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Sleepers & Busts: Jonathon Niese, Justin Verlander

After kicking off this series last week with a look at Kenley Jansen and Michael Young, we continue today with a pair of starting pitchers.

Just a friendly reminder: The labels bandied about here -- "sleeper" and "bust" -- are relative to average draft position, courtesy of Mock Draft Central. For example, Carl Crawford would have provided sufficient value in the 24th round last year, but since he went off most draft boards in the first or second, he became a bust. You get the idea.

Jonathon Niese, Mets, ADP: 218.75

For some, Niese's appearance in a piece like this will elicit sleeper-list fatigue, while others will see it as an opportunity. Indeed, Niese has been a preseason breakout candidate a couple years running now, and those who've invested (hopefully not too heavily) have yet to be rewarded. However, the lefty's 2011 peripherals suggest that this could finally be The Year.

Last season, Niese flirted with periphs befitting a bona fide No. 3 fantasy starter: 7.89 K/9, 2.52 BB/9, 51.5% GB rate. Just for kicks, compare those to Ricky Romero's: 7.12 K/9, 3.20 BB/9, 54.7% GB rate. Niese bested Romero in two of those three categories, which, as Meatloaf tells us, ain't bad.

If you pour Niese's 2011 peripherals into the SIERA blender, it spits out a tidy 3.42 figure. Fantasy owners would have gladly taken an ERA in that neighborhood, but instead they were (mis)treated to a 4.40, rendering Niese a decent streaming candidate but hardly a must-own. Romero owners, meanwhile, laughed all the way to the bank with a 2.92 ERA/3.78 SIERA.

The one-run difference twixt Niese's ERA and SIERA can mostly be explained by his below-average strand rate of 67% and his alarmingly high .333 BABIP. Ground ballers typically have higher BABIPs than their flyball counterparts, and the Mets' infield defense is no great shakes at this point, but with a little more luck, Niese's BABIP will trend closer to .300, and with it, his ERA and WHIP will both come down.

With Niese's peripherals already rivaling pitchers who are being drafted far sooner (11 rounds, in Romero's case) than him, the southpaw is one to keep in your back pocket. He's had a couple injuries (unrelated to his arm) already in his career, so don't reach too far, but you'd be wise to regard him as someone who could bring real value to your roster if things break right rather than someone who's just filling out the back of your rotation.

Justin Verlander, Tigers, ADP: 8.81

Verlander, the winner of both the AL Cy Young and AL MVP in 2011, is a classic example of a fantasy commodity who's a victim of his own success. The right-hander was a fixture as a fourth-round selection (at least in my drafts) for several years before his fortune-addled 2011, and now some foolish owners are drafting him with their first pick.

Simply put: Don't be That Guy. Verlander is a terrific pitcher, but in terms of the peripherals, he didn't become appreciably better in 2011 than he was in 2010, 2009, or 2008. And more importantly, there was no way of predicting in which of those seasons his SIERA would be closer to 3.00 or 3.50. To his credit, Verlander refined his already solid control last season, whittling his BB/9 down to 2.04, but it was his well-above-average 80% strand rate and freakishly low .236 BABIP that were the real culprits.

To be clear: I have no reason to believe Verlander will be anything less than his career-average self in 2012. That should place him safely in the third round -- maybe the fourth depending on your league, although I find it hard to believe he'll last that long. But for the right-hander to warrant a first-round pick (or any pitcher, for that matter), he'll need to be head-and-shoulders above the rest of the pitching field, which is an impossible standard and tought to predict.

To wit: Let's say Verlander wins 18 games, strikes outs 219 in 224 1/3 innings, and posts a 3.37 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. Great season, right? Indeed. However, in 2010, when Verlander put up those very numbers, he was No. 41 overall on ESPN's Player Rater.

Reigning RotoAuthority champ Tom Warman suggests that taking a hurler before No. 15 overall is too soon in this new Era Of The Pitcher, and I tend to agree. Verlander should be a perfectly suitable fantasy ace once again in 2012, but he won't produce like a first-rounder, so be sure to pay accordingly.



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