Where does Stephen Strasburg rank among the game's best starting pitchers?
Starting pitchers are the most sought-after commodity among MLB teams, but the opposite typically holds true in fantasy baseball leagues.
Many drafters invoke a strategy of selecting hitters early and often with the hopes of striking big on cheaper pitchers later.
Considering the value Jake Peavy, Chris Sale and R.A. Dickey provided last season for owners who snatched them late, it’s not necessarily a bad idea if properly implemented.
But that approach is not for everyone. Anyone who drafted Troy Tulowitzki or Jacoby Ellsbury will wipe away the tears long enough to remind you that hitters are not sure bets either.
While there are plenty of talents to eye in later rounds, this year's batch of starting pitchers consists of several worth your attention in the early rounds.
Are you willing to shell out a top draft pick or big bucks for an ace? If so, these are the guys for you to target in 2013 drafts.
Note: Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.com
Jake Peavy could be a steal if he stays healthy in 2013.
These two starting pitchers were casualties that just missed the cut.
Yovani Gallardo - 2012 Stats: 204 IP, 16-9, 3.66 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 204/81 K-BB
After years of obsessing over the Milwaukee Brewers' flamethrower, it's finally time to accept his limitations.
In terms of strikeouts, Yovani Gallardo is one of the most dependable pitchers in baseball. He's hit the 200 mark during each of the past four seasons.
But in terms of everything else, he's yet to perform consistently over a full season.
He teased us with improved control to close out 2011, but his BB/9 ratio jumped back up to 3.57 in 2012.
A prolific strikeout pitcher cannot be ignored, but it's finally time to realize that Gallardo is a skilled, but flawed pitcher who might never take the next leap to stardom.
Jake Peavy - 2012 Stats: 219 IP, 11-12, 3.37 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 194/49 K-BB
If he stays healthy, Jake Peavy is a great pick as a No. 2 or 3 fantasy starter.
If he doesn't, would you really be surprised? Before last year's revival, Peavy failed to last a full season during the past four years.
While Peavy refuted the theory that his past success was solely a result of Petco Park, he also posted the highest fly-ball rate of his career at 44.6 percent.
At this juncture of the 31-year-old's career, duplicating last year is the most fantasy owners can reasonably ask for this season.
Moving away from Tampa Bay could hurt James Shields.
2012 Stats: 227.2 IP, 15-10, 3.52 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 223/58 K-BB
Count me among those who are scared by James Shields leaving Tampa Bay for Kansas City.
When the Royals acquired him from the Rays, he lost a significant home-field advantage provided by Tropicana Field. Over his career, Shields has registered a 3.33 ERA and 1.16 WHIP at home while posting a 4.54 ERA and 1.29 WHIP on the road.
Due to his tendency to induce fly balls, Shields has only earned an ERA below 3.50 once. Although he's not moving to a hitter's haven, the shift could cause a couple more long balls to clear the fence.
There's also the fact that Shields has never been too consistent in the first place. Prior to his breakout 2011 campaign, he notched a 5.18 ERA and 1.46 WHIP.
The workhorse should tally enough strikeouts in ample innings along with a fine WHIP, but don't be surprised if his ERA towers near the high-threes or low-fours.
Kris Medlen was the hottest pitcher in baseball to close out the season.
2012 Stats: 138 IP, 10-1, 1.57 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 120/23 K-BB
Where in the world does Kris Medlen belong on 2013 draft boards?
One of the toughest players to rank, Medlen produced a small, yet extraordinary sample size last year that would lift him to ace territory if taken on face value.
Can he really post a 1.57 ERA again? Well, no, but double that to 3.14 and he's still a worthy selection.
The only other past record of MLB starting experience can be traced back to 2010, when he accumulated a 3.86 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 3.88 K/BB ratio through 84 innings pitched.
Throughout his major and minor league career, Medlen has proven competent in displaying control with usable strikeout numbers. So even if he is not the talk of the league this season, he can still put up quality stats.
There's plenty of reason to remain skeptical, but how long can you ignore a pitcher who rounded out the season with 10 consecutive quality starts?
Johnny Cueto's low strikeout rates prevents him from reaching fantasy stardom.
2012 Stats: 217 IP, 19-9, 2.78 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 170/49 K-BB
It's usually a wise bet for fantasy drafters to flock toward pitchers with high strikeout capacity. Johnny Cueto is not one of those guys.
The 26-year-old kept his ERA under 3.00 for the second-straight season, but his 7.05 K/9 ratio still leaves a bit to be desired from a top fantasy hurler.
He was fortunate to maintain such a low ERA, allowing 205 hits.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with Cueto. He's not as flashy as some other flamethrowers, but he's also more stable. Unfortunately, he looks poised to enter drafts as an overrated option.
For the price he's going to cost as a result of his high win total and low ERA, Cueto is not worth the investment.
Matt Moore possesses ace upside.
2012 Stats: 177.1 IP, 11-11, 3.81 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 175/81 K-BB
OK, so this ranking is all about what could be.
Anyone who reached for Matt Moore before his rookie campaign ended the season with a sour taste in their mouth. While he showed glimpses of stardom and delivered on his strikeout potential, he also looked like an outmatched neophyte far too often.
But for those who want to look at the glass as half full, Moore registered a 3.01 ERA and 1.21 WHIP during the second half. Is this a case of manipulating the data to find the answer we want to see, or did the young gun progress over the year?
For a 23-year-old formerly pegged as the top pitching prospect in baseball, it's not as unreasonable to believe that he adapted to the big leagues through experience.
Limiting his walks is the clear key to Moore taking the next step as a budding ace. A 4.11 BB/9 rate just won't cut it from your No. 2 fantasy starter.
Yu Darvish could become one of the best pitchers in fantasy baseball.
2012 Stats: 191.1 IP, 16-9, 3.90 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 221/89 K-BB
Remember that last tidbit about targeting strikeouts?
Yu Darvish is a wild card who walked way too many batters during his first season pitching in the United States, but he also earned a 10.40 strikeout rate and a 3.29 FIP. So that's intriguing to say the least.
It's unfair to expect Darvish to channel his inner Greg Maddux and completely eliminate his walk issues, but cutting down his free passes to at least below four batters per nine innings will allow him to shine.
The unpredictability will cause many to recall Daisuke Matsuzaka's collapse and fear Darvish, but they could be missing out on a top 10 starter and the league's strikeout leader.
Jordan Zimmermann is the forgotten man in Washington.
2012 Stats: 195.2 IP, 12-8, 2.94 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 153/43 K-BB
He does not get much attention behind Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, but Jordan Zimmermann has quietly provided the Washington Nationals with yet another ace.
Although he's far different from the youngster who debuted in 2009 by striking out over a batter per inning, Zimmermann has amended the loss of strike outs by routinely keeping his BB/9 ratio under 2.0.
His 8.35 K/9 ratio during the second half could amount to a small sample size, but it's at least a reminder that he is still capable of drawing more punch outs down the road.
Zimmermann pitched just as effectively as Cueto, but the bottom line does not look as pretty. He logged less strikeouts in less innings and netted fewer wins out of poor luck.
Two years removed from Tommy John surgery, the Nationals should take the training wheels off and allow him to throw 200-plus innings this season.
As for wins, nobody has any way of knowing, but pitching for a team with a potent offense and loaded bullpen helps his cause.
Can Chris Sale sustain such high productivity during his second season starting?
2012 Stats: 192 IP, 17-8, 3.05 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 192/51 K-BB
Just looking at the numbers, there is not much to dislike about Chris Sale's first season as a starter.
He struck out exactly one batter per inning while keeping walks to a minimum. With a 3.27 FIP backing up his success, nobody can really call "fluke" on his season either.
But keep expectations at bay since it remains to be seen how he will respond to a rapid increase in innings. The heavier usage appeared to catch up to him later in the year, when he allowed a 4.03 ERA after the All-Star break.
Before the Chicago White Sox inserted him into the starting rotation last season, Sale pitched 94.1 innings in relief upon his major league arrival. Such a drastic workload climb often ends poorly for young arms, so proceed with caution in re-draft leagues.
Mat Latos rebounded from a shaky start last season.
2012 Stats: 209.1 IP, 14-4, 3.48 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 185/64 K-BB
The season never flows as smoothly as it should, but Mat Latos always ends with a strong final product.
Latos sent owners into a premature panic by surrendering 19 runs in his first five starts. A few impatient managers likely sold him for cents on the dollar, only to watch him dominate from that point forward.
After a bumpy April, Latos righted the ship and alleviated the fears of those who expected a drop-off moving from San Diego to Cincinnati. He posted a 3.14 ERA after the first month to finish with similar rates from his prior season with the Padres.
For Latos to rise closer to the top 10, he needs to buck the trend of his strikeout rate annually decreasing. And it wouldn't hurt to put his owners at ease with a tad more consistency going forward.
Roy Halladay should bounce back from a poor 2012 campaign.
2012 Stats: 156.1 IP, 11-8, 4.49 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 132/36 K-BB
So who's willing to give an old geezer a mulligan?
It seems like ages ago since Roy Halladay entered draft day as the No. 1 pitcher in all of fantasy baseball, but it was actually just last year in many instances.
Spitting in the face of everyone who thought they landed the game's top "sure thing" ace, the 35-year-old suffered through shoulder ailments that hampered his production.
His dip in velocity is discouraging, but keep in mind that Halladay still posted a 3.69 FIP despite his high ERA. Although the 7.60 K/9 ratio may not seem like much, he routinely threw at least 220 innings a season before last year's setback, so the strikeouts will add up.
Don't be so quick to prepare Halladay's eulogy. While his days living in the opening rounds have passed, he's still a solid choice as a No. 2 starter.
Max Scherzer was the king of strikeouts in 2012.
2012 Stats: 187.2 IP, 16-7, 3.74 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 231/60 K-BB
Excuse me while I drool over Max Scherzer's 11.1 K/9 ratio.
So he's not perfect. Take away the strikeouts and Scherzer is nothing more than an average pitcher who will occasionally delight, but frequently frustrates.
But he's capable of so much more. Anyone who paid attention last season is certainly aware of this.
During a painstakingly bad April, Scherzer recorded a 7.77 ERA and 2.06 WHIP. This is somehow the same guy who sported a 2.69 ERA and 4.07 K/BB ratio during his final 15 starts.
His .333 BABIP and 3.27 FIP also suggest some misfortune that stymied Scherzer from flourishing as a true fantasy ace last season. He's not the safest choice, but the upside is sky high.
Will CC Sabathia last as one of baseball's most durable pitchers?
2012 Stats: 200 IP, 15-6, 3.38 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 197/44 K-BB
C.C. Sabathia has thrown at least 180 innings during every season of his 12-year career. In the past six seasons, he's surpassed 200 strikeouts three times while recording an identical 197 punch outs in each of the other three occasions.
Despite his consistency, it's hard to shake the feeling that he could eventually come crumbling down.
Maybe Halladay's brutal year raises those concerns, but Sabathia is a 290-pound, 32-year-old who has logged 2,564.1 innings during his major league tenure.
It also doesn't help that he landed on the disabled list twice last year and the Yankees are discussing limiting his innings going forward.
Avoiding him completely based predominantly off a hunch is poor, illogical thinking, but aging concerns are enough to drop him from a stacked top 10.
How will R.A. Dickey follow up his Cy Young season?
2012 Stats: 233.2 IP, 20-6, 2.73 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 230/54 K-BB
R.A. Dickey might surpass Medlen as the most confounding pitcher to value on this list.
Those who believe he perfected his craft and will continue to dominate with the knuckleball will slot Dickey comfortably in the top 10. Others might leave him off this list altogether, weary of selecting a 38-year-old fresh off a breakout campaign.
For now, let's establish a common ground somewhere in the middle.
Remember that all of this did not pop up from nowhere; he registered a 2.84 ERA in 2010 and 3.28 ERA in 2011. The strikeouts, however, were unexpected from someone whose previous career high sat at 134.
Pitchers usually don't wake up and start piling up K's like Nolan Ryan, but it's not unprecedented for a contact pitcher to start collecting whiffs. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee also morphed into 200-strikeout tossers late in their careers.
Last season, his swinging strike percentage spiked to 12.2 percent from 2011's 7.8 percent rate. The opposition truly could not touch his refined knuckleball.
While transferring from the NL East to the AL East should raise some concerns, Dickey did not lean exclusively on Citi Field's friendly dimensions to thrive. He also threw consecutive one-hitters against the AL East's Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles last June.
Expect some regression, but not enough to strip him of star status.
Gio Gonzalez fanned 2007 batters last season.
2012 Stats: 199.1 IP, 21-8, 2.89 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 207/76 K-BB
Anyone who enforces this ranking will not draft Gio Gonzalez this year.
He broke all the pretty plateaus that will distract casual gamers looking for simple, shiny numbers to play with. He topped 20 wins, exceeded 200 strikeouts and posted a sub-three ERA.
But can Gonzalez maintain a .267 BABIP and a league-low 5.8 HR/RB ratio? Will he continue to slash his walk rate, or was 2012 an aberration?
And is anyone else haunted by Ubaldo Jimenez and Oliver Perez flashbacks at every mention of Gonzalez’s name?
There’s certainly value to be gleaned from a 200-strikeout hurler, but his control issues creates just enough fog in the forecast to not trust him as a top 10 starter.
Hey Jered Weaver, more strikeouts please.
2012 Stats: 188.2 IP, 20-5, 2.81 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 142/45 K-BB
Jered Weaver allows very few baserunners and relinquish very few runs. He's more than meeting the job description for a pitcher.
So sorry to get greedy, but us fantasy owners need some more strikeouts from the ace if he wants to hold that title in this game.
His 9.35 K/9 ratio from 2010 clearly exists as the outlier now. After last season, Weaver's supporters are hoping he can climb back to 2011's 7.56 rate.
Don't engrave Weaver on your "do not draft" list because of his shortcomings in the K department, though; he's still one of the best in the game everywhere else.
But there's a strong possibility that at least one member of your league disagrees with Weaver falling short of the top 10. Some might even argue for his inclusion in the top five.
Weaver's great, but there are other hurlers who can provide exceptional numbers in every category.
Adam Wainwright regained his old form as the 2012 season progressed.
2012 Stats: 198.2 IP, 14-13, 3.94 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 184/52 K-BB
Now that Adam Wainwright shook off the cobwebs from missing the entire 2011 season, he should return to leading fantasy rotations.
The 31-year-old's first season back from Tommy John surgery did not please all owners anxiously awaiting his return, but it solidified that Wainwright is not heading for a career decline.
He immediately returned to striking out over eight batters per nine innings while limiting his walks to the low twos.
As far as that ERA, it wasn't just the porous start that torpedoed the mark. Wainwright posted a career-high .315 BABIP while stranding just 67.8 percent of baserunners.
Expect him to pitch closer to his 3.10 FIP and 3.23 xFIP, which would allow him to regain a seat among MLB's premier pitchers.
At 23, Madison Bumgarner is already a sturdy ace.
2012 Stats: 208.1 IP, 16-11, 3.37 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 191/49 K-BB
Are 23 year olds supposed to be this efficient?
The young lefty from San Francisco boasts more than one of the coolest names in sports. Madison Bumgarner has already delivered back-to-back fruitful campaigns to kick off his career.
He's twice amassed 191 strikeouts while also generating plenty of ground balls. Bumgarner's the complete package who can still evolve even further.
He stumbled down the stretch, most visibly during his first two postseason starts, but don't overlook an entire season of greatness because of a few shaky outings.
Do, however, keep an eye on his velocity during spring training to make sure that his young arm is not wearing down.
Matt Cain is one of the safest pitchers to bet on.
2012 Stats: 219.1 IP, 16-5, 2.79 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 193/51 K-BB
See Weaver, this is what a few more strikeouts can do to an ace's fantasy appeal.
After living in the 170s for the past few seasons, Matt Cain bumped up his strikeout total to 193 in 2012. That rise catapults him into this year's top 10.
Like Weaver, Cain outperforms Sabermetric expectations and makes his living on inducing grounders. But unlike Weaver, Cain's strikeout rates are trending upward to supplement his pristine ratios.
Those who draft Cain will sacrifice upside offered by younger gems such as Bumgarner, Darvish, Moore and Scherzer. Then again, they are receiving much more stability from Cain, who has taken the mound for more than 30 starts in each of the past seven seasons.
If you want a dependable starter to build your squad's rotation around, look no further than Cain.
Switching to the other Los Angeles team boosts Zack Greinke's fantasy value.
2012 Stats: 212.1 IP, 15-5, 3.48 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 200/54 K-BB
Had Zack Greinke remained with the Los Angeles Angels, it might have been fair to question if he would ever live up to the hype.
While Cain defied the peripherals to maintain excellence, Greinke's ERA has not resembled his low FIPs since that 2009 Cy Young campaign.
Shifting to the Dodgers, however, should erase any concerns.
During his only full season pitching in the National League, Greinke registered a 10.54 K/9 ratio. He recorded a 3.67 ERA during his time in Milwaukee, but will now play in a friendlier pitcher's park.
According to ESPN's MLB Park Factors, Dodger Stadium yielded the sixth-lowest scoring rate last season. Miller Park rated as the seventh-highest location.
He can also frequently feast on the NL West, perhaps the weakest offensive division in baseball.
One of his new teammates will arrive later on this list, but it would not be a total surprise if Greinke finished as the top pitcher for the Dodgers, or all of baseball for that matter.
Cliff Lee's low win total means nothing going into 2013.
2012 Stats: 211 IP, 6-9, 3.16 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 207/28 K-BB
There’s a special dunce cap waiting for anyone silly enough to avoid Cliff Lee due to his underwhelming win total.
While the 34-year-old only won six games, he bears a microscopic level of blame for the outage. Put your hand over his record and glance at the rest of his stat-line.
Still look bad, or does it now represent a veritable Cy Young campaign?
Age did not catch up to him. The Phillies offense did not falter to the point of no return. He just ran into unbelievably poor luck.
Continue to treat Lee as a fantasy ace. You’re not going to find many other hurlers who can strike out 200 batters with pinpoint control.
Cole Hamels now might be the Phillies' ace.
2012 Stats: 215.1 IP, 17-6, 3.05 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 216/52 K-BB
Cole Hamels has a lot in common with Tina Fey.
The underappreciated 30 Rock aired its last episode last Thursday, capping off seven excellent seasons of television jam-packed with brilliant hilarity. It was consistently one of the top shows on television, but it never received the proper spotlight because other amazing shows surrounded it on NBC's comedy block.
The Office always reeled in the ratings while Parks and Recreation and Community also deserve recognition as two of TV's top comedies.
Hamels has displayed dazzling numbers over the past few seasons, but he has played third fiddle to Lee and Halladay.
There's nothing to dislike about Hamels. He's posted a 2.97 ERA over the last three years combined with a career 3.80 K/BB ratio.
If Tracy Jordan played fantasy baseball, he'd want to take that stat-line behind the middle school and get it pregnant.
David Price will be in high demand after winning the Cy Young.
2012 Stats: 211 IP, 20-5, 2.56 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 205/59 K-BB
The price is right for the Rays' ace to approach the top five of baseball's elite starters.
David Price took the next leap to stardom during his fourth full season in the majors. While his strikeout and walk rate stood nearly identical to the prior season's marks, he shrunk his ERA drastically by turning fly balls into grounders.
In 2011, 44.3 percent of his batted balls were grounders while 36.9 were fliers. Last year, he drew a 53.1 percent ground-ball rate and a 27.0 fly-ball percentage.
Since he led the American League in wins (tied with Weaver) and ERA, it will cost a pretty penny to land Price this season. The 27-year-old will have to match last season's numbers to live up to his price tag.
But it's not like the former No. 1 pick surprised anyone by blossoming into a Cy Young winner.
Washington will let Stephen Strasburg loose this year.
2012 Stats: 159.1 IP, 15-6, 3.16 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 197/48 K-BB
There's no innings limit stopping Stephen Strasburg now.
While many skeptics carped over the Nationals' decision to shut down Strasburg, the young stud limped to the finish line, allowing five earned runs in two of his final three outings.
The move did not help the team win a championship, but it could aid fantasy owners who pick the young stud in 2013 drafts.
Despite sitting for nearly the season's final month to keep Washington's precious cargo safe, Strasburg still came within just three strikeouts from hitting 200 during his first full season,
How many strikeouts are too much to project for the 24-year-old with a complete slate of games? If he maintains his production level from last year, a tad more than 200 innings pitched could net him 250 K's.
Strasburg's upside is so astronomical that many drafters will fall susceptible to temptation and draft him as a top three starter. It should not even surprise anyone to see him go off the board before all his peers.
Don't let his promise become too tantalizing. The uncertainty of a young arm reacting to a heavier workload is just enough to prefer one of the top three sturdier aces.
Felix Hernandez is annually the lone bright spot on Seattle.
2012 Stats: 232 IP, 13-9, 3.06 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 223/56 K-BB
After compiling 13, 14 and 13 wins during the last three years, detractors will pass on Felix Hernandez in fear of another subpar showing in that department.
Pitching for the lowly Seattle Mariners sure hurts his cause, but there is no way of accurately predicting wins.
Cliff Lee won six games while Cole Hamels accrued 17 victories behind the same roster. Hernandez amassed 19 wins in 2009 on a squad just as lacking offensively as Seattle's current roster.
We can, however, establish Hernandez's durability as a bona fide ace despite his limited run support. He's reeled off four consecutive seasons with at least 230 innings pitched and 217 strikeouts.
Hernandez has set the bar so high that his 3.47 ERA and 1.22 WHIP from 2011 felt disastrous. Barring an unpredictable injury, that's the floor for the 26-year-old.
Justin Verlander might cost a first-round pick this year.
2012 Stats: 238.1 IP, 17-8, 2.64 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 239/60 K-BB
Anyone who wants Justin Verlander better be prepared to shell out top dollar.
Technically, the Detroit Tigers star dropped off from his sensational 2011 Cy Young escapade. He fell short of his 24 wins, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 250 strikeouts, but avoiding him in anticipation of a letdown proved to be a misguided endeavor.
Most rankers will place Verlander No. 1, and there's a chance Verlander becomes my No. 1 by opening day.
As a bulldozer who works deep into games and can still touch triple digits on the radar gun in the ninth inning, Verlander is a perfect fantasy starter.
Wins and strikeouts have been plentiful, and it's hard to see the ace failing to rack up at least 15 victories with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder occupying the middle of Detroit's batting order.
Have we seen Clayton Kershaw's best yet?
2012 Stats: 227.2 IP, 14-9, 2.53 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 229/63 K-BB
It's somewhat startling that early projections for the No. 1 starter are not torn between Verlander and Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw struck out 10 less batters than his ace counterpart, but he also posted a better ERA and WHIP. Even during Verlander's sensational 2011 season, Kershaw nearly topped him in those two categories with a Cy Young run of his own.
And before pointing to wins, come on. How many more times can the flakiness of that stat be explained? Especially now that the Dodgers retooled their offense, that's not a fair reason to prefer Verlander.
The one issue that could cost Kershaw is a hip injury that bugged him late last season. If any pain persists through spring training, drop him down a couple spots.
But if recent reports are true that the hip is not causing any problems (via the Los Angeles Times) for the 24-year-old, reward him with the top spot that the young phenom deserves.