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Reality Check: The rotation never stops

Senior Fantasy Writer
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At starting pitcher, it's out with the old and in with the new.

You know mainstays like Tim Lincecum, Jon Lester and Josh Johnson? Well, they fell flat on their faces in 2012 and, as a result, are probably a little lower than you remember them.

Even longtime holdover Roy Halladay -- regarded in some circles as Fantasy royalty -- had such a misstep at age 35 that he's all the way down at No. 18. Yup, no messing around here.

Among those bumping them down are newcomers R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, Johnny Cueto, Yu Darvish, Chris Sale, Kris Medlen and ... well, you get the idea. A bunch of guys your mom's never heard of.

(Try tossing this one at her: Jeff Samardzija. If you're lucky, you'll get an attempted pronunciation.)

Granted, not all of those pitchers were waiver claims in 2012. In fact, some were drafted in the first 10 rounds. But all -- not Samardzija, but the other six -- are borderline elite now, forming more than a quarter of the top 20 at the position. And, logistically speaking, if they're in, someone else has to be out.

It's the kind of a turnover that's all too common at starting pitcher -- the kind that, year after year, leads Fantasy owners to ask themselves if any pitcher is genuinely safe?

Maybe. But if you don't want to take the chance on one early, at least you know you'll have plenty of fallback options.

Top 12 starting pitchers for 2013 ...
1. Justin Verlander, SP, Tigers
2. Clayton Kershaw, SP, Dodgers
3. Felix Hernandez, SP, Mariners
4. David Price, SP, Rays
5. Cole Hamels, SP, Phillies
6. Jered Weaver, SP, Angels
7. Stephen Strasburg, SP, Nationals
8. R.A. Dickey, SP, Mets
9. Matt Cain, SP, Giants
10. Madison Bumgarner, SP, Giants
11. Cliff Lee, SP, Phillies
12. Gio Gonzalez, SP, Nationals

The reasons why the top six are the top six should be obvious. As the rest of the position has turned over, they've held their ground, competing for Cy Young awards now several years in a row. You could lump Lee in with that group if you're willing to overlook him ranking 23rd in Head-to-Head leagues during a relatively healthy 2012. And why wouldn't you? Other than the win-loss record, his numbers were as good as ever.

You want to nitpick? Fine. Some might argue Price deserves to be higher given that he was the highest-scoring starting pitcher on a per-game basis in 2012. But just because he was the one who got the wins doesn't mean he's suddenly better than Verlander, Kershaw and Hernandez. Judging by their hit and strikeout rates, he still trails Verlander and Kershaw in terms of pure stuff, and unlike Hernandez, he's not a lock for 230-plus innings. He's still an ace, but he's not the ace of all aces.

Strasburg might be someday, but knowing how Fantasy owners operate, some might be inclined to anoint him that already, pitting him against Verlander for No. 1 at the position. From my perspective, though, you stand to lose far more than you gain by reaching for him there. The Nationals took unprecedented steps to preserve his health for the long haul in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, and it resulted in him getting only 159 1/3 innings. If 30 innings is what's generally accepted as a responsible increase from one year to the next, how is he going to reach 200, much less 220 or 240? And if he's limited to a Paul Maholm-like workload, how is he going to hold a candle to Verlander at season's end?

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Even if I'm wrong and the Nationals suddenly decide to throw caution to the wind and ride him like he's Bob Gibson in a slow-pitch softball tournament, are you going to be disappointed that you drafted Verlander or Kershaw instead? A pitcher can only be so good.

Frankly, I'm more likely to end up with Dickey than Strasburg in my leagues -- not because I'll draft Dickey earlier, but because he's just as likely to fall in drafts as Strasburg is to rise. He's 37. He came seemingly out of nowhere. You can understand the skeptics. I'm not among them, though. In terms of command and velocity, his knuckleball is unlike any we've seen before, and yet because it's still a relatively low-effort pitch, it should keep his arm strong into his early 40s.

Nothing else too controversial in this group. Some might wonder why Gonzalez ranks so low coming off a near-Cy Young season, but for all he does well, he still struggles with command and pitch counts. Some might wonder why Bumgarner ranks so high, but before his mechanics got out of whack in September, he was basically a carbon copy of Cole Hamels. To be honest, I had to talk myself out of ranking him ahead of Cain.

Next 12 starting pitchers for 2013 ...
13. CC Sabathia, SP, Yankees
14. James Shields, SP, Rays
15. Zack Greinke, SP, Angels
16. Johnny Cueto, SP, Reds
17. Yu Darvish, SP, Rangers
18. Roy Halladay, SP, Phillies
19. Chris Sale, SP, White Sox
20. Kris Medlen, SP/RP, Braves
21. Mat Latos, SP, Reds
22. Max Scherzer, SP, Tigers
23. Yovani Gallardo, SP, Brewers
24. Adam Wainwright, SP, Cardinals

I think 13th is a fair spot for Sabathia as we await word on his elbow. A couple weeks from now, he may shoot up to No. 9, fresh off a diagnosis of mild tendinitis, or he may ... well, I'll let you entertain the worst-case scenarios. I, for one, am optimistic. He returned from the DL in late August to dominate over his next 10 starts, including two in the ALDS, before flopping in the ALCS. Not sure how he could have done that if the damage was all that bad.

After the top 15 is where things get weird. Ask eight people how to rank the next eight pitchers, and you'll probably get eight different responses. I'm not even confident I agree with mine, but weighing upside, downside, risk, reward and perception, this is how those eight came out.

This time a year ago, Halladay was right there with Verlander as a potential first-rounder, and he had six straight top-five Cy Young finishes backing him up. Now, he's 35, owner of a 6.20 ERA over his last eight starts, and coming off a season in which he battled back issues and reduced velocity. Sticking a fork in him would be premature, especially since nothing seems to be wrong with his arm, but if he ends up delivering more of the same in 2013, who would you regret passing up for him? Cueto, who's coming off a near Cy Young season? Darvish, who put up Verlander-type numbers once he got his stuff under control in mid-August? You could argue those guys are aces already. I still have a twinge of doubt in both cases, but not like I have with Halladay.

My doubts with Sale and Medlen are a little more pronounced, which is tough for me to admit since they were two of my favorite pitchers in 2012. Sale saw a huge increase in workload after spending the first two years of his professional career as a reliever, and that's always a little scary, particularly when accompanied by a rocky finish. As for Medlen, I forever live in fear of overvaluing someone who's listed at 5-feet-10 and tops out at 91 miles per hour. I can hear the I-told-you-sos already. He looks like that kid who sat alone in the lunchroom, bobbing his head to a walkman as he pulled up the hood of his sweatshirt. But unlike Tim Lincecum, he doesn't have the electric arsenal to shatter that image. Still, the Greg Maddux-like crispness of his pitches makes me think he's not a fluke. I guess I just need to see a little more before I buy into him completely. I will add, though, that since he's the only one of the top 36 starting pitchers who also qualifies at relief pitcher, he's more likely to move up than down in the weeks ahead.

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Latos, Scherzer and Gallardo I think have topped out as No. 2 starters, which is why they belong at the end of the group. I could see a little more from Scherzer given his high strikeout rate and strong finish, but I seem to remember saying those same things about him coming out of the 2010 season. Live and learn.

Next 12 starting pitchers for 2013 ...
25. Jordan Zimmermann, SP, Nationals
26. Jake Peavy, SP, White Sox
27. Jon Lester, SP, Red Sox
28. Josh Johnson, SP, Marlins
29. Brandon Morrow, SP, Blue Jays
30. C.J. Wilson, SP, Angels
31. Doug Fister, SP, Tigers
32. Ian Kennedy, SP, Diamondbacks
33. Jeff Samardzija, SP, Cubs
34. Tim Lincecum, SP, Giants
35. Jonathon Niese, SP, Mets
36. Lance Lynn, SP, Cardinals

The next tier of starting pitchers actually begins at No. 24, with Wainwright. Like the several pitchers who follow, his ace potential has been overrun by uncertainties. I kind of feel like his 3.18 ERA over his final 16 starts more or less eliminated his uncertainties, but I recognize he's not quite as safe as Latos, Scherzer or Gallardo.

Peavy, Lester, Johnson, Morrow and Wilson, on the other hand, could completely blow up in your face. In fact, Lester, Johnson, Morrow and Wilson did in 2012. Johnson I don't feel like was quite as bad as some people make him out to be. His win-loss record suffered with the disappointing Marlins, but he had a 3.26 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings over his final 25 starts. Not exactly the Johnson of old, but you'll take those numbers from your third starting pitcher. Morrow's ranking might seem a little unfair considering he would have a had a career year if not for an oblique injury, but you can blame injury for Wilson's tumble as well. He had a 2.43 ERA before he started pitching with bone spurs in his elbow in late July.

Doesn't Lincecum belong with that group? The two-time Cy Young winner clearly offers ace potential, but his 2012 was so bad, with enough troubling signs -- the steadily rising walk rate, the steadily falling velocity -- that you're pretty much buying a lottery ticket by drafting him. I prefer the relative security of Fister, Kennedy or even Samardzija, who I think might be one of the most underrated pitchers entering 2013. He didn't get much attention pitching for a bad Cubs team, but unlike most starters who make the transition from the bullpen, he actually got stronger with the accumulation of innings, pitching seven innings or more in six of his final seven starts. His numbers during that stretch: a 2.39 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Wowza.

The top 34 for me are pretty much set in stone. We may quibble over the order, but I'm confident these 34 should be the first 34 off the board, in some form or fashion. Beyond that, though, personal preference comes into play. I opted for Niese and Lynn over pitchers like Hiroki Kuroda, A.J. Burnett, Kyle Lohse, Brett Anderson and Dan Haren, but I wouldn't say any of those choices is wrong. You could even make an argument for pitchers like Matt Moore, Matt Harvey and Mike Minor.

So why did I go the direction I did? Niese probably doesn't have much room to improve on his 2012, but you shouldn't underestimate how good it was. He averaged more Head-to-Head points per start than Gallardo and Morrow. And Lynn was so dominant when at his best that I get the feeling his ups and downs in the second half were just a side effect of the transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation. I mean, he averaged more than a strikeout per inning in 2012. That's worth something in and of itself.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott White at @CBSScottWhite . You can also e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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