My No. 82 starting pitcher this year went 15-10 a year ago, with a 2.85 ERA and 138 strikeouts in 198.2 innings, putting up a 1.092 WHIP. Once again, that's my No. 82 starter, and he has the numbers of a heck of a good pitcher. Starting pitcher's deep, y'all.
Sure, it's Tanner Roark, and the arrival of Max Scherzer in Washington means he doesn't have a rotation spot. But even that helps my point — we're in a situation right now in baseball where a pitcher can put up the numbers Roark did a year ago and it just isn't enough to have a spot. There are a lot of starters, and a lot of good ones.
With that in mind, many will tell you to wait on starter. After all, if the tenth second baseman is the enigmatic Daniel Murphy but the 50th starter has Justin Verlander's upside, why not get the shallow slots filled more quickly?
If I'm being honest, I agree. Pitcher is almost always going to be the last position I finish up. I'll find Carlos Martinez or Drew Hutchison or Edinson Volquez super late, and I'll drop them as needed and troll the waiver wire for a replacement. All season long, that's an easy route to success.
I will add exactly one caveat to that, though, and it's a big one. Take all the time in the world to fill out your starting rotation. Heck, I've seen (and used) strategies where the last six, seven, eight picks of a draft (or the last handful of auction dollars) are all pitchers. It's the first part, though, that is a stickler.
See, I don't care how you wind up your pitchers. With so many guys relevant, there are a bunch of groupings that make sense. But at the top end, there are only a small handful of starters who makes sense as your rotation anchor.
Check out our consensus rankings (Part 1 and Part 2) for tiers. Frankly, I recommend this for every position, but for the others you can often figure out the breakdown just at a glance; with pitchers, it takes longer. The following line graph shows the consensus rankings points of our top 100 pitchers, high to low:
The key here is to look for the big jumps, the spots where we rankers had pretty clear definition. I identified three obvious gaps that warrant more investigation (there are a couple others that offer similar jumps, but these were the three that seems the most defined, to me):
The gap at 71-72 is probably the biggest one, but when you're that deep, it's less meaningful. The middle gap, Archer-to-Wacha, might be meaningful, but it isn't as big a gap, and it's still kind of low in the rankings. It's that first gap, then, that stands out to me. Cueto is a reasonably sure thing; he'll be good as long as he's healthy, and hey, he made it all the way through 2014 and 2012 without any DL stints. Above Cueto, you have Jordan Zimmermann, Jon Lester, Madison Bumgarner and even better names — it's a group of the surest things you can ask for out of pitchers.
Below Cueto, then, you have Gerrit Cole, who I believe in, but who hasn't totally proven himself yet. And then there's short-track-record Jake Arrieta, non-elite Hyun-jin Ryu, maybe injured Adam Wainwright. You might quibble, but I'm certainly comfortable calling that Cueto-Cole transition a clear tier change.
The takeaway from this is that you can feel free to wait on starting pitcher ... after your first one. Your rotation needs an anchor, because as good as the list is, it lacks sure things for a long while in there. The top 13 (or so; I'll accept some argument about exactly where the gap falls) can head up your rotation. But if you end up with a roster headlined by Matt Harvey, Alex Wood and Ian Kennedy (to pick three names), well, it could be fine, but it's playing with fire.
If you want to draft Clayton Kershaw in the first round or Corey Kluber or Stephen Strasburg a little later, and then wait on the rest of your rotation until late in the draft, stream pitchers all season, I get it. But you need to do the first part. Get a rotation anchor and go from there.