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Fantasy Starting Pitcher Rankings: NL-Only Sleepers

The National League is very deep when it comes to starting pitching this season, claiming 15 of the top 25 spots in our starting pitcher rankings. But you won't be able to grab Kershaw, Wainwright and Fernandez, which is why we're here to help. Here are three pitchers who have excellent chances of outperforming their draft positions.

Scott Cunningham

Doug Fister, Nationals

There’s a lot to like about Fister this season. Primarily, moving from the American League to the National League is generally a positive step for pitchers, and I expect that to play a significant role in Fister’s case this season.

Aside from not having to deal with the DH, Fister will also pitch with a lineup comparable to the one he enjoyed while playing in Detroit. The Nats have one of the best lineups from top-to-bottom in the league, with a couple of breakout candidates (i.e. Bryce Harper) set to make Washington one of the elite offensive teams in the NL, pointing to plenty of wins for its starters.

Fister also has the benefit of some positive statistical trends. For one, he posted a career high in strikeouts in 2013. He’s also proven to be extremely consistent throughout his career, including a 3.29 ERA in his three seasons with the Tigers, while posting low HR/9 totals (including a league-leading 0.5 in 2011) and showing solid command (1.8 career BB/9).

The real intriguing (and exciting) statistic when it comes to Fister, however, is his unusually-high .332 BABIP from 2013, 34 points above his career average. That number largely explains Fister’s somewhat disappointing 3.67 ERA, and if it levels out a bit, which is to be expected, the right-hander could be set to return to his 2011 level of dominance (2.83 ERA).

Tim Lincecum, Giants

Lincecum’s ADP in NFBC drafts is currently 244.77, meaning you’ll be able to find him late even in NL-only leagues. But aside from a favorable draft position, just why should you draft the former Cy Young award winner?

Even with a poor ERA, Lincecum has always helped his fantasy owners in one particular category: strikeouts. At the very least, drafting The Freak means you’ll be grabbing a starter guaranteed to give you an elite strikeout total, while also holding the potential to post solid numbers in the other fantasy categories. Even in his infamously terrible 2012 season, for example, Lincecum struck out 190 batters, a solid number despite it ranking as the lowest total of his career in a full season.

However, the elephant in the room when it comes to Lincecum is that he owns a 4.76 ERA over the last two seasons. But even with rough performances as of late, the trends are only positive when it comes to Lincecum’s improvement since his awful 2012 campaign. Of course, don’t expect any miracles: As a spoiler alert, Lincecum won’t win his third Cy Young award in 2014. But it would be a mistake to expect another performance akin to his 2012/13 totals. For one, Lincecum decreased his BB% by nearly two whole percentage points between 2012-13, which also led to an opponent batting average of .248, right around league average. He also decreased his HR/9 rate, a serious issue in 2012, to 0.96, more in line with the league average. (In fact, it was exactly the league average.)

As Lincecum continues to learn to pitch with decreased velocity, pitching around hitters instead of through them, his fantasy numbers will continue to improve. We saw it happen in 2013, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t happen again in 2014. Expect Lincecum to outperform his late draft position this year, and he could certainly help your team as a fourth starter.

Brandon Beachy, Braves

Part of the fun of fantasy baseball is taking risks, and most league champions have at least a few players on whom they took leaps of faith that ended up paying off. In the interest of taking the most calculated risk possible, I offer you this suggestion: Draft Brandon Beachy this season!

After missing the majority of each of the past two seasons due to Tommy John surgery and the subsequent struggles he experienced upon his return, it’s easy to forget that Beachy was one of the best pitchers in the majors before he went down in 2012. He had a 2.00 ERA with a 0.96 WHIP, allowing a Pedro Martinez-esque 5.4 H/9, the latter of which would have been good for the sixth lowest total in MLB history over a full season.

But what matters most is how Beachy will perform post-surgery, and there’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll return to form. For one, despite posting a 4.50 ERA in his 30 innings in 2013, the right-hander still held opponents to a 1.03 WHIP, as his struggles were primarily attributable to trouble limiting the home run ball. Seeing as Beachy hasn’t had trouble in that regard in the past, there’s no reason to expect he won’t see a significant improvement in his ERA.

It’s also silly to assume that pitchers simply fall off a cliff post-Tommy John surgery. In fact, due to the increase in elbow torque that often comes with successful Tommy John surgery, pitchers generally increase their velocities. While that wasn’t the case with Beachy, he nearly matched his previous velocity, and with a full offseason to recuperate and work on returning to his previous form, Beachy seems like a good bet to seriously outperform his draft position.