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February 23, 2015

Fantasy Three-Year Projections

Starting Pitchers, Part One

by Doug Thorburn

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We can take the typical aging curves of position players and throw them out the window for the pitchers, whose performance over time follows a far less predictable pattern, though birth dates did come into consideration on the extreme ends of the age scale. Expect a mechanics bend in these evaluations, as a pitcher's physical baselines take on added importance when looking at the multi-year landscape—well, that and the fact that I can't help but notice this stuff, since mechanics are kinda my thing. Many of the pitchers within individual tiers also share a common thread, a reflection of drafting tactics as well as the situational dynamics of the fantasy game.

Some of these rankings will deviate from convention, and I welcome feedback and/or discourse in the comments section.

On to the rankings:

1. Clayton Kershaw

I could sit here and wax poetic about the wipeout breaking pitches, the odd-looking delivery that has begun to get copied around the league, or the fact that he hasn't had an ERA+ below 133 since his rookie year. But you know all that. He's the top arm available, no matter the timeframe, and it's really not all that close.

2. Felix Hernandez
3. Max Scherzer
4. Yu Darvish
5. Stephen Strasburg
6. Madison Bumgarner
7. David Price

The King is as trustworthy as they come, having morphed his game through age and declining velocity, and the only knock against him is a heavy workload that has seen him log more than 2,000 innings in his 10-year career. His improved command of the past three years and extended track record put him above the rest of the group. Scherzer has a deep arsenal and should be able to generate huge numbers in the strikeout department even as the velocity wanes; his geographical security is another point in his favor. Darvish is the best bet on this list to dethrone Kershaw over the next three years, and his circus of stuff is matched by A-grade mechanics. Yu's the pick to crack 300 strikeouts in one of the next three seasons, and last season's elbow woes are the only weight pulling him down at this juncture. Strasburg suffers from the same injury-related question marks, albeit with an adjusted timeframe, and his pitch mix is nearly as lethal as that of Darvish. Bumgarner announced his presence with authority during the World Series, but the recipe for October domination was essentially the same as it had been during the regular season. The increase in innings is a concern, but is somewhat mitigated by his incredible mechanical efficiency and the high-octane gas that he was pumping at the end of the year. Price is both safe and retains some upside, and though he has only cracked the Kershaw line (ERA+ of 133 or higher) twice in his career, his longstanding history of killer peripherals makes Price an attractive option.

8. Corey Kluber
9. Chris Sale
10. Jordan Zimmermann

Kluber is just outside the top tier, with only the brevity of his dominance keeping him out of the highest class of mortals. He has one of the 10 best deliveries in the game, sits mid-90s with ease, and has a multi-headed slider hydra that can be manipulated into a 12-to-6 shape or one with more two-plane break. His breakout was legit. Sale is worthy of the top (non-Kershaw) tier based on performance alone, but his vulture-like delivery contains some injury red flags that knock him down a peg. I wouldn't be too concerned in a one-year league, but the risk over three years pushes him to the next tier. Mechanically, Zimmermann offers the best combination of power and stability in the game, but his profile has a couple of question marks. He has a fastball-heavy approach with a penchant for weak contact, and a dip in velo or a return to the 7.0 K/9 statline of 2011-2013 would dent his value. His recurrence of elbow drag also ups the injury risk for Zimmermann, just as it does for Sale.

11. Zack Greinke
12. Cole Hamels

These two represent the safe options, the ideal no. 2 or a weak no. 1 for a fantasy staff, with the desirable combination of a high floor and top-10 ceiling. Both pitchers are command types who rely on pitch mix and repetition as opposed to overpowering stuff, anchoring the ratios while adding to the counts thanks to long track records of 200-frame seasons. Greinke gets the nod due to his current team situation giving a significant edge in the wins department, but his opt-out at the end of 2015 and Hamels impending trade status cloud the future context of these two pitchers.

13. Gerrit Cole
14. Matt Harvey
15. Julio Teheran

This tier represents the future of acedom. Cole went from over-rated to under-rated in the span of about three months, but he has the stuff (a triple-digit two-seamer? Really?) and the delivery (B+ mechanics) to raise the roof of expectations. He has a K:BB ratio of 3.5 over his first 255 frames in the bigs, and the next three years of his career could be better than several players ahead of him on this list. The same could be said for Harvey, but we have yet to see the extent to which his skills have returned after Tommy John surgery. The Mets will limit his innings this season, but his extended period of R-and-R helps to buffer the risk as well as the innings count. He was on a steep incline of performance when he went down, so expect his full comeback to take some time. Teheran has pitched more than 400 innings of unbelievable baseball over the past two seasons, and though his strikeouts rate took a dive in 2014, I expect a rebound in that department while the free passes remain at a minimum. That’s too bad for leagues that use wins instead of quality starts, because the run-support will likely be weak.

16. Adam Wainwright

The mystery surrounding the status of his right elbow drops Wainwright a few slots as does his birthday cake (Waino will be 33-to-35 years old in the three-year window). If he were completely healthy, then he would have ranked just behind Greinke and Hamels, and the surgical reports of trimmed cartilage are not as concerning as they could have been.

17. Andrew Cashner
18. Jeff Samardzija
19. Johnny Cueto

This group features a pair of pitchers who are on disparate paths when comparing these ranks to 2014 ADP. Cashner rides the escalator, rising 19 spots higher than he is being taken in this year's drafts, due to a combination of expected development and his perceived skillset. Much has been made of his low inning-counts thus far in his career, but he has an excellent profile to handle an increased workload, including a stable delivery and mid-to-high-90s two-seamer with wicked movement. Basically, he's Cole minus a twinge of upside. The Shark has been anything but a safe bet thus far, but his peripherals have outplayed his ERA for years, adding optimism that he can stick the landing for the next few seasons. On the other end of the spectrum is Johnny Cueto, who is being drafted within the top 10 this year due to his dynamite 2014 season, which included 243 innings pitched. Given that staying on the mound has long been his biggest weakness, and with a career full of lower strikeout totals, Cueto feels like a pitcher who went from under-appreciated to over-appreciated in the span of three months. So he's the bizarro Cole.

20. Jose Fernandez

Fern has perhaps the greatest upside on this list, and though his recovery from Tommy John will eat into his innings both in 2015 and 2016 as the Marlins are likely to bring him along slowly, I think that he can be dominant enough in those 400-450 innings to carry more value than the players that follow. Yeah, he's that good, and with a full recovery we will be reminded of that fact before the season is over.

21. Gio Gonzalez
22. Jon Lester
23. Hisashi Iwakuma
24. James Shields

This group should be relatively safe, matching well with the high risk/reward types like Cole and Cashner. Gio has been criminally underrated for most of his career; folks who still think of him as the walk machine that he was in Oakland have failed to realize the extent to which he has addressed that weakness, and there are mechanical underpinnings to justify his improvement. Lester is ranked much lower here than his ADP (13th-overall starting pitcher), as I see last season's performance as something closer to a peak than a new norm for the left-hander. Iwakuma can ride his killer split to help defy typical aging patterns a bit longer, but his penchant for the Disabled List makes him a bit less safe than the hurlers that surround him on the ranks. Don't let the “big Game” mockery fool you, as Shields is in a great spot for the next few years to provide plenty of value across the board.

25. Marcus Stroman
26. Sonny Gray
27. Yordano Ventura

Having a breakout no. 3 in your rotation can be the difference between contention and treading water in a competitive league, and there is a trio of pitchers with upper-tier skills but size-related doubts that can suppress their values. Stroman is the best of the bunch, the type of player that could jump a couple of tiers by season's end, and his blend of power stuff, a deep arsenal, and efficient mechanics bode very well for his future. Gray slips on this list compared to his ADP, a reflection of his health question marks (which have more to do with his delivery than his size) as well as a skill-set that might be a tad over-rated given where his stat-line settled in his sophomore season. Ventura's triple-digit velocity raises the roof on his upside, and though his consistency has been an issue, he also made mechanical improvements to his stability last year to lend optimism that he can develop gracefully over the next few seasons.

28. Jake Arrieta
29. Carlos Carrasco

Both Arrieta and Carrasco made mechanical adjustments that worked wonders for repetition last season. Arrieta altered his tactic of lift-and-stride to find a much more consistent pace to the plate, and Carrasco ditched the windup as part of his own efforts to simplify the timing aspect of his delivery. Both pitchers already possessed the stuff for dominance, including mid-90s heat and wipeout secondaries, and the missing link to upper-tier performance was repeating the delivery. Time will tell if the lessons of last season carry over, but they both now have a blueprint for success.

30. Zack Wheeler
31. Hyun-jin Ryu
32. Michael Wacha

Wheeler is on the cusp of greatness, but the last aspect that he needs to iron out is also the toughest – timing. He could figure it out this season, vaulting up several spots in the rankings, or he could still be honing three years from now. Consider this ranking a hedge that he figures it out sooner rather than later. Ryu is the safest bet in the group to perform over the next three years. His change-up is absolutely devastating, and his ability to trust the pitch allows him to throw it in fastball counts, resulting in some hilarious swings from batters who are sitting dead-red on heat. Wacha has already endured some injury scares, and his delivery has some red flags that are worth monitoring, but I was very impressed by the development of his repertoire last season.

33. Alex Cobb
34. Tyson Ross
35. Matt Cain

Cobb's impressionistic dance of a delivery is entertaining, but it also creates a massive timing disparity between windup and stretch. He has figured out how to find consistency anyway, though his stuff somewhat limits his ceiling. Ross' insane slider usage (41 percent in 2014) is frightening, particularly given the forearm ailments that he endured at the end of last season. He has made adjustments every year that he has been in San Diego, so I expect that he'll morph things some more in the near future, a factor which clouds his value. Cain is being heavily discounted in fantasy leagues, due to his elbow injury of last season as well as two years worth of ERAs in the 4.00s. I am not as concerned with the elbow (bone chips are less of a worry than bone spurs), and I believe that he can rediscover the approach that made him a top-25 guy from 2007-2012.

36. Anibal Sanchez
37. Garrett Richards
38. Lance Lynn

Both Sanchez and Richards carry the stuff to rank higher but the health issues tarnish trust. Sanchez has dealt with recurring issues to the area surrounding his right arm (last year it was a strained pec), and though he has never cleared the magic 200-innings threshold, he has pitched at least 180 frames in four of the past five seasons. The fact that Richards' injury was to his knee lightens the concern a bit, but the loss of foundational strength could be a major hurdle for a pitcher who already struggled with the stability of his delivery. Lynn is the exact opposite type of pitcher, in that he is relatively reliable in terms of taking the mound when the Cards ask, and his value is built on consistency rather than upside.

39. Kevin Gausman
40. Masahiro Tanaka
41. Justin Verlander

Gausman will be taking over as the new Justin Verlander in the next two-to-three years, perhaps not in terms of statistical dominance, but as a power-fueled arm with a plus-plus secondary who utilizes his size and delivery to maximum advantage. Tanaka would rank much higher on this list from a standpoint of pure talent, but the likelihood of his going under the knife sends him plunging down tiers. He has a partially torn UCL, and though he may be able to pitch with the issue for a while, there's a very strong likelihood that he will be undergoing Tommy John surgery at some point in the next two years, if not the next two months. I'm not ready to jump the ship on Verlander himself just yet, and though his prime is drifting further in the rearview mirror, he still possesses the profile of stuff, mechanics, and size to put up a couple of valuable—if frustrating—campaigns.

42. Doug Fister
43. Mat Latos
44. Michael Pineda

Fister has an ever-changing delivery and uninspiring velocity, but he finds a way to get it done each season. He might not be the best source of strikeouts, but Fister can hold down the fort with his ratios. Latos is in the same boat, as a pitcher who completely altered his delivery last season as he sacrificed power in the name of stability, taking a very different route to surprisingly similar results. There's no telling which version of Latos or Fister will show up this season and beyond, but each pitcher's ability to adapt is a point in his favor. Pineda has higher upside than either of the other pitchers in this group, but his inability to stay on a big-league mound is a serious issue. He represents the greatest extreme of risk/reward among a tier of players saturated with it.

45. Alex Wood
46. Jacob deGrom

Wood gets dinged pretty heavily in these ranks due to a delivery that should be impossible to repeat – yet the guy does it anyway. His preternatural ability to hit targets is a lot of fun to watch yet impossible to trust moving forward, and I am still waiting for the other shoe to drop on his pitch command. Or he will keep defying the odds (and gravity). Jacob deGrom came out of nowhere last season, and though his ranking in this space represents a 19-position drop from his 2015 ADP, his ability to make in-season improvements vaults his ceiling with optimism.

47. Danny Salazar
48. Taijuan Walker
49. James Paxton

This is the tier of volatile, young upside. Salazar has elite velocity and a wipeout slider, and when his delivery is clicking, the mechanics to command his repertoire. Though he was painfully inconsistent last season, Salazar's long-term outlook is lifted by his ability to make changes in-season to regain some of his lost mechanical efficiency. Walker is a danger given his previous shoulder woes, as the unpredictability and velocity-sapping tendencies of shoulder injuries cloud his future somewhat, but he also has the stuff and opportunity to rise quickly. Paxton has already shown those skills at the highest level, and though he lacks the ceiling of his future rotation-mate, Paxton is a better bet to return value.

50. Cliff Lee

Lee is the ultimate enigma on a list like this, given the chasm between his ceiling and floor at an age when things can go south quickly. The flexor mass strain that ended his season early last year can be a precursor to Tommy John Surgery, so he is not out of the injury woods yet, and the open-ended nature of his contract (year three is a club option for his age-38 season). That said, his skills are such that he could justify this ranking even if he pitches just 350 innings over the next three seasons.

Previous three-year rankings:

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

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