2014 Outlook: The first three-time defending major-league ERA leader in 18 years (Greg Maddux, 1993-95), and one of only two to do it in three consecutive non-strike-shortened seasons (Lefty Grove, 1929-31, was the other), Kershaw is at the top of his -- and the top of the -- game. He led all major-league pitchers in traditional Rotisserie (1.83 ERA, 0.92 WHIP), modern (.521 OPS allowed, 27 quality starts) and sabermetric statistics (.232 wOBA allowed, 7.9 Wins Above Replacement, 2.00 FIP) in 2013, and in yet another personal feat that showed how much he has grown in terms of pitch economy, he set career bests in innings per start (7.18) and pitches per batter faced (3.77). Kershaw's profile is practically flawless, hence his massive payday in January, and he's in prime position to repeat his status as fantasy's No.1 pitcher, regardless of format.
2014 Outlook: And there we go. One year after posting the fewest wins (6) of any pitcher in baseball history who had a sub-4 ERA and greater than 160 strikeouts in the given season, Lee's win total swelled to 14, despite skills that were practically spot-on to those in any of his preceding five seasons. His FIP patterns, working forward from 2008, illustrate this: 2.83, 3.11, 2.58, 2.60, 3.13, 2.82. Lee does this with the most precise command in baseball, his 1.33 walks-per-nine ratio and 3.7 percent walk rate since 2008 both best in the majors, that year coinciding with the addition of a two-seam fastball to his arsenal. Despite his 35 years of age, he's as consistent as anyone in the game, even in years his win total suffers. Make Lee one of the first 10 pitchers off your board, and arguably the first five in leagues that use quality starts instead of wins.
2014 Outlook: Wainwright's recovery from Tommy John surgery has been effectively seamless: He finished second in the National League Cy Young balloting, and second among starting pitchers, on our Player Rater in 2010; he went under the knife on Feb. 28, 2011; and in his second full season back he finished second again in the NL Cy Young balloting, third among starters on our Player Rater, in 2013. What's more, while his 2010 and 2013 numbers -- even the underlying ones -- looked practically identical, since his surgery he has polished both his four-seamer and cutter, to the point he now has five reliable pitches from which to draw. There's nothing in Wainwright's recent profile to suggest he's anything but the ace-caliber fantasy starter we witnessed in 2013.
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: When it comes to Strasburg, are you an optimist or pessimist? The optimist could point to his seventh-ranked 26.1 percent strikeout rate or eighth-ranked 1.05 WHIP and claim the right-hander again showed he's one of the best in the game at his craft at the mere age of 25. The pessimist could state that Strasburg's No. 17 Player Rater ranking among pure starters represented a disappointing season comparative to draft-day expectations; he was the No. 17 player (and No. 3 pitcher) off the board going by preseason ADP. Optimists should win this one. Strasburg still averaged 95.3 mph with his fastball, only a small decline in velocity, and it was revealed after the season that he had pitched some of the season in pain, resulting in October surgery to remove bone chips. We might see a better Strasburg in 2014, and any innings limitation should be out the window after he threw 183 frames in 2013. He could mount a challenge at the No. 1 pitching spot in any fantasy league, but, at worst, he looks like a top-10 option in any format.
Stephania Bell: Strasburg underwent arthroscopic surgery in October to remove debris from his elbow, which may have been responsible for his forearm tightness during the season. He is expected to participate in a normal spring training.
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: The 2014 season will represent Bumgarner's fifth as a full-time big leaguer, and in each of his previous seasons he has improved his WHIP, culminating in a 2013 in which he also set personal bests in terms of ERA (2.77), strikeout rate (24.8 percent), total K's (199) and quality start percentage (71.0). Considering his three-year track record of consistent success, it's sometimes difficult to digest the fact he's still only 24 years old. These facts put Bumgarner in the upper tier of fantasy starters, with only a few questions holding him back from a higher rank: One, his win potential on the San Francisco Giants working slightly against him in traditional rotisserie scoring. Two, a heavy reliance upon an arm-taxing slider, as he is one of only four pitchers to have thrown the pitch more than 30 percent of the time in each of the past three seasons. Three, he posted a career-high walk rate in 2013 (7.7 percent). We admit, however, that we're picking nits, but when it comes to top-shelf starters, nits must sometimes be picked.
2014 Outlook: One of the precious few "trustworthy closers," Kimbrel's numbers stack up favorably among history's young finishers: His 1.39 ERA and 43.2 percent strikeout rate were both best all-time among any pitcher through his age-25 season (minimum 200 innings), and his 139 career saves at the time of his 25th birthday ranked second all-time (Francisco Rodriguez, 146). Take that to heart, if you're among the rare critics of Kimbrel's 2013 strikeout-rate drop; his 38.0 percent number, a decline of a little more than 12 percent, was still the 20th-best in any year all-time (minimum 50 innings). In other words, his skills remain excellent, his workload has been managed much more conservatively the past two seasons than in 2011, diminishing any health risk, and his Nos. 30 (2011), 10 (2012) and 14 (2013) Player Rater rankings overall support his candidacy for top-50 draft status even in shallow mixed leagues. Do you pay for saves? This is one of the rare closers worth the hefty price.
2014 Outlook: Fernandez's 2013 was one of the most unexpected, yet successful, rookie campaigns in baseball history. Undrafted in practically every fantasy league because of his young age and likelihood of a full season in the minors, Fernandez was a surprise inclusion on the Miami Marlins' Opening Day roster, despite his making only one Grapefruit League appearance. From there, he continued to defy the odds: Among rookies since World War I, his 6.3 Wins Above Replacement ranked ninth, his 2.19 ERA ranked fifth and his 0.98 WHIP ranked seventh. What's more, he seemed to only improve as the season progressed, managing 12 quality starts in 13 games from July 1 forward, with eight wins, a 1.43 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and .159 batting average allowed. Fernandez is now one of the most tantalizing picks in fantasy baseball, but our rank provides you some caution (caution that has no place in a dynasty league, that is): His peripheral numbers show that some regression is in order, his pitch efficiency numbers would be difficult to repeat, perhaps capping his innings total at beneath 200, and as a member of the Miami Marlins, his workload might again be conservative (after all, they're not a contender) and he'll struggle in the win column in leagues where that counts. We love the guy, but we'd be amiss if we didn't itemize the risks.
2014 Outlook: It's a legitimate point to make that Greinke has finally found confines that maximize his skill set: His annual FIPs, working forward from 2009, have gone 2.33, 3.34, 2.98, 3.10 and 3.23, which suggest a far more consistent pitcher than a traditional rotisserie owner might believe. Considering that he spent some of that time in the American League, and some in hitter-friendly Miller Park, Greinke warrants some benefit of the doubt. He thrived at Dodger Stadium last year -- he had a 2.11 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in 14 starts there -- and the sum of his past five seasons results in a 3.24 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 66.7 quality start percentage and an annual average of 194 K's, numbers that would place him at or near the upper tier at his position. Long a sabermetric darling, Greinke might be one of the most attractive values in the SP2 class.
2014 Outlook: Craig Kimbrel might get the press -- he's the one who has held a closer's job for a longer period of time -- but Jansen has skills that place him right up there with the Atlanta Braves' finisher. Like Kimbrel, Jansen possesses three of the 20 best single-season strikeout rates in history (minimum 50 innings), finishing fourth in 2011 (44.0 percent), 12th in 2012 (39.3) and 18th in 2013 (38.0). Frankly, if the Los Angeles Dodgers didn't keep signing lesser-skilled relievers with "closer experience" -- from Brandon League to Brian Wilson to Chris Perez -- Jansen would probably have more faith from fantasy owners. Still, despite the seemingly endless list of closer contenders, Jansen is actually one of the safest save-getters in the game, and following an October 2012 heart surgery, he suffered zero injury setbacks in 2013 to diminish any such future worry. There is a four-man tier of "elite fantasy closers" -- three of whom hail from the National League -- and Jansen belongs squarely in that group.
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.