For the first time ever, I'm going to try my hand at a little prognostication. Tonight I'll go through my Top 10 pitchers in the American League.
I know, I know: Verlander's a poor bet to duplicate his Cy Young season. The .236 BABIP and 80.3% strand rate are unlikely to hold. However, 2011 was the third year in a row where Verlander put up an FIP under three. The last pitcher to pull this trick was Randy Johnson from 2000-2002. In other words, ERA tends to fluctuate but Verlander's fundamentals are strong. We all get caught in the trap of thinking that this year's ace will be next year's flop, but there are several recent examples of pitchers emerging in their mid to late-20s and becoming aces. Verlander could very well be the next one.
2) Dan Haren
Haren's poor (for him) 2010 makes him underrated in some circles. Mike Podherzer at Fangraphs put Haren in his second tier this winter, but I see an ace in Haren. His ridiculously low walk rate keeps the WHIP low no matter what happens to balls in play and Haren has earned between $25-32 four of the last five years in 5x5. My instincts tell me that Haren's in line for a big year this year and could take it to the next level this year if he keeps throwing that ridiculous cutter of his for strikes.
Is there such a thing as a $23 sleeper? If there is, Felix might be it. Despite nearly identical peripherals last year to 2009-2010, Felix's ERA jumped by 1.2 last year. I'm clearly joking when I call Felix a sleeper, but the fact that so many A.L. pitchers had strong seasons last year while Felix slipped could make him a relative bargain this year. If he's sitting in the mid $20s in any format, pounce.
4) David Price
For the third year in a row, Price's peripherals improved. Price was a little lucky in 2010; in 2011 he was somewhat unlucky. The slip in Price's ERA last year is good news if you're looking to build your staff around him this year; his price might slip a little bit despite the fact that he's a bonafide ace. Don't be afraid to grab him at a top tier price. Price looks like he's about to become the top shelf pitcher many thought he would be when he burst onto the scene in the heat of the 2008 pennant race.
5) CC Sabathia
CC had the second best season of his career last year, bested only by a 2008 campaign that was buoyed by his ridiculous run with the Brewers. So why do I "only" have CC 5th on this list? In part it's because I like the pitchers ahead of him, but it's partially because I feel like 2011 is his ceiling and he's more likely to do what he did in 2009-2010. That's obviously not bad (CC has earned $34, $30, and $29 in the last three years), but every year it seems less and less like CC is going to push into the earnings stratosphere and more and more like he's going to be one of the faces in the top tier. Pay for an ace here, but don't pay like it's September 2008.
6) Jered Weaver
I've seen Weaver second or third on many of these preseason lists. Intuitively this makes sense, as Weaver has been the second best A.L.-only, 5x5 starting pitcher two years running. The problem is that while Weaver's 2.41 ERA is dazzling, the 3.8 xFIP is far too much of an outlier to expect a repeat unless there's an improvement in Weaver's peripherals. The drop in Weaver's home run rate is nice, but he's a severe fly ball pitcher whose strikeout rate dropped last year. A low to mid $20s season wouldn't surprise me in the least in 2012.
I have a lot of love for Complete Game James, so if emotion counted for anything I'd rank him higher here. However, while Shields isn't quite the regression candidate that Weaver is, there are some things in his peripherals that make me wonder if he can put up a sub-3 ERA again. Can Shields keep his G/F rate above 1.3? Can he sustain his .258 BABIP? Will a pitcher who gives up so many HR put up a strand rate near 80% again? The answer to these questions is "probably not." As a fan of his game, I hope Shields repeats 2011, but I'm not betting on it.
8) Jon Lester
I was high on Lester last year (he was one of my picks for last year's Fantasy Baseball Guide), but this year I believe the arrow is pointing down. It's not so much that Lester took a step backward in 2011 (although based on his numbers it could easily be argued that he did) but rather he didn't emerge as a top shelf ace and this is now starting to look unlikely. My two biggest problems with Lester are his walk rate (he's the first guy on this list over three walks per nine) and the fact that he's never thrown more than 210 1/3 innings in a season. If you buy Lester, I'm confident you're buying a very, very good pitcher, but I can no longer tell you that you're buying an ace or an ace-in-the-making.
9) C.J. Wilson
More than a few analysts are down on Wilson heading into 2012. I have no idea why. He's moving from an awful environment for pitchers to a very good one, his walk rate dropped dramatically from 2010 to 2011 and he continues to throw five quality pitches for strikes. Wilson should continue to earn in the low $20s for the Angels and given the park has an opportunity to do even better than that. This ranking might look conservative by year's end.
10) Yu Darvish
Is this ranking too high? Too low? We're not really going to know anything for sure until we see him in regular season games. But from what I've seen Darvish's stuff is pretty damn impressive. I have a feeling he's going to be moving up quickly once the buzz picks up in Spring Training. This ranking is a placeholder, but I have few doubts that he belongs at least here if not a few ticks higher.