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Build your keeper staff around youth

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With Rory McIlroy's impressive win in the U.S. Open, 20-somethings have now won four consecutive majors. But golf isn't the only sport where those in their third decade of life are dominating. On the mound, 20-somethings are also producing excellent results, better than many of their more seasoned teammates.

In fact, the SSRD360 Starting Pitcher Evaluator has 30 of the top-40 pitchers (75 percent) under the age of 30. And 14 of the top-20 pitchers (70 percent) are at least 20 years of age.

The "best of the best" for 2011 include Cole Hamels, Tommy Hanson, Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander, James Shields and Michael Pineda. These six, along with "old guys" Roy Halladay and Josh Beckett are the only pitchers with SSRD360 numbers under 3.00, which means excellent production in four fantasy categories -- ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and wins.

What does this mean for the fantasy owner?

In keeper leagues, it means you should be looking for youth. Sure, you could "sell the farm" to get Halladay, or you could do some research and find the next "Doc Halladay" for a lot less. And discovering the "diamond-in-the-rough" could mean many seasons of valued fantasy production.

Five years ago, I was doing minor league research and came across a young pitcher who was doing amazing things. At the time I saw him in 2007 he was at Fresno in the Pacific Coast League, going 4-0 with a stunning ERA of 0.29, a WHIP of 0.742 and 46 strikeouts in 31 innings. The minute he was called up, I was putting in my claim and I enjoyed the fruits of my work as that guy, two- time NL Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum, became the ace of my staff for many years.

But the minors isn't the only place to find your "ace".

If you have the 22-year-old Pineda on your roster, he could be the anchor of your staff. Or Hanson, the 24-year-old starter for the Atlanta Braves. There are actually 14 pitchers out of the top-40 who are under 25 years old.

Some are "media darlings" like David Price, Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw. But some are not so well known and might still be available for pickup in your league or through a reasonably-priced trade offer.

In my work league, a keeper league, 25-year-old Dillon Gee is still a free agent despite a 7-0 record, an ERA of 2.86 and a WHIP of 1.08. He's won five of his last six starts and has yielded just one earned run in his last three outings. It's a sure thing that you have at least one pitcher on your roster who hasn't produced at this level. Gee's only area of "weakness" is in his contribution to your strikeout total where he is averaging less than one per inning (49 in 66 IP). Gee is available as a free agent in about 40 percent of all leagues.

The Braves have a second young rising star in their rotation, Jair Jurrjens, who is producing excellent results. He's 9-3 with an ERA of 2.11 and a WHIP of 1.13. He may not be a free agent, but he's the kind of pitcher you want to build your staff around.

A third guy to build around is Arizona's 24-year-old starter Daniel Hudson. After a slow beginning, Hudson once again looks like the guy who in 2010 was the best National League pitcher after the All-Star break. After being traded to the Diamondbacks for Edwin Jackson, Hudson went 7-1 in 11 starts with an ERA of 1.69 and a WHIP of 0.841. Hudson struggled at the beginning of 2011, going 1-4 in April, but in his last 10 starts is 7-1 with an ERA of 2.67 and a WHIP of 1.13.

The final youngster on the list is Tampa Bay starter Jeremy Hellickson. The Rays' 24-year-old is 7-5, despite losing his last two starts, with an ERA of 3.09 and a WHIP of 1.14. He's got all the tools to be an ace and he's still available as a free agent in 20 percent of all leagues.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Steve Schwarz at sschwarz@sportsnetwork.com.

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