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February 27, 2012 posted by Albert Lang

The Chicago Cubs: Pitching their way into the Hearts of Fantasy Baseball Players

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Ryan Dempster, CHC. Sleeper?

There is a legitimate chance that the pitching staff of the Chicago Cubs will provide immense fantasy baseball value this season. Their number 1 starter is young and improving. Their number 2 starter is coming off of a poor season that had more than a hat tip from the bad luck department. The team acquired two young pitchers with peripherals that suggest more. In addition, their closer is coming off a down year but is one year removed from being a top reliever.

In short, every meaningful pitcher is, at least, slightly undervalued in fantasy baseball leagues.

According to Mock Draft Central, Matt Garza is the 31st SP off the board. Yahoo! has him as the 26th SP and ESPN has him at 29. Meanwhile the FP911 head-to-head rankings have him 16th among SPs. Garza devoured his first taste of the National League last season, setting a career best in ERA and K/9 and K:BB rates. He abused opposing line-ups to reach 197 K’s, tied for 17th most last season. While his 3.32 ERA was great (tied for 26th best), he actually performed a bit better than that indicates. From 2008-2010, Garza’s BABIP was basically .270; however it was .306 last season.

In addition, Garza began to throw his slider a lot more, resulting in a 46% ground ball rate. Pairing his K rate with that ground ball rate is the recipe for dominance. Garza can easily be a 190+ K guy with a 3.50 and 1.27 WHIP. He also has wholly realistic upside to post a low 3.00 ERA, solid 1.20 WHIP and 200+ K’s. It would be, by no means, shocking to see Garza flirt with top 10 SP status.

Ryan Dempster was a dumpster of disaster last season: 4.80 ERA and 1.45 WHIP. However, over the last four seasons, Dempster has averaged a 3.81 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 190 Ks. For what it’s worth, his FIP was 3.91 and his xFIP was 3.70 last year. Dempster’s career BABIP is right around .300, however it was .324 last season, despite no real change in his batted ball rates.

Further, Dempster had an 8.5 K/9 rate, 3.65 BB/9 rate and 2.33 K:BB rate – all similar or better than what he has done historically. However, because of some white noise, Dempster is the 82nd SP off the board in mock drafts, the 46th SP according to Yahoo! and the 61st SP according to ESPN.  Dempster is getting up there, and we’ve seen his best stretch, but he’s still capable of an ERA slightly under 4.00, a 1.35 WHIP and 180 Ks. That’s very useful.

Travis Wood’s career looks incredibly promising for someone who is just 25. He has a 4.18 ERA, 2.45 K:BB rate and 1.29 WHIP in 208.2 innings, most of which were thrown in the Great American Launching Pad.

After a stellar 2010 debut (that might have been slightly aided by a nice BABIP, although his ERA, FIP and xFIP were all close and under 4.00), Wood fell apart in 2011: he got fewer K’s and issued more walks. He didn’t lose any velocity, but, for some reason, threw his fastball less and change more.  However, aside from that poor adjustment, most things were in line with his successful 2010. In fact, he got a few more grounders and hardly anymore liners.

Wood has been phenomenal in the minors, flashing solid K/9 and K:BB rates. With 180 innings and a K-rate around 7, Wood could tally 140+ punch outs and post an ERA around 4.00, with a solid 1.30 WHIP. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Wood with a 3.80 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 160 K’s, making him a good late round flier.

Chris Volstad is likely a Viking – dude is 6’8, 232. Everyone’s jealous of the amount of carbs he gets to eat just so he can walk at a reasonable pace. Aside from Volstad’s largesse, his inability to produce an ERA resembling his FIPs and xFIPs is somewhat remarkable. In 2010, he had a 4.58 ERA, 4.34 FIP and 4.43 xFIP – he had a bit of an unlucky strand rate and got solid ground balls. In 2011, Volstad posted a 4.89 ERA, 4.32 FIP and 3.64 xFIP. Despite pitching in a reasonably spacious park, his HR/FB rate was 15.5%. In addition there was probably a little bad luck in his BABIP and strand rate.

Still, the remarkable thing in Volstad’s 2011 was his increased GB rate: 52.3%. He was able to up the ante on the grounders by cutting down on fly balls allowed – an incredibly useful skill for Wrigley Field. He also increased his swinging strike rate and decreased his contact rate. He threw his slider a bit more and his curve a bit less and cut down on his walks. Suddenly his K:BB rate resembled his minor league track record. If Volstad continues to progress (he is only 25), he could finish 2012 with a surprising 4.25 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 130 K’s. In deeper leagues, that’s nothing to scoff at.

Of course, it’s unclear if Volstad is a lock to make the rotation. In addition to the four pitchers above, Randy Wells and Paul Maholm are lurking.

Wells had a horrid season last year. When your ERA is 4.99 and your FIP is worse, that tells you something. Still, he posted back-to-back sub 4.00 FIPs from 2009 – 2010. For some reason, Wells threw his fastball and slider less last season, possibly because of an injury. Still, Wells is a league average pitcher at best and is zeroing in on 30. There’s not a ton of reason to give him 180 innings.

Maholm is a far more interesting pitcher, even though he is a shade older. Over the last three years, he has posted FIPs comfortably between 3.78 and 4.18. Last season was the first in awhile that his ERA was in the same zip code as his FIP. To be successful, Maholm really needs to keep his walk rate below 3.00, which he was able to do in his most successful seasons (2009 and 2011).

There is reason for optimism in 2012 as, in 2011, Maholm threw his fastball less and slider more and got more strike-outs. If he can remain healthy doing that he should secure himself a rotation spot and end up with a 4.20 ERA, 1.35 WHIP and 120 K’s.

With Garza and Dempster firmly entrenched at the top of the rotation, the rest of the starts should go, primarily, to Wood, Maholm and Volstad. Wood has the most upside but the other two pitchers represent real value for deeper leagues.

Albert has been playing and arguing about baseball and fantasy sports since 2002. Since 1982, he has also been largely miserable (here’s looking at you Armando Benitez) because of the Orioles and Eagles. Albert has won leagues and lost leagues, but he has the most fun debating player values. Albert typically plays in several baseball and football leagues a year. He also is an avid baseball card collector and writes about older players and their historical value relative to the Hall of Fame and their peers/current players. When not harassing league mates with trades and analyzing what categories his team performs poorly in, Albert is a communications professional in Washington, D.C. Follow Albert on Twitter @h2h_corner. He has an awesome puppy named Charlotte. You can find all of Albert's work at http://h2hcorner.wordpress.com/.
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