1. Chris Carpenter, Cardinals: Now are you convinced he's free of the injury issues that plagued him back in his days in Toronto? Carpenter has a 3.10 ERA and 1.083 WHIP in three years in St. Louis, averaging 17 wins, 183 strikeouts and -- most importantly -- 31 starts and 215 innings during that span. Tommy John surgery (2003) seems to have done him some good, and at 31, he should again be a top Cy Young contender in 2007.
2. Roy Oswalt, Astros: His string of back-to-back 20-win seasons was snapped in 2006, though his 15 wins were actually a competitive number in the NL, which lacked a true "ace" last season. Oswalt actually lowered his walks-per-nine innings ratio to 1.55, his best rate since his 2001 rookie year, and since he allows fewer than three-quarters of a homer per nine for his career, he's an awfully good bet for another Cy Young-caliber campaign.
3. Jake Peavy, Padres: He was the NL's ninth-ranked starting pitcher on the Player Rater, and his 11 wins sure weren't a great sign for the ace of a division-winning club. But there's still a lot to like about Peavy; he's only 25, only entering his prime, he ranked second in the league in strikeouts (215) and he's still a Padre, in that spacious ballpark. The winter's rest should have helped his sore shoulder, so I'd expect a big bounce-back year from him.
4. Carlos Zambrano, Cubs: It's funny that the main criticism surrounding him is the concern that the 839.1 innings he racked up before his 25th birthday might lead to future wear and tear, because my main worry regarding Zambrano is his high walk rate, which rose to 4.84 per nine in 2006. Neither worry should dissipate in 2007, though Zambrano has always answered his critics in the past. Plus, it's a better offense backing him up this year.
5. Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks: How is it that a defending Cy Young winner ranks only fifth for the following season? Simple: Put Webb's 2006 (16 wins, 3.10 ERA, 178 strikeouts) in any other season this decade and he might not have placed any higher than third in the voting. Plus, it was likely the best we'll see from him, meaning he'd need another year of weak competition to win another. No knock on Webb; No. 5 is pretty good.
6. Ben Sheets, Brewers: Perhaps the gutsiest pick of my top 10 pitchers, as Sheets is coming off back-to-back injury-plagued seasons, including a career-low 17 starts in 2006. Still, he finished the year fairly healthy, and looked much like the Cy Young contender he can be when 100 percent, registering a 3.15 ERA, 1.144 WHIP and better than a strikeout per inning in 13 second-half starts. He's high risk, but with quite a high reward.
7. John Smoltz, Braves: I know everyone keeps waiting for the inevitable decline, and since he turns 40 in May, perhaps this is the year it happens. But Smoltz is coming off back-to-back years of 220-plus innings, and in 2006, he actually finished with better second-half than first-half numbers. He keeps proving older pitchers can still be productive, so if you miss out on the top arms and he keeps slipping, he'd make a fine fantasy ace.
8. Dontrelle Willis, Marlins: As expected, run support was a bit of an issue for Willis, and he did get off to a slow start -- 1-6 record, 4.93 ERA in his first 11 starts -- that hurt his final numbers. Still, he bounced back with 11 wins in his final 23 starts, registering a 3.39 ERA during that span, and he's only two years removed from a Cy Young-caliber season. Willis has better in him, though the young Marlins still limit his win potential.
9. Aaron Harang, Reds: It's funny to think that the Oakland Athletics have lost Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Ted Lilly the past few seasons, yet the pitcher who in 2006 most made them regret letting him go was Harang. He led the NL in strikeouts (216) and complete games (6) and tied for the lead in wins (16), and is now one of the league's better workhorses. Cincinnati's hitter-friendly ballpark hurts him, but he's an easy top-10 arm.
10. Brett Myers, Phillies: Perhaps this is a little high a ranking for a pitcher who has never won more than 14 games or registered an ERA better than 3.72, but Myers is 26 years old and only beginning to show us what he can do. Statistically speaking, he appeared to take a step backwards in 2006, but off-the-field issues did distract him a little. If he can stay focused -- always his biggest weakness -- a breakthough could be on the way.
11. Chris Young, Padres: The move to Petco Park did wonders for his ERA (3.46) and WHIP (1.132), though fantasy owners should be careful not to let the ballpark inflate his draft-day price. Young lacks ace-starter potential, and it's not a great sign for his durability that he managed only 179.1 innings in San Diego in 2006. He should be one of the safer ERA/WHIP types, but his upside is more limited than those ranked ahead of him.
12. Jason Schmidt, Dodgers: Well, if you can't beat him, get him to join you, right, Dodgers? Schmidt has impressive 2.93 ERA/1.213 WHIP numbers in his career at Dodger Stadium, and he's probably in better shape for this and next year with the Dodgers, who stand a better chance at contending than the Giants. Schmidt's always a worry to battle mild injury issues, but the move to L.A. should help slow down any career decline somewhat.
13. Matt Cain, Giants: His final rookie numbers don't do justice to how well he pitched late last season, as Cain managed a 3.26 ERA, 1.178 WHIP and 99 strikeouts in 15 second-half starts, including a six-start stretch in late August/early September in which he went 5-0 and allowed only one earned run in 42 innings. Cain has ace-starter potential and could realize it in 2007, though be careful; the early buzz could inflate his price tag.
14. Barry Zito, Giants: Though his walk rate -- 4.03 per nine innings -- and WHIP -- a career-high 1.043 -- continue to rise, Zito should benefit from a move to the National League. It's a more pitcher-friendly league, he'll be in a division with three pitcher-friendly ballparks and his curveball should prove difficult for unfamiliar hitters to adjust to initially. Don't look for any Cy Youngs for Zito in 2007, but a solid season should be in order.
15. Cole Hamels, Phillies: Incredibly, he's shaping up as a more popular pick than Cain in the early drafts I've seen, but I'd prefer the Giants right-hander given the choice. It's close, though, as Hamels is another future ace coming off a strong finish to 2006; he was 6-3 with a 2.60 ERA and 76 strikeouts in his final 11 starts. What's the difference? Hamels is in the more hitter-friendly ballpark, and he has the shakier injury history as a pro.
16. Bronson Arroyo, Reds: Some pitchers struggle with a league switch; Arroyo capitalized on the move to the more pitcher-friendly NL, despite calling a hitter-friendly ballpark his home. Of course, let's not overlook that he was a .500 pitcher with a 3.50 ERA in the second half, which is more realistic expectation for him looking forward to 2007.
17. Rich Hill, Cubs: Another breakout candidate developing a lot of early buzz, Hill was a disaster in his first two major-league stints before dominating in his third late in 2006. He was 6-3 with a 2.92 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 13 games (12 starts) in the second half, as he added better supplemental pitches to his great curveball. Still, Hill has to demonstrate consistency, so while he has huge strikeout upside, be careful not to overrate him.
18. Dave Bush, Brewers: One of the more underappreciated young pitchers in the game, Bush finished fourth in the NL in WHIP (1.138) despite lacking eye-popping numbers in any other fantasy category. He was a perfect matchups type in 2006, pitching well in home games and against weaker offenses, but in 2007, I'd expect more consistency.
19. Chris Capuano, Brewers: He faded badly after the All-Star break, going 1-8 with a 5.17 ERA in 15 starts, but it's not the first time he started strong and wore down. Capuano did look a little more ordinary across the board statistically in 2006, but give him some credit, as he's a workhorse who can offer decent ratios and a healthy strikeout total.
20. Roger Clemens, free agent: Here we go again ... Will he retire? Will he return? Who knows? I was skeptical a year ago, but considering the way Clemens has pitched the past three years -- 38-18, 2.40 ERA in 84 starts -- why wouldn't he pitch again in 2007? His age only makes him more of an injury risk each year, but a repeat of 2006 is sure possible.
21. Derek Lowe, Dodgers: He has proven a good fit in Los Angeles, with a quality middle infield defense behind him, a spacious outfield to contain the few deep drives he allows, and an offense to provide him run support. Lowe's not the 20-game winner he was in 2002, but he's a solid, middle-of-a-fantasy-staff type these days.
22. Freddy Garcia, Phillies: Don't underestimate his move to the National League; he has a 19-6 record and 2.34 ERA in 31 career interleague starts, so clearly, either Garcia has an advantage over unfamiliar hitters or the confidence to overpower them. He won't maintain those rates in Philly's bandbox ballpark, but expect solid all-around numbers.
23. Scott Olsen, Marlins: One of the most underappreciated rookies of 2006, Olsen held his own in his first extended taste of the big leagues, which bodes well for his 2007. He'll come cheaper than most sophomores, yet he was a top-50 Baseball America prospect in each 2005-06. My only worry with him is durability, though his 31 starts are a nice sign.
24. Josh Johnson, Marlins: He actually found himself in the hunt for the ERA title for a brief period last season, before a forearm problem forced him to fall short of qualifying. Johnson does have the skills to be a solid third/fourth big-league starter, though now that people know about him, his ERA/WHIP numbers should be a bit higher in 2007.
25. Brad Penny, Dodgers: He was an All-Star and a Cy Young favorite the first half of the season, but Penny managed a 6-7 record and 6.25 ERA after the break, continuing to raise questions about his durability. Owning him means having to be prepared for him to miss some time or wear down, because he's simply not capable of holding up all year.
26. Ian Snell, Pirates: Wins will be a problem for him in Pittsburgh, but he has plenty of strikeout potential and should, at worst, be a useful matchups type.
27. John Patterson, Nationals: There's so much potential here in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts, but Patterson does need to show during spring training that his forearm problems are fully behind him. Don't expect many wins, either, on a bad Washington team.
28. Chad Billingsley, Dodgers: He badly needs to improve his command, but that 7-2 record and 3.16 ERA in the season's second half bode well for his sophomore year.
29. Anibal Sanchez, Marlins: It's asking a lot for him to repeat 2006's incredible numbers, as he's still a bit wild, but he's got quite a bit of upside. He's a possible future ace.
30. Mark Prior, Cubs: One has to wonder whether his shoulder will ever be structurally sound, but when Prior's at full health, he's as good as anyone. Will he ever be at 100 percent in 2007? A strong spring would move him up several spots in these rankings.
31. Tim Hudson, Braves
32. Tom Glavine, Mets
33. Chuck James, Braves
34. Greg Maddux, Padres
35. Ted Lilly, Cubs
36. Jeff Francis, Rockies
37. Anthony Reyes, Cardinals
38. Jeff Suppan, Brewers
39. Jason Jennings, Astros
40. John Maine, Mets
41. Doug Davis, Diamondbacks
42. Zach Duke, Pirates
43. Clay Hensley, Padres
44. Noah Lowry, Giants
45. Homer Bailey, Reds
46. Oliver Perez, Mets
47. Jon Lieber, Phillies
48. Tom Gorzelanny, Pirates
49. Pedro Martinez, Mets
50. Randy Wolf, Dodgers