One of the fun ways we all try to outsmart our opponents in fantasy is by searching for hidden value in players who, for one reason or another, we suspect have the ability to outpace their projections (and, relatedly, their draft cost). Our Darkhorses series features staff picks for players who could very well outpace their PECOTA projections for the year and provide the top overall production in one of the standard 5×5 categories. We’ve all picked one player currently projected by PECOTA to fall outside of the top 10 and one longer-shot player currently projected outside of the top 25. We’re taking a look at pitching this week, following our run on offense a week ago. To read the earlier editions in this series, click below:

Now, we're going to kick off pitching categories with a look at wins.


Madison Bumgarner, Giants
PECOTA tabs Bumgarner as a 13-game winner in 2013, which is certainly fair given his average of 14 wins per year over the past three seasons. That being said, Bumgarner is entering his age-24 season and saw a significant spike in strikeouts and drop in ERA last season and he could be headed for a breakout campaign. It's always tough to know just how much to weight contextual factors when trying to project wins, but the Giants are a good team who should allow Bumgarner to reach 12-14 wins with ease, and if everything breaks right he could be in line to win 16-plus. With a favorable home ballpark, decent support cast, reliable ERA and increasing strikeout rate, now's the time for Bumgarner to enter the NL Cy Young conversation. —Ben Carsley

Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
In his age-34 season, Lee exceeded 200 innings for the sixth straight year, finishing with a team-high 14 wins. Only Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright and Cole Hamels finished with more quality starts than Lee, but his run support was among the worst in baseball (3.29 runs per start). The veteran left-hander has only won 20 games since the start of 2012, including a mind-boggling six victories two seasons ago. Last year, Lee pitched into the eighth inning in 24 of 31 starts. He’s long overdue for a 20-win season. —Alex Kantecki

Jon Lester, Red Sox
I am buying the strong second half and the stronger end-of-season and playoff performances. By commanding his pitches better to both sides of the plate to both lefties and righties and by seeing his velocity tick back up in 2013 from 2012 lows, Lester looks to be back in decent swing and miss, weak contact inducing form. If that is the pitcher we see in 2014, then I could see Lester racking up wins with the good lineup and tremendous bullpen behind him. —Jeffrey Quinton

David Price, Rays
The variance in PECOTA’s projections gives us some far easier targets on the pitching side for our “dark horses” series than it does for hitters. Price won 19 games in 2010 and 20 in 2012 and pitches for a strong Rays team again in 2014. Paying for wins in fantasy is folly, but if you are going to do it, pick players from strong real life teams. It helps that Price’s ERA the last four years has been below 3.00 twice and has never been above 3.49. —Mike Gianella

Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers
I originally picked A.J. Griffin for this one, but with his injury shelving him to start the season, that moves him from darkhorse to unrealistic. The one thing you really need when trying to pile up wins—besides some good fortune—is volume. You’ve got to log as many starts as possible to pull those Ws. I didn’t switch to Ryu because he’s already 1-0 with Saturday night’s win in Australia, but rather because he’s on a team widely regarded as baseball’s best coming into the season, and he’s coming off of a debut during which he went 14-8 in 30 starts. He was just 6-3 through June despite a 2.83 ERA thanks to a slow start from the Dodgers that left him under-supported. A repeat of his skills paired with better support and a full allotment of starts (33-34) starts should lead Ryu down the path toward a 20-win season, which would’ve led the NL last year and trailed Max Scherzer by just one for the MLB lead. —Paul Sporer

CC Sabathia, Yankees
Sabathia managed 14 wins last season despite pitching pretty terribly for a considerable amount of the season and receiving middle-of-the-pack run support. He should be better acquainted to life without his fastball this season, and even allowing for his rapidly advancing age as a bigger-bodied gentleman if there’s a better definition of a horse in Major League Baseball, I’m not sure who it would be. The Yankees Yankee’d their way to a much better offense on paper this off-season, and assuming Sabathia gets up to his old tricks of lasting six and two-thirds a start he’s as good candidate to luck his way into 20 wins as you’ll find. —Wilson Karaman

Chris Sale, White Sox
Wins are impossible to predict. Sure, you can get a decent idea of who will rack up the innings and quality starts necessary to earn around 15 wins, but every so often you get Sale’d. He didn’t deserve the 11-14 record he accrued last year, which really underscores the multitude of issues there are within the Win statistic. Given the volatility of pitcher wins and the talent Sale has, I think there’s a more-than-solid chance he ends up near 20 wins in 2014. The White Sox offense added a few interesting parts, which I think will result in more runs scored, and I think the bullpen should be able to hold the leads Sale will need to notch nearly 20 wins. There are health concerns with Sale as well, but for the most part, I won’t consider those in this equation. To this point, he’s been a durable starter who has notched 190-plus innings the past two years and I think he can do it again en route to a very good year this year. —Mauricio Rubio

Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
This isn’t complicated. While expectations were set absurdly high for what turned out to be a down year in Washington, Strasburg was dominant. The Nationals should be at least somewhere in between their 2012 and 2013 seasons, and boast one of the deepest lineups in the National League, which should provide Strasburg plenty of run support. Strasburg threw 183 innings last year, and should reach the 200 inning plateau in 2014. The deeper he goes into games, the less he has to rely on others to seal his wins for him (though the Washington relievers are a solid bunch). All this is to say, predicting one of the best pitchers in baseball, on one of the better teams in baseball, to have a shot at leading the league in wins is no act of Lena Dunham Courage. —Craig Goldstein

Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
The Zimm with the extra "N" may have gotten himself a little black ink last year with his 19 wins, but PECOTA doesn't think he's in store for another repeat season of that. Well, to be fair, PECOTA doesn't project anyone for more than 16 wins, but Zimmermann's projected total of 13 is good for 20th in baseball. The combination of his overall effectiveness (3.12 ERA and 1.13 WHIP over the past three seasons), low walk totals (4.9 percent walk rate over that same time frame) and good teammates (Nats are projected for the second best record in the National League) puts him in a great position to repeat the feat in 2014. —Bret Sayre


Clay Buchholz, Red Sox
Buchholz isn’t going to duplicate his ridiculous 2013 pace, when he cobbled a 12-1 record across 16 starts, but on a strong offensive team like the Red Sox, he is still a strong candidate for wins even if his ERA is merely good. The key for Buchholz in wins is durability; if he can put up 32-33 starts, he could easily get 18-20 wins with that offense behind him. This is the rub, though, and this is why he’s more of a darkhorse than a viable candidate to lead the circuit. —Mike Gianella

Andrew Cashner, Padres
Cashner has the stuff and he pitches well enough to lead the league in wins; the question for him comes down to whether he can cross the 200-inning threshold. I think he can, and I also believe that the Padres are a young and improving team that just might be able to give him the run support he needs to get 20 victories. A lot of this is predicated on how well Chase Headley, Everth Cabrera, and Will Venable play, but as I said in the Sale comment: wins are fluky and impossible to predict. You need a neat combination of offense, bullpen, and skill mixed in with luck to lead the league in this category. I think he has a shot. —Mauricio Rubio

Alex Cobb, Rays
Despite missing two months of the 2013 season with a concussion from being hit with a line drive in June, Cobb still put together one of the best pitching performances of the season in those four months he was on the mound. Averaging more than 6.5 innings per start, Cobb could have easily thrown 210 innings if not for the fluke injury, and both his skill profile and situation could lead him toward a large number of wins in 2014. His combination of good walk rate (between seven and eight percent both of the last two seasons) and elite ground ball rate (56.7 percent for his career) should allow him to go deep into games, and it doesn't hurt that the Rays are projected to be the best team in the American League at 90 wins. Barring health, he should easily surpass the 11-win PECOTA projection he carries. —Bret Sayre

Doug Fister, Nationals
The Nationals’ acquisition of Fister has been one of the most scrutinized moves of the off-season, and for good reason. His skillset, perhaps under-appreciated in Detroit, should thrive in Washington. Their infield defense, while not a gargantuan leap forward, is still much better than what Detroit ran out there last season, and Fister’s groundball-happy ways should be augmented by a modest leap in strikeouts with the switch to National League pastures. Add in the Nats’ potent offense and 90-plus win potential, and Fister’s got the tasty combination of skillset and situation to run into a whole lot of Wins. —Wilson Karaman

Mat Latos, Reds
Latos is seemingly underrated despite being one of the better pitchers in the game. He has all the ingredients for success: He’ll throw 200-plus innings, he misses bats, the walk rate is below league average, and he plays on a successful team. Losing Shin-Soo Choo as a center fielder is probably a good thing for his ERA but bad for his ability to win games, given Choo’s impact at the plate. Still, the Reds are a solid team that should compete in the NL central and win their fair share of games. The best we can do in predicting wins is find good pitchers on good teams. Since PECOTA does a good job of that on it’s own, we’re left to choose from more undesirable situations. I wish there was a better offense supporting Latos, but he does have the tools to put together a Cy Young-worthy season, making him a solid option for a task such as this. —Craig Goldstein

Lance Lynn, Cardinals
Lynn has already proven to be a workhorse during his first two years as a starter. In fact, he logged 18 wins in 2012 with just 29 starts (and six relief appearances). He dropped down to 15 last year in 33 starts, but tallied another 25 decisions, just as he did in 2012. He has some real upside potential if he can consistently figure out lefties, which could yield not only ERA and WHIP improvements but also some more favorable decisions. The Cardinals will likely regress from the obscene RISP work they displayed in 2013, but the offense and bullpen remain potent, so he should be well supported in the avenues beyond his control. —Paul Sporer

Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians
Count me among the few who believe Masterson can build off a career-year in 2013—one that saw his strikeout rate spike from 17.6 percent to 24.3 percent. The 29-year-old finished with a career-high 14 wins despite little run support (3.52 runs per start, 15th lowest), while his pitches per inning decreased from 16.6 to 15.6. I look for Masterson to pitch deeper into games in 2014, and he can hopefully take advantage of a division that PECOTA projects to be the worst in baseball, with only Detroit finishing with more wins than losses. —Alex Kantecki

Ivan Nova, Yankees
Much has been said about the majestic Ivan Nova. His name is two letters away from being a palindrome. He cut out the slider, threw the curveball more, and commanded his fastball better in the second half of 2013; great results ensued. The newest version of Ivan Nova generates a lot of weak contact, limits extra base hits, and has the potential to routinely go late into games. The Yankees infielders will do him no favors, but the improved lineup should help. Yes, he now has braces, but that might be exactly what he needs to get him 20-plus wins. —Jeffrey Quinton

Julio Teheran, Braves
Teheran won 14 games in his rookie season in 2013, showing us the promise that so many had written about and hoped for during his time as a prospect. Quite frankly, there are few reasons to predict any serious regression from Teheran this year. His FIP was nearly half a run higher than his ERA last season, but his BABIP against was a reasonable .28 and his HR/9 a reasonable 1.07. Teheran will give up the occasional bomb, but I think he can take a step forward with his strikeouts (22.0 percent in 2013) and the good command he showed last year is real. The Braves have a good offense and a strong bullpen and play in a division in which they should be able to rack up some easy wins against the likes of the Marlins, Phillies and the Mets. Really, all Teheran has to do is repeat his 2013 performance, and with some better luck, we could be looking at 16-plus wins in 2014. —Ben Carsley

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I can assure you that Fister was not underappreciated here in Detroit. The trade provoked a great deal of controversy and none of it favorable.
I'll take the under on 200+ innings for Latos. starting the season on the DL?
As far as I know he's scheduled to miss one start. 200 IP should still be attainable, especially if they reshuffle him around the all-star break. He's gone 209 and 210 the last two seasons, so there's still 200 IP potential.
Good article ...not sure if he qualifies:
Big Game James Shields ...KC can pick it, has a deep pen and Detroits sudden demise gives KC shot at 85-90 wins.
Shields was #11 for PECOTA, .01 behind #10. I considered him but thought taking a guy that close was a little too easy - plus I picked Shields for one of the other categories. Either way - PECOTA is very high on Shields for wins.
I'm I crazy to think Alex Wood has a legit shot at 15+ wins? Great defense minus uggla, great deception, a funny sounding last name to any 10yr old, braves play the Mets, Fins, and phils 17 gm each, great bullpen, and one the best lineups in the NL. Lets get the hype train going
What could be closer to heaven for a pitcher than to be able to face the Phils, Mets and Marlins 9 or 10 times in a season?
It's not out of the question that he could win fifteen but I wouldn't think that's a median projection. I think you're undervaluing how crappy Chris Johnson is on defense, and just how random variation can be. The Braves have a strong lineup either way, but seeing Gattis over a full season will be interesting. I also think you might be undervaluing the three lineups that you mentioned, especially the Phillies when they're healthy which will be infrequent but still.
Your right about the lineups, but each team does offer huge K potential. I've been trying to find the next "Matt Harvey" type SP. I think Wood could fit that profile. No one was huge on Harvey last year like they are now on Cole and Ventura. Maybe Wood's deception could be his "it" factor. Or maybe I could be headed to another 9th place finish. Or maybe I shouldn't drink while doing player projections.
Harvey experienced an uptick in velocity that no one really saw coming. He went from touching 96 in the minors to sitting 96 in the majors and touching 100. He went from 81-84 on his slider to averaging 90.5. The simple fact of the matter is that there isn't another Harvey every year. I would agree Wood is getting underrated by some due to fear of injury - which is a long term concern more than a this year concern. That said, I just don't see *that* type of season in the cards for Wood. But it's fun to dream!
I don't think Wood fits that profile. A lot of people were high on Harvey for sure last year as he came with tons of pedigree. Some had him over Wheeler, but others (myself included) still saw a future #1. Now I didn't think it'd come that quickly so I'll ease up on the backpatting, but I see virtually zero similarities between Harvey and Wood to be honest.

Harvey had a #132 ADP in NFBC last year so he was definitely well-thought of. Salazar is at #136 this year and also had a similar first run around the league with 50-something innings of great work. Salazar's pedigree isn't quite as high, but I think that's a better comp. There's a large group of youngsters getting plenty of love who could make the Harvey leap this year: Gray, Archer, Wacha, Cole, Ventura. All with varying costs.