely to top 3.50. He also hasn’t had a WHIP above 1.20 since he was 28 and he pitchers for an offense that should give him plenty of support. Grab him as a quality No. 2.

Tim HudsonTim Hudson, Atlanta Braves
16-10, 3.33 ERA, 1.221 WHIP, 132 K, 53 BB, 34 GS, 211.7 IP

After a below average first year in Atlanta, Hudson bounced back last year by posting a 15-plus season and keeping his ERA and WHIP low. Here’s an interesting stat: When his team scores four or more runs, Hudson is 115-19 over his career. That’s ridiculous, and assuming the Braves are going to score plenty of runs again this season, one would assume Hudson is in store for a season similar to 2007. While he’s not going to get a ton of strikeouts, he should post 15 wins and keep his ERA as low as 3.50 and his WHIP around 1.300.

Brad Penny, Los Angeles Dodgers
16-4, 3.03 ERA, 1.309 WHIP, 135 K, 73 BB, 33 GS, 208 IP

While Penny slowed down a bit in the second half last year, he finally put together back to back solid seasons. He set a career high for innings pitched with 208 and also posted new bests in ERA (3.03) and fewest losses (4). Even though we hesitate to say it because of his past injury concerns, he looks like a reliable ace and should total 15-plus wins and another 135-plus Ks. Just don’t expect his ERA to stay around 3.00 again since it’s hovered around 4.00 in 2005 and 2006.

Value Alert
Chris Young, San Diego Padres
9-8, 3.12 ERA, 1.098 WHIP, 167 K, 72 BB, 30 GS, 173 IP

After toying with the NBA, Young has worked his way through the Padres’ system and has the potential to become a fantasy stud in the next two seasons. While some will point to his slide in the final two months of the season (he posted a 5.96 ERA), he had to battle through an oblique strain. And besides, he still finished with a 3.12 ERA, which should tell you how dominant he was before the injury. Project him as a 10-game winner with an ERA around 3.60 and a strikeout total that could approach 180.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, Boston Red Sox
15-12, 4.40 ERA, 1.324 WHIP, 201 K, 80 BB, 32 GS, 204.7 IP

Some might have been disappointed in Dice-K’s performance last year based on his won-loss record, but what did everyone expect of a pitcher making his ML debut while coming over from Japan? Fifteen wins and 201 strikeouts are nothing to turn up a nose at. He had some trouble with walks and his ERA is rather high, but with more experience he should be able to get his ERA under 4.00. Given the Red Sox’ penchant for scoring runs, he should easily post another 15 wins.

Brett Myers, Philadelphia Phillies
5-7, 4.33 ERA, 1.282 WHIP, 83 K, 27 BB, 3 GS, 68.7 IP

Myers bounces back into the starting rotation after filling in for Tom Gordon as the Phillies’ closer in 2007. There are some concerns that he’ll wear down after only totaling 68.7 innings last year, but he’s still a top-20 pitcher. If his arm and shoulder hold up, you could expect 15 wins, 4.00 ERA and close to 200 strikeouts. Since he was a closer last year, he might not be on many owners’ radar, so keep an eye on him as a potential sleeper in middle rounds.

Letdown Alert
Ben Sheets, Milwaukee Brewers
12-5, 3.82 ERA, 1.238 WHIP, 106 K, 37 BB, 24 GS, 141.3 IP

Injury risk! For the third consecutive season, Sheets missed a handful of starts due to nagging injuries. In three seasons, he’s averaged only 21 starts and while he gets credit for being an ace, he probably won’t top more than 12 or 13 wins this season and he’s likely to max out at 150 Ks. However, it’s not all bad, as evidenced by his 12-5 record last year. He has the lowest ERA (3.83) of active sub-.500 pitchers with 100 or more starts and also plays on an up-and-coming Brewers team, which should be in contention all year. He’s good, but for a No. 2 pitcher, just keep your expectations in check.

James Shields, Tampa Bay Rays
12-8, 3.85 ERA, 1.107 WHIP, 184 K, 36 BB, 31 GS, 215 IP

Shields’ stock is definitely up after a very productive second season in the ML. Even though he struggled in June and July, he was excellent in the final two months of the season, striking out 56 batters in 64 innings and posting a 2.39 ERA. He’s a candidate to win 12 to 15 games again this year and he gives you solid strikeout numbers, as well. Don’t overlook Shields like many do on draft day.

Letdown Alert
Jeremy Bonderman, Detroit Tigers
11-9, 5.01 ERA, 1.382 WHIP, 145 K, 48 BB, 30 GS, 174.3 IP

What the heck happened to Bonderman in 2007? He was having a breakout season in the first half, posting a 9-1 record with a 3.69 ERA. But then he was shelled after the All-Star break, crashing to a 2-8 finish with a 7.38 ERA. While projecting Bonderman’s 2008 outlook, assume he’s not as good as he was in the first half of 2007, and not as bad in the second half. He’ll probably finish with around 15 wins, a 4.50 ERA and a WHIP over 1.200.

Rich Hill, Chicago Cubs
11-8, 3,92 ERA, 1.195 WHIP, 183 K, 63 BB, 32 GS, 195 IP

Hill was a pleasant surprise for the Cubs last year, although he did do most of his stellar work in April while posting a 4.63 ERA the rest of the season. On almost a start-to-start basis, Hill can be widely inconsistent, but he should post 10-plus wins and near 190 strikeouts again. He’s not the most intriguing fantasy pitcher, but once the final numbers are tallied he should once again have a productive season.

The Could-Be-Greats

Fausto CarmonaFausto Carmona, Cleveland Indians
19-8, 3.06 ERA, 1.209 WHIP, 137 K, 61 BB, 32 GS, 215 IP

Carmona was blasted as a closer in 2006, but he definitely found his niche as a starter last season. From late April through the rest of the season, he posted a 19-7 record with a 2.86 ERA. At only 24, the sky’s the limit for the Tribe’s young star who has excellent strikeout potential and looks durable. He might not reach 19 wins again, but 16 or 17 are certainly in reach and he should keep his ERA around 3.50.

Chad Billingsley, Los Angeles Dodgers
12-5, 3.31 ERA, 1.327 WHIP, 141 K, 64 BB, 20 GS, 147 IP

Billingsley started 2007 in the Dodgers’ pen, but by late June, the team wanted to see what the youngster could do as a starter. Good call. Billingsley went 8-5 with a 3.38 ERA and 141 strikeouts over the past three months of the season, earning him a spot in the rotation this season. We love his strikeout potential and envision at least 12 wins again this season with an ERA that stays south of 3.50.

Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers
9-5, 3.67 ERA, 1.269 WHIP, 101 K, 37 BB, 17 GS, 110.3 IP

Gallardo is already drawing comparisons to Johan Santana with his dazzlingly debut last season. If it weren’t for one poor month in August, Gallardo went 6-2 with a 2.16 ERA in 79 1/3 innings last year. If he doesn’t hit a sophomore slump, the Brewers should offer him plenty of run support and he could post 10-plus wins, 160-plus strikeouts and an ERA of around 3.60.

Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
7-16, 3.65 ERA, 1.260 WHIP, 163 K, 79 BB, 32 GS, 200 IP

Don’t let the 7-16 record fool you – Cain had the worst run support in MLB last season. He got two or fewer runs 21 times and the pen blew five leads. He is an outstanding talent who could near 200 strikeouts this season. He’ll walk his fair share of batters, and once again his run support isn’t going to be great, but he plays in a pitchers’ park and the Giants actually have a good defense behind him. At 23, he’s a stud in the making.

Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
7-5, 4.00 ERA, 1.278 WHIP, 150 K, 65 BB, 24 GS, 146.3 IP

Lincecum didn’t disappoint as a rookie in 2007, posting almost a strikeout per inning and limiting hitters to just a .223 average. His small, thin frame reminds many of Roy Oswalt, which is certainly a nice compliment given Oswalt’s career longevity. He has great strikeout potential, but he only averaged six innings per outing, and due to his inexperience, he may not total more than 180 innings this season. He should rack up 10-plus wins and 180-plus strikeouts, but his ERA will probably hover around 4.00 again. He’s a great keeper candidate based on his age (23) and potential.

Francisco LirianoFrancisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins
(2006) 12-3, 2.16 ERA, 1.000 WHIP, 144 K, 32 BB, 16 GS, 121 IP

After being sidelined for the entire 2007 season because of elbow surgery, fantasy owners are on the edge of their seats in anticipation to see how Liriano will fair in 2007. He was dazzling as a rookie, but obviously the injury concerns make him a tremendous risk. To be safe, you might want to assume 10 wins, 3.35 ERA and 170 strikeouts this season, but of course his health will be the deciding factor on how he fares.

Rich Harden, Oakland A’s
1-2, 2.45 ERA, 1.130 WHIP, 27 K, 11 BB, 4 GS, 25.7 IP

The deal with Harden is pretty simple, although complicated all at the same time. He’s easily one of the best pitchers in the league when healthy, but he suffered an inflamed right shoulder last year and had shoulder issues in 2006 as well. If he’s healthy and ready for opening day, he’s a steal in middle rounds. But if you reach for him too soon, you might wind up incredibly disappointed as he spends more lengthy stints on the DL. All you can do is monitor his progress in spring training and adjust your draft value for him accordingly.

Phil Hughes, New York Yankees
5-3, 4.46 ERA, 1.280 WHIP, 58 K, 29 BB, 13 GS, 72.7 IP

Hughes is incredibly intriguing, but probably a little over-hyped as well. He went 4-0 with an ERA of 2.55 in September and throughout the postseason last year, proving he has the mettle to pitch in the Bronx zoo at such a young age. Draft him as a third or fourth pitcher, and given the Yankees’ stout run production, you can probably assume 10-plus wins with an ERA around 4.00 and 150 or so strikeouts.

Letdown Alert
Joba Chamberlain, New York Yankees
2-0, 0.38 ERA, 0.750 WHIP, 34 K, 6 BB, 0 GS, 24 IP

Joba’s stock took a hit early in spring training when the Yankees announced that he would likely start the season in the pen. While that doesn’t mean you should completely ignore him on draft day, don’t reach for him in middle rounds banking on 10-plus wins because it’s probably not going to happen. Regardless, he’s got amazing stuff – he struck out 34 batters in just 24 innings last year – and is a sure-fire Rookie of the Year candidate if he makes the starting rotation. Monitor his progress throughout spring training and draft accordingly.

Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox
3-1, 1.59 ERA, 1.059 WHIP, 22 K, 10 BB, 3 GS, 22.7 IP

All right, we admit it – Buchholz makes this category just based on his no-hitter last year. But we do think he’s got a ton of talent, too. He might not post an ERA in the 3.00s, but it’s not a stretch to believe he could post 10 wins this season, especially given Boston’s stacked offense. Don’t overvalue him, but Buchholz is a deep sleeper this year.

The No. 3's

Chien-Ming WangChien-Ming Wang, New York Yankees
19-7, 3.70 ERA, 1.294 WHIP, 104 K, 59 BB, 30 GS, 199.3 IP

Even though he’s still relatively young at 28, fantasy owners essentially know what to expect from Wang. He’s not a strikeout pitcher, but playing with the Yankees will give him plenty of opportunities to rack up wins, and he’ll probably keep his ERA around 3.80. If you’re looking for a more complete pitcher – even one that’s not going to get you 15-plus wins – Wang isn’t your man. But if you’re dying for wins, plug Wang in as a No. 3 and watch the Ws pile up.

Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angles
13-7, 3.38 ERA, 1.285 WHIP, 115 K, 45 BB, 28 GS, 161 IP

People comparing Weaver’s rookie season to his sophomore year are obviously going to be disappointed, but the overall numbers indicate that he had a solid year. He pitches for a contender and should get quality run support, so if he could reach 30-plus starts, he could easily win 15 games and post his best strikeout numbers to date.

A.J. Burnett, Toronto Blue Jays
10-8, 3.75 ERA, 1.189 WHIP, 176 K, 66 BB, 25 GS, 165.7 IP

Burnett is likely to mess with fantasy owners again this year, posting excellent numbers when he takes the hill, but also spending a fair amount of time on the DL. In the past four years, he’s posted four straight sub-4.00 ERA seasons, but he’s also missed 30 percent of his starts since 2001. Draft him as a No. 3, but if he can stay healthy, don’t be shocked if he puts up No. 2 numbers.

Value Alert
Jeff Francis, Colorado Rockies
17-9, 4.22 ERA, 1.379 WHIP, 165 K, 63 BB, 34 GS, 215.3 IP

Francis is a nice, safe option on draft day. He obviously plays in a hitters park, so that’s something to be cautious about, but he’s also averaged 15 wins and 137 strikeouts in three seasons. He’s typically a guy who’s not going to kill you, but his ERA and WHIP make him more of a No. 3 than a solid No. 2.

Javier Vazquez, Chicago White Sox
15-8, 3.72 ERA, 1.140 WHIP, 213 K, 50 BB, 32 GS, 216.7 IP

Essentially off the radar last year, Vazquez actually turned in a solid season for a bad White Sox team in 2007. The only question is consistency. In the past four years, he’s posted these ERA totals: 3.72, 4.96, 3.52, 4.46. So is he due for another 4.00-plus ERA this year? We’d love to trust him, but he’s not likely to improve on last year’s numbers. Consider him a solid No. 3 option.

John MaineJohn Maine, New York Mets
15-10, 3.91 ERA, 1.272 WHIP, 180 K, 75 BB, 32 GS, 191 IP

Maine was a pleasant surprise in the first half last season, posting a 10-4 record with a 2.71 ERA, but he crashed and burned after the All-Star break (5.53). While the poor second half is a concern, opponents have batted just .228 against Maine in the past two seasons. He’s a quality starter and should get plenty of run support. Fifteen wins, 180-plus strikeouts and a 4.00 ERA are safe projections for him in 2008.

Joe Blanton, Oakland A’s
14-10, 3.95 ERA, 1.217 WHIP, 140 K, 40 BB, 34 GS, 230 IP

Blanton had a banner year in 2007, posting career-highs in innings pitched (230) and strikeouts (140). If the A’s could produce more offense, he could probably top 15 wins, but unfortunately he’s probably going to fall victim again to shoddy run support. Blanton is a solid No. 3, and although he might not get you a ton of wins, his strikeouts and innings pitched should be high again.

The Fallbacks

Kelvim Escobar, Los Angeles Angels
18-7, 3.40 ERA, 1.268 WHIP, 160 K, 66 BB, 30 GS, 195.7 IP

Escobar is the classic underachiever, although he did post very good numbers last season. He’ll get good offensive support again this season, so he might reach 15 wins with a 3.55 ERA, but be weary of fatigue. He has a history of fading down the stretch so he might make great trade bait at the All-Star break, especially if he jumps out to a solid first half.

Value Alert
Ted Lilly, Chicago Cubs
15-8, 3.83 ERA, 1.140 WHIP, 174 K, 55 BB, 34 GS, 207 AB

Lilly had a nice season, but don’t forget it was his first year in the NL. Regardless, he’s coming off a career-best 174 strikeouts and posted his lowest ERA since 2002. He’s also posted back-to-back 15 win seasons and he reduced his walks from 81 in 2006 to 55 last year. You could definitely do worse than Lilly, and he should post another 15-win season with 170-plus strikeouts.
Letdown Alert
Oliver Perez, New York Mets
15-10, 3.56 ERA, 1.311 WHIP, 174 K, 79 BB, 29 GS, 177 IP

Perez led NL lefty starters in lowest average allowed with .229, as well as posted a 6-3 record in his first two months, but he’s so unreliable. He finished 15-10 last year, but the season prior he only racked up three wins. He should get plenty of run support, which could lead to another 15-win season, but be careful about taking him in middle rounds expecting he’ll be a viable No. 3 pitcher.

Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
14-12, 3.70 ERA, 1.396 WHIP, 136 K, 70 BB, 32 GS, 202 IP

In his first season as a starter, Wainwright posted more than adequate numbers, but he’s definitely got room to improve. It’s not easy to transition from being a closer to a starter, so we think he’ll have a solid year as he gains more experience and knowledge of hitters. He should come close to his 14-win total of 2007, but there’s a good chance that he reaches 155 Ks while keeping his ERA around 3.70.

Value Alert
Pedro Martinez, New York Mets
3-1, 2.57 ERA, 1.429 WHIP, 32 K, 7 BB, 5 GS, 28 IP

Sure, he’s 36 and missed all but one month of the 2007 season because of major shoulder surgery, but would you take a shot on Martinez as a fourth pitcher? We would. In his one month of work, he went 3-1 and posted a 2.57 ERA. He’s obviously a risk, but he’s also posted 15 winning seasons in a row and he’ll probably strike out around 170 batters. He’s worth it.

Dontrelle WillisDontrelle Willis, Detroit Tigers
10-15, 5.17 ERA, 1.597 WHIP, 146 K, 87 BB, 35 GS, 205.3

Fantasy owners are dying to believe in Dontrelle after he dazzled us with a 22-10 record and 2.63 ERA in 2005. But after posting his worst numbers as a pro last year, it’s getting harder and harder to believe that breakthrough campaign was anything but a gigantic fluke. Nevertheless, he gets a fresh start in Detroit on a serious contender with a seriously wicked lineup. If he can re-focus, there’s no reason to think he couldn’t post 15 wins, 160 strikeouts and get his ERA back under 4.00. We believe in you, Dontrelle.

Hiroki Kuroda, Los Angeles Dodgers
N/A (Played in Japan in 2007)

Is Kuroda a poor man’s Daisuke Matsuzaka or the next Kei Igawa? He’s armed with a deadly fastball and should receive decent run support, but he’s a major unknown and a risk on draft day. Just to be safe, assume a 10-win season with 150 Ks and an ERA that sniffs 4.50.

Ian Snell, Pittsburgh Pirates
9-12, 3.76 ERA, 1.332 WHIP, 177 K, 68 BB, 32 GS, 208 IP

Snell had a disappointing 2007 campaign, but it wasn’t entirely bad. He did strike out 177 batters and he posted a 1.64 ERA in September. And other than having an ERA of 6.01 in a 2-7 skid, he had an ERA of 2.38 in 19 other starts. If the Pirates’ offense could help him out once in a while, he could post numbers similar or better than what he did in 2006 (14 wins, 169 strikeouts).

Letdown Alert
Matt Garza, Tampa Bay Rays
5-7, 3.69 ERA, 1.542 WHIP, 67 K, 32 BB, 15 GS, 83 IP

Garza is certainly a talented prospect, but he’s far from a sure thing. He should give the Rays a viable No. 3 after Scott Kazmir and Jamie Shields, but he’s probably not going to strike out many batters or even post a winning record. There will probably be better, more reliable options when the time comes to look at Garza, but he’s worth a look late in the draft.

Tom Gorzelanny, Pittsburgh Pirates
14-10, 3.88 ERA, 1.398 WHIP, 135 K, 68 BB, 32 GS, 201.7 IP

There’s not a ton of fantasy buzz about Gorzelanny heading into the season, but he’s a candidate to win 10-plus games again and post an ERA under 4.00. The problem is that he’s on a terrible team and doesn’t offer much in terms of strikeouts. If you’re looking for a pitcher who’s steady, but probably not going to give you out-of-this-world stats, Gorzelanny is a nice fallback option.

Andy PettitteAndy Pettitte, New York Yankees
15-9, 4.05 ERA, 1.426 WHIP, 141 K, 69 BB, 34 GS, 215.3 IP

Pettitte’s had an incredibly tumultuous offseason, but he’s still a fine pitcher and he plays for one of the best offenses in the league. Assuming the off-field distractions don’t haunt him throughout the year, he could win 15 games, post an ERA in the high 3.00s and total 140-plus Ks – pretty good numbers for a No. 4. Of course, you could also completely ignore him and allow another owner to take the risk. Your call.

Jason Schmidt, Los Angeles Dodgers
1-4, 6.31 ERA, 1.792 WHIP, 22 K, 14 BB, 6 GS, 25.7 IP

Was it really that long ago that Schmidt was a perennial ace with the Giants? It sure seems like it. Schmidt missed virtually the entire 2007 season with a shoulder injury and the Dodgers aren’t sure if he’ll be available for Opening Day this year either. Like any pitcher coming off surgery, monitor Schmidt’s progress during spring training. If he’s healthy, it’s not out of the question that he posts 10 wins and 130 Ks, which wouldn’t be bad for a fourth or fifth starter.