If I’ve learned anything in my nearly two decades of playing fantasy sports, it’s that you can never get started too early on your draft prep. As soon as Malcolm Butler came down with that improbable pick for the Patriots, it was open season on the 2015 fantasy baseball calendar. And nothing is more important in your preseason planning than those all-important player ranks.
There are a whole bunch of positions this year that “get ugly quick”. Starting pitcher is not one of them. Whether it’s the fallout of the new MLB drug policy or the advanced analytics of defensive shifts, baseball is experiencing a golden era of pitching that is unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. There are so many quality starters that it can make fielding a staff for your fantasy squad seem like a piece of cake. Not so fast, my friend.
Pitching is still the most volatile position in the game thanks in large part to the rash of major injuries that have hit the position in recent years. Whiffing on a high pick can be incredibly damaging, but at the same time, finding that hidden gem that emerges to become a frontline starter can be the difference between a fledgling staff and an imposing one.
So for the next month, Round Robinson Inc. is giving you the most in-depth starting pitching primer you can find. Over the course of the next four weeks, I’ll go through a C-note worth of starters so that when your draft comes knockin’, you’ll have all the info you need to load up your staff with the most reliable arms money can buy.
It starts this week with the studs, the elite, the rock stars of the rubber. You’ll pay a pretty penny for the services of these guys, but they’ll be the backbone of your staff and a constant throughout 2015. The question most owners will end up having is: How soon is too soon to pull the trigger? That’s a question that will take some serious pondering when you consider how fast the unquestioned ace of all of baseball will come flying off the board:
1. Clayton Kershaw (LAD) – I could toss superlative after superlative at you about just how dominant the reigning NL Cy Young and MVP award winner has been, but that would just be wasted breath. He’s the best pitcher in the game without question and the only hurler worth considering in the top-10, but should you spend that valuable first-round pick on a pitcher when offense is at such a premium? My guess is that someone in your league will and, by doing so, will have a leg up when it comes to building a promising staff. My argument for passing on him comes directly from the 19 names to follow. Pitching is crazy deep, as mentioned before, and as much as I’d love to have Kershaw going every fifth day for my team, I won’t even consider a pitcher before the 10th overall pick. By that time, he’ll be long gone.
Projection: 20-7, 2.10 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 265 K
2. Max Scherzer (WAS) – It took me all of two spots in the rankings to hit you with my first (mild) surprise, but I am all in on Scherzer this year. ALL. IN. Is there a player in fantasy baseball whose circumstances improved more than his? Not only does he jump from the AL to the NL, where he sheds the DH and instead gets to face a pitcher 2-3 times a game, but Scherzer landed in the suddenly offensively inept NL East. Thanks to the great sell-off in Atlanta, the only team with even a formidable offense is the Marlins, and it’s far from nightmare inducing. Toss in that Washington’s defense is an upgrade from that of Detroit and I have no problem seeing career highs, or close to it, across the board from Scherzer in 2015.
Projection: 21-6, 2.85 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 263 K
3. Felix Hernandez (SEA) – Last year marked the ninth consecutive year Hernandez made at least 30 starts and tossed at least 190 innings and his sixth straight with 200+ punch outs. Consistency, thy name is King Felix. For all the work that right arm has shouldered, you could easily argue that 2014 was his best year to date as he set career marks in strikeouts, WHIP and FIP. The only knock you could possibly have on Hernandez over his career is his lack of elite win totals, a stat that drives many fantasy players nuts in its own right. But I think Seattle will be in the thick of the AL West all year long and snap up a few more wins for Hernandez, giving him a stat line that looks very comparable to 2009 when he finished second in the Cy Young race.
Projection: 18-8, 2.68 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 231 K
4. Chris Sale (CWS) – Oh, what might have been had Sale not missed over a month early in 2014 with a strained flexor muscle. Despite making just 26 starts, the pride of Florida Gulf Coast University still finished on the podium of the AL Cy Young voting, landing behind Hernandez and Corey Kluber. If you want to argue that Sale should be ahead of Hernandez, I can absolutely see it. The one thing that keeps me from doing it is the longevity and durability that Hernandez has shown throughout his career. To date, Sale has never made more than 30 starts in any of his three seasons in the rotation. I also don’t foresee a repeat of his ridiculous, league-leading 10.8 K/9 rate, but he won’t be far off. That may sound like I’m a bit down on Sale, but when you’re deciding between players of this caliber, you have to nitpick. If you leave the draft with Sale as your SP1, you should feel awfully good about your position.
Projection: 17-9, 2.72 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 229 K
5. Corey Kluber (CLE) – Speaking of the 2014 AL Cy Young Award winner, Kluber looks to follow up on an out-of-nowhere season and I, for one, have faith that he will do just that. I do recognize that he had a nearly 90-inning increase in workload from 2013 to 2014, which does raise an eyebrow and keep him from climbing any higher on these ranks, but Kluber’s regression this season will be minimal. After all, he had the worst defense in the majors behind him last year (based on defensive runs saved), which has already been improved with the infusion of Jose Ramirez to replace Asdrubal Cabrera. Even if Kluber comes back down to Earth a little, he will still give you everything you want out of an SP1, not to mention the strikeout potential that very few in the game can offer.
Projection: 17-10, 2.96 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 238 K
6. David Price (DET) – I still have a hard time adjusting to not seeing that trademark “TB” on his cap, but Price will begin his first full season with the Tigers, taking over as the unquestioned ace of their staff now that Scherzer has departed. Some will look at Price’s numbers with Detroit post-trade (11 GS, 77.2 IP, 4-4, 3.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, [82:15] K/BB) and wonder how I even managed to rank him this high. But let’s not put all the blame on Price for his less than stellar performance. After all, his FIP with the Tigers was 2.44, nearly a full run lower than his career number with the Rays. Yes, there are warning signs that can’t be ignored, including the career-high 25 HR he gave up last year and his 23% line drive rate in 2014, but Price has learned to pound the strike zone and the positives of that far outweigh the negatives.
Projection: 18-9, 3.18 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 243 K
7. Stephen Strasburg (WAS) – The kid gloves are finally coming off when it comes to the Nationals’ treatment of Strasburg and we’re beginning to get an indication of just what is possible from the phenom. Last year was his first surpassing the 200-inning plateau and he rewarded owners with 242 K, a 3.14 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP in 215.0 innings. Maybe more importantly, Strasburg also dropped his BB/9 from 2.8 in 2013 to 1.8 in 2014. He’ll turn 27 this year and I expect those numbers to improve yet again, even if just slightly. The one negative that surrounds Strasburg is the trade chatter now that Washington has brought Scherzer into the fold. But I have a hard time believing, after the way the Nats massaged him early in his career, that they would be willing to close shop and deal him off now when their championship window is open the widest.
Projection: 17-7, 3.01 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 234 K
8. Jon Lester (CHC) – It only stands to reason that if I like Scherzer so much because of his jump from the AL to the NL, I would also be pro-Lester in 2015. I can’t imagine too many other pundits would have Lester as a sure-fire SP1 the way I do, but that’s because not too many of them believe in the improvements he made in 2014 carrying over. Lester began relying more on a curveball that was baffling hitters and raised his K/9 back to 9.0 after a few seasons of decline. He also posted a 2.0 BB/9 which lead to a 1.10 WHIP, both career bests. Although the Friendly Confines can wreck havoc on southpaws when the wind is blowing out, Lester has never been a HR-vulnerable pitcher, giving up 20+ just three times in his career. The Cubs are building a winner and building it for right now, so they’ll expect #1 quality stuff out of Lester, and so will I.
Projection: 16-11, 2.93 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 202 K
9. Madison Bumgarner (SF) – 270. That’s my sticking point with MadBum. It’s why I’m worried about him and, because of this ranking, I probably won’t own him anywhere. Everyone’s going to remember the magical playoff run Bumgarner had, but that magical playoff run lead to him throwing 4,074 pitches over the course of the season. Look, I’m not saying he’s falling off a cliff or anything (just look at the projection I have for him); I still have him ranked #9 among starting pitchers, so let’s not get carried away here. But just like someone is nabbing Kershaw in the top five overall, someone is going to remember that postseason show Bumgarner put on and take him in the Felix-Sale-Kluber territory, maybe even before them. All I’m saying is that guy won’t be me.
Projection: 16-10, 3.26 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 216 K
10. Adam Wainwright (STL) – It may not be the sexiest of picks, but Wainwright is about as consistent as they come playing for one of the most consistent franchises in the game today. Last season marked the fourth time Wainwright has won at least 19 games and the fifth time in six years he’s pitched 198+ innings. It also represented a career low in home runs allowed as Wainwright gave up just 10 gopher balls in 227.0 innings. But there were some red flags that came with it, most notably a stark dip in K-rate. Since 2009, Wainwright had been between 8.2-8.3 K/9 every year, however in 2014 that figure dropped to just 7.1 and resulted in only 179 K for the season. We could be seeing the very beginning of post-prime Adam Wainwright, so temper your expectations accordingly.
Projection: 18-7, 2.97 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 169 K
11. Zack Greinke (LAD) – After a rocky start to his post-Royals career, Greinke has really put it together these last two years for the Dodgers and combined with Kershaw to form one of the nastiest duos in the game. I think not having to carry around the staff ace label has really helped Greinke manage both his expectations and the social anxiety he dealt with earlier in his career. He brought his K/BB up to 4.81 in 2014, the best of his career and in line with the figure he posted in his Cy Young season of 2009. It’s not crazy to think he still has room to improve and those who believe he can will draft him even sooner than this ranking indicates.
Projection: 17-9, 3.12 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 191 K
12. Johnny Cueto (CIN) – Johnny Cueto had to be one of the most difficult pitchers for me to rank this year. He’s coming off an incredible campaign where he finished with a 2.25 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and league-leading 242 K. But I still don’t trust him enough to rank him where those numbers indicate he should be. For one, Cueto has struggled to put back-to-back full seasons together. Since 2010, his number of starts per season go like this: 31, 24, 33, 11, 34. Not to mention, Cueto also lead the league in innings pitched last year with 243.2. If you need one more piece of evidence to indicate some decent regression is coming, check out Cueto’s 3.30 FIP from last season. His ERA normally floats around 0.5-1.0 runs below his FIP, but if that comes back to the smaller end, then a 2015 ERA closer to 3 makes sense.
Projection: 15-6, 2.91 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 193 K
13. Jordan Zimmermann (WAS) – The Nationals pitcher I do think is more likely to be traded isn’t Strasburg, it’s Jordan Zimmermann. Personally, I wouldn’t dare ship a player out the quality of Zimmermann when making an all-out push for the World Series, but the reality is that he is a pending free agent who almost assuredly won’t be back in D.C. next year, so I understand the team’s desire to move him now. Unfortunately, moving Zimmermann probably won’t do any favors for his fantasy stock. As we discussed earlier with Scherzer, pitching in Washington is one of the best gigs out there. The uncertainty of Zimmermann’s future does make his ranking a little more volatile, but his skill set ensures he’ll have plenty of value wherever he ends up.
Projection: 15-8, 2.93 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 176 K
14. Cole Hamels (PHI) – Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. An NL East pitcher with trade rumors swirling about that might not make it to opening day on his current team. Seems like Cole Hamels has been on the trade block for the better part of this decade, but he still calls Citizens Bank Park home at this point. And it’s a shame, too, considering his 2.46 ERA in 2014 netted him just nine wins. Quietly, Hamels durability has rivaled that of Hernandez as he’s pitched 183+ innings every year since 2007. I don’t expect another sub-2.50 ERA, but something hovering around 3.00 with close to 200 K is well within reach. And if the dream scenario of Hamels being traded to San Diego comes to fruition, this ranking could prove to be far too low.
Projection: 12-11, 3.11 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 195 K
15. Yu Darvish (TEX) – Along with Bumgarner, Darvish is another guy I will probably end up with zero shares of by the end of drafting season. The Rangers shut him down last September with inflammation in his right elbow after falling well out of contention much earlier than anyone could have imagined. Reports are that his rehab is going well and he should be good to go for the start of the season. But that injury just doesn’t sit well with me for some reason. Not to mention that Darvish’s WHIP, which is always my source of concern for him, ballooned back up to 1.26 last year. Despite lowering his walk rate, he still gave up over three free passes per nine innings. There’s lots of upside to be had if I’m wrong about Darvish as he could be a top-5 starter. But there’s also some sizable downside as well that keeps him buried in the mid-teens for me.
Projection: 14-10, 3.23 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 197 K
16. Sonny Gray (OAK) – Part of me wants to push Sonny Gray even higher on this list than where he’s at, but I know he doesn’t have the resume to justify it. Still, for a young kid entering just his second full season in the bigs, the future looks pretty damn bright. If he was anywhere but Oakland, I probably wouldn’t feel as confident as I do in Gray, but Billy Beane’s track record for developing young arms speaks for itself. Despite his size, Gray possesses an above-average fastball and a wicked curve that can leave hitters baffled. I’d like to see his BB/9 come down just a tick this season before he can crash the top-10, but don’t be surprised if he’s attained SP1 status this time next year.
Projection: 14-11, 3.04 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 191 K
17. Julio Teheran (ATL) – If you had asked me a year ago who the top-rated fantasy pitcher for the Braves would be in 2015, it might’ve taken me a couple guesses before I got to Julio Teheran. He built on a promising 2013 season by following it up with a very consistent, if not spectacular, 2014 campaign. He lacks the strikeout potential of others further down the ranks, but does provide some punch while maintaining fairly strong ratios. My major concern with him, as with all of the Braves’ starters, is how much of a hit the defense took with all the turnover. Teheran is primarily a fly ball pitcher, and the loss of Jason Heyward in right field will be especially painful as he had turned into one of the premier outfield defenders in the game today. Little things like this will make it hard for Teheran to repeat the success of last year, but he should still come close as one of Atlanta’s cornerstones in the coming years.
Projection: 13-10, 3.32 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 172 K
18. Jeff Samardzija (CWS) – In his first two years as a full-time starter, Samardzija was a premium source of strikeouts and not much else. A funny thing happened in 2014 though in that the Notre Dame product became something we were never quite sure he would be: a pitcher. Although Samarzija’s K/9 dropped from 9.0 in 2013 to 8.3 in 2014, his K/BB rocketed up from 2.74 to 4.70 (including an 8.25 mark in 16 starts with Oakland), an astounding jump to make in your age-29 season. Do I think he can maintain those same levels in 2015? No, I don’t, but I don’t think the fall is that precipitous. Moving from spatious O.co Coliseum back to the south side of Chicago and U.S. Cellular isn’t the most ideal of moves, but Samardzija’s stuff will still prevail more often than not.
Projection: 15-9, 3.27 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 195 K
19. Alex Cobb (TB) – If I have to peg a guy to be this year’s Hamels or Samardzija, meaning a pitcher with lights out stuff who struggles to win games because of the team around him, it’s Alex Cobb. Because they had David Price, I don’t think too many people outside of Florida recognized or gave enough credit to just how talented a pitcher Cobb really is. In 49 starts the last two seasons combined, he’s got a 2.82 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 283 K in 309.2 innings, all very strong numbers. Cobb does need to do a better job keeping the ball in the park as he’s given up 24 HR in that time, but that could be all that’s separating him from reaching elite status himself.
Projection: 11-12, 3.02 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 167 K
20. Matt Harvey (NYM) – The ultimate dice roll in the top 20 is Matt Harvey. A year removed from Tommy John surgery, the results are still wide-ranging as to how a pitcher responds upon his initial return. One thing is for sure, Harvey had all the physical tools to be a flat-out dominant starter in this league pre-injury. If he can return anywhere close to that form, he could be the steal of the early-round SP landscape. But workload will be a concern. The Mets have already pushed him back a week at the beginning of the season and would probably shut him down early if and when they fall out of the race. Enjoy him while you can use him, and hope he approaches 30 starts in 2015.
Projection: 12-7, 2.63 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 168 K
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