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: 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: 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: 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: 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.
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: Few pitchers enjoyed the kind of boost in fantasy production that Minor did in 2013; he rose 122 spots on our Player Rater, 32 alone among starting pitchers. Always a capable strikeout artist in the minors, Minor sacrificed some of those K's -- albeit not by a devastating amount -- in exchange for substantial gains in terms of control, his 5.6 percent walk rate in 2013 well beneath his 7.7 percent career rate in the minors. He did it by improving his changeup by leaps and bounds against right-handers, while ramping up his breaking pitches against left-handers; the result is a much more reliable fantasy option than the one who posted a 1.52 WHIP in 23 starts from 2010-11 combined. Minor has arrived as a true second-tier fantasy starter, and a potential top-shelf one in NL-only leagues. Stephania Bell: The Braves announced on March 23 that Minor will open the season on the DL. The move is not entirely surprising given he came into spring training behind in his throwing program, the result of a month off in December following a urinary tract procedure. This is not terrible news, as it appears to be more a function of a late start to his routine as opposed to an undiagnosed injury. The hope is that Minor will be ready to return in late April.
2014 Outlook: A Korean left-hander who relies upon command and deception rather than overpowering stuff, Ryu made a successful transition to the U.S. game last year, scoring the No. 26 spot among pure starting pitchers on our 2013 Player Rater. What's more, his was a consistent year all the way through, and one that even showed hints of gradual improvement: He walked just 3.3 percent of batters faced during the season's second half, after an 8.1 percent mark in the first half and 7.2 percent in his two years in the Korean Baseball Organization. Though often overshadowed in a deep Los Angeles Dodgers rotation by Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, Ryu is as reliable a No. 3 starter -- both in the real and fantasy games -- as there is in baseball today. There's no reason he can't either repeat, or even slightly exceed, his rookie-year numbers.
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: The third time was the charm for Teheran, who, after failed attempts to adapt to the majors in 2011 and 2012, posted a 1.04 ERA and 12.12 K's-per-nine innings ratio in six spring starts to secure a permanent place in the Atlanta Braves' rotation. After tinkering with his delivery in recent years, Teheran returned to his old, more natural delivery, and soared into the top 25 starters in fantasy baseball during his true rookie season in 2013, restoring the top-of-the-rotation-potential label scouts had previously given him. As might be expected with any young pitcher, he struggled late in the year, posting a 5.26 ERA in his final seven starts (playoffs included), but in his defense, he had a healthy 3.58 K/BB and 25.4 percent K rates during that time. Teheran is seemingly one step away from joining fantasy's upper tier; what he lacks is a dominant pitch to use against left-handed hitters. But even as is, he's in the SP 3/4 class, with potential for more.