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Baseball preview: Starting pitchers

Following the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, the focus of sports fans around the country will quickly shift to the beginning of the 2008 baseball season. Pitchers and catchers report for the start of spring training in less than three weeks.

Around this time of year, existing leagues finish selecting keepers for the upcoming season and new leagues begin holding their drafts. So, over the next week, I'm going to provide a breakdown of the top performers at each position.

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If you use this as a guide when your draft begins, then you should have an early advantage in your league. However, I'll also mention that these rankings are based on a combination of how the players have performed in the past, as well as how I think they'll perform this season. Basically, it's not an exact science.

I don't know how to predict the future, so injuries, slumps and player transactions could happen that I didn't take into consideration when I wrote these rankings. Therefore, I'll rank the players again a week before the season starts. This will allow me to take spring training performance into consideration.

Today, I'll list the top 50 starting pitchers with a brief description about each of the top 20. As the week progresses, make sure to check the blog for rankings on the other positions.

1. Jake Peavy, San Diego Padres, RHP – I know, Johan Santana seems to be at the top of everyone else's list of preseason rankings. I like the fact that Peavy led the National League in wins, ERA and strikeouts on his way to the Cy Young award last season. He also led the NL in strikeouts in 2005, so if you pick him, you'll be handsomely rewarded.

2. Johan Santana, Minnesota Twins, LHP – Honestly, you can't go wrong if you pick Peavy or Santana first. My personal preference is Peavy, but Santana has won at least 15 games in all four seasons as a full-time starter. He's also good for at least 225 strikeouts. It remains to be seen if he puts up those numbers for the Twins or another team.

3. Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox, RHP – Beckett won a career-high 20 games last season and his ERA dropped from 5.01 in 2006 to 3.27 last season as he finished second in the AL Cy Young voting. Pitching in the American League East is never an easy task, but Beckett seemed to thrive while pitching in that division last season.

4. Brandon Webb, Arizona Diamondbacks, RHP – In each of the past four seasons, Webb's win total has increased and his ERA has decreased from the previous season. If that's the case again this year, he could be headed for 20 wins and an ERA below 3.00. In the pitching-dominant National League West, he'll prove he's worth the draft pick.

5. C.C. Sabathia, Cleveland Indians, LHP – Sabathia has been pitching in the major leagues since he was 20 years old and the experience paid off last season for the seven-year veteran as he won the AL Cy Young Award. After posting career bests in wins, innings pitched, strikeouts and ERA, he could surpass them again this year.

6. John Lackey, Los Angeles Angels, RHP –It'll be tough for Lackey to replicate his career-best 3.01 ERA, but he should get about 190 strikeouts. He also could come close to his career-high 19 victories again this season. With the addition of Jon Garland from the White Sox, Lackey won't face as much pressure in the starting rotation.

7. Roy Halladay, Toronto Blue Jays, RHP – If you're looking for a veteran starter who can consistently win even if his team can't, then Halladay should be your choice. The 30-year-old starter is 93-38 over the past six seasons. He's good for at least 15 wins this year and an ERA below 3.25.

8. Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs, RHP – Zambrano could win 20 games and strike out over 200 hitters this year. He could also struggle with his command, which would decrease his number of wins. The 26-year-old right-hander is the biggest question mark of pitchers listed this high, but his potential could be worth the risk.

9. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers, RHP – Verlander is the best pitcher on a staff that now includes former Florida Marlins ace Dontrelle Willis. In the past two seasons, Verlander has compiled a 35-15 record. He struck out 183 hitters last season and the strikeouts should be in that range again this season.

10. Erik Bedard, Orioles, LHP – The biggest question is whether Bedard will be a member of the Orioles on Opening Day or not. No matter where he plays, Bedard deserves a serious look on your fantasy team if he is available. He'll win at least 15 games and could win more if he's dealt to team that will give him more run protection than the Orioles.

11. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies, LHP – If you're looking for this season's breakout candidate, then look no further than the 24-year-old Hamels. In his second year with the Phils, Hamels won 15 games and became the ace of their rotation. With the run support he'll get from the lineup, it wouldn't be a stretch for Hamels to pick up 18 wins.

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12. Dan Haren, Diamondbacks, RHP – While Haren has never won more than 15 games in a single season, he will be helped by the shift to the National League. After striking out a career-high 192 hitters last season, Haren could see that number jump to over 200 this season. He could also beat his 3.07 career-best ERA.

13. Aaron Harang, Cincinnati Reds, RHP – After being a marginal major-league starter for his first four seasons, Harang turned on the switch and he has become the ace of the Reds pitching staff. He's won 16 games in each of the last two seasons and struck out over 200 hitters each year. He's a good value pick that people might overlook.

14. Roy Oswalt, Houston Astros, RHP – Although he is not as dominant as he was during back-to-back 20-win seasons in 2004 and 2005, Oswalt remains the leader of the Astros' starting rotation. He'll add 15 wins to your team, and if he comes close to his 3.07 career ERA, then you'll be in pretty good shape in that category as well.

15. John Smoltz, Atlanta Braves, RHP – I don't generally like to take older starters to anchor my fantasy rotation because, in my opinion, they are more likely to break down. However, Smoltz continues to strike out around 200 hitters per year and he has a 3.34 career ERA as a starter.

16. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners, RHP – Hernandez will only turn 22 this year, but he has plenty of big-league experience since his debut in 2005. If he can avoid injuries – which he didn't do last season – then he could become an elite starter this season. He'll need to prove he can throw at least 200 innings in a season first.

17. Scott Kazmir, Tampa Bay Rays, LHP – Kazmir would easily be in the top five of this list if he wasn't stuck playing on the bottom-feeders in the AL East. Last season, he broke through with 239 strikeouts to lead the American League. Kazmir might not reach that number again this season, but a strikeout total above 200 isn't out of the question.

18. Chien-Ming Wang, New York Yankees, RHP – Wang has quietly won 19 games in each of the past two seasons for the Yankees. In each season, he has posted an ERA below 3.75. He'll win a bunch of games again this season, but the low strikeout totals are what keep him from being in the upper tier of starting pitchers.

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19. Chris Young, Padres, RHP – In 30 starts last season, Young only had a 9-8 record. However, his 3.12 ERA ranked fifth in the National League. He also struck out 167 hitters in 173 innings. If the Padres can give him some better run support this season, then he will easily win 15 games.

20. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox, RHP – In his first season in the United States, Matsuzaka was mediocre. He posted a 15-12 record with a 4.40 ERA. However, he did strike out 201 hitters in 204 innings. With the Red Sox lineup, he'll win 15 games again this year, but will he be able to lower the ERA?

And the best of the rest…

21. Fausto Carmona, Indians, RHP

22. Brett Myers, Phillies, RHP

23. Brad Penny, Los Angeles Dodgers, RHP

24. Kelvim Escobar, Angels, RHP

25. Tim Hudson, Braves, RHP

26. Ben Sheets, Milwaukee Brewers, RHP

27. Jered Weaver, Angels, RHP

28. Jeff Francis, Colorado Rockies, LHP

29. Joe Blanton, Oakland Athletics, RHP

30. John Maine, New York Mets, RHP

31. Javier Vasquez, Chicago White Sox, RHP

32. A.J. Burnett, Blue Jays, RHP

33. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants, RHP

34. Chad Billingsley, Dodgers, RHP

35. Ted Lilly, Cubs, LHP

36. Dontrelle Willis, Tigers, LHP

37. Rich Hill, Cubs, LHP

38. Oliver Perez, Mets, LHP

39. Curt Schilling, Red Sox, RHP

40. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals, RHP

41. James Shields, Rays, RHP

42. Dustin McGowan, Blue Jays, RHP

43. Yovani Gallardo, Brewers, RHP

44. Pedro Martinez, Mets, RHP

45. Tim Lincecum, Giants, RHP

46. Andy Pettitte, Yankees, LHP

47. Derek Lowe, Dodgers, RHP

48. Jeremy Bonderman, Tigers, RHP

49. Barry Zito, Giants, LHP

50. Gil Meche, Kansas City Royals, RHP

Player to watch: Francisco Liriano, Twins, LHP – Liriano missed all of last season following elbow reconstruction surgery. Remember that he was 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 121 innings in 2006. He is reportedly on track to join the Twins when spring training begins. Be sure to monitor his situation as the season opener approaches.

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