Kershaw, Scherzer the only pitchers to earn Tier 1 status
By Jason Catania
There's once again no shortage of stud starting pitchers capable of holding down the top spots in fantasy rotations. The difference this year, however, is that there is a somewhat diminished level of trust that owners should be willing to place in various high-end pitchers as they build their staffs. After all, there were a number of previously proven No. 1-caliber arms in 2016 who either disappointed (David Price, Chris Archer, Gerrit Cole), suffered injury (Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez), downright struggled (Dallas Keuchel, Zack Greinke, Sonny Gray) or some combination thereof.
Avoiding those pitfalls early in drafts is paramount at such a volatile position where injuries can be season-ending and owners must rely on both quality and quantity to maintain top-of-the-line production all season long. As such, grabbing one of the top few starters early on can provide a needed anchor. From there, the plan should involve picking plenty of pitchers as your draft reaches the middle rounds, because spreading the wealth can mean uncovering a breakout or three to fill out your staff.
Tier 1 Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer
Kershaw and Scherzer, who have combined for a whopping five Cy Young Awards, are the no-doubt class of the starting-pitcher position. Both bring elite ratios (think: sub-3.00 ERA, sub-1.00 WHIP) and the ability to strike out 275-plus batters a year on a regular basis. Oh, and they also benefit from playing in the more pitcher-friendly National League and on two of baseball's best teams.
Concerns? Well, the health of Kershaw's back, for one, after the soon-to-be 29-year-old missed about a dozen starts of what was shaping up to be another historic campaign (1.69 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 10.4 K/9) in 2016. As for Scherzer, in addition to dealing with a minor right ring finger injury entering Spring Training, the 32-year-old has surrendered 58 homers the past two years -- including an NL-high 31 last year -- and his 891 2/3 innings the past four years are the most in the sport. Still, don't overthink things: It's Kershaw and Scherzer ... and then everyone else.
Tier 2 Madison Bumgarner, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Noah Syndergaard, Justin Verlander, Jon Lester
If you miss out on Kershaw and Scherzer, don't worry -- just target one (or more) of these next six, starting with Bumgarner. Still only 27, the southpaw might be the most consistent fantasy ace-caliber pitcher there is, having averaged 15 wins, a 3.00 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP and 214 strikeouts over 213 innings the past six years. That sort of durability and reliability is well worth paying for as high as Round 2.
Speaking of elite lefties, Sale changes the color of his Sox but maintains his lofty perch as one of the very best starters. After beginning 2016 as hot as can be (9-0, 1.58 ERA, 0.72 WHIP in his first nine starts), Sale faded thereafter (8-10, 4.09 ERA, 1.18 WHIP). Nonetheless, he's still a surefire SP1 entering his age-28 campaign and has the requisite ratio goods (3.04 ERA, 1.06 WHIP since 2012) and rare 250-strikeout upside, to boot. Throw in an expected boost in wins for joining arguably the American League's best club, and Sale shapes up as the Junior Circuit's best fantasy starting pitcher.
Not far behind, though, is Kluber, the 2014 AL Cy Young Award winner who bounced back from a somewhat disappointing 2015 (9-16, 3.49 ERA) to earn second runner-up last year, thus solidifying his place among the fantasy elite. As long as he shows no ill effects from a career-high 249 1/3 innings after a long -- and dominant -- postseason run, the 30-year-old should be good for an encore of his impressive 2016 (18 W, 3.14 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 227 K).
The man known as Thor has the stuff to join Kershaw and Scherzer by the end of the season. Syndergaard completed a dominant first full year as a starter in 2016, posting a 2.60 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP and an eye-popping 10.7 K/9 mark that ranked fourth best in the Majors. While a bone spur he pitched through in the middle of last season might present some pause, you've probably heard that the 6-foot-6 24-year-old stallion actually put on about 15 pounds of muscle in hopes of, ahem, throwing harder in 2017. Given that Syndergaard already topped all starting pitchers in both velocity (97.9 mph) and FIP (2.29), well, he could be in for a Tier 1-busting year.
Verlander and Lester go well together to round out this tier as a pair of veterans who offer safe, steady production. The former possesses more of a ceiling, especially if he can repeat his incredible bounceback campaign (3.04 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 254 K) in his age-34 season, while the latter's floor more or less is 200 innings with a 3.00 ERA and 1.10 WHIP, as well as something close to 200 whiffs. Either way, these two will play at the top of a fantasy rotation.
Tier 3 Jake Arrieta, Johnny Cueto, Yu Darvish, Price, Strasburg, Archer
Arrieta heads another tier of a half-dozen arms, each of whom has been SP1-worthy at some point in his career but also comes with a little less certainty. In Arrieta's case, he's pitching with the pressure of landing a new contract. The soon-to-be 31-year-old also will have to show he can move past the 4.44 ERA and 1.19 WHIP he registered over his final 16 regular-season turns, not to mention an extended postseason in which he helped the Cubs win it all.
The most stable of this high-upside bunch, Cueto looked like his usual self in his first season with the Giants, compiling 18 wins along with a 2.79 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 198 whiffs. Fully healthy, still in his prime at age 31 and enjoying pitcher-friendly AT&T Park, the shimmying right-hander actually might be a bit underrated.
Is there a bigger X-factor at this position than Darvish? In his return from Tommy John surgery that cost him all of 2015, the 30-year-old flashed his wicked repertoire to strike out 11.8 batters per nine innings and allow just 7.3 hits per nine. And yet, Darvish -- another contract-year arm -- barely managed to reach 100 innings in the Majors as the Rangers handled his innings cautiously. While the reins should be loosened in 2017, will he be able to approach the 180 frames needed to provide SP1-caliber production across the board?
Price's first campaign in Boston was vexing. On one hand, the AL East-battle-tested veteran notched his worst ERA (3.99) and WHIP (1.20) since his rookie year in 2009 and permitted the most hits in baseball (227). On the other? The 31-year-old was at least a little unlucky, as evidenced by his .310 BABIP (.289 career), and he sported a 3.39 ERA after it bottomed out at an unsightly 6.75 in early May. Expect a bounceback from Price now that he's settled in with the Red Sox.
Strasburg was a beast at the outset of 2016, winning his first 13 decisions, thanks to a 2.51 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 10.8 K/9. After that? The 28-year-old made just seven more scattered starts, going 2-4 with a 7.36 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP due to an elbow injury that limited him to just one September outing and kept him from pitching in the postseason. It's pretty simple with Strasburg: The numbers are there … when he's healthy, so make sure you have good depth if you draft him.
After a breakout 2015, Archer got off to a rough start in his follow-up campaign (5.01 ERA, 1.58 WHIP through April), and his stat line never fully recovered. That said, the 28-year-old did improve along the way, including a 3.25 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP in the second half, and finished with the second-most strikeouts in the AL (233) for the second straight season.
Tier 4 Kyle Hendricks, Carlos Carrasco, Jacob deGrom, Rick Porcello, Carlos Martinez
Following breakthrough seasons, Hendricks and Porcello both fall into the same tier, as well as the same can-they-do-it-again category. For Hendricks, 27, that means proving his MLB-best 2.13 ERA wasn't a total fluke (or the result of a luck-driven .250 BABIP, thanks to a historically great Cubs defense). For Porcello, 28, that means holding onto the gains he made that led to career bests in ERA (3.15) and WHIP (1.01) -- oh, and an MLB-best 22 wins -- despite a below-average 7.6 K/9.
Carrasco and deGrom can be lumped together, too, as a pair of high-end arms with electric stuff … but more than a little injury history. The soon-to-be 30-year-old Carrasco has yet to put it all together, as he was limited to just 146 1/3 innings (3.32 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 9.2 K/9) after fighting through a hamstring injury and then suffering a broken hand courtesy of a comebacker that ended his season in mid-September. deGrom's outlook could be a little more worrisome, by comparison, as the righty threw a similar number of innings (148, with a 3.04 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 8.7 K/9) but wound up having surgery to reposition his elbow ligament after being shut down at the start of last September.
Martinez polishes off this tier, and he might, in fact, be the best value of the bunch, considering he isn't fresh off a career year or facing any significant injury concerns. If anything, the flamethrowing righty is coming into his own at age 25 and on the heels of 16 wins, along with a 3.04 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP and an 8.0 K/9 over a career-high 195 1/3 frames.
Tier 5 Greinke, Masahiro Tanaka, Cole Hamels, Dallas Keuchel, Danny Duffy, Rich Hill, Julio Teheran, Aaron Sanchez, Jose Quintana, Cole, Kevin Gausman
This is where owners will notice the depth of the position, allowing you to find strong values as your draft approaches the double-digit rounds. Maybe you'd like to bet on a bounceback from a former ratios stud like Greinke (a year removed from an MLB-best 1.66 ERA), or turnarounds from Keuchel (2015 AL Cy Young Award winner) and Cole (19 W, 2.60 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 202 K in 2015). Or perhaps you prefer targeting a trio of steady performers with SP2 capabilities like Tanaka, Hamels and Quintana. If not, there's always still-improving youngsters poised to take the next step like Duffy, Teheran, Sanchez and Gausman, or a savvy vet in Hill who owns a stellar 2.00 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 10.7 K/9 since making his way back to the Majors in 2015.
Jason Catania is a fantasy baseball writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.