2012 Fantasy draft tiers: Starting pitcher
Kershaw, Verlander, Halladay lead the way among hurlers
With offense in a downturn over the last two seasons, viable starting pitchers are easier to find than ever before.
But that doesn't mean owners should ignore the big names atop the hurler ranks. Only the starters in the top few tiers can be counted on for elite year-in, year-out contributions in wins, ERA, WHIP and strikeouts. Sure, new faces emerge every season -- like Jordan Zimmermann and Cory Luebke in '11 -- but there's plenty of evidence that the Halladays and Verlanders of the world are just as valuable as early-round bats.
TIER 1: Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay
No longer the undisputed champion of Tier 1, Halladay is joined by some worthy company in reigning Cy Young Award winners Kershaw and Verlander. The two new kids on the block each took home their league's version of the pitching Triple Crown last season, and Verlander pulled off an even tougher trick by becoming the first pitcher to earn an MVP Award since 1992. While the duo's accomplishments can't be overstated, don't count out Halladay from reclaiming his place atop the heap in 2012. The Phillies ace was his typically brilliant self a year ago, finishing with eight complete games and a career-best 2.35 ERA.
TIER 2: Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, Cole Hamels, Jered Weaver, CC Sabathia, Dan Haren
Lee ranks just a hair below the top tier, but there's no shame in leading this collection of aces -- any of whom could easily anchor a mixed-league staff. Some rotten luck plagued King Felix (3.47 ERA) and Lincecum (14 losses) last year, but both posted peripheral numbers as solid as ever and should see improvement in their 5x5 stats this season. Hamels continues to rank as the league's most overqualified No. 3 starter, while Weaver and Haren give the Angels perhaps the AL's most devastating 1-2 punch. If victories are what you're after, no starter rings up more than Sabathia, who's tallied 59 W's over three campaigns in the Bronx.
TIER 3: Zack Greinke, David Price, Matt Cain, C.J. Wilson, Yovani Gallardo, Jon Lester, Mat Latos, Madison Bumgarner, James Shields
This is why it pays to wait on pitching: The top-shelf arms in Tier 3 should be available several rounds after their Tier 1 and 2 counterparts, yet all could easily lead a championship staff. Strikeouts should be plentiful, and each takes the mound for a club expected to contend for the postseason. Risk-averse owners should look to pair an arm from this batch with a top-tier SP and avoid the hassle of weekly streaming. Loading up on a couple of aces early will also allow you to binge on offense in the middle rounds before finishing off your staff with reliable veterans and high-upside prospects.
TIER 4: Ian Kennedy, Tommy Hanson, Stephen Strasburg, Daniel Hudson, Josh Johnson, Matt Garza, Chris Carpenter
Kennedy headlines yet another loaded tier after leading the NL with 21 wins and finishing just shy of 200 K's last season. His D-backs teammate, Hudson, also chipped in 16 victories and a 1.20 WHIP in his first full big league campaign. Carpenter and Garza are the workhorses of the group, polished pros with years of Major League success dotting their impressive resumes. Daring owners can select from a triumvirate of injured aces, highlighted by Strasburg. The Nats righty could wind up as 2012's biggest draft day steal if he's allowed to throw more than 160 innings. Johnson and Hanson, who also had their 2011s curtailed by health issues, should be rested and ready to reclaim No. 1 status this spring.
TIER 5: Michael Pineda, Josh Beckett, Shaun Marcum, Ricky Romero, Adam Wainwright, Max Scherzer, Brandon Beachy, Cory Luebke
Many observers labeled 2011 as the "Year of the Pitcher," and it's easy to see why considering the talent on display this far down the pecking order. Beckett erased the memories of a disappointing '10 campaign with a 2.89 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP last season, both career bests. Romero continued his ascension by increasing his wins and strikeouts for the third straight campaign, providing hope that his new AL East neighbor Pineda can continue to thrive even in the toughest environments. Wainwright has some serious injury questions to answer coming off Tommy John surgery, but his track record of success can't be ignored. The fireballing Beachy (10.74 K/9 rate) is the most likely to outperform his draft-day price tag.
TIER 6: Anibal Sanchez, Jordan Zimmermann, Matt Moore, Jhoulys Chacin, Yu Darvish, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ted Lilly, Gio Gonzalez, Alexi Ogando, Brandon Morrow, Doug Fister, Jeremy Hellickson
Scattered among new Nationals ace Gonzalez, former 19-game winner Jimenez and 2011 AL Rookie of the Year Hellickson, is 2012's great unknown commodity: Yu Darvish. The electric righty cut a swath through Japanese League hitting and could easily finish a tier or three higher than his current ranking with a seamless stateside transition. That's easier said than done, however, as differences in the ball, mound and weather have derailed more than a few Japanese imports. Moore, the latest in a long line of homegrown Rays pitching talent, is another gamble who could pay huge dividends. Those looking for more certainty on draft day can't go wrong with reliable mid-rotation stalwarts Lilly and Sanchez.
TIER 7: Scott Baker, Bud Norris, Jaime Garcia, Johnny Cueto, Colby Lewis, Wandy Rodriguez, John Danks, Chad Billingsley, Ervin Santana, Hiroki Kuroda, Tim Hudson, Ryan Dempster, Derek Holland
By now, most owners will have pounced on at least three hurlers, meaning that it's time to start thinking about filling out the middle of your team's staff. The focus here should be on acquiring dependable names to complement your aces. Veteran producers like Hudson, Dempster, Danks and Kuroda certainly fit that bill. Billingsley and the rocket-armed Norris are held back by control issues, but could be steals if everything breaks right. The Texas twosome of Lewis and Holland will get plenty of support from a mashing Rangers offense, while Cueto and Garcia should feast on light-hitting NL Central squads.
TIER 8: Clay Buchholz, Trevor Cahill, Vance Worley, Phil Hughes, Erik Bedard, Neftali Feliz, Ryan Vogelsong, Daniel Bard, Gavin Floyd
Aside from the solid-but-unspectacular Floyd, question marks abound in Tier 8. Cahill experienced an ERA jump in his third big league campaign and was dealt to Arizona during the offseason. The oft-injured Bedard is coming off yet another abbreviated season, while Vogelsong will have to prove that a 13-win '11 was no fluke after going five years between big league victories. And then there's Feliz and Bard, who will attempt rotation transitions after finding varying degrees of success out of the 'pen. With top-notch stuff but a lack of starting experience, they represent risky boom-or-bust candidates.
TIER 9: Javier Vazquez, Roy Oswalt, Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor, Ricky Nolasco, Johan Santana, Jon Niese, Justin Masterson, Travis Wood, Henderson Alvarez, Chris Sale
Perhaps the most intriguing of all the tiers, there's something for everyone in this group. Niese, Masterson, Wood and Alvarez all flashed potential last season but lack the track record of more established starters. Former aces Oswalt and Santana -- who missed all of 2011 recovering from shoulder surgery -- are longshots to recapture the magic of their glory days, but could still provide some back-end value if healthy.
TIER 10: Jeff Niemann, Mark Buehrle, Ivan Nova, Matt Harrison, Edwin Jackson, Brett Myers, Jonathan Sanchez, Francisco Liriano, Luke Hochevar, R.A. Dickey, Zach Britton, Drew Pomeranz, Brandon McCarthy
With the glamorous names long snapped up, it's time for some bargain-basement shopping. Your squad's success is unlikely to hinge on any of the names selected in this tier, but there are potential lotto tickets in promising youngsters Britton and Pomeranz, as well as comeback candidates Liriano and Sanchez.
Chris Stryshak is a fantasy writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.