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Fantasy Fast Forward: Pitchers and Catchers Diamonds in the Rough

Phil Hughes

Today, we wrap up our “Diamonds in the Rough” series with a very shallow position, a very deep position, and a position I hardly want to devote any real time to at all.

Catching, as it seems to be year in and year out, features one the shallowest groups of top-tier talent at any position in baseball. Beyond Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, and maybe Buster Posey and Brian McCann, there really is no reason to dip into catching early, because that second tier of catching is ripe for the pickin’, and will be waiting for you in rounds 15 and on. This season, I’m letting Mauer and Martinez get drafted early by my opponents and holding out hope that I find an up-and-comer behind the dish.

In contrast, starting pitching seems to be at its deepest, compared to recent years. Sure, you can, and maybe should, spend at least one of your top five picks on an ace hurler, but if you don’t and you wait to pick your first pitcher in the 10th or 11th round, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be all that worse off.

Having done about a dozen mock drafts by this point myself, I’ve tried to employ a few different strategies regarding my pitching staff. Take these two, for instance. In “Strategy A: Studs & Duds,” I forced myself to take two starters in the first five rounds, then didn’t take another until the 13th. In that draft, I ended up with C.C. Sabathia and Jon Lester, but then complimented them with Jonathan Sanchez, Brandon Morrow, Jhoulys Chacin, and James Shields. So strong at the top obviously, but then a severe drop-off to guys with question marks. In “Strategy B: Evens From Eighth On,” I focused early on filling my offensive spots in rounds 1 through 7, but then grabbed starting pitchers in every even numbered round from 8th to 18th. Employing this strategy, I ended up with the likes of Matt Cain, Shawn Marcum, Chad Billingsley, Matt Garza, Clay Buchholz, and Colby Lewis. No real sure-fire fantasy gold there, but a very solid six-pack of starters, if I do say so myself.

So which way do you go? You’re going to hate this answer, but you simply go with what fits you. If a few stud pitchers is enough to make you sleep better at night, go for it. Personally though, with how deep and unpredictable pitching can be in fantasy land, I’m waiting. I’d much rather fill my infield spots early where the top-tier talent is thinner, and then shift my focus to the mound later on. But that’s me… you do what you do.

That brings us to my least favorite position to talk about for fantasy baseball: the closers. The top ninth inning men are being drafted as early as Round 6 or 7, which really makes little to no sense to me. In standard 5×5 leagues, closers really contribute to just one category. Sure, they have ERA and WHIP numbers attached to them just like starters do, but they pitch about a third the total of innings as each of your starters will (or should). Plus, predicting saves is like predicting the weather forecast… it’s just not that likely you can do it and be correct consistently. I’m not saying to treat the closer position like a fantasy football kicker and draft them dead last, but you should really sit back and wait on those spots until the latter rounds.

Speaking of latter rounds, who are some gentlemen you could target in the back half of your draft that should help you claim fantasy baseball glory this season? I’ve found a trio of catchers, a trio of closers, and a fivesome… yes, a fivesome… of starters for you to keep in mind as your draft wages on. Without further ado, it’s the battery edition of “Diamonds in the Rough.”

Catchers

Matt Wieters, BAL

Wieters was supposed to be the “next big thing” in the catcher brotherhood of baseball, but entering 2011, we’re still waiting to see the Baltimore backstop reach full blossom. With a lot more talent around him in the O’s lineup this season, Wieters could turn into a top-5 catcher this season. 20 homers and 70 RBIs aren’t out of reach, really. No one is talking about him now after years of over-hype, so now seems like the time to grab him while his fantasy stock has dwindled.

Kurt Suzuki, OAK

Someone has to hit in that Oakland lineup, and my bet’s on Suzuki. His numbers tailed off toward the end of last season, but now healthy again, he seems primed to put together a stronger year in 2011. If you can get 70 RBIs and a not-so-awful batting average out of a late-round catcher pick, you’ve done yourself some good, so draft Suzuki with those expectations in mind.

J.P. Arencibia, TOR

In a year that saw this Blue Jay youngster win the Pacific Coast League’s MVP award, Arencibia slugged his way to 32 homeruns and a .986 OPS in Triple-A last season. In August, he made a splash in his big league debut, hitting a pair of dingers in his first MLB game. I’m betting that this guy hasn’t reached his peak yet. He’ll strike out more than you’d hope for, but to get 20+ homers out of your catcher spot, you have to smile at that.

Starters

Matt Garza, CHC

The jury’s still out on Garza, but my verdict is he’s worth a mid-round pick on your team. Garza jumps from the hitter-loaded AL East to the offensively-anemic confines of the NL Central, which can only help him and his fantasy numbers. Four straight sub-4.00 ERAs can’t lie, and his strikeout and WHIP numbers should reach career-high levels in ’11 as well. I don’t like looking at his face because of that ratty-looking chin beard he usually sports, but I don’t have to look at his face when it’s on my fantasy roster winning me 15 games this season, so I’ll just shut up about his ugly mug.

Colby Lewis, TEX

Lewis made a name for himself pitching throughout the Rangers’ improbable run to the World Series last fall, in his first year pitching in the majors after spending years in the Japanese league. Lewis is a big arm who should put big strikeout numbers, and in the otherwise weak AL West, he should put up a big win total as well.

Ricky Nolasco, FLA

I feel like I draft this guy on at least one of my teams every year, and admittedly, I go home at the end of the year disappointed in what I get from him. But yet again, I’m sipping the Nolasco Kool-Aid heading into the season, hoping for bigger and better things from the Marlin hurler. He did have surgery last September on his right knee, but with a new contract signed in the off-season, you’ve got to think Florida wouldn’t have extended him if that injury was going to hold him back. I see 180+ strikeouts from this guy this season and an ERA around 4.00. As a late-round guy to round out your fantasy staff, I’d be pleased with that.

Phil Hughes, NYY

The Yanks might not have any starting pitching behind Sabathia and Hughes, but they sure have found a gem in this youngster. Hughes broke out for 18 wins in 2010, returning to the Yanks’ rotation after spending ’09 in the set-up role to Mariano Rivera. You know he’ll get wins playing for New York, but I think you’ll get a solid number in the ERA, WHIP, and strikeout categories from Hughes as well.

Brian Matusz, BAL

I like this kid a lot heading into 2011. Last August and September, he was one of the few elite pitchers in the American League, posting a 2.18ERA and 1.03WHIP. The O’s will be improved over last year, so his win total should be helped out too. When you’re looking for your fifth or sixth starter, Matusz is your man.

Closers

Chris Perez, CLE

I’m saying this now… I’m not in the business of predicting save numbers for closers. In my opinion, it’s the most volatile stat category in fantasy baseball. That being said, pitching for the Indians might not translate to too many save opportunities, but look at what Perez has done when he has gotten the call in clutch situations. In the second half of last season, all he did was save 16 games in 17 chances while putting up a miniscule 0.63ERA and 0.87WHIP. Even if Cleveland blows this season, Perez should put up 25-30 saves with ease.

John Axford, MIL

I’m putting all my chips in the Brewers’ pot this season. I like what they’ve done with the revamping of their pitching staff, and all of that effort should lead to more save chances for Axford, the heir apparent to the retired Trevor Hoffman. Axford broke out with 24 saves and a very respectable 2.48ERA last year after Hoffman went down, not to mention his big 11.79 K/9 mark. I really do think Milwaukee could contend for the top spot in an otherwise weak NL Central, so look towards Axford to fill one of your closer roles.

Brad Lidge, PHI

The Phils seems to be the early favorite in the National League, and really, on paper, who can dispute that? And so when you’re trying to decide between “Closer A” and “Closer B,” I tend to think about the winning potential of their ball clubs. Lidge is entrenched as the Phillies closer with little to no competition on the roster. While his stats over the past five or six seasons have been all over the map, he has proven he can hold down the closer role in the past, and so if I’m going back and forth between a youngster who hasn’t been there vs. a veteran who has closed games on the big stage for years, I’m grabbing Lidge for my fantasy bullpen in 2011.

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