While 2011 fantasy baseball drafts offer up significant depth at the starting pitcher spot this season, there are still very few that we might call studs. So the recent loss of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright, who will miss at least this season having Tommy John surgery, makes the rarefied air of the fantasy elite even thinner.
The first two tiers below represent the best of fantasy baseball's Ace's and you want to have at least one of them to anchor your 2011 pitching squad. In Tier 3 we see the next generation of aces, most of which have the stuff to equal or outperform the top 12 guys this season. So if you miss out on one of the first 12, grab at least two of these guys.
There are no sure things in fantasy baseball, and few locks at the starting pitcher position. The best are still dependent on run support and solid fielding by those behind them. That said there are only three names in the top tier at this position, and all three will be gone in the first two rounds in most leagues.
--Tier One, The Holy Trinity--
- Roy Halladay, PHI ~ There is simply no other option for the first SP off the board. Doc is the holy grail of starting pitchers, giving you 4 category production. He will be taken in the mid-to late part of round one in most every draft. He's averaged 211 strike outs over the last 3 seasons, with 19.5 wins, and a career WHIP of 1.18. Halladay had his best season yet in 2010, leading the NL in wins with 21 wins, which included a perfect game. He plays on an explosive team, so run support is seldom an issue. He also nabbed his second Cy Young in 2010. He looks good for another 20 wins and 200+ K's an era near 2.50 and a WHIP under 1.1.
- Tim Lincecum, SF ~ The Freak was a bit off his game in 2010 seeing his K's drop and ERA rise, but he still managed 16 Wins with a 1.182 WHIP and 9.8 K's per nine innings. He's averaging 16.5 wins a season the last 3 years with an average of 252 K's. Lincecum turns 27 this season, and I like him to rebound on his ERA while putting up his usual dominating fantasy stats. His ability to get more Ks and Wins is why I have him slightly ahead of the King below.
- Felix Hernandez, SEA ~ King Felix has finally found his groove. Each of the last three seasons his strike out totals have increased, his ERA and WHIP have decreased and his hits per 9 innings have gone down. The man has become a beast. The King is a beast in ERA, WHIP and K's. Where his value is hard to determine is Wins. In 2008 he had 9, in 2009 he had 19, then he dropped back down to 13 in 2010. His team has an anemic offense, so buy him for 3 categories only, and any Wins over 10 are icing.
- Jon Lester, BOS ~ I know many experts are taking Cliff Lee here, but at this point my top two priorities are Wins and K's, while both can get the wins, Lester has averaged 225 K's the last 2 seasons. He's younger and inspires more confidence. There has to be some reason why Lee changes teams more often than my kid cleans his room
- Clayton Kershaw, LAD ~ He's 22 and he's only going to get better. He's already a fantasy windfall in 4 categories, and next season he will likely be a 1st tier starter.
- Josh Johnson, FLA ~ Look for him to put up Cliff Lee numbers with more strike-outs.
- Cliff Lee, PHI ~ Okay, I'll give in. Lee certainly has shown he has the goods the last several seasons despite 4 team changes in 3 seasons since his 2008 22 win season with the Indians. It should be noted that despite decent peripherals, he's averaged only 13 wins in the two seasons since. He should be good for 180 K's and 15 wins his season.
- Zach Greinke, MIL ~ May outperform several of the guys above, but a poor 2010 with a shift to a new league and team leaves a little concern. In all likelihood he should rebound quite well in his new digs. I expect a 200 inning, 200k season, with 13+ wins, a sub-1.2 WHIP and an ERA just over 3.00.
- Justin Verlander, DET ~ Verlander's been a beast the last 2 seasons, and playing half his games in hitter friendly Comerica Park leaves no reason to believe he won't dominate yet again.
- Ubaldo Jimenez, COL ~ Despite playing for the Colorado Rockies, Ubaldo can be as dominating a pitcher as the league has. He exploded to a huge fantasy start with 15 wins before the All-Star break. However, a terrible July hurt him, and he while he played well down the stretch, he managed only 4 more wins. Still, at 27 he's just going to improve.
- C.C. Sabathia, NYY ~ CC is a mercurial guy, who goes through big performance swings, but through 2 seasons with the Yankees he's averaged 20 wins and 197 K's with a 1.17 WHIP.
- Cole Hamels, PHI ~ The third Philly on this list bookends the top fantasy pitching tiers. His Win totals were low last season, but expect 15+ this year with lots of K's and strong peripherals.
- David Price, TB ~ You could argue that Price belongs in Tier two, and I wouldn't disagree but for his lack of proven consistency. He's got the stuff to put him in Tier one by next season, and you should be a happy fantasy GM if he turns out to be your first SP drafted.
- Tommy Hanson, ATL ~ While Hanson's K-ratio was not as strong in his first season in the majors as his minor league numbers suggested, he showed us that he can live up to the hype. His 10 wins and sub-200K stats may allow him to go a round or three later than he should, so keep an eye on him as his 2011 should be huge... if his second half performance last season is predictive of where he'll be this year.
- Jered Weaver, LAA ~ The 28 year-old was a beast last season and hardly anyone noticed. He threw over 224 innings with 233 strike-outs with a 3.01 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. While I don't expect that again this season, I can see 200/200 with 14 wins.
- Mat Latos, SD ~ He should be a solid 200/200 starter this season with great ERA and WHIP. What hurts Latos is his team's lack of offense. He'll struggle to get to 13/14 wins. But, he should have better ERA and WHIP than the 2 guys below him and combined with a later draft slot, he has more value. And he may get just as many wins as Liriano or Gallardo.
- Francisco Liriano, MIN ~ Liriano finally showed us that filthy fantasy stud we've all been waiting for the last few seasons.
- Yovani Gallardo, MIL ~ Another solid 200/200 season with 14+ wins should be in the offing.
- Dan Haren, ARI ~ What's old is new again with Haren, and Oswalt below. A poor start to his 2010 season ended in fantasy gold with his trade to the Angels. The list of quality 200/200 pitchers is short. If not for his first half last season, Haren would be ranked in the top 12, so he should be a fantasy bargain in 2011.
- Roy Oswalt, PHI ~ He looked like a stud drifting out to pasture after his 2009 season, but he 2010 he proved he still has it. Now he plays for a team with serious firepower, and he's no longer burdened with carrying the pitching staff. He makes our 4th Philly starter in the top 20.
- Max Scherzer, DET ~ Yet another stud pitcher the Diamondbacks let get away. Mad Max has had his share of struggles, but after a brief return to the minors early last season, he looked every bit as good as we'd been hoping for. His stuff is nasty and his ballpark's pitcher friendly.
- Matt Cain, SF ~ While there is another pitcher below him in these rankings I like better this year, you can't undervalue consistency. Cain is a solid lock for 14 wins and 175 keys with a low WHIP and ERA under .335.
- Brandon Morrow, TOR ~ Yeah he's injury concern, but he's also a pure strike-out machine. I project 13-14 wins with 200 K's this season. He needs to bring his ERA down, but he's young and it will improve.
- Chris Carpenter, STL ~ With Wainright out for the season Carpy is once again the team's #1 guy, which may actually hurt him. But he is a solid K pitcher with a good offense behind him so 15 plus wins with 180+ K's is his likely contribution if he remains healthy.
- Jonathan Sanchez, SF ~ He's being ranked much lower elsewhere, but that is a good thing cause it means you can get him for cheap. He's another 200/200 starter who ended last season with 13 wins and a 3.07 ERA. He needs to control his walks and he'll really be a top echelon pitcher.
--Tier 2, Fantasy Aces--
--Tier Three, The Next Generation of Elite--
Stay tuned for 26-50, coming soon.