Fantasy Baseball Rankings 2012: The Top 15 Starting Rotations
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In a bit of full disclosure, I crapped out when crafting these rankings of fantasy's top 15 starting rotations.
When choosing amongst the Dodgers, Mariners, Red Sox, Marlins, Indians, White Sox and Reds, there was no absolute, foolproof method for determining the final two slots, so an uncomfortable compromise was reached with four clubs, leaving three temporarily out of the mix.
Regarding baseball's No. 1 rotation for fantasy purposes, if you need to think about which club holds that honor, you haven't been paying attention to my articles...or baseball in general. Enjoy the show!
15b: Los Angeles Dodgers
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The Dodgers have an interesting mix of fantasy assets beyond Clayton Kershaw, my top-ranked starting pitcher.
Chad Billingsley has the means to recapture his 2010 form (12 wins, 3.57 ERA, 171 Ks); Ted Lilly and Aaron Harang bring sneaky-good value to mixed- and NL-only leagues; and Chris Capuano could yield encouraging numbers in wins and strikeouts.
But the Dodgers' countdown inclusion ultimately circles back to Kershaw, a virtual lock for 19 wins, 240 strikeouts, 2.40 ERA and 1.01 WHIP, and the potential impact of rookie Nathan Eovaldi upon earning a promotion to the majors.
In Double-A ball last year, Eovaldi (2.62 ERA, 99 Ks in 103 innings) leapfrogged to the front of the franchise's prospects line, reminding some of a young Kershaw or Billingsley.
15a: Boston Red Sox
We couldn't have a countdown without a cursory mention of Boston's Jon Lester (targets: 17 wins, 195 strikeouts, 3.18 ERA) and Josh Beckett (my No. 28 starting pitcher)...even if there are more questions than answers surrounding the other four candidates: Daniel Bard, Clay Buchholz, Alfredo Aceves and Daisuke Matsuzaka (out until June 1 or so).
To clarify, Bard and Buchholz have high ceilings in the majors, especially when bolstered by one of the best offenses in baseball, but it's too early to make any definitive judgments. Perhaps we'll revisit this ranking sometime in May.
15: Seattle Mariners
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The Mariners' staff gets the nod over the Reds, Indians and White Sox on two fronts. For starters, Felix Hernandez has been a top-10 fantasy anchor for the last three seasons and could hit career highs in strikeouts and WHIP in 2012.
The secondary arms, specifically Blake Beavan, Hector Noesi and likely rookie call-ups Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, all have four-category upside for an emerging franchise that's loaded with touted pitching prospects in the minors.
In the interim, Jason Vargas and Kevin Millwood are respectable assets in AL-only leagues.
14: Miami Marlins
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With few Grade-A pitching prospects awaiting a promotion, the Marlins will likely ride a diverse, veteran rotation the whole season.
The fantasy fun starts with ace Josh Johnson (targets: 14 wins, 185 Ks, 2.90 ERA), Anibal Sanchez (3.67 ERA/202 Ks last year) and Ricky Nolasco (169 strikeouts per season from 2008 to 2011).
It ends with two make-or-break arms for this countdown, Carlos Zambrano and Mark Buehrle.
The pitchers could be three-category factors if one keeps his cool on the mound (Zambrano) and the other doesn't overextend himself to justify a big offseason contract (Buehrle). Collectively, all five pitchers should be productive assets.
13: San Diego Padres
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The Padres' unheralded rotation enjoys a huge advantage with 81 games at spacious Petco Park, but that shouldn't obscure the developing talent that's quickly forming in San Diego.
Cory Luebke can be an elite contributor in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts, and Tim Stauffer, Dustin Moseley and Clayton Richard could all post sub-4.00 ERAs this season.
The wild card is Edinson Volquez, a key piece in the Mat Latos blockbuster trade from the offseason.
If he can replicate his spring numbers (3.48 ERA, 1.11 WHIP), Volquez will be a solid No. 5 starter in mixed leagues. This is a sneaky-good staff, and one that'll surely add May/June/July reinforcements from baseball's top-ranked farm system (as judged by ESPN).
12: Toronto Blue Jays
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The Blue Jays' quartet of Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil and Henderson Alvarez should all be drafted in 12-team leagues, regardless of their relative anonymity with casual fans.
Sure, people are aware of Romero (15 wins, 2.92 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 178 Ks), but do they know about his substantial improvements in all four categories last season...and the growth potential for one more giant leap this year?
In spring ball, Romero, Morrow and Alvarez posted sub-1.00 WHIP rates. Cecil, who lost weight during the offseason, racked up a 3-0 record in Grapefruit action, while limiting the opposition to a .208 batting average.
The last piece of the puzzle, 24-year-old Kyle Drabek, was one of the most hyped prospects this time last year. As a waiver-wire pickup in all leagues, Drabek is now a classic low-risk, high-upside flier.
UPDATE: As a consequence of Cecil's demotion to the minors, the Blue Jays have dropped a few slots in this countdown.
11: Arizona Diamondbacks
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The Diamondbacks' young staff has two entrenched linchpins leading the way: Ian Kennedy (21 wins, 2.88 ERA, 198 Ks last year) and Daniel Hudson (targets: 17 wins, 3.58 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 177 Ks).
After that, Josh Collmenter has the potential to make a Kennedy-like leap right away, and Trevor Cahill has the capacity for 160 strikeouts, 3.30 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in his first go-round against National League hitters. As for Joe Saunders...14 wins could happen if Arizona contends for the West title once again.
10: Washington Nationals
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It has been said countless times in The Fantasy Blog: DO NOT let Stephen Strasburg fall past Round 6 in mixed-league drafts.
Yes, he still needs time to fully recover from elbow surgery (2010), and yes, the Nationals may keep him on an innings count come September. But from April to August, Strasburg has the tools to be a top-five pitcher. Those expectations are the result of a lights-out fastball and off-the-charts indicators with strikeouts-per-inning, K/9 and BB/9 ratios.
On the secondary front, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann are top-40 pitchers heading into the season, and Edwin Jackson, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan could each be two-category factors with at least 15-20 starts.
9: Texas Rangers
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Colby Lewis and Derek Holland are bankable four-category factors for mixed-league and AL-only owners. But the overall excellence of the Rangers' rotation will be determined by how quickly Yu Darvish and Neftali Feliz adapt to the rigors of facing major league hitters three or four times per outing.
Darvish, who obliterated Japanese hitters for years and has been a top-30 pitcher in mixed drafts, has the the potential for 200 strikeouts and 3.00 ERA in his first MLB season. Feliz, one of baseball's best closers in 2011, is a healthy lock for 175 strikeouts and 3.20 ERA with 150 innings.
Rounding out the rotation, Matt Harrison could maintain or improve upon last year's 14 wins and 3.39 ERA. Martin Perez could have a Feliz-like impact with a June 1 call-up to the bigs. Down the road, Perez projects to be a front-line anchor.
8: Atlanta Braves
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The Braves have a lot of moving parts with their deep, talented and embattled staff.
Tim Hudson (back) won't return for a few weeks; Jair Jurrjens had a brutal spring (2.02 WHIP); and potential front-liners Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran are battling for rotation spots, with no clear winners emerging before Opening Day.
The fantasy ace for 2012 may be Tommy Hanson, my No. 34 starting pitcher, and a safe bet for 15 wins, 3.45 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 180 strikeouts with 30 starts.
Bottom line: Atlanta's staff will justify this lofty ranking more in May and June than April.
7: Milwaukee Brewers
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I could have gone in any direction with the Brewers, Yankees and Tigers here. All three clubs have dominant aces and three starters with front-line potential in mixed roto leagues.
For Milwaukee, there are no worries with Zack Greinke (my 10th-ranked pitcher), Yovani Gallardo (No. 16) and Shaun Marcum (No. 37). Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson could be respectable assets in NL-only leagues.
There's a silver lining with the mild uncertainty at the Nos. 4 and 5 slots. Wily Peralta, Jed Bradley, Taylor Jungmann and Tyler Thornburg—the Brewers' top four prospects (according to MLB.com)—may get opportunities to solidify the rotation on the back end, while helping Milwaukee make another legitimate run at the National League pennant.
6: New York Yankees
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The Yankees and Brewers have a lot of similarities with their staffs. CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda are fantasy stars in mixed-league drafts, while Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova should excel in two categories.
If they should falter, potential aces like Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances are ready for the big leagues at a moment's notice.
Sabathia might be one of the most important assets in all of baseball. At 31 years old, this could be Sabathia's last chance to pull off a clean, dominant sweep of all four categories, as in 20 wins, sub-3.00 ERA, sub-1.10 WHIP and 240 strikeouts.
He's cracked the four thresholds in seasons past, but never at the same time. This could be the year!
5: Detroit Tigers
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You already know about Justin Verlander (24 wins, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 250 Ks last year) and his unimpeachable spot among baseball's pitching royalty.
But the Tigers' rotation has depth, talent and value beyond the reigning American League MVP and Cy Young winner.
Max Scherzer (my No. 33 starting pitcher) is a good bet for 200 strikeouts, 3.70 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. Doug Fister was one of baseball's most proficient starters after being traded to Detroit last July. Rick Porcello (1.59 ERA/1.12 in spring ball) seems primed to take a production leap in Year 4.
Drew Smyly, Andy Oliver, Duane Below and Jacob Turner—the candidates for the No. 5 spot—could be three-category factors this season, with Turner possessing Verlander-type talent down the road.
4: San Francisco Giants
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We're really splitting hairs at this stage. The Giants' stacked rotation boasts Tim Lincecum (four consecutive seasons of 200 Ks/sub-3.45 ERA), Matt Cain (my 11th-ranked pitcher) and Madison Bumgarner (2.21 ERA, 20/3 K-BB ratio in spring ball).
After that, Ryan Vogelsong (13 wins, 2.71 ERA, 1.25 WHIP in 2011) may need a prove-it-again season. Barry Zito could be a legitimate factor in strikeouts and WHIP, if healthy.
All told, a solid group for the No. 4 ranking.
3: Tampa Bay Rays
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This group needs no introduction. David Price (12 wins, 3.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 218 Ks last year), James Shields (16 wins, 2.82 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 225 Ks in 2011) and Jeremy Hellickson are potential top-20 starters.
Matt Moore is one of this century's most celebrated rookie pitchers, and Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis, the Nos. 5 and 6 toilers in Tampa Bay, would be No. 2 starters for 10 other MLB franchises.
Adding to the Rays' mystique, the club boasts three potential pitching gems in the minors—Chris Archer, Taylor Guerrieri and Alex Torres. It's an embarrassment of riches for a franchise that isn't embarrassingly rich.
2: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
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We'll keep this one short and sweet: Fantasy owners who favor four-category greatness will love the Angels' four studs, from Jered Weaver (my fifth-ranked pitcher) and Dan Haren (targets: 15 wins, 190 Ks, 3.47 ERA, 1.05 WHIP) to C.J. Wilson (16 wins, 2.94 ERA, 206 Ks last year) and Ervin Santana (targets: 185 strikeouts, 3.47 ERA).
One more projection: Weaver may take American League honors in wins, ERA or strikeouts this season.
1: Philadelphia Phillies
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The Phillies have three aces ranked among my top eight pitchers—Cliff Lee (No. 2), Roy Halladay (No. 5) and Cole Hamels. But the ultimate greatness with fantasy's best rotation lies with the depth and quality of the fourth and fifth starters.
Vance Worley (21/2 K-BB ratio during spring ball) will prove to be a better No. 4 than Roy Oswalt last year. Kyle Kendrick and Joe Blanton can be productive two-category factors.
And waiting in the wings, Philadelphia has three premium prospects—Jesse Biddle, Trevor May and Brody Colvin.
Back to the Big Three: Lee, Halladay and Hamels could finish in the top five for the National League Cy Young by season's end. At the very least, the power trio are a lock for 16 wins, 205 strikeouts, sub-3.00 ERA and 1.09 WHIP.