Fantasy baseball roundtable: Who is the No. 1 pitcher?

What pitcher do you want to have in your fantasy lineup every fifth day, regardless of the opponent? AP

We've still got about a week until spring training games get underway, but the planning for the fantasy baseball season has already officially begun!

With that in mind and with many a fantasy baseball manager starting the process of figuring out which players to target in their drafts, we posed yet another seemingly simple question to the intrepid duo of Tristan H. Cockcroft and Eric Karabell. Read on to find out what they had to say about it.

Who is the No. 1 pitcher for fantasy baseball in 2023?

Tristan H. Cockcroft: Here's where Shohei Ohtani makes a more compelling case, but I find it tough to rank a pitcher who will probably still have his workload managed enough to fall short of 30 starts and 200 IP ahead of some of the other candidates.

In points leagues, I'll take Gerrit Cole. Did you know that he's not just the only pitcher to have made at least 30 starts and struck out at least 240 batters in each of the last four full seasons (2018-19, '21-22), but he also has 22% (4-of-18) of the total such seasons in that time span? Points-league success is almost entirely about innings pitched and strikeouts -- and track record is important when projecting those two categories.

Corbin Burnes did have 33 starts and 243 strikeouts in 2022, though, and that tempts me since he seems more proven now. Still, the New York Yankees are more likely to roll Cole out there every fifth day than the Milwaukee Brewers are with Burnes.

Eric Karabell: Fair points there, and Cole may be the safest ace for fantasy purposes, but it's hard to simply ignore his rather elevated 3.39 ERA over the last two seasons. He wasn't unlucky, either. Cole's BABIP was .269 last season. Yeah, he wins and misses bats and he keeps runners off base (although home runs remain a problem) and, to be fair, I rank him No. 2 among pitchers, but I have shifted to Burnes as the top option.

Burnes has actually finished considerably ahead of Cole on the ESPN Player Rater in both of the last two seasons, posting a cumulative 2.69 ERA in that span -- and with a better WHIP each season and comparable strikeouts. Burnes also surpassed Cole in innings last season, so any question about reliability or durability with Burnes seems ill-advised. He's awesome!

I'll probably fade each fellow if it takes a top-20 pick to get them, however, focusing more on offense in categories/roto formats, and will see how far Justin Verlander and/or Max Scherzer fall. I suspect you are far more eager to fill pitching spots early in points formats.

Cockcroft: Yes, and especially so in our new standard scoring format, where you have only seven pitcher spots to fill and need to squeeze every last number you can out of the fewer lineup spots. I want an ace pitcher even more now than I did then, as I lean more towards streaming arms, and rotating in players more rapidly on both sides of the ball. Aces like Cole and Burnes are far more likely to be "locked in" members of my lineup when the replacement pool at each hitting spot begins with the 11th player (or shortly thereafter if accounting for the DH and bench, and 31st or shortly thereafter for outfielders).

I know I haven't picked him here as my No. 1 pitcher, either, but you've also got Ohtani noticeably lower in the rotisserie rankings overall, and since we're discussing only his pitching contribution here, where would you place him? I'd have him about 12th, but only that low because he won't match the innings of most (if not all) of the 11 pitchers I'd place ahead of him.

In roto, though, wouldn't Ohtani's pitching line be more valuable because of the better ratios and strikeout rate? I have a hard time wrapping my head around Ohtani falling outside of the top-five overall picks of any draft that keeps him as a singular player -- and, again, that's again answering a different question -- because of how well parts of his skill set perfectly fit either format.

Karabell: Ohtani was magnificent last season and certainly answered any concerns about durability in his unique, multi-faceted and historic role. Volume matters when evaluating each skillset, though. For Ohtani, the lack of starts/IP has to be a factor, even a minor one. Will he pitch 150 innings? It's hardly a guarantee, and pending free agency gives us little hint about his usage. I've got Ohtani firmly in my top 10, which proves my concerns (be they statistical or otherwise) are minor. As always, know your league's rules, especially when considering Ohtani. It can absolutely impact whether Ohtani is the obvious top pick in your drafts or a later first-round choice.

Cockcroft: With Ohtani, I think it's more about his team's long-standing pattern of six-man rotations and the use of "Ohtani Sundays." At least the Angels swayed from both somewhat late last year. These days, isn't every pitcher a durability worry, since so many now talk about 200-plus IP overall and 40-plus innings increases year-over-year as health concerns?

I'd say the daily transaction hook in our game greatly boosts Ohtani's value and, in a points league, he's a "Wayne Gretzky in 1982" cheat code. Fun Ohtani fact: His 17.6 points-per-game average was fifth-best among pitchers who made at least 10 starts, behind only household names Verlander (20.3), Jacob deGrom (18.9), Scherzer (18.8) and Sandy Alcantara (18.1). Ohtani was also sixth in ERA, 12th in WHIP, second in strikeout rate and tied for seventh in total wins (wow, on that team!), which addresses his roto bonafides.

I wonder if we (and this is an industry "we," even) vastly underrate his potential impact, clinging too hard to his injury absences of 2019-20, which were really all tied to his recovery from Tommy John surgery. It's at least a question we must all ask ourselves at that point in the draft.

Karabell: I agree that we need to move past labeling Ohtani as an injury risk. The truth is, in our new game, the potential superstars are more valuable than ever -- if that's even possible -- because active rosters are smaller. Ohtani is one of the definite stars in baseball and building around him, regardless of format, seems rather wise. Just as it once was with Gretzky.