The first 10 starting pitchers off the board this year are Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, David Price, Corey Kluber, Johnny Cueto and Yu Darvish, according to NFBC ADP Data. On average, they are coming off the board in the first 44 picks. It's hard to argue with any of those names, and the only guy who is not in my personal top-10 is Bumgarner (I have Cole Hamels ranked as my No. 10 starter). However, it is safe to say those won't be the top-10 earners at the end of the season. Last year Cueto, Kluber and Jon Lester all finished as top-10 earners at the position, and they went outside the top-10 on draft day.
Figuring out who will be this year's handful of starting pitchers to pitch their way to fantasy ace status in 2015 without carrying that price tag on draft day is a tricky proposition, but there are seven names that jump out to me as prime candidates to provide ace-level performance who are going in the middle rounds of drafts. I'm going to skip the guys going in the 11-15 ADP range – Zack Greinke, Adam Wainwright, Lester, Hamels and Jordan Zimmermann – because they are essentially getting treated like No. 1 starters in fantasy, and nobody would be surprised if they finished as top-10 starting pitchers.
Here are my picks:
Matt Harvey (ADP: 69, SP16) - 2014 Stats: N/A (Tommy John surgery)
The case for Harvey is pretty obvious. He was one of the three or four best pitchers in baseball prior to his elbow surgery, and is now 17 months removed from said surgery. A likely innings cap around 180 or so would be the top draw back in rating Harvey as an ace in 2015, but he had a 2.27 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 191 strikeouts in 178.1 innings in 2013, so clearly 200-plus innings are not needed to qualify as a fantasy ace. Steamer thinks Harvey will have a 3.13 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 175 strikeouts while PECOTA thinks he will have a 2.91 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 153 strikeouts, although neither projection system has Harvey reaching 165 innings. Harvey is especially appealing in 10 and 12-team leagues because when he does get shut down, a replacement level pitcher can be subbed in, possibly a top prospect who gets called up in September. This means you will still get 200-plus innings out of that roster spot, and the combined numbers should equate to at least a No. 2 starter, with the upside for more.
Alex Cobb (ADP: 82 SP20) - 2014 Stats: 2.87 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 1.14 WHIP, 21.9 K%, 6.9 BB%
A concussion and an oblique strain have shortened Cobb's last two seasons, but the numbers when he's on the mound don't lie. In 2013 he had a 2.76 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP and in 2014 he had a 2.87 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP. Those numbers are awfully similar. There are not many pitchers who appear to be safe bets to post an ERA under 3.00, and Cobb appears to be on that short list. The strikeouts won't be elite, but if he can reach the 200-inning plateau for the first time in his career, 170-180 strikeouts should follow, which, combined with his excellent ERA and WHIP, would resemble the production of a fantasy ace.
Gerrit Cole (ADP: 84 SP21) - 2014 Stats: 3.65 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 1.21 WHIP, 24.2 K%, 7.0 BB%
Hisashi Iwakuma (ADP: 98 SP23) - 2014 Stats: 3.52 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 1.05 WHIP, 21.7 K%, 3.0 BB%
I was the high man on both of these pitchers in the Rotowire roundtable exercise, and you will be able to read my thoughts on them in the piece that will accompany those rankings in the coming days.
Alex Wood (ADP: 99 SP24) - 2014 Stats: 2.78 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 1.14 WHIP, 24.5 K%, 6.5 BB%
An ADP in the top-100 does not suggest anyone is sleeping on Wood, but he should still probably be going a little higher than he is. The floor here seems to be a sub-3.30 ERA and a sub-1.20 WHIP with about a strikeout per inning. Wins may be tough to come by in Atlanta, but I don't see much of a gap between Wood and teammate Julio Teheran (ADP: 76), yet Teheran seems to get the ace treatment. In fact, PECOTA projects Teheran to post a 3.55 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP while projecting Wood to finish with a 3.19 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP with a better K-rate than Teheran. The only difference is PECOTA is not willing to project Wood for 200 innings yet. However, there is no reason he shouldn't get there this season if he stays healthy, and if he does, he could finish as a top-10 pitcher in fantasy.
Jake Arrieta (ADP: 104 SP26) - 2014 Stats: 2.53 ERA, 2.26 FIP, 0.99 WHIP, 27.2 K%, 6.7 BB%
Of the seven names I list here, Arrieta carries the most risk in my mind, just because there's such an extensive track record of him being mediocre prior to 2014. However, the case could also be made that he carries the most upside after what he accomplished last year. Among starters who pitched 150-plus innings last year, only Kershaw had a lower FIP (1.81), and Arrieta had a comfortable lead over the rest of the top five – Kluber (2.35), Hernandez (2.56) and Sale (2.57). What are the odds that Arrieta can keep pitching at that elite level in 2015? What are the odds that he can be EVEN better? They may not be good, but there is a chance that the skills gains are real, and he has become one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Michael Wacha (ADP: 171 SP40) - 2014 Stats: 3.20 ERA, 3.17 FIP, 1.20 WHIP, 21.0 K%, 7.4 BB%
Wacha's ADP is incredibly perplexing. What am I missing? We thought he was one of the best young pitchers in the game heading into last season, and in the early going he proved to be more than just a two-pitch pitcher, showcasing a curveball and a cutter to go with his excellent fastball/changeup combo. Then he suffers a stress fracture in his shoulder and all of a sudden he's going outside the top-150? I'm not making light of his shoulder injury, but Wacha proved himself to be a top-25 pitcher in baseball prior to the injury, and I believe with more time to work on his newly developed repertoire, he could make gains on his performance in 2014 and creep toward being a top-10 starting pitcher with health and a little luck. I understand if that seems overly optimistic, but there is just no way his ADP should be 171. It's outrageous.