Among the many benchmarks that can tip fantasy owners off to possible breakout players, one reliable trend is the emergence of pitchers entering their third year as a starter in the majors. A pitcher with around 60 major league starts tends to make the next big leap in terms of on-field production -- and fantasy value -- the following season.
Sixty starts, of course, is a ballpark figure -- a young, established starter could have anywhere from 40-70 starts under his belt entering his third full season. This range accounts for a pitcher who made the Opening Day roster as a rookie and turned in back-to-back seasons with 30 starts, as well as a midseason arrival who logs 15 starts in his first year and 25 in his second with some intermittent bullpen work before finally joining the rotation for good.
For a starting pitcher, a third-year breakout makes sense considering the growing pains that generally accompany the first two years in a big-league rotation. If a pitcher was at all successful in his rookie season, hitters (and their hitting coaches) have a more complete book on him and will make adjustments to his pitching style and tendencies. Since it's still just his second season and possibly his first trip through a 162-game schedule, his innings might be limited as the expectations for a long, productive career mount.
Heading into his third year, a young pitcher can work on specific pitches and tweaks to his mechanics during spring training without worrying about losing his place in the rotation. Most importantly, unless he has dealt with injuries, he won't be limited by an innings count in Year 3 that could derail his fantasy value at a critical point in the season.
Once a pitcher is no longer on an innings limit, what can we reasonably hope to see? With an eye towards value, we want pitchers primed to toss at least 200 innings in over 30 starts, with a good shot at over a dozen wins, a sub-4.00 ERA and a WHIP within the 1.250 range.
However, there just aren't as many 200-IP guys as there used to be. In 2013, 36 pitchers hit the mark, five more than the year before but three fewer than in 2011. Going back a decade, there were 44 pitchers that went over 200 innings in 2003, 42 that did it in 2002, and 45 who topped the mark in 2001.
Middle relief is taking a bigger bite out of the fantasy picture. Starting pitchers are expensive, and teams are lightening their loads a bit, allowing cheap, rag-armed middle relievers to eat up innings instead.
Regardless, for this discussion, we examine the third-year starting pitchers that we expect to take the next step in their fantasy production.
Top 10 third-year starting pitchers
We expect these third-year starting pitchers, ranked according to their Average Draft Position for 2014, to post career years. These starting pitchers have started at least 40 games in the majors over their first two full years.
Among the elite
We don't expect either of these players to make a big leap in fantasy value, considering they're already at the top of the heap.
1. Yu Darvish (27 years old), Texas Rangers
• Ranked No. 2 among starting pitchers in SI.com's Top 300
• 61 career starts
• Career bests: 16 wins, 2.83 ERA, 277 strikeouts, 1.073 WHIP in 209 2/3 innings pitched
Darvish is in a world of his own, coming off a sophomore season where he led the majors in strikeouts (277) and finished second in the AL Cy Young race. Not much room to go up.
2. Chris Sale (24), Chicago White Sox
• Ranked No. 9
• 59 career starts
• Career bests: 17/3.05/226/1.073 in 214 1/3 innings
Again, not much room to improve for the White Sox ace. After spending two seasons in Chicago's bullpen, appearing in 79 games as a reliever, he moved into the rotation in 2012. Twenty-eight wins and 418 strikeouts later, Sale is now a top-10 fantasy pitcher.
This next set of pitchers can certainly take another step and leap up into the top 10, but that's still pretty unlikely. Braves SP Kris Medlen was removed from this list after it was announced he is expected to have his second season-ending Tommy John surgery.
3. Alex Cobb (26), Tampa Bay Rays
• Ranked No. 22
• 54 career starts
• Career bests: 11/2.76/134/1.151 in 143 1/3 innings
Cobb was actually in the middle of a breakout sophomore season when he was hit in the head by a line drive last summer. With David Price possibly on the trade block and Matt Moore dealing with decreased velocity, Cobb has a shot at becoming Tampa Bay's ace by the end of 2014.
4. Matt Moore (24), Tampa Bay Rays
• Ranked No. 28
• 59 career starts
• Career bests: 17/3.29/175/1.297 in 177 1/3 innings
As we mentioned, Moore's drop in velocity last season raised a lot of eyebrows, and his elbow problems scared everyone even more. This is Moore's third spring in the rotation, and in spite of his woes last season, he still shaved his ERA down to 3.29 in 2013. He's having a tough spring so far, which should discount his draft price even more. If you can get him as an SP4, he's a gamble worth taking.
5. Hisashi Iwakuma (32), Seattle Mariners
• Ranked No. 35
• 49 career starts
• Career bests: 14/2.66/185/1.006 in 219 2/3 innings
Considering the sophomore seasons by Darvish and Iwakuma, it's starting to look like Japanese pitchers can take the next step in the majors in their second years rather than their third. Iwakuma finished third in the 2013 AL Cy Young race behind Darvish. This February, however, Iwakuma was diagnosed with a strained tendon in the middle finger of his right hand, pushing back the start of his season to mid-April at the earliest.
6. Jeff Samardzija (29), Chicago Cubs
• Ranked No. 37
• 66 career starts
• Career bests: 9/3.81/214/1.219 in 213 2/3 innings
The former Notre Dame wideout has been pitching in the majors since 2008, but he's only been a regular starter for the past two seasons. After blowing up in 2012, he took a small step back last season but logged a career-high in innings and raised his K-rate. If the Cubs were a better team, Samardzija would be ranked higher. Since he's reportedly on the trade block, a move to a contender would improve his fantasy value markedly.
Potential breakouts for 2014
This group of third-year starters has the best chance of going from late-round picks or waiver-wire fodder to middle-round picks by this time next year.
1. Corey Kluber (27), Cleveland Indians
• Ranked No. 48
• 36 career starts
• Career bests: 11/3.85/136/1.262 in 147 1/3 innings
Coming off an 11-win season, Kluber doesn't have a ton of upside, but he's a stable pitcher. A sprained finger stole some starts from him last season, and his numbers never fully rebounded after he returned from the injury.
2. Lance Lynn (26), St. Louis Cardinals
• Ranked No. 54
• 64 career starts
• Career bests: 18/3.78/198/1.314 in 201 2/3 innings
Lynn, like Corbin, had to battle for a rotation spot last spring, only to win it by default. For a while last offseason, fans wondered if he was bullpen-bound, but he went on to start 33 games and post 15 wins with a 3.97 ERA. There's no doubt he's streaky, but he has shown the ability to post a strikeout per inning, and he should go for another 200 innings in 2014.
3. Jose Quintana (25), Chicago White Sox
• Ranked No. 68
• 55 career starts
• Career bests: 9/3.51/164/1.220 in 200 innings
Quintana has been steady in both of his seasons, progressing the way a young pitcher should and enjoying improvements in his strikeout and walk rates. Last year may be the first of a string of 200-inning seasons, but unfortunately, those innings will come with limited support from an uninspiring White Sox roster. You could do worse with your fifth or sixth starting pitcher in a mixed-league Rotisserie draft.
4. A.J. Griffin (26), Oakland Athletics
• Ranked No. 73
• 47 career starts
• Career bests: 14/3.06/171/1.125 in 200 innings
While Sonny Gray seems to be the more valuable fantasy pitcher, Griffin remains a good fantasy option from the A's. Pitching in a great pitcher's park with plenty of foul territory that snuffs out second chances for hitters, Griffin could also duplicate his 200-inning season from 2013 -- this time with fewer home runs and a friendlier ERA.
5. Hector Santiago (26), Los Angeles Angels
• 27 career starts
• Career bests: 4/3.33/137/1.336 in 149 innings
With eligibility at both starting pitcher and relief pitcher, Santiago is a little more valuable in Head-to-Head formats, and his move from the White Sox to the Angels should help his cause. He walks too many batters, but if he can improve his control, as many third-year starters learn to do, then he's a good upside pick.
6. Wade Miley (26), Arizona Diamondbacks
• 69 career starts
• Career bests: 16/3.33/147/1.182 in 202 2/3 innings
Miley may have surpassed 60 starts last season, but this is his third full season as a starter in Arizona. While he's not a strikeout pitcher, he does keep runs off the board, with a 3.54 career ERA. His 2.93 ERA in 14 second-half starts last season is also cause for optimism.
7. Nate Eovaldi (24), Miami Marlins
• 46 career starts
• Career bests: 4/3.39/78/1.317 in 119 1/3 innings
Three things scare us away from drafting Eovaldi this spring: a shoulder injury early last season, a 6.60 K/9 ratio in 2013, and the fact he has very little run support from his offense.
8. Wei-Yin Chen (28), Baltimore Orioles
• 55 career starts
• Career bests: 12/4.02/154/1.261 in 192 2/3 innings
The Orioles are no longer a team we shrug off, so Chen's chances of a high win total are pretty good if he can reach 200 innings for the first time in his career. Again, we're looking at a pitcher that doesn't strike out a lot of batters, so he's rotation filler at best right now.
9. Miguel Gonzalez (29), Baltimore Orioles
• 43 career starts
• Career bests: 11/3.25/120/1.206 in 171 1/3 innings
Gonzalez is a late bloomer without a lot of strikeout potential, but he can deliver wins and an average ERA and WHIP. That makes him more of an AL-only option, for the most part.
10. Garrett Richards (25), Los Angeles Angels
• 29 career starts
• Career bests: 7/4.16/101/1.345 in 145 innings
Richards split time between the rotation and the bullpen last season. In his final 13 starts of the season, he went 5-4 with a 3.72 ERA, and he's worth taking a shot on in larger mixed leagues with your final pick.
11. Jacob Turner (22), Miami Marlins
• 33 career starts
• Career bests: 3/3.74/77/1.200 in 118 innings
Turner might be traded to a different ballclub soon, considering the stable of young pitchers the Marlins already have. If he ends up in the back of a contender's rotation with a better offense supporting him, Turner could be a nice sleeper candidate.
12. Felix Doubront (26), Boston Red Sox
• 59 career starts
• Career bests: 11/4.32/167/1.429 in 162 2/3 innings
While Doubront is expected to start the season in Boston's rotation, his dropoff in production from 2012 should have owners leery of owning him in mixed leagues. Despite throwing nearly the exact same number of innings, he struck out 28 fewer batters compared to 2012. The offense will get him some wins, but his ERA will be north of 4.00 again.
Best of the rest
Those are just our favorite 12 breakout candidates among the third-year starting pitchers. Below are a few more who could also surprise us with a year to remember.
13. Zach McAllister (26), Cleveland Indians -- 50 career starts
14. Drew Pomeranz (25), Oakland Athletics -- 30 career starts
15. Randall Delgado (24), Arizona Diamondbacks -- 43 career starts
16. Vance Worley (26), Minnesota Twins -- 56 career starts
17. Lucas Harrell (28), Houston Astros -- 59 career starts
18. Tommy Milone (27), Oakland Athletics -- 62 career starts
19. Scott Diamond (26), Minnesota Twins -- 58 career starts
20. Alex White (24), Houston Astros -- 30 career starts
Previewing the 2015 class of third-year starters
Here are a few pitchers who could be lined up for third-year breakouts next season.
• Wily Peralta (24), Milwaukee Brewers -- 37 career starts
• Shelby Miller (23), St. Louis Cardinals -- 32 career starts
• Julio Teheran (23), Atlanta Braves -- 34 career starts
• Hyun-Jin Ryu (26), Los Angeles Dodgers -- 30 career starts
• Jose Fernandez (21), Miami Marlins -- 28 career starts
• Dan Straily (25), Oakland Athletics -- 34 career starts
• Chris Archer (25), Tampa Bay Rays -- 27 career starts
• Martin Perez (22), Texas Rangers -- 26 career starts
• Jeff Locke (26), Pittsburgh Pirates -- 40 career starts
• Michael Pineda (25), New York Yankees -- 28 career starts