The best of the pitching elite
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The excitement of pitchers and catchers reporting this week got to me and this morning I signed up for an online fantasy league.

After going through all the instructions I arrived at the pre-draft rankings portion and it really got the juices going. Mike Trout tops the default rankings, not unexpected, but should a youngster with less than a full season of experience in the majors really be the No. 1 overall pick ahead of guys like Ryan Braun and triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera who have done it year in and year out?

But that's a discussion for another day. Today I want to evaluate the top-five pitching selections. Again using the site's default rankings, the five top pitchers listed are; Justin Verlander (No. 11 overall), Stephen Strasburg (12), Clayton Kershaw (13), Felix Hernandez (18) and David Price (24).

There are a number of questions to be answered. Who is the best of the group? Who is the surest bet, the most reliable of the group? Who is the least reliable? Which fantasy ace is the best value based on this site's ranking?

David Price, Tampa Bay (24) - The No. 1 overall selection of the 2007 amateur draft, Price exploded onto the scene in 2008 as the Rays made a run to the World Series. But he struggled in his first full season going just 10-7 with a 4.42 ERA and a 1.348 WHIP. Since then he's put together solid numbers, going 19-6 in 2010, 12-13 in 2011 but with a respectable 3.49 ERA, 1.137 WHIP and 218 strikeouts, and won the 2012 AL CY Young Award last year with a 20-5 record, a league-leading 2.56 ERA, a 1.100 WHIP and 205 K's.

While the losing season in 2011 should be discounted by the solid statistical numbers behind the record, it is a little disconcerting that he seems to be on a up and down trend with great seasons in even-numbered years and average seasons in odd-numbered years. He also benefited from plenty of run support in 2012 (4.81 per start).

Felix Hernandez, Seattle (18) - He's about to sign a contract that will make him a very wealthy man, but for fantasy owners he's a troubling selection. The problem is the team around him. They don't play up to King Felix's standards. While Hernandez has a 3.25 ERA, 1.224 WHIP and has averaged 201 strikeouts in 219 innings for the past seven seasons, he's only got a 94-72 record. That's an average of 13 wins per season which is well below where it ought to be. Seattle has brought in some offense this season (Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez) so perhaps the offense will catch up to it's ace after giving him just 3.52 runs last season, the lowest among the five aces.

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers (13) - Kershaw has pitched near the top of the charts for the past four seasons, but in only one of them has his record matched his performance. Since 2009 Kershaw has an ERA of 2.60 and a 1.090 WHIP. Unfortunately, he's only won 15 or more games one time in that span (2011). The Dodgers' revamped lineup, with newly acquired Carl Crawford, a full season of Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez and a healthy Matt Kemp should help provide Kershaw with more than the 3.94 runs they gave him last season.

Stephen Strasburg, Washington (12) - Where do you begin? He's the man with the "golden arm" but he's been limited by injury and management over his first three seasons. He owns a career 2.94 ERA, 1.090 WHIP and 313 strikeouts in 251 1/3 innings pitched (11.2 SO/9). However, he was only allowed to pitch 160 innings last season (he still won 15 games). He claims to be ready to pitch 200-plus innings, but we don't know if a) his arm will hold up, b) the team will allow it. He's easily the biggest gamble of the top pitching selections.

Justin Verlander, Detroit (11) - He's the Tom Brady of baseball ... without the championship rings. He's pitched two no-hitters, he's a five-time All- Star, 2011 Cy Young Award winner and 2011 AL MVP. He's got "Nolan Ryan stuff", capable of pitching a no-hitter every time he takes the mound. And he's dating a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model!

Over seven full seasons (he made just two starts in 2005), an average season for Verlander is 18-9, 3.37 ERA, 1.169 WHIP and 206 strikeouts in 220 innings pitched. He's had just one losing season in that span and pitched more than 200 innings in six of the seven years. You can't get much more consistent than that. He's the best pitcher in baseball and he should be the first pitcher off the board in every fantasy league.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Steve Schwarz at

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