There's only one bulletproof strategy when it comes to pitchers: Avoid them.
Now, I admit -- that's an awfully strange way of opening a column on breakout pitchers, but it's no joke. Almost all of them are inconsistent, prone to injury and alarmingly superstitious.
Suppose this were Wall Street -- would you put stock in a creature that leaps over white lines, screams at himself and prefers being left alone on a bench? In the real world, these characteristics typically earn someone a one-way ticket to the isolation ward. In baseball, they're revered.
Unfortunately, punting every pitching category won't win you anything but a few laughs. And since you can't avoid arms entirely, the next-best strategy is to limit the risk.
Unlike in real baseball, building your fantasy team around big-name pitchers is a recipe for disaster. Just ask all those disgruntled managers who staked their title hopes on Chris Carpenter, Jason Schmidt and Rich Harden last season, only to watch everything go down in injury-induced flames.
Sure, securing your rotation with the likes of Josh Beckett and C.C. Sabathia is tempting but nonetheless highly combustible. You're better off assembling a strong offensive core before expending any energy on starters not named Johan Santana.
That's where breakout pitchers come into play.
Last year, Fausto Carmona, Rich Hill, Dan Haren, Erik Bedard, James Shields, Jeff Francis, John Maine, Oliver Perez, Dustin McGowan, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny and Beckett all took major steps forward among starters. Plucking two or three of these kinds of arms could easily put an offensive juggernaut over the top.
Relievers are a different beast. With so few saves to go around, getting one or two closers with job security makes sense. The rest is more of a guessing game, just as it was with choosing whether or not to pounce on Manny Corpas, Joakim Soria, Kevin Gregg, Jeremy Accardo and Matt Capps before save opportunities came knocking last year.
Taking chances on mid-tier firemen who have the talent to join the top finishers can work, as well. Hard throwers like Francisco Cordero and Jose Valverde come to mind as examples from last season.
Who's ready to join the next class of breakthrough pitchers?
Yovani Gallardo, SP, Brewers: At 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, Gallardo doesn't look like an ace. He hardly acts like one, either. Instead of breathing fire, Gallardo bottles his emotions on the mound. But make no mistake about it: He has all the qualities of a front-line guy. Consider the way Gallardo flew through the Brewers farm system in three seasons, stringing together a 2.49 ERA while averaging 10.40 strikeouts per nine innings. Or his seamless transition to the Majors last season, when he boasted a 3.67 ERA and a 101/37 K/BB ratio at the age of 21. There's no such thing as a can't-miss arm, but Gallardo is as close as it gets. With a nasty curve and terrific command, it may not be long before the right-hander bypasses Ben Sheets to become Milwaukee's ace.
Tim Lincecum, SP, Giants: Much like Gallardo, Lincecum looks more like your local paperboy than a staff anchor. Of course, don't tell that to opposing hitters, who were schooled by the baby-faced fireballer to the tune of a combined 196 strikeouts in 177 1/3 innings in Triple-A and the Majors last year. Come to think of it, the 23-year-old hasn't disappointed at any level of play, dating back to when he became the first player to be named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and the conference's Pitcher of the Year at the University of Washington. Lincecum needed only 63 innings of Minor League seasoning -- during which he delivered a dazzling 1.00 ERA -- before reaching San Francisco. The only blemish came last June, when he got shelled for a 7.71 ERA, but the phenom quickly bounced back and recorded a 3.39 mark after the All-Star break. Regarded as one of baseball's brightest prospects at this time last year, Lincecum won't take anyone by surprise this time around. What might be surprising is how quickly he makes the leap from potential ace to actual ace, as it'll probably take an injury to keep Lincecum from reaching 200 Ks in '08.
Zack Greinke, SP, Royals: I touched on Greinke as a player to forgive last week, but he deserves mention here as well. On the doorstep of 500 career innings and coming off an extraordinary ending to the 2007 season, Greinke is poised for his best season yet.
Matt Garza, SP, Rays: Everyone knows Garza from the big Twins-Rays trade this offseason in which Delmon Young was sent to Minnesota. What everyone might not remember -- or "misremember," to borrow a Roger Clemens phrase -- is what a stud Garza was down on the farm. This is a pitcher who was named USA Today's Minor League Player of the Year in 2006, when he went 14-4 with a 2.00 ERA and a 154/32 K/BB ratio across three levels. His numbers weren't as strong at Triple-A Rochester last year (3.62 ERA), but how would you feel if you had to spend more time in the Minor Leagues after being named their top pitcher? Probably a little frustrated, and I suspect that crept into Garza's thought process every time he took the hill for the Red Wings in '07. With that issue behind him, look for the 24-year-old right-hander to reward the Rays' belief in his electric stuff, ground-ball-inducing style and decent control. Expect a major breakthrough from Garza, who's no doubt thrilled to have a spot waiting for him in a big league rotation.
Phil Hughes, SP, Yankees: The Yankees are counting on the 21-year-old Hughes to not only become a fixture in their rotation but also become a legitimate force in short order. This became especially clear after the team reportedly balked at including him in a deal for Johan Santana this offseason. There's reason to believe he won't disappoint. Hughes has the stuff of a No. 1 starter, with a sensational curve, two different fastballs and a plus slider. He also looks the part of an ace, as his 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame makes hitters think twice about crowding the plate. Ankle and hamstring injuries cost Hughes half of the 2007 season and kept him from getting into any sort of rhythm. But if his outstanding stuff, solid control and Minor League resume (2.09 ERA, 10.18 K/9) are signs of what's to come, a healthy Hughes could take flight quickly. Now is the time to invest.
George Sherrill, RP, Orioles: This is more of a hunch, and a lot of variables go into muddled firemen situations, but someone has to fill the void in Baltimore's bullpen. Considering the uninspiring cast of O's relievers led by journeymen Chad Bradford and Jamie Walker, why not take a chance on Sherrill? After all, the late-blooming lefty came into his own as Seattle's setup man last season, quietly notching a 2.36 ERA and a 56/17 K/BB ratio while holding right-handed hitters to a .212 average. Those are closer-worthy numbers well worth targeting once the Jason Isringhausens of the world are off the board.
Kevin Slowey, SP, Twins: Minnesota won't be the same without Johan Santana around to stabilize its staff, but don't expect everything to suddenly fall apart. In fact, impetus for the Twins feeling comfortable enough to deal Garza and Santana this offseason was their deep array of young arms. Francisco Liriano aside, no Twins starter stands out more than Slowey, who's earned comparisons to Greg Maddux and Brad Radke for his pinpoint control. Throwing strikes is one thing, but issuing only 18 walks in 133 2/3 innings as Slowey did last year at Rochester is a whole other ballgame altogether. This rare ability to put the ball wherever he wants it makes Slowey someone to stash away before everyone else jumps on the bandwagon, even if he doesn't have much zip on his fastball.
Honorable mention: Scott Baker, SP, Twins; Chad Billingsley, SP, Dodgers; Andy Sonnanstine, SP, Rays