Early 2014 pitcher rankings

Updated: September 25, 2013, 5:59 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Matt Harvey's is a tale -- one thus far precisely 14 months in length -- that produces for fantasy owners many compelling lessons.

60 Feet 6 Inches

It is one of blind faith, then of pleasant surprise, then of glory and greatness … but then one with an unexpectedly harsh ending.

(To be fair, said ending also possessed a hint of hope. You know, to set up a sequel.)

Harvey's tale, for fantasy purposes, illustrated that prospecting is a hit-or-miss business, and that sometimes the most unexpected pitcher can overwhelm us by meeting -- or even exceeding -- his projected ceiling, as he did in his first 36 big-league starts. From July 26, 2012, the date of his major league debut, through Aug. 24, his final outing this year, Harvey had 26 quality starts, a 2.39 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 261 strikeouts, ranking 15th, second, third and seventh in the majors (the ratios among qualifiers).

Harvey's tale taught that even the tiniest of samples -- 10 major league starts in 2012 -- can be enough evidence to support a pitcher's skills. He had a 2.73 ERA and 1.15 WHIP during his rookie year of 2012, and then improved both ratios in 2013. Harvey was the No. 42 starting pitcher selected on average during the preseason, and he awarded those faithful owners with the sixth-best year by a starter, per our Player Rater.

But, and perhaps most importantly, Harvey's tale imparted that no pitcher is entirely safe from injury, and that even the most conservative approach to a youngster's workload should not be interpreted as an ironclad guarantee of health. Two days after that Aug. 24 start, we learned that he had a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament -- the "Tommy John surgery" ligament -- in his right elbow, that his season was over and that his immediate future was clouded by the prospect of said surgery.

[+] EnlargeMatt Harvey
AP Photo/ElsaMatt Harvey's rankings for 2014 likely will be all over the place because of his elbow issues.

Harvey has decided to attempt rehabilitation rather than surgery, a decision that represented a double-edged sword for our purposes: Surgery would've cost him most, if not all, of 2014. Rehabilitation runs the risk of being unsuccessful, in which case a future decision on surgery costs him approximately a year's recovery time from that date, or resulting in a somewhat less effective pitcher in the short term, including the risk of injury setbacks.

Or, he could again defy the odds and make a flawless recovery, though even those who cite the Roy Halladay-in-2006 comparison might want to remember that in 2007, Halladay's seasonal ERA rose by more than half a run and his WHIP rose by 0.14, and his first-half ERA was 4.66, meaning that even he wasn't exactly his normal self immediately following rehab.

Now try to rank the guy.

That's a task of today's column, but so is that of ranking every pitcher for 2014, as well as setting the scene for pitchers as a whole entering next season.

Harvey's is the compelling, introductory tale for a 2014 rankings column because it best encapsulates the state of pitching today: unpredictability; many ups and downs and narrowing gaps between the two; meticulous workload management and analysis; and a truth that nothing on the pitching side is sacred, that even the most seemingly matchups-proof pitcher is no guarantee to remain that tomorrow. (Oh, and while we're at it, we've learned that wins are still a poor representation of ability, because Harvey had a major league-high six games in which he went at least seven innings, allowing one or fewer runs, that failed to result in a win for him.)

If you're of the mind that you can pick a few pitchers and leave them active week in and week out, taking a passive approach to in-season transactions, you're increasingly being left behind (and will only continue to each year). These days, pitching success largely hinges upon meticulous matchups management, constant refreshing of your resources and careful examination of underlying statistics.

When we say "you can wait on pitchers," we don't mean you can wait and take anyone late because the position is so deep. We mean that they're eminently replaceable and that you might fare just as well by loading up on bargain-bin bets rather than taking two or three staff "anchors." At the same time, the value of an ace remains great -- seven of the top 15 starting pitchers selected in the preseason remain ranked in that group on our Player Rater, and these aces still provide a massive volume advantage over the constantly dwindling 5.91 innings-per-start major league average -- meaning that there's every bit as much validity to investing in one. The key is formulating a detailed pitching strategy; it's the strategy that is growing in importance.

In this final 2013 edition of "60 Feet 6 Inches," let's give you that head start on your 2014 draft preparations. Today's edition provides preliminary pitcher -- both starter and reliever -- rankings for next season and next season alone. Player value encompasses standard ESPN rules: Rotisserie 5x5 scoring and traditional rosters minus the second catcher.

In addition, however, let's make some early predictions on 2014 trends, including:

"Who's No. 1": Self-explanatory.

"Early buzz": A player most likely to spend the winter riding the hype machine, whether it's a top pick at his position or one primed to rise the ranks.

"Hot stove impact": Players whose projected 2014 draft-day price tag might be affected significantly by winter transactions.

"Unranked value picks": Also self-explanatory.

Now, let's get to the rankings!

Who's No. 1

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Denis Poroy/Getty ImagesClayton Kershaw has been pretty much a sure thing to be an elite fantasy pitcher for the past few years.

Well, this is where the importance of the "ace" comes into play, because there's a pitcher who, thanks to his year-over-year performance, has elevated himself by far to the head of his class this season: Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw.

In a year that has witnessed many stunning pitching performances, it's Kershaw who tops the Player Rater in what might be his third consecutive season leading the majors in earned run average. He would become the first pitcher to do that since Greg Maddux (1993-95), and only the third ever to do it (Lefty Grove did it from 1929-31), and beginning with his breakout season of 2009, he has finished 24th among starting pitchers and 89th overall (2009), 16th and 57th (2010), second and fifth (2011), third and ninth (2012) and first and fifth (2013) on our Player Rater. And if you do the math, you'll realize that, with top-10 Player Rater finishes overall in each of the past three seasons, Kershaw joins only Miguel Cabrera in that exclusive group.

Here's the best part: Kershaw's Dodgers have done a brilliant job of managing his workload over the years. Despite his 6.5 innings-per-start career average, he has averaged just 102 pitcher per outing. Let's use No. 1-starting-pitcher-off-the-board Justin Verlander as a comparison point:

• Since 2008, Kershaw has thrown 120 or more pitches in an outing five times. Verlander has done that 47 times.
• Kershaw has thrown 110 or more pitches 58 times; Verlander has 136 times.
• This will be the first season in Kershaw's career that Verlander's innings total won't exceed Kershaw's by at least 10 -- and that's excluding Verlander's postseason tallies -- and since Kershaw's major league debut on May 25, 2008, Verlander has logged 132 more regular-season innings than the left-hander.

Now flash back to March: How many of you were legitimately concerned about Verlander's career workload? The answer is a precious few -- and even those might be lying using the advantage of hindsight -- so there's hardly reason to fret the workload of Kershaw entering 2014 (when he turns 26). It might seem awkward to place a pitcher in the first round of any draft, but he makes a compelling case for inclusion and will be ranked among my top 10.

Early buzz

Every winter has its share of buzz-worthy fantasy names, players most likely to spend the offseason riding the hype machine as they soar up the 2014 preseason rankings. That's not to say they aren't deserving; it's merely to say that you'll hear plenty of chatter about the following five pitchers between now and March:

[+] EnlargeYu Darvish
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesYu Darvish's strikeout ability makes him a potential contender to be the No. 1 pitcher in fantasy sooner than later.

Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers: If you're not on the Kershaw-as-the-No. 1-starter-not-to-mention-a-first-round-pick bandwagon, then surely you're in the Darvish camp. In two years in the U.S., Darvish has been everything that was predicted and more. He has by far the majors' most strikeouts since his 2012 debut (490, 29 more than Max Scherzer); his seven games of at least seven innings pitched, one run or fewer allowed and 10 or more strikeouts is matched for the major league's lead by only Felix Hernandez, and he shaved more than one full run off his ERA while lowering his walk rate from 10.9 to 9.5 percent in his sophomore season. Darvish's sheer stuff can be reasonably hailed the best in the bigs, and if you're banking on one pitcher reaching the 300-strikeout threshold in 2014, he'd easily have the best odds.

Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins: The man most deserving of National League Rookie of the Year honors, Fernandez might have the widest range of rankings of any top-25 starting pitcher entering 2014. As the No. 5 starting pitcher on our Player Rater -- despite his innings being capped at 172 2/3 and his having never thrown more than 109 pitches in any of his 28 outings -- Fernandez, likely to be afforded closer to 200 frames and potentially a greater volume of 100-pitch outings as a 21-year-old in 2014, makes a compelling case for top-five status at the position. After all, his 2.19 ERA was the lowest by any rookie since Dave Righetti (2.05, 1981 strike-shortened season) -- and that's rookies of any age, not necessarily just 20-year-olds -- and fifth-lowest since World War I.

His ERA+ (that's adjusted ERA accounting for ballpark and league) of 177 was eighth-best, and his 9.75 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio sixth-best by any rookie in history. The only legitimate knocks are 1) his poor supporting cast might make any significant increase to his 12 wins difficult, and 2) whether the league spends the winter detailing a scouting report against him, and neither is that legitimate an argument against his at least top-10 potential.

Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh Pirates: He might not command much more respect from the fantasy community as a whole than his ranking below indicates, but Liriano, despite missing the first 35 Pirates games of 2013, finished as the No. 21 starting pitcher on our Player Rater and therefore might remain an enticing pick to many. After all, many veteran fantasy baseball owners probably remember his stretch of incredible dominance in 2006, when he managed 11 wins, a 1.96 ERA and 10.24 K-per-nine ratio during a 15-start stretch.

The problem with Liriano -- and a winter's work of deeper analysis of his 2013 will help here -- is that his career track record represents considerably more concern than anyone might be willing to admit. Consider: He made just 16 starts in that 2006 season, so it wasn't nearly as complete a year as anyone remembers. Liriano's most productive full big-league campaign, that in 2010, too, ranked him just 32nd among starters and 110th overall on our Player Rater.

[+] EnlargeGerrit Cole
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesGerrit Cole has more than lived up to the hype of a No. 1 overall draft pick since being called up in midseason.

Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates: He's on here not necessarily because he will enjoy a healthy amount of winter buzz, but because he should absorb it. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft, and Keith Law's No. 8 prospect overall entering 2013, Cole has enjoyed a rookie campaign that was even better than advertised. Though often criticized for getting too "cute" with his high 90s fastball and slider, Cole appears to have harnessed both pitches and escaped the mandatory early-career adjustment period of late, evidenced by four wins, five quality starts, a 1.69 ERA and 10.97 K-per-nine ratio in five September starts.

What's more, his workload has been painstakingly maintained by the Pirates, who allowed him only two of 19 big-league starts of 100 or more pitches, never more than 102 in an individual outing, and granted him a reasonable 185 1/3 regular-season innings overall. If you're looking for a "Matt Harvey" of 2014 -- and by that, I mean all of the good parts of the Harvey story, as in you get him late and he potentially dominates -- Cole is your man.

Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers: I've been a Scherzer fan for more than a year, and if he wins himself a Cy Young Award, then he's probably going to enter 2014 a lock of a top-five pick among starting pitchers. The problem, however, is that until we endure the balloting process -- and the inevitable back-and-forth between sabermetric- and scouting-based debaters -- we cannot be sure whether he's going to be unearthed as a bit of a "lucky" type for his 20 wins, and therefore garner enough "hate" to potentially be pushed to the back end or out of the top 10 at his position.

These have probably been said before: Teammate Anibal Sanchez (2.46) and Felix Hernandez (2.57) have lower Fielding Independent Pitching than Scherzer (2.46), and Chris Sale (7.3) and Hisashi Iwakuma (6.6) have more Wins Above Replacement than Scherzer (6.1). I think both sides of this argument have relevance. Scherzer might not be even a top-three AL starter, as my rankings below indicate, but he's also much more skilled than any wins-haters might be willing to give credit.

Hot stove impact

Ah, so as we wait for that possibly delicious winter 2014-15 free-agent dish -- that'd be Kershaw, eligible for free agency after next season -- we have a somewhat less rich, yet surprisingly appetizing, 2013-14 class to whet our appetites.

No, not a single pitcher ranked in my top 25 pitchers below is up for free agency this winter, and Kershaw himself is neither that likely to be traded in advance of his eligibility nor especially likely to even make it to free agency. There is no top-shelf arm on this winter's market, unlike the Zack Greinke and R.A. Dickey moves of the past offseason … but many of the names up for bid following the season could enjoy significant shifts in fantasy value.

Among them:

A.J. Burnett: His contract -- you know, that once-awful five-year, $82.5 million deal the New York Yankees dished him out following the 2008 season, only to watch him provide the Pittsburgh Pirates 3.7 more WAR in 2012-13 while technically on their payroll than for them in 2010-11 combined -- finally expires this winter, and the storyline here is whether Burnett intends to return in 2014 at all. Retirement is a possibility, and understandable, considering he'd begin next season aged 37. (Where does the time go?) But if Burnett returns, fantasy owners will be rooting it'll be to Pittsburgh, where he has been rejuvenated, especially as a strikeout artist, under the tutelage of perennially underrated pitching coach Ray Searage.

Edward Mujica: Even after losing his closer job during the past week, Mujica will go down as one of the best closer success stories of 2013; he is ranked 10th among pure relief pitchers on our Player Rater. Always a pitcher with pinpoint control -- he has a lifetime 1.40 walks-per-nine innings ratio -- Mujica rose seemingly from nowhere, even leaping ahead of his eventual setup man, Trevor Rosenthal, to save 37 games for the St. Louis Cardinals. The problem, however, is that Mujica's late-season swoon, not to mention Rosenthal's presence, casts doubt upon the veteran's 2014 role. He'll be a pricey free agent, and might be twice as likely to land elsewhere in a setup role than to return to St. Louis as the closer. Mujica's own value stands to radically shift depending upon winter developments … but then so does Rosenthal's, as he could either be Mujica's replacement or moved into the rotation.

[+] EnlargeFernando Rodney
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesFernando Rodney may have piled up a ton of saves the past two seasons, but the Rays are not shy about letting go of closers after big years.

Fernando Rodney: Somehow the Tampa Bay Rays, and pitching coach Jim Hickey, converted this once-walk-prone reliever into a bona fide ninth-inning force. In two seasons for the Rays, Rodney tallied nearly as many saves (84) and a considerably lower ERA (1.93) than he had in his previous nine years for his two previous franchises (87 and 4.29 for the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels). Much of it was thanks to an adjustment to his positioning on the rubber, but there's as much evidence that the Rays can extract that extra bit of performance out of their pitchers as there is that Rodney has been fully remade wherever he winds up. Leaving Tampa Bay might be a bad thing for him, but it's almost inevitable; the Rays let their last big-name, free-agent closer go (Rafael Soriano after the 2010 season), and they might do it again this winter, freeing up the closer role for Joel Peralta, Jake McGee or Alex Torres.

Grant Balfour: Here is another example of a pitcher whose team vastly increased his value in the closer role, but has a history of going the cheaper route in the role when possible. Balfour has been yet another closer success story for Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics, having saved 62 games with a 2.59 ERA for them in 2012 and 2013, but he might test the free-agent market and wind up closing -- or even setting up -- somewhere else. In that event, Ryan Cook or Sean Doolittle could figure into the team's closer plans, with Cook the slightly more likely bet.

Tim Lincecum: After four brilliant years, Lincecum finished off his final two heading into free agency suffering a marked decline in performance, much of that a product of diminished fastball velocity. His market value stands to suffer, and he's mainly an intriguing free agent-to-be because of the range of destinations and roles in which he could land for 2014. Remember that wild midseason rumor that the Tigers were interested in trading for him as their closer? Though it seemed absurd at the time, the Tigers indeed have an opening at the position this winter -- Joaquin Benoit is also eligible for free agency -- and one can't help but wonder whether Lincecum might be better off moving to the bullpen, where in shorter outings he can attempt to dial back up his fastball.

I'll stop short of any Dennis Eckersley comparisons; Eckersley possessed far better control than Lincecum at the time he was converted to relief at age 32, in his 13th major league season. But might Lincecum, who can still strike out about a batter per inning even with diminished stuff, have the potential to be one of the better finishers in the game if given the chance? It'd sure be an interesting experiment …

Phil Hughes: Let's first be clear, Hughes might not even warrant selection in 10-team standard ESPN leagues in 2014 even if he signs with a team in an extreme pitchers' park, like that of the San Diego Padres. He has shown us enough to question in the skills department that his career might be a lost cause. That said, would anyone be completely shocked if he could revive it if freed from the bandbox that is new Yankee Stadium? The facts are staggering: Since the venue opened in 2009, Hughes, an extreme fly ball pitcher, has served up 101 home runs. Seventy-one of them -- or more than 70 percent -- have come at Yankee Stadium, 36 of those to right field, where the ballpark plays best for power. Since that stadium opened, Hughes' road ERA is 3.99 and his WHIP 1.27, meaning he probably warrants at least a token look if he's granted his first career opportunity at "fresh surroundings."

Other free agents of note: Matt Garza, Hiroki Kuroda, Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson, Jorge De La Rosa, Roy Halladay, Brian Wilson, Dan Haren.

Risky option years: Among the class of prospective free agents that would first need their teams to -- or in some cases they themselves could -- decline options are James Shields, Joe Nathan, Jon Lester, Casey Janssen, Ubaldo Jimenez and Jose Veras.

Unranked value picks

Extending the rankings more than 150 pitchers deep greatly reduces the amount of "sleeper" candidates, so among those ranked no higher than 75th, here are a few whom I'll be closely examining all winter (and spring) as possible bargains:

[+] EnlargeMichael Wacha
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsMichael Wacha came on strong late in 2013, capped off with a near no-hitter in the final week of the season.

Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals: He's a name you now know, following his near-no-hitter -- he went 8 2/3 innings before giving up a dinkety-dunk infield single -- but even before that, Wacha had put himself firmly in the Cardinals' 2014 plans and on many fantasy owners' sleeper lists, thanks to a handful of impressive spot starts. Wacha's combination of mid-90s fastball and brilliant changeup makes him complete enough to succeed at this level. The primary obstacle he'll face next season is an innings cap; he might not be afforded more than 175 or so after totaling just 149 2/3 this year. He might, in fact, be exactly the candidate who compels the Cardinals to keep Trevor Rosenthal, the man who closed Wacha's Tuesday masterpiece, in the bullpen.

Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Philadelphia Phillies: To clarify, he is listed as "Miguel Gonzalez" in the chart below, but this is the Phillies', and not the Baltimore Orioles', right-hander. We'll enter 2014 spring training without a hint of what Gonzalez can do in the U.S. The Phillies did not enter him in any professional leagues this season after signing him to a three-year, $12 million contract (plus a vesting option for 2017) in August. Some of that might be concern about the health of his elbow -- his original deal was reportedly to be for four years and $48 million -- but all it'll do is increase the likelihood he will be largely ignored in most fantasy drafts. Gonzalez has been described by scouts as a mid-rotation starter who should advance quickly, and by all rights he'll be given a chance to make the Phillies out of spring training. He has arguably as much upside for 2014 as anyone ranked outside the top 100.

Bruce Rondon, Detroit Tigers: Though I wasn't on the Rondon bandwagon in the slightest a year ago at this time, I'm happy to hop aboard this winter … should the Tigers enter spring training with a similarly wide-open bullpen. Though such a change of heart might seem odd -- you might not think 30 big-league appearances would sway an opinion much -- Rondon made some significant advances in terms of his control, and any experience at this level, really, is a plus. What was a 11.9 percent walk rate by the right-hander in the minors in 2012 dropped to 10.0 percent between the minors and majors this season, and he only furthered his development by lowering that to 8.9 percent in his 20 big-league appearances since the All-Star break. Rondon's stuff is indeed closer-worthy, and it might be enough to earn him a look next year.

Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks: Though he'll neither make any appearances for the Diamondbacks this season nor pitch in the Arizona Fall League this winter, Bradley is a viable candidate to make the 2014 rotation out of camp. His presence was a major contributing factor in the team deciding to trade Ian Kennedy at the deadline; Bradley finished the season with a 2.04 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 23.5 percent strikeout rate in 21 starts in Double-A ball and is regarded as nearly big league ready. He'll be one of 2014's most attractive rookie of the year candidates.

Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians: Would the Indians dare trade closer Chris Perez? They should at least try, considering Perez earned $7.3 million this season and is eligible for arbitration again during the winter, meaning he'll probably rank among the highest-paid relievers entering 2014. But Perez hasn't been especially effective, with 13 blown saves (out of 113 chances), a 3.53 ERA and 1.23 WHIP the past three seasons combined. Allen, by comparison, has been the more effective pitcher this year, with a 2.50 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, and is the better strikeout artist of the two. If Perez goes, Allen might not be outright handed the job, but he possesses the ability to easily be the victor of any spring battle for the position.

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