2015 Outlook: Despite missing a month of the season, Kershaw managed to win 21 games in 27 starts while posting career-best ratios, good enough to win both the NL Cy Young and MVP. What can he do for an encore? The biggest concern about the lefty is that he's had rough starts in the playoffs against the Cardinals two years in a row. But even then, most of the damage against him came late in the game, including the critical homer by Matt Adams in the Game 4 elimination, with Kershaw was pitching on short rest. Perhaps you're worried about investing a pick this early on a pitcher, but this is where his stats suggests he ranks, and in today's low-scoring environment, it's less risky to invest that early pick on Kershaw.
2015 Outlook: Hernandez produced a 99th-percentile 2014 season in every category but wins, as he received only average run support. While he was a little lucky on batted balls (.269 BABIP), he was superb in nearly every other indicator. His strikeout percentage improved again from 26.3 percent to 27.2, his GB/FB ratio increased and his walk rate declined. After a steady decline in his average fastball velocity in previous years, King Felix actually threw a little harder in 2014, quelling fears he was starting to break down physically. There's nothing pointing to a collapse from elite levels for the 10-year veteran.
2015 Outlook: Scherzer followed his 2013 Cy Young year with another solid campaign in 2014, falling just short of some of his peers in the elite tier of starters. He did this despite seeing contract negotiations with the Tigers break down in a very public manner at the start of the season, with the Tigers disclosing the offer that his camp turned down. Much of Scherzer's improvement the past two seasons can be owed to keeping the ball in the park better despite not being a significant ground ball pitcher. Now that he has signed a big contract with the Nationals, he could realistically rack up 275 strikeouts thanks to all the times he will face the light-hitting NL East.
2015 Outlook: The 2014 season was a tough one for an AL pitcher to try to win the Cy Young Award, given the amazing performances of Corey Kluber and Felix Hernandez. But in many other years, Sale would have been an outstanding candidate. He posted excellent ratios (2.17 ERA, 0.97 WHIP), struck out batters at the highest rate of his career as a starter (10.76 K/9) and allowed fewer homers (just 13 in 174 innings). But because he missed six starts with a flexor strain, he never had much of a chance. The White Sox invested in their offense and their bullpen this offseason, which should give Sale more opportunities to win games in 2015. Unfortunately Sale suffered a sprained ankle and an avulsion fracture in his right foot during camp, leaving his status for the start of the season in serious jeopardy. All signs point to him joining the rotation at some point in April, but he will not be ready for Opening Day, and there is a chance he could miss one or two more starts in the early going.
2015 Outlook: In 2014, the gloves finally truly came off for Strasburg, as he topped 200 innings for the first time. In a way, he's a victim of his own hype, as a 3.14 ERA and 1.12 WHIP to go along with 242 strikeouts are elite numbers. But given the way he came up and then made his major league debut, we tend to expect video-game numbers. Those still might come, by the way; he turns 27 this season and still has a mid-90s fastball and snappy curve. One of these years, everything is going to come together for a monster season, and you'll want to be there when it happens.
2015 Outlook: Bumgarner posted career-best totals in strikeouts, wins and walk rate in 2014, and that's before his remarkable postseason. He threw a whopping 53 innings in the playoffs, so he logged a total of 270 innings overall. Interestingly enough, Bumgarner was much better on the road (2.22 ERA, 0.98 WHIP) than at home (4.03 ERA, 1.24 WHIP) during the regular season, a beguiling stat for daily league players hoping to take advantage of an elite starter in a pitcher's park. It'll be interesting to see if the Giants encourage him to rely less on his wipeout slider to preserve his long-term health.
2015 Outlook: How much do you believe in Kluber's breakout 2014 season? Many analysts point to his conversion to using a four-seam fastball instead of a two-seamer as fueling this performance spike. He already had strong secondary offerings, so the heater was the final piece of the puzzle. Kluber ran a little lucky in terms of preventing home runs (7.4 percent HR/FB), but he also induces a lot of ground balls. Because he's such a late bloomer, Kluber hasn't accumulated nearly as many innings as others in the first tier of starting pitchers. That rubs both ways, though, as 2014 represented a big workload spike for him. Expect a little bit of regression, but nothing near a collapse.
2015 Outlook: Price pounds the strike zone more than nearly anyone else in baseball, walking less than four percent of the hitters he's faced the past two years. After a few health scares in 2013, Price stayed healthy in 2014 and saw a big spike in his strikeout rate, going from 20.4 percent to 26.9 percent. His overall results with the Tigers weren't quite as good as with the Rays, but he's still set to remain among the elite, and he'll likely have better defensive support if the Tigers can regain the services of Jose Iglesias at shortstop.
2015 Outlook: Clayton Kershaw was the only pitcher in baseball to return more value than Cueto in 5x5 rotisserie leagues last season. In his age-28 campaign, Cueto tossed 243⅔ innings and fanned 242, both tops in the NL, and finished second in the Senior Circuit (behind only Kershaw) in wins (20), ERA (2.25) and WHIP (0.96). Meanwhile, Cueto improved his strikeout rate by more than four percent (from 21.1 percent to 25.2 percent) and trimmed his walk rate to 6.8 percent. Perhaps the most important factor in terms of his 2015 outlook was his ability to stay on the mound, as his 2013 season was plagued by recurring lat issues -- he made three separate trips to the DL that year. The Reds' decision to exercise Cueto's $10 million option for 2015 was a no-brainer, but prospective owners, especially those in NL-only leagues, need to be aware of the very real possibility that Cueto could be moved prior to the deadline if Cincinnati falls out of it. Oddly enough, Cueto owns a 3.01 ERA and 1.10 WHIP at hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark for his career and a 3.51 ERA and 1.27 WHIP on the road.
2015 Outlook: Two years into his six-season deal with the Dodgers, Greinke has been everything the team hoped for. In 2014, he posted a career-best 4.81 K:BB ratio, fueled by a career-low 5.2 percent walk rate. Greinke has been especially strong at home since signing with the Dodgers, posting 2.11 and 2.55 ERAs in his two years in Los Angeles. He's back among the first-tier starters now after having been relegated to the second tier for the previous two seasons.
2015 Outlook: Did Lester have a contract-year surge, or was his big 2014 year a matter of all health issues resolving in his favor finally? If you look at his numbers prior to 2012 and 2013, you might conclude that the latter hypothesis is more likely to be true. From 2009 to 2011, he averaged at least 8.55 K/9 before seeing a significant drop the next two years -- looking at that, his 9.01 K/9 in 2014 doesn't seem that out of line. Now that he gets to cross over to the NL and pitch for the Cubs, Lester should consolidate his strikeout gains and have another big year.
2015 Outlook: Zimmermann emerged as more than just an extreme strike-thrower in 2014, raising his strikeout rate from 18.6 percent to 22.8 percent en route to the finest ratios of his career. While he's throwing a changeup here and there, he mostly relies on pounding opposing hitters with his fastball (93.8 mph on average) and excellent slider. Zimmermann is in the final year of his contract, and the Nats reportedly dabbled in trade talks with the Cubs over the offseason, but nothing materialized. Given that Washington expects to contend in 2015, a midseason trade seems unlikely.
2015 Outlook: Though Hamels began 2014 on the DL for the second time in three years, this time with a biceps injury, he returned quickly and still logged 30 starts. When he returned, he actually had more velocity than ever, averaging 92.3 mph with his fastball. The big question about Hamels, however, is whether the Phillies will part with him as they continue their rebuild. The deal sending Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers seemed to signal that no veteran on this team is untouchable for the right price. Hamels is signed through 2018 with a club option for 2019 at a price that isn't a bargain, but isn't unreasonable either, though he has a no-trade clause with 20 teams. Still, he's the Phillie most likely to net a significant prospect package, so the team has to at least listen to offers. A midseason move out of hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, where Hamels had a 3.20 ERA last year (as opposed to 1.82 on the road) could jump him into the first tier of starters.
2015 Outlook: It would have been understandable had Chapman dialed back his fastball after being drilled in the head by a comebacker during spring training, a gruesome incident that resulted in multiple facial fractures, but the left-hander hit triple digits in his very first rehab outing. That fearlessness carried over to the majors following his May activation from the DL, as Chapman blew by hitters with an otherworldly average fastball velocity of 100.3 mph. Major league hitters could hardly touch him. Chapman finished the season with a 52.5 percent strikeout rate -- an all-time record -- as well as a minuscule 0.89 FIP and 36 saves in 38 chances. He gave up just one home run in 54 innings and held opponents to a .107 average after the All-Star break. While the Reds project to be one of the worst teams in the NL Central this season, the team context is largely moot with regard to Chapman's value, as he's simply one of the most dominant relief pitchers the game has ever seen.
2015 Outlook: There are little indicators here and there that Kimbrel might be taking a small step back from his position as the best closer in baseball, but once you realize how great the starting point was to begin with, those factors diminish in importance. Most max-effort relievers tend to have a velocity decline, but that hasn't happened yet for him --d in fact, his average fastball was a tick higher than in 2013, resulting in a 38.9 percent strikeout rate. Kimbrel's biggest weakness is his walk rate, which jumped from 7.8 percent to 10.7 percent in 2014, a level he hadn't reached since 2011. Perhaps the biggest worry is one that Kimbrel can't control -- the quality of his team. The Braves were sellers over the offseason, getting rid of Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and Kimbrel's top two setup men in Jordan Walden and David Carpenter. As a result, Kimbrel might see fewer save chances than he has in the past. But with three years left on his contract, he's unlikely to be shipped out as part of Atlanta's rebuild.