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Reality Check: Early look at starting pitchers

Senior Fantasy Writer
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2014 Early Positional Rankings

C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP

As plentiful as starting pitcher has become in recent years, reducing the position to only its top 36 is pretty much just asking for trouble.

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"No Patrick Corbin? But he was my ace before the All-Star break!"

"No Johnny Cueto? It's not his fault he got hurt!"

"No Kris Medlen? Did you see what he did in the second half?"

"No Marco Estrada? But he single-handedly won me my championship game!"

I can hear it all now. Shoot, I've lived it all already. This list more than any of the others in my position-by-position look-ahead to the 2014 rankings required me to make some exceptionally tough calls.

And it's not like I gave preferential treatment to longtime mainstays such as CC Sabathia, Tim Lincecum, Yovani Gallardo and Jake Peavy because, you know, they're supposed to be there. Believe it or not, it's the rookies of 2013 cluttering up the top 36, including several who've barely pitched half a season in the majors.

You know how many of their ilk cracked my top 36 at this time last year? Zero. Zip. Nada.

Call it the Matt Harvey effect if you like, but I wouldn't consider it an overreaction to an aberration. As much turnover as starting pitcher sees every year, why not bank on some of the up-and-comers over the fading has-beens?

Based on the way some of them were pitching to end the season, it's not exactly going out on a limb.

Top 12 starting pitchers for 2014:
1. Clayton Kershaw, SP, Dodgers
2. Yu Darvish, SP, Rangers
3. Max Scherzer, SP, Tigers
4. Adam Wainwright, SP, Cardinals
5. Felix Hernandez, SP, Mariners
6. Cliff Lee, SP, Phillies
7. Jose Fernandez, SP, Marlins
8. Stephen Strasburg, SP, Nationals
9. Justin Verlander, SP, Tigers
10. Madison Bumgarner, SP, Giants
11. Chris Sale, SP, White Sox
12. Cole Hamels, SP, Phillies

Already seething at the bald-faced injustice? Relax. This first group is supposed to be the easy one.

I doubt I'll get too much flak for Kershaw and Scherzer -- they're the Cy Young favorites, after all -- but slotting Darvish between them might require an explanation of sorts. Basically, it all comes down to strikeouts. His 277 were the most since Randy Johnson's 290 in 2004, making him a legitimate candidate for 300 in the years ahead. I would have liked to see him throw more innings. I would have liked to see him issue fewer walks. But he made enough strides in both areas to convince me he's building himself into something special. Plus, reports of him battling sciatica in September, when he was repeatedly pulled in the sixth inning, have me thinking his late-season relapse wasn't all it seemed.

I'll admit to feeling a little bit icky about sticking with Hernandez and Lee over the two behind them. Yeah, if they keep doing what they've been doing, you won't be the least bit disappointed in them, but Cliff Lee is 35 and Felix Hernandez, though still just 27, has seen his average fastball velocity drop with all the mileage already on his arm. He had a career-high strikeout rate in 2013, so I wouldn't say I'm worried, but ... let's just say if Fernandez and Strasburg go on to finish one and two in NL Cy Young voting, I won't be the least bit surprised.

Yes, let's go ahead and talk about Strasburg, because unlike Fernandez -- who's sure to be hyped to the hills after outpitching everyone inning for inning as a 21-year-old rookie -- he's in need of an image restoration. He was the one hyped as the breakthrough ace this time a year ago after having his innings limited in 2012, and long story short, he didn't meet expectations.

I'll just put it out there: Assessing a pitcher on win-loss record is stupid. Strasburg's ERA and WHIP both improved from the year before. He allowed only 6.7 hits per nine innings. But because he went 8-9, some Fantasy owners are inclined to leave him for someone else. I understand win-loss record impacts Fantasy production, so in that way, it's important. But given how little control a pitcher has over it, you can't expect to predict it with any real accuracy. Maybe the Nationals fare better as a team in 2014 than in 2013. Maybe they don't. But considering Jordan Zimmermann had 19 wins for them in their "down" year, Strasburg is bound to have better luck either way.

Add Verlander to the list of pitchers I could see holding the top spot in 2014. His dominance to end the season, which carried over to the postseason, has me hopeful he kicked the control bug that knocked him out of the top spot in 2013. He still had the eighth-best fastball in terms of average velocity, so it's not like his stuff is in question. I can't see myself taking him ahead of Fernandez or Strasburg after the year he just had, but for those three as well as Hernandez and Lee, I'd be happy to take whichever falls to me. Of course, by the same taken, I'd be happy with any of the top 13 as my ace, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Among the three lefties at the end, Sale has the best stuff and strikeout potential but is a perpetual injury risk with his herky-jerky delivery. Plus, Bumgarner was a good bit steadier in 2013. Hamels isn't as far behind as his 2013 production would have you believe. Another win-loss victim, he had a 3.22 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings over his final 31 starts, which suggests he's the same pitcher as always.

Next 12 starting pitchers for 2014:
13. David Price, SP, Rays
14. Zack Greinke, SP, Dodgers
15. Anibal Sanchez, SP, Tigers
16. Hisashi Iwakuma, SP, Mariners
17. Matt Cain, SP, Giants
18. Mat Latos, SP, Reds
19. Mike Minor, SP, Braves
20. Jordan Zimmermann, SP, Nationals
21. James Shields, SP, Royals
22. Alex Cobb, SP, Rays
23. Homer Bailey, SP, Reds
24. Jered Weaver, SP, Angels

I mentioned I'd be happy with any of the top 13 as my ace, which would make the Price the cutoff. Others might include Greinke, who certainly pitched like one with a 1.57 ERA and 0.90 WHIP over his final 16 starts but has had bouts of inconsistency over the years, or even Sanchez, who's in the conversation for the first time after averaging a career-high 10.0 strikeouts per nine innings in 2013. But Price is the one all but guaranteed to pitch like an ace when healthy.

He proved it again after returning from a strained triceps July 2, going nine innings in five of his final 18 starts with a 2.53 ERA and 0.97 WHIP during that stretch. His strikeout rate and average fastball velocity were both down, which is why I rank him as low as 13th, but it doesn't strike me as another Tim Lincecum situation. His control is far too good for that.

Like Greinke and Sanchez, I wouldn't necessarily count out Iwakuma and Cain for ace numbers in 2014. Iwakuma basically was an ace in 2013, picking up where he left off in a late-season trial the year before, but as a 33-year-old with little name value and less-than-electric stuff, he won't be high on most people's radars. The same is true for Cain after a year in which he posted a 4.00 ERA. He got burned with homers early, but his peripherals were the same as always, which might explain his 2.36 ERA after the All-Star break.

Minor, Zimmermann and Shields gave their Fantasy owners reliable innings and won enough games to finish high in the Head-to-Head rankings, but their limited strikeout potential prohibits them from reaching the heights attainable for some of the players ahead of them. Minor has the best chance, but the 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings he averaged in 2013 might be a high point for him. You can add Weaver to that group given that the former ace has averaged fewer than 7.0 strikeouts per nine in back-to-back seasons. His recent bouts with injuries keep him a couple steps behind.

Cobb and Bailey are probably the two most interesting players on this list precisely because of what they offer in strikeouts. After taking a liner off the head June 15, Cobb returned to pitch eight-plus innings in three of his final six starts, recording double-digit strikeouts in two of them. For the season, he averaged more Head-to-Head points per start than Hernandez, Bumgarner or Sale. The potential exists for the Rays to baby him a bit after he threw a combined 163 1/3 between the majors, minors and playoffs, which is why you shouldn't go overboard on Draft Day, but clearly, the potential is there. As for Bailey, I feel like he was actually a better pitcher than Latos in 2013, having finally built himself into a strikeout-per-inning guy after years of unfulfilled expectations. You just wouldn't know it because of his 11-12 record.

Next 12 starting pitchers for 2014:
25. Gio Gonzalez, SP, Nationals
26. Gerrit Cole, SP, Pirates
27. Michael Wacha, SP, Cardinals
28. Matt Moore, SP, Rays
29. Francisco Liriano, SP, Pirates
30. Tony Cingrani, SP, Reds
31. Clay Buchholz, SP, Red Sox
32. Julio Teheran, SP, Braves
33. Justin Masterson, SP, Indians
34. Sonny Gray, SP, Athletics
35. Shelby Miller, SP, Cardinals
36. Jon Lester, SP, Red Sox

And now, the mother lode.

You know those 2013 rookies I mentioned at the top? I didn't just mean Fernandez. Cole, Wacha, Cingrani, Teheran, Gray, Miller -- I had to find a way to fit them all in there, even over pitchers I thought for sure would be in my top 36 like Corbin, Cueto, Medlen and Estrada. They may be lacking in track record, but what they did in limited chances shows they're already on the verge of unlocking their potential, much like Harvey in 2012. My only regret was having to leave out Zack Wheeler, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Chris Archer and Danny Salazar.

The best part is they should be primed for close to a full workload in 2014. Cole had 196 1/3 innings between the majors, minors and playoffs. Wacha is at 163 2/3 and counting. Cingrani had 135. Teheran had 188 1/3. Gray had 195 1/3. Miller had 174 1/3. Cingrani may be limited to 180 or so, but assuming an increase of 30-40 innings every year, the rest are clearly within striking distance of 200.

Figuring out exactly where they fit in with the tried-and-trues (which, this far down at the position, are becoming significantly less tried and true) is an apples-to-oranges exercise, so you can expect to see some variance from league to league. To me, Cole and Wacha stand out as the most likely to take another step forward with the way their strikeouts rates exploded at the end of 2013. Slotting them between the wild-stallion lefties, with Gonzalez being the tamest of the bunch, feels right.

Cingrani, who's a near lock to replace impending free agent Bronson Arroyo, actually showed the most potential of the six rookies, averaging 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 18 starts and five relief appearances, but he's a bit of a wild stallion himself. Teheran is the most proven but also the most hittable of the bunch, which is why I slot him behind Buchholz, who would have been in the running for AL Cy Young if he had lasted more than half the season. Health has never been his strong suit.

Gray was actually just as effective down the stretch as Cole and Wacha, but judging by some of the feedback I got on Twitter, he's not as highly regarded as those two. No sense reaching for him. Miller underwhelmed after a blistering start to 2013, but he still has incredible stuff. I get the feeling his early hooks down the stretch were at least partially by design. If the Cardinals turn him loose in 2014, he could be the steal of the draft.

Confession time: I don't know that I'd draft Lester 36th at the position. I still don't entirely trust him with his strikeout-to-walk ratio where it stands now. But coming off a 15-win season in which he compiled a 2.57 ERA after the All-Star break, I'm confident he'll get plenty of love on Draft Day. I actually prefer Corbin, believing his 5.19 ERA after the All-Star break was simply a matter of him tiring in his first full major-league season.

So why not just rank him that way? Well, I draft off my rankings, and I'd rather not draft in a bubble. If Lester is supposed to go earlier than I'd take him, then burying him in my rankings won't help me to gauge when I should take Corbin, Wheeler, Estrada, Medlen or any of the other pitchers projected to go after him.

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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Player News
Brewers' Khris Davis to work on being a patient hitter in 2015
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Brewers outfielder Khris Davis realizes he didn't show patience at the plate last year in his first full major-league season, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

"I built a reputation in the organization of being a patient hitter," Davis said. "I felt like I wasn't a patient hitter at all last year. I was a little eager, wanting to please too much, too early. I found out I'm human."

Davis drew just 32 walks in 549 plate appearances while posting a .299 OBP in 2014, a number far away from his career .392 OBP in the minors.

"He was different last year," manager Ron Roenicke said. "Everybody goes through different phases. Guys change. (His walk total) was too low. He's a guy I think should be fairly patient. He sees pitches well. When he starts getting anxious, he becomes more aggressive and chases more. He realizes it, which is the first step. If you don't realize it and don't listen to other people when they tell you that, then you have issues. You have to have good self-awareness to be a good player. Sometimes these players don't have good self-awareness. But if they had better self-awareness they'd be a better player."

Davis is determined to fulfill the potential that caused the organization to move Ryan Braun to right field before the 2014 season and plug Davis into the regular left-field role.

"I can't thank them enough for having patience with me," Davis said. "I'm going to work it out. When you get here, you want to stay. That's the toughest part at first. I don't think this league has seen the best of me yet. I'm ready to pull that out and prove it day by day. I learned so many lessons there are too many to name."

Davis hit .244/.299/.457 with 22 home runs and 69 RBI in 501 at-bats.


Indians' Francona keeping a close eye on Giovanny Urshela
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Indians manager Terry Francona has been keeping a close eye on third-base prospect Giovanny Urshela, who was only recently cleared for a full range of activities after tweaking his knee during winter ball, MLB.com reports.

"He has a tremendous reputation of being a really good defender," Francona said. "I think I've been more wanting to watch his gait, just to make sure he's not favoring that leg. He promised us that, if he was, he'd let us know, but I also know he's a young kid in his first major-league camp."

Urshela suffered the injury on Nov. 15 and has rehabbed the injured knee at the team's spring-training facility in Goodyear, Ariz.

"He's worked really hard to get himself to where he can go through a normal spring," said Indians' director of player development Carter Hawkins. "We're very excited about the spot he's in right now, given the possible outcomes of the injury."

Urshela saw his first action at the Triple-A level in 2014, hitting .276/.331/.473 with 13 home runs and 65 RBI in 395 at-bats with Columbus.


Reds' Brennan Boesch to see time at first base this spring
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Reds manager Bryan Price indicated Friday that outfielder Brennan Boesch would see time at all three outfield spots as well as at first base as he competes for a roster spot this spring, MLB.com reports.

"We already know he's a terrific player," Price said of Boesch, who has never played first base professionally. "He kind of got banged up and lost his way a little bit, but I think he feels -- and we feel -- that he's back on top of his game, and maybe his best days are ahead of him."

Boesch said he doesn't see the battle for a reserve outfield role as a "competition."

"I only care about the competition against the pitcher, and that's really as basic as I keep it," Boesch said. "You aren't competing against other players. We're all on the same side here. We're all wearing Red jerseys. Let the chips fall where they may."

Boesch struggled in limited time with the Angels in 2014 but hit .332/.381/.636 with 25 home runs, 85 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 374 at-bats with Triple-A Salt Lake.


Dodgers' Mattingly: Turner has 'put a lot of time in and it shows'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Dodgers infielder Justin Turner earned a nonroster invitation to the team's camp last year and ended up leading the team in batting average, and he's been working on his body like a fiend over the winter, MLB.com reports.

"Going into last year, we felt if he played every day, he'd get in trouble, and we found that out, but this year maybe he can handle more," manager Don Mattingly said Friday. "He's really been diligent about his work, been at Dodger Stadium almost daily. He's put a lot of time in and it shows."

Turner credited strength-and-conditioning coach Brandon McDaniel for his workout success.

"Brandon did everything. He's been a one-man wrecking crew," said Turner. "He and his family deserve the credit. I've been able to establish a routine and train consistently. Before I signed a year ago, I was on my own, going to 24 Hour Fitness, had to coordinate everything myself."

Turner added that he lost 18 pounds this winter through a healthier diet. Mattingly said that he intends to use the infielder at the corner-infield positions and also potentially up the middle.


Nationals' Matt Skole: 'I'm eating healthy and working hard'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Nationals first baseman Matt Skole missed most of 2013 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and struggled at the plate in 2014 but showed up to camp in better shape and will look to rebound in 2015, MLB.com reports.

"This offseason, I had a little more time to work on my body," Skole said. "I really got after it in the weight room. I ate right. I ate healthy. I think that was probably the biggest difference for me. I'm about the same weight as I was. I just leaned out a little bit. I'm eating healthy and working hard."

Skole worked with hitting coordinator Troy Gingrich for a month after the season and learned to keep his hands up in order to hit the ball consistently after having his hands too low during his down 2014 season.

"After taking a year off, it was more difficult than I thought it would be," the left-handed-swinging Skole said. "But coming back, I turned some corners, made some strides as far as getting to know myself as a player and know the things I need to fix. I think everything I did last year was a stepping stone for this year."

Skole hit .241/.352/.399 with 14 home runs and 68 RBI in 461 at-bats with Double-A Harrisburg last season.


Report: Dodgers sign center fielder Travis Witherspoon
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) The Dodgers signed center fielder Travis Witherspoon to their organization, according to a report from Baseball America

Witherspoon has previously been in the Angels and Mariners organizations. In six years of minor-league ball, Witherspoon has posted a career batting average of .252 with 68 home runs. He hit a minor-league single-season best 15 home runs in 2014 with the Mariners' Single-A affiliate High Desert Mavericks. 


Phillies' Buchanan 'working on being a complete pitcher'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Phillies pitcher David Buchanan is "working on being a complete pitcher," manager Ryan Sandberg said, per the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The team's coaches spoke with Buchanan in the fall about command and pitch sequencing, executing bunts and thwarting would-be base-stealers, and Sandberg noted while examining the players that arrived early that the pitcher had taken the advice to heart.

"My biggest goal [this spring] is to show our front office and our coaches that I can throw the ball over the plate," Buchanan said. "That's one thing I had success with last year. I wasn't walking guys. I was throwing strikes, and that's what I'm known for. That's why I succeeded in the minor leagues; I was throwing strikes. So that's what I want to do this spring training, is continue to do that, pound the zone, force early contact and keep the ball on the ground."

Buchanan is scheduled to pitch the team's Grapefruit League opener Tuesday against the Yankees.


Giants' Bochy: Hunter Strickland 'needs to get a little smarter'
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland is ready to learn from his mistakes from the tail end of his 2014 season.

Starting strong once he was called up from Double-A Richmond, Strickland gave up six home runs in the postseason. Giants manager Bruce Bochy said the remedy to put Strickland back on track is simple. 

"He needs to get a little smarter," Bochy said, per MLB.com.  

Strickland will be competing for a spot in the bullpen during spring training. His fastball is a strength, though it's a matter of his command improving on the mound. 

"The failures are what make guys better, I feel like," Strickland said. "I feel like they made me better. Just being in tune with yourself and knowing who you are and what you've got to do. In this game, you're not going to make it too far if you don't have confidence. If you don't believe in yourself, who else is going to believe in you?"


Mets' Nieuwenhuis, den Dekker competing for roster spot
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Mets left-handed hitters Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Matt den Dekker will be battling for one roster spot this spring, MLB.com reports.

While Nieuwenhuis is out of options, manager Terry Collins indicated that den Dekker has responded to the team's request that he reduce his strikeouts when sent to Triple-A last season.

"We'll just see how it translates this spring into what kind of an offensive player he can be," Collins said of den Dekker. "We know he's got the defensive skills."

Collins said that whichever outfielder shows the most promise will make the initial 25-man roster.

"He plays the game right. He's fearless," Collins said of Nieuwenhuis. "But right now, we've got to get some offense from one of those two guys. Which one of those two guys is going to be able to come off the bench as a pinch-hitter? The best closers in our division are all right-handed, so the left-handed hitter off that bench is going to be a big piece."


Stephen Strasburg wants to stay with Nationals
by Jason Butt | CBSSports.com
(2/27/2015) Though Stephen Strasburg's agent Scott Boras denied a report that he wanted to be traded in January, the right-handed pitcher said himself that he wants to remain with the Nationals and has no issues with the organization. 

"I haven't said anything like that," Strasburg said in an interview with MLB.com. "I don't feel like that. You have to accept it because that's how the system works. It's like they pick up on any little thing and they twist it. Some people want to turn it to see how many clicks they can get on the webpage."

Strasburg is set to be the ace of a deep rotation that looks to be on of the best in baseball this coming season. With the Nationals winning their second divisional title in the past three seasons, Strasburg said he's happy with the organization. 

"It's the team that drafted me. I love the players here, I love D.C. Winning cures everything, that's for sure," Strasburg said. "I'm excited to be part of the resurgence so far. It's great to see the type of players we bring in here every year. The expectations keep going up and up. Hopefully, we can do big things this year."


 
 
 
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