Opening Day of the 2015 MLB season is less than a month away, which means fantasy baseball is just around the corner. For some leagues, drafts have already begun or will soon begin and Athlon Sports is here to help.
Besides providing our comprehensive Fantasy Baseball Big Board, we also have our positional rankings, courtesy of Bruce Herman. These are pulled straight from this year’s 2015 MLB Preview magazine, which is available at newsstands everywhere and for purchase online.
A: FRANCHISE PLAYER — You need one to compete, two to win, three to dominate.
B: CAREER YEAR — Veteran with a strong possibility of delivering his best season.
C: SLEEPER — Could be a great acquisition at a price or draft slot below his true value.
D: ROADBLOCKED — Rank has been lowered because there is no current opportunity to play regularly.
E: DECLINER — Expect moderately to significantly worse stats than in 2014.
F: INJURY RISK — Has had a recent injury that could affect performance.
G: INVESTOR’S SPECIAL — Top prospect whose immediate impact may be minimal.
Pitching stats are expressed W-ERA-SO-WHIP.
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Starting Pitchers
1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (A)
Kershaw is No. 1. Water is wet. Yes, his four-year ERA of 2.11 is the ninth-best of the live-ball era, but consider this: He allowed 18% of his ERs last season in one inning, without which his ERA would have been 1.46 instead of 1.77. SOs/WHIP/wins since 2010: first/first/second.
2. Chris Sale, White Sox (A)
Sale lines up right behind Kershaw in three categories — wins excluded — but now the White Sox are better positioned to supply some runs. In 2014, he made only 26 starts and won just seven of the 15 times he surrendered 0-1 ERs, so he could easily jump from 12 victories to 18.
3. Felix Hernandez, Mariners (A)
Hernandez has shed 3-to-4 mph off his fastball over the years, but he’s made the compulsory transition to the point where his 2014 campaign was his best in ERA, SOs and WHIP. Over his decade of excellence, he tops the majors in whiffs and the AL in ERA.
4. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (A,B)
Strasburg’s 242 SOs move him close to the top tier, but he still has adversarial relationships with the gopher ball and the big inning. It’s easy to imagine him taking the next step, especially if the Nats — who scored three or fewer runs in 15 of his starts — lend a hand.
5. Max Scherzer, Nationals
Scherzer — not Kershaw — has won more games (39, tied with Wainwright) with a higher WIN% (.830) and more SOs (492) than any other pitcher in the game the past two years. He was not as dominant in 2014, though.
6. Johnny Cueto, Reds (A)
Only Kershaw’s ERA is lower than Johnny Beisbol’s 2.48 the last four years. Cueto’s 2014 SO rate of 8.9 per 9 far exceeded anything he’d done before, and he’s won 39 games in his last two full seasons. Durability had been an issue, but he led the NL in batters faced.
7. Madison Bumgarner, Giants (A)
Kershaw, Hernandez and CC Sabathia are the only active pitchers who’ve come close to Bumgarner’s numbers by an age-24 season. As indestructible as he looked in the postseason, how much longer can he throw 1,000-plus high-80s sliders per year out of that slinging, low-slot delivery?
8. Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals (A)
He’s actually more effective than teammate Strasburg, but in roto, the 25% fewer strikeouts are a big deal. A massive bound in SO/BB ratio from 4.0 in 2013 to 6.3 confirmed Zimmermann as having entered the peak phase of his underrated career.
9. David Price, Tigers (A)
Price led the majors with 271 SOs (and in pitches thrown) while walking only 38 batters — not easy to do. He lives in the strike zone so much these days, however, that he’s more hittable than most in the upper echelon of aces. Career ERA away from Tropicana Field is only 3.53.
10. Zack Greinke, Dodgers
Consistency has separated Greinke from the true alpha dogs much of his career, but for the first time, he has put two exceptional across-the-board seasons back-to-back. That includes his MLB-record groove of 22 consecutive starts with two or fewer ERs.
11. Cole Hamels, Phillies
Hamels, whose fate has reached Greek-tragedy depths, desperately needs a trade. Things have gotten so bad in Philly that his nine wins in 2014 were the fewest ever by a pitcher who made at least 30 starts with a sub-2.50 ERA. Since 2008, he’s lost 32 quality starts — most in baseball.
12. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals (E,F)
Wainwright pitched through discomfort the last three months to complete a tremendous season, but October elbow cartilage surgery throws up a yellow flag for a pitcher who’s already had Tommy John. Expect a tempered workload for Waino.
13. Jon Lester, Cubs
After never having posted an ERA below 3.21, Lester hit the free agent jackpot with a 2.46 last year. His 1.102 WHIP also was his best by far. Tossing out 2014 and the 2012 debacle as outliers, his full-season average has been 16-3.42-192-1.252.
14. Corey Kluber, Indians (E)
Never a top prospect, dumped by the Padres in an innocuous 2010 trade and not listed among our top 100 pitchers of 2014, Kluber mustered a miracle: 18-2.44-269-1.095. The only pitchers to match that line in the last quarter-century are Big Unit, Schilling, Clemens and Smoltz.
15. Yu Darvish, Rangers (F)
Darvish’s value is more strikeout-centric than anything else — the pitcher most likely to punch out 300 in a season. His 182 last year were the most ever in a campaign of fewer than 150 IP. He joined the long litany of elbow patients in August, but opted for rehab over surgery. Unfortunately, he could be facing season-ending surgery because of his elbow issues.
16. Alex Cobb, Rays
This is a lofty rating for someone who’s never won more than 11 games nor struck out 150 batters, but Cobb needs just to stay healthy (24-start average since 2012) and match his two-year ERA of 2.82 to validate it.
17. Julio Teheran, Braves
This fast-ascending 24-year-old’s 3.03 ERA of 2013-14 was seventh among hurlers with at least 28 wins and 350 SOs — better than such luminaries as Justin Verlander and Lester.
18. Andrew Cashner, Padres (B,C,F)
Something always happens to knock Cashner off the precipice of stardom, from role inconsistency to a lack of run support to physical setbacks. Last year, he went into his final start with the game’s fourth-lowest ERA (2.21) among 100-inning hurlers.
19. Jeff Samardzija, White Sox (B)
One of nine pitchers with an ERA below 3.00 and more than 200 SOs, yet his ledger was a heart-rending 7–13. He’s gone at least seven ER-free innings nine times the last two years — six of which his team lost anyway.
20. Sonny Gray, Athletics
His staying power has been questioned because of his size, but Gray capped 2014 with a 12-SO game, a shutout and a 2.08 ERA in two ALDS starts. He’s not the dominating type, but he is ideal as your No. 2 or 3 starter.
21. Jake Arrieta, Cubs
Among our 2014 “C” sleepers were breakout pitchers Gray, Alex Wood, Garrett Richards, Chris Archer, Wily Peralta, Michael Pineda and — the sleepingest beauty of all — Arrieta. His 2.53 ERA included a 1.46 at Wrigley, and he fanned 9.6 per nine.
22. Alex Wood, Braves
Wood, another hard-luck case, joined Hamels as the only pitchers with a sub-2.80 ERA and 150 or more SOs who lacked a winning record. He presents a bargain opportunity (especially in keeper leagues) before he blows up.
23. Michael Pineda, Yankees
Having taken the ball only 13 times in the last three years, and with his mph nowhere close to where it was as a rookie All-Star in 2011, Pineda isn’t all the way back. Nobody could hit him last year, though — a 1.89 ERA that was lower than anyone’s except Kershaw at his start level.
24. Anibal Sanchez, Tigers
2013 AL ERA champ who was off his game a little last season, then missed 10 starts with a pec injury. At one point he had a two-year streak in which he allowed three or fewer earnies 32 times in a row.
25. Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees (F)
With more emphatic health assurances, Tanaka (scary elbow) would slot high in Tier 2. Had he cloned his first three months over his last three, his season would have been a Cy Young Award-contending 22-2.10-254-0.951.
26. James Shields, Padres
“Small-to-Medium Game James” (career postseason ERA = 5.46) is a dinosaur in his ability to do the heavy lifting without the slightest hint of a physical toll. As such, his nine-year average of 33 starts at 14-3.64-190-1.205 is a secure baseline.
27. Danny Duffy, Royals (B,C)
Duffy was still a nonentity when his ERA peaked at 3.57 at the end of May. It was a stunning 1.93 over his next 18 starts. He’ll perch about halfway in between, but his counting stats won’t be anything great until he stretches out past 5.9 innings per start.
28. Matt Harvey, Mets (F)
The capricious nature of Tommy John “survivors” relegates Harvey to a ranking about 20 spots lower than would have been projected off his career to date: 2.39 ERA, 9.9 SOs/9 IP, 0.985 WHIP. True believers will draft him much higher.
29. Gerrit Cole, Pirates
Tough to get a bead on this presumptive phenom without a full season on his résumé. He tends to pitch consistently well, rarely either dominant or dominated. A 31-start extrapolation on his stats to date is 16-3.45-180-1.191.
30. Gio Gonzalez, Nationals
Seems to be on the downward slope of what has been a bell curve of a career, but he’s only 29 and has a couple of powerhouse seasons behind him. Helps, too, that he’s pitching for a potential championship team.
31. Shelby Miller, Braves
The Rubber Band Man. Partitioning Miller’s career into thirds: 1.98 ERA in his first 20 outings, 4.18 in his next 36, 2.92 in his most recent 13. More hills and valleys ahead, but in the long run, he’s a No. 2.
32. Justin Verlander, Tigers
The easy explanation for Verlander’s ERA inflation (2.40-2.64-3.46-4.54) is that he’s chucked nearly 2,000 more pitches than anyone else since 2007. It may also be the correct one, but it’s too soon to bury a 32-year-old who’s spent much of his career as the best there is.
33. Carlos Carrasco, Indians
Like Duffy, Carrasco went from zero to sexy before anyone noticed. On June 22, he was a middle reliever with a career ERA of 5.12. Suddenly, he was finishing the year on a roll of 10 starts with a 1.30 ERA. We see him more as a “light went on” type than a flash-in-the-pan.
34. Mat Latos, Marlins (F)
Of the 78 pitchers with at least 150 starts who were active in 2014, Latos was among nine with 60 wins, a 3.34 ERA and 850 SOs. Having undergone two elbow procedures in close proximity, his “horse” status has been withdrawn.
35. Doug Fister, Nationals (E)
Fister has improved his victory sum three years in a row, and his 2.41 ERA in 2014 was a yawning departure from his 3.67 of 2013. He’s not your man for punchouts, though — 84th among 88 qualifiers at 5.38 per nine.
36. Garrett Richards, Angels (E,F)
Transited from thrower to pitcher, standing at 13-2.61-164-1.038 prior to wrecking his knee in August. Those numbers are authentic, but he might not be back on the bump until May.
37. Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners (E)
Kuma peaked in mid-August, when his ERA stood at 2.31 over a two-year span of 29 starts. He faltered after that and may not have the durability to remain at the top of his game at age 34. Still a WHIP stud, though.
38. Henderson Alvarez, Marlins
He has a no-hitter and a four-win stretch in which all were shutouts; he’s gone 34 starts while allowing six homers; and last year he threw the fewest pitches per batter (3.38) among qualifiers. Conversely, he posted the highest differential between his actual (2.65) and Component ERAs (3.59), which often portends regression.
39. Michael Wacha, Cardinals (F)
2013 rookie hero who since has endured shoulder woes and a postseason demotion to the bullpen. Assuming the wing holds up, he still has a chance to be fringe-special.
40. Yordano Ventura, Royals
41. Drew Smyly, Rays (B,C)
42. Tyson Ross, Padres
43. Chris Archer, Rays
44. Jacob deGrom, Mets
45. Homer Bailey, Reds (F)
46. Zack Wheeler, Mets
47. Lance Lynn, Cardinals (E)
48. Wily Peralta, Brewers
49. Kevin Gausman, Orioles (C)
50. Matt Cain, Giants (F)
51. Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays
52. Jered Weaver, Angels
53. Derek Holland, Rangers
54. Matt Shoemaker, Angels (E)
55. Francisco Liriano, Pirates
56. Jose Quintana, White Sox
57. Chris Tillman, Orioles
58. Kyle Hendricks, Cubs (E)
59. Mike Fiers, Brewers (E)
60. Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays (C)
61. Jose Fernandez, Marlins (F)
62. Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dodgers (E)
63. Phil Hughes, Twins (E)
64. Collin McHugh, Astros (E)
65. Josh Collmenter, Diamondbacks (C)
66. Wade Miley, Red Sox
67. Mike Minor, Braves (F)
68. Dan Haren, Marlins
69. John Lackey, Cardinals
70. James Paxton, Mariners (C)
71. Dallas Keuchel, Astros (E)
72. Matt Garza, Brewers
73. Ian Kennedy, Padres
74. Rick Porcello, Red Sox
75. Jake Odorizzi, Rays
76. Nathan Eovaldi, Yankees (B,C)
77. Mike Leake, Reds
78. Brandon McCarthy, Dodgers
79. Edinson Volquez, Royals (E)
80. Jorge De La Rosa, Rockies
81. Bud Norris, Orioles
82. Kyle Lohse, Brewers (E)
83. Scott Kazmir, Athletics (E)
84. Jason Hammel, Cubs
85. Ervin Santana, Twins
86. Yovani Gallardo, Rangers
87. Cliff Lee, Phillies (F)
88. Alfredo Simon, Tigers (E)
89. Wei-Yin Chen, Orioles
90. Carlos Martinez, Cardinals (C)
91. Danny Salazar, Indians (C)
92. Jarred Cosart, Marlins
93. Shane Greene, Tigers
94. R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays
95. Trevor Bauer, Indians
96. Drew Pomeranz, Athletics (C)
97. Jonathon Niese, Mets (F)
98. C.J. Wilson, Angels
99. CC Sabathia, Yankees
100. Bartolo Colon, Mets