Filling out a starting rotation is one of the most important parts of building a fantasy baseball roster. After the Clayton Kershaws and Justin Verlanders of the world come off the board, drafting pitching becomes a bit dicey. For every Jaime Garcia, there's a Ubaldo Jimenez. With the proper study and preparation, it's much easier to identify the pitchers primed to take the next step, be it to stardom or just to reliability.
Here are my best bets for pitchers to take the next step in 2012.
Dan Hudson, Diamondbacks -- Hudson's teammate, Ian Kennedy, received much of the attention in the Diamondbacks' rotation last season thanks to his gaudy win total, but Hudson was equally as effective, posting a 3.49 ERA, 3.28 FIP, and a shade under 7 K/9. With a fastball that averaged 93.2 MPH last year, according to Fangraphs, and improving secondary pitches, there's plenty of reason to expect Hudson's K-rate to improve this season. His BABIP was .295 and his left-on-base percentage was 70.5, so luck was not a factor in his season. Moreover, despite posting a league-average fly-ball rate, Hudson has shown an ability to keep the ball in the park, allowing just 6.4 percent of his fly balls to leave the yard. Put simply, Hudson strikes out more than his fair share while walking few and being incredibly tough to take deep. With all those factors on his side, entering his age 25 season, Hudson looks ready to become a legitimate ace this year.
Max Scherzer, Tigers -- I blame Scherzer's disappointing 2011 on a home-run rate and BABIP that spiked, and a slightly lower strikeout rate. That's it. His FIP outperformed his ERA, and his xFIP was down at 3.70, suggesting he was very unlucky. For two straight years, he has been remarkably durable given his violent pitching motion, and has induced more ground balls than fly balls. The most encouraging sign for this year was Scherzer's declining walk rate in '11. After walking more than three batters per nine innings in each of his first two full seasons in the majors, Scherzer surrendered just 2.58 BB/9 last year. So long as his .314 BABIP normalizes a bit this year, something that may be easier said than done with what should be one of the league's worst infield defenses behind him, all his other rate stats should improve. You can lock him in for about 180 strikeouts, 200 innings and 15 wins, making him as bankable as it gets at his current ADP of 152.04.
Bud Norris, Astros -- Yeah, Norris went 6-11 a year ago, and the prospects for him winning a ton of games this year aren't bright considering the '12 Astros will likely be one of the worst MLB teams in recent memory. Yeah, he walks way too many batters. Still, I'm buying Norris becoming a reliable No. 3 this season. He features the fastball-slider combo indicative of a dominant power pitcher. Yes, to rise in the ranks, he'll need to develop his changeup to keep hitters off-balance, but Norris currently has an ADP in the 230s. Quite frankly, that's a joke. This is a guy who posted a 9.25 K/9 in 153.2 innings in '10 and 8.52 K/9 in 186 innings last year. He'll be 26 when the season starts, giving him room to improve. Get ready for a big year here.
Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals -- It's time for the Nats to fully unleash Zimmermann, and I don't think there's anyone who knows that better than Davey Johnson and Mike Rizzo, even despite the acquisitions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. Washington now boasts one of the league's deepest rotations, and Zimmermann is an important part of that. Did you know that, despite fairly pedestrian numbers, Zimmermann had a 3.16 FIP last year? He's not going to walk anyone, and he's probably going to keep the ball in the park. He has yet to post impressive strikeout numbers, but we can safely project that to improve, given his four-pitch repertoire and his average fastball sitting at 93.4 MPH. Even with Gonzalez and Jackson, don't be surprised if Zimmermann steps up as the No. 2 behind Stephen Strasburg.
Brandon Beachy, Braves -- Can you guess the most impressive stat of Beachy's breakout '11 campaign? Do you think it's the 10.74 K/9 innings? A great guess, but wrong. No, I'd say it was the fact that he was able to have the success he did despite a BABIP (.307) and LOB% (74.2) that show luck was not on his side. As you might expect, his 3.19 FIP was nearly half a run better than his ERA. With only a one-year sample, we can't expect those numbers to regress to the mean, but it's certainly the side I'd be betting on. Like many of the guys above, age is a factor here, too. Beachy will be just 25 this season.
Chat with me on Twitter, @MBeller.