In real baseball, pitching wins championships. In fantasy baseball, however, pitching can often frustrate more than it helps. Drafting starters early is a dangerous gamble -- as anyone who spent a high pick on Tim Lincecum last year can attest.
That doesn't mean fantasy owners can ignore the position. The best philosophy is to attack the position for quality depth instead of merely grabbing a couple of aces and then streaming scrubs throughout the season. Strength in numbers tends to be a safe way to end up with a chunk of the season's top arms.
Is there a debate at No. 1?
Yes. Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw will likely be the top two pitchers off the board in most drafts, but I'm convinced Stephen Strasburg will emerge as the top arm in fantasy. Thus, he's first on my board. It's tempting to select guys like Verlander and Kershaw, who have done it before, but Strasburg presents the highest up-side. The truth is, any of the top pitchers on SI.com's board (Strasburg, Verlander, Kershaw, David Price, Felix Hernandez) could wind up No. 1, but no one else boasts the rocket arm, wicked strikeout totals and wins potential combo that Strasburg does.
Comeback player: Tim Lincecum, Giants
Lincecum's velocity and fantasy value declined so quickly, I'm inclined to believe both will return this season. He's not going to be fantasy's top pitcher again, but he's still only 28 and his performance in the postseason shows he hasn't lost his stuff. He just needs to figure out how to sustain his success given his skinny frame and wonky delivery. Lincecum was so good so soon that his 2012 struggles aren't necessarily a bad thing. He needed to learn to become more pitcher than thrower. If he's done that, he can again be a fantasy ace.
Breakout: Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
One of the best ways to find players who will outperform their draft position is to target pitchers who have made around 40-70 career starts, which usually places them in their third season. That's usually when a pitcher can shoulder the 200-inning grind and avoid falling apart down the stretch. With 45 career starts, 21 career victories and 313 strikeouts in 251 1/3 innings, Strasburg is primed to explode in 2013. He will blow away his career high of 159 1/3 innings in a season and, assuming he maintains the ratios he has posted to date, he could win the pitching triple crown. Maybe quadruple crown, if we count WHIP along with wins, ERA and strikeouts. Strasburg instantly emerged as a national star and a relevant fantasy player, but in his third season, while pitching "without restriction," he will break out as a true tier 1 fantasy ace. With Strasburg, 200 innings should mean 20 victories and 250-plus strikeouts.
Bust: R.A. Dickey, Mets
This one's almost too easy. Very few fantasy owners think Dickey is likely to replicate his 20-win, Cy Young season. Granted, Dickey throws arguably the hardest knuckleball anyone has seen and manages to command it and register strikeouts unlike anyone in history. But that's still not enough reason to expect him to perform like a top-tier fantasy ace. There might be as many as 20 pitchers worth taking ahead of Dickey. If you're cautious, someone else will likely grab him before you do and spare you the bust risk.
Sleeper: Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays
Sleeper pitchers tend to emerge from the fantasy woodwork, and Morrow is one scary cockroach. If he can ever hit 200 innings, he would rate as one of the top 15 pitchers in fantasy, if not a Cy Young candidate. In fact, many rounds after Toronto teammate Dickey is off the board, fantasy owners might be able to get the Blue Jays' pitcher who is a better fantasy commodity, stat-for-stat. Morrow, 28, has the kind of arm that can deliver an ERA around 2.50, a WHIP around 1.050 and 220-plus strikeouts. He just needs to stay healthy and take the ball every fifth day. Jump on Morrow after the top 25 pitchers are off the board, and you could have the steal of the draft.
Top prospect/rookie: Dylan Bundy, Orioles
Even the greatest arms can require time to adjust at the major league level. For every Lincecum, Hernandez, Strasburg or Kershaw, there are dozens of guys like Phil Hughes, Edinson Volquez, Neftali Feliz and Julio Teheran. Still, the 2011 draft class looks bound to make a huge impact in fantasy baseball this year. Dylan Bundy, picked fourth overall by the Orioles in that draft, is the leader of it all. In his first season, he rose from low Class-A ball to the bullpen of a playoff team. The only things keeping Bundy from earning "sleeper" status are the facts that he's yet to build his arm up to 150 innings and he's likely to start the season in the minors. Gerrit Cole (PIT, drafted 1-1), Danny Hulzten (SEA, 1-2) and Trevor Bauer (ARI, 1-3, traded to CLE this winter) were drafted ahead of Bundy, but the Orioles' farmhand has the best stuff and long-term potential. All four of these 2011 draft arms figure to be shaping fantasy leagues for as long as their shoulders hold up, though.
Other potential eligibles
Our rankings below consider pitchers with eligibility at starter (five starts) and starter/reliever (10 relief appearances) and also include some relief-only pitchers who are going to attempt to transition to the rotation this spring (Aroldis Chapman, Alexi Ogando, Wade Davis and Brett Myers).
Take a good look at your league rules, because some head-to-head formats might not allow you to slot Chapman as a starting pitcher until he accrues five starts. That could take a month. In that event, you would need to move Chapman out of the top 30 starting pitchers to target on draft day.
Based on the rough estimate projections below, the average starting pitcher in a 12-team league should produce around 14 wins, a 3.49 ERA, 181 strikeouts and a 1.225 WHIP.