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Greinke, Lincecum battle for title of No. 1 fantasy ace

There's just something about an unassuming, yet dominant fantasy ace who's made great strides in wins, strikeouts, WHIP and K/BB ratio in three straight seasons (not an easy feat). And there's just something about a stud who's a lock for 225 innings -- but not necessarily 242 strikeouts -- without media types penning pieces about their overuse from one year to the next. Projections: 17 wins, 227 strikeouts, 2.71 ERA, 1.04 WHIP.

Pessimists, rejoice! After winning two Cy Young awards before his 26th birthday, and then parlaying that success into a lucrative $23 million deal in the offseason, it'd be human nature if Lincecum has a mini-slump in 2010 (by his standards). After all, we're talking about a kid with a somewhat violent delivery, who may have to overcompensate for the worst power-hitting club in the majors. That aside, Lincecum is still a fantasy dynamo and strong candidate for a third consecutive Cy. Projections: 17 wins, 243 strikeouts, 3.02 ERA, 1.11 WHIP.

In last year's preview, I boldly predicted a 3/1 K-BB ratio (2009 ratio: 212/66) and sub-3.00 ERA for Wainwright ... and was right on the money! This year, I'm taking it up a notch with the best pitcher in the NL Central -- and maybe, just maybe the entire Senior Circuit. Projections: 20 wins, 189 strikeouts, 2.84 ERA, 1.14 WHIP.

There is absolutely nothing to loathe about Halladay's fantasy prospects. He's a proven lock for 210-plus innings, 190 strikeouts, 17 wins, sub-3.00 ERA and eye-popping K/BB ratio every season -- regardless of his permanent mailing address. However, there has to be some form of a setback (albeit imperceptible to the human eye) when pitching up to 20 games at Philly's bandbox of a home park. Projections: 18 wins, 188 strikeouts, 3.12 ERA, 1.09 WHIP.

Next to Lincecum, Lester has the most dynamic stuff of any other pitcher in the top 10. He may also have baseball's most efficient defense at his disposal 33 times this season. Put it all together and we're absolutely sure that Lester will justify this lofty ranking above Felix Hernandez, Dan Haren, Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia. Projections: 17 wins, 241 strikeouts, 3.18 ERA, 1.15 WHIP.

No one is saying that Sabathia is immune to elbow or shoulder injuries. But have you ever seen a smoother, more consistent pitching stroke from a guy who tips the scales at 250 or more? (Soft-tosser Rick Reuschel doesn't count, sorry.) What's our point to this? Simple. Don't expect Sabathia to fall off the proverbial cliff in 2010 as the result of 760-plus innings pitched in the last three seasons (including playoffs). But do expect him to once again carry a staff that now features Javier Vazquez as well. Projections: 18 wins, 237 strikeouts, 3.29 ERA, 1.17 WHIP.

Don't expect Verlander to hit cruise control now that he's signed an $80 million extension with the Tigers. No, with the memories of an abysmal 2008 (4.84 ERA/1.40 WHIP) still fresh in his mind, Verlander will likely be driven to prove his worth as a year-in, year-out dynamo. Projections: 17 wins, 237 strikeouts, 3.52 ERA, 1.19 WHIP.

King Felix probably deserves a higher ranking here (especially after being severely undervalued last year), but we just can't see him surpassing 15 victories for the power-sapped Mariners. Yes, he plays in a pitcher-friendly ballpark, and yes, he has a stellar defense corps behind him; but in fantasyland, victories still feed the bulldog. Projections: 15 wins, 243 strikeouts, 2.77 ERA, 1.20 WHIP.

I used to chalk up Haren's infamous second-half struggles to youth and the Diamondbacks' lack of range on defense. But it's impossible to ignore a systematic regression for three straight seasons after the All-Star break. On the positive side, it's just as impossible to ignore the stellar numbers that hit the bottom line at season's end. (It goes without saying ... feel free to trade him in July). Projections: 15 victories, 211 strikeouts, 3.31 ERA, 1.08 WHIP.

If the Marlins are going to rise up and slay the Phillies, Braves and any other National League challenger for the wild card, Johnson and centerfielder Cameron Maybin will have to play major roles for the Flyin' Fish. (That Hanley Ramirez guy will have to be good, too.) All signs point to Johnson having a monster year assuming he doesn't suffer from the 250-percent jump in innings pitched from 2008 to '09. Projections: 16 wins, 207 strikeouts, 3.21 ERA, 1.17 WHIP.

I have a firm policy against drafting pitchers in the first five rounds of 5x5 mixed-league drafts. But that stubbornness could easily fall by the wayside if Gallardo remains up for grabs around the 55th pick. Simply put, Gallardo is finally ready to join the elite strata of fantasy pitchers -- assuming his walks/9 rate comes down, as expected. Say hello to baseball's next dynamo. Projections: 15 wins, 212 strikeouts, 3.48 ERA, 1.28 WHIP.

Speaking of untenable walk rates, Kershaw barely has a 2/1 K-BB ratio in two major league seasons (spanning 139 innings), but that's the only negative with a 21-year-old stud who's primed to take a giant leap forward this year. And if that vague platitude wasn't enough to wet your whistle, check this out: Kershaw allowed only 36 earned runs in his final 26 starts. Boom! Projections: 14 wins, 206 strikeouts, 3.29 ERA, 1.24 WHIP.

Hanson may be 24, but I fully expect the Braves to offer up the kid-gloves treatment for at least one more year. All this translates to no significant upgrade from his 189 minor/major league innings in 2009 ... which explains the middling ranking for this top-10 fantasy talent. Projections: 13 wins, 149 strikeouts, 2.84 ERA, 1.20 WHIP.

From a baseball perspective, Lee could not have gone to a better team (or ballpark) in the offseason. The Mariners' defense is top-notch, and Safeco Field is generously proportioned -- if not cavernous. Put it all together and Lee represents the ideal No. 2 pitcher in fantasyland. Projections: 16 wins, 179 strikeouts, 3.17 ERA, 1.23 WHIP.

It'd be the easiest thing in the world to rubber-stamp Vazquez's 2010 projections from either his 2009 work with the Braves (15 wins/238 Ks/2.87 ERA/1.03 WHIP) or 2004 output with the Yankees (14 wins/150 Ks/4.91 ERA/1.29 WHIP). The second-easiest thing? Simply finding the median of Vazquez's most significant fantasy seasons of the past 10 years. Projections: 15 wins, 194 strikeouts, 3.89 ERA, 1.16 WHIP.

Consider this the line of demarcation for über-talented studs with significant fantasy question marks. Yes, Jimenez has improved his strikeouts, ERA and wins in the last three seasons; and yes, Ubaldo actually owns a better ERA at home than away from Coors Field. However, it's very hard to ignore that his ERA was higher than 4.17 for three separate months of 2009, slightly diluting the numbers of a future dynamo. Projections: 15 wins, 197 strikeouts, 3.56 ERA, 1.21 WHIP.

Beckett is hardly a lock for 200 strikeouts, 18 victories, a sub-3.90 ERA or sub-1.20 WHIP these days. Strangely, though, he is a lead-pipe cinch for 200 innings and one four-week stretch of carrying head-to-head fantasy clubs. In other words, he's a safe choice for fantasy goodness. Projections: 16 wins, 189 strikeouts, 3.93 ERA, 1.12 WHIP.

Yes, Santana's days of ruling fantasyland are probably over. And yes, it's quite possible that he'll never sniff 200-plus strikeouts or a microscopic WHIP again. But if fully healthy (as Santana claims to be right now), he still holds amazing value as a classic No. 2 or 3 pitcher. But please, no delusions of a No. 1 workhorse. Projections: 13 wins, 178 strikeouts, 3.03 ERA, 1.17 WHIP.

Nolasco possesses a certain bipolar nature on the mound. One start, he's allowing two hits and one run (while striking out 12). Just five days later, he's surrendering eight runs in two innings. But we're embracing Nolasco's Sybil-ness for a variety of reasons: 1) He's only 27 ... 2) He's a lead-pipe cinch for a 4.5/1 K-BB ratio ... 3) He's a lock for 200-plus strikeouts (healthy permitting) ... 4) And if the Marlins should demote him to AAA New Orleans for god-knows-why around May or June, we know Nolasco has the mental strength to shine -- if not dominate -- upon returning to the bigs. Projections: 14 wins, 185 strikeouts, 4.07 ERA, 1.27 WHIP.

As the East Coast's biggest blind supporter of Cain (family members don't count), I want this ranking to be a little higher. But there's still no guarantee that Cain's WHIP or wins will see significant improvements in 2010. That aside, he's a solid Round 7 pick with fantasy-ace potential in mixed leagues. Projections: 14 wins, 181 strikeouts, 2.95 ERA, 1.22 WHIP.

With four solid years under his belt, there's nothing that suggests Shields will not equal or surpass his sterling numbers from 2008. Consider last year's pedestrian effort (4.14 ERA/1.32 WHIP) to be the exception that proves the rule, regarding a potential ace who might only be Tampa Bay's fourth-best starter by season's end. Projections: 15 wins, 162 strikeouts, 3.51 ERA, 1.12 WHIP.

Granted, Peavy only pitched in three games for the White Sox last year -- so the sample size of past information is barely worth mentioning. However, if Peavy is at 100 percent, he still has the stuff of a fantasy ace -- but at a Round 8 price. If anything, he should compete for the unofficial WHIP title amongst starters with 180 or more innings. Projections: 12 wins, 167 strikeouts, 2.37 ERA, 1.04 WHIP.

The way I see it, only "victories" are holding back Wandy from fantasy stardom. And just like Forrest Gump ... that's all I've got to say about that. Projections: 14 wins, 198 strikeouts, 3.01 ERA, 1.26 WHIP.

Slowey earned a top-10 preseason ranking last year, to the chagrin of many fantasy fans (one even posted a "Is Jay Clemons high?" rant on a now-defunct site). And in hindsight, perhaps we jumped the gun on one of baseball's most underrated pitchers. However, he was on-pace for 17 wins and 168 strikeouts (as predicted), before suffering a wrist injury that's now fully healed. Maybe we're underselling his talents this time. Projections: 15 wins, 159 strikeouts, 3.88 ERA, 1.17 WHIP.

Hamels should enjoy the less-pressurized task of being Philly's No. 2 starter -- thanks to Roy Halladay's arrival. In real terms, he'll likely fall somewhere between his production of 2008 and '09. Projections: 14 wins, 194 strikeouts, 3.92 ERA, 1.18 WHIP.

Without a doubt, Garza's potential greatness warrants a higher ranking here (and perhaps he'll get it midway through spring training). At this point in his career, victories may be his only fantasy stumbling block; and if the Rays are to regain their spot atop the AL East this season (or at least claim the wild card), it's easy to believe that he'll get his 14 wins. Projections: 14 wins, 198 strikeouts, 3.87 ERA, 1.24 WHIP.

When evaluating Weaver's prospects, it comes down to gauging what's real and what's an aberration. Is his scary-high flyball rate from '09 (around 50 percent) the wave of the future ... or is the higher groundball rate against left-handers more indicative of the Angels' ace? Along those lines, how will he handle the transition to Anaheim's No. 1 starter, now that John Lackey has left for Boston? In all cases, it's best to go conservative here. Projections: 15 wins, 162 strikeouts, 3.79 ERA, 1.22 WHIP.

The "human side" of these seemingly robotic projections have finally come to the surface. On track record alone, Billingsley only deserves a top-40 ranking ... but we're blindly ready to predict top-28 greatness. Projections: 16 victories, 192 strikeouts, 3.93 ERA, 1.29 WHIP.

If Lackey had gone to any other title contender, via free agency, perhaps his ranking wouldn't be so high. But with Boston's superb defense and the mythology of Fenway Park actually working in his favor now, good karma is seemingly heading Lackey's way. Plus, he no longer faces the singular pressure of anchoring a playoff-contending staff. Projections: 16 wins, 149 strikeouts, 3.65 ERA, 1.26 WHIP.

Let's face it: Even with Burnett's enviable talent and the Yankees organization at his disposal, he's a tough sell as a top-2 starter in fantasyland. The ERA probably won't dip below 4.00 come July, and the WHIP numbers will likely be mediocre, at best. But hey, at least the victories and strikeouts will come ... right? Projections: 15 wins, 192 strikeouts, 4.17 ERA, 1.38 WHIP.

There are signs -- some faint -- that Oswalt is no longer the fantasy stud of years past. But I cannot resist the temptation of corralling (read: stealing) a potential anchor in Round 11 or 12. Projections: 13 wins, 158 strikeouts, 3.85 ERA, 1.18 WHIP.

The 15 victories aside, I'm willing to guarantee improvements in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts for Baker. Chalk it up to Target Field or the Twins' strong defense (assuming Jim Thome doesn't stray from DH too much), but he'll bring Round 4 or 5 value for Round 11 draft-day prices. Projections: 13 victories, 173 strikeouts, 3.94 ERA, 1.16 WHIP.

Two weeks ago, Jurrjens had a higher ranking in this countdown. But recent reports of inflammation in his right shoulder have prompted a more conservative outlook for 2010. Kris Medlen ... better get your arm loose for six-plus innings every five days. Projections: 11 victories, 164 strikeouts, 3.49 ERA, 1.27 WHIP.

Carpenter's mediocre ranking is solely based on the premise of 26 or fewer starts in 2010. Yes, it's not a good practice to forecast injuries in fantasyland, but I cannot turn a blind eye to one of baseball's most star-crossed pitching talents. Projections: 14 victories, 138 strikeouts, 2.39 ERA, 1.10 WHIP.

I felt compelled to group Anderson with Carpenter -- but for entirely different reasons. At 22, the A's will most likely put Anderson under a soft innings cap, which should ultimately hinder his draft-day slot and year-end production. But look out for 2011! Projections: 11 wins, 141 strikeouts, 2.64 ERA, 1.14 WHIP.

In four years of fantasy baseball -- spanning 25 leagues -- I have never drafted or traded for Dempster ... which may be a failing on my part. After all, what's not to like about a guy who's a near-lock for a sub-3.80 ERA and 175 strikeouts? Projections: 13 wins, 175 strikeouts, 3.76 ERA, 1.33 WHIP.

There are reports that Dice-K has entered Red Sox camp in the best shape of his life, which is nice, I suppose. But conditioning has never been an issue. I'm more concerned with the health of his right shoulder and elbow ... along with his alarmingly high walk rate (even during the pseudo-dominant 2008 season). Any assurances for that? Projections: 14 wins, 153 strikeouts, 4.41 ERA, 1.34 WHIP.

This Colorado pitcher may be an obvious asset on draft day, but he's not a rubber-stamp starter from April-October, either. De la Rosa is the quintessential hot-and-cold fantasy wunderkind -- capable of fanning 13 one game ... and allowing 10 runs the next. Good luck guessing when/where the gravy train begins/ends. Projections: 13 victories, 185 strikeouts, 4.33 ERA, 1.39 WHIP.

In a classic case of selective memory, I'm willing to lob Price an '09 free pass for his middling ERA (4.42), porous K/BB rate (102/54) and untenable rate of HRs allowed (1 per 7 innings pitched). But that doesn't mean I'm devoid of worries for the coming season. After all, he's 25 -- not 21 -- which means he'll have to demonstrate marked improvement sooner than later ... or risk a decline in next year's countdown. (Like he cares.) Projections: 11 wins, 165 strikeouts, 4.21 ERA, 1.31 WHIP.

In the not-too-distant future, the Orioles will boast four starting pitchers in this countdown (Matusz, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Matt Hobgood); but for now, only Matusz will be called upon to get the ball rolling. Admittedly, we're taking a blind leap with Baltimore's best pitching prospect since Mike Mussina. Projections: 12 wins, 125 strikeouts, 4.03 ERA, 1.29 WHIP.

Best Of The Rest41. Edwin Jackson, Diamondbacks42. John Danks, White Sox43. Randy Wells, Cubs44. Carlos Zambrano, Cubs45. Zach Duke, Pirates46. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals47. Jeff Niemann, Rays48. Rick Porcello, Tigers49. Wade Davis, Rays50. Randy Wolf, Brewers51. Mat Latos, Padres52. Huroki Kuroda, Dodgers53. Johnny Cueto, Reds54. Rich Harden, Rangers55. Kevin Millwood, Orioles56. J.A. Happ, Phillies57. Derek Lowe, Braves58. Ervin Santana, Angels59. Max Scherzer, Tigers60. Kevin Correia, Padres61. Andy Pettitte, Yankees62. Joba Chamberlain, Yankees63. Ricky Romero, Blue Jays64. Jonathan Sanchez, Giants65. Gavin Floyd, White Sox66. Paul Maholm, Pirates67. John Maine, Mets68. Erik Bedard, Mariners69. Ross Ohlendorf, Pirates70. Aaron Harang, Reds

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