Sixty Feet, Six Inches: Injured pitchers worth waiting for

When it comes to starting pitching here at the '09 season's outset, our toughest job is evaluating what the heck we're supposed to do with the injured guys. From John Lackey to Justin Duchscherer, from John Smoltz to Max Scherzer, from Scott Baker to Kelvim Escobar, there'll be heat lost off fastballs and break lost off curveballs, and there'll be opportunities to both overpay and bargain-hunt, depending on how the various rehabs proceed.

I'll endeavor not to be too obvious here, but I feel compelled to begin by saying the biggest factor you should consider when evaluating how risk-averse you are about injured starters is the size and depth of your league. More to the point: the smaller your league, the less frightened you should be of taking a shot. After all, if you're in an ESPN.com standard league (i.e., 10-team mixed), your waiver wire is perennially bursting with competent replacement pitchers. So you can worry less about, say, drafting Smoltz and then reserving him. You'll still have someone decent -- albeit undrafted -- to fill his spot. In a deeper league, with only flotsam and Zach Duke on the waiver wire, you probably should be more circumspect.

More importantly, of course, is a need to quantify just how badly a guy is hurt, how long he'll be out and how likely his problems are to recur. A guy like Lackey went through nearly the exact same thing last year -- he had a strained triceps in '08, he has a sore elbow in '09 -- and was his same old self on returning. I feel pretty safe believing he'll be back by the beginning of May, and will be the same guy. For me, pitchers like Scherzer, Baker, Ervin Santana and Cole Hamels also fall into this category. Then there are longer-term risks like Smoltz and Escobar, guys who I'm relatively comfortable owning, because they're probably not going to come back and pitch significant innings if they're not right. They might nick me up with zeroes, but they're probably not going to Carlos Silva me to death.

Then comes the last category: the I-have-no-$&%#-idea pitchers. Rich Hill? I don't know what to expect from him. He showed unbelievable promise in '07, fell apart in '08 at least partly due to a bad back, but now his elbow is bugging him. I guess he's an AL-only sleeper, but mightn't he repeat his 15-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio? Jeremy Bonderman? I'm not sure there's great precedent for guys coming off the surgery he had last year. Duchscherer? Is anyone else suspicious when after an arthroscopic procedure, a team claims it was a "routine cleanup"? Yikes. Does Merry Maids do elbows? Dustin McGowan, Jason Schmidt and Noah Lowry fit this category, too. Generally, my advice is to stay away from such pitchers, but I'll let you in on a secret: I own Duchscherer in a lot of leagues. I know he's injury-prone. I know nothing is ever what it seems when it comes to news about his health. But I'm holding a roster spot for him, remembering that 2.54 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 141 2/3 '08 innings. If he's right, that dude deals, and he doesn't need mega-cheese to be effective. It'll probably bite me, but I can't help it. I mean, it's not like he's Rich Harden or something.

Fortunes rising

This space will normally discuss the biggest risers in my starting pitcher rankings (and the next section will target the biggest fallers). But considering I'm writing this column before many Opening Days have concluded, today I'll mention a few guys I'm betting I have ranked higher than many other fantasy analysts.

Javier Vazquez, Braves (16th). I think Vazquez heads to a perfect situation for him: relative anonymity in Atlanta, a less-homer-prone stadium and a league in which pitchers hit. He's a great source of strikeouts, he throws 200 innings every year and he should have a pretty good defense behind him. Of course I wouldn't like him on my real-life team if I were a contender, because he wilts under pressure. But this ain't real life.

Kevin Slowey, Twins (17th). WHIP is the great underappreciated, under-quantified pitching stat among fantasy players. How do you quantify one-tenth of a WHIP point? It obviously varies from league to league, depending on your scoring system, but most players don't value great WHIPs enough, and Slowey's excellent control makes him a WHIP monster. He posted a 1.15 in his first full big league season. He's not an elite source of strikeouts, but I see him trending toward being a ground-ball guy going forward, erasing bad memories of Brad Radke's gopheritis.

Gil Meche, Royals (28th). Meche gets so little love, perhaps because of his contract, which was universally mocked two years ago. In two Kansas City seasons, all he's done is throw 200-plus innings, post a sub-4.00 ERA and make us forget about the health concerns that plagued him in Seattle. He's nearly an eight-strikeout-per-nine-inning guy, yet he's viewed as a mere plugger. I'll take that consistency any day.

Fortunes falling

A.J. Burnett, Yankees (27th). This won't shock regular readers, but I'm not a believer in Burnett. I don't like to try and get into a guy's head, but my sense is that unless he's in a contract year, he has a hard time pitching unless he's just right. That (the logic goes) explains his trouble consistently logging innings. Now, this is a dangerous game to play, because Burnett hears these stories, and he most definitely wants to prove them wrong. He might do so, and if he throws 200 innings, he'll blow this ranking away, because he's a strikeout machine. I just don't want him to prove it on my nickel.

Jon Lester, Red Sox (36th). No question, Lester was the Sox's go-to guy in '08. He's a left-handed power pitcher, and there aren't very many of those. But is anyone else worried about workload? Lester jumped from 81 1/3 innings in '06 and 63 innings in '07 to 210 1/3 innings last year. Granted, he was battling cancer in those down seasons, and he proved what an incredibly tough kid he is. But there just isn't a great history of pitchers who make that kind of innings leap, no matter what the reason. I think Lester's a way riskier proposition than a lot of folks believe.

Carlos Zambrano, Cubs (52nd). I'll be right about Zambrano one of these years. Not that Big Z was a great fantasy pitcher last season; he only had 130 strikeouts in 188 2/3 innings, the lowest rate of his career. But he also posted a 3.91 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP, which I'll admit is a lot better than I expected. But he did fail to reach 200 innings for the first time since 2002, mostly because of two bouts with shoulder pain. He's the opposite of Vazquez: a complete gamer who'll do whatever he has to do for his real-life team. But I still get a sense his arm is patched together with baling wire.

Top 80 Starters

Note: Christopher Harris' top 80 starters are ranked for their expected performance from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued.

1. Johan Santana, NYM
2. CC Sabathia, NYY
3. Tim Lincecum, SF
4. Brandon Webb, ARI
5. Roy Halladay, TOR
6. Jake Peavy, SD
7. James Shields, TB
8. Cole Hamels, PHI
9. Dan Haren, ARI
10. Roy Oswalt, HOU
11. Josh Beckett, BOS
12. Chad Billingsley, LAD
13. Adam Wainwright, STL
14. Francisco Liriano, MIN
15. Felix Hernandez, SEA
16. Javier Vazquez, ATL
17. Kevin Slowey, MIN
18. Zack Greinke, KC
19. Rich Harden, CHC
20. Yovani Gallardo, MIL
21. John Lackey, LAA
22. Joba Chamberlain, NYY
23. Derek Lowe, ATL
24. Cliff Lee, CLE
25. Scott Baker, MIN
26. Brett Myers, PHI
27. A.J. Burnett, NYY
28. Gil Meche, KC
29. Ricky Nolasco, FLA
30. Scott Kazmir, TB
31. Justin Verlander, DET
32. John Danks, CHW
33. Ted Lilly, CHC
34. Clayton Kershaw, LAD
35. Aaron Harang, CIN
36. Jon Lester, BOS
37. Matt Cain, SF
38. Ryan Dempster, CHC
39. Daisuke Matsuzaka, BOS
40. Wandy Rodriguez, HOU
41. Ervin Santana, LAA
42. Max Scherzer, ARI
43. Edinson Volquez, CIN
44. Jered Weaver, LAA
45. Johnny Cueto, CIN
46. Josh Johnson, FLA
47. Randy Johnson, SF
48. Hiroki Kuroda, LAD
49. Chris Carpenter, STL
50. Mark Buehrle, CHW
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for pitchers 51-80)

Comings And Goings

Bronson Arroyo had an awful spring (5.95 ERA, 1.78 WHIP) and is complaining about his carpal tunnel syndrome, but the Reds expect to have him start Sunday against the Pirates. Arroyo perpetually seems to get more than his fair share of wins, but he's not a great mixed-league option right now.

• Rick Porcello made the Tigers' rotation at just 20 years old. He's never thrown above Class A, so it's difficult to see much mixed-league value for him at this point. But the gem of the '07 draft could make for an interesting AL-only gambit.

• Both Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill made the A's rotation; neither of those rookies has ever pitched above Double-A. Anderson seems like the safer AL-only play right now, though that's entirely speculative until we see them try to get out full major league lineups. Anderson certainly was better in spring training, posting a 2.83 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP, compared to Cahill's 5.40 and 1.28.

• All that planning regarding Brad Penny and the fifth-starter role in Boston went out the window with Monday's rainout. The Red Sox didn't think they'd need Penny until the second week of the season, but now he'll pitch in the season's fifth game, against the Angels. I don't recommend him one bit in mixed leagues.

• With Jason Schmidt on the DL and nobody else stepping up, the Dodgers decided to go with James McDonald as their fifth starter. He looked good in relief at the end of '08 (including a couple of highly effective outings in the NLCS against the Phillies), and could rack up strikeouts. He's an NL-only option right away.

• The Blue Jays filled out their shaky rotation (after Roy Halladay and Jesse Litsch) with David Purcey, Scott Richmond and Ricky Romero. None of those guys is close to a mixed-league option, and I'd rather not own Purcey in an AL-only league unless I had to. The other two guys? Pass. Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan are on the DL because of their respective surgeries, and it wouldn't be a shock if neither contributed in '09.

• The Rockies acquired Jason Hammel from the Rays on the cheap, mainly because he was out of options and the Rays decided to go with Jeff Niemann as their fifth starter. Colorado seems likely to use Hammel in middle relief for the time being. Even if he becomes a starter, I wouldn't mess with him even in an NL-only league.

On the farm

• By now, you know the Rays sent down David Price to Triple-A Durham to start the season. Here's hoping you didn't pay a mint for him in your fantasy draft. Anyway, the big question is: When will we see him in Tampa? My guess is that as long as Price excels for a couple of months, he'll be up as soon as the Rays ascertain that he can't be deemed a Super-Two player, which would allow him to file for arbitration before having completed three years of major league service. Since Super Two status is relative to other two-year players' service time, the exact date can't be known ahead of time, but it should be right around June 1.

• As for the minors' other almost-ready big-time arm, Tommy Hanson reportedly came within a few whiskers of making the Braves' rotation. The reason I like Hanson more than Price for '09 simply comes down to experience. Hanson pitched his first professional game in 2006; Price pitched his in '08. Each guy has a wonderful career ahead of him, but I'm betting Hanson has a more consistent big league stint this year.

• The Rangers' Tommy Hunter has a chance to be up by the All-Star break, or sooner if Texas' rotation implodes (as some expect). He's not Neftali Perez and he's not Derek Holland, but Hunter is probably closer to what he'll eventually be than those higher-upside guys are. Of course, he wouldn't be a great bet as a rookie in the long, hot Arlington summer.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.