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For the earlier articles in this series, click below:

The Big Question(s): Where does the elite tier of starting pitchers end and how important is for fantasy owners to draft one?

If you’ve followed Baseball Prospectus’ category breakdown series this offseason, you’re keenly aware that league-wide power surge has catalyzed a newfound high-octane offensive environment, and dramatically reshaped the offensive landscape over the past two seasons. Here’s an oversimplification: major-league hitters produced the second-most home runs in baseball history last year, a development that had a profound impact on pitcher performance.

Major-League average ERA & runs allowed per game (2002-2016) Source: Baseball-Reference

Just two years ago, major-league pitchers recorded their lowest single-season ERA (3.74) in nearly three decades. In 2016, pitchers were tagged for more runs per game (4.48), and recorded their highest ERA (4.19), since 2009. With run-prevention playing a more prominent role in pitcher’s fantasy value, there’s another underlying factor to consider when assembling a fantasy rotation this season.

A three-year decline in starting pitcher workloads (on a per-start basis) appears to have the largest impact on the increasing divide between elite starters and the remainder of the talent pool. It’s no secret that the proliferation of expanded modern-era bullpens has eaten into starting pitcher workloads, especially when it comes to back-end of the rotation arms. However, it helps to put the phenomenon into proper context, which is that the average length per-start (5.6 IP/GS) was the lowest single season mark in history last year.

Major-League starters with 200-plus innings pitched (2002-2016) Source: Baseball-Reference

With starting pitcher workloads deteriorating due to a confluence of injury, ineffectiveness, front office philosophy or increased reliever usage, only 15 starters reached the 200-inning threshold last season, which was down from 28 the previous year. That’s less than half as many (38) accomplished the feat a decade ago. Of those 15 starters that eclipsed the lofty 200-inning plateau, only six (Cole Hamels, Rick Porcello, Jose Quintana, Tanner Roark, Jeff Samardzija, and Marcus Stroman) are going outside the top five rounds in NFBC average draft position this spring.

After a thorough examination of the data, there should be zero doubt regarding how critical it is to draft an ace-caliber starter in the first five rounds of fantasy drafts this spring. According to BP’s fantasy tiered rankings, which will be released later this week; there are 13 ace-caliber starters in the five-star tier.

Clayton Kershaw’s status as the first pitcher off the board this season is well deserved. Heck, he was the second overall selection in the LABR Mixed draft last week. Despite missing two months due to a herniated disc in his lower back, Kershaw still managed to return $33 and finish as the second-most valuable pitcher in 15-team standard mixed leagues last season. As my esteemed colleague Matt Collins pointed out yesterday in his Early ADP Analysis column, the remaining five star options in Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Noah Syndergaard, Johnny Cueto, Jake Arrieta, David Price, Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Carlos Carrasco, and Stephen Strasburg are all going within the first five rounds.

As 18th century French philosopher and writer Voltaire said, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Don’t overthink this decision. Just ensure that you draft one of those aces this spring.

Mixed League Strategy

It’s tempting to craft a strategic approach that eschews the hefty price tag associated with building around an elite starting pitcher, but that merely amplifies the risks later on. You simply can’t afford to miss on any of those mid-to-late round selections. It may sound obvious, but without the volume of innings (which greatly contribute to win and strikeout totals) to compensate for weaker ratios (ERA and WHIP), it’s almost impossible to build a competitive staff without an ace.

My colleague Mike Gianella outlined the #CaseForTheAce in his retrospective player valuation series earlier this offseason. As he eloquently stated, “Sitting back and trying to fill in your pitching staff after the first 50 picks (in a snake draft) is a losing game. You might have nabbed Kyle Hendricks if you were lucky. It is more likely that you would have landed Mike Fiers, Jaime Garcia, or Scott Kazmir. Yes, I know: you’re smart, and landing Hendricks was skill and not luck (you’re also ridiculously good looking).”

The logical counterargument here revolves around the idea that all pitchers are inherently risky. That’s true. To a lesser degree, it’s also fair to claim that merely drafting an ace doesn’t ensure that they produce like one. Just ask any fantasy owner that invested in a high-profile “bust” like Sonny Gray, Matt Harvey, Dallas Keuchel or Zack Greinke last season. It’s easy to recall high-profile busts. That’s the beauty of the availability heuristic. However, it’s critical to remember that there is always exponentially more risk (bust potential) when it comes to investing in the lower tiers. Now, let’s have some fun.

The Breakout Candidate: Robert Gsellman, Mets

The bifurcation of perception and reality can be staggering at times. Especially when it comes to an unheralded prospect like Gsellman, who failed to generate any hype during his meteoric rise through the Mets system last summer. The 23-year-old right-hander is a prominent example of this phenomenon because he arrived in Queens in late August off a relatively uninspiring run in Triple-A Las Vegas, where he posted a 5.73 ERA over nine starts. However, the electric arsenal he unleashed at the major-league level, highlighted by a 94 mph sinker and a filthy hard slider, was truly majestic.

Not only did he rack up 42 strikeouts over 44 2/3 innings, but he also recorded a 2.42 ERA over eight appearances (seven starts). Granted, he did most of his damage against a futile Phillies lineup down the stretch, but the raw stuff he showcased against major-league competition was enough for the BP prospect team to tab him as the 17th-best prospect in the game. Currently being drafted in the 24th round (he went in the 22nd round in LABR Mixed) of NFBC drafts, he’s an excellent late-round target based on the talent and opportunity to step into the Mets rotation.

Don’t Forget About: Garrett Richards, Angels

I could ramble on about some of my favorite mid-to-late round “breakout” targets like Julio Urias (what is an innings cap?), Jameson Taillon, Marcus Stroman, Sean Manaea, Jon Gray, James Paxton, or Robbie Ray (just to name a few), but there isn’t a more compelling speculative arm than Richards. He made just six starts before a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament sidelined him for the remainder of the 2016 campaign. Instead of undergoing Tommy John surgery, the 28-year-old elected for a combination of stem cell therapy and platelet-rich plasma injections, and is expected to be ready to go on Opening Day.

There’s an insane amount of risk here, but Richards recorded a 3.64 DRA with 176 strikeouts over 207 1/3 innings two seasons ago. Los Angeles Times beat reporter Pedro Moura was extremely optimistic regarding his potential during our conversation for the Effectively Wild team preview series last year. “I believe he (Richards) can be an ace,” said Moura. “I’ve heard from scouts and opposing players, that when his stuff is on, he’s among the best in the game.”

It may be unrealistic to expect 200-plus innings from Richards, who will likely be on a pitch count early in the season. However, if the stuff has remained intact, he’s easily going to outperform his current average draft position in the 17th round of NFBC drafts.

Prospect Pulse

My esteemed colleague Ben Carsley will cover this terrain in greater detail next week, but I think it’s vitally important to highlight several prospects that have the raw talent and opportunity (like the aforementioned Gsellman) to make an immediate impact this season.

A trio of impact prospects for 2017…

Alex Reyes, Cardinals

You can’t always get what you want.

Tyler Glasnow, Pirates

The California native’s six-foot-eight frame has enabled him to generate tremendous fastball velocity, and fashion an epic, but it’s also at the heart of his control issues. As he described it in an interview with BP last summer, “I think just being so tall, and having such long limbs, sometimes you go out and you have starts where you just aren’t feeling right, you’re walking guys. I’ve had my fair share of those every single year and I learn a ton from having starts like that and I think they have made me into the pitcher I am today.”

The changeup is still a work in progress, but there is an insane amount of talent here for the Pirates and pitching guru Ray Searage to work with. If he can iron out some of the issues with his delivery and control, he could be a fantasy monster. He’s only 23-years-old, so he’s going to get plenty of opportunities even if he doesn’t succeed right away.

Blake Snell, Rays

The 24-year-old southpaw recorded 478 strikeouts over the past four seasons in the minor leagues before finally earning a promotion to Tampa Bay last summer. While the prodigious strikeout rate remained intact (9.9 K/9), Snell’s lackluster control (5.2 BB/9) limited him to just 89 innings with a 4.36 DRA over his 19 big-league starts. To put that number in greater context, Snell worked beyond the sixth inning of a start on only two occasions. The strikeouts alone are enough to warrant a mid-round selection. If the former first-round pick ever tames the control demons that haunt his profile, he could be special.

Jharel Cotton, Athletics

Official Bissell Disclaimer: I’ve ended up with Cotton in every single industry “expert” draft or auction (the ones without Eno Sarris) this pre-season. I’m blatantly optimistic, willing to gloss over potential flaws in his profile, and effusive in my praise and affinity for Cotton.

In a similar context to the Gsellman, the 25-year-old U.S. Virgin Island’s native was never a highly touted prospect, mainly because he’s a bit undersized. Yet, he’s a polished minor-league starter with a deep arsenal, and will undoubtedly play a major role in the A’s rotation this season. He added a cutter to his repertoire in the major leagues and his changeup might be one of the best of its kind in the entire game already. Per BP’s PITCHf/x leaderboards, Cotton threw 138 changeups and limited opposing batters to a microscopic .067 True Average over his five major-league starts last season. He’s always going to give up his fair share of home runs, but Oakland is still a pitchers paradise and the changeup is a real weapon. This could be fun.

Additional 2017 impact lineouts…

Francis Martes answered any lingering questions about his long-term future as a starter with his stellar performance (2.73 FIP with 131 strikeouts and just 47 walks in 125 1/3 innings) in Double-A last season. He will likely begin the year in Triple-A and is just an injury (or two) away from getting an opportunity…If Lucas Giolito can fix the debilitating command and mechanical issues that plagued him last year and the fastball velocity ticks back up in Chicago, he could develop into the frontline starter fantasy owners have been dreaming of for years now…After being traded to the Rays this offseason, 24-year-old Jose De Leon (and his trademark changeup) will get an opportunity in the big-league rotation at some point in 2017…The BP prospect team tabbed Josh Hader as a top-20 prospect last month. While he posted an ugly ERA (5.22) in 14 starts at Triple-A Colorado Springs to close out last year, DRA (2.78) indicates that he was much better than the raw surface results indicate…The trio of Reynaldo Lopez, Matt Strahm, and Frankie Montas may ultimately end up in the bullpen, but their stuff is major-league ready, and they could get an opportunity in their respective teams rotations…Yohander Mendez is a safer bet to stick in the Rangers rotation, but he needs a spot to open up first…I’m not yet convinced that Luke Weaver is a legitimate mixed-league option going forward…

The elite prospects fantasy owners need to know for 2018 and beyond: Brent Honeywell, Yadier Alvarez, Mitch Keller, and Jason Groome

The Final Stat

No starting pitcher (minimum 100 innings pitched) had a wider gap between their Deserved Run Average (2.33 DRA) and their actual ERA (4.78) than Aaron Nola in 2016…The 23-year-old also struck out 121 batters over 111 innings. He’s currently going off the board in the 15th round of NBFC drafts. If he’s 100 percent healthy, he’s a fantastic gamble in re-draft leagues.