Fantasy Baseball 2023 Starting Pitcher Preview: Top-20 rankings, sleepers and draft strategy

Pitchers betray us every fantasy season, no matter when we draft them. It's disgraceful. This spot is full of frauds. Grifters. Charlatans. Deceivers. Injury rates and volatility are high; workloads are in a multiseason nosedive. There is little honor in the pitching profession, certainly not in this era.

I, for one, am glad Major League Baseball is finally putting an end to the flagrant time-wasting these monsters have been perpetrating. Pitchers are guaranteed to disappoint us eventually, so the least they can do is work quickly.

It has been more than a decade since any major-league starter reached 250 innings in a season (Justin Verlander in 2011), which should be regarded as a national scandal. Not long ago, 250 wasn't nearly enough to get you on the leaderboard. Today, it's an unimaginable total. Martin Perez pitched 196.1 innings last season, finishing 10th in MLB. Back in 1974, eight pitchers threw 300-plus, led by Nolan Ryan's 332.2, and the guys who finished tied for 10th, Steve Busby and Andy Messersmith, threw 292.1 frames.

Draft strategy for this dreadful position

Given how little is asked of starting pitchers in the modern game, it should be no surprise that none of these guys is being selected as locked-in first-rounders in terms of ADP. Ideally, if you were going to draft someone from this four-category position in the first, you'd want to feel confident in getting not just an ace, but a guy who can pitch a huge percentage of your team's total innings. In recent years, however, 200 is a best-case scenario — almost a wild outlier. It's not a total you can reasonably forecast for any pitcher.

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Also, we don't obviously have a vintage Clayton Kershaw or Pedro Martinez in the player pool in 2023, someone who clearly belongs to a tier of their own. Corbin Burnes and Gerrit Cole are excellent, but they aren't irrefutably better than, say, Aaron Nola or Shohei Ohtani or Jacob deGrom or Verlander. If you're determined to get one of these brand-name starters near the top of a draft ... well, fine. But please limit yourself to one. The only thing dumber than drafting a pitcher in the first is drafting pocket aces. Remember, these guys are actively trying to hurt us.

Gerrit Cole #45 of the New York Yankees is a fantasy star
Gerrit Cole is a top-ranked fantasy ace for many — but that doesn't free him of the usual starting-pitcher risks. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Each year, several of the most valuable starting pitchers in fantasy baseball will go undrafted in standard mixed leagues — think of Nestor Cortes, Spencer Strider and Tony Gonsolin last season — so it is perfectly OK to leave your draft with an unfinished rotation. There are many viable ways to attack this unfortunate roster spot, so don't think you need to build your pitching portfolio in the first half of a draft.

Personally, I don't mind getting 10 rounds deep before looking at starting pitching options, but the ZeroSP approach isn't for everyone. Most of you cowards are unwilling to lean in to the pitching chaos. Alas.

Fantasy sleepers

No matter how you assemble your fantasy roster's rotation, there's a decent chance you'll be taking a few late-round fliers. Here are five preferred options:

[2023 Fantasy Positional Previews: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP]

Hunter Brown is something like the 12th member of the Houston Astros and the third dude named Hunter to be selected in a typical draft, so demand is relatively low. But there's no denying his ability. He offers elite velocity, a wicked cutter and evil breaking stuff. Brown struck out 11.4 batters per nine innings at Triple-A last season with outstanding ratios, then carried that level of production into the big leagues for another 20.1 innings (22 K, 7 BB, 2 R). His year will probably be split between starting and middle relief, but with Lance McCullers Jr. already dinged, there's a clear path to the early-season rotation. Whether starting or relieving, Brown's innings will be of the highest quality, and he's tied to a winning environment.

Ross Stripling made huge gains last season while pitching for Toronto, posting a career-best 3.01 ERA (3.11 FIP) and 1.02 WHIP. He has since relocated to a power-suppressing home park in San Francisco, yet fantasy drafters don't seem too enthused. Stripling isn't some flame-throwing strikeout machine, but he's also not a severe liability in Ks (22.4 career K%). He lacks the ceiling of Brown (or this next guy), but he's exceedingly safe and playable in mixed leagues.

Edward Cabrera has been a highly regarded prospect the past few years, but injuries have delayed his emergence. Last year, he struck out 54 batters in 38.2 minor-league innings in Miami's system (mostly at Triple-A), delivering a 0.98 WHIP along the way. Cabrera then tossed another 71.2 innings for the Marlins, striking out 75 big-league hitters while producing useful ratios (3.01 ERA, 1.07 WHIP). Control can be an issue, but bat-missing is not. He has ace-ish upside.

Hayden Wesneski enters spring training in a competition to open as the Cubs' fifth starter, which is moderately annoying because I'd say he's no worse than the team's third-best starting option. His six-game cameo late last season was extremely promising, as he delivered a 0.94 WHIP while whiffing 33 batters and walking seven in 33.0 innings. His slider was cruel, and he was occasionally untouchable.

You probably aren't drafting Wesneski in mixers, but if he's making noise early in the season, be prepared to pounce on the waiver wire. He flashed plenty of potential in September.

[2023 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP]

Roansy Contreras is penciled into a rotation spot in Pittsburgh, and he's coming off a promising first season (95.0 IP, 86 K, 3.79 ERA). Contreras added significant velocity in 2021, vaulting himself into the fantasy conversation with a massive breakout season in the high minors (12.7 K/9, 0.93 WHIP). We can't promise a hefty win total, but Contreras should pile up Ks with his vicious fastball/slider combo.

Top-20 starting pitchers (as of Feb. 24)

1. Corbin Burnes

2. Gerrit Cole

3. Aaron Nola

4. Sandy Alcantara

5. Shohei Ohtani

6. Jacob deGrom

7. Spencer Strider

8. Justin Verlander

9. Brandon Woodruff

10. Shane McClanahan

11. Shane Bieber

12. Max Scherzer

13. Dylan Cease

14. Julio Urias

15. Carlos Rodon

16. Zack Wheeler

17. Framber Valdez

18. Luis Castillo

19. Yu Darvish

20. Alex Manoah