Picking out quality starting pitching for your fantasy baseball team can be a fickle enterprise, given how difficult it is to project how well any given MLB hurler will fare from year to year.
Not to mention how few and far between aces tend to be.
Now, I could easily tell you to go out and drop your auction dollars/draft picks on guys like Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Jered Weaver and James Shields, but those guys are stuck in tough divisions amidst offenses that could blast them on any given night.
Instead, stick with these four guys, who should be comfortable cranking up the heat—and racking up quality starts—against weak competition this season.
Which pitcher would you prefer on your fantasy team?
Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
Yeah, okay, so maybe recommending that you pick up the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner and MVP isn't much of a stretch, especially since he led the majors in quality starts with 28.
And sure, there's a fair risk that after such a spectacular season in 2011 Justin Verlander could regress toward the mean of his career, as most projections suggest he will.
Even so, at the age of 29, Verlander should still have some elite years left in his electric arm and should find himself pitching comfortably from ahead more often than not in a so-so AL Central, with the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder providing him ample run support every time out.
Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians
If you're looking for a bit of a risky value pick in the AL Central, I offer you Justin Masterson.
The 26-year-old righty had a breakout year for the Indians in 2011, piling up 22 quality starts and career bests in earned-run average (3.21), fielding-independent pitching (3.28) and wins (12).
Of course, there's reason to worry that Masterson might fall to the back of the pack, considering his low strikeout rate (7.11 K/9 career) and penchant for free passes (3.49 BB/9 career), along with his lack of a prior track record.
But, then again, Masterson might just be a late bloomer and at his age he should be approaching his pitching prime. Hence, if you can master Masterson for a reasonable sum, you'd be well advised to do so.
Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
The only place in baseball better for pitchers than the AL Central is the National League West, a division in which the only half-decent offense—that of the Arizona Diamondbacks—happens to be replete with free swingers.
So it should come as no surprise that a power pitcher like San Francisco's Matt Cain should be atop your fantasy wish list. Cain finished the 2011 season with an NL-best 26 quality starts, even though his strikeout rate (7.27 K/9) wasn't exactly anything to write home about.
Cain's secret to success? Limiting home runs—he gave up just 0.37 of 'em per nine innings.
It certainly helps Cain's case that he plays in the cavernous AT&T Park and will be playing the season as a 27-year-old continuing to dominate alongside Tim Lincecum in the Giants' rotation. Of course, the wins may be hard to come by behind San Fran's so-so offense.
Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Why not bring this bit full circle with Cain's most able challenger in the NL West, Clayton Kershaw?
What's not to like about Kersh? He just turned 24, won the NL Cy Young last season after claiming the league's Triple Crown of pitching, and he picked up 25 quality starts in 2011.
Oh, and he's fanned better than nine betters per nine innings during his career.
And like Cain, he pitches in the NL West, the most offensively inept division in all of baseball, and in one of the great pitchers' parks in the Big Leagues.
True, the Dodgers offense is little more than Matt Kemp and the Kempettes, but that shouldn't affect Clay's performance on the mound too much.
Not after picking up 21 wins with middling run support last year.