You know what they say: Pitching comes at a premium. That premium seems to get higher every year when it comes to starting pitchers, given the way bullpens and “openers” are utilized these days. So when you embark on your fantasy baseball journey for 2020, you’d be wise to snatch up some premier starters when you’ve got an early opportunity.
Here’s a fantasy-oriented look at starting pitchers who could help your team flourish this year, whether they’re elite staples or potential sleeper picks.
• Complete 2020 fantasy rankings
Tier 1: Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom
From a starting pitching perspective, the year 2019 was the year of Cole. While he had always shown explosive stuff and had a very high ceiling, the right-hander had a breakout campaign, and that’s a breakout for a guy who posted a 144 ERA+ in 2018. In ‘19, his ERA+ was 185 after he finished with an American League-best 2.50 ERA and Major League-best 326 strikeouts. Heading into this season, there is every reason to expect something similar from the 29-year-old right-hander, now donning Yankees pinstripes for a club that has World Series aspirations.
If anyone can lay claim to a better season than Cole last year, it’s his former Astros teammate, Verlander, who won the AL Cy Young Award in 2019. His 0.80 WHIP and 223 innings pitched each led the Majors, and his 7.1 strikeouts per walk led the AL. We’re waiting for age to catch up with the great right-hander, but as he enters his age-37 season, he isn’t showing signs of slowing down.
Scherzer had what was, by his standards, a subpar 2019 -- if you can call an MLB-best 2.45 FIP and third-place finish in National League Cy Young Award voting a “subpar” season. Injuries derailed Scherzer in his quest for a fourth NL Cy Young Award, and when healthy, no one has been more consistently excellent than he has. As with Verlander, we expect time to rear its head with Scherzer at some point, but we just don’t know when that will happen as he heads into his age-35 campaign.
deGrom put together a historic season in 2018, and followed it up with another dominant performance last year to win his second consecutive NL Cy Young Award. The 31-year-old right-hander is as good as any starting pitcher in the game, and it’s not unreasonable to expect that if he’s healthy, he’ll end up in the top three among Cy Young Award finishers in 2020, as well.
Tier 2: Chris Sale, Walker Buehler, Jack Flaherty, Shane Bieber, Patrick Corbin, Stephen Strasburg, Blake Snell, Charlie Morton
For a Tier 2, what a lineup. Sale had his worst season as a starter last year, but there were significant elbow issues that ended up shutting him down in September behind his 4.40 ERA. Now that his elbow is healthy, look for him to be back to his usual dominant self, and maybe finally win that elusive Cy Young Award.
Buehler got off to a slow start in 2019, but made up for it from there. His April ERA was an unsightly 5.22, but in 24 starts thereafter, he posted a 2.88 ERA and 31 percent strikeout rate. Much like Sale, anticipate another strong campaign from the young Dodgers right-hander as Los Angeles takes aim at that elusive World Series title again.
Flaherty put together an incredible second half last year, turning in a 0.91 ERA over 15 starts. And it wasn’t out of the blue, either -- over the past two seasons, he’s posted a 3.01 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 30 percent strikeout rate in 61 starts. Just 24, the right-hander has a bright future ahead, and it starts with taking the ball on Opening Day at Cincinnati.
Bieber was quietly sensational in 2019 -- quiet except for his All-Star Game MVP Award, that is. The 24-year-old right-hander finished fourth in AL Cy Young Award voting after posting a 3.28 ERA over 34 appearances (33 starts), adding a 1.05 WHIP and MLB-best three complete games (two shutouts). One season doesn’t make a career, but Bieber enters his third Major League campaign flying high.
In his first season with the Nationals, Corbin came as advertised, and then some. He posted a 3.25 ERA in 33 starts for the World Series champions, striking out 29 percent of the batters he faced. The 30-year-old left-hander has been very consistent the past two seasons -- he finished with a 3.15 ERA and 31 percent strikeout rate in ‘18 with the D-backs. Expect more of the same in 2020.
It’s hard to top the year Stephen Strasburg had. The right-hander had a bounce-back campaign, posting a 3.32 ERA over an NL-best 209 innings. He also continued his mastery of the postseason, turning in a 1.98 ERA over six October appearances (five starts), including a 2.51 ERA over two World Series starts, taking home World Series MVP honors. Oh yeah, and then he signed a seven-year, $245 million deal to return to the defending champs.
Snell entered the 2019 campaign as the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, and though a fractured toe and bone chips in his elbow hampered him last season, he remains one of the premier southpaws in the game. After finishing with an AL-best 1.89 ERA in ‘18, his ERA in 23 starts last season was 4.29. But he’s fully healthy now, and looked great in his first live batting practice of the spring on Thursday, saying afterward he’s happy with the progression of his slider, a pitch he only used 6.7 percent of the time in ‘19. Look for a bounceback in ‘20.
Going from one Rays starter to another, Morton continues to defy age at 36. Over the past three seasons, he had a 3.24 ERA over 88 starts, fanning 29 percent of the batters he faced. Much like Verlander and Scherzer, Morton continues to perform better with age. It’s always hard to guess when age will catch up with a pitcher, but Morton has shown no signs of decline.
Tier 3: Clayton Kershaw, Luis Castillo, Aaron Nola, Luis Severino, Lucas Giolito, Noah Syndergaard, Chris Paddack, Zack Greinke, Tyler Glasnow, Yu Darvish
Kershaw isn’t the utterly dominant pitcher he once was, but he remains formidable, nevertheless, as he enters his age-32 season. He may not have the same fastball as he once did, setting up his devastating curveball or slider, but considering his ERA+ over the past two seasons was still 139, look for another strong performance from the three-time NL Cy Young Award winner.
Castillo put together an All-Star campaign in which he posted a 3.40 ERA over 32 starts, striking out 29 percent of the batters he faced. The 27-year-old has a bright future, and could become a key part of what Cincinnati is hoping will be a postseason club in the very near future.
Nola has future Cy Young Award winner written all over him. He struggled out of the gate in 2019, exiting April with a 5.68 ERA. But from there, he pitched to a 3.53 ERA, much closer to his 3.35 career mark entering the season. He’s had four pitching coaches in four years, but is confident he’ll thrive under new pitching coach Bryan Price. He could perform more like the 2018 version of himself -- with a 2.37 ERA and a third-place Cy Young Award finish -- than the ‘19 edition.
From 2017-18, Severino was on his way, boasting a 3.18 ERA and 1.09 WHIP over 63 starts for the Yankees. But he’s only made three starts since, and there is new uncertainty about his right arm as he awaits a battery of tests this week after experiencing forearm soreness. Until the results come in, things seem to be up in the air as to the 26-year-old right-hander’s immediate future, and hence, his potential fantasy value.
There are few, if any, pitchers who turned things around more dramatically last year than Giolito. In 2018, the right-hander issued an AL-high 90 walks and gave up a Major League-high 118 runs while posting a 6.13 ERA over 32 starts. Last year, he tied for the MLB lead in complete games (three) and shutouts (two) while pitching to a 3.41 ERA with a 32 percent strikeout rate. He’s only had two full seasons from which to glean anything, so it’s hard to predict what happens for the 16th overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft, but he’s only 25, and he certainly figured things out in ‘19.
Syndergaard had a very uncharacteristic season in 2019, finishing with a career-high 4.28 ERA over 32 starts. But the big right-hander is in his prime as he enters his age-27 season, and though the results weren’t what he wanted, his performance was stable in several categories, including strikeout percentage, walk percentage and expected batting average, per Statcast. And his barrel rate, though it increased, wasn’t bad, at 4.9 percent. The elite fastball velocity remains, as well. By the end of the 2020 campaign, we might well be looking back at ‘19 as an aberration for Thor.
Paddack made a jump with a great Spring Training last year, vaulting himself into the Padres’ starting rotation and backing up the exhibition success with success during the regular season -- he finished with a 3.33 ERA and 0.98 WHIP over 26 starts. With a great fastball-changeup combination, look for another strong showing from the 24-year-old right-hander.
He’s a year older, but Greinke has been as automatic as they come for 32-33 starts and an ERA around 3.00. So, yes, he’s 36. But no, that doesn’t mean he’ll decline, given his track record and his continued ability to effectively mix speeds and pitches to keep hitters off balance.
Glasnow has the Rays excited, and for good reason -- he was sensational over 12 starts last year, posting a 1.78 ERA after being sidelined with persistent forearm issues. He’s feeling healthy now, and reincorporating his changeup to go along with his electric fastball and devastating curveball.
Darvish had a rough first season with the Cubs in 2018 making only eight starts due to injury, but came back with a strong campaign last year, posting a 3.98 ERA (112 ERA+) and 1.09 WHIP over 31 starts. Now he’ll look to take the next step, which would be to return to the pitcher he was when he pitched for the Rangers from 2012-16. He’s entering his age-33 season, but certainly with more confidence than he had at this time last year.
Tier 4: Trevor Bauer, Brandon Woodruff, Mike Clevinger, Sonny Gray, Corey Kluber, José Berríos, Lance Lynn, Carlos Carrasco, Zack Wheeler
Bauer took a step back from a breakout season in 2018, when his performance was worthy of an All-Star selection and a sixth-place finish in AL Cy Young Award voting. But after enjoying a 2.21 ERA (2.44 FIP), 1.09 WHIP and 221 strikeouts that year, he returned to something closer to what his norm had been in six prior seasons, posting a 4.48 ERA over 34 starts. That drops him from Tier 3 to Tier 4, and it’s hard to know whether he’ll bounce back, or whether we look back at 2018 as an outlier season for him.
The only real question surrounding Woodruff is health -- he made a career-high 22 starts last season for the Brewers, and his 3.61 ERA and 29 percent strikeout rate was a continuation of what he had shown in limited time on the mound prior to that. Injuries have taken much of his time in the Majors away so far, but if healthy, he could jump up this list pretty quickly.
Clevinger showed in 2018 what he could do over a full season, and while he was again limited by injury last year, his performance was tremendous -- the 29-year-old right-hander boasted a 2.71 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 34 percent strikeout rate. If healthy, Clevinger could continue his rise and eventually end up in one of the top two tiers on your fantasy hierarchy.
Gray struggled with the Yankees, but in his first season with the Reds, showed he has plenty more in the tank, posting a 2.87 ERA over 31 starts to finish seventh in NL Cy Young Award voting. He’s been unpredictable throughout his career, and his ups and downs are why it’s tough to put him in a higher fantasy tier at this point. But there could be a lot of upside here as Cincinnati looks to jump back into postseason contention following several losing seasons and a very active winter.
Kluber is another candidate who could vault back toward the top of this list in due time. The two-time AL Cy Young Award winner begins a new chapter of his career with the Rangers, coming off an injury-plagued season that interrupted a five-year stretch in which he finished in the top three in Cy Young Award voting four times, including winning the honor in 2014 and ‘17. Before breaking his forearm on a comebacker last season, though, he had a 5.80 ERA, and his peripheral numbers dipped in ‘18. So it remains to be seen just how much of his elite performance he can recover during his first year back home in Texas.
It seems as though it’s only a matter of time before we see a breakout year from Berrios, who has been consistently solid for three straight years now, combining for a 3.80 ERA (117 ERA+) and 1.20 WHIP while steadily improving his walk rate. Will this be the year? The Twins surged to a division title last year, and hope to do a lot more in 2020. They’ll need a big year from Berrios to get there.
Lynn remains one of the more underrated starters in the game. Take 2019, for instance, when the veteran right-hander finished fifth in AL Cy Young Award voting after posting a 141 ERA+ over 208 1/3 innings for the Rangers, who suddenly could have quite a 1-2 punch in the rotation if Kluber even remotely resembles his former self
Carrasco’s was an inspirational story in 2019, when he was diagnosed with leukemia in June but returned to the mound in September. In a stressful year of his life, the right-hander had a 5.29 ERA in 23 outings, but that came on the heels of an excellent five-year stretch over which he posted a 3.27 ERA and 1.09 WHIP over 856 innings. If healthy -- and he’s currently day-to-day with a mild hip flexor strain -- it should be no surprise if he returns to that level of performance again.
Wheeler will pitch for a team other than the Mets for the first time in his Major League career, as he joins a Phillies rotation already featuring Nola and Jake Arrieta. The 29-year-old right-hander has yet to fulfill his potential, although he has been good the last two seasons, turning in a 3.65 ERA (3.37 FIP) and 1.19 WHIP in 60 starts. It remains to be seen whether he can take things up a notch, but he could be a decent risk/reward fantasy pick in a later round.
Tier 5: Eduardo Rodriguez, Madison Bumgarner, Max Fried, Mike Soroka, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray, Kyle Hendricks, Dinelson Lamet, Frankie Montas, Jake Odorizzi
Rodriguez has only gotten better year by year for the Red Sox -- last year, he posted a 3.81 ERA (126 ERA+) over a career-high 203 1/3 innings. The big question with E-Rod is his walk rate -- in 2019, he issued an AL-high 75 free passes. If he can bring that down, it’ll go a long way for the left-hander.
Bumgarner will take the mound for a team other than the Giants for the first time in his career, and though he isn’t the same dominant force he was some years ago, he remains one of the better starting pitchers in baseball -- not to mention a low-key rodeo star. He’s seen a steady decline, from a consistently sub-3.00 ERA and top-10 finish in NL Cy Young Award voting, to an ERA that hasn’t been below 3.00 since 2016. There have been questions about his velocity, and his walk rate spiked in ‘18, but returned to normal in ‘19.
Fried and Soroka are a pair of young Braves hurlers who undoubtedly have a bright future ahead. Fried showed flashes of brilliance, enjoying a 2.11 ERA through his first eight outings, but in the end finished with a 4.02 ERA on the year. Not good enough to be above fifth tier -- yet. Soroka had a fantastic rookie campaign, finishing second in NL Rookie of the Year Award voting after posting a 2.68 ERA over 29 starts. He still has much to prove, but you can’t ask for a much better start, and he’s certainly an attractive later-round fantasy option.
Entering the 2019 season, health was always the issue with Ryu. And then we saw what the left-hander could do over a full campaign, finishing runner-up in NL Cy Young Award voting following a breakout performance that featured an MLB-best 2.32 ERA and league-best 179 ERA+. The only question now after he signed with the Blue Jays is -- will he be able to continue pitching at that level?
Ray and Hendricks are each pitchers who would have been in higher fantasy echelons if this was 2017 -- Ray had a breakout year and led the NL in strikeouts per nine innings, and Hendricks was coming off a third-place Cy Young Award finish, an ERA title and winning a World Series ring with the Cubs. But both have seen decline since, though Ray to a larger degree, particularly with his control. He’s hoping a refined delivery helps with that, and Hendricks hopes to regain his earlier form even though he has been very good the past couple of seasons.
Lamet has great raw stuff, particularly in the form of his fastball and slider, but not much of a track record yet. Coming off Tommy John surgery last year, he was solid over 14 starts, posting a 4.07 ERA (104 ERA+) for San Diego. He’s definitely a breakout candidate, though, and the right-hander could be a high-upside pickup.
Montas was excellent over 16 starts last season, putting up a 2.63 ERA. But he was suspended for violation of MLB’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, and it’s uncertain how he will fare once he returns. If he’s able to approximate his production from 2019, however, he could end up being a great lower-cost selection.
In his first season with the Twins, Odorizzi was solid, helping Minnesota win the AL Central by posting a 3.51 ERA and 1.21 WHIP over 30 starts. He generally wasn’t able to pitch deep into games, however, which brings down his fantasy value somewhat, particularly since that tends to suppress pitcher win totals.
Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @MannyOnMLB.