The Year of the Pitcher, aka 2014, is having a lasting impact on the Fantasy landscape.
When so many surprise aces and near-aces emerged in 2014, it gave owners something to think about on Draft Day 2015, though not everyone was convinced that pitchers like Jake Arrieta and Dallas Keuchel would be able to match their breakout performances. Those who did believe in them got nothing less than a Cy Young winner to lead their staff. Others like Corey Kluber, Jacob deGrom, Carlos Carrasco and Collin McHugh also built trust with strong follow-up seasons. Add in last season's breakouts from Chris Archer and Carlos Martinez, and suddenly there are at least 20 pitchers who would be suitable as a Fantasy ace.
Yet, as much of a bounty as there is at the top, filling out the rest of your rotation won't be nearly as devoid of stress. The options that are likely to be available as you are selecting your third and fourth starters in a 12-team mixed league will have you choosing between young, unproven types like Lance McCullers, Steven Matz and Luis Severino, steady but unexciting veterans like Jordan Zimmermann, Jose Quintana and John Lackey, and injury-risk sleepers like Masahiro Tanaka, Hisashi Iwakuma and Drew Smyly.
If you're not in a risk-taking mood in the middle rounds, there will be plenty of time to do that by the endgame. If you want to take a gamble that Matt Moore or Rich Hill is better than ever, or that Joe Ross or Aaron Nola is ready to break out, they all should be there in the later rounds.
As mentioned above, there are a minimum of 20 pitchers who should be reliable as a No. 1 starter. If you are optimistic about Adam Wainwright, Johnny Cueto or Justin Verlander, then there are even more. However, seven stand out among the rest: Clayton Kershaw (who stands out among the standouts), Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner, Arrieta, Kluber, David Price and Chris Sale. I would actually add Stephen Strasburg to this group, given his utter dominance over his final 13 starts (82 IP, 1.76 ERA, 110 K, 12 BB). For those who distrust him because of past injuries and inconistencies, it's understandable that you would leave him out of the top group.
While the top seven or eight starters are a cut above the rest, the next 12-to-16 starters are an even greater distance from the pack below them. The means there are plenty of legitimate No. 1 starters to go around for everyone, and in mixed leagues with no more than 12 teams, there could be close to enough for everyone to have two.
That makes your selection of your No. 3 starter something that could really separate you from your competitors. This is especially true in standard Head-to-Head leagues where you are filling only five starting pitcher slots each week. Given that you may be streaming one or two of those slots on a regular basis, your third starter takes on some significance. Pitchers like the Cardinals' Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez, who have already had sustained success but are young enough to get even better, are likely to be favorites in this stage of the draft, but the real value may lie in veterans like Zimmermann and Garrett Richards, who are coming off of down years.
Chris Archer was last season's most notable breakout, so everyone wants to know who will be this year's version of the Rays' ace. Despite a bloated ERA, Taijuan Walker showed signs of being on the verge of much better things. For someone who has struggled with control, a 2.1 BB/9 ratio was extremely encouraging, and an 11.2 percent whiff rate hints at the potential for a high strikeout rate.
Other pitchers who showed signs of turning the corner in 2015, but didn't quite make the full turn, include Yordano Ventura, Carlos Rodon, Matt Moore, Nathan Eovaldi and Rick Porcello. Ventura and Rodon are both under 25 and showed some improvement in their respective skill sets late last season. While Moore, Eovaldi and Porcello are clearly in their peak years chronologically, each showed drastic improvement down the stretch last season.
Eovaldi's late-season uptick was the longest-lasting of the three, and possibly the least noticed. After getting shellacked by the Marlins on June 16, Eovaldi finished out his season by limiting opponents to an .053 Isolated Power over 14 starts. To put that in perspective, Alcides Escobar's .064 Iso was the lowest for any qualifying hitter last season.
Eovaldi and second-year hurler Severino are pitchers on the rise, but the rest of the Yankees rotation carries a lot of risk. Owners are already shying away from CC Sabathia, but Tanaka and Michael Pineda have been staples of the middle rounds. Granted, if Tanaka weren't pitching with a partially torn UCL and Pineda didn't have forearm issues last season, they would likely be even more popular. Still, both carry a lot of risk of missed time even with their current discount.
Most pitchers locked in a battle for a starting job are deeper league fodder, but a few candidates for standard mixed leagues are having to win a rotation spot this spring. Mike Fiers, Kyle Hendricks and Nathan Karns came into their own last season, but none is assured of a starting role. Fiers has to hold off Scott Feldman, while Hendricks has to contend with Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Travis Wood. Karns also has several competitors, including James Paxton, Mike Montgomery and Vidal Nuno.
This year's crop of rookie pitchers could be another great one, but none stands a strong chance to begin the season in a big league rotation. The Dodgers' Jose De Leon likely has the best chance. That would have seemed odd a few weeks back, but Brett Anderson's back surgery and Hyun-Jin Ryu's shoulder setback have opened up some long-term opportunities. Tyler Glasnow, Jose Berrios and Blake Snell are all expected to begin the season in Triple-A, but all could be among the earlier prospect callups.
That's not a bad group of rookies, but that's just the start of the list of likely callups. Lucas Giolito, Julio Urias, Robert Stephenson, Dylan Bundy, Archie Bradley and Aaron Blair could all spend time in major league rotations this season. Bundy's situation is a unique one, as he is out of options and is a strong candidate to pitch in relief, just so he can stay on the Orioles' roster. Unless the organization is content to use Vance Worley, Odrisamer Despaigne and Mike Wright as potential injury replacements, Bundy appears primed to be stretched out for the rotation at some point this season.
The Big Picture
Starting pitching has become very deep at the top, and because that tier is so youth-heavy, it's hard to imagine many of the best pitchers coming into 2016 getting significantly worse this year. Meanwhile, there are a good number of breakout candidates in the middle ranks who could make the top even deeper. It's also not hard to imagine someone like Berrios or Snell being successful right away once they are called up, adding to the wealth of young must-start options.
For now, though, there is a significant gap between the 20 or so best starting pitchers and those just missing that cut. Even if you like to go hitter-heavy on Draft Day, you will put yourself at a disadvantage if you wait too long on starting pitching. That said, because there is so much depth at the top, you can certainly address first base and outfield in the first two or three rounds without getting too far behind in the pitching sweepstakes.