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February 29, 2016

Fantasy Three-Year Projections

Top 50 Starting Pitchers

by J.J. Jansons

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As was pointed out previously, positional three-year rankings are perhaps most useful for keeper-league owners, but they can serve a number of purposes for dynasty-league owners as well, particularly those who are in (or approaching) contention and not knee-deep in the perpetual rebuild that many owners seem to enjoy. If your contention window is now and you’re wondering who to keep and who to deal, the three-year rankings are for you, as they won’t feature any prospects who are just legally able to vote.

It’s especially important to note that these rankings are decidedly not the consensus rankings of the BP Fantasy Staff; they are the rankings of the selected author.

Ben Carsley outlined the direction for these rankings in last year’s edition, and I’ll copy below with the years updated to make sense for this year’s version:

The formula is simple: most of the weight is placed upon projected 2016 performance, with a substantial drop in weighting potential 2017 performance and then another drop in how 2018 output is valued. Finally, remember these are themed around positions, so losing eligibility is a big deal within the confines of this particular exercise.”

Today, we’ll be looking at starting pitchers No. 1-50, tomorrow will feature 51-125:

1) Clayton Kershaw, LAD
Kershaw wasn’t the most valuable fantasy pitcher in 2015, but there’s simply no pitcher in the world that I’d rather have over the next three seasons—and it’s not particularly close. As 2015 NL Tout Wars champ Mike Gianella pointed out, Kershaw was worth $109 over the last three seasons, a whopping $34 more than the second-place finisher (Max Scherzer), and it’s hard for me to envision another pitcher surpassing him in total value over the next three seasons. Only time will tell how the next three years of work will affect Craig Goldstein’s highly important look at Kershaw from last March.

2) Max Scherzer, WAS
Scherzer certainly enjoyed his return to the National League in 2015, as his 2.79 ERA (a career best) perfectly matched his FIP and his strikeout rate eclipsed 30 percent for the first time in his career. He cut his walk rate nearly in half from his days as a Tiger, leading to a 0.92 WHIP, his lowest as a professional. His innings totals have risen each of the last four years—checking in at a career-high 228 2/3 in 2015—but I’m going to assume that the Nationals will monitor the workload of a pitcher they’ve invested $210 million in, at least for the next three years anyway.

3) Chris Sale, CWS
Those tasty strikeouts. Sale’s 274 punchouts (a career high) brought his total from 2013-2015 to 708, which was third behind Kershaw (772) and Scherzer (768) over the period. It is the fourth consecutive year that his strikeout rate has risen, and his walk rate of just under five percent was the best mark of his career. The White Sox southpaw’s 2015 cFIP of 61 was also the best of his career as he heads into his age-27 season. Sale too frequently is dinged in value not only because he pitches in the American League, but because he does so while pitching half of his starts at US Cellular. Sale actually owns a better career ERA at home (2.81) than on the road (3.03), due largely to the fact that he keeps the ball in the yard at home, allowing just over one home run per game over his career.

4) Madison Bumgarner, SFG
Despite throwing his fifth consecutive season of 200 or more innings, Bumgarner just continues to get better. He posted the best strikeout rate (26.9 percent) of his career, along with his lowest walk rate (4.5 percent) and his 3.56 DRA was the second-best total of his career. One of these days, his workload will catch up to him, but I’ve given up on guessing when it’s going to happen.

5) Jake Arrieta, CHC
Famously, everything went right for Arrieta in 2015, but how much will go right from 2016 and beyond? Arrieta pitched 248 2/3 innings including the postseason, which was just under 110 innings less than he threw his entire career in Baltimore and 92 innings more than he completed in 2014. His BABIP of .246 was 26 points lower than his career mark and his 80 percent strand rate was good for fourth among all qualified starters. Arrieta’s DRA in 2015 was 2.31, which was very similar to the 2.33 DRA he posted the previous season, and his 2014 campaign mirrors the level of expectation that I have over the next three seasons—fantastic production (2.53 ERA, 9.6 K/9), but not otherworldly, as he was in 2015.

6) David Price, BOS
Zack Greinke, ARI
8) Felix Hernandez, SEA
Greinke and Price will both pitch in new home environments in 2016, and both were paid very handsomely ($423.5 million in total) by their new teams to do so. Greinke’s last two seasons before signing with the Dodgers featured a 3.83 ERA in 2011 with Milwaukee and a 3.48 ERA in 34 starts with the Brewers and Angels in 2012. His ERA as a Dodger was a sparkling 2.30, but his ERA as a Brewer (3.67) and a Royal (3.82) is much closer to what I expect while he’s in the desert as he ages. Price has been spectacular while pitching at Fenway over his career—at least in the regular season, where he’s held opponents to a .550 OPS against—and owns a 3.17 ERA lifetime against AL East foes. His value doesn’t change much for me with the move to Boston. King Felix’s cFIP of 92 was the worst of his career and his 3.53 ERA was the highest since 2007. An improved Mariner defense should help his ERA dip back under 3.00 once again, provided he can do a better job of limiting home runs, as his 1.03 HR/9 mark was his worst mark since 2006. His 3.65 DRA wasn’t that big of a jump up from his totals from 2011-2013 and his ranking here indicates a belief that this is not the start of a precipitous decline as he enters his age-30 season, but his down 2015 campaign pushes him towards the back of the top 10.

9) Gerrit Cole, PIT
10) Jose Fernandez, MIA
11) Jacob deGrom, NYM
12) Matt Harvey, NYM
13) Stephen Strasburg, WAS
14) Corey Kluber, CLE
15) Carlos Carrasco, CLE
16) Dallas Keuchel, HOU
You could argue this tier to be ordered about eight different ways and I wouldn’t object. Cole lowered his walk rate to 5.3 percent (his best mark since leaving UCLA) in 2015, which helped him shave more than run off of his 2014 ERA, posting a 2.60 mark that was good for seventh in the game—just as he passed the 200-inning plateau for the first time in his career. In Ray Searage I Trust. Fernandez would rank firmly inside the top-five without concerns of a possible innings limit dampening his 2016 value. I have concerns long-term about deGrom’s workload, as he threw 83 innings in his college career, 323 innings while in the minors around his first Tommy John surgery, and now has pitched 356 innings (including the postseason) over the last two seasons in the majors. The work combined with the increase in his velocity since reaching the majors means the Mets will monitor his innings in 2016, and I think they should do close very closely in an effort to avoid a career-threatening second Tommy John surgery. His teammate Matt Harvey will also have his innings monitored in 2016, as his return to the round after missing the 2014 season was famously bumpy at times, but the missed workouts and other noise shouldn’t diminish that his 2015 performance still placed him inside the top 10 among starters.

Strasburg’s second half of 2015 was magnificent, highlighted by a 1.90 ERA and 37.4 percent strikeout rate, reminding everybody just how dominant he can be when healthy. Kluber (3.49 ERA) and Carrasco (3.63 ERA) should benefit immensely from having Francisco Lindor (and Juan Uribe) behind them full-time in 2016 and it should help each move their ERA closer to their respective 2.94 and 2.81 FIP numbers from 2015. Keuchel posted a cFIP of 77 in 2015 on his way to winning the AL Cy Young, which tied him for 11th (with Cole, Bumgarner, and Michael Pineda) among starters. He bumped his strikeout rate up to 23.7 percent, an increase of almost six percent over his first two full-seasons and will likely need to keep it in that range to keep his ERA below 3.00 once again.

17) Chris Archer, TB
18) Noah Syndergaard, NYM
19) Danny Salazar, CLE

These three all profile as future fantasy aces (Archer may be already), and 2016 could be the year that all three firmly establish themselves as such, as each is full of upside and tantalizing strikeout potential. Among starters that pitched 100 or more innings in 2015, Archer (29 percent), Syndergaard (27.5 percent) and Salazar (25.8 percent) each finished inside the top 15 in strikeout percentage.

20) Johnny Cueto, SF
21) Jon Lester, CHC
22) Sonny Gray, OAK
23) Cole Hamels, TEX
24) Adam Wainwright, STL
25) Tyson Ross, SD
26) Jordan Zimmermann, DET

Despite Cueto’s 13 up-and-down starts with the Royals in 2015, this tier represents relative safety at the position. It’s hard to imagine Cueto ending up in a much better spot than AT&T Park, as he has posted a 2.81 ERA over the last three seasons, good for seventh overall over the period. Lester’s first season as a Cub produced a top-20 performance among starters and he maintained his 25 percent strikeout rate from 2014—his best mark since 2010. Gray continues to do his best Matt Cain impression—outperforming his peripherals—but his strikeout rate of just above 20 percent (40th among qualifiers in 2015) keeps him from reaching elite fantasy status. Hamels was relatively unaffected by his move to the American League and he struck out more than 200 batters for the fourth time in his career. Betting against Adam Wainwright hasn’t proven to be a good idea throughout his career, and his stuff didn’t look all that much different when he returned late in the season from his injured Achilles. He has plenty left as he enters his age-34 season. Ross posted his best strikeout rate as a Padre, but he also posted his worst walk rate on his way to an unsightly 1.31 WHIP. He continues to reside in Petco, and an improved defense behind him should help the .320 BABIP he posted in 2015 inch back towards the .282 and .291 BABIP marks he posted in his first two seasons with the Padres in 2016. Zimmermann’s ERA rose a full run in his last season as a National, as his HR:FB rate rose from 6.4 percent in 2014 to 10.9 percent in 2015. His overall performance wasn’t that much different from his 2012-2014 numbers, though.

27) Marcus Stroman, TOR
28) Michael Wacha, STL
29) Garrett Richards, LAA

This tier of young starters features plenty of upside, but each carries risk due to their medical history. Stroman looked dynamite in his return from his torn ACL, but he’s also never pitched more than 166 innings in a season as a professional. Wacha and Richards both showed signs of inconsistency and fatigue down the stretch in 2015, but also flashed the talent that has them both going inside the top 30 in NFBC drafts this offseason.

30) Carlos Martinez, STL
31) Masahiro Tanaka, NYY
32) Steven Matz, NYM
33) Yu Darvish, TEX

Volatility, sweet, sweet, volatility. Each hurler fell victim to an injury in 2015; Martinez’s strained shoulder shut him down for the year in September, but didn’t require surgery. Tanaka’s elbow limited him to 24 starts, but he returned in time for the postseason and was throwing his sinker 93.5 MPH against the Astros. Matz retained his rookie eligibility after his sparkling debut in 2015 as injuries limited him to 35 2/3 regular season innings in the majors after throwing 105 ⅓ innings in the minors, once again failing to pitch more than 150 innings as a professional. Darvish missed the entirety of the year as he underwent Tommy John in the spring and will be monitored closely in 2016 as a result. Each of the pitchers in this grouping possesses the stuff to be a fantasy ace, but counting on any of the four to be more than a SP2 or SP3 over the next three years isn’t something that I’d be looking to do.

34) Francisco Liriano, PIT
35) Jose Quintana, CHW
36) Raisel Iglesias, CIN
37) Patrick Corbin, ARI
38) Shelby Miller, ARI

39) Julio Teheran, ATL
40) James Shields, SD
41) Yordano Ventura, KC
42) Carlos Rodon, CHW
43) Taijuan Walker, SEA
44) Lance McCullers, HOU
45) Jake Odorizzi, TB
46) Drew Smyly, TB
Liriano failed yet again to reach the 200-inning plateau, but did plenty to impress in his 186 ⅔ innings of duty. His 9.88 K/9 was the highest of his career, and his walk rate was the lowest it’s been since 2010. Quintana quietly has been one of the more effective (and consistent) fantasy performers over his three full-seasons as a member of the White Sox rotation and there’s nothing that suggests he won’t be over the next three. As George Bissell outlined in August, Raisel Iglesias is in for big things in 2016 and if he were slated to throw a complete season’s worth of innings, I’d rank him beside Marcus Stroman. Corbin will also be on an innings limit in 2016 as he works his way back from Tommy John, but he looked pretty close to his 2013 form in his 16 start return to the majors in 2015, and he strikeout rate was actually better. Shelby Miller and his former teammate in Atlanta, Julio Teheran, have had pretty similar careers to this point and although they headed in different directions in 2015, I feel they will post similar numbers over the next three as both enter their age-25 seasons in 2016. Shields should be due for a bounce-back 2016 campaign as an improved defense should help his numbers revert back towards his career norms. Ventura’s “demotion” was the wakeup call that he needed, as he posted a 3.10 ERA and over a strikeout-per-frame after being optioned. Rodon, Walker, and McCullers all have the talent to rank higher on this list, but all need to prove that they can handle a full season run in a major-league rotation. Both Odorizzi and Smyly’s exposure in facing the opposing lineup a third time will be limited, and it will hurt their strikeout numbers, but should help keep each of their ERAs below 3.50 as well.

47) Michael Pineda, NYY
48) Jeff Samardzija, SF
49) Justin Verlander, DET
50) Hisashi Iwakuma, SEA

Pineda and Samardzija both posted ERAs above 4.30 in 2015, however they each outperformed their peripherals in and a return to the National League should certainly help the latter move his ERA back towards his career FIP of 3.80 while on the senior circuit. Verlander was surprisingly effective after the All-Star break in 2015, posting a 2.80 ERA and striking out batters at a nearly 24 percent clip. Iwakuma’s return to Seattle should enable him to be a solid SP3, as long as you can handle the likelihood that he will need a few trips to the disabled list along the way.

J.J. Jansons is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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