Many 2016 fantasy championships were likely rooted in the draft-day decision to make a small investment in Kyle Hendricks or Rick Porcello.
Selected after the top-200 spots in many mixed-league drafts, Hendricks and Porcello went on to lead baseball in ERA (2.13) and wins (22), respectively. Looking ahead to '17, wise owners will be on the lookout for next year's versions of those two right-handers.
Here are five candidates who have the potential to enjoy a rapid rise up the fantasy ranks, providing an ace-level return on a minimal investment.
Alex Cobb (Rays): After missing all of '15 and most of '16 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, Cobb returned to post an 8.59 ERA across five starts last season. Though he has never thrown more than 166 1/3 innings in a single campaign, the right-hander found success via a solid strikeout rate (8.2 K/9 from '13-14) and lofty ground-ball rate (lifetime 56.3 percent) before his long-term absence. Having produced a 2.82 ERA across '13-14, Cobb could compete for the American League ERA title if he can stay off the disabled list.
Rich Hill (Dodgers): Though Hill followed up a brilliant September '15 showing with a dazzling effort last season (2.12 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 10.5 K/9 rate), he was unable to move past his longstanding durability woes. Looking ahead, the Dodgers lefty should remain eminently effective on a per-start basis with help from his outstanding curveball -- which had one of baseball's highest spin rates last season, per Statcast™. Possibly the biggest boom-or-bust option in the '17 starting-pitcher pool, Hill has the skills to produce ace-like results across a 30-start campaign.
Matt Moore (Giants): Moore saw his control regress following a trade to the Giants in August, posting a 4.2 BB/9 rate -- compared to a 2.9 mark in his final 33 starts with the Rays. However, he offered cause for optimism by notching 9.1 K/9 and 0.7 HR/9 rates with San Francisco. If the 27-year-old can maintain those figures while reducing free passes in '17, he could produce his best year since undergoing Tommy John surgery in '14. Wise owners will remember that Moore is a former elite prospect who owns an impressive lifetime 2.74 ERA and 12.5 K/9 rate in the Minors.
Aaron Nola (Phillies): Nola looked the part of an ace early last season, posting a 2.65 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP across his first 12 starts. Though he struggled mightily across his next eight outings (9.82 ERA, 2.06 WHIP) before being shut down with an elbow injury, his decline can be heavily attributed to a .464 BABIP in that span. As evidenced by his 3.08 FIP in '16, the 23-year-old has the skills to be one of the National League's most effective starters if he can successfully return to health this year.
Ivan Nova (Pirates): Traded to the Pirates in August after an unremarkable seven-season tenure with the Yankees, Nova posted an astonishing 17.3 K/BB ratio and suddenly cured his longstanding homer problems (0.6 HR/9 rate) as a member of the Bucs. Coming off that sensational showing, the 29-year-old makes for an intriguing fantasy option despite his unimpressive lifetime 4.30 ERA, 1.36 WHIP and 2.5 K/BB ratio. Nova could follow in the footsteps of Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ, who had a terrific '16 campaign (20 wins, 3.18 ERA) after a late-season surge with the Pirates in '15 (1.85 ERA across 11 starts).
Fred Zinkie is the lead fantasy baseball writer for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredZinkieMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.