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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 GM confident Jean Segura will bounce back
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(11:28 pm ET) Brewers general manager Doug Melvin expressed confidence Saturday that shortstop Jean Segura will bounce back after a subpar 2014 season, the Journal Sentinel reports.

"I'm pretty confident he's going to bounce back," Melvin said. "He had a very good September. He had a lot of stuff going on last year. But everybody says he's a much happier person and everything. He's a good, athletic player that we need."

After delivering a .294 average, smacking 12 home runs and stealing 44 bases in 2013, Segura hit just .246/.289/.326 with five home runs, 31 RBI and 20 stolen bases in 513 at-bats in 2014.


Brewers' Dontrelle Willis making a good impression in camp
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(10:56 pm ET) Brewers pitcher Dontrelle Willis has made a favorable impression during camp, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

In particular, Willis has impressed manager Ron Roenicke. "He's got a great attitude," Roenicke said. "The things he said are exactly what you want a player to say. He gets it." Willis has also made a strong impression on his new teammates.

Willis, 33, has not pitched in the majors since 2011. He's attempting to make a come back with the Brewers this spring. 


Blue Jays' Michael Saunders: 'No pain' day after surgery
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(9:57 pm ET) Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders said Saturday that he's feeling no pain one day after undergoing knee surgery, the Toronto Sun reports.

"I feel great," Saunders said. "I couldn’t believe it when I woke up this morning and I was walking around just fine. I walked out of surgery just fine. I actually started doing some exercises today and just got checked out by the doctor and he was pleasantly surprised with what he saw. There’s not as much swelling as he originally thought. Everything is checking out so far and everything is good news. No pain. It feels like I banged my knee on a pole and it’s a tiny bit swollen."

Saunders suffered a torn meniscus while tracking a foul ball Wednesday, tripping over a sprinkler head and hearing a popping sound. After initially being told he could need to have the meniscus repaired, a procedure that carries a recovery time of three-to-five months, Saunders had the torn portion of the meniscus removed, which places him on track to return to action within six weeks. While the outfielder is excited to be back on the field in a much shorter time, he indicated he'll be cautious with his rehab.

"I’m going to miss some spring training but it could be a lot worse," Saunders said. "My ligaments are intact. For me this is the best-case scenario. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I’m ready to go. I’d love to say that I’ll be ready opening day. That’s my goal. But we’re targeting more mid-April, on the safe side. At the end of the day I have to listen to my knee. It’s a long season. I’m going to get this right the first time and not rush back."


Athletics' Doolittle hoping to throw in a week or two
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(9:51 pm ET) Athletics reliever Sean Doolittle is hoping to be cleared to throw in a week or two, according to the San Francisco Chronicle

Doolittle was able to participate in strength tests on Saturday, and the results were positive. He has not been cleared to throw just yet, but is hoping that will come shortly. Doolittle has been sidelined by a shoulder injury during the start of camp. 

The 28-year-old posted a 2.73 ERA over 62 2/3 innings last year. 


Rays release OF Josh Sale
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(9:49 pm ET) The Rays have released outfielder Josh Sale, Baseball America reports.

Sale was suspended for use of performance-enhancing drugs in 2013 as well as for conduct detrimental to the team that same season. He received a 50-game suspension last August for a second positive test for a drug of abuse. Before his most recent suspension, he hit .238/.313/.344 with four home runs and 46 RBI in 323 at-bats with high Class A Charlotte.


Yankees' Cashman downplays Bailey's chances of making team
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(9:31 pm ET) Yankees general manager Brian Cashman downplayed reliever Andrew Bailey's chances of making the 25-man roster, according to the Journal News.

Bailey, 30, is attempting to come back from a shoulder injury. He has not pitched in the majors since 2013 due to the issue. While Bailey has been able to participate in bullpen sessions this spring, Cashman took a more realistic view of the situation. "It’s one of those things where, non-roster situation, it’s a flyer, and the odds are against it," Cashman said. "And it didn’t work out for us last year. But because of who he is, his makeup, his work ethic, all those things, it made it easier to say, 'All right, let's keep trying,'" he added. 

Cashman stressed that while things look good now, the team wants to see how Bailey will respond in game situations. Bailey, meanwhile, has been optimistic during camp, saying he feels like he's finally over his injury.

Bailey posted a 3.77 ERA over 28 2/3 innings back in 2013. 


Hinch: Astros' Torreyes has 'earned every chance to get a look'
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(8:59 pm ET) Astros infielder Ronald Torreyes checks in at about 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds, but his success at avoiding strikeouts has manager A.J. Hinch ready to give him a chance at showing what he can do this spring, the Houston Chronicle reports.

"You like to see these guys play," manager A.J. Hinch said. "He can look to our starting lineup at the top or hitting first or second and he’ll see a guy who is pretty successful who is not the biggest guy in the world. I see a unique size for this level, but the way he’s hit and the way he’s performed he’s earned every chance to get a look."

Torreyes was added to the team's 40-man roster in November after hitting .298/.345/.376 with two home runs, 46 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 460 at-bats with Triple-A Oklahoma City in 2014.

"He doesn’t look like a ballplayer because he’s little like me, but he’s a young bull," Astros second baseman Jose Altuve said. "He hits a lot and plays good defense. Last year they put him on the 40-man roster because he has a good chance to help us. There aren’t many players like him so skinny and little in the big leagues, so when you see him for the first time you say, 'You know he has to be good to be here.' Then when you see him hit you realize the organization has a good reason to give him this opportunity."

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(8:43 pm ET) Twins starting pitcher Trevor May has looked to improve flexibility coming into his competition for a rotation spot this spring by turning to yoga to help repeat his delivery, the Star Tribune reports.

"I’ve been doing yoga for 30 or 40 minutes every morning, and I’m much fresher than ever before," May said. "Every scouting report I’ve ever seen on myself says, 'Has trouble repeating his delivery.' Well, yoga is literally repeating moves, keeping your body under your control. I do the warrior pose, which is [the same as] striding and throwing a baseball. It has to help."

May initially struggled in his major-league debut last season, but he hopes the perseverance he showed and his improvements near the end of the season help set him apart in the battle for a rotation spot this spring.

"Obviously I don’t know exactly what the people who are making decisions are thinking, but showing I can be successful after having my face beat up for two months, showing I can work through it, it’s a trait you have to have," May said. "I take pride in the fact that I didn’t give up. I didn’t let it get me down."


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(8:34 pm ET) Twins first baseman Joe Mauer was happy to have a "normal" offseason after dealing with concussion-like symptoms the previous year, MLB.com reports.

"I had a very productive offseason," Mauer said Saturday. "The last couple years I had a lot of things to deal with, especially last year with the concussion. I didn't really get a good base heading into the year. I feel great this year and I hope it stays that way."

Mauer believes that his vigorous stretching exercises this offseason will help keep him healthy in 2015.

"You have to pay attention to your body. I'm getting older," Mauer said. "I'm finding out what works and doesn't work. Trying to make adjustments."

Manager Paul Molitor indicated that he's noticed a difference in Mauer this spring.

"I think it means a lot for him," Molitor said. "I think coming back last year after what had happened the previous season, you always have those questions. He's got friends that have gone through it with Corey Koskie and Justin [Morneau]. We all know how validated our concern is over concussion issues. I'm sure there was a little hesitancy there. Like I said when I had a chance to visit with him this winter, he's excited to be back and not have to be concerned about those type of things."

Mauer endured a down offensive performance last season, hitting .277/.361/.371 with just four home runs in 455 at-bats.


Report: Blue Jays sign Dayan Viciedo to minor-league deal
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(8:27 pm ET) The Blue Jays have signed outfielder Dayan Viciedo to a minor-league deal, FOXSports reports.

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The Blue Jays are dealing with an injury to left fielder Michael Saunders, but it was announced Friday that Saunders is only expected to miss up to six weeks after initially being thought to be out until the All-Star break. While Saunders is out, Viciedo could figure into the mix in left field if he makes the team's 25-man roster.


 
 
 
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