Big Board's Picks: Starting Pitcher

This week at Harper Wallbanger, I'm sorting through the Big Board for 12-team 5x5 leagues to find the must-draft and must-avoid players at each position. Welcome to the final stretch, it's starting pitchers!

STATE OF THE POSITION

Last year's story was how reliable the top 20 or so "aces" were, and then the great homerun surge of '16 happened. This year the search for reliable pitching stands on much shakier ground, with a solid top-10 followed by question marks on top of question marks. I'm taking one of those top 10 aces and then searching for values. As always, there is a tier of overvalued mid-range guys including Paxton, Nola, and Rodon. I love these guys too, but there is a real trick to drafting them. Someone always ends up taking them very, very early. Every bit of profit you might get from predicting their breakout is thrown out the window by doing that, and so then you're hoping for a breakout on top of a breakout! It's a bad bet. So I'll be shooting for the overlooked potential breakout SP's... here we go.

TARGET: Jharel Cotton
165 IP, 10 W, 155 SO, 3.60 ERA, 1.19 WHIP

Kal-El Cotton (sick Superman reference, nerd) impressed over a 30 inning debut down the stretch last year, riding his strong changeup and control to a 2.15 ERA and 0.82 WHIP with a 17% K-BB%. He somehow managed to get traded to the ideal landing location for his profile last year, as he's an extreme flyball pitcher and generates a ton of popups (always a great thing with Oakland's ample foul ground and HR-suppressing marine air). Innings should be no problem as he put up about 170 last year between the majors and minors. This is exactly the sort of pitcher that tends to get overhyped into the stratosphere, but he's somehow avoided it so far, so get him while you can.

When to target: Round 18 at the latest. 

Risk profile: Medium.

TARGET: Lance McCullers
170 IP, 13 W, 192 SO, 3.48 ERA, 1.29 WHIP

Among all pitchers that put up 80 IP in '16, the leaders in xFIP were: 1) Kershaw. 2) JoFer. 3) Thor. And 4).... McCullers! The only reason a pitcher this good is being this overlooked are the injury concerns, and that means the price has stayed reasonable throughout draft season. I will take the skills and pray for health, because McCullers has a great shot at leading the league in K's and GB's this year, two parts of the holy pitching trifecta. The BB's on the other hand, are a bit of an issue, but we've seen young aces overcome that before (it's a lazy comp, but Kershaw comes to mind). If you expand to consider the "quad"-fecta of pitching, he's been great at limiting HR's in his time in the majors as well. The downside is that you could lose him at any moment to an arm injury, but we could say that of any pitcher, and the upside is so, so sexy.

When to target: Round 11.

Risk profile: High.

TARGET: Gio Gonzalez
183 IP, 12 W, 177 SO, 3.80 ERA, 1.30 WHIP

Everyone knows Gio had a bad year in '16, but did he deserve it? He improved on his K-BB% from '15, got more popups, and left less guys on base thanks to an elevated homerun rate. Now he's all but forgotten in drafts, but I'm projecting him to be more like the '15 version than the '16 version, and that means a reliable 170-190 IP with ratios that won't kill you and about a K per inning. If you go risky early in the draft, fall back on a reliable arm like Gio's while everyone else is drafting the high-bust-percentage late round guys. He won't win you your league, but he won't lose it, either.

When to target: I used to be completely 'out' on Gio, so now I'm surprised if anyone actually wants him in drafts. That said, I think to be safe you can shoot for him in Round 18.

Risk profile: Low.

Deep TARGET: Alex Wood
135 IP, 8W, 127 SO, 3.46 ERA, 1.25 WHIP

With the announcement that Hyun-jin Ryu has made the Dodgers' rotation, I'm now a bit worried about Wood's shot at the #5 slot. That said, I'm only projecting 135 innings here, which I think is very do-able when he's competing with Ryu, Rich Hill, and Brandon McCarthy for playing time. Wood has consistently been a good bet for a K per inning and some HR suppression, and last year he added some groundball-generating skills on top of that. Health is a bit of a question, but his six-start stretch from 4/29-5/30 last year shows his upside: 2.80 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 29.6% K-BB%. Solid last round pick as nobody seems to want him right now.

Risk profile: Medium (health/playing time).

AVOID: Danny Duffy
185 IP, 12 W, 176 SO, 3.80 ERA, 1.24 WHIP

Duffy had a feel-good breakout story last year, but I'm just not bought in. He nearly led baseball (among qualifers) in Hard% allowed, coming in second only to Hector Santiago and tying with Robbie Ray. He generates an extreme amount of flyballs, which likely played well with the Royals extreme outfield defense, but with Dyson gone and Soler added, that will no longer be as much of a strength. What's more, his velo is down significantly in spring. All these question marks mean that someone else is going to be more bullish on Duffy than I am in every draft.

AVOID: David Price
160 IP, 11 W, 155 SO, 3.53 ERA, 1.16 WHIP

Fantasy circles are downplaying the risk for David Price. Right now, it seems unlikely he will pitch until late-May, and that's the best case scenario. The Sox are going with this slow rehab process because they hope to compete this year, but realistically there is still a high chance that he needs flexor surgery or TJ, and that means he's done for the year. Considering that, I think the projection I listed above is still quite optimistic, and yet it's still not enough to land me Price on any of my teams so far. Oh, PS, this was also a guy that put up a terrible season (in terms of run-suppression) last year, so there were already some question marks. Staying away.