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To read the previous articles in this series, follow the links below:

Today, our positional tier rankings series continues with a look at starting pitching.

Players at each position are divided into five tiers, represented by a numerical star rating. Five-star players are the studs at their respective position. In general, they are the players that will be nabbed in the first couple of rounds of the draft, and they'll fetch auction bids in excess of $20. Four-star players are a cut below the studs at the position. They will also be early-round selections, and they are projected to be worth more than $15-20 in most cases. Three-star players are the last tier in which players are projected to provide double-digit dollar value in auctions, and two-star players are projected to earn single digits in dollar value in auctions. One-star players are late round sleepers and roster placeholders. The positional tiers aren't simply a regurgitation of last year’s values but rather try to offer some insights into what we expect will happen in 2015.

We retained last year's roster requirements for the positional tier series. Dollar values come from this year’s PFM using a 12-team, standard 5×5 scoring format, with 23-man rosters and the following positions: C (2) 1B (1) 2B (1) 3B (1) SS (1) CI (1) MI (1) OF (5) UT (1) P (9). The minimum bid for players is $1, and, as we did last year, we'll allocate $80 of a $260 budget to pitchers. The PFM is customizable, so if your league uses a different format you can adjust it to match your league settings and see how it impacts players’ dollar values.

Five Star

Player

Team

Mixed $

AL/NL $

IP

W

SO

ERA

WHIP

Clayton Kershaw

LAD

$43.04

$36.26

224

17

237

2.23

0.94

Felix Hernandez

SEA

$34.35

$37.33

241

17

239

2.64

1.07

Max Scherzer

WAS

$20.94

$21.72

201

14

222

3.04

1.11

Chris Sale

CHW

$30.19

$33.77

221

14

255

2.71

1.07

Madison Bumgarner

SF

$18.38

$18.75

195.3

13

183

3.09

1.08

Corey Kluber

CLE

$1.98

$12.22

192

12

189

4.06

1.31

Stephen Strasburg

WAS

$21.29

$20.93

174

12

199

2.71

1.03

David Price

DET

$16.74

$25.14

217

15

203

3.30

1.17

Johnny Cueto

CIN

$16.77

$17.83

194.3

11

166

3.02

1.08

Yu Darvish

TEX

$18.73

$25.39

194.3

13

237

3.01

1.16

Zack Greinke

LAD

$18.74

$19.86

201.7

15

190

3.20

1.10

Jon Lester

CHC

$14.59

$16.72

203

12

194

3.28

1.15

Last year, we decided to add a “six-star” group that included Kershaw and Darvish to the pitcher tier article. While the decision was understandable, it wasn’t consistent with the rankings in the other tiers (if Kershaw is a six-star pitcher, why the heck wouldn’t Mike Trout be a six-star outfielder?), so this year we are returning to the five-star rating system.

While Kershaw is obviously a cut or two above everyone else, the fact that he and Darvish missed a combined 19 starts in 2014 is a reminder that durability is a concern even with the “safest” of arms. The temptation is to assume that Kersh is automatic for a sub-2.00 ERA, but no one in the live-ball era has ever accomplished the feat in three consecutive years and only Sandy Koufax did it more than twice (1963, 1964, 1966).

Nowhere is there a more arbitrary cut-off in these tiers than there is with starting pitching. You can easily make an argument for putting anyone from Cueto on down to Lester in the four-star category. However, the rankings reflect not only the hierarchy of these pitchers but where they are being drafted. In 2014, 11 pitchers were drafted in mixed LABR with the first 54 picks; this year the trend continued with 11 pitchers taken with the first 47 picks.

PECOTA loathed Kluber last year and this year is only painting a slightly more optimistic picture for the reigning AL Cy Young winner. You don’t want to simply bet on a repeat of 2014, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic that the huge steps forward Kluber took last year were legitimate and repeatable. He isn’t ahead of Felix in real life because of the park and defensive factors that the baseball writers wisely factored into the voting equation in November, but feel free to take him no. 3 in AL-Only after Felix and Sale are gone.

There is a significant amount of focus on Bumgarner’s postseason performance and the potential for burnout that could carry into 2015. While this is certainly a possibility, the average ERA jump for the six pitchers since 1981 who pitched 40 or more innings in a single postseason is 0.20, and most of this is fueled by Josh Beckett’s 0.75 jump in 2004. Correlation isn’t causation, but there is no prior evidence that indicates that Bumgarner is an automatic regression candidate due to a heavy postseason workload. If you want to find reasons for injury concern, the high slider rate (second among qualifiers only to Tyson Ross) is more of a concern than the October workload.

Cueto came within $3 in NL-only of matching Kershaw’s earnings, so the inclination is to warn everyone not to overspend on a repeat. That’s sound advice, but don’t ignore the fact that Cueto has put up a 2.82 ERA or lower in four consecutive campaigns (albeit including two injury-shortened seasons).

Five-Star Value Pick: Jon Lester
The temptation will be to knock Lester down into the next tier because 2014 was not indicative of his prior performance, but as long as he continues his approach of fewer change ups and pounding the zone inside against righties, he can continue to be an elite arm in 2015.

Four Star

Player

Team

Mixed $

AL/NL $

IP

W

SO

ERA

WHIP

Cole Hamels

PHI

$20.33

$20.66

217

13

202

3.19

1.09

Adam Wainwright

STL

$26.91

$25.71

234.7

15

201

2.93

1.07

Jordan Zimmermann

WAS

$13.49

$15.99

189

13

156

3.28

1.11

Alex Cobb

TB

$6.73

$15.92

182.7

12

162

3.46

1.24

Julio Teheran

ATL

$11.01

$13.32

201.7

12

179

3.55

1.16

Gerrit Cole

PIT

$10.45

$13.91

198

12

173

3.40

1.19

James Shields

SD

$17.98

$18.63

214.3

13

198

3.29

1.11

Jeff Samardzija

CHW

$1.55

$10.44

186

11

184

4.02

1.31

Matt Harvey

NYM

$11.16

$13.84

151.3

10

153

2.91

1.10

Jake Arrieta

CHC

$5.49

$10.78

189

11

168

3.65

1.24

Jacob deGrom

NYM

$2.30

$7.52

144

9

121

3.54

1.20

Hisashi Iwakuma

SEA

$15.71

$23.73

201.7

13

164

3.20

1.11

Sonny Gray

OAK

$7.62

$16.66

198

13

163

3.41

1.26

PECOTA doesn’t know from elbow procedures, as it has Wainwright ranked no. 2 in NL-only and fourth in mixed, behind only Kershaw, Felix, and Sale. Assuming health, Wainwright could certainly get there, but there are so many unknowns. Trimmed cartilage isn’t nearly on the same level as repairing a tear, but it is arthroscopic surgery nonetheless. Watch Wainwright’s walk rate in the spring; his command was his biggest issue as 2014 came to a close. He is an easy five-star pick if he is 100 percent.

A cursory glance at Arrieta’s numbers makes it seem like he faded Post All-Star, but most of this “fade” was wrapped up in two awful outings in August: one at Colorado and the other at Cincinnati. Endurance and consistency are all that is keeping Arrieta out of the five-star group; at his best, Jake the Snake has the potential to toss a no-hitter every time out. Cole is the other pitcher in this tier who seems like a strong candidate to take a big step forward and reach five-star status. His whiff rate after returning from a six-week DL stint (shoulder strain) was a glittering 10.32 per nine innings.

The four-star tier is typically the danger zone of pitching investments. As wary as we are about spending big on top-tier arms, it is in the second-tier where a pitcher is more likely to crash and burn. Hamels appears to be the consistent workhorse of the group, but even he missed time to injury last year. Some assume Harvey’s only question is “how many innings will he throw”, but I’d wait to see what he looks like in camp before investing big. Cobb is a dark horse. He has a 2.82 ERA over the last two seasons and if you take out his ugly six starts post-2014 oblique injury, he posted a 2.10 ERA in 2014.

Four-Star Value Pick: Jacob deGrom
With the move to Petco, Shields would be the “safe” pick here, but picking deGrom is an endorsement of the idea that deGrom’s rookie campaign was anything but a fluke. deGrom’s fastball is often mischaracterized as underwhelming, but last year’s swinging strike rates and velocity support the idea that it’s a legitimate out pitch. Even if there is a little slippage, deGrom should still play as a no. 2 starter in most fantasy formats.

Three Star

Player

Team

Mixed $

AL/NL $

IP

W

SO

ERA

WHIP

Gio Gonzalez

WAS

$8.58

$12.58

176.3

12

162

3.32

1.22

Tyson Ross

SD

$4.44

$8.62

174

10

160

3.54

1.25

Doug Fister

WAS

$6.52

$10.88

168

11

121

3.43

1.15

Hyun-jin Ryu

LAD

$13.93

$16.40

186

14

156

3.21

1.12

Carlos Carrasco

CLE

$1.00

$8.84

159.7

10

139

3.84

1.27

Alex Wood

ATL

$10.23

$11.82

168

10

165

3.19

1.14

Lance Lynn

STL

$4.77

$9.08

174

12

163

3.71

1.24

Zack Wheeler

NYM

$1.18

$6.71

153.7

9

145

3.73

1.27

Mat Latos

FLA

$12.49

$15.98

182.7

11

156

3.10

1.13

Homer Bailey

CIN

$9.03

$12.35

194.3

11

169

3.56

1.17

Masahiro Tanaka

NYY

$20.09

$26.86

196

13

201

3.02

1.08

Michael Wacha

STL

$14.99

$15.98

182.7

13

168

3.10

1.11

Andrew Cashner

SD

$10.02

$11.54

163.7

10

142

3.08

1.12

Yordano Ventura

KC

-$2.00

$8.14

189

10

168

4.16

1.37

Cliff Lee

PHI

$20.92

$21.15

203

11

190

3.01

1.04

Jose Quintana

CHW

$3.63

$13.63

195.3

12

160

3.76

1.28

Anibal Sanchez

DET

$5.76

$15.26

195.3

14

170

3.71

1.27

Jered Weaver

LAA

$20.34

$27.32

214.3

17

181

3.07

1.13

Chris Archer

TB

$2.76

$13.69

201.7

14

178

3.81

1.34

Garrett Richards

LAA

$2.25

$10.28

182.7

13

143

3.73

1.31

Michael Pineda

NYY

$10.17

$17.79

159.7

10

155

3.11

1.12

Phil Hughes

MIN

-$2.39

$6.72

171

9

140

4.24

1.31

Marcus Stroman

TOR

$2.96

$10.71

136.7

9

131

3.42

1.20

Collin McHugh

HOU

$0.01

$8.93

174

10

149

4.03

1.30

Ian Kennedy

SD

$6.68

$11.03

174

10

161

3.60

1.17

Drew Smyly

TB

$7.30

$13.31

159.7

11

155

3.30

1.19

Dallas Keuchel

HOU

-$3.96

$5.68

182.3

10

114

4.21

1.34

Matt Cain

SF

$10.57

$13.64

168

11

138

3.20

1.10

Jose Fernandez

MIA

$0.00

$4.03

67

4

75

2.45

1.03

Francisco Liriano

PIT

$4.32

$9.13

165.3

10

168

3.52

1.27

With 30 pitchers in Tier 3, it would be impossible to write a blurb about every single one of them (besides, that’s what the Baseball Prospectus annual is for). The team that doesn’t seem to get any love in ADP is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Weaver is like a scoop of vanilla ice cream at this point in mixed leagues, but his fly ball tendencies play in that park. Weaver is a great streaming option at home if nothing else. As a ground ball guy, Richards is dinged a little bit by the switch from Howie Kendrick to Josh Rutledge, but should be decent assuming full health.

Carrasco is everyone’s sleeper, which of course means that he won’t be anyone’s sleeper. If you want him, chances are excellent that you will have to push him into the four-star group. Mickey Callaway worked yet another pitching miracle, working with Carrasco to get him to use an all-stretch delivery, thus solidifying his release point. I believe in Carrasco (and, by extension, Callaway) but am simply not willing to push Carrasco to a four-star ranking simply due to 10 admittedly excellent starts at the end of the 2014 season.

Lynn is kind of underrated, and is another pitcher who is tempting to push to into the four-star tier based on the fact that you can write in 180 strikeouts with a pen, but the likelihood he duplicates that 2.74 ERA from 2014 is highly unlikely.

If you look at Pineda’s glittering 1.89 ERA and then look at where Carrasco is going, it is easy to wonder why Pineda isn’t getting the same kind of love in early drafts. The answer lies somewhat in the low whiff rate and low BABIP. Something has to give, so it would seem that either Pineda starts striking out more batters or that his opponents start making better contact. The high slider profile is another reason to pump the brakes when Pineda is called out; pitchers who rely on the pitch are viewed as high injury risks, and given Pineda’s past history, this is probably a red flag for more than a few fantasy owners.

Last year saw so many young pitchers being over-drafted that early 2015 drafts are seeing a correction in the other direction. The two pitchers in this group who have four-star potential and are likely being under-drafted are Smyly and Wood. Wood is going to lose some wins because of Atlanta’s moribund offense, but Andrelton Simmons didn’t go anywhere and the defense should still be solid. Smyly’s ERA after the Tigers/Rays trade overstates his value, but even using FIP Smyly was one of the best pitchers in the majors down the stretch. He has serious potential to join Cobb as part of a dynamic 1-2, and the Rays addition of Rene Rivera means that from a framing standpoint the club won’t miss a beat after letting Jose Molina go.

Three-Star Value Pick: Dallas Keuchel
The odds of Keuchel breaking into the four-star group—or even being one of the best pitchers in the three-star group—are close to zero, but sometimes upside simply comes from being drafted too low. Keuchel’s high ground ball rate and effective approach should keep him in the 3.40 ERA range. There aren’t enough strikeouts to recommend him as a big time option, but he is being taken way too late right now in drafts relative to his potential production.