During an era in which home runs and heavy bullpen usage are both en vogue, effective starting pitchers have become a rare breed in fantasy circles. As a result, owners can no longer afford to wait until the middle rounds to anchor their rotations.Wise drafters will seek to have at
During an era in which home runs and heavy bullpen usage are both en vogue, effective starting pitchers have become a rare breed in fantasy circles. As a result, owners can no longer afford to wait until the middle rounds to anchor their rotations.
Wise drafters will seek to have at least three of the following hurlers in their Opening Day lineups.
• MLB.com's player rankings
Tier 1: Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Chris Sale
Kershaw typically belongs in his own tier, but he has fallen back toward the pack after logging long-term disabled-list stints in each of the past two seasons. Still, with a lifetime 2.36 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP, the southpaw should not slip out of Round 1 in any draft.
Each of the other members in Tier 1 can make a viable case to be the first pitcher off 2018 draft boards. Scherzer has dominated (2.76 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 11.3 K/9 rate) across three seasons with the Nats, Kluber was the best starter in baseball over the final four months of last season (1.62 ERA, 0.76 WHIP) and Sale is coming off a campaign in which he produced the highest strikeout total (308) of any hurler since '02.
Tier 2: Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner, Carlos Carrasco, Justin Verlander, Luis Severino, Jacob deGrom
Bumgarner is arguably the safest member of this group, as he owns stellar lifetime ratios (3.01 ERA, 1.10 WHIP) and made his only career DL stint following an off-field accident in 2017. Verlander also represents a low-risk option, as he has topped the 200-inning plateau in 10 of the past 11 seasons and was sensational after joining the Astros late last year.
Strasburg and Severino are both boom-or-bust aces for 2018, with Strasburg showing dazzling skills (3.07 ERA, 10.5 K/9 rate) during a career impacted by injuries and Severino (2.98 ERA, 1.04 WHIP in '17) skyrocketing up the rankings after going undrafted in many leagues a year ago. Meanwhile, Carrasco made a leap last year by combining his stellar swing-and-miss skills (9.9 K/9 rate from 2014-17) with improved durability (200 innings). And deGrom (career 2.98 ERA, 9.7 K/9 rate) similarly bounced back from health concerns to reach the 200-inning plateau for the first time.
Tier 3: Zack Greinke, Noah Syndergaard, Yu Darvish, Jose Quintana, Carlos Martinez, Chris Archer, Robbie Ray, Aaron Nola, James Paxton, Dallas Keuchel
Owners will find a handful of excellent No. 2 starters for their mixed-league teams in the third tier.
Syndergaard is the most enticing member of this group given his immense potential (career 2.89 ERA, 10.3 K/9 rate), but his injury-shortened 2017 season (30 1/3 innings) is not easy to dismiss. Darvish is similar, as he owns stellar strikeout skills (career 11.0 K/9 rate) but has just one career 200-inning season under his belt and is coming off a year in which he logged a disappointing 3.86 ERA.
Greinke struggled during his first year with the D-backs in 2016, but his bounceback '17 season (17-7, 3.20 ERA, 215 K's) and lengthy track record are reasons to believe in him as a reliable No. 2 fantasy starter. Martinez, Archer and Quintana also represent dependable options, as all three are working on multiyear stretches of 30-plus starts (five by Quintana, four by Archer, two by Martinez) and were among the 16 pitchers to reach the 200-strikeout plateau a year ago.
Opinions are bound to be all over the map for the final four members of this tier. Ray can generate whiffs as well as anyone on a per-inning basis (11.7 K/9 rate over 2016-17), but he's averaged fewer than 5 2/3 frames per start in his career and has posted a troubling lifetime 37.1 percent hard-hit rate with a 3.7 BB/9 rate. Keuchel has produced an ERA below 3.00 in three of the past four seasons, but he's also tossed fewer than 170 innings in each of the past two years. Paxton showed game-changing potential in '17 (2.98 ERA, 10.3 K/9 rate), but his durability is a major concern. And Nola has likewise shown flashes of brilliance mixed with injuries and inconsistency.
Tier 4: Masahiro Tanaka, Gerrit Cole, Kyle Hendricks, Jonathan Lester, David Price, Shohei Ohtani, Jacob Arrieta, Luke Weaver, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija
The fourth tier is comprised of pitchers who will ideally be No. 3 starters on mixed-league squads, with high-risk, high-reward players dominating this group.
Tanaka, Lester, Cueto, Samardzija and Cole have each reached lofty heights in the past, but all five posted ERA marks north of 4.25 with HR/9 rates of 1.3 or higher in 2017. Arrieta may seem more stable than those five on the surface (2.73 ERA, 1.03 WHIP with the Cubs from 2013-17), but he dealt with diminished velocity last season and posted a 4.16 FIP. And though Price finished '17 with a 3.38 ERA, he made multiple DL trips with arm problems and tossed only 74 2/3 innings one season after recording a 3.99 mark.
The unreliable nature of this tier is not confined to the veterans. Ohtani was brilliant during his career in Japan (2.52 ERA, 10.3 K/9 rate), but he will enter his rookie season with the daunting task of trying to simultaneously prove himself as a pitcher and a hitter. And while Weaver flashed ace potential last year (4.2 K/BB ratio, 3.17 FIP), he has tossed just 96 2/3 innings in the Majors.
Hendricks stands out as the low-ceiling, high-floor member of this tier, having posted stellar lifetime ratios (2.94 ERA, 1.10 WHIP) but a lackluster career 7.7 K/9 rate.
Fred Zinkie is the lead fantasy baseball writer for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredZinkieMLB.