Fantasy Baseball 2014: Ranking the Top 75 Starting Pitchers
With the top 150 fantasy baseball players reordered and re-ranked on the latest Big Board, it's time to continue rolling out the individual position rankings.
After providing some sequencing to the outfielders last time out, next up is starting pitchers, which is by far the deepest position. That's pretty much always been the case, but in this era of pitching domination, it's even more true now.
That depth and talent—and depth of talent—means owners will have no shortage of arms from which to choose at the draft. The suggested strategy is to try to grab one of the top 10 to 15 starters when the value feels right within the first, say, seven or eight rounds.
The very top names, like Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish (pictured) and Adam Wainwright, will be off the board fairly early, but studs like Justin Verlander, David Price and Madison Bumgarner should all be available in the range of picks Nos. 40-60.
Beyond that batch, well, it's really up to the individual owner to build a staff based on whatever skills and names are preferred. Just know that you can take only one or two starters by Round 10 or so and still have all sorts of choices from which to choose in the middle and late rounds to fill out the middle and back of your rotation.
Interested in seeing which arms populate those portions of the rankings? Well, here are the top 75 fantasy starting pitchers, as well as a bunch more worth watching.
These rankings consider three factors:
First, everything is based on 10- or 12-team mixed leagues with standard five-by-five rotisserie scoring (BA, R, HR, RBI, SB for hitters; W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV for pitchers).
Second, lineup construction accounts for 22 active roster positions consisting of: one each for catcher, first base, second base, third base, shortstop, corner infield, middle infield and utility; along with five outfielders and nine pitchers.
And third, to be eligible at a particular position, players either must have played at least 20 games there in 2013 or be in line to start there in 2014. Additionally, players are listed in the rankings at the position where their fantasy utility would be most useful.
The Starting Pitcher 'Watch List'
Yordano Ventura, RHP, Royals (pictured)
This 22-year-old top prospect is slight of build (5'11", 180 pounds) but big of fastball, and after dominating at Double-A and Triple-A (10.4 K/9), he has a shot to make the Royals' five-man rotation out of camp. It might not be long before Mr. Ventura starts getting called "Ace."
Alex Wood, LHP, Braves
The 2012 second-rounder's herky-jerky, low three-quarters delivery from the left side elicits comps to Chris Sale. Wood won't be that good, but his first shot at the bigs went well (3.13 ERA, 8.9 K/9). He's expected to start the year in Atlanta's rotation.
Josh Johnson, RHP, Padres
Not long ago, Johnson was an SP1 in fantasy, then injuries derailed him right in his prime. Now 30 and healthy (or at least healthier), the righty signed on to pitch in hurler-friendly San Diego, and while he's the opposite of a sure thing, he could be an end-game dart with bull's-eye potential.
Garrett Richards, RHP, Angels
This 25-year-old started to come into his own once he took over for Joe Blanton in the LA rotation midseason: In 13 starts from late July to the end of the year, Richards posted a 3.72 ERA. With a starter's job in hand from the get-go this time around, he could be a solid matchups play.
Erik Johnson, RHP, White Sox
The top prospect in the White Sox system, Johnson is a 24-year-old who blazed through the two highest levels in the minors (1.96 ERA, 8.3 K/9) and then made five starts in the majors (3.25 ERA). He's more of an innings-eater type, but Johnson should be prove to be a quality spot starter.
Taijuan Walker, RHP, Mariners
Walker is among the very best young right-hander's in the sport and was expected to be in Seattle's rotation from the start, as well as a Rookie of the Year fave—but now being shut down with right-shoulder inflammation, per Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune, is threatening all that. Monitor his status before drafting.
Tyler Skaggs, LHP, Angels
While some of the sheen is off Skaggs, he's still a 22-year-old who was considered arguably baseball's best southpaw prospect this time last year. A clearer path to a starting job with the Angels and a better pitcher's park makes for an intriguing last-round who-knows.
James Paxton, LHP, Mariners
It was a small sample size, but Paxton, 25, pitched well in four starts with Seattle late last year and is in line to win a spot out of spring now that Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma likely will be out past Opening Day.
Archie Bradley, RHP, Diamondbacks
The 21-year-old is the No. 1 pitching prospect and won't require much more time in the minors after owning Double-A (1.84 ERA, 9.6 K/9). In fact, while he's a long shot to crack the club out of camp, Bradley could force the Diamondbacks' hand sooner than later. If he goes undrafted in your league, put him atop your watch list.
Kevin Gausman, RHP, Orioles
Some will be put off by Gausman's 5.66 ERA in his first 47.2 big league innings, but the 23-year-old debuted less than a year after going fourth overall in the 2012 draft and also sported a 49-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Look for him to start in the minors but get a return ticket sooner than later.
No. 75: Martin Perez, LHP, Rangers (pictured)
Perez, 22, finally started putting things together upon his call-up last year, as his 3.62 ERA in 124.1 innings shows. Just beware that he's homer-prone (15 allowed) and not a huge strikeout guy (6.1 K/9). You're buying him for the shot that he takes the next step.
No. 74: Scott Kazmir, LHP, Athletics
Armed with something at least resembling his once-high octane fastball, Kazmir managed a surprising renaissance in 2013 with the Indians. His ERA (4.04) and WHIP (1.32) were more respectable than good for fantasy purposes, but his 9.2 K/9 bodes well. Plus, he gets to pitch half the time at spacious O.Co.
No. 73: Ivan Nova, RHP, Yankees
Nova, 27, had a midseason breakthrough, pitching to a 2.59 ERA with a 6.8 K/9 in 15 starts from July on. It's worth a late gamble that he can maintain something close to that level of production.
No. 72: Drew Smyly, LHP, Tigers
After a season spent entirely in Detroit's bullpen, Smyly will join the five-man in the wake of Doug Fister's trade to Washington. The young southpaw has good command and strong pitchability, and although he won't match last year's 2.37 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 9.6 K/9—again, that came in relief—he should be useful as a streamer with SP5 potential.
No. 71: Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants
Entering his age-30 campaign, Lincecum has gone downhill quickly, but he still registers impressive strikeout totals (190 in '12 and 193 in '13), and if he can find a little something, it wouldn't be unthinkable for him to finish with an ERA below 4.00 and WHIP south of 1.30, too.
No. 70: Jose Quintana, LHP, White Sox
For a 25-year-old who posted a 3.51 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 7.4 K/9, this guy flies under the radar. In fact, you probably only just now found out that his numbers were that good.
No. 69: Rick Porcello, RHP, Tigers (pictured)
Yep, this guy again. Porcello has long been a this-is-the-year type after breaking into the bigs as a 20-year-old (he's still only 25). While the 4.32 ERA doesn't inspire, perhaps you should turn your attention to his 1.28 WHIP and 7.2 K/9—both of which were career bests by wide margins. A ground-baller (55.3 percent), he'll benefit from the Tigers' more defensive-oriented infield.
No. 68: Dillon Gee, RHP, Mets
Like Quintana, Gee was better than you realized—3.62 ERA, 1.28 WHIP in total—in part because he got off to such a dreadful start. His ERA was 6.34 in late May, but from that point on? Try 2.71.
No. 67: Ricky Nolasco, RHP, Twins
Nolasco pitched better than he had in a long time last year while splitting time with the Marlins and Dodgers (3.70 ERA, 7.5 K/9). That helped him score a big-money deal with Minnesota, where he may benefit from the expansive, pitcher-friendly Target Field. Wins, though, may be hard to come by.
No. 66: Corey Kluber, RHP, Indians
After a quality effort in his first full season in which he had a 3.85 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 8.3 K/9, Kluber is shaping up to be one of those should-be sleepers who gets overhyped. He's always been a bit of a sabermetric darling for his strong K/BB, but he's also always been hit- and homer-prone. Also? He'll be 28 in April. If he comes at a good price, sure, but don't buy him as more than an SP4/5 in mixed play.
No. 65: A.J. Griffin, RHP, Athletics
Griffin, 26, is what Kluber could be if all goes well—a hittable-yet-relatively-safe arm with good ratios. Griffin's 3.83 ERA last year was only so-so, and he was prone to blowups, but his 1.13 WHIP makes him an asset at the back of fantasy rotations.
No. 64: Marco Estrada, RHP, Brewers
Estrada fits the same profile as Kluber and Griffin. After 143 whiffs in 138.1 innings in 2012, the 30-year-old became a too-popular sleeper and didn't quite pay off for those who went all in. Yes, his line was good in the end (3.87 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 8.3 K/9), but he wasn't good early. In fact, through early June, his ERA stood at 5.32, before injury cost him two months.
No. 63: Ervin Santana, RHP, Free Agent
Giving a fantasy recommendation to Santana is tricky, because a lot depends on where the 31-year-old fly-baller signs. That's right: He's still a free agent. At this point, maybe it depends less on where he signs and more on when. In the right situation, he could bump up several spots.
No. 62: Kyle Lohse, RHP, Brewers (pictured)
Fittingly, Lohse goes back to back with Santana, who is going through this year what Lohse did last—remember when he signed with Milwaukee a week before the start of the regular season? Lohse's K/9 rate (5.7) prevents him from being ranked higher, but it's hard to argue with his ERA and WHIP the past three years: 3.19 and 1.14.
No. 61: John Lackey, RHP, Red Sox
Lackey's return to fantasy relevance was more than helpful to those who took a shot on him late in drafts last year—or, more likely, snatched him off waivers once he showed he could still pitch. He's not likely, at age 35, to repeat a 3.52 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, but you could do worse as a fifth starter.
No. 60: Dan Straily, RHP, Athletics
Straily's rookie year was enough to make him an intriguing pick, as his ERA (3.96), WHIP (1.24) and K/9 (7.3) all left a little something to be desired but also leave some room for improvement. Pitching in Oakland helps.
No. 59: A.J. Burnett, RHP, Phillies
Burnett's old (37) but still whiffs 'em with the best of 'em: His 9.8 K/9 led the NL. There's a good chance, though, he won't benefit from swapping out the Pirates' progressive defensive alignments and positioning for the Phillies', well, less-than-progressive approach.
No. 58: Dan Haren, RHP, Dodgers
Haren's first half: 5.61 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 7.8 K/9. Haren's second half: 3.62, 1.02, 8.2. Now a Dodger, as long as he can stay healthy, which has been a challenge in recent years for the 33-year-old, there could be one more SP4 season in him yet.
No. 57: Jarrod Parker, RHP, Athletics (pictured)
Parker gave back some stats last year after a nice rookie season in 2012, but almost all of that came from a putrid first month: At April's end, his ERA stood at a ghastly 7.36. From then on, it dropped in his next—count 'em—14 starts. He's a solid SP5 with a chance for more, particularly if he can give his strikeouts a little bump.
No. 56: Hiroki Kuroda, RHP, Yankees
Age often takes over the story with Kuroda—and yes, he is 39—but truth is, he's as consistent as they come. To wit, his ERA and WHIP last year were 3.31 and 1.16. In 2012? They were 3.32 and 1.17. At some point, he'll have that cliff season. Probably. Right?
No. 55: Chris Archer, RHP, Rays
Archer was impressive in his first extended big league experience: 3.22 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 7.1 K/9. The 25-year-old has big-time stuff, but be prepared for a little regression, as his .253 BABIP pushed his FIP up to 4.07. Still, he should be dominant more than just occasionally.
No. 54: Matt Garza, RHP, Brewers
You probably think Garza, whose ERA with the Cubs was 3.17, was much worse after switching leagues and joining the Rangers, with whom it jumped to 4.38. Fact is, his 3.96 FIP with Texas was similar to that of his first half with Chicago (3.78). Of course, being back in the NL won't hurt, so the primary concern here is health.
No. 53: Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Orioles (pictured)
Camden Yards isn't the best of locales for arms, but Jimenez and his ground-balling ways might be OK, especially with the O's top-notch defense behind him. The 30-year-old can be enigmatic—and thus, frustrating to own or trust in fantasy—but when he's on, like he was over the second half last year (1.82 ERA), he's in SP3 territory.
No. 52: C.J. Wilson, LHP, Angels
Wilson, 33, is usually held back in fantasy, because his WHIP tends to be a tad high (1.34 each of the past two years), but he been durable and consistent four years running with an average of 211 innings and a 3.37 ERA.
No. 51: Tony Cingrani, LHP, Reds
It might seem silly to rank Cingrani, a fellow left-hander, over Wilson, but what the latter possesses in proven production, the former just might make up with his potential. In 18 starts, the 24-year-old Cingrani sported a dazzling 2.77 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 10.1 K/9. He's not that good and likely won't be again in 2014, but owners shouldn't mind grabbing him as he embarks on an encore.
No. 50: Chris Tillman, RHP, Orioles
Not long ago, Tillman was like fantasy kryptonite—if you got near him, it caused damage. Now? He's a 25-year-old coming off a 3.71 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 179 strikeouts. A quick word of caution: His FIP was a much less enticing 4.42, primarily because he gave up 33 homers.
No. 49: R.A. Dickey, RHP, Blue Jays
A year ago this time, the 39-year-old Dickey was the reigning Cy Young winner and a borderline top-10 fantasy SP. His first go-round in Toronto didn't go all that smoothly (4.21 ERA), but his second half was proof that he's got something left: 3.56 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 8.0 K/9.
No. 48: Lance Lynn, RHP, Cardinals
Lynn's second full season went a heck of a lot like his first, right down to the hot start (2.91 ERA through May) followed by the steep decline (4.51 ERA thereafter). If you don't entirely believe the 26-year-old has more in him, then maybe the best play is to draft him as an SP4/5, enjoy for two months, then trade at peak value.
No. 47: Yovani Gallardo, RHP, Brewers
Gallardo's 2013 was the worst of his seven-year career and his fastball velocity has dipped about two mph in two years. But after returning from a midseason hamstring strain, the 28-year-old looked better, with a 2.41 ERA (albeit in a small sample of eight starts). He's no longer the SP3 he once was, but at least now you don't have to pay much for what could be a capable SP4 in mixed leagues.
No. 46: Francisco Liriano, LHP, Pirates (pictured)
If one thing proves true in these rankings, it's that Liriano will either wind up way higher or way lower once the season is done. The 30-year-old's performance has been both masterful and disasterful from one year to the next. The best circumstance under which to draft Liriano would be if you have four other stable SPs first.
No. 45: Clay Buchholz, RHP, Red Sox (pictured)
Buchholz was nasty at the outset of 2013—a 1.71 ERA into June!—but injuries to his neck and shoulder wrecked half his year and left him limited down the stretch and in October. Check in on the 29-year-old's outings this month, because a healthy Buchholz could rise up the ranks.
No. 44: Kris Medlen, RHP, Braves
Medlen didn't exactly take the league by storm like he did in 2012—remember that magical late-season run during which he allowed 11 runs in 12 starts?—but the 28-year-old did prove that he can sustain success over a full season with a 3.11 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 7.2 K/9. He's SP4 material.
No. 43: Justin Masterson, RHP, Indians
Following a few years where he alternated between capable and culpable, Masterson turned in his best fantasy season to date with a 3.45 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 9.1 K/9, which was especially impressive for a guy who'd never topped 7.0 K/9 in a full season as a starter. The 28-year-old remains streaky and is occasionally scary to start, because he continues to struggle against opposite-side hitters, but last year's leap was a promising one.
No. 42: Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels
Weaver is here more on merit of things he's achieved in the past than anything else. It's not that he's no longer good; in fact, his ERA was 3.27 and WHIP was 1.14 last year. Problems are, his velocity is plummeting (86.8 mph) as his age is rising (31), and he's been struggling with injuries more and more. Those of you who still think of him as an SP2 or (gasp) SP1 no longer can. He's a fourth fantasy starter, maybe at best.
No. 41: Patrick Corbin, LHP, Diamondbacks
Will the real Corbin wave to the crowd? Is this 24-year-old southpaw the guy who had a 2.35 ERA in the first half? Or the one who had a 5.19 ERA in the second? That disparity was largely BABIP-related, as Corbin was lucky to start (.249 BABIP) and unlucky near the end (.343). In other words, he's probably somewhere in the middle, which makes him a worthy pick who still could take the next step.
No. 40: Andrew Cashner, RHP, Padres
Prior to 2013, Cashner had never thrown more than 54.1 innings in the majors, because he was constantly hurting, ailing or flat injured. The hard-thrower made it through unscathed last year, though, and his 3.09 ERA and 1.13 WHIP were evidence of what he can do if he stays on the mound instead of the DL. An uptick in that 6.6 K/9 would help offset any regression in the other categories.
No. 39: Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds
Cueto, 28, was once again his usual sub-3.00 ERA self, except he made only 11 starts due to three separate DL stints for an injured right lat muscle. Provided that he looks back to normal this spring, there's a lot of potential payoff here, considering Cueto could be an SP3/4 but probably won't cost that price on draft day.
No. 38: Alex Cobb, RHP, Rays
About the only thing that slowed Cobb in 2013 was a comebacker to the head, a scary incident that kept him out for two months. Otherwise, the offspeed artist who relies heavily on his changeup (30.8 percent) had a 2.76 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and struck out a surprising 8.4 per nine. A repeat performance would be asking a lot, but the 26-year-old is an underrated starter with SP3 potential.
No. 37: Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP, Mariners
Iwakuma was as good as just about any pitcher last year—he finished a deserving third in the AL Cy Young race—and as a late-round dice roll, he might have been the best value among all arms. All that has been upended already, though, as the 32-year-old reported to camp with a strained finger tendon in his right hand and won't throw for at least another three weeks, per Greg Johns of MLB.com. At this point, Opening Day is almost definitely out of the picture. Scoring such upside at a large discount while the injury is still fresh is a savvy play, but make sure you have at least two or three stable, high-end arms before investing in Iwakuma.
No. 36: Sonny Gray, RHP, Athletics (pictured)
This 24-year-old burst onto the big league scene late in the year and then killed it in his first-ever playoff start. As much as this is a talented, young starter, it's also one who has made all of 12 MLB starts (including postseason). The hype has rocketed him up draft boards, so you'll have to really want him to get him.
No. 35: Danny Salazar, RHP, Indians (pictured)
Much of what you just read about Gray—polarizing young talent with plenty of buzz—also applies to Salazar, as well as the next two guys on this list. The four of them are ranked in succession because they fall into the same boat, more or less. Salazar, 24, shoots absolute flame-flame-flames out of his right arm and could notch 200 strikeouts in 175 innings. But he's also been extremely injury prone, so he has to show he can get to that many innings first.
No. 34: Zack Wheeler, RHP, Mets
The best thing about Wheeler—you know, aside from the fact that he was one of the best pitching prospects in the game since being drafted No. 6 overall in 2009—is that the 23-year-old got better as he saw more of the majors in his first season. After nine starts, his ERA sat at 3.91; over his final eight, it was 2.92. If he can work on his command and control a bit, Wheeler will break out.
No. 33: Michael Wacha, RHP, Cardinals
After debuting in May, less than a year removed from going in the 2012 draft's first round, Wacha was a force over the final month for St. Louis—and then upped his game in October to help lead the Cards to the World Series. The 22-year-old has SP2 upside in fantasy—even in 2014—but he's also coming off a long season and a lot of innings for a youngster, so if you buy in, prepare yourself for some regression. It's inevitable.
No. 32: Jeff Samardzija, RHP, Cubs
Samardzija, 29, took small steps back practically across the board last year, but he was still a big-time strikeout artist with a career-high 214. His stuff is better than the 4.34 ERA and 1.35 WHIP he posted, so it's a matter of putting some stuff back together—and then potentially putting it all together. In nine of his 33 starts, he surrendered at least five runs, which makes him tough to trust at times. Needs to replace volatility with consistency to get to all that upside.
No. 31: CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees
On one hand, Sabathia's 2013 was terrible (career-high 4.78 ERA), he's now 33 with a ton of innings on his arm and his velo is down. On the other hand, he's stayed healthy enough to provide 200 innings while racking up enough strikeouts to keep owners happy (175 in '13) and his FIP (4.10) and xFIP (3.76) were much better than his ERA (because his BABIP, LOB percentage and HR/FB rates were all way worse than his career norms). You can choose to believe the more svelte Sabathia is pretty much done...or you can see a possible bounce back that won't make him the front line fantasy starter he had been for about eight years but might make him a solid SP3/4 with a little better luck. Watch him this month to get a better read on which CC you believe in.
No. 30: Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP, Dodgers
In his first taste of the major leagues, Ryu was better than most expected, with a 3.00 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. What's promising is the Korean import was as good, if not better, in the second half (2.87 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 7.3 K/9) than he was in the first (3.09, 1.25, 7.2), while dramatically improving his walk rate (1.2 BB/9 compared to 3.0). If there's one thing to watch, it's how he does on the road this year after a 3.69 ERA—versus 2.32 at home—last season.
No. 29: Mat Latos, RHP, Reds
Latos has had an eventful offseason, first undergoing an elbow cleanup in October followed by knee surgery after injuring himself early on in camp. Good news is the 26-year-old is already walking sans crutches and could resume throwing this week, per Mark Sheldon of MLB.com. For the most part, Latos has been a very consistent SP2/3 in fantasy—he's whiffed between 185 and 189 each of the past four years!—but his health bears monitoring to make sure he gets back up to speed. If so, he could push a few spots in the ranks.
No. 28: Matt Moore, LHP, Rays
Moore's season was like a siren out of Greek mythology. If you just look at the fantasy stats—17 wins, 3.29 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 8.6 K/9—everything's all majestic and melodic and tempting. But if you get too close (i.e. draft him a few rounds too early), you could regret ever hearing Moore's music: His FIP was a much less enchanting 3.95 (and xFIP an even more cacophonous 4.32), mainly because he continued to walk too many (4.5 BB/9) and enjoyed a fortuitous .259 BABIP. He also missed all of August with left elbow inflammation.
So why is he ranked even this high? Well, because 25-year-old left-handers with mid-90s heat and tantalizing strikeout rates who are still trying to figure things out sometimes...figure things out. And if they do, boy, they're pretty. If you can draft Moore as an SP3/4, he could morph into an SP2.
No. 27: Anibal Sanchez, RHP, Tigers
Some will argue this is way too low for a 30-year-old who won 14 games with a 2.57 ERA and struck out 202 batters for crissakes! Heck, it probably is. But something about Sanchez's 2013 seems too good to be true. Maybe it's the unsustainable strikeout percentage jump to 27.1 percent compared to 20.9 percent for his career. Or the fact that he surrendered just nine homers, a career low. Or that he experienced a bout of shoulder soreness in the middle of the year (which, admittedly, didn't impact his performance thereafter). Look, Sanchez is good, very good even. He's got a legitimate case as an SP2 in fantasy, but don't draft him in 2014 expecting those 2013 stats.
No. 26: Mike Minor, LHP, Braves (pictured)
Ever since it clicked for Minor in the second half of 2012, the 26-year-old has been one of the more under-the-radar fantasy starters around. He followed up with a 3.21 ERA and sparkling 1.09 WHIP, as well as a better-than-you-realized 8.0 K/9. He might not feel like an SP3, but he produces like an SP2. The only thing to keep cautious about is his homer rate, because he's a fly-baller.
No. 25: Matt Cain, RHP, Giants
2013 Fantasy Stats: 8 W, 4.00 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 158 K, 0 SV (30 G)
After years and years of getting away with giving up fly balls but not many homers, that finally caught up to Matt Cain some in 2013. The 29-year-old surrendered a career-high 23 homers, and while that was only two more than he allowed in 2012—when he had a snazzy 2.79 ERA—it came in 35 fewer frames.
In essence, though, Cain was mostly the same pitcher he's always been, as his 3.88 xFIP (which normalizes home-run rate) last year wasn't at all out of line with his mark from 2012 (3.82) or 2011 (3.78). The big issue, then, was that he had a few too many heinous outings, including two in which he combined to give up a whopping 17 earned runs in a mere six innings. Take that pair out, and his ERA was a much nicer 3.26.
Provided he can avoid being hit by batted balls again—one came in spring training last year, the other cost him two weeks late in the regular season—Cain should get back to being his usual self, capable of an SP2-like performance, only perhaps at an SP3 price.
No. 24: Doug Fister, RHP, Nationals
2013 Fantasy Stats: 14 W, 3.67 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 159 K, 0 SV (33 G)
This ranking, which might seem rather high, is all about appreciating Doug Fister, especially now that he's moved over to the more pitcher-friendly NL.
Of the three key things a pitcher has some control over—allowing walks, surrendering homers and compiling strikeouts—the 30-year-old always has been great at the first two. Fister's 54.3 percent ground-ball rate last year was a thing of beauty, as was his 1.9 BB/9. That inflated .332 BABIP, though, was the mark of an unlucky man (.298 BABIP career) who's about to see his fortunes turn.
As for that whole compiling-strikeouts thing, well, the K/9 has bumped up into the 7.0 range the past two years, which shows progress. And now that Fister gets to face pitchers and weaker No. 8 hitters rather than DHs and deep AL lineups, expect a boost in that category, too. This could be Fister's fantasy coming-out party.
No. 23: Shelby Miller, RHP, Cardinals
2013 Fantasy Stats: 15 W, 3.06 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 169 K, 0 SV (31 G)
Ho-hum, just a 23-year-old with mid-90s gas who sported the above numbers in his rookie season, then was more or less cast aside down the stretch and in the postseason as the Cardinals tried to limit his innings.
With the reins coming off Miller in Year 2, look for more of the same—but just more of it.
In other words, don't let what the Cardinals did with Miller late in the year and in October cause you to pass him over in your draft. Hey, if the way things went down at the end makes his cost of acquisition this March a little cheaper, all the better for you.
No. 22: Julio Teheran, RHP, Braves
2013 Fantasy Stats: 14 W, 3.20 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 170 K, 0 SV (30 G)
Like Miller, Julio Teheran is another young, hard-throwing right-hander who impressed like crazy during his first full season...then finished on a sour note in the playoffs.
While Teheran's October outing didn't get as much pub as Miller's lack of one did, the 23-year-old wasn't good in the Division Series, when he allowed eight hits and six runs in just 2.1 frames.
Teheran, though, deserves credit for what he did during the season—check those numbers again—and showing that he's capable of getting better as he figures things out. His ability to adopt a two-seamer and slider last season is proof. As long as he doesn't let too many fly balls leave the year, Teheran could be a fantasy SP2.
No. 21: Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Yankees
2013 Fantasy Stats: 24 W, 1.27 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 183 K, 1 SV (28 G)
You know all about Masahiro Tanaka's numbers in Nippon Professional Baseball by now (plus, they're right up top—duh). You also know all about that other number: The $155 million contract he landed from the Yankees.
Now it's a matter of finding out whether the 25-year-old's stuff translates to the major leagues and proves he's worth all that cash.
There's no way of knowing for sure how Tanaka will fare, but pretty much all indications are that he should be an SP3/4 at worst and an SP2 should everything click. If you want to take him for a test drive, though, you may have to pay a premium, given that he's this year's shiny new toy, and a Yankee, to boot.
No. 20: Cole Hamels, LHP, Phillies
2013 Fantasy Stats: 8 W, 3.60 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 202 K, 0 SV (33 G)
Last year, Cole Hamels started out looking like something was going very, very wrong, but in the end, everything turned out quite all right—aside from that low win total, which wasn't his fault.
While the 30-year-old had an ERA of 4.86 entering June, his first start that month was a gem (7 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 11:1 K:BB), and from that point on he was his old self again. Over his final 21 starts, Hamels had a 2.96 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and struck out 136 over 146 innings.
He would be a handful of spots higher here, if not for some concern over left-shoulder soreness that set him back a bit at the start of camp. Hamels, however, already has thrown a pair of bullpen sessions and is expected to face live batters this week, per Todd Zolecki of MLB.com. The hope is that he's ready to start the year, with perhaps the possibility that he might miss his first turn.
Keep an eye on how the rest of spring goes for Hamels, but assuming no hiccups, he'll inhabit that SP1/2 sweet spot in fantasy rotations.
No. 19: Jon Lester, LHP, Red Sox
2013 Fantasy Stats: 15 W, 3.75 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 177 K, 0 SV (33 G)
Once on line to become a true fantasy SP1, Jon Lester has wavered from that course, but he's still a horse who is capable of trotting out above-average numbers in all four categories to which a starter can contribute.
To that end, the 30-year-old has topped 30 starts each of the past six seasons, and after an icky 2012 when he had a career-worst 4.82, it was comforting to see him bounce back to the SP2/3-caliber arm that he's been every other year. That was especially true over the second half last season, when he had a 2.57 ERA and 1.19 WHIP.
One potential pitfall: Lester did throw a career-high 248 frames, including the postseason, so it's possible there could be a bit of a World Series hangover.
No. 18: Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pirates
2013 Fantasy Stats: 10 W, 3.22 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 100 K, 0 SV (19 G)
In his first shot at the big leagues, Gerrit Cole proved he's just about ready to take over as a top-of-the-rotation stud.
The No. 1 overall pick in 2011 didn't dazzle at Triple-A to start out 2013—despite a fantastic 2.91 ERA and 1.06 WHIP, he whiffed only 6.2 per nine. But once he reached Pittsburgh, the 23-year-old turned it up a notch, which resulted in, well, those tasty digits you can consume above. His high-90s heat and deep repertoire are the real deal.
Just know this: There's, like, a lot of buzz around Cole heading into 2014 drafts, so if you want him, you need to get him early. That might mean risking him ahead of a fewer more proven arms, which may or may not be your preferences as an owner—but may just work out in the end.
No. 17: James Shields, RHP, Royals
2013 Fantasy Stats: 13 W, 3.15 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 196 K, 0 SV (34 G)
As sexy as Cole's fantasy stock looks this year, James Shields' is pretty much the opposite. This is a been-there-done-that 32-year-old, but all he does is put up incredibly consistent—and great—stats.
Since his boffo 2011 when he was a genuine SP1, Shields has been a stalwart second starter in fantasy whose ratios stand up even more because he pitches oh-so-many innings. That also helps him compile strikeouts, although it's not like he hasn't average 8.2 K/9 the last four years.
Draft as a firm No. 2. Rinse, repeat.
No. 16: Homer Bailey, RHP, Reds
2013 Fantasy Stats: 11 W, 3.49 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 199 K, 0 SV (32 G)
The Reds just invested $105 million in Homer Bailey, and while he's been getting better in recent years, their hope for him is that the best is yet to come.
That could, in fact, be the case, considering Bailey is still only 27 years old and has really come into his own the past two years. In 2013, he set fantasy-category career highs in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts. Don't blame him for reaching only 11 double-yoos: The 4.05 runs per game of support Cincy scored for him ranked the 24th-lowest in MLB.
No. 15: Jordan Zimmermann, RHP, Nationals
2013 Fantasy Stats: 19 W, 3.25 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 161 K, 0 SV (32 G)
Most of the time, when a pitcher isn't above-average in strikeouts, his fantasy appeal feels the brunt of it, since that category is often what separates the men from the boys.
Well, in Jordan Zimmermann's case, even though his strikeouts-per-nine seem to have topped out around 7.0 and his strikeout percentage has plateaued in the 19 percent range, he's still as solid an SP2 as there is. Since coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2011, he owns a 3.12 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. That's ratio heaven.
Zimmermann might never be a No. 1 in your rotation, but it wouldn't be crazy to think his whiffs could see an uptick for a season, given that he does throw in the mid-90s and is still only 27.
No. 14: Zack Greinke, RHP, Dodgers
2013 Fantasy Stats: 15 W, 2.63 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 148 K, 0 SV (28 G)
The only thing that stopped Zack Greinke last year was a separated shoulder that was the result of a brawl he helped kick off by beaning Carlos Quentin in his second start as a Dodger.
That injury cost the 30-year-old a little more then a month of action, and then it took him a few starts to get himself untracked. In the second half, he was particularly impressive: 1.85 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 7.8 K/9.
Greinke slots in as a very strong SP2, and he's capable of fronting a fantasy rotation, especially with the Dodgers offense and pitcher-friendly park behind him.
No. 13: Gio Gonzalez, LHP, Nationals
2013 Fantasy Stats: 11 W, 3.36 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 192 K, 0 SV (32 G)
Gio Gonzalez was a popular top-10 starter selection in drafts last year, because he had just taken the leap in 2012, finishing third in the NL Cy Young voting, thanks to a 2.89 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and NL-best 9.3 K/9. Oh, and 21 wins.
A slow start (5.34 ERA entering May) caused some owners to experience high-round buyer's remorse, but after that point, the 28-year-old made 26 starts and allowed more than three earned runs on only four occasions. Alas, his final numbers look good-not-great because two of those outings accounted for 17 earned in 6.2 frames.
Look for a little more consistency in 2014—and hopefully, none of those outrageous blowups—which could make NatGio a fringe SP1 again.
No. 12: Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants
2013 Fantasy Stats: 13 W, 2.77 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 199 K, 0 SV (31 G)
So long, Tim Lincecum. Step aside, Mat Cain. The new ace of the Giants is Mr. Madison Bumgarner.
The pitching-rich Giants have one of the best arms around in MadBum, who is coming off three consecutive dynamite seasons of 200-plus-inning fantasy fantasticalness. (What, it's a word.) In that time, he's averaged a 3.12 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 194 strikeouts over 205 innings.
Oh, by the way, the guy is entering his age-24 season. Let the fantasy fawning commence.
No. 11: Jose Fernandez
2013 Fantasy Stats: 12 W, 2.19 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 187 K, 0 SV (28 G)
There aren't enough superlatives to go around explaining what Jose Fernandez achieved as a rookie. Suffice it to say, it was, simply, an all-time campaign for a first-year player.
The scary thing is that the 21-year-old, who was unleashed on the majors all the way from A-ball, got better as he went along. Here are his ERAs by the month: 4.50, 3.18, 1.67, 2.06, 1.15, 0.64.
The only possible caution flag to be raised is that Fernandez's .240 BABIP was the lowest in baseball, meaning it's fair to at least warn of a bit of regression. Then again, amazing as Fernandez is, it wouldn't be shocking if he was able to induce such weak contact to maintain BABIPs about that low.
No. 10: Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox
2013 Fantasy Stats: 11 W, 3.07 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 226 K, 0 SV (3- G)
Last season was a big one for Chris Sale, because it solidified he was a legitimate, no-doubt-about-it top fantasy starter after a breakout 2012, his first year in the White Sox rotation.
The biggest indicators that Sale should be bought into in fantasy? In his first season of 200-plus innings, he was able to improve both his walk and strikeout rates from the previous year: The former dropped from 2.4 per nine to a career-best 1.9, while the latter spiked from 9.0 per nine to 9.5.
The only disappointment for Sale was that his win total plummeted from 17 to 11, but—as we've said before—that's just not his fault. With a little more youth and upside on the South Side, if Sale is as good as he was again, he should see a boost in Ws, too.
Goes without saying, though, that owners should not draft for that volatile, unpredictable stat. They should target strong ERAs, WHIPs and strikeouts—you know, everything Sale does as well as anybody.
No. 9: David Price, LHP, Rays
2013 Fantasy Stats: 10 W, 3.33 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 151 K, 0 SV (27 G)
In the wake of a Cy Young-winning 2012 season, David Price's follow-up in 2013 went a little awry by comparison.
The 28-year-old started off atrociously with a 5.25 ERA as of May 15, at which point he hit the DL due to a bout of triceps soreness in his pitching arm. That was a big ugh for his owners who bought high after the previous year.
Price, though, was able to turn his season around in a big way upon getting healthy. After returning in early July, he netted a 2.53 ERA and posted a fabulous 102-to-13 walk to strikeout ratio in 131.2 innings. Sure, the Ks were down a bit (7.3 per nine) from past years, but Price's 1.3 walks per nine was a career best and tops in the AL.
Go after Price with confidence in the range of Rounds 4-5, and expect him to be your No. 1.
No. 8: Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers
2013 Fantasy Stats: 13 W, 3.46 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 217 K, 0 SV (34 G)
You're probably thinking: How could you rank a guy who had a 3.46 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in the top 10 among starting pitchers?
Look, something was just...off with Justin Verlander last year. Clearly. This was a guy who, for the past handful of years, was right there vying for the title of Best Pitcher on the Planet with a certain other arm at the top of this list.
Still, it's hard to forget how dominant the 31-year-old was in October, which is proof that he still has it in him to cut up the opposition. Plus, now that he's recovered from offseason surgery on his core, Verlander has thrown bullpen sessions and faced live batters, and now is ready for his first start of spring on Thursday, per Jason Beck of MLB.com.
As long as Verlander doesn't have any setbacks, it's all systems go for a bounce-back campaign from a guy whose competitive streak could motivate him to prove what he can do—still.
No. 7: Max Scherzer, RHP, Tigers
2013 Fantasy Stats: 21 W, 2.90 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 240 K, 0 SV (32 G)
The reigning AL Cy Young winner, Max Scherzer went from strikeout specialist with a career 3.88 ERA and 1.30 WHIP but oodles of upside to an utter force of domination.
To wit, Scherzer set career highs in all of the categories above. That's just flat-out impressive and merits an easy top-10 ranking here.
Of course, that also means there's more than a little regression in store for Scherzer. The question is: How much? Well, his FIP was 2.74—that's better than his ERA—but he also had a career-low .259 BABIP. Plus, for a fly-baller, Scherzer's 7.6 percent HR/FB was also the best of his career. All of which indicates some level of unsustainability.
Scherzer will need to be taken as an SP1—and he should after what he did—but just expect him not to match 2013 in 2014.
No. 6: Cliff Lee, LHP, Phillies
2013 Fantasy Stats: 14 W, 2.87 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 222 K, 0 SV (31 G)
The best adjective to describe Cliff Lee is metronomic. No matter what else is going on with your fantasy roster, the one thing you can count on is this southpaw.
Sure, he's 35, but Lee remains as great as ever. Since rejoining the Phillies in 2011, here are Lee's averages per season: 222 IP, 2.80 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and a 9.0 K/9.
Again, that is his average season. Just draft him, will ya?
No. 5: Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners
2013 Fantasy Stats: 12 W, 3.04 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 216 K, 0 SV (31 G)
Felix Hernandez is still the king of your fantasy rotation. The 27-year-old provides everything an owner could want in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts.
The wins? That's been the tougher category to come by for Hernandez, simply because he's had to rely on the Mariners' sluggish offense. Still, he's notched between 12 and 14 Ws the past four years, which while not good, isn't bad either. And hey, Seattle made some additions to its offense, as you might've heard.
While that might help, of course, it's not the reason you buy Hernandez. You do that because he'll be your king starter.
No. 4: Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals
2013 Fantasy Stats: 8 W, 3.00 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 191 K, 0 SV (30 G)
Get ready, folks. You're about to enjoy the Season of Strasburg.
There are absolutely no restrictions on the 25-year-old now that he's built up his innings total north of 180. That means, he should be free to blow past 200 frames, while also blowing his incredible repertoire past hitters.
Strasburg should be able to come close to, if not surpass, his 2013 performance in ERA and/or WHIP, and because he'll be pitching more innings, those rate stats will carry more weight. Plus, that'll enable him to rack up whiffs and wins by going deeper into his starts.
While Strasburg hasn't quite done it all over an entire season just yet, he now has the experience to match the stuff and embark on the Season of Strasburg.
No. 3: Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals
2013 Fantasy Stats: 19 W, 2.94 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 219 K, 0 SV (34 G)
Adam Wainwright is what Roy Halladay used to be—a durable, consistent workhorse of a starter who contends annually for the Cy Young Award.
In his second full season following TJ surgery, the 32-year-old regained the form that helped him finish in the top three in NL Cy voting in both 2009 and 2010. In fact, Waino turned that very trick again last year, placing second (behind the guy at No. 1 on this list).
The fact that he tossed a career high in innings—241.2 frames plus 35 more in October—is maybe a little unnerving, but this is still an SP1, through and through.
No. 2: Yu Darvish, RHP, Rangers
2013 Fantasy Stats: 13 W, 2.83 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 277 K, 0 SV (32 G)
Coming off a 277-strikeout season—the highest total in baseball since Randy Johnson's 290 back in 2004—a lot is expected of Yu Darvish. As it should be.
Right from his very first outing last year, when he nearly threw a perfecto against the Houston Astros, it became clear that Darvish was about to do something pretty special. As those stats up top prove, the 27-year-old did just that.
Not only did Darvish whiff 37 more batters than any other pitcher in the game, his .194 batting average against also was tops in the AL. So between the strikeouts and the whole not allowing hits thing, Darvish has taken the leap many thought he would in his second season in the majors.
Darvish's next step is to cut down on his walk rate while he's busy cutting up hitters. While his 3.4 walks per nine was an improvement from his rookie year (4.2 per nine), that's still a tad higher than most elite starters.
In other words, while Darvish may not reach 277 strikeouts again, there actually is room for him to get better as a pitcher. Plus, now that the Rangers have reloaded their offense, bet the over on last season's abnormally low 13 wins.
No. 1: Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers
2013 Fantasy Stats: 16 W, 1.83 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 232 K, 0 SV (33 G)
When it comes to the top fantasy starting pitcher, it's not a question of who—it's Clayton Kershaw (duh)—it's a question of when. As in when do you take him?
See, because the position is sooooo deep (that's "so" but with five o's), owners can realistically not take a starter until Round 10 of the draft and still come out with a pretty good rotation, all while loading up on big-name and breakout bats.
Of course, someone is going to take Kershaw early. There's simply too much value in what he does, what with the two Cy Youngs in three years...or the leading MLB in ERA every season since 2011...or the 230 or so strikeouts he'll rack up...or the WHIP right around (if not below) 1.00.
Or the best stat of all: He's still 25 years old.
Expect Kershaw to come off the board by the end of Round 1, but perhaps even as early as pick No. 5 or 6 for owners who don't mind starting with a starter. Disagree with that strategy for your team? Fine, but don't pretend like Kershaw isn't going to be worth it in the end. We could be having this exact same conversation a year from now after he finishes—yet again—as the top fantasy pitcher.
Here are the fantasy rankings at other positions:
To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11