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2014 Draft Prep: Pitching staff rankings

Senior Fantasy Writer
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The Top Two

St. Louis Cardinals
Cincinnati Reds

The Cardinals are, simply put, awesome. There's little not to like here, starting with an ace at the top of the rotation (Adam Wainwright) all the way down to No. 5, where the underrated Joe Kelly (2.69 ERA over 37 appearances last season) will compete with the electric-armed Carlos Martinez (2.69 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 9.3 K/9 over four minor league season) for the last spot. ... The Reds opened up a rotation spot for Tony Cingrani, who brings a low ERA and WHIP and plenty of strikeouts to a team now managed by Cincinnati's former pitching coach, Bryan Price. Both the Reds and Cardinals have stud closers, and the bullpens are solid -- although the Reds, with the underrated J.J. Hoover (2.86 ERA/1.11 WHIP, 9.1 K/9 last season) and Sam LeCure (2.66 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 9.7 K/9) in middle relief, could have a slight edge. The Reds don't get the top spot because of some injury concerns -- Johnny Cueto had three trips to the DL last season and Mat Latos is coming off elbow (bone chips) and knee surgeries.

Four Excellent Staffs

Detroit Tigers
Pittsburgh Pirates
Tampa Bay Rays
Atlanta Braves

The Tigers have arguably the scariest 1-2 punch (Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer) in baseball at the top of their rotation, but their season may rest on Rick Porcello (an extreme groundballer who got a huge infield defensive upgrade behind him this offseason) and Drew Smyly (who will transition into the rotation after a 2.37 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and 9.6 K/9 in a relief role last season). If Porcello and Smyly click, this could be an elite rotation. But Verlander's 2013 velocity issues and offseason surgery hold them back just a little bit. ... The Pirates finished third in staff ERA last year, and will get a full season out of Gerrit Cole, Wandy Rodriguez, and the quietly effective Charlie Morton (3.26 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in 20 starts last year). If pitching coach Ray Searage can do with Edinson Volquez what he did last year with Francisco Liriano, the Pirates could finish top five in ERA again. ... The Rays ended up keeping David Price this offseason, giving the rotation a huge 2014 boost. Alex Cobb is near-elite and could make the jump this season, while Matt Moore looks to bounce back and Chris Archer should build on his 3.22 ERA and 1.13 WHIP from last season. ... The Braves are the defending ERA champs, but the recent spate of spring injuries is cause for concern. This is a rotation that could feature Freddy Garcia and David Hale instead of Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy for stretches. Alex Wood -- who had a 3.13 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 77 2/3 innings last season -- is a tremendous sleeper in this rotation. He could be Medlen 2.0. Julio Teheran, Ervin Santana and Mike Minor should be able to carry this staff.

Four Very Good Staffs

Washington Nationals
New York Yankees
Oakland Athletics
Los Angeles Dodgers

The Nationals added Doug Fister to the rotation in a December trade with the Tigers. He has a career 1.21 WHIP, and he hasn't finished a season with an ERA above 3.70 since 2010. Stephen Strasburg could get to elite status this season, while Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann aren't too far behind. The team lacks a stud in the No. 5 spot, but Tanner Roark could surprise. ... The Yankees added Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka to the rotation, and Michael Pineda should have a solid season coming off shoulder surgery. But the fortunes of the staff may rest on CC Sabathia, whose ugly 2013 raised a good amount of red flags. ... With Bartolo Colon gone, the A's are losing about 200 innings of low ERA (2.65 last season) and WHIP (1.17), but they've proven several times that it's foolish to count them out. Scott Kazmir needs to keep his renaissance momentum going, while Dan Straily remains a high-upside wild card -- the 25-year-old was all over the place in 2013, with four months of 4.40-plus ERA and two of 3.07 or lower. His K/9 decrease also hurts his value, but Straily did look magnificent in September, with a 2.10 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. Injuries to A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker kill the buzz a little, but Drew Pomeranz could sneak into the rotation and end up being a major sleeper. ... There's not much to not like about Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-jin Ryu as the top three in the Dodgers rotation. But the final two pieces -- Dan Haren and Josh Beckett -- are the keys to this staff either being one of the best in the game or a borderline disaster. Haren has battled back issues in the past, but had a 3.29 ERA and 1.05 WHIP from July 2013 forward, striking out 84 batters in 87 2/3 innings. And while Beckett missed most of 2013 with surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome, he's the owner of a career 3.94 ERA and 1.24 WHIP, with most of that ERA damage coming as a member of the Red Sox rotation, in the AL East, pitching in a very hitter-friendly environment.

Three Staffs That May Surprise

Miami Marlins
New York Mets
Seattle Mariners

Laugh all you want at the Marlins and Mets, but they have some young, intriguing talent on the rosters. Nate Eovaldi doesn't get the sexy strikeout numbers, but his 94.1 mph average fastball last season was seventh-highest in the majors (among pitchers with 100-plus innings pitched). Jose Fernandez is a stud, while Jacob Turner produced a 3.74 ERA in 2013 and Henderson Alvarez sported a 3.59. Their average age? 22 1/2. And that's with electric prospect (and 22-year-old) Andrew Heaney on the way. ... The Mets added the ageless Bartolo Colon in an offseason signing, and he will anchor a staff that includes the underrated Dillon Gee (3.62 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in 32 starts last season) and the good-when-he's-not-hurt Jonathon Niese. Zack Wheeler could be Shelby Miller 2.0 this season, and Daisuke Matsuzaka finished 2013 with a heaping dose of hope -- a 1.37 ERA in his final four games. If Matsuzaka can park his ERA in the 3.50 area, the Mets could have a better-than-average staff. ... The Mariners have an ace in Felix Hernandez, a stud in Hisashi Iwakuma (who should be back to form by May), and a future stud in Taijuan Walker (who needs to quickly get past his spring shoulder issues). The forgotten man here is James Paxton, another young hurler who had a 1.50 ERA and 0.92 WHIP over four starts last season. Paxton was a bit erratic over a four-year minor league career, but he was a top prospect in 2012 and 2013 and can carry a low ERA with decent strikeout rates. The larger confines of Safeco should be a welcome change from the hitter-friendly PCL, where Paxton produced a 4.45 ERA over 28 appearances last year.

Five Solid Options

Boston Red Sox
Los Angeles Angels
Arizona Diamondbacks
Texas Ranger
San Francisco Giants
Milwaukee Brewers

John Lackey repeating his 2013 season seems somewhat unlikely, while Felix Doubront has a good amount of risk paired with his upside. ... The Angels have some really intriguing parts in the rotation. Jered Weaver is great, C.J. Wilson turned around his 2013 (after having bone chips removed in the offseason), Hector Santiago has a 3.30 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning as a starter (over 150 innings) and is moving to a friendlier home park, and while Tyler Skaggs' 5.43 ERA in a handful of major league innings leaves much to be desired, he was twice pegged as a top 15 prospect by Baseball America, carrying a 3.34 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 9.8 K/9 over 498 2/3 minor league innings. ... The Diamondbacks have successfully cornered the market on relatively low-strikeout, boring starters who probably won't wow you with ratios, but should be able to compile one of the better rotation ERAs in the majors. The key here is a bounceback from Brandon McCarthy, who struggled early in the season, but had a 3.27 ERA over his final five starts. ... The Rangers have one of the best pitchers in the majors in Yu Darvish, and an underrated asset in Alexi Ogando (3.12 career ERA and 1.14 WHIP), but the most interesting project would be Robbie Ross. The lefty has been great out of the bullpen the last two years, but excelled as a starter in the minors (2.88 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over 381 2/3 innings). Ross is a longshot to make the rotation, but if he snags that No. 5 spot, he could be a great AL-only sleeper candidate. ... The Giants' fortunes may rely on Tim Lincecum, who has been one of the biggest Fantasy mysteries over the last two seasons. The 29-year-old went from two Cy Young Awards to a 4.76 ERA and 1.39 WHIP over the past two seasons. The good news is that his strikeout rate was still a robust 9.0 K/9 in that two-year stretch. The bad news is that it's decreased every year since 2008. ... The Brewers added a jolt to the staff with the signing of Matt Garza this offseason, but both he and Yovani Gallardo are similarly risky, with injuries (Garza) and a decrease in velocity (Gallardo) hindering their prospects for full, solid campaigns.

Three Rotations That May Not Be As Bad As You Think

Colorado Rockies
San Diego Padres
Kansas City Royals

You're not going to find Fantasy gold on the Rockies, but this isn't the same terrible pitching staff of old. Jorge De La Rosa (16 wins, 3.49 ERA), Jhoulys Chacin (14 wins, 3.47 ERA), and Tyler Chatwood (eight wins in 20 starts, 3.15 ERA) all posted sub-3.50 ERAs last season. Throw in the potential of Brett Anderson and the (likely) mid-season arrivals of prospects Eddie Butler and Jon Gray, and this staff actually has a shot at five starters in August all sporting ERAs below 3.50... The Padres have one of baseball's hardest throwers in Andrew Cashner; he's going to be joined at the top of the rotation with two reclamation projects -- Ian Kennedy and Josh Johnson. Kennedy has been pretty erratic throughout his career, but was very good in 2011 (21 wins, 2.88 ERA, 1.09 WHIP). Johnson has Cy Young-caliber stuff, but needs to stay healthy. If they can click, this could be a scary rotation in a spacious home park. ... The Royals have James Shields up top and Yordano Ventura at the back end. Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie aren't going to strike out a lot of batters, but they will flirt with 200 innings and produce a sub-4.00 ERA.

Four That Need Things To Break The Right Way

Baltimore Orioles
Toronto Blue Jays
Philadelphia Phillies
Chicago White Sox

Here's what each team needs to happen for them to outperform expectations:

Baltimore: Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman have to fulfill their potential, and Ubaldo Jimenez needs to replicate 2013 (3.30 ERA, 9.6 K/9) and not fall back into 2011-12 form (5.03 ERA, 8.0 K/9 over 365 innings).

Toronto: Brandon Morrow needs to stay healthy, R.A. Dickey needs to prove that 2013 was an injury-riddled fluke, and Drew Hutchison has to capitalize on potential. Bonus points if Ricky Romero (1.29 ERA and 1.14 WHIP over seven spring innings) and his seemingly-cured knees can get back to his pre-2012 form.
Philadelphia: Cole Hamels needs to avoid complications from the shoulder issues, A.J. Burnett hopefully remembers all the good advice Ray Searage gave him, and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez needs to deliver on the hype.
Chicago White Sox: Erik Johnson needs to produce Hector Santiago's numbers over a full season -- although there's a decent chance he can improve on them (2.21 ERA and 1.08 WHIP over three seasons in the minors). Chris Sale is elite and Jose Quintana is underrated. They need Felipe Paulino to hit the ground running and claim that fifth spot in the rotation, picking up momentum from his start to 2012 (1.67 ERA, 39 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings).

The Bottom Four

Minnesota Twins
Cleveland Indians
Houston Astros
Chicago Cubs

The Twins may crawl out of this group if Alex Meyer and Kyle Gibson show up halfway through the year (or earlier). And they do have a staff with a lot of talent (Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco, and Vance Worley have all posted solid seasons, while Mike Pelfrey was a top prospect and Kevin Correia has been good for stretches in the past). ... The Indians have tons of potential in Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber, but there's also a large amount of injury and regression risk. This is a rotation that could finish in the bottom 10 or top 10, but probably nowhere in between. ... The Astros have an interesting staff. Scott Feldman had a career year in 2013, and Jerome Williams has the potential for a decent ERA and WHIP. If Brad Peacock can get into the rotation and deliver on his promise, things could be looking up. For now, though, the Astros don't look to have a ton of Fantasy upside heading into the season. ... The Cubs do have potential -- Jeff Samardzija had a 2.85 ERA and seven games with seven or more strikeouts at the start of June last season, before slumping the rest of the way out. But the rest of the pitchers -- while they won't be disasters -- don't have the kind of upside needed to carry the Cubs out of the bottom spot heading into 2014.

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Miller maintained his perfect 0.00 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings of work.

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