Starting Pitchers Tiers 3 and 4: Roster Fortification

Last week I profiled the top two tiers of starting pitchers.  My hope is to get two or three guys from that tier. However, since I tend to lean heavy on offense early on the majority of guys I’ll be targeting will be in my third and fourth tiers.  I still find the numbers for hitters to be more bankable.  Also, there always tends to be bounce back pitchers , guys coming off injuries, and youngsters that might put it together.  These guys tend to go later than those top two tiers.  

My goal is to get 2-3 guys from tier-3 and then 2-3 guys from the fourth tier. Ideally I will hit on at least two of these six pitchers.  Last year I hit big on guys like Ray and Greinke, and to lesser extents with guys like Paxton, Keuchel, Alex Wood, and Aaron Nola. Hopefully that trend continues.

Tier Three

Jon Lester: Lester is a classic bounce back candidate, right?  Or maybe not; he did lose a tick on his fastball, but I still think he will be better than he was last year.  He was unlucky with things like BABIP, strand rate, and HR/FB%, leading me to believe he can be a top 20-25 pitcher again. I’m pretty happy if I can get him at an ADP of 117 like NFBC seems to be saying, although I haven’t seen him go this low in any actual drafts.  The age and diminishing stuff worry me, but if you can get him after pick 100- I think he’s probably worth it.

Dallas Keuchel: This guy is absurdly good when he’s healthy, and the team behind him is obviously awesome as well.  I still don’t love that he averages under 90 MPH, but it’s hard to argue with a 67% ground ball rate. Despite that, I’m probably not drafting him with the 76th pick, which is what it takes to get him in NFBC ADP.  I may change my tune in points leagues but definitely not someone I’d pay a 7th round pick for in roto.

Aaron Nola: I feel like I should have Nola in tier two, but couldn’t quite pull the trigger.  He has one of the best curveballs in baseball. Nola has been injury prone and flat out bad at points over the last two years.  He had an amazing second half and a pretty good 2017 overall.  There is ace upside here.  He’s only 24 and had a 26.6% K rate last year.  I also think Philly could be sneaky good this year, which could elevate the win total.  Overall I would be happy to pull the trigger at pick 66 in NFBC, but given his top-20 ranking and early hype I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes even higher.

Gerrit Cole: His stuff is really good even if it doesn’t translate on the stat page. I’ve heard some anecdotal stories that he’s a bit thick-headed and that’s why he doesn’t throw his breaking stuff more.  If Houston can get him to throw those more often, then he can be an ace again.  If not, he’s likely just a top 30-40 guy, albeit with more wins than past years. Cole is generally good for innings, is reasonably safe, and an NFBC rank of 80 is affordable. However, I do like a few more guys in this range more and will probably avoid him unless reports surface of a change in pitch usage.

Alex Wood: This guy makes me quote the X-FIles: “I want to believe.”  He was an ace for most of the year in 2017 and a top 20 pitcher way back when with the Braves and has never actually been bad.  My main fear here is injury and the Dodgers manipulating the 10-day DL.  He’s currently coming off the board at 109 and I’m cool with that as a number-three SP, but not a number one or two. If he can come close to repeating last years performance and stay healthy he should outperform that role for you.

Lance McCullers: One of my favorites and another guy I wanted to include in the second tier.  Because of injuries he has never pitched more than 125 innings at any level.  Still, I can’t help but gush over the 25.8% K rate and the 61.8% ground ball rate – that’s ace level stuff. Even if he only goes 160 innings, McCullers is likely to be a fantasy ace. This year he comes at one heck of a discount with an NFBC ADP of 146. I love McCullers and am targeting him everywhere, injury concerns be damned.  Strasburg had only gone 68, 24, and 159 innings coming into his age 24 season.  Not saying he’s definitely going to be as good as Strasburg, but it’s worth considering since Strasburg is currently going in the top 30 overall.

Jose Quintana: He’s the Carlos Carrasco of this tier for me: consistent, good, yet kind of boring.  Last year was his worst season and it seemed mostly fluky.  His K rate actually got better which led to a new career high of 207 Ks, and this year he gets a full season in the NL I like Quintana as a stabilizing force if you picked a lot of upside risk earlier in the draft.  He’s a good guy to nab if you have pitchers like Paxton, McCullers, Strasburg, and Syndergaard.   I rarely take him given his NFBC ADP of 70, but I can tell you that he often lasts longer than that.  I’ve picked him as late as the 12th round.  Happy to pull the trigger there. 

Johnny Cueto: This guy was considered a top 12 pitcher by many analysts coming into last year.  He repaid us for that faith with the worst year of his career.  In fairness, he had blisters and forearm issues.  I wish he had just sat and healed, but he kept going out there.  He had uncharacteristic issues with his control, and like Lester, lost a tick or so on his fastball as well.  He still pitches in arguably the best pitcher’s park in the league and the offense got a bit better.  I don’t think this ace suddenly forgot how to throw strikes.

There’s a decent chance he returns to form.  He’s a couple of years younger than Lester and is coming off the board at 154.  Because of this, I prefer him to Lester and am getting him in an awful lot of drafts.  I don’t think the upside is top-10 anymore, but to get a potential top 15-20 guy this late could be a huge bargain.

Marcus Stroman: I used to think he was going to be better than we’ve seen because of his very high K rates in the minors, but a 3.09 ERA is certainly nothing to scoff at in this “juiced ball” era.  He’s also pitched 200 innings in back-to-back seasons in a league where 175 innings feels like the new 200.  He had a 4.37 ERA in 2016; I tend to think he’s somewhere in between those numbers given his 19.7% K rate. His FIP, xFIP, and ERA agree with me as they range from 3.59 to 3.85 but an elite GB% (above 60% for three seasons) suggest it could be better. A bad park and tough division paired with a mediocre team seem to cap his upside for me.

An ERA in the mid 3s and over 200 innings pitch is a very stabilizing force.  I think he’ll manage to win 12-15 games and will still get to 160-170 strikeouts given his volume.  This all has value and Stroman feels safe even if he doesn’t seem to have the upside I once hoped he did.  I would draft him a lot like Quintana.  If I took some risk up front and need some bankable innings, it’s a good time for the “Stroman Shield.”  He’s coming off at 127 in NFBC, which seems about right to me.

Masahiro Tanaka: One of the few Yanks that I don’t throw cold water on is Masahiro Tanaka.  I’m pretty high on Tanaka coming into 2018.  I remember when he first came over and was one of the five best pitchers in the bigs.  He then had the TJ scare and has still generally pitched at a high level.  Well, maybe 2017 had some bumps in the road on the surface.

The underlying numbers tell a very different story of Tanaka’s 3017.  He gained a full MPH on his fastball, and also had a beautiful 15.1% swinging strike rate.  This led to a very impressive 25.8 K% and he paired that with a 5.5% walk rate.  Those numbers are eerily similar to 2014 when he took the league my storm.  Just like Severino, Tanaka will benefit from the Yanks’ offense and bullpen.An NFBC ADP of 98 for a potential ace is something worth targeting.

Zack Godley: I was lucky enough to pick this guy up in a couple of leagues last year. Godley’s K rate was not Ray’s, but 26.3% is pretty solid.  He also pairs that with a 55% ground ball rate.  Like Ray, his walk rate is higher than I’d like at 8.5%, and I wish he threw a little harder as well given that his average heater sits at 91.9 MPH.  I’m not just a radar whore, but it’s nice when someone who comes out of nowhere has high velocity to help justify my faith. The addition of a humidor does ease some of my concerns, though. I see top-25 potential with top-15 upside. His current NFBC ADP is 128, but that can vary 40 or so spots from league to league from what I’ve seen. I like him here or later, but not sure I would reach.

Sonny Gray: A third Yankee in the top-30 – times are good! Gray had some serious stink on him coming into last season.  People quickly forget this guy finished third in the Cy-Young voting back in 2015, just two short years ago. He gained almost two MPH on his fastball; this and his very nasty slide piece helped him to a 22.6% K rate – the best since his rookie campaign.  He also keeps the ball on the ground a good bit with a 52.8 GB%.  That’s useful for Yankee Stadium and some of the other band boxes around the AL East.  A few less walks would be nice, but that’s a small price considering everything else.

Gray is just two years removed from being an ace in points and a solid SP2 in roto.  He’s also never played for a team with a strong offense or had a bullpen this good protecting his leads.  He’s currently going 128 off the board in NFBC.  This feels like a great value.


This tier has a mix of guys who feel more stable and those who could make the leap to one of the top two tiers.  I prefer the ones with the higher upside and of course the ones that are coming at the largest discount.  I do occasionally draft the more stable ones if I’ve taken a few risks up to that point.   Stroman or Quintana are great guys to pair with the Paxton’s and Tanaka’s of the world.  

It’s not weird for me to take three or even four of these guys in a draft as I love the mid-rounds to load up on my pitching staff.  The fourth tier also has some promising young arms that could make leaps.  Ideally I would be getting 4-6 pitchers from those first three tiers, but you do want to leave some slots open for this fourth tier as well.  There are some definite upside picks as well as some huge values. In a perfect world I would have 2-3 guys from tier-4, but we need offense too so look for those that fall further than they should.

Tier Four

Jake Arrieta: I don’t like Arrieta.  I was a fan back when he was one of the best pitchers in the league, but he hasn’t been that in a few years.  I’ve said this before, but Arrieta is always better than I thought he was.  He was generally top 30ish in most formats last year, but it never felt that way to me. He lost a little velocity as well as almost 2 points on his swinging strike rate.  The days of Arrieta being an ace are over and I only expect him to get worse.  His NFBC ADP of 93 is better than I’d expected and not something I’m willing to pay.  The long wait to find a landing spot makes me think that brighter baseball minds than me might agree.

Jose Berrios: He had a hellish start to his career in 2016, but rebounded nicely with a solid showing last season.  He throws pretty hard and his breaking ball drew comparisons to the late Jose Fernandez.  The peripherals aren’t great though.  His swinging strike rate was just 9.4% even though his 22.6% K rate isn’t terrible.  I would expect better based on his stuff.  His walk rate is also up around 8%.  At the end of the day, this is a highly touted prospect who has great stuff and just threw over 180 innings between AAA and the majors last year. Throw in an elite outfield defense and an improving Twins team overall and there’s plenty of reason to get excited.  He’s going at an ADP of 104 in NFBC – earlier than I’d like, but probably worth the gamble.

David Price: I could just as easily have David Price in the second or third tiers.  I just can’t shake him saying something to the effect of “if I was younger, I would be getting surgery” last year.  He threw just 74 innings in 2017; that’s the risk he carries.

All that said, his surface and underlying stats were pretty close to his career norms in the innings that he did pitch.  That’s kind of promising.  He also plays for the Red Sox which should be good for wins. He was a perennial top 10 SP before the injury; today he’s down to 113 in the NFBC ADP providing a nice discount.  He was going later, but folks are starting to catch on.  There’s a chance that price goes 200 innings and puts up his typical numbers.  We’d all be laughing to the bank on that if we get him somewhere near the 10th round.  Hopefully he doesn’t keep climbing as I’d like a few more shares before draft season is over.

Luis Castillo: Inexperience (only 80 ML innings) keeps Castillo out of the third tier, and possibly the second.  He throws flames and had a really good rookie campaign in 2017.   His minor league numbers were good, but not eye-popping.  He plays in a terrible park for pitchers on a team that should be bad.  His walk rate is also sitting at an ugly 8.9%.  Castillo did manage a 27.3% K rate with a 12.7% swinging strike rate, which are both really good.  Additionally, Castillo mixes three pitches – four if you count his sinker, and as many people know, finding a third pitch is often a big hurdle for young pitchers.

I’ve been willing to overpay for the upside and draft him at his current NFBC ADP of 95, a price which has been rising of late. My willingness to overpay might suggest that he does belong in the tier above this.  There is also enough risk here to say that it’s worth passing on that cost if you’re not as enamored with him as I have become.

Michael Fulmer: He’s coming off an elbow surgery that scared me until I realized it was the same one that Jacob deGrom had last year.  Fulmer performed at must start level for most of last year and had decent prospect pedigree as a Mets farm hand leading me to believe he will good again in 2018.  He has the body type of  a workhorse, and his stuff seems like it should lead to more Ks than it does.  He’s a mid 3.00 ERA guy that has been fairly consistent  over 160 innings in his first two seasons. Unfortunately, the team has taken a step or two back talent wise.  That may have an effect on his ability to get wins, but as we know wins can be quite random. He’s coming off the board at pick 187 in NFBC ADP.  My guess is people are overly scared of the elbow surgery.  That pick is almost free for a guy who I think is a likely bet to be top 30-40 with upside for more.

Rich Hill: This guy is an ace on a per inning basis.  He’s also the most likely guy in the league to have a DL stint.  It’s a cool story that an old journeyman turned into a stud because of a sick curveball that rivals the best in the league. When he’s healthy, Hill can put up stats or points on par with the biggest of names.  The 135 innings he threw last year were the most he’s throw in a season in ten years!  I wouldn’t bet on a 37-year-old to throw more than that, but you never know.  Even with the limited innings he struck out 166 batters, which is as many as Marcus Stroman did in over 200 innings.  That’s pretty valuable even if his injuries are frustrating.  He’s coming off the board at an ADP of 124, which seems about right.  I’ve seen him go a good bit later as well in some drafts where I imagine his injury label kept him in the pool for longer.

Jeff Samardzija: I’m a big “Shark” guy this week… I mean year.  Sorry, that was cheap.  He is one of the rare guys who is likely to get you 200 innings, pitches in a great park, and the Giants’ offense has improved. Last year he raised his K rate to 24.2%, which is the best it’s been since 2012, and he also had a career best 3.8% walk rate.  He should have had a better year.  It’s worth pointing out that some of his inflated stats came from obvious “stay away” starts in Coors Field.

You would think a 200IP/200K workhorse would rank better than a 137 ADP, but who’s complaining. That 4.42 ERA combined with past year’s disappointments could push him even further down. I’m very much in.  Samardzija is yet another guy I would like to put in the third tier, but given his age (33) and fluctuating fantasy numbers it is unfair to do so. That isn’t stopping me from targeting him, though.

Shohei Ohtani: The short version is that I almost never pay for the new imports.  I did have a few Abreu shares when he first came over since he was cheap, but I missed on Darvish, Tanaka, Maeda, and others.  The hitting aspect makes him a bit more interesting in daily leagues – it would be cool to get hitting stats from a pitcher, but it seems more gimmicky than anything to me at this point.  There have already been reports about his health.  Ohtani may well end up being a stud; I just don’t feel comfortable paying up.  His ADP of 72 is in the same neighborhood as Nola, Keuchel, and Paxton.  Give me any of those guys.

Danny Duffy: The guy is apparently not doing well personally if he’s getting caught drunk at a drive through.  He lost 2 miles on his fastball last year.  The velocity gains he brought to starting from the bullpen were partially credited with his success in 2016.  The K rate dropped 4%. His ERA rose three-tenths of a run. And to top things off, his team is likely to be bad this year. Not a ringing endorsement so far. He was still usable in 2017, but didn’t harness the upside we had seen the year prior.

On a positive note:The home park plays in his favor and the bullpen is decent. I don’t expect him to get better, but there is always that chance.  He’s likely a Jake Arrieta type –  Solid top 40-ish type with less upside than the name might suggest.  I hope I’m wrong as I’ve been a fan for several years now, and with an ADP of 178 in NFBC drafts, I have been able to secure a few shares in case he does get back on track.

Trevor Bauer: He followed the same advice that was given to Kluber about throwing his breaking ball more.  He also changed his grip a bit on his breaking pitch to make it a bit less like a cutter and more like a slider.  These two changes led to a completely different Bauer than we’ve ever seen – evident in his career best 26% K-rate. It appears that the former first round pick might have finally figured it out.

Bauer also plays on a team with a strong infield defense, potent lineup (good for wins), and an excellent bullpen.  These are the kinds of things that make it possible that Bauer can come close to repeating his 17 wins. Bauer also managed 196 Ks total in his 176 innings pitched.   Those are figures that will help you in any format.  He’s going 139th overall.  Not sure he has the upside we thought he might when he was a first rounder, but I think he’s a good bet to be a top 30-40 SP.


That concludes the four tiers of SP that I will be covering.  Some other guys that I’ve been targeting a bit later include names like Blake Snell, Kenta Maeda, Aaron Sanchez, Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver, and Lucas Giolito.  Best of luck and hopefully these tiers will help you avoid overpaying for the wrong guys.


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Mike Sheehan

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Comedian, Powerlifter, and most importantly a Cum Laude graduate of the fantasy baseball school of hard knocks. Double major in points and categories with a minor in roto. Happy to be doing my Postgraduate work here at the Fantasy Assembly.