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Every year, I try to assemble the best possible baseball team with only two stipulations: each player must be earning less than $1 million for the 2007 season and the total cost of the team must be less than New York Yankees’ third baseman Alex Rodriguez’s average annual salary of $25 million. Last week, I released my offense; this week, it’s the pitching staff.

Starting Rotation
SP Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners – The King is the leader of my fantasy cheap team. After a dominating performance against the A’s on Opening Day in which he struck out 12, Hernandez backed up that performance with a one-hit shutout against the Boston Red Sox. The Mariners didn’t want him throwing his devastating slider last year, due to injury concerns, but now that the baby gloves are off, it’s time for Hernandez to become the second-best pitcher in the major leagues, behind that Johan Santana guy. His Cost: $420,000

SP Scott Kazmir, Tampa Bay Devil Rays – There are questions about Kazmir’s ability to stay healthy. Short pitchers -- and the Devil Rays’ ace is barely pushing the six foot mark -- are more prone to injuries than taller ones. His career high in innings pitched is 186, with elite pitchers usually in the 200-220 range. That, however, is likely due to the Devil Rays being more concerned with protecting their ace than any serious problems on the behalf of Kazmir. His Cost: $424,300

SP Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants – When the Boston Red Sox asked for Cain in return for outfielder Manny Ramirez in trade discussions this offseason, Giants’ general manager Brian Sabean probably laughed and hung up. If you need a sign of his dominance, consider this: opponents are hitting .203 against him for his entire career. He’s only 22, still about five or six years away from his prime. His Cost: $650,000

SP Rich Hill, Chicago Cubs – His overall statistics from last season don’t look so hot -- 6 and 7 with a 4.17 ERA -- but this southpaw ended the year on a magnificent hot streak. In five games started in August, Hill had an ERA of 3.38; September was even better: six starts, including two complete games, and an ERA of 1.93. Now that he can throw his amazing curveball for strikes, he’s making good on all the hype that surrounded him throughout his minor league career. His Cost: $400,000

SP Chien–Ming Wang, New York Yankees – It’s surprising to hear, but the Yankees actually have young, cheap talent. In his first season, Wang threw 116.1 innings and had an ERA of 4.02. His second year, 2006, was even better: a 3.63 ERA, 218 innings pitched, and 19 wins. The latter statistic led the American League. Trying to hit his splitter is like trying to hit a bowling ball, according to some major league hitters. His Cost: $489,500

My fantasy bullpen features a lot of power-armed relievers. If a major league team wants to win, it takes a lot of these. The only drawback is that this bullpen features no left handers, which could be a problem against the David Ortizs and Travis Hafners of the world. However, I’ll take my chances with this crew. There won’t be many runs scored against them.

The spot starter and long-inning reliever is right hander Adam Wainwright (St. Louis Cardinals / $410,000). He showed just how dominating he can be in the bullpen, with his impressive ability to throw four pitches for strikes, including the big, sweeping curveball that still gives Carlos Beltran the creeps.

For the middle innings, there’s a trio of right handers. Huston Street (Oakland A’s / $380,000) came out of the University of Texas and quickly made an impact as Oakland’s closer. Bobby Jenks (Chicago White Sox / $450,000) does have some command issues, but he can touch triple digits with his fastball. That’s just cool. Pat Neshek (Minnesota Twins / $395,000) limited opposing hitters to a .176 batting average last season and was lights out to right handers.

My setup men are two guys who flat-out do not allow batters to get hits. Chris Ray (Baltimore Orioles / $420,000) makes the team based on his outstanding performance last year as the Orioles’ closer and the .193 batting average against. Joel Zumaya (Detroit Tigers / $410,000) is more of the same: batters “hit” .187 against him last year, and there’s always that 102 mph heat. The pièce de résistance is closer Jonathan Papelbon (Boston Red Sox / $425,000). Last year, it can be argued, he was one of the top three closers in baseball. Paps finished the season with a 0.92 ERA and a ridiculous 0.78 WHIP.

Total Cost of Pitching Staff: $5,273,800