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Friday, February 8, 2013
Updated: February 20, 3:58 PM ET
Position Preview: Starting pitcher

By James Quintong

The starting pitching position can be a very fickle one, as seen in the case of former NL Cy Young winner and fantasy stalwart Brandon Webb, who officially announced his retirement in February, even though he hasn't pitched since 2009. He was one of the most reliable pitchers in the game between 2003 and 2008 and was still relatively young (29) when he suffered an injury on Opening Day 2009. Just like that, he was done. The shelf life for an elite starter can be very short.

With that said, if you're looking for outstanding starting pitching to anchor your staff, there are lots of top-flight options to go around this year, including many who have been around for a few years. But even as some of the former elites have started to fade due to age, injury or both, there's a large crop of young arms ready to take their place. This year there seems to be a lot of upside arms out there, especially if you consider a number of highly regarded prospects who should be in the mix.

So while it's definitely worth taking a shot at one of the truly elite arms, you can also wait a little and still snag a handful of reliable options with top-5 or top-10 upside. Just be aware that the talent does drop off somewhat, to the point that starting pitchers ranked in the mid-30s to mid-60s range can be rather interchangeable, depending on your penchant for risk, rookies or security.

And remember that while we feel relatively comfortable with our current starting pitching rankings, remember that this position, more than any other, can produce "out of nowhere" type players who were barely on anyone's radar. Think Kris Medlen or R.A. Dickey (although Dickey's ratios had been pretty strong for a couple of years before his NL Cy Young performance last year). In ESPN standard leagues especially, it should be pretty easy to find potential replacements as the year goes along if some pitchers don't pan out. Of course, you'd better hope it's the back end of your staff you're looking to replace, and not pitchers you've taken really early.

Clayton Kershaw
Dodgers hurler Clayton Kershaw finished ninth overall on the ESPN Player Rater in 2012.

Finally, as most fantasy owners probably know by now, it's not really worth trying to chase wins, even though it goes a long way in determining fantasy value. It's best to target pitchers with solid ERA, WHIP and K totals and let the wins fall as they may. For instance, while reigning Cy Young winners R.A. Dickey and David Price had 2012 win totals that seemed to match their performances, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw both saw their 2012 win totals drop despite their other stats looking very similar to their 2011 Cy Young-winning campaigns. Meanwhile, pitchers such as Phil Hughes and even Barry Zito racked up decent win totals but are nowhere near the top of our rankings.

Cream of the crop

The pool of elite options is about as deep as it has ever been, highlighted by a couple of truly dominant starters and followed by a good half-dozen superstar arms. Any of these guys would be great anchors of a pitching staff. In general, expect these pitchers to go within the first 30-35 picks overall, depending on how your owners value starting pitching.

As noted above, Justin Verlander's and Clayton Kershaw's 2011 and 2012 overall stats looked very similar, outside of the win total, and they enter the season as the top two options. However, each does come with a small red flag. In Verlander's case, he has piled up 537 2/3 innings (including the playoffs) in the past two seasons alone, so some will wonder if and when he will be affected by that. But for now, it's easy to ride the workhorse. In Kershaw's case, he dealt with a hip injury toward the end of last season, but still allowed just two earned runs in 27 September innings. He avoided offseason surgery and appears to be fine entering the season.

Felix Hernandez, now with a brand new $175 million contract, does just about everything right except pick up wins (just 40 over the past three seasons). Maybe his Seattle Mariners teammates can help him come close to the 19 he had in 2009. … Stephen Strasburg lived up to the hype before his well-publicized shutdown. Will the Washington Nationals limit his innings again, and if so, what will his limit be? They do have a strong back end of the bullpen that could limit him to a bunch of six-inning outings. Otherwise, his ceiling is probably the highest of any starting pitcher in the game.

Matt Cain, David Price, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee are as steady as they come, and also make for sturdy anchors of any fantasy staff. Don't get scared off by Lee's bizarre 6-9 record in 2012. His other fantasy stats were eerily similar to his teammate Hamels, who went 17-6. And Lee had a ridiculous 109:8 K:BB ratio after the All-Star break last year.

The Next Best Thing

The first few names probably straddle the line between elite and very good, and they might even go for as much as other star arms. However, they could make for good bargains if you can wait on them. You could always hang back if they start going off the board earlier than you'd like or drawing somewhat high bids.

Jered Weaver won 20 games last year despite making only 30 starts (thanks to a short DL stint), and he led the AL in WHIP. However, he had just a 6.77 K/9 rate, a far cry from his 9.35 rate in 2010. The strikeouts could become more of an issue going forward and potentially keep him from the truly elite.

R.A. Dickey's ERA and WHIP totals with the New York Mets were already trending in the right direction when he started piling up the strikeouts (not necessarily something knuckleballers do) and wins en route to the 2012 NL Cy Young award. He's one of the biggest wild cards for 2013 because of the move to the Blue Jays and the AL, not to mention the fact that he's now 38 years old.

Since winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2009, Zack Greinke's fantasy stats have been good but not necessarily elite, although the sabermetric stats suggest he has pitched better than those numbers may have you believe. A move to Dodger Stadium could help boost his stats, and there's still the potential he could come close to his brilliant '09 stats. Meanwhile, Gio Gonzalez took advantage of his move to the National League last year and finished with a major league-leading 21 wins. His numbers were trending upward even before going to Washington, so there's no reason to think he couldn't at least come close to last year's stats.

It took a bit of time for Adam Wainwright to recover from 2011 Tommy John surgery, but he found his groove in the second half, and now entering his second year after the surgery, he should get closer to his pre-injury form. On the other hand, Madison Bumgarner faded late in the season, but before then he was approaching elite pitcher status. He's still just 23 and has the upside to be firmly among the elite.

Cincinnati Reds teammates Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos both had big 2012 seasons, and both look sustainable for 2013 as well. Cueto stayed healthy all year, and improved his K rate in the process. Latos' primary fantasy stats remained the same despite moving from pitcher-friendly Petco Park to hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park (even with a significant rise in homers allowed). Even given the ballpark, these pitchers look to be very steady.

Jordan Zimmermann's second full season following Tommy John surgery was a success, as the Nationals ramped up his workload. He slowed down in August and September, but he has impeccable control even if he lacks the strikeout potential to be a No. 1 fantasy starter.

Where's The Ceiling?

There are plenty of solid upside plays entering 2013, with a number of pitchers trying to follow up decent-to-outstanding rookie campaigns, short-term bursts of big stats after a return from injury, or successful transitions from the bullpen to the rotation.

Yu Darvish's first season in the majors lived up to the hype (especially the 221 strikeouts), and while he must work on keeping his walks down, he still has the upside to be an elite pitcher. Chris Sale's first season as a starter was a huge success as well, as he proved he could make the jump from the bullpen. The 120-inning jump from year to year is worth watching, though.

The Atlanta Braves were cautious with Kris Medlen coming off Tommy John surgery, as they kept him in the bullpen until unleashing him in the starting rotation on July 31. In 12 starts, though, he went 9-0 with a microscopic 0.97 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 83 2/3 innings. The question now becomes whether he can come anywhere close to this type of dominance over a full season, especially since he had been primarily a reliever until 2012.

Matt Moore
Matt Moore got off to a slow start last season, but he bounced back and posted a 3.01 ERA, with 79 K's in 77 2/3 innings, in the second half.

Matt Moore was one of the most hyped young pitchers going into last year, then got off to a slow start (4.42 first-half ERA) before rebounding nicely in the second half (3.01 second-half ERA). He could stand to cut down on his walks a bit, but he still has plenty of upside and may go a little cheaper than he should because of his disappointing first half of 2012.

Brett Anderson looked great in six starts last season (2.57 ERA, 1.03 WHIP) after returning from Tommy John surgery. If he can come anywhere close to matching that performance over a full season (which is always a question mark given his career health issues), he'd definitely have a lot of value, although it'd be tempered by a so-so K/9 rate. Meanwhile, teammate Jarrod Parker had a solid rookie season and also has decent upside that is helped by his favorable home park.

Wade Miley surprisingly emerged among the plethora of young Arizona Diamondbacks arms to rack up 16 wins in his rookie campaign, thanks in part to great control. The strikeout upside isn't there for him to be an elite pitcher, but he can be a steady rotation piece in all fantasy leagues.

Lance Lynn jumped from the bullpen to the starting rotation following Chris Carpenter's injury and ran with it, to the tune of 18 wins and 180 strikeouts in 176 innings, this despite being demoted to the bullpen for a short stretch in late August to early September. With Carpenter already ruled out for 2013, Lynn can pick up more of the slack.

Where's The Basement?

A handful of former Cy Young winners end up here, although in a couple of cases, it does say something for their durability that it has taken them this long to be considered downside plays.

After years of being top-5/top-10 options, CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay enter the season with a lot brighter red flags than in years past; age and injuries seem to have caught up with them. A back injury limited Halladay to 25 starts, and his 4.49 ERA was his worst since 2000. He was such a reliable workhorse for so many years (six straight seasons of at least 220 innings) that at some point he had to slow down. Was 2012 an anomaly or the start of a decline?

Sabathia's overall numbers in 2012 were very much in line with years past, but two different disabled list stints (one for a groin, the other for an elbow) could give some owners pause. Despite the two DL stints, he still racked up 200 innings. But how long can that continue?

Tim Lincecum had one of the most surprising fantasy campaigns of 2012, as he struggled to a 10-15 record with a whopping 5.18 ERA and 1.47 WHIP. While he failed to strike out 200 batters for the first time since his rookie season, his K/9 rate remained about the same, and he seemed to redeem himself a bit during the postseason, albeit mostly out of the bullpen. It will be intriguing to see which Lincecum shows up in 2013. At the very least, he won't cost anywhere as much this year compared to last.

After four straight years with at least 15 wins and an ERA in the 3 range, Jon Lester stumbled to a 9-14 record and a 4.82 ERA. While he could bounce back in 2013, the fact that his strikeout rate has dropped in three straight years down to 7.28 in 2012 limits his upside.

Tommy Hanson used to be one of the most promising pitching prospects in the game, but injuries have always been an issue, and he's coming off a season in which he sported a 4.48 ERA and 1.45 WHIP. Even though he had a career-high 13 wins last year, his ERA has gone up in each of his four big league seasons. Will a move to the Angels turn things around? That's a big question mark at this point.

Steady As He Goes

Max Scherzer
Max Scherzer struck out 231 batters in 187 2/3 innings last season.

There are a number of different types of "stable" pitchers out there. There are the high-strikeout, so-so ERA/WHIP guys who tease further greatness but never seem to get over the hump. Yovani Gallardo and Max Scherzer fall in this category. Matt Garza also looks to be in this category (at least before last year's injury-shortened campaign). Keep expectations reasonable and they'll pay off well, but most times fantasy owners expect a lot more.

Then there are the low-ceiling, high-floor pitchers who always seem to put up useful ratios, wins and strikeouts and surprise us by finishing high on the Player Rater every year despite getting little fanfare, and in many cases not putting up that "wow" game that turns heads. Hiroki Kuroda and Anibal Sanchez have done that for a long time, while Matt Harrison, Jeremy Hellickson, Ian Kennedy and even Ryan Vogelsong appear to be trending in that direction. Meanwhile, Tim Hudson is also a model of steadiness, just with fewer strikeouts, and Jason Vargas seems to be trending to solid yet unspectacular high-inning, medium-strikeout production.

After years of being mostly a mediocre starting pitcher, Kyle Lohse's past two seasons in St. Louis have made him a vastly underappreciated fantasy piece. While his 6.1 K/9 rate isn't terribly impressive for fantasy owners, a 3.76 K/BB rate is a nice sign. Of course, where he eventually ends up will go a long way in figuring his value, much more than some other pitchers.

Talking Prospects

A number of top starting pitching prospects heading into the season actually impressed in their cameo appearances late in 2012. Those include: Matt Harvey, who struck out 70 in 59 1/3 innings over 10 starts for the Mets and looks to be a rotation lock; the St. Louis Cardinals' Shelby Miller (16 K's in 13 2/3 innings) and Trevor Rosenthal (25 K's in 22 2/3 innings), who could get more chances to start because of injuries to Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia; and the Milwaukee Brewers' Wily Peralta (2.48 ERA in 29 innings).

The top pitching prospect in Keith Law's Top 100 prospects list, Dylan Bundy, pitched in two games for the Baltimore Orioles last September despite being just 19 and starting the season in Class A ball. However, there's no guarantee he'll be in the rotation at all this season.

Tyler Skaggs
Tyler Skaggs didn't show us much in 2012.

Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks' prospect duo of Tyler Skaggs (5.83 ERA) and Trevor Bauer (6.06 ERA) fizzled when given their first shots last year. Don't forget about either of them, especially Bauer, who has been dealt to the Cleveland Indians.

Other prospects potentially in the running for jobs, primarily later in the season, include the Mets' Zack Wheeler; the Pittsburgh Pirates' Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon; the Mariners' Taijuan Walker; the Braves' Julio Teheran; and the Texas Rangers' Martin Perez.

Points versus Roto

The primary pitching categories that drive points leagues are wins, innings pitched and strikeouts. I've already discussed how fickle and unpredictable wins can be, but focusing on workhorses who pile up the strikeouts is a good strategy. Most of those pitchers are already pretty high in our standard roto rankings, and they can get even more of a boost in points leagues.

However, rack up enough strikeouts and the somewhat mediocre ERA and WHIP totals can be forgiven. Thus, that would help pitchers such as Yu Darvish, Yovani Gallardo and Max Scherzer, and boost Tim Lincecum, whose ratios were obviously far off his past totals. Even somewhat marginal starters with nice strikeout totals, like Edwin Jackson and A.J. Burnett get helped out in points formats.

The high-floor/low-ceiling guys (like many of those mentioned in the "Steady As He Goes" area) is a lot more accepted in rotisserie leagues, because you have a solid statistical base on which to build your team. Meanwhile, more points and head-to-head formats seem to like the boom-or-bust guys where one huge performance can lead to a sure victory.

Bottom Line

There's plenty of depth throughout the position this year, especially among the elites and near-elites, and even among potential prospects. The overall attractiveness of the player pool means that there will be a fair share of high draft picks and auction dollars spent at the position. You can wait a little for pitching, but don't wait too long, because the field becomes more nebulous and uncertain even 35-40 pitchers in. There are lots of lottery tickets available, but if you want security at the top, you have options.