With the sudden infusion of youth among pitchers, odds are good that consistent veterans will fly under the radar. Drafting Hiroki Kuroda in the 12th round isn’t as exciting as gambling on Michael Wacha‘s upside, but that doesn’t mean Wacha is the way to go.
Part 1 of this two-part countdown looked at pitchers I’ve ranked 6-10, so make sure to give that a read. When you’re done, check out the top five below.
From last time, remember that “valuable” means we’re looking at more than just performance. I’m actually weighing four factors:
- Cost to acquire
- Age and durability
- Skill set
- Projected future performance
5. Adam Wainwright (entering his age-32 season)
Disclaimer: Wainwright turned 32 on August 30, 2013, meaning he’ll be 32 and seven months come April 1, and he’ll be 33 before the end of the 2014 season. It’s my column, so I say that qualifies!
Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. If this article was all about ability, he would be number one.
Watching Wainwright’s dominance in 2013 probably compared to hearing Beethoven’s 5th symphony the first time it was ever performed. He might be 32, but with a fresh UCL and only six full seasons as a starter, his arms feels a lot younger.
During last year’s incredible campaign, Wainwright led baseball with 241 IP and managed to have the second-best K/BB ratio (6.26). Simply put, the overall body of work was impressive — 19 wins, 2.94 ERA, 1.07 WHIP. The future for Wainwright and the Cardinals is bright but you’re going to have to pay full price for it. That’s why he ranks fifth.
4. John Lackey (entering his age-35 season)
If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be writing nice things about Lackey, I probably would have used some unsavory language to explain just how wrong you were.
Lackey is for real yet still not everyone believes it.
After turning in one of the worst pitching seasons of all time (2011) while missing another entirely (2012), I never wanted to see the man again in a Red Sox uniform. To say that I had no expectations for him in 2013 would be an understatement. Every spring we hear reports about how “in shape” underperforming stars are, but this time it turned out to be true. Lackey was both hurt and fat in 2011 and he really did put in the work and rehab his career.
The results were evident. Lackey struck out 161 batters in just 189 innings, good for his best K/9 since 2006. He finished the season with a very respectable 3.52 ERA, and it wasn’t a mirage. He actually performed as well as his peripherals indicated — both his 3.49 xFIP and 3.56 SIERA were career-best marks.
Lackey is for real yet still not everyone believes it. Get him now.
3. A.J. Burnett (entering his age-37 season)
The Pirates had one heck of a year, and Burnett certainly had a lot to do with that success. He just had his finest year as a pitcher at the age of 36, and it’s hard to figure out exactly why.
His pitch selection was just about the same as it had been in years past with an almost identical reliance on fastball, curve, and changeup, so that’s not it. I checked his velocity for all three pitches, but there were no major changes.
It seems that a few things may have happened:
- His HR/FB was down to 9.1% from his career rate of 11.2%, largely due to the dimensions of PNC Park
- The “Russell Martin” factor
- The “not in New York” factor (the smaller the market, the better Burnett pitches)
Burnett completed the year with career best marks in ERA (3.30), xFIP (2.92), SIERA (3.10), and K/BB (3.12). I doubt a guy who puts up those types of numbers would call it quits, but this is one of the biggest situations to monitor this offseason.
2. Hisashi Iwakuma (entering his age-33 season)
After spending most of his pro career in Japan, Iwakuma came to the states to play for the Nintendo-owned Mariners in 2012.
In his first season with the Mariners, Iwakuma pitched out of the bullpen before making his starting debut on July 2nd. He made 16 starts that year and finished with a 3.16 ERA — 2.65 as a starter and 4.75 as a reliever.
In 2013, Iwakuma built on that success and finished the year with a 2.66 ERA, right where he left off in 2012, and a minuscule 1.01 WHIP. There are some potentially troubling peripherals to be aware of, however:
- .252 BABIP
- 81.9% strand rate (league average ~72%)
The BABIP is low, but with a 17.6% line drive rate and a 10.0% infield fly rate, a low BABIP is to be expected. The staggering amount of runners left on base doesn’t scare me away too much since the other guys near the top of that list are Yu Darvish, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw, and after doing it in back-to-back years, Iwakuma’s showing that preventing base runners from scoring probably requires an element of skill.
As far as repertoire goes, Iwakuma does possess two extremely effective pitches: a sinker and a splitter. While he lacks the track record of a true ace, his ERA, WHIP, and BA against are all top 10.
You know what won’t be top 10, though? His price.
1. Cliff Lee (entering his age-35 season)
Lee had one heck of a season last year, tossing 222.2 innings with 222 strikeouts, a 2.87 ERA, and a 1.01 WHIP while leading all of baseball with a 6.94 K/BB.
Lee had it all working, especially down the stretch — he had a 1.85 ERA in 39 IP during September and October. I own him in my dynasty league, and it’s stretch runs like Lee’s that remind you why you own him.
Despite his perennial greatness, Lee seems worse than he is for two reasons: his propensity for long balls and his age.
Last season, Lee ranked 52nd in baseball among qualified starters in HR/FB (10.9%) and in 2012 it was worse at (11.8%). Part of Lee’s problem is the park he plays in, and part of it is that he doesn’t throw particularly hard, instead relying on hitting his spots every time. Sometimes he misses, and sometimes he pays the price.
If you can package a position player and an above average starter (like Derek Holland) for Lee, I’d do that in a second. His style of pitching lends itself to a slow decline, and his perennially low WHIP over a substantial amount of innings is a joy to have anchoring your pitching staff.