In case you missed the hitters, let’s get you caught up before going any further:
With that out of the way, it’s time to order the first 40 starting pitchers. If you’ve been following along or you’re familiar with this exercise from years past, you know that these rankings function best as something like a cross between keeper preferences and dynasty rankings for those whose window of contention is open in the immediate future. It’s important to state that these rankings are mine alone. They no doubt vary from the opinions of other writers on this site and that’s okay. Good, even. This wouldn’t be much fun if we all thought the same thing about every player and couldn’t learn from each other in the cases where we diverge.
Off we go:
Kershaw’s back, which limited him to 149 regular season innings in 2016 is a legitimate concern, but not enough to knock him off the top spot. The upcoming campaign will be his age-28 season and it’s virtually impossible to forecast significant deterioration assuming anything close to full health. Bumgarner’s 2016 innings count, strikeout rate, and ERA were all career bests. It was his sixth consecutive season throwing 200 or more frames, and fourth in a row of sub-3.00 ERA and sub-1.10 WHIP. I have few questions about Syndergaard’s performance, though it will take volume for him to substantiate this ranking. He certainly has the frame to be a consistent 200-inning workhorse if his arm can stand up to the outrageous velocity. Sale likely won’t ever match 2015’s 274-to-42 K:BB ratio, but he could be due for an overall performance bump thanks to a move away from one of the worst framing groups in baseball.
The Indians are slow-rolling Kluber this spring in an attempt to let the 31-year-old’s arm fully recover from the 249 innings he threw between the regular season and postseason. Darvish returned from Tommy John surgery in time to rack up 100.1 innings, retaining all the pre-surgery swing and miss stuff while trimming his walk rate to a career best 7.5 percent. Archer may look strange here coming off a season where he posted a 4.02 ERA, but I don’t see a ton of difference between his 2016 season and the preceding one, in which he struck out 10.4 batters per nine innings while running a 3.23 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. The frequency and quality of contact between the two seasons was more or less the same, excepting Archer’s poor HR/FB luck in 2016. Scherzer is an extreme fly ball pitcher who already gives up far more dingers than most pitchers of his standing. There will be trouble if he gives back a tick or two during the next three years, a not-unlikely scenario since he’ll play the last of those at 35 years old.
9. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
10. Johnny Cueto, San Francisco Giants
12. David Price, Boston Red Sox
Hell if I know how to peg Strasburg. He has an argument for the top five on skills, but he’s thrown more than 160 just twice in his five-year major-league career. Cueto enjoyed his new surroundings, walking just 45 batters in 219.2 steady innings (1.84 BB/9). Arrieta’s underlying numbers were substantially worse in 2016 that they were in his Cy Young 2016 season. A 97 DRA- is perfectly respectable even if it’s nowhere close to the 72 he registered in 2016. The Cubs’ historically great defense helped maintain the shine on his ratios despite the apparent skills deterioration, and that young core should be in position to do the same going forward. Price, the last of the three 31-year-olds here, had a rough go of it at the beginning of 2016. His 5.76 ERA in April got things off on the wrong foot, and it didn’t get much better until mid-summer. Price worked that number down to 3.99 by season’s end, which is admirable, but still won’t fly if he wants to keep his status as an SP1. I have confidence that he’ll settle down in his second go ‘round in Boston.
13. Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs
16. Jesus Quintana, Chicago White Sox
This group is headlined by the reigning National League Cy Young winner. If you didn’t read the coverage of Hendricks during Pitching Week a few weeks back, I highly encourage you to go check out how tunneling helps explain much of his success. Martinez once again came within a couple hundredths of a percent of a sub-3.00 ERA. I don’t see a path for him to jump a tier, but at 25 years old, Martinez should be able to hold steady here for a while. In case it’s not obvious, I’m fully bought in on Sanchez. In many ways, he’s the American League’s version of Martinez, not to mention its defending ERA crown-holder. There isn’t tremendous strikeout upside, but a heavy groundball rate should continue to keep the run prevention in check. Quintana has been steady for four seasons, yet has just 40 wins to show for it over that time. I suspect that’s the only thing that continues to keep his value depressed. With a long-rumored move to a contender possible in 2017, Quintana may finally get the love he deserves.
17. Jon Lester, Chicago Cubs
19. Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians
20. Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
Lester and Verlander were both top-five starting pitchers in 2016. You could rightly accuse me of being ageist by dropping them all the way down here, but letting someone else take the risk of sudden decline that accompanies pitchers as they reach their mid-30s is something I’m more than happy to do. The next three here all come with various levels of injury concern. Carrasco has real trouble getting over the 150-inning hump, deGrom already had a Tommy John surgery on his chart and added another procedure to his ulnar nerve this offseason, and Tanaka miraculously made it through nearly 200 high-quality innings despite preseason noise about how he might need Tommy John himself.
22. Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays
25. Rick Porcello, Boston Red Sox
26. Kenta Maeda, Los Angeles Dodgers
27. Cole Hamels, Texas Rangers
Pick your favorite profile from this hodgepodge of disparate options. We’ve got the young guys for whom, no seriously, this is going to be the year they take the leap, the rare chance to buy a still-young, former top-ten option on the cheap because of injury and performance risk, a Cy Young winner, a steady mid-rotation option with a contract that implies some health questions, or a steady mid-rotation option with a birthdate that implies the potential for health questions in the near future.
29. Danny Salazar, Cleveland Indians
32. Steven Matz, New York Mets
33. Vince Velasquez, Philadelphia Phillies
34. Carlos Rodon, Chicago White Sox
35. Blake Snell, Tampa Bay Rays
It’s pretty clear what I’ve assembled here: the class of young pitchers with the requisite stuff to strike out a batter or more per inning. Acknowledging that it’s a high variance strategy and that your risk tolerance may vary, in this range I strongly prefer gambling on the kinds of skills the can lead to rapid ascension, as opposed to investing in innings-eating veterans with established track records and limited profit potential. Hitting requires some measure of luck and missing necessitates vigilance on the waiver wire. Commit yourself to the latter before adopting this strategy.
37. Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers
38. Jameson Taillon, Pittsburgh Pirates
40. Joe Ross, Washington Nationals
If you want to play it a touch safer but still want youth, here’s a small group for you. With the possible exception of Manaea, the ceilings here are capped because of the lack of strikeout upside.