Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitcher Shuffle Up: Tiered draft rankings

Here is it, the one position that matters. If you find the answers at pitching, all the gold is yours.

Of course, pitchers are impossible. They’re often hurt, sometimes not telling us. They’re adding pitches and scrapping pitches, shifting spots on the rubber, working with new coaches, new catchers, new ideas. They can go good for no obvious reason, and go bad for no obvious reason. And it’s so much easier to be bad than it is to be good.

So your guess is as good as mine, certainly. Here are my guesses on the mound. There are only so many “sign with confidence” guys, so I’d recommend trying to land at least one pitcher you’re completely sold on. No, it’s not intricate, but it doesn’t have to be.

Players at the same salaries are considered even. I marked a few of the check status/injury guys with an asterisk, but it’s not an exhaustive list. Season to taste.

Tier 1: The Big Tickets

$42 Jacob deGrom

$41 Gerrit Cole

$36 Shane Bieber

$33 Trevor Bauer

$31 Lucas Giolito

$31 Yu Darvish

$30 Max Scherzer

I would take deGrom over Cole but it’s not a big difference. There’s at least a chance deGrom doesn’t have to deal with the DH, and the Mets finally have a decent team around him. He’s been comically unlucky with wins, but that can’t continue forever. And look at that lovely fastball velocity, which has increased four straight years, without any major change in control. Watching a deGrom start — preferably with the Mets TV guys describing the action — is a glass of lemonade on a sunny day . . . 

Bieber, Bauer, and Giolito all had breakthrough years that were at least partly aided by the geographic schedule — the worst collective offenses, by far, were in the two Central Divisions. Bauer has changed addresses, of course, and Bieber and Giolito have to travel like everyone else. This isn’t red ink on any of them, they’re all still slotted optimistically. Just know things aren’t as easy as they were in 2020.

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 09: Starting pitcher Gerrit Cole #45 of the New York Yankees pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays in Game Five of the American League Division Series at PETCO Park on October 09, 2020 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 09: Starting pitcher Gerrit Cole #45 of the New York Yankees pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays in Game Five of the American League Division Series at PETCO Park on October 09, 2020 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole and New York Mets star Jacob deGrom are the consensus top two pitchers in 2021 fantasy drafts. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Tier 2: Legitimate building blocks

$29 Walker Buehler

$29 Aaron Nola

$28 Luis Castillo

$27 Jack Flaherty

$27 Clayton Kershaw

$26 Brandon Woodruff

$25 Blake Snell

$23 Zac Gallen

$23 Tyler Glasnow

$22 Kenta Maeda

$22 Corbin Burnes

$21 Lance Lynn

$21 Carlos Carrasco

$19 Stephen Strasburg

$19 Sonny Gray

$17 Max Fried

$17 Hyun-Jin Ryu

$17 Kyle Hendricks

$17 Jose Berrios

The only reason why Buehler is at the top of Tier 2 as opposed to Tier 1 is the way LA handles the schedule. The Dodgers know they’re already in the playoffs before a pitch has been thrown, barring a series of catastrophes. Thus, if any of their key starters have any physical hiccup, the deep Dodgers can sit said starter down for some rest or load management . . . 

When it comes to players you believe in, it’s easy to discard a messy 2020 if the results don’t fit the angle you’re chasing. On Flaherty, I’d prefer to focus on how unhittable he was in the second half of 2019, and ignore a nine-start sample. Unless I see some physical reason to worry about him, he’ll be a proactive draft target for me all spring . . . 

Strasburg has the reputation of being the sports car that won’t leave the garage if the slightest part is out of place. He’s only had two full seasons out of 11, though he has made it to 23 starts in eight different seasons. Just keep in mind his aggregate has generally been good, not elite — a 3.19 ERA and 1.09 WHIP play in any format, but you’d like at least one pitcher better than him. I always expect someone in my room to like him more than I do . . . 

I’m not the type of manager who likes to attack the market paying for production that’s yet to happen — that’s why I so seldom elbow people out of the way for Kid Guerrero, say — but Glasnow’s 11 starts in 2019 showed his legitimate Cy Young upside. His ratios weren’t great last year, but at least he was healthy enough to be on the field, and the strikeout rate was screaming. There are so few sure things on this board, at some point you want to focus on picks that excite you, players you think can smash their projection. Glasnow is one of those names. I’ll always be concerned the Glasnow manager could beat me . . . 

Focus on the innings with Hendricks, and his strikeouts as a function of the volume. He can throw any pitch exactly where he wants it, and perhaps a less-lively ball will fit nicely with someone who needs to survive contact as much as Hendricks does. Another check mark for one of the smartest pitchers in baseball.

Tier 3: Talk them up, talk them down

$14 Zack Wheeler

$13 Zach Plesac

$13 Zack Greinke

$12 Framber Valdez

$12 Ian Anderson

$12 Chris Paddack

$12 Dinelson Lamet

$12 Dylan Bundy

$12 Julio Urias

$12 Lance McCullers

$12 Charlie Morton

$12 Joe Musgrove

$12 Sixto Sanchez

$12 Kevin Gausman

$12 Sandy Alcantara

$11 Jesus Luzardo

$11 Pablo Lopez

$11 Frankie Montas

$9 Patrick Corbin

$9 Marco Gonzales

$9 Mike Soroka

The best pitchers are generally the smartest pitchers — I think Bill James coined that one, not positive though — and Greinke is as cerebral as they come. Even with an average fastball of 87.1 — it feels like a misprint as I type that — Greinke gave us playable ratios last year, and a strikeout per inning. His Cy Young contention days are over, but Greinke is the MacGyver of the mound, someone who can get you out with scotch tape, a broken coat hanger, and guile . . . 

Paddack could use a third pitch, though I was excited when I heard him embracing modern pitching theory. And the backdrop in San Diego is lovely. Lamet’s another low-floor, juicy-upside on that rotation, and the recent news flow on him, while nebulous, was enough for me to target him in some early drafts . . . 

Plesac will be one of America’s fades because last year’s 2.28 ERA isn’t backed up by the component stats. To be fair, all of his ERA estimators are in the lower-3s, a boon in any league. But it’s hard to take the control at face value — nobody goes from 8.4 percent to 2.9 percent — and it’s disheartening to see the roster surrounding Plesac. The good news is that a fair amount of regression is already baked into his ADP (80.6), but he’s still landing a round or two before I’m comfortable stepping forward.

[Draft Rankings: C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP]

Tier 4: Plausible upside, but not without fleas

$8 Tyler Mahle

$8 Chris Bassitt

$8 Dustin May

$8 David Price

$8 Marcus Stroman

$7 German Marquez

$7 Corey Kluber

$7 Triston McKenzie

$7 Dallas Keuchel

$7 Jose Urquidy

$7 John Means

$6 Aaron Civale

$6 Zach Eflin

$6 Andrew Heaney

$6 Eduardo Rodriguez

$6 Cristian Javier

$5 Jameson Taillon

$5 Drew Smyly

$5 Sean Manaea

$5 James Paxton

$5 Zach Davies

$5 *Chris Sale

$5 Taijuan Walker

$5 Matthew Boyd

$5 A.J. Puk

$4 Michael Pineda

$4 Elieser Hernandez

$4 Nate Pearson

$4 Jordan Montgomery

$4 Brady Singer

$4 Justus Sheffield

$4 Jake Odorizzi

$4 Yusei Kikuchi

$4 Carlos Martinez

$4 Adam Wainwright

$4 Luis Severino

Occam’s Razor should drive you away from Marquez — it’s Colorado, and no one beats that park for long. And even the road games could be messy — the Dodgers and Padres have absurd lineups, and San Francisco was plucky last year, as closed archways turned that park into a run-friendly one (we can’t say for sure if that will happen again) . . . 

Boyd’s fastball was too hittable last year and I went down with the ship — being patient always works, except when it doesn’t. But he does have a strikeout profile to justify a later pick, when the draft shifts to upside, and maybe he’s another pitcher who will get more bump than average from the presumed change in 2021 offense . . . 

Generally smaller pitchers give me pause, it’s just physics. They have to throw the ball a greater distance, given their limitations with extension (some rare exceptions come about, think Tim Lincecum and his gymnastics). But when my friend Michael Salfino talked up the relationship between Stroman and deGrom, my ears perked up. Pitchers hang out in packs, almost like cliques — and a shrewd teammate can be as helpful as any pitching coach. I’ll try to keep an open mind here.

Tier 5: Discount rack

$3 Shohei Ohtani

$3 Nathan Eovaldi

$3 Ryan Yarbrough

$3 Kwang-hyun Kim

$3 Michael Kopech

$3 Domingo German

$3 *Noah Syndergaard

$3 Robbie Ray

$3 Caleb Smith

$3 Garrett Richards

$3 Rich Hill

$3 Adrian Houser

$3 Alex Wood

$2 Dane Dunning

$2 Griffin Canning

$2 Mitch Keller

$2 Mike Minor

$2 Spencer Turnbull

$2 Dylan Cease

$2 J.A. Happ

$2 Madison Bumgarner

$2 *Miles Mikolas

$2 Cal Quantrill

$2 Luke Weaver

$2 Casey Mize

$2 Anthony DeSclafani

$2 Chris Archer

$2 Jose Quintana

$2 Ross Stripling

$2 Jonathan Brubaker

$2 Daniel Ponce de Leon

$2 Steven Brault

$2 Danny Duffy

$2 Michael Wacha

$1 Josh Lindblom

$1 Brad Keller

$1 Deivi Garcia

$1 Adbert Alzolay

$1 Michael Lorenzen

$1 Alec Mills

$1 Merrill Kelly

$1 Jon Gray

$1 Nick Pivetta

$1 Randy Dobnak

$1 Matt Shoemaker

$1 Johnny Cueto

$1 Jon Lester

$1 Mike Foltynewicz

$1 Mike Fiers

At this point, I wish the Angels would talk Ohtani into being just a hitter. He’s a potential MVP candidate if you can get him 600 plate appearances . . . Someone will talk themselves into Gray every year and it should never be you . . . I’d bump Brault up $2-4 if he weren’t saddled with that untenable situation in Pittsburgh.

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