Kershaw stands above all other fantasy starters
You can never have too much pitching, especially in fantasy baseball. Fortunately, this year offers a deep pool of capable starting pitchers sure to produce with offense in decline throughout the Major Leagues.
While there are plenty of starting options for fantasy owners to choose from, there remain only a handful of truly elite arms. Clayton Kershaw headlines this season's crop of starters, but he's not the only hurler worthy of an early selection in fantasy leagues.
Tier 1: Kershaw
Kershaw was not only the best pitcher in the game in 2013, he was also a serious candidate for National League MVP Award after leading the Majors in ERA and WHIP, his third straight campaign pacing the NL in both categories. As if last year's miniscule 1.83 ERA and 0.915 WHIP weren't enough to warrant a top pick for Kershaw, the left-hander also eclipsed 200 innings and made at least 32 starts for the fourth consecutive season. Just as impressive, he issued a career-low 52 walks despite working a career-high 236 innings in '13.
The Dodgers rewarded Kershaw with a $215 million contract this offseason, but fantasy owners shouldn't expect that figure to have an adverse impact on his production going forward. Regarded as one of the hardest workers in the big leagues, Kershaw will have added motivation after coming within two games of the World Series last year.
Tier 2: Yu Darvish, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright, Cliff Lee
These four pitchers aren't your typical secondary options, but they aren't quite on the same level as Kershaw. Nevertheless, this collection offers some promising options for the front end of your rotation.
Fantasy owners placing a good deal of importance on strikeouts should look no further than Darvish. In only his second year in the big leagues, the right-hander led the Majors with 277 strikeouts. That number wasn't a fluke -- he fanned 221 as a rookie in '12.
If wins are more important to your league, you might want to consider drafting Wainwright ahead of former Cy Young Award winners Hernandez and Lee. Hernandez hasn't won more than 14 games since '09, but King Felix still has electric stuff and tossed a perfect game in 2012. Lee has won more than 14 games just three times in his 12-year career. Wainwright, on the other hand, has won at least 19 games in three of his last four seasons.
Tier 3: Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Jose Fernandez, Madison Bumgarner, David Price, Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg
There are still plenty of aces to be had in this group. Scherzer won the American League Cy Young Award last year, leading the Majors with 21 wins and topping the AL with a 0.97 WHIP. His 240 strikeouts were second only to Darvish. Verlander had a bit of a down year by his standards, but he's only two seasons removed from an AL MVP Award.
This tier also features three impressive lefties in Sale, Bumgarner and Price. Sale enters only his third season as a starter and is coming off a breakout year that saw the 24-year-old finish fourth in the Majors with 226 strikeouts. Bumgarner is another young arm with unquestioned talent. Price has been involved in trade rumors all winter, but he's another former Cy Young Award winner with plenty to offer.
Fernandez and Strasburg present the biggest risks in this group. Fernandez won the NL Rookie of the Year Award, but questions of a sophomore slump always linger. Strasburg pitched well despite elbow issues last year, but says he's 100 percent heading into Spring Training.
Tier 4: Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Anibal Sanchez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, Zack Greinke, Mike Minor, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann
Fantasy owners can still find value in this group. Greinke is a former Cy Young Award winner capable of being one of the top starters in the game. Cain has been a workhorse for eight straight years. Zimmermann won 19 games a year ago, tied for the most in the NL. Sanchez led the AL with a 2.57 ERA last season.
There are some injury concerns, though. Hamels will open the season on the disabled list because of discomfort in his left shoulder. Iwakuma could also miss Opening Day, the result of a strained tendon in his right middle finger.
Tier 5: Masahiro Tanaka, Doug Fister, James Shields, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Kris Medlen, Jered Weaver, Danny Salazar, Lance Lynn, Justin Masterson, Alex Cobb, Shelby Miller, C.J. Wilson, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Marco Estrada, Michael Wacha, Tony Cingrani, Johnny Cueto, R.A. Dickey, Jon Lester, Hiroki Kuroda
This collection offers some big risks, but those same gambles could prove to be worthwhile. Tanaka certainly presents the biggest wild card as he transitions to the Major Leagues from Japan. Ryu posted strong numbers in '13 as a rookie from South Korea, so Tanaka very well could do the same. Dickey, a former NL Cy Young Award winner, will look to bounce back from a rough first year with the Blue Jays. Lester was dominant at times in '13, but pitched all the way through October. Wacha, Miller and Cole each have great potential, but are still young and unproven over the long haul.
Tier 6: Julio Teheran, Patrick Corbin, John Lackey, Sonny Gray, Matt Moore, Jeff Samardzija, A.J. Griffin, Matt Garza, Dan Haren, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Rick Porcello, Ian Kennedy, Tim Lincecum, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Kyle Lohse
Depending on need and preference, fantasy owners could find the right fit in this tier. Samardzija finished fourth in the NL with 214 strikeouts last year. If track record matters, consider former Cy Young Award winners Lincecum and Sabathia. Haren could benefit from a change of scenery, as he joins the Dodgers following a brief stint with the Nationals. Teheran, Corbin, Gray and Moore are all young arms with something to prove.