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For the first time in years, fantasy owners are spending high draft picks/auction money on big-time pitchers. This isn’t merely limited to Clayton Kershaw, but extends to a core group of pitchers that the market believes will have staying power. Fourteen of the top 60 picks in this year’s mixed LABR were pitchers; this is a departure from prior seasons when only a handful of top pitchers would go in the first 3-4 rounds because the market was willing to wait.

Your philosophy on pitching should be different depending on if you are participating in a draft or an auction. In drafts, using earlier picks on a starting pitcher is fundamentally sound, particularly if other owners are spending early picks on pitchers. You don’t want to find yourself in a position in which your ace is a second-tier starter like Alex Cobb. In auctions—where you can allocate your money as you see fit—the smarter play is to wait if people are reaching early with big bids. Staring pitching isn’t only strong at the top but deeper than it has been in years. You don’t want to find yourself in dollar derby with your entire rotation, but you could build a relatively strong staff for $60 or so if you play your cards right.

It is easy to take the rosy view in late February; we know that there are going to be several disappointments once the season begins taking its predictable twists and turns (last July, it was a foregone conclusion that Matt Harvey would be a top-30 pick this year). But let’s stop for a moment and look at and appreciate the list of the top 13 pitchers taken in LABR mixed:

  1. Clayton Kershaw (fifth pick overall)
  2. Yu Darvish (19)
  3. Cliff Lee (32)
  4. Chris Sale (44)
  5. Stephen Strasburg (46)
  6. Max Scherzer (47)
  7. Adam Wainwright (48)
  8. Felix Hernandez (50)
  9. Justin Verlander (51)
  10. Madison Bumgarner (52)
  11. Jose Fernandez (54)
  12. Cole Hamels (57)
  13. David Price (58)

There are a couple of graybeards here, but on the whole this is a young group. Barring injury, most of this core is going to be with us—and dominating the pitching scene—for the next few years.

It isn’t merely the aces that are cause for excitement either. There is an up-and-coming crop of young pitchers led by Gerrit Cole, Michael Wacha, and Julio Teheran (among others) who are poised to join the elite cadre above. Again, it’s not a mortal lock that all of these pitchers will thrive; there are failures every year that we cannot see coming. Nevertheless, there is more cause for optimism on the pitching side of the fantasy ledger than there has been in years.

The League Breakout
One thing that hasn’t changed this year is that while the American League has a strong core of pitchers at the top, it thins out more quickly than the senior circuit crop does. In early auctions, owners have been pushing young arms like Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, and Sonny Gray into the high teens. While they might get there, in redraft leagues you are paying for nearly all of the upside at these prices.

If you don’t have the stomach to pay $25-plus or spend a pick in rounds 1-4 for an ace, instead of pushing for youth look toward reliable stalwarts like James Shields or Anibal Sanchez. While not quite as high end, dependable arms like Hideki Kuroda and C.J. Wilson can also be had at a discount relative to the aforementioned young arms above.

The back of an AL staff is where much of the danger lies. You typically need to hit an innings requirement but can’t carry 180 horrible innings from one awful starter without ruining your season. You are going to have gamble, so it’s better to roll the dice on pitchers like Phil Hughes (good park/change of scenery) and Rick Porcello (strong skillset and good park) at the right price than it is to just stick any old fifth starter on your staff.

The NL is so deep that there are some pitchers who earned $20 or more last year who could be undervalued depending upon your league. Jordan Zimmermann, Zack Greinke, Mike Minor, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Patrick Corbin, and Francisco Liriano all cracked $20 last season. The temptation to pay $40 for Kershaw or $30 for Lee or Wainwright is understandable, but if you can grab two of the aforementioned pitchers for between $30-35 total, your staff might be better off for it. Kershaw’s awesome season was worth $41 in NL-only last year; in 2009’s more hitter-oriented context, he would have been worth $45. Kershaw’s an anchor, but the better the league’s average pitcher is, the lower the ceiling is on any ace’s earnings.

As mentioned above, young pitchers in the National League definitely have more potential for fantasy gold (it doesn’t hurt that they get to face the opposing pitcher once or twice in every game). Cole is everybody’s darling, but plenty of younger arms could emerge quickly. Even better than young arms are young arms with experience that have already arrived but aren’t going as high in drafts. Andrew Cashner took a big step forward last year, and while Lance Lynn and Jeff Samardzija aren’t regarded as sexy picks, the potential for a 200-strikeout season is huge, even in an era where pitching is gaining ground.

The back-end workhorses in the National League seem to have more reliability as well. Bronson Arroyo and Kyle Lohse are boring to watch, but each pitcher earned $16 in NL-only in 2013. Mike Leake, Dillon Gee, and Jorge de la Rosa also managed to earn in double digits despite getting paid an average salary in the single digits by the experts. There is opportunity in NL-only on the back end.

The Strategy in Mixed Leagues
Despite the depth available, grabbing an ace early makes sense. Pitching is variable, but the one category you cannot afford to chase in a mixed league is strikeouts. Waiting 7-8 rounds to grab a starting pitcher might not hurt you in ERA/WHIP based on the typical variability in the categories, but trying to string together a group of 140-150 strikeout pitchers will sound your team’s death knell. If you are in a league with start limits and/or daily line-up changes, having a solid core of pitchers on reserve you can stream is essential. In drafts, you are better off targeting back end pitchers with upside than boring arms that will put up a 3.80 ERA. You can find arms like that in the free agent pool all season long.

The Long-Term Outlook
If you love pitching like I do, it’s difficult not to get at least a little bit excited at the potential core of future aces that seem to keep getting promoted from the high minors. If the names above didn’t impress you enough, Martin Perez, Alex Wood, Chris Archer, and Dan Straily all were rookie eligible last season (for innings; not necessarily for service time). Zack Wheeler and Robbie Erlin were also rookies, but seem to have been swept under the rug due to the quantity and quality of other pitchers.

The prospect side is also flush with pitching, with many arms poised to debut in 2014. Taijuan Walker, Archie Bradley, Kevin Gausman, Yordano Ventura, Jameson Taillon are all top 20 Baseball Prospectus prospects who could make a significant impact in 2014. Trying to project long-term rotation fixtures from a fantasy perspective is a fool’s errand, but Noah Syndergaard, Lucas Giolito, and Robert Stephenson are three names that jump out from the Top 101 who could be the next big aces.

A Closing Haiku
Kershaw dominates
Many lurk near his shadow
Future aces linger

Thank you for reading

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Dandy overview, Mike. Thanks.

You absolutely crushed Sporer with your haiku!
Crushed me how? The last line has too many syllables! :)
They have a good point, Mike. Get 'Er Done:

"Future aces lurk."

I'll rank them all after the RPs next week, Paul. Not gonna give away the criteria yet. We have one more to hear from next week, and he better step up :)
D'Oh. Mike already used "lurk" in the second line. I was just trying to think of a good one-syllable synonym for "linger." Too hasty on the post. Maybe "creep" or "pose"...

Mike has two shots at the title, Paul. Most BP authors correct mistakes, but he hasn't yet. Egregious! Cannot qualify as it stands. And PAUL found the violation before any reader! Kudos.
Not to be "that guy" but I think you have too many syllables in the last line of your haiku - my English teachers would never forgive me if I didn't point it out!
for whom does haiku close?
Who gives a crap
I think you'll find that
Many people give a crap
Thus many downvotes
There was a young pitcher called Erlin
Who in his mind seen a championship flag unfurlin'
The kid knows he'll be good
As everyone else should
But they're too busy watchin Kershaw hurlin'

A Limerick if you please.
Hideki Kuroda? As a Yankee fan, that brings back memories of Hideki Irabu, which are not good memories.