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Fantasy Baseball Preview: Starting Pitcher

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ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 18: Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the first inning against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game Six of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium on October 18, 2013 in St Louis, Missouri.

Clayton Kershaw (Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

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By Tony Meale

In our Fantasy Baseball Preview, CBS Local Sports breaks down the top players at each position for your fantasy baseball draft.

1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | C | RP | Sleepers/Busts

Position Overview

Okay, spoiler alert.

Here’s a list of starting pitchers not ranked on the list to follow:

Matt Cain, James Shields, Chris Sale, Mike Minor, Anibal Sanchez, Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Kris Medlen and Alex Cobb.

What does this tell us? It tells us that starting pitcher is deep; in fact, it might be the deepest position in fantasy. Therefore, you should forgo starting pitchers in the first four, five, six rounds of your draft, right?

Wrong.

There’s a popular belief within the fantasy baseball community that the key to winning a league is to spend literally your first 10+ picks on offense and worry about pitching later because a) there’s so much of it, and b) there’s so much of it.

Well, I’ll be honest. I’ve never won a fantasy league doing that. I’ve also never been in a league in which someone used that strategy and won.

Pitching is deep, yes; quality pitching is not.

Remember when Mike Tyson said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face? Well, everyone endorses the wait-on-pitchers strategy until their “ace” is Ricky Nolasco.

I’m not saying you should spend your first three picks on pitchers; I’m just saying you shouldn’t shun the position entirely. Every draft is different, but generally speaking, if you don’t have two starting pitchers within the first seven or eight rounds of a draft, well, that’s not good.

Ideally, you want at least one guy who would be a No. 1 on any staff in baseball and at least one guy who would be a No. 2 on any staff in baseball. Once you have those anchors, focus on offense and add pitching depth later.

The Top 12

1) Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball – and there is 215 million reasons why. The reigning three-time ERA champion is worthy of a first-round pick.

Projection: 20 wins, 2.44 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 240 strikeouts

2) Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers

The best fantasy pitcher in the American League, Darvish is a strikeout machine. He led the majors with 277 Ks last year, many coming on his nasty slider. Darvish, whose ERA dropped from 3.90 in 2012 to 2.83 in 2013, has a legitimate shot at 20 wins.

Projection: 19 wins, 3.18 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 268 strikeouts

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 14:  Adam Wainwright #50 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches in the first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game Three of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium on October 14, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

Adam Wainwright (Photo Credit: David J. Phillip/Pool/Getty Images)

3) Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals

Wainwright finished last season with a sub-3.00 ERA, 200+ strikeouts and the second-most wins (19) in all of baseball. He’s as safe as they come.

Projection: 18 wins, 3.20 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 210 strikeouts

4) Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

Hernandez has won between 12 and 14 games each of the last four seasons. Now with an offense approaching mediocre, Hernandez – always among the leaders in strikeouts – should be good for 15 wins.

Projection: 15 wins, 3.18 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 230 strikeouts

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5) Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

At his best, Strasburg is the top pitcher in baseball. At his worst, he’s probably top 10. His past health issues are definitely cause for concern, but if I go down swinging with somebody, I want to go down swinging with Strasburg. He’s a first-round talent with a fourth-round price tag.

Projection: 16 wins, 3.23 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 231 strikeouts

6) Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies

After a curious 2012 season in which he won just six games, Lee rebounded nicely in 2013 with 14 wins, a 2.87 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 222 strikeouts. Granted, he is 35 and the Phillies likely won’t contend for much this year, but Lee remains a safe fantasy investment.

Projection: 15 wins, 3.15 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 215 strikeouts

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 05: David Price #14 of the Tampa Bay Rays reacts against the Boston Red Sox during Game Two of the American League Division Series at Fenway Park on October 5, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.

David Price (Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

7) David Price, Tampa Bay Rays

Price didn’t post his typically elite numbers last year – he had 10 wins, a 3.33 ERA and 151 strikeouts – but he also spent 44 days on the DL with a strained left triceps. His division doesn’t do him any favors, but he’s also just one season removed from a Cy Young award. He’s a top-10 pitcher with top-five potential.

Projection: 16 wins, 3.22 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 201 strikeouts

8) Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

For a guy who supposedly fell off a cliff last year, Verlander still won 13 games and finished with 217 strikeouts. While a mounting workload and various health issues can’t be ignored, this ranking feels remarkably conservative for a guy with a Cy Young, an MVP and two no-hitters on his resume. Also, there’s this: Verlander had a 0.39 ERA in three October starts last year. I’m not saying he’s going to win the Cy Young this year; I’m saying his decline last year was exaggerated. A top-five finish in 2014 would come as no surprise.

Projection: 16 wins, 3.25 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 224 strikeouts

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9) Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers

Always a solid pitcher, Scherzer took his game to another level last year, winning the AL Cy Young with simply silly numbers. He led the majors with 21 wins and had a 2.90 ERA, a 0.97 WHIP and 240 strikeouts. I expect all of those numbers to regress, but Scherzer, 29, has the skill set to remain among the elite.

Projection: 17 wins, 3.33 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 212 strikeouts

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 19:  Max Scherzer #37 of the Detroit Tigers reacts against the Boston Red Sox during Game Six of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park on October 19, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Max Scherzer (Photo Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images)

10) Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers

Greinke, who turned 30 this past offseason, has become one of the most consistent players in fantasy – regardless of position. He was dynamite at home last year – going 8-2 with a 2.11 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in 14 starts – and has finished with 15+ wins in four of the last five seasons. He’s a safe bet to reach that benchmark in 2014.

Projection: 16 wins, 3.25 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 191 strikeouts

11) Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins

Fernandez was one of the best pitchers in the National League last year; the fact that he was a rookie makes it all the more impressive. With skills and moxie in abundance, the 21-year-old has the makings of a perennial Cy Young candidate. Dynasty league players, take heed.

Projection: 13 wins, 3.12 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 196 strikeouts

12) Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants

In 2014, Bumgarner set career bests in ERA (2.77), WHIP (1.03) and strikeouts (199). Only 24, Bumgarner could be the best pitcher in the Giants’ rotation this season – and that’s saying something.

Projection: 14 wins, 3.28 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 201 strikeouts

Bottom Line

Pitching is deep, but quality pitching isn’t. If you can get two of the names on this list, you’ll be in good shape all summer long.

Next up: Catcher

Check out “30 Players 30 Days,” profiling one young player from each Major League Baseball team.

Tony Meale is the author of The Chosen Ones: The Team That Beat LeBron. He lives in Chicago and won’t be mad if you follow him on Twitter @TonyMeale.

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