Starting pitcher position preview: Shifting strategies

Are Chris Sale and the other elite ace starters worth the investment in fantasy baseball this season? Chris O'Meara/AP Photo

With the MLB season just days away, ESPN's fantasy baseball experts have gathered to break down each position to help you prepare your draft-day strategy.

How are our fantasy analysts approaching starting pitching, and which players are they picking and avoiding in their drafts?

For more position previews, plus rankings, cheat sheets and mock drafts, check out our draft kit.

How are you approaching starting pitching this season?

I used to believe, even as recently as last season, that I did not need to secure one of the top starting pitchers because there was ample depth in the middle rounds. Well, there remains ample depth, but the rules have changed a bit. Fewer pitchers than ever make 30 starts or approach 200 innings, so it makes the top options so much more valuable. Sure, I would select Corey Kluber early in Round 2. I am also likely to choose another starting pitcher or two in the first 10 rounds, which is hardly my usual strategy based on my personal history but it is absolutely worth considering depending on what is out there. -- Eric Karabell

There is no cut-and-dry answer to this question, but I advise creativity. If big-league teams are doing it, why shouldn't we follow?

Remember, only 58 starting pitchers met the ERA minimum of 162 innings pitched last season -- that's 162 innings pitched, not the 200 we commonly consider the threshold for a "workhorse" -- and the number who reached 200 was also historically low (15), forcing us into a near-mandatory mix-and-match approach to our starting pitching staffs, if only because of a dearth of full-time options. This is a year where the high-upside, limited-volume arms are much more attractive picks than they have ever been, and the increasingly scarce, elite-talent "workhorses" are making a greater impact than ever before. While I hesitate to call them "must-draft" players, the top tier of Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale and Kluber, regardless of the order that you rank them, warrant a lengthy look.

More often than not, I'm taking one of those four aces or one of the pitchers directly beneath it, with Noah Syndergaard and Carlos Carrasco two who stand out, then filling the remainder of my staff with high-upside arms in the later rounds. I'm not that wild about paying the premiums for the starters you'll find ranked in the Nos. 21-40 range. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft

In points leagues, unless I'm at pick No. 3, where I'll grab Kershaw, I'll let others grab one of the elite quartet and instead focus on hitters. Of course, this stems from my personal strategy of leaning far more heavily on relievers in that scoring format, so I'm happy to pick up lower-ranked starters with upside later on in the draft. However, I definitely recognize that those in category-based leagues will probably want to make sure to grab either Kershaw, Kluber, Sale or Scherzer before they're all gone at the end of Round 2. -- AJ Mass

I'm building the top half of my staff with reliable innings eaters and filling out the back end of my rotation with upside. It is so hard to find 200-inning types in this age of bullpens, so if I can land two of them with my first eight picks (Madison Bumgarner, Justin Verlander, Carlos Martinez, and Jose Quintana are some examples), I'm comfortable in letting value dictate the direction I go. If innings are not available, I'll reach for strikeouts and piece together a staff that way. In short, I want two starters that I have very few concerns on and will evaluate value when looking to load up on pitching in rounds 10-15. -- Kyle Soppe

My sleeper starting pitcher is:

Aaron Sanchez won 15 games for the 2016 Blue Jays with an ERA of 3.00 and a 1.17 WHIP, and his strikeout rate was not special, but it was good enough. In 2017 Sanchez served multiple disabled list stints with blister problems and now fantasy managers appear to have forgotten about him. Well, I have not! I am not saying Sanchez will end up a top-20 starting pitcher, but it would not surprise me. And the discount in ESPN drafts to Round 20 is a bit too much. I would not let Sanchez slip that far. -- Eric Karabell

Kevin Gausman, who probably stands out as my greatest outlier on the positive side compared to any of the rankings I've seen out there, on- or offsite. I've already sang his praises here and here, and about the only reason I haven't gotten him in all of our mocks is that Leo Howell keeps beating me to him in the Rounds 16-17 range. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft

Since 2013, only two pitchers have thrown 200-plus innings in every season: Scherzer and Jeff Samardzija, who is being picked, on average, in Round 17 of ESPN drafts. Durability should not be a problem from the San Francisco starter who is coming off his sixth-straight season of double-digit losses. However, Samardzija is also coming off a season where he posted a career best 6.41 K/BB rate to go along with 205 strikeouts. He does have a tendency to start slow (0-4, 6.32 last April), but it seems as though he's getting that out of his system earlier than usual with a 10.64 ERA in Scottsdale. I'll take him in around the 13th round and potentially get top-20 SP value. -- AJ Mass

I've been vocal in my praise of Tyler Chatwood, so I'm going to use this space to pump the tires of Jimmy Nelson instead. He isn't expected to be throwing off a mound for at least another two weeks and it is possible that he misses most of the first half of the season, but his 2017 breakout campaign (199 strikeouts and a 3.49 ERA) was very much legitimate and I'll be using my last pick of all drafts to slide Nelson into my DL spot. Why wouldn't you? The cost is as close to nothing as it gets and you're stashing more upside than most realize. Consider this: There were three pitchers that had a ground ball rate of at least 50 percent while striking out a batter per inning and Nelson was one of them (Carlos Martinez and Luis Severino being the others). You could argue that the numbers stand to improve if his BABIP regresses to the mean, so what exactly do you have to lose? Nothing. You have nothing to lose right now and plenty to gain. -- Kyle Soppe

My bust starting pitcher is:

Sorry if this is a story you have heard or seen me tell before. Angels right-hander Shohei Ohtani might be a budding star ... but he sure does not look like he is fooling hitters in March games. Perhaps he is saving it for April but I maintain Ohtani has not proven himself in MLB and it will take some time. To make him a top-100 selection seems aggressive to me, so I have not invested. And I have not even discussed his hitting prowess. Take Kyle Hendricks of the Cubs, who is so much safer and a proven asset. -- Eric Karabell

Ohtani has to be the choice here. He shouldn't be going in Round 9, something that was true even before we got a look at him in the Cactus League. I think too much is being made of his potential contributions on both sides of the ball -- his hitting contributions should be minimal and mere gravy if you receive many of them at all -- and the Los Angeles Angels are likely to keep his workload in check this season anyway after he missed so much time due to injury in Japan in 2017. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft

Noah Syndergaard threw seven innings of one-run ball on Monday in his final scheduled start of the spring as he gets ready to take the ball for the New York Mets on Opening Day. Nobody is happier than I am to see Thor back on the mound, and the talk of a Cy Young season from the golden-locked 25-year-old is not without merit. To me, the concern is that there's likely to be only two outcomes this season. Either Syndergaard lives up to the hype and gets his 200 K's while posting an ERA of around 2.50 or he shines for around six weeks before once again succumbing to a season-ending injury. I'm not willing to take that risk in Round 3. -- AJ Mass

A 2.96 ERA jumps off the page to most and with Gio Gonzalez pitching for one of the better teams in baseball, I understand how you could talk yourself into him being a nice ratios pitcher than strikes out enough batters with a high win expectancy. But dig a bit deeper and you'll realize that those numbers are all sorts of deceptive. At a basic level, it's important to acknowledge that his FIP was actually 4.5 percent higher in 2017 than 2016 (a season in which he boasted a 4.57 ERA) and that his strand rate was 14 percentage points higher, two trends that have me labeling him as the poster boy for regression in 2018. His swing-and-miss rate declined for a third consecutive season, a hint that his strikeout rate isn't likely to improve. The market is demanding that you overpay for Gonzalez based on his raw numbers from last season and that means that you are paying for his ceiling. -- Kyle Soppe

If I could get any starting pitcher at his current draft position cost to build around in drafts, it would be:

Cubs lefty Jose Quintana moved to the other side of the Windy City and saw his five-year run of ERAs in the 3-range end, but he did not struggle. Quintana has made 32 or more starts for five consecutive seasons. His move to the NL coincided with his first 200-strikeout season and again he delivered a strong WHIP. Quintana should not be the first pitcher one rosters but he is durable, reliable and a nice seventh-round asset. -- Eric Karabell

No one stands out, mainly because I refuse to pay book value or greater for a starting pitcher. Kluber and Sale, however, are going the closest to my rankings, with ADPs of 13th and 14 (I've got them ranked 15th and 16th), so I'd probably bite at this spots. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft

Masahiro Tanaka pitched for seven seasons in Japan before joining the New York Yankees in 2014, which is why the perception is that he's much older than his actual age of, believe it or not, only 29. He had a few clunkers last season -- and they certainly count -- but over his final 16 starts, Tanaka's ERA was 3.54, with a .227 BAA and a strong 5.9 K/BB rate. All of those stats would have placed him in the AL's top 10 in those categories. I'd be thrilled to take him in Round 9 and get SP2 value out of him. -- AJ Mass

The "Big Four" pitchers are unquestionably elite, but it wouldn't surprise me one bit if Madison Bumgarner provides similar production and he is going 10-17 picks later. Yes, last season happened and he burned you, but does one dirt bike accident really mean he is no longer among the best in the game? Prior to 2017, all he did was rattle off four straight seasons with sub-3.00 ERA while averaging 226 strikeouts. -- Kyle Soppe

The young starting pitcher who could break out is:

Reds right-hander Luis Castillo was a decent prospect but the one-sided trade that sent him to Cincinnati gave him the opportunity to show he was misjudged. Castillo lights up a radar gun but also possesses a big league changeup and slider and he induces many a ground ball as well. While it is asking a lot for another 3.12 ERA over double the starts of his rookie season, expect solid numbers in strikeouts the potential for top-20 status, but coming at the cost of a midround selection. Certainly one should not ignore Castillo because he won a mere three of his 15 starts. It tells us nothing. The Reds are improved and Castillo should improve with them. -- Eric Karabell

Dylan Bundy, probably, as he's still 25 years old and should finally take that step towards being a bona fide star in fantasy baseball. In terms of names you might not know at all, Jack Flaherty should see time with the St. Louis Cardinals sometime this summer, has elite strikeout potential and might well be to 2018 what Luke Weaver was to 2017, both in terms of performance, arrival time and length of stint in the season-closing rotation. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft

There's no substitute for watching baseball players live and in person. Last season, I had the good fortune to watch Aaron Nola pitch against the Houston Astros, where he struck out 10 batters in six scoreless innings against the league's best offense. That outing came during a 10-game stretch where Nola posted a 1.71 ERA and a .196 BAA. Sure, his final eight starts were nowhere near as dominant (4.81 ERA, .271 BAA) but I saw with my own eyes how good Nola can be when he's on. He'll definitely have his down days, but I think this 25-year-old is ready to make a big tier jump in 2018. -- AJ Mass

It's easy to forget that from 2013-2015, Michael Wacha owned the 22nd-lowest ERA (minimum 350 innings pitched) and was a reliable option that you could lock in on a weekly basis. Yes, he has come across difficult times in the two seasons since, but his FIP was just 4.3 percent higher last season than during that run from 2013-2015 while his K/9 was 7.9 percent higher. In addition to a few more strikeouts, the quality of contact against Wacha dipped last season, but because his final stat line isn't visually appealing (12-9 with a 4.13 ERA and 1.36 WHIP), he is being drafted behind 67 other starters. I'm not saying he is a lock, but there is so little risk involved with investing, I'll take my chances. -- Kyle Soppe