2014 Outlook: Few pitchers boast Darvish's diversity of arsenal: He throws as many as eight different pitches, only his fastballs (two- and four-seamers) registering beneath major-league-average statistical performance, and yet those fastballs generated 65 of his 277 K's and limited opponents to a .223 batting average in 2013. Darvish is one tough cookie for opposing hitters to pick up, particularly his curveball and slider, and the total package has resulted in a strikeout rate that has risen in every one of his four half-seasons in the U.S. (pre- and post-All-Star break, 2012-13). There is no better bet to lead all of baseball in strikeouts, a skill that will drive his value in practically every fantasy format, and he has shown nothing but increasing mastery of the U.S. game as he approaches his prime years. Make Darvish one of the first pitchers off your draft board.
Stephania Bell: Darvish dealt with a nerve issue in his lower back late last season, even receiving an injection in October. The Rangers say he was pain-free by November and expected a normal offseason, but back problems can be recurrent.
Addendum (March 26): Forget the low back; Darvish's neck has been the source of his spring woes. Stiffness led to a visit with spine specialist Dr. Drew Dossett. No structural damage was reported and Darvish can resume throwing on March 29 but he has been scratched from his Opening Day start. He may not miss much time but the bigger concern is the proximity of this episode to the lower back episode from last year, especially in a high volume thrower.
2014 Outlook: Hernandez absorbed some criticism early last season for a dip in fastball velocity, but come year's end he had the same old, consistent numbers he always has had, and he set new career highs in terms of strikeout rate (26.3 percent of batters faced) and K's per nine innings ratio (9.51). The reason is that he is a pitcher who relies more upon command and keeping hitters off balance, and keeping the ball on the ground as evidenced by his 51.9 ground-ball rate the past four seasons combined, rather than sheer velocity. Hernandez is as consistent as they come; both his 124 quality starts and 75.2 quality-start percentage lead all major leaguers the past five seasons combined. That is his strength, but his difficulty winning games is an unfortunate factor in traditional Rotisserie leagues. If not for that, he'd make a compelling case to be the second starting pitcher off the board. It's your call: how much do those wins matter to you?
2014 Outlook: The American League's reigning Cy Young award winner, Scherzer wasn't mere traditionalist's choice; in addition to his 21 wins he was a standout in many sabermetric/next-level departments: He finished seventh in the majors in FIP (2.74), second in strikeout rate (28.7 percent), third in swing-and-miss rate (27.9 percent), third in WHIP (0.97) and fifth in weighted on-base average allowed (.257). This transformation, which began approximately the midway point of 2012, was a product of both increased fastball velocity and reliance plus effectiveness of a curveball, which he used particularly to neutralize left-handed hitters. Scherzer is now a four-pitch pitcher with command that ranks among the game's elite, and he's playing for a new deal in 2015. Even if the 21 wins aren't repeated -- experienced owners know how fluky that department -- he could easily repeat as one of the 10 best pitchers in fantasy.
2014 Outlook: After scoring a 2012 Cy Young, Price took a step backwards in overall production in 2013, winning half as many games with an ERA three-quarters of a run higher. A casual glance at his overall stat line, however, does his skills a disservice: He struggled early before requiring a 44-day DL stint for a strained left triceps, but upon his return, he managed a 2.53 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in 18 starts, numbers eerily similar to those of 2012. During that hot finish, the primary change was to Price's strikeout rate, which was 20.3 percent (compared to 24.5 percent in 2012), mostly the product of his growing more reliant upon his weak contact-inducing cutter. Any criticism of him, therefore, should hinge upon the injury question, not his skills. Price could easily return to 2012 form, minus approximately 25 K's, but that's still a top-10 fantasy starter.
2014 Outlook: Sale continues to defy the naysayers, who might claim his herky-jerky delivery increases his long-term injury risk or that the elbow issue that haunted him early in 2012 might eventually return. But after two seasons as a top-shelf fantasy starter -- he finished 13th among starters on our Player Rater in 2012 and 11th in 2013 -- Sale has earned our confidence. He has shown no change in velocity, fastball or slider effectiveness, or hints of overusage in two seasons as a full-time starter. Sale has elevated his game to that of an elite fantasy starter, particularly attractive in sabermetric/quality start-oriented leagues, which don't rely on wins (a problem for a pitcher backed by a weak offense such as the Chicago White Sox's).
2014 Outlook: After a four-year span (2009-12) as arguably fantasy baseball's most consistently productive starting pitcher -- he finished ninth (2009), 10th (2010), first (2011) and second (2012) at the position on our Player Rater -- Verlander endured a tumultuous past calendar year. His velocity was down for much of the early stages of 2013, his statistics suffering for it, and his critics asked whether the 180 starts, 1,243⅔ innings or 20,264 pitches thrown from 2009-12 (playoffs included) -- all major league highs -- might have come back to haunt him. Verlander rebounded late in the season, however, culminating in an October during which he had a 0.39 ERA in his three playoff starts while regaining some of that lost velocity. But he then succumbed to core-muscle repair surgery in January, again casting his 2014 value into doubt. All indications are that Verlander should be ready by Opening Day, if not shortly thereafter, but his spring progress is critical to determining the extent of his bounce-back potential. Stephania Bell: Verlander underwent core muscle repair surgery in January and a month later is throwing off a mound without issue. He continued his strong spring and has been named the Opening Day starter for the Tigers.
2014 Outlook: Overshadowed by Max Scherzer on his own team and largely overlooked in the American League Cy Young balloting (he finished fourth), Sanchez nevertheless enjoyed one of the most underrated 2013 campaigns of anyone. He led the American League in ERA (2.57), had the third-best strikeout rate (27.1 percent) and made a remarkable comeback from a shoulder issue that cost him a 10-day absence, as well as a 20-day DL stint midseason, to post a 2.42 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in his final 16 starts. Sanchez, who has both an elbow and a shoulder surgery on his pro resume, actually improved his velocity following his absence, quashing questions about his long-term health. He continues to make small gains in skills each season and again will be backed by one of the game's most productive lineups, meaning his career-best 14 wins of 2013 is repeatable. Sanchez might not seem a top-shelf fantasy starter by reputation, but the numbers support his candidacy.
2014 Outlook: For three straight seasons now, Shields has been one of the most consistently reliable pitchers in baseball, and in leagues that award for quality starts rather than wins, he's extremely underrated. To that point, he tied for the major league lead in quality starts in 2013 (27), and his 72 quality starts from 2011-13 combined ranked third behind only Clayton Kershaw (77) and Justin Verlander (75). Shields also thrived in an outdoor environment for the first time in his career last season in Kansas City; he had a 3.27 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 32 starts outdoors. (That said, he dominated in his two starts indoors, again supporting his cause as a must-start in dome/retractable roof games.) While Royals pitchers rarely capture fantasy owners' attention, Shields shouldn't be overlooked because of his team's recent history. He's as reliable as they come outside the Cy Young-caliber tiers.
2014 Outlook: Weaver is a rotisserie king despite less-than-stellar peripherals. In the past three seasons combined, he has the fourth-most wins (49), fourth-best ERA (2.77) and second-best WHIP (1.05). Conversely, his FIP ranks 30th (3.54), strikeout rate ranks 54th (19.9 percent) and K/BB ratio ranks 33rd (3.31) during that same time span. Keep these in mind depending upon your league's scoring, as this is a pitcher who belongs among the elite in traditional rotisserie, but who might be vastly overrated in more sabermetric scoring formats. Weaver's three-year pattern of declining strikeout rates also hints at a possible step backward even in the former, and he has a wide home/road split -- 2.24 ERA at home, 3.29 on the road -- from 2011-13, which makes him worth examination on a matchup-by-matchup basis. He's well worth your pick, but heed our cautionary notes.
2014 Outlook: The winter's most-analyzed foreign import, Tanaka arrives in the Big Apple to face the pressures of pitching in the offensively-minded American League East in one of the game's most homer-friendly venues, Yankee Stadium. He is, however, plenty up to the task. Tanaka's arsenal compares favorably to fellow splitter-throwers Dan Haren and Hisashi Iwakuma -- he should enjoy a healthy ground ball rate that counters some of the ballpark effects -- and he'll be backed by a productive offense that maximizes his win potential. Though we cannot possibly know how smooth a transition he'll make in the States until we see him in action, Tanaka has good odds of mounting a run at the top-20 starters in mixed leagues, and he has both the control and swing-and-miss stuff to be a reliable pick in sabermetrically oriented leagues, too. If there's any doubt about him, it's the massive amount of work put on his arm in Japan -- Felix Hernandez is the only active major leaguer who had thrown more professional innings in his career at the age Tanaka is now -- but that's more of a concern for dynasty-league owners than those in redraft formats.
2014 Outlook: Cobb's 2013 wasn't a mere breakout story; his included a heartwarming tale of recovery, as he made a flawless comeback from a concussion suffered when he was struck in the ear by a line drive in June. Before that incident, he had a 3.01 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 69.2 quality start percentage; he had 2.41/1.14/55.6 numbers following his return. Cobb gets it done with one of the prettiest changeups in baseball, one he threw a major league-high 32.8 percent of the time: Opponents batted .210/.265/.306 against it, and it produced 189 outs, fifth-most by any pitcher on changeups alone. It helps him induce countless ground balls, keeps his lefty/righty splits balanced, and makes him one of the safest mid-range investments among starting pitchers.
2014 Outlook: Two seasons of success in the U.S. -- consistent, start-over-start success -- should be enough to convince any fantasy owner that Iwakuma is an upper-tier fantasy starter. Thanks to elite control and a filthy splitter, he has posted a 2.66 ERA and 1.07 WHIP since joining the Seattle Mariners' rotation in July 2012, defying all those "luck factors" that fantasy owners use to critique. Those underlying stats do hint at potential regression, as he had the fourth-lowest BABIP (.253) and second-highest left on base percentage (81.9) among qualifiers last season, but even if his ERA/WHIP take a mild hit, Iwakuma's win total could swell on what's a better overall Mariners team, countering it. Once the elite pitchers are off the board, he's as good a pick as any. Stephania Bell: Iwakuma is dealing with a strained tendon that will push his throwing program back by more than a month. He'll likely open the season on the DL but, if all goes well, he could return sometime in April.
Addendum (3/12): Once doctors made the decision for Iwakuma to remain in a splint a few weeks longer, it became clear he would start the season on the DL as he'll need additional time to build up his arm strength. While there’s no set timetable, fantasy owners shouldn't count on him before the middle of April at the earliest.
2014 Outlook: Despite sporting a sparkling 17-4 record, last season was a step backwards for Moore as his strikeout and walk rates both worsened a smidge. His 4.32 xFIP is a much better indication of his season than his actual 3.29 ERA. Good luck with batted balls in play, as well as a high LOB percentage, masked the skills decline. Still just 24, there is time for the southpaw to realize the promise he displayed coming up through the minors. The key will be improving his control while maintaining a strikeout rate of nearly a batter per inning. Can Moore do it? Absolutely, but with the present state of quality pitching, there's no reason to overpay on the hopes he does. Stephania Bell: Just days after Aroldis Chapman's scary incident, Moore took a comebacker to the face in a March 23 spring outing. He was fortunate to escape with stitches to close a lacerated lip, although he is expected to undergo X-rays on March 24 to check his jaw and teeth, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Depending on the results, he could potentially still start the season on time.
2014 Outlook: On the surface, Samardzija's 2013 numbers look like a step backward. But keep this in mind: He has made tremendous strides in terms of his stamina, culminating in a career-high 213 2/3 innings last year, which represented a 39-inning increase, and his 2013 was effectively marred by a 5.47 ERA from July 1 forward that belied his skill set. Samardzija maintained a similar strikeout, swing-and-miss and walk rates during that span to the same time period in 2012 and the first three months of 2013, and his BABIP from July 1 forward was a bloated .333. He was one of the more attractive MLB trade candidates of the winter and might remain so during the year; what's important to know about this trade possibility is that he has a much higher career ERA in day games (5.05) than night (3.41), and he'd surely garner many more night assignments on any other team. Samardzija's rank might appear generous, but we still see positive things in his immediate future.
2014 Outlook: Predictably, Dickey's numbers regressed upon the move to the hitting-rich, competitive American League East last season, though the needle might have moved too far in terms of his future analysis. As a member of Team USA's World Baseball Classic entry, Dickey's year was a lengthy one, and back and neck issues dogged him for much of the season's early weeks, resulting in a key skills change: He was unable to recapture the velocity on his knuckleball, which had earned him a Cy Young Award the year before. But in June, the velocity suddenly returned. Dickey's hard knuckler, termed "The Thing," helped him to six wins, eight quality starts, a 3.56 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 14 second-half starts, numbers which were much closer to our preseason expectations for him in Toronto. Those are his ratios to project forward, though as with any knuckleballer, some start-to-start variance should be expected. If Dickey's pitch is dancing at similar speed during spring training, there's every reason to predict a rebound.