- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
New York Yankees right-hander Hiroki Kuroda turned 38 years old this past weekend, but you'd hardly know it by the way he pitched last season. In fact, the underrated Kuroda finished the 2012 season No. 19 on ESPN's Player Rater among starting pitchers, ahead of Zack Greinke, Mat Latos, Adam Wainwright and others who will be selected considerably higher than him in drafts over the coming months.
Kuroda might never earn proper respect in fantasy circles because, let's face it, he can't get younger, and as we see in drafts across all fantasy sports and as noted in Thursday's blog entry on older hitters being ignored or downgraded for no other reason than the date on their birth certificate, there's inherent bias against older players. Let's keep the theme going with relevant pitchers who have passed the age of 35! Kuroda was 33 when he made his big league debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers, after years of dominating in Japan, and his worst ERA in five seasons here is 3.76, his worst WHIP 1.21. He's not a fantasy ace, not with a modest strikeout rate, but focus on what he is, especially at the reduced draft-day price his age provides.
Greinke, nearly a decade younger, has a career ERA and WHIP higher than Kuroda's worst single-season mark, yet the age and degree of potential -- and, of course, the relevant, tangible difference in strikeouts -- explains the large draft-day gap. Of course, I'd take Greinke earlier, too, and someday Kuroda will stop pitching like a much younger man, but every year the value pick between these two is the older fellow. Over the past three seasons, Kuroda has posted a cumulative 3.26 ERA and 1.18 WHIP, which is really, really good. Anyone concerned about the switch from the cozy NL West and Dodger Stadium to the mighty AL East and hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium didn't need to be, as Kuroda actually improved his numbers, and there's little reason to believe 2013 can't be even better.
ESPN Fantasy ranked Kuroda 32nd among starting pitchers, which is pretty much where I've got him, but I suspect he'll go later in drafts, as attractive youngsters such as Jarrod Parker, Matt Harvey and Lance Lynn pass him by. Those fellas possess upside, but aren't nearly as proven. Of course, of the seven pitchers directly ahead of Kuroda in the ESPN rankings, he topped them all on last year's Player Rater. Certainly we can't assume another 16 wins, as the category is erratic even for pitchers on top teams -- Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw each won seven fewer games in 2012 than the year before -- but when it comes to ERA, WHIP and durability, this is a safe No. 3 or 4 fantasy starter.
Here are five other starting pitchers on the wrong side of 35 years old not exactly getting the respect they are due. I left out new Toronto Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and former Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay because the former is a borderline top-10 starting pitcher and the latter, while coming at a large discount from last year's borderline first-round overall status, remains in high regard.
Tim Hudson, Atlanta Braves: Like Kuroda, he's not going to pile on the strikeouts, but he makes up for it with an outstanding WHIP. Plus, over the past three seasons only six pitchers have more wins. Now 37, Hudson probably will fall behind 50 other starting pitchers on draft day, making him a sweet bargain.
Ryan Vogelsong, San Francisco Giants: Most people probably think he's 25 or so, because he didn't become fantasy relevant until 2011. Wrong! Vogelsong was drafted by the Giants nearly 15 years ago. Perhaps he has overachieved with average stuff and depended on his home ballpark, but even if his cumulative 3.05 ERA and 1.24 WHIP the past two seasons regresses some, it's certainly draftable.
A.J. Burnett, Pittsburgh Pirates: Gambling on arms that move from AL to NL generally works out, especially when they bring the potential for 200 strikeouts. Burnett missed a few April starts with a fluke injury, otherwise he could have made it. If anything, Burnett's numbers could have been better, had his manager helped save him from a ghastly 12-run outing (in 2 2/3 innings) in May.
Ryan Dempster, Boston Red Sox: Some will view his 5.09 ERA over 12 starts with the Texas Rangers as his AL baseline, not his 2.25 ERA for the Chicago Cubs before being dealt. Of course, Dempster also whiffed 70 batters in 69 innings for Texas. His ERA might end up in the low-4s, but after averaging 190 strikeouts from 2008-11, he's capable of getting back there in Beantown.
Andy Pettitte, New York Yankees: Now 40, Pettitte posted a 2.87 ERA over 12 starts, and because the injury that cost him months was hardly due to old age, it's reasonable to expect at least 25 starts and an ERA that doesn't rise a whole lot more than that. This is a four-category pitcher you can draft well after the top 60 starters.