The Washington Times - March 11, 2009, 12:01AM

Some so-called fantasy experts will tell you that taking starting pitchers early in your draft is too risky. Nonsense. A strong starting rotation is the foundation for fantasy success, and you’ll have a much easier time finding adequate bats than reliable hurlers later in your draft. Don’t focus too much on wins and ERA when drafting starters, because those stats are determined in part by factors pitchers can’t control. Concentrate instead on WHIP, K-to-walk ratio and durability. Expected run support and the home ballpark factor can’t be ignored, but they’re overrated.

1. Tim Lincecum, SF


Lincecum captured the N.L. Cy Young award in his first full season by going 18-5 with a 2.62 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 265 strikeouts. Concerns about his small stature and unorthodox delivery scared off nine teams on draft day 2006; learn from their mistake, don’t repeat it.

2. Johan Santana, NYM +

Santana is so good that he went 16-7 with a 2.53 ERA and 206 K’s and some considered it a down year. He’s been durable throughout his career, but his elbow troubles this year are cause for concern and the reason he’s not No. 1 on this list.

3. CC Sabathia, NYY

Sabathia was incredible down the stretch in 2008, going 9-2 with a 1.56 ERA after the break. But keep in mind that the Brewers did all they could to ruin his left arm, and that he’s never pitched under as much pressure as he will this year.

4. Roy Halladay, TOR

Halladay had his best year in 2008, winning 20 games for the second time and establishing a new career high with 206 K’s. He has a reputation for being injury prone, but they’ve mostly been of the freak variety so don’t be too concerned.

5. Cole Hamels, PHI

Hamels’ 3.09 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 196-to-53 K-to-walk ratio indicate that he deserved better than his 14-10 record in 2008. The tall and lanky lefty is still just 25 years old and has future Cy Young award winner written all over him.

6. Brandon Webb, ARI

Webb is the Tim Duncan of starting pitchers: he’s kind of dull, but quietly outstanding. He used his heavy sinker to induce ground ball after ground ball once again in 2008 and finished with a 22-7 record, 3.30 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 183 K’s.

7. Dan Haren, ARI

Haren moved from the A.L. to the N.L. last season and had his best year yet, posting career highs in wins (16), K’s (206) and WHIP (1.13). He issued just 40 free passes last year and has made at least 33 starts in four consecutive seasons.

8. Jake Peavy, SD

Peavy had a down year in 2008, posting a 10-11 record in 27 starts. However, you know a pitcher is good when he has a 2.85 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 166-to-59 K-to-walk ratio in a down year. He has the potential to be the best starter in fantasy.

9. Cliff Lee, CLE

Lee captured the A.L. Cy Young award in 2008 with a 22-3 record, 2.54 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 170-to-34 K-to-walk ratio. On the other hand, you have to be wary of a guy who’s capable of posting a 6.30 ERA in any season, which Lee did in 2007.

10. John Lackey, LAA

Lackey missed significant time for the first time last season as a triceps injury limited him to 24 starts. He showed no ill effects after returning in June, however, going 12-5 with a 3.75 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 130-to-40 K-to-walk ratio.

11. Josh Beckett, BOS

Beckett had his finest year in 2007 but slumped in 2008, going 12-10 with a 4.03 ERA in 27 starts. His K-to-walk ratio (172-to-34) and WHIP (1.19) were outstanding, he’s just 28 and he’s backed by the Sox lineup, so expect a rebound.

12. Roy Oswalt, HOU

Oswalt is one of the safest bets among starters, having made at least 32 starts, pitched at least 208 2/3 innings, won 14 or more games and struck out 154 or more batters in each of the past five years. Expect more of the same in 2009.

13. Chad Billingsley, LA

Hopefully the broken leg Billingsley suffered slipping on ice this offseason won’t affect his progression toward becoming one of the better starters in baseball. He established career bests in wins (16), ERA (3.15) and strikeouts (201) in 2008.

14. A.J. Burnett, NYY

Burnett has long carried the injury-prone tag but made 34 starts in 2008. He set new career marks in wins (18) and K’s (231) but had an uncharacteristically high ERA (4.09) and WHIP (1.34). He’ll benefit from better run support in 2009.

15. Jon Lester, BOS

Lester looked like a future Cy Young award winner in his first full season, going 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 152 K’s. He’s backed by one of baseball’s best lineups and isn’t scared to pitch at Fenway (11-1, 2.49 ERA in 2008).

16. Edinson Volquez, CIN

The Reds got Volquez for Josh Hamilton in quite possibly the fairest trade ever and the young right-hander dazzled in his first full season, going 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA and 206 K’s. The walks (93) are a concern, but he’s still just 25.

17. James Shields, TB

Shields went 14-8 with a 3.56 ERA for the A.L. champs in 2008 and his 1.15 WHIP and 4-to-1 K-to-walk ratio (160 K’s, 40 walks) suggest he’s got 20-win potential. For now, you can count on him for 30-plus starts and 210-plus innings.

18. Daisuke Matsuzaka, BOS

Daisuke went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA in 2008, but you can’t ignore the un-acelike WHIP (1.32) and K-to-walk ratio (154-to-94). He remains a good bet to eat innings and win a lot of games with backing from the potent Red Sox offense.

19. Francisco Liriano, MIN

Liriano returned after a one-year absence due to Tommy John surgery and showed flashes of his 2006 form by going 4-0 with a 1.23 in August. Add his 10-2 triple-A record to his 6-4 mark with the Twins, and 17 wins isn’t out of the question in 2009.

20. Yovani Gallardo, MIL

Gallardo entered 2008 as one of baseball’s best pitching prospects but lost most of his season to a knee injury. He was outstanding in limited duty, posting a 1.88 ERA and fanning 20 in 24 innings. Consider him an outstanding mid-round sleeper.

21. Scott Kazmir, TB

Kazmir’s stuff is as good as just about anyone’s, but wildness and the resulting high pitch counts lead to short outings and limit his fantasy effectiveness. He’s a good bet for around 15 wins, though, and could challenge for the league lead in K’s.

22. Felix Hernandez, SEA

King Felix’s obvious talent has yet to yield the results that fantasy players are hoping for, but he’s only 22. Expect 12 to 15 wins, an ERA around 3.50 and 175 to 200 strikeouts, and if this is the year he puts it together, you’ll get much, much more.

23. Carlos Zambrano, CHC

Big Z is a tough competitor and always a good bet for around 15 wins, but his K rate has steadily declined over the past several years and he walks too many batters to be a true ace. He’s a good guy to have on your staff; just don’t reach.

24. Adam Wainwright, STL

A middle finger sprain limited Wainwright to 20 starts in 2008 but he made the most of them, going 11-3 with a 3.20 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. Keep in mind that he doesn’t fan as many hitters as most other top-notch starters (91 K’s in 132 innings last year).

25. Zack Greinke, KC

Playing for the Royals has helped to mask the fact that Greinke is one of the better starters in baseball. The 25-year-old went 13-10 with a 3.47 ERA and 183 K’s last year and sizzled down the stretch, going 4-2 with a 1.84 ERA in his last seven starts.

26. Brett Myers, PHI

Myers made the transition back from closer to starter last year and was so bad in the first half (3-9, 5.84 ERA) that he was sent to the minors. He then reminded everyone how good he really is by going 7-4 with a 3.06 ERA after the All-Star break.

27. David Price, TB

This flame-throwing lefty went 12-1 with a 2.30 ERA during his tour of the minors last year, then posted a 1.93 ERA and 0.93 WHIP and K’d 12 in 14 big league innings. The sky’s the limit for Price, but he could start the year in the minors.

28. Ricky Nolasco, FLA

Nolasco surprised everyone by going 15-8 with a 3.52 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 186-to-42 K-to-walk ratio in 2008. And while it would be a mistake to assume he’ll be able to repeat those numbers this year, you don’t pitch that well by mistake.

29. Ervin Santana, LAA +

Santana was plagued by inconsistency and almost incomprehensible road struggles his first two seasons. He put those troubles behind him in 2008 and went 16-7 with a 1.12 WHIP and 214 K’s, but his elbow issues are cause for concern.

30. John Danks, CHW

Danks took his lumps as a rookie in 2007 but clearly learned from it as he emerged as one of the A.L.’s better left-handed starters last year at 23. He went 12-9 with a 3.32 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 159 strikeouts and should only get better.

31. Derek Lowe, ATL

Lowe has made 32 or more starts and won 12 or more games in seven straight years and can usually be counted on for a good ERA and WHIP. He doesn’t hurt himself with walks, either. He’s one of the safer bets among starters entering 2009.

32. Erik Bedard, SEA

Bedard was such a disappointment in his first year with the Mariners - 6-4, 3.67 ERA in 15 starts - that it’s easy to forget how dominant he was with the O’s in 2007. Here’s a refresher: 13-5, 3.16 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 221 strikeouts in 182 innings.

33. Joba Chamberlain, NYY (RP)

If the Yankees just put Joba in the rotation and leave him there, he’ll probably be one of baseball’s better starters. The 2.65 ERA and 118 K’s - as opposed to just 39 walks - in 100 1/3 innings suggest that all the hype may in fact be justified.

34. Ryan Dempster, CHC

Dempter’s return to starting was a huge success, as he went 17-6 with a 2.97 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 187 K’s in 2008. His track record suggests you should expect a drop-off, but 75 percent of what he did last year would still make him quite valuable.

35. Ted Lilly, CHC

Maybe it’s because it took him so long to get going, but Lilly has quietly become one of the better left-handers in baseball. He followed up a solid 2007 campaign by going 17-9 with a 4.10 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 184-to-64 K-to-walk ratio last year.

36. Matt Garza, TB

Garza started to scratch the surface of his potential in 2008 by going 11-9 with a 3.70 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. He fanned a underwhelming 128 batters in 184 2/3 innings, but he’s just 25 and his minor league totals suggest there’s potential for more.

37. Gavin Floyd, CHW

Floyd had been a prospect for so long that most had given up on him by last spring, but he responded by going 17-8 with a 3.84 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in his first full season. He fanned a somewhat underwhelming 145 batters in 206 innings, though.

38. Matt Cain, SF

Cain has good stuff but has managed just a 15-30 record over the past two seasons. Walks have played a role, as the 91 he issued in 217 2/3 innings contributed to a pedestrian 1.37 WHIP in 2008. The 186 K’s and 3.77 ERA are encouraging signs.

39. Javier Vazquez, ATL

Vazquez managed just a 12-16 record and 4.67 ERA in 2008 but K’d 200 batters in 208 innings while walking just 61. He usually approaches 200 K’s and has won 10-plus games in nine straight years. He should benefit from his move to the N.L.

40. Max Scherzer, ARI +

Scherzer has dominated in brief stops at every minor league level and more than held his own in 56 big league innings last season, posting a 3.05 ERA and 1.23 WHIP with an impressive 66 K’s. Shoulder woes this spring are a concern.

41. Jered Weaver, LAA +

Weaver has gone backward since debuting with an 11-2 mark and 2.56 ERA in 2006 and went just 11-10 with a 4.34 ERA last year. He did post a solid 1.29 WHIP and fan 152 batters in 176 2/3 innings and should take a step forward in 2009.

42. Gil Meche, KC

Everyone thought five years and $55 millon was too rich a deal for Meche, and everyone was wrong. He turned in a second straight solid season for the Royals in 2008, going 14-11 with a 3.98 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 183 K’s in 210 1/3 innings.

43. Justin Verlander, DET

Verlander looked like one of baseball’s best young starters entering 2008, then went out and put up a massive clunker (11-17, 4.84 ERA, 1.40 WHIP). He was great in 2006 and 2007, though, and is only 26. Don’t reach, but he’s a solid sleeper.

44. Aaron Harang, CIN

After two straight 16-win seasons, Harang battled a sore arm in 2008 and slumped to a 6-17 record and 4.79 ERA. On the bright side, he posted a 3-to-1 K-to-walk ratio and had a 3.19 ERA in his last seven starts. He’s likely to bounce back.

45. Rich Harden, CHC +

You know the deal with Harden by now; when healthy, he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball, but he’s rarely healthy. And before you gamble on him repeating his 2.06 ERA and 1.06 WHIP last year, be aware that his shoulder is acting up again.

46. Chien-Ming Wang, NYY

Wang overcame underwhelming stuff to win 19 games in 2006 and 2007, and might have done so again last year if not for a foot injury that limited him to 15 starts. Backed by the Yankees’ stacked lineup, he’s a good bet for 15-plus wins if healthy.

47. Mike Pelfrey, NYM

Pelfrey settled in after an ugly start and ended up going 13-11 with a 3.73 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in his first full season in 2008. He doesn’t miss many bats (110 K’s in 200 2/3 innings) but should win a good number of games for a solid Mets team.

48. Scott Baker, MIN

Baker somehow flew under the radar last year despite an 11-4 record, 3.45 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 141 strikeouts in 172 1/3 innings. He’s 27 and plays for a contender, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t pitch similarly well this season.

49. Josh Johnson, FLA

Johnson came back from Tommy John surgery last year and looked no worse for wear, going 7-1 with a 3.61 ERA and 77 K’s in 87 1/3 innings over 14 starts. The 6-foot-7 righty looks like a potential future ace and makes for a fine sleeper pick.

50. Kevin Slowey, MIN

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