It's an interesting era in fantasy baseball when it comes to starting pitchers. There's three general categories -- superstars across four categories (ERA, WHIP, wins, strikeouts), who will be drafted in the early rounds; pitchers who can still contribute in three of the four categories, who will go in the middle rounds; and low-risk gambles, who will hopefully turn into next year's middle and early rounders.
But sometimes, we'll come across certain pitchers who only help out in one or two categories, while being mediocre or even detracting in other categories. For example:
• Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs: 217 strikeouts, with just eight wins, 4.34 ERA and 1.348 WHIP in 2013
• Ian Kennedy, SD: 163 strikeouts (in 181.3 IP), with just seven wins, 4.91 ERA and 1.400 WHIP
• Jeremy Guthrie, KC: 15 wins with just 111 strikeouts, 4.04 ERA and 1.394 WHIP
• Andrew Cashner, SD: 3.09 ERA and 1.131 WHIP, with 10 wins, 128 strikeouts
• Matt Cain, SF: 1.156 WHIP, 4.00 ERA, eight wins and 158 strikeouts
Notice that Cain, Cashner and Samardzija are three top-40 fantasy starting pitchers; in spite of the fact their 2013 season being below average in three of the four main pitching stats, they're expected to improve in 2014. For your sake, however, you could be better off drafting a more reliable option at that point in the draft, especially if you didn't get great starters ahead of them.
While the top of the heap has become a little thinner than in years past, there's still a ton of talent at the starting pitcher position, so look to build depth in the middle rounds more than the higher rounds.
Is there a debate at No. 1?
Clayton Kershaw might not have Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson numbers, but he's the unquestioned top fantasy pitcher entering 2014. While Detroit's Max Scherzer was close on his tail for top pitcher numbers in 2013, Kershaw still remains the better bet to repeat his numbers in 2014.
Kershaw dominated batters last season to the tune of an NL-leading 232 strikeouts in 236 innings. He earned 16 wins, with career bests in ERA (1.83) and WHIP (0.915).
As a matter of fact, over the past three seasons, Kershaw has been the most impressive pitcher in the game, with the pitchers that are closest to him going in the opposite way. Kershaw has averaged 17 wins with a 2.21 ERA, 0.968 WHIP and 236 strikeouts in 232 innings. Justin Verlander and Cliff Lee are right behind him -- but they're both over 32 years old, as Kershaw will turn 26 this March.
Comeback Player: Michael Pineda
Pineda came over to the Yankees in the infamous trade that sent yet another over-hyped Yankees prospect (Jesus Montero) to Seattle after his All-Star rookie season in 2011. Unfortunately, shoulder surgery prevented him from making his Yankees debut, and his 2013 comeback was limited to just the minors.
After a full offseason of rest, Pineda might be able to churn out 150 innings on a rebuilt Yankees team that could use him in the back of their rotation. He's someone to consider in the final round of your draft, or as a waiver pickup once he gets the starting nod. But at 6-foot-7 and 265 lbs., he's an imposing beast on the mound with a 95-mph fastball that could learn some things from CC Sabathia. Recipes, too!
Breakout: Doug Fister
After five seasons playing at the hitter-friendly Comerica Park, Fister was traded to Washington this offseason for three minor league players. Nationals Park is considered an even playing field for both hitters and pitchers, ranking 13th in runs scored rate at home compared to on the road, which should contribute to Fister's numbers.
Also, Fister is a great groundball-inducing pitcher, with just two pitchers posting better groundball-to-flyball ratios in 2013 than his 1.30. With a much better infield defense behind him in Washington than he had in Detroit, good things are ahead for Fister -- and his fantasy owners.
Potential Bust: Anibal Sanchez
Anyone that ended up with Sanchez as their third or fourth fantasy starter last season loved his breakout season in Detroit, his first season in the American League. He had great numbers, of course, and he was one of just four pitchers to win 14 games, get 200 strikeouts and have an ERA under 3.00 last season. The other three pitchers? Cy Young winners Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Adam Wainwright.
But because of all that, he's going to be too expensive to rely on in his second year in Motown. His ADP currently sits near Rounds 7 and 8, which means he's considered an first or second starting pitcher in fantasy. He's coming off a career season, and AL hitters will have had a full season to figure him out. Look for the 2014 version of Sanchez in the middle rounds, but take a more reliable pitcher in Rounds 7 or 8.
Sleeper: Chris Tillman
Much to fantasy owners delight, Tillman seemingly came out of nowhere to post decent numbers in Baltimore's rotation. A highly touted prospect back in 2008 and '09, Tillman was forced to work on all of his pitches after a drop in speed, eventually making him a better pitcher.
Normally, naming a 16-win pitcher as a "sleeper" is undermining a player who has already achieved. But in this case, everyone knows Tillman overachieved a bit in 2013, which is evidenced by his current ADP in Round 21. We consider "sleepers" players that we expect to go from the late rounds (or undrafted) to the middle rounds in next year's draft. Tillman could prove to be a good SP3 pick in Rounds 11 or 12 in 2015.
Top Prospect: Taijuan Walker
The Mariners have been excited about this pitcher for a few years, and while some of Seattle's fellow pitching prospects have hit some speed bumps, Walker has continued to get better and better. He has a legitimate shot to start the season as the Mariners' third pitcher in the rotation. At just 21 years old, he's sure to hit some bumps in the road, but in a short stint late last season, he proved worthy (granted, his opponents were the Royals and then the Astros twice). He went five innings deep in each outing, allowing 11 hits and six earned runs in 15 innings, with 12 strikeouts and four walks.
It'll be interesting to see where he gets drafted near the end of March, especially if he looks great this spring. With Felix Martinez mentoring him and Safeco Field helping him, good things are expected from the former basketball player.
There are some pitchers with eligibility at starter (five starts) and starter/reliever (10 relief appearances), including some relief-only pitchers who could make the transition to the rotation this spring, like St. Louis' Carlos Martinez.
Some dual-eligible pitchers include: Hector Santiago, Garrett Richards, Tyson Ross, Joe Kelly, Alex Wood, Kevin Gausman, Brett Anderson, David Phelps, and Tyler Thornburg.
Make sure you check out your league's pitcher-eligibility rules because some Head-to-Head formats might not allow you to put some of these pitchers as starting pitchers until they make five starts. That could possibly take a month -- especially if they're slotted in the fifth spot.
David Gonos is a fantasy sports veteran of over 20 years and over 100 fantasy leagues. You can also follow/mock him @davidgonos on Twitter.