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: 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: 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: 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: For a pitcher with seven years of experience in the majors, Bailey is awfully young (he's 27). Take that fact to heart, as it's easy to put a cap on a player's expectations after that many seasons, but in his case, he has shown many signs of growth over the years. To wit: Bailey's strikeout-to-walk ratio has improved in every one of his big-league years, his ground-ball rate has risen in each of the past two, and his swing-and-miss rate is on a five-year pattern of improvement. It's easy to forget that, at the time of his June 8, 2007, debut, he was considered a future staff ace. It took time, but Bailey has inched closer to it every year, and in 2014 he'll be playing for a new contract. He was a top-25 fantasy starter in 2013, and there's a chance he'll take another step forward in 2014.
2014 Outlook: Cain must have angered the "luck gods," because his 2013 looked like a case study for mean-regression analysis. After four consecutive seasons of elite fantasy numbers -- and two more of, at minimum, mixed-league meaningfulness -- Cain's statistics tumbled, his ERA rising to its highest since his rookie year of 2006. One number encapsulated his struggles: He afforded a home run on 10.8 percent of the fly balls he allowed, an increase of more than 3 percent and a change that can influence a pitcher's ERA by as much as a half-run. Everything else in Cain's statistical profile was close to the statistics of his six seasons prior, meaning that either regression finally caught up with him or he's capable of rebounding to his past form. That said, don't entirely blame luck: A forearm issue did cost him a brief DL stint, and his mechanics were occasionally off, so maybe there's more to the story. The smart move is to pick Cain assuming a mild rebound, anything more first requiring a sacrifice to Homerperflyeus, the Greek god of keeping fly balls in parks.
2014 Outlook: It's unfortunate that the concluding 2013 memory we have of Latos was his being scratched from his scheduled wild-card game start because of an elbow issue. After all, there's little reason to sweat it considering he had October surgery to remove bone chips from the elbow, and his second-half stats showed no signs of injury limitation: He had nine quality starts, a 2.68 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 13 starts. These could place Latos in the bargain-candidate bin rather than where he belongs, as a viable member of the SP2 class in mixed leagues. Latos' numbers haven't suffered at all as a result of calling Great American Ball Park his home -- he has a 3.00 ERA at home and 3.67 on the road in his two years for the Cincinnati Reds -- and he's coming off a year in which he set a career low with a 6.6 percent walk rate. He still has room for improvement. Stephania Bell: Latos had October arthroscopic elbow surgery to remove bone debris and was throwing in Arizona, until he slipped and injured his knee. After meniscus surgery, his timetable is unclear but expect a minor delay. Addendum (3/16): Latos has now logged several bullpens and a live BP without incident. He is tentatively set to appear in his first spring training game March 19.
2014 Outlook: After a breakthrough 2012 campaign that saw him finish third in the National League Cy Young balloting, Gonzalez took a step backward statistically in 2013; not merely his 10-win drop, but also in most all of his ratio departments. Some of that was natural regression, but in his defense, some was merely the product of a poor April (5.34 ERA), as he managed 19 quality starts, a 2.97 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 26 starts from May 1 onward. On a playoff-hopeful Nationals team, Gonzalez has a legitimate chance at again approaching 20 wins with a sub-3.00 ERA, but fantasy owners must understand that his elevated walk rate, resulting in a WHIP higher than most elite starters, keeps him out of that class. There's bounce-back potential in the left-hander, but he's more second or third option on a mixed-league staff than a true "ace."
2014 Outlook: Zimmermann continues to outperform his peripherals thanks to his polished control and ability to pitch effectively deep into games: Over the past three seasons, his 4.9 percent walk rate ranked 11th (minimum 300 innings) and his 67.8 quality-start percentage 13th (minimum 50 starts), and this despite his 3.35 FIP during that time, placing only 20th. Zimmermann faces one significant fantasy obstacle: He doesn't miss bats at an elite rate, failing to strike out 20 percent of the hitters he has faced in any of those three seasons. He is therefore reliant upon his defense, as well as good fortune on balls in play. It's those traits that keep him just outside the upper tiers of fantasy starters, though he's as reliable as they come beyond that group.
2014 Outlook: Just because his St. Louis Cardinals largely ignored Miller during last year's playoffs doesn't mean you should follow suit at the draft table this season. He enjoyed a productive rookie campaign, with his 2.92 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 26.4 percent strikeout rate in 18 first-half starts illustrating his immense statistical ceiling; most of the reason for his invisibility in October was his team's conservative approach to his workload. After 173 1/3 innings in 2013, Miller shouldn't have as many restrictions this year, and if he can continue polishing his cutter and changeup to add to his already sound fastball and curveball, he might be able to extend last year's first-half dominance over six months. That potential is the reason he's worth making one of your first three starters in a mixed league, and a potential No. 2 in NL-only leagues.
2014 Outlook: The Washington Nationals might have scored themselves a coup with their December trade for Fister; they picked up arguably baseball's second-best control artist (behind Cliff Lee) at the price of two prospects and a bench bat. Since the date of Fister's first major league start (Aug. 11, 2009), he has the majors' fourth-best walk rate (4.8 percent) and walks-per-nine ratio (1.81), as well as the highest swing rate on non-strikes (38.4 percent) and the second-best called-strike rate (38.4 percent), behind only Lee. Fister has an arsenal that consists of both precision and deception, things that should play nicely in the more pitching-oriented National League. He might enjoy improved ratios on his new team at no expense to his win total, and he'll have a better defense behind him than the one that backed him in Detroit. There aren't many more stable investments in the SP3 class.
2014 Outlook: While anyone who drafts Cole this season is speculating upon his immense statistical upside, scouts' longtime reports justify the decision: He was the No. 1 pick overall in the 2011 amateur draft and earned No. 3 (2012) and No. 2 (2013) rankings among pitchers in Keith Law's annual prospect rankings. Cole's combination of high-90s fastball and nasty slider are rarely matched in the professional ranks, and he concluded his 2013 debut season in the majors with a 2.31 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in his final nine starts. He also tallied 196 1/3 innings in 2013 (including minors and postseason), hinting that he won't face any workload limitation this season, meaning his potential is already immense. Extensive experience at this level is the one thing Cole lacks; if you're comfortable with spending a top-30 starter pick on the right-hander -- granted an expensive price tag for a pitcher with his short track record -- you might land yourself a potential top-10 performer.