At a time when teams are relying more and more on their bullpens, and even deploying "openers" on occasion, true ace starting pitchers have become even more valuable for fantasy purposes, simply because they're rather rare. Pitching comes at a premium, you might say.
That makes it all the more important for owners to draft at least a few of the arms from the top tiers below. Target two or three (or more!) of these studs early on to build the foundation for your rotation, then take some gambles on upside and potential later on.
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Tier 1: Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Corey Kluber, Gerrit Cole
Scherzer, Sale, Verlander and Kluber have been stalwarts at or near the very top of these fantasy rankings for starting pitchers for years -- and for good reason.
Since joining the Nationals in 2015, Scherzer's average season looks like this: 17 wins, 219 2/3 innings, 2.71 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and an 11.6 K/9 rate. He's 34 now and coming off six straight years of 200-plus innings, but it's hard to see any decline coming when Scherzer just reached the 300-strikeout mark -- the first righty to do so since 2002 (Curt Schilling).
Sale continues to be a truly dominant fantasy force, one whose 2018 brought career bests in ERA (2.11), WHIP (0.86) and K/9 (13.5). Alas, his spectacular season was interrupted by a shoulder issue that limited him to just 17 innings over five starts after July 27. By all accounts, he's healthy heading into 2019, but he doesn't come without risk after the way he finished last year, including a long postseason run.
Meanwhile, deGrom wrapped '18 on as strong a note as any pitcher, with a record 24 consecutive quality starts in a single season on his way to the best ERA (1.70), WHIP (0.91) and K/9 (11.2) of his career -- and the NL Cy Young Award. It might be too much to expect the right-hander, who is entering his age-31 campaign, to repeat those numbers, but this is a no-doubt fantasy SP1. Oh, and you can bank on more than 10 wins this time around.
Video: deGrom and Snell take home Cy Young Awards
At this point in their careers, we can feel confident about what we're getting from Verlander and Kluber in their age-36 and age-33 seasons: an ERA in the 2.50 to 3.00 range, a WHIP that flirts with 1.00, 200-plus strikeouts and at least 15 wins. Stability, durability and performance like that is worth paying up for in fantasy.
Cole ascends to the top tier, rounding it out after putting his full repertoire to better bat-missing use in his first year with Houston. He entered 2018 with a good-but-not-great 8.4 K/9 career rate, then spiked that to an MLB-high 12.4 mark that he maintained across both the first and second half. His 2.88 ERA and 1.03 WHIP weren't too shabby, either, and Cole is firmly in his prime at age 28.
Tier 2: Clayton Kershaw, Luis Severino, Blake Snell, Aaron Nola, Carlos Carrasco, Noah Syndergaard, Trevor Bauer
It was a nice Tier 1 run for Kershaw, but his yearly struggles with back problems -- he's now missed chunks of each of the past three seasons -- makes it hard to count on the soon-to-be 31-year-old for more than 20-25 starts. That's enough to knock him out of the top group, as is the fact that his 3.19 FIP and 23.9 percent strikeout rate in 2018, while still strong, were his worst since he was a rookie in 2008. If you use an early selection on Kershaw, you might consider backing him up with a second starter in this range or picking more secure rotation options over high-risk/high-reward types as your draft rolls along.
Severino's performance a year ago was a tale of two halves: 14 wins, a 2.31 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP before the break compared to five victories, a 5.57 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP after. The strikeout and walk rates remained steady (22.3 percent K-BB% in each half), so the hope is that Severino, entering his age-25 season, will be more fortunate than the elevated .379 BABIP and diminished 63.0 percent left on-base marks he registered after the break.
Video: Hurler of June: Luis Severino
Snell, a lefty, and the right-handed Nola both forced themselves into this group by virtue of utterly dominant seasons. The former took home the AL Cy Young Award with a remarkable 21 wins and a 1.89 ERA -- both the best in the Junior Circuit -- to go with a 0.97 WHIP and an 11.0 K/9 rate in what was a true breakout campaign.
The latter also was in the running for the honor before finishing third (to deGrom and Scherzer) with a 2.37 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and an above-average 9.5 K/9 mark. Both are going into their age-26 seasons, so it's reasonable to think they can maintain something at least close to this level of performance.
Video: Nola takes third place for NL Cy Young Award
Also 26, Syndergaard has similar award-worthy potential, if he can simply stay healthy. On one hand, the strained ligament in his right index finger last season was yet another injury; but on the other, it helped keep his workload somewhat in check (154 1/3 frames, 25 starts) after the flamethrowing righty managed only 30 1/3 innings due to a severe right lat injury in 2017. Another good sign? He finished especially strong, notching his first two career complete games in September, including a shutout in his final outing.
That leaves Tribe rotation mates Carrasco and Bauer, both of whom are deservedly in this tier. Carrasco tends to fly under the radar, but he owns a 3.40 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP while averaging more than 180 innings over the past four years, the last of which brought career-high strikeout marks (231 total, 10.8 K/9). Bauer, meanwhile, enjoyed an absolutely eye-opening '18 (2.21 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 221 Ks over 175 1/3 IP) that would have been even better if not for a comebacker causing a stress fracture in his right fibula, an injury that cost him six weeks in August and September. Still just 28, Bauer could be in store for a monster year.
Tier 3: Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, James Paxton, Walker Buehler
Strasburg remains a frustrating fantasy performer, simply because of his health issues. He still puts up strong fantasy stats (3.74 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 10.8 K/9 in '18), but he has topped 24 starts just once in the past four years. Right shoulder inflammation and a pinched nerve in his neck limited him to 22 starts and just 130 frames last season. Owning the 30-year-old comes with a certain level of finger-crossing.
Corbin and Paxton are similar in that both are coming off breakout SP1-caliber campaigns and have moved to new clubs, the former signing with the Nationals and the latter landing with the Yankees via trade. Corbin, 29, came almost out of nowhere to post a career campaign (3.15 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 11.1 K/9) in 200 innings, his most since '13. Paxton's memorable no-hitter -- in his native Canada -- was one of last year's marquee moments and proof of his dominance (1.10 WHIP, 11.7 K/9 in '18). The big question with the 30-year-old? Can he approach last year's career-high 28 starts and 160 1/3 innings.
Video: SEA@TOR: Paxton strikes out 7 in no-hitter
The Dodgers managed Buehler carefully in his first full big league season, keeping him to 137 1/3 innings -- but what impressive innings they were. He sported a 2.62 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP and a 9.9 K/9 rate, all of which would make him a Tier 1 candidate if he can sustain something close to those stats over 30 starts and 180-plus frames as a 24-year-old. Is there a young starter with more buzz surrounding him entering 2019?
Tier 4: Robbie Ray, Chris Archer, David Price, Zack Greinke, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Clevinger, German Marquez, Jose Berrios, Jack Flaherty, Madison Bumgarner, Jameson Taillon
This tier houses a variety of fantasy options, and the names you target might depend on how you built your fantasy rotation in the first few rounds. There are high-risk/high-reward arms, like Ray, Archer, Foltynewicz, Clevinger, Marquez and Flaherty, who could excel all around -- especially in strikeouts -- if they show they can overcome issues like injury, home ballpark, questionable control or lack of proven high-level production.
On the other end of the spectrum, Price, Greinke and Bumgarner have settled in as productive SP2/3 types to fortify your staff, particularly if you landed one or two of the riskier names in the top three tiers. These veterans may no longer hold true ace upside at this stage of their careers, but they should provide safety, durability and consistency, which should not be overlooked at a time when starters are throwing fewer and fewer innings in general.
Jason Catania is reporter and editor for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JayCat11.