Starting pitchers is where this exercise bites off more than it can chew.
It's more than just another position. It's half your team. The starting pitchers you draft do as much to form its identity as all the hitters combined, so limiting the position to a digestible number -- in this case, a still-too-big 36 -- doesn't give the fullest representation of it.
But it's a starting a point. Most Fantasy owners will probably draft three from this list, and those three will shape the direction their pitching staff takes. Beyond the top 36 (or top 40, let's say), the order becomes mostly a matter of preference anyway. The remaining choices are all flawed or underdeveloped in some way, so that's when everyone starts playing hunches.
Here's a hunch: You already know who's No. 1.
Top 12 starting pitchers for 2016:
2. Max Scherzer, SP, Nationals
3. Jake Arrieta, SP, Cubs
4. David Price, SP, Blue Jays
5. Madison Bumgarner, SP, Giants
6. Corey Kluber, SP, Indians
7. Chris Sale, SP, White Sox
8. Jacob deGrom, SP, Mets
9. Matt Harvey, SP, Mets
10. Zack Greinke, SP, Dodgers
11. Stephen Strasburg, SP, Nationals
12. Jose Fernandez, SP, Marlins
Yes, Kershaw. Old reliable. The most regular fixture atop the starting pitcher rankings since ... Randy Johnson, probably. And he did something in 2015 no pitcher had done since Johnson (along with teammate Curt Schilling) in 2002: He recorded 300 strikeouts. So maybe he technically wasn't the best starting pitcher in Fantasy this year, but he still had a historically dominant season. Don't let a couple of outlier performances for those other guys steer you away from the one pitcher who wouldn't need good luck to post a sub-2.00 ERA.
The order isn't so clear after Kershaw. I feel like Scherzer has the most dominant track record otherwise, and Arrieta has the best peripherals. They're my Round 2 consolation prizes. Price showed with his performance in Toronto that he'll dominate no matter where he signs this offseason, and Bumgarner is as steady as they come. I think we're beyond the point where Fantasy owners are going to hold Kluber's 9-16 record against him, and his 2.96 FIP shows he had an unlucky season all around. If I'm picking today, he's my AL Cy Young in 2016.
Then you get into the starting pitchers who are just as dominant as those five but have one specific concern: innings. No, I'm not holding Sale's 4.33 ERA in the second half against him. Sometimes these things happen, and his track record speaks for itself. Let's not forget he was right there with Kershaw on a 300-strikeout pace at one point. But one of the reasons he was never going to reach that threshold is because he was never going to approach the 232 2/3 innings Kershaw ended up having. His 208 2/3 were actually the second-most of his career, and he still has yet to reach 220 in four seasons as a big-league starter. He's an ace by every measure except workload, and that matters this high in the rankings. I'd be less likely to move him up than to drop him behind deGrom and Harvey considering both were using this season to build up to more innings next season.
Greinke at 10th might freak out some people -- namely Dodgers fans and those he helped deliver a Fantasy championship in 2015 -- but like with Kluber, the FIP tells the story. As good as he was, his strikeout, walk and home run rates just don't add up to a 1.66 ERA. The last time he had an eye-popping ERA, winning the AL Cy Young in 2009 with a 2.16 mark, he followed it up with a 4.17 ERA the next year and a 3.83 ERA the year after that, so that number especially can fluctuate from year to year. It doesn't mean he's not a Fantasy ace. It just means those ahead of him aren't as likely to disappoint.
Those behind him, on the other hand ... I mean, look, if Strasburg and Fernandez finish one and two in NL Cy Young voting next year, I don't think jaws drop anywhere. Strasburg certainly looked the part over his final five starts, recording double-digit strikeouts in four of them while allowing a total of five earned runs, and Fernandez had already established himself as that caliber of pitcher before this recent rash of injuries. Both have had trouble staying on the field, though, and even Fernandez showed some inconsistency when he returned from a strained biceps in mid-September.
I wouldn't be afraid to draft either as my ace, but ... well, not everyone can be top 10.
Next 12 starting pitchers for 2016:
14. Chris Archer, SP, Rays
15. Gerrit Cole, SP, Pirates
16. Felix Hernandez, SP, Mariners
17. Carlos Carrasco, SP, Indians
18. Jon Lester, SP, Cubs
19. Cole Hamels, SP, Rangers
20. Noah Syndergaard, SP, Mets
21. Sonny Gray, SP, Athletics
22. Adam Wainwright, SP, Cardinals
23. Johnny Cueto, SP, Royals
24. Danny Salazar, SP, Indians
Of course, it's fare to say I'd be OK drafting most of this second group of 12 as my ace as well. Even in a year when offense was back on the rise, the number of ace-caliber starting pitchers continued to rise, to the point that we now have somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 depending how strict your definition is.
Case in point: Who would have thought I'd have Hernandez as low as 16th? Some of us were drafting him behind only Kershaw in 2015. Now obviously, his August skid, which made his ERA (3.53) the highest it's been since 2007, is coming into play here -- again, I have to find an excuse to downgrade some of these pitchers, and considering some minor velocity issues coincided with Hernandez's blip, it's possible all those innings are catching up to him in a CC Sabathia sort of way -- but more likely than not, he's still an ace next year.
Archer and Cole get the edge over him because they too performed at an ace level in 2015 and may have only just begun to tap into their potential. Archer especially looks like a Cy Young waiting to happen. His 252 strikeouts trailed only Kershaw, Scherzer and Sale, so if not for a bumpy September, when he posted a 5.81 ERA, he might have cracked the top 10.
You know who else may soon join that illustrious group? Carrasco, who combined with Kluber to give the Indians the unluckiest one-two punch in baseball. His FIP suggests his ERA should have been about 80 points lower than it was, and his 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings trailed only the four I just mentioned -- Sale, Kershaw, Scherzer and Archer -- among qualifying pitchers. Syndergaard delivered a similar strikeout rate (and even better walk rate, actually) as a rookie and could maybe pass as a Fantasy ace next year, but because he could face an innings limit in his first full season, I slot him behind longstanding innings eaters Lester and Hamels.
Gray and Wainwright are where the varying definitions of acedom come into play since they lack the strikeout potential of the 20 pitchers ahead of them, and Wainwright obviously has other concerns, having missed most of 2015 with a torn Achilles. But both are far safer than someone like Cueto, whose struggles with the Royals combined with the dip in velocity make me worry he's hiding an injury of some kind. I probably won't be the one to draft him in 2016.
Salazar has a chance to take a big step forward, his stuff rivaling that of teammates Kluber and Carrasco. His vulnerability to the home run does keep him a step behind those two of for now, but his 2.84 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings over his final 15 starts speak volumes.
Next 12 starting pitchers for 2016:
26. Masahiro Tanaka, SP, Yankees
27. Carlos Martinez, SP, Cardinals
28. Garrett Richards, SP, Angels
29. Justin Verlander, SP, Tigers
30. Jordan Zimmermann, SP, Nationals
31. Marcus Stroman, SP, Blue Jays
32. Taijuan Walker, SP, Mariners
33. Francisco Liriano, SP, Pirates
34. Tyson Ross, SP, Padres
35. Shelby Miller, SP, Braves
36. Lance McCullers, SP, Astros
Speaking of vulnerability to home runs, that (and not the health of his elbow) ended up being Tanaka's big problem this year, and it's enough to drop him out of the ace conversation even with all he does right. It's possible his balky elbow contributed to those 1.5 home runs per nine innings, which would have been the fifth-most in baseball if he had enough innings to qualify -- and he indeed had surgery to remove a bone spur after the season ended -- but with him pitching half his games in a homer-friendly park, the safe bet is to expect an ERA in the mid-threes.
He's the first in a group of five with really just one flaw holding them back from acedom. Martinez struggles with command and labored in the second half of his first year as a starting pitcher. Richards' strikeouts took an unexpected dip when he returned from knee surgery in late April. Verlander's 2.27 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings over his final 14 starts certainly suggest he's back on track, but after giving him every benefit of the doubt the last two years, it's fair to wonder if we're being suckered again. Zimmermann, of course, lacks the strikeout potential of an ace.
Thus ends in the group of 30 that I'm inclined to believe is the correct 30 in some order or another, because after them, track record takes a back seat to projection, or what I hope will happen based on some of the cues I've seen. That's not necessarily the case for Liriano, of course, whose strengths and weaknesses are well known by now. And Ross, while not quite as established, is looking like a similar pitcher, just with the opposite arm.
What separates Stroman and Walker from Miller and McCullers, then, is the level of confidence I have in them. Stroman was sort of like another Zimmermann as a rookie in 2014, and while he didn't get much of a follow-up because of a torn ACL last spring, the little he did pitch suggested he would have picked up where he left off. Miller's best starts are probably better than Stroman's, but his performance fluctuates so wildly over the course of a season that you have to think of him as more of an upside pick than fixture in your starting lineup.
It's an even finer line between the two less-provens on each side of the Liriano/Ross divide. Overall, McCullers was the better of the two this year, but Walker has better control at this stage of his development and was the better prospect to begin with. I look at the 0.98 WHIP he compiled over his final 20 starts and have to believe he's closer to taking the next step.
Carlos Rodon, Collin McHugh, Lance Lynn, Steven Matz and Hisashi Iwakuma were among the near misses. James Shields wasn't especially close. His workload was the key to his value all these years, but he threw just 202 1/3 innings for the Padres this year. Lackey went on a nice run at the end of the year, but his peripherals are still suspect. He'll come back down to earth at age 37. Pineda's late-season collapse took him out of the running. Given that it coincided with his return from a forearm strain, I'm as fearful of an elbow injury for him as I am for Cueto.