The new era of pitching has led to a lot of guys who put up solid numbers for a starter. That said, there are a few guys who are worth picking extremely high.
1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers – Kershaw right now might be the first pitcher to approach the levels that Pedro Martinez held in the late 90s/early 2000s. Martinez was the first pitcher ever to earn $50 in an “experts” league auction draft. He was a legit top-5 pick in snake drafts. This year, Kershaw will likely be in that same boat. His numbers aren’t as other-worldly as Pedro’s were, but he is far and away the best pitcher in the game.
2. Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers – Darvish may be the only pitcher in the game with the arm health to throw the innings with the skills to actually accumulate 300 strikeouts. While 200 strikeouts is much more common now than it once was, no one has eclipsed Darvish’s 277 from 2013 in a decade, and it seems Darvish gets more and more comfortable with an added workload each season he’s in the US. He may not put up as sparkling of numbers as Kershaw, but that one category of production so far beyond anyone else while still putting up elite numbers is what has him #2 for me.
3. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners – Felix isn’t going to throw a 1.50 ERA out there or strike out 300 guys or likely win 20 games, but he is the same elite level pitcher year in and year out. He has finished top 15 the last 4 years without winning more than 14 games in any season. Felix has a few big-money hitters behind him after this offseason, which could mean more wins, but if you’re smart about pitching, you never seek out wins. Felix gives you everything else, and that’s why he’s here.
4. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals – One of the lesser-mentioned aspects of Tommy John surgery is that the pitcher in his return typically needs one season to get the feel back to pitching. Yes, he can throw, but to get his arm motion back to generate movement on a breaking pitch or a tailing fastball takes a season of work to come around. Wainwright is exhibit A. After a pedestrian 2012 by his own standards, Wainwright looked like the same pitcher he was in 2009 and 2010 before his surgery last year. He’ll give you good innings with good ratios and 200+ strikeouts.
5. Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies – When you discuss a young pitcher achieving command, Lee is the mold. Lee came into the league as a high-end sort of guy, expected to blow by hitters with his raw stuff. The problem is that the only thing he could get over the plate was a straight fastball, so he either had a 5 ERA or he missed the plate and put guys on base. Something clicked for Lee in 2008, and he’s been the model guy for command ever since. The Phillies on paper won’t be a team that gives its pitchers much for wins, but Lee will have an elite WHIP and strikeout numbers that are very high-end.
6. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers – Verlander looked his old self in the playoffs, so this may be a ranking that looks way too low at the end of the season, but Verlander simply wasn’t himself in 2013′s regular season. He will still be among the elite strikeout guys, but if his fastball continues to level out, fantasy owners could see a lot higher ERA and WHIP than the elite Verlander. If you can get him for $10-20 cheaper than Kershaw or in the 5th-6th round in a draft, then jump on him, but otherwise, it may be wise to let someone else gamble that Verlander’s back to himself.
7. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals – Strasburg came into the league with as much hype and notoriety as any pitcher in baseball. He seems to find his way onto the DL with a sore/numb arm quite a bit, which worries me about his ability to ever become a consistent 200-IP pitcher and move higher on this list. That said, when he’s pitching, he has elite strikeout rates and can make even elite hitters look foolish. Strasburg shouldn’t be expected to rack up 250 K’s, but if you take him for a lower inning guy and keep some other high-inning guys around him in your fantasy rotation, you should do very well.
8. Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers – Scherzer was that guy on the verge for years, but in 2013, he took the next step. Scherzer has a big fastball, and when he can command his pitches, results like he produced in 2013 can be expected from him. As long as he maintains his command from 2013, owners will enjoy plugging Scherzer into their fantasy rotations.
9. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox – Sale scares me. I may underrate him, but I just think there’s a blow up coming for his arm sooner rather than later. I’m not a doctor or an expert on arms by any means, but his motion is simply so violent that it will continue to scare me. That said, the production cannot be ignored. He’ll put a solid strikeout rate, but his wins options for the White Sox could be low.
10. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants – Bumgarner is the first guy on my list who is producing less than 200 K in my projections, but a big part of it is that his projections are based on what he’s done thus far, and I think there’s a big upswing coming for Bumgarner akin to what happened with Scherzer, but Bumgarner was already a top 15 pitcher before what I believe will be a jump to another level this season.
11. Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins – Fernandez exploded on the scene in 2013, and those who had paid attention saw it coming. He’s in a perfect park, playing in front of a team that highly emphasizes defense, and he has ridiculous stuff. Fernandez may not win 20 games with the team behind him, but that’s the only starter category that he won’t impress his owners in.
12. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays – Price has made a lot of headlines in the offseason. He will be throwing solid innings with solid ratios and good K numbers. The question is who he will be throwing for. Price will be a hot trade commodity, so for AL-only owners may have some worries that they’ll lose him midseason if he’s traded to an NL team, so that uncertainty bumps him down some.
13. Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle Mariners – Iwakuma was a highly-requested pitcher coming over from Japan, and he showed in 2013 why he was so desired. Iwakuma isn’t going to strike out 250 guys, and he won’t put up consistent seasons like Kershaw, but when he gets on a run, he can be untouchable, and one of those runs a season will leave Iwakuma being an elite starter in fantasy.
14. Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves – Braves fans have loved Teheran until 2012 when many, including this writer, raised some serious concerns about his ability to keep the ball in the park. Teheran has bounced back significantly, and while he can be stung by the long ball, he has electric stuff that will only become more elite as he pitches more innings.
15. Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers – Greinke was the big-ticket pitcher of the 2012-2013 offseason, and he became a tremendous 1-2 punch with Clayton Kershaw as the season went on. Greinke doesn’t put up any number that overwhelms, but he does do well in every single category, allowing him to be a top end producer in the end.
16. Anibal Sanchez, Detroit Tigers – Sanchez was underrated in the deep rotation that the Tigers put out in 2013. He was an elite pitcher in everything but wins. He is on a team with an excellent offense, and moving in Jose Iglesias at shortstop and moving Miguel Cabrera to first while having Nick Castellanos man third base will improve the offense behind him as well. He could certainly take another step forward as long as he can stay healthy.
17. Homer Bailey, Cincinnati Reds – Bailey was once the premium pitching prospect in all of baseball. In 2013, he showed those elite skills in production finally at the major league level. Bailey’s home park does leave some worries for a fly ball pitcher, but he’s worked to get the ball on the ground more, and he should have a very solid defensive outfield for the balls he keeps in the park.
18. Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals – Gonzalez loses the touch on his pitches and struggles with command at times, which can make him a volatile pitcher to own, but at his best, Gonzalez can be a 200+ strikeout pitcher with the ability to dominate hitters. His 2012 season was a good example of what he can do at his peak. I am projecting somewhere between 2012 and 2013, and he could honestly go either direction.
19. Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals – Zimmermann is probably well under the radar, especially behind guys like Gonzalez and Strasburg in his own rotation, but he has shown as he gets more and more innings the ability to keep the ball on the ground, and while he may not strikeout 200, his ratio numbers are good enough to warrant his placement this high.
20. Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves – Minor was the college control guy who hit the minor leagues and turned into a control guy who can strikeout hitters with frequency. Minor’s control has moments where it comes and goes, but he’s usually spot on, and with the defense behind him, he’s in good shape as he lets the ball get hit as well.
21. Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays – Maybe we were all just a year early, including the Rays. Moore’s a prototype sized pitcher with ridiculous movement on his pitches and a diverse repertoire. Fantasy experts were all over Moore in 2013, leading to some high prices at draft time. Use that to your advantage in 2014 as he should go cheaper than what his skillset should earn you back.
22. Mat Latos, Cincinnati Reds – Latos isn’t putting up the rate stats that he did in San Diego, but moving from the Padres park to the Reds home settings will do that to a pitcher. Fantasy owners may have missed that not much else changed with Latos. His rate stats are still very solid and he strikes out hitters at a very solid rate.
23. Alex Cobb, Tampa Bay Rays – Cobb owners in 2013 were enjoying a tremendous season before a tragic ball to his face left Cobb out for two months of 2013. Around those two months, Cobb put up elite numbers, albeit not high strikeout numbers. His injury will cause some owners to pass him up due to last year’s stats, but you can draft with confidence.
24. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants – Cain took some big steps back in 2013, and unlike Verlander, he didn’t have the opportunity to leave owners with a positive postseason run to remember. Cain may not be the guy everyone was projecting him to be coming into 2013, but he’s not as poor as his 2013 season seemed. Take him as your #2 or #3 in your fantasy rotation, and you’ll be very happy that you did.
25. James Shields, Kansas City Royals – Shields is a legit ace in real baseball. He’ll pitch 200+ innings, and through his inning stack, he racks up solid strikeouts. Shields has solid rate stats as well. Kansas City has a solid defense behind him. Kansas City is looking to build on their success from 2013, and Shields will be the pitching catalyst.
26. Doug Fister, Washington Nationals – Fister was sold for a proverbial bag of balls this offseason to the Nationals, and Braves fans will rue having him in their division. Fister is the definition of a professional pitcher. He’s going to throw solid innings, keep the ball on the ground, and should give his team a chance to win every game. He won’t have a ton of strikeouts, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see his rate stats come down with his move to the National League.
27. Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh Pirates – Liriano was a pure stud last season after being written off for dead before the year. Pittsburgh got him for nearly nothing, and they ended up with a top-5 Cy Young Award candidate. The big change for Liriano was something very common in Pittsburgh, which is emphasis on the changeup. Liriano has always had a killer change, but he would typically dip into his slider any time he needed a swing from a batter. Now he has two options. That said, he still has fly ball tendencies, and there were some luck factors in his 2013 season that keeps him this low, but he should be a solid pitcher in 2013.
28. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies – Hamels went through a similar thing as his teammate Lee did in 2012. He produced at a high level, but he didn’t get wins from his team. He likely won’t get many this year as well, but the reason he’s here in spite of his usual good peripherals in 2013 outside of the wins is that he has recently revealed shoulder soreness that could cause him to miss opening day. I’ve got him here really as a hedge to good production if the shoulder proves fine, but Philly’s last shoulder issue just retired this offseason.
29. Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox – Lester came back in a strong way in 2013. He’s a fly ball pitcher in a bad park for that, so his ERA and WHIP won’t be great, but he’ll put up solid strikeout numbers and should give his team a chance to win by pitching deep most evenings.
30. Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates – Cole is a guy I love this season, maybe even more than I did Jose Fernandez going into 2013. Cole has an array of pitches that perhaps only Kershaw can match up with. His big thing will be command and control of all those pitches and learning how to sequence major league pitchers. There may be some growing pains in 2014, but he’s on his way to being a star pitcher in my opinion.
Braves starters not in the top 30: Kris Medlen comes in at #40 on my list, and I’d still feel very comfortable with Medlen as a #2 fantasy starter on my team, which tells you just how deep the position is. Brandon Beachy at #62 and Alex Wood at #71 are more upside plays with Wood’s relative inexperience and Beachy’s return from injury. Both are incredibly high-end pitchers with remarkable “stuff”. They will just possibly not have the innings to give you the impact that other starters with more innings will give you.
Positional strategy: Very good starters are no longer difficult to find in the major leagues. What was elite in 2004 is simply a typical starter in the 15-50 range of pitchers. The top 10-15 pitchers are elite, but after that, paying high prices is simply spending a draft pick or money that could be used to get an elite hitters. While you still need some pitching, you don’t need to grab 2-3 starters in a row in the top 10 rounds like you once did just to ensure you had a competitive rotation. Also notice that two pitchers in the top 15 were on their first full season in the major leagues last year with many, many more arms coming along the way. Pitching is where a good owner can have a huge edge on the league by investing time in the young, up-and-coming arms that will fly under the radar in a typical draft. Last season, an owner who grabbed Jose Fernandez, Julio Teheran, Homer Bailey, and Alex Cobb likely could have had all four in an auction for $20 total or with picks after round 15, yet they returned huge for their owners. Some young guys to look very long at this spring would include Garrett Richards of the Angels, Sonny Gray of the Athletics, Chris Archer of the Rays, Danny Salazar of the Indians, Michael Wacha of the Cardinals, Taijuan Walker of the Mariners, Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard of the Mets, Kevin Gausman of the Orioles, Andrew Heaney of the Marlins, Yordano Ventura of the Royals, and Drew Smyly of the Tigers.