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February 18, 2015

State of the Position

Starting Pitchers

by Ben Carsley

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For the earlier articles in this series, click below:

State of the Catcher
State of First Base
State of Second Base
State of Third Base
State of Shortstop
State of Outfield

I initially just submitted “draft Clayton Kershaw or deal with heartbreak” but have been forced to extrapolate. I was also told this couldn’t just be a stalkerish love letter to Jon Lester. I thought this was America, but the conformists have won this time.

THE LEAGUE BREAKOUT

If you’re playing in an NL-only league, star power abounds. Seven of Mike Gianella’s and J.P. Breen’s five-star pitchers in their upcoming tiered rankings piece hail from the senior circuit, as do nine of their 13 four-star arms.

You know the obvious names, but in the next tiers, guys like Gio Gonzalez, Doug Fister, Andrew Cashner, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Mat Latos are pretty safe bets to provide plenty of value, and young pitchers like Zack Wheeler, Alex Wood, Jose Fernandez and Shelby Miller should be attractive targets for those who like to gamble. Near the bottom of the list, bargains like Jason Hammel, Mike Leake, Henderson Alvarez and Kyle Lohse are hanging out ready to provide bulk innings. Overall, whether you want to shoot for the stars or play it safe, pitching will be easy to find in NL-only formats.

In AL-only leagues, you’re going to strain a bit more. After the top tier of Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, David Price and Yu Darvish, it’s tougher to find guys who can anchor your staff. Alex Cobb, Jeff Samardzija, Hisashi Iwakuma and Sonny Gray have that potential, but injuries, age and lack of track record make each a bit of a scary proposition as your no. 1. Such is life when Jon Lester (come back to me), James Shields and Max Scherzer all depart for the NL in one offseason.

There’s upside to be found in the middle tiers. Masahiro Tanaka, Yordano Ventura, Carlos Carrasco and Garrett Richards can miss bats, and Jose Quintana, Anibal Sanchez, Chris Archer, Marcus Stroman and Scott Kazmir are appealing mid-rotation options. Still, by the time you get to the fourth or fifth starter in your rotation, you’re probably going to need to gamble on a Kevin Gausman or a Justin Verlander or a Danny Salazar, or play it safe with a Rick Porcello, a Chris Tillman or an Ervin Santana. That doesn’t inspire much confidence, nor does a back-end group of starters that includes C.J. Wilson, Yovani Gallardo, Clay Buchholz and Wade Miley.

THE STRATEGY IN MIXED LEAGUES


Draft NL pitchers? On a serious note, the tier of upper-echelon starters is fairly deep this year, and if you don’t take Kershaw early in round one there’s a good argument to be made that you shouldn’t take Hernandez or Sale late in round two, but should instead wait for the Cole Hamels/Jon Lester/Jordan Zimmermann tier that starts flying off the board in the late fourth/early fifth, according to FantasyPros.com’s early ADP results.

There’s a meaty group of second starters going between rounds seven and 10, too, including guys like Gray, Cobb, Cole, Tanaka, Tyson Ross and Gonzalez. Pairing one of these arms with a good but non-elite guy a bit earlier can nab you two foundational rotations pieces while letting you focus on offense, which is the strategy that most fantasy analysts--this one included--suggest you embark on most years.

You’re probably going to need to gamble at some point because so many pitchers have injury concerns or have yet to establish themselves as totally reliable big leaguers, but oh, there are so many appealing options between rounds 11-20. From high strikeout forces like Ventura, Wheeler and Archer to contextual darlings like Fister, Kennedy and Latos, you can nab No. 3 starter production without reaching. Older options like Verlander, Jered Weaver and Cliff Lee are likely to be overlooked, and one-hit wonders like Matt Shoemaker, Collin McHugh (that spelling kills me) and Tanner Roark give savvy owners safe handcuffs for riskier picks in the middle rounds.

Once you get past the top 60-or-so pitchers by ADP, it’s really anyone’s guess. Vary your strategy to include a mix of high-upside plays and reliable, boring, older starters, and you should be able to protect yourself from disaster. As always, emphasize upside in shallower leagues and play it a bit safer in deeper formats.

THE LONG-TERM OUTLOOK
Many of the elite pitchers at the top - Kershaw, Hernandez, Sale, Bumgarner, Strasburg, etc - should be at the top for a while. That’s a luxury from a fantasy standpoint, as we don’t really need to guess at what the top tier will look like in two or three years; if everyone stays healthy, we already know many of the players who will be there.

There’s an exciting young crop of pitchers just establishing themselves in the majors right now - guys like Tanaka, Michael Wacha, Ventura, Stroman, Jacob deGrom, Archer, Smyly, Gausman, Danny Duffy, etc - who make strong dynasty plays, and who could function as No. 2/3 starters for a long time. Don’t overreach for them in redraft leagues, but target them over some of the shiny, new prospects who’ll fly off the boards first just because they are indeed still shiny and new.

Speaking of that prospect pitching crop, it’s got plenty of punch at the top but tapers off quickly in the middle. Lucas Giolito is in a class of his own in terms of upside, but he’s still a ways away. For immediate impact, the group of Noah Syndergaard, Archie Bradley, Carlos Rodon, Dylan Bundy, Jon Gray and Jameson Taillon can pitch near the top of a rotation and should make the majors in 2015. Some of them are fairly scary investments; Bradley was bad last year, Bundy and Taillon have been hurt, Gray pitches in Coors; but high-risk, high-reward isn’t a bad strategy with pitching prospects.

I have a long piece on this in the upcoming Futures Guide, but investing heavily in guys who project as mid-rotation starters doesn’t make a lot of sense from a fantasy POV. Once you get past the Daniel Norris/Mark Appel group of starters, don’t go overboard investing in a Henry Owens or a Chi Chi Gonzalez or a Matt Wisler. If they fall to you, fine, but these guys exist to break hearts.

If you’re thinking of drafting a back-end fantasy prospect who’s projected to make his debut later than mid-2015, do anything else with your draft pick. Remember Erik Johnson? Erik Johnson.

A CLOSING HAIKU

Grab one or two studs
Next, balance upside and floor
Then again, who knows

Ben Carsley is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

4 comments have been left for this article.

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Premium Article Baseball Therapy: The ... (02/18)
<< Previous Column
Fantasy Article State of the Position:... (02/09)
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