2020 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: Eight No. 1 contenders for starting pitcher with star potential
Bargain starting pitchers who could become elite options at the position for 2021? Here are eight candidates.
The Fantasy baseball industry has largely moved away from the old days of eschewing pitchers in the early rounds, because it seems harder than ever to succeed without an ace or two anchoring your lineup. Those sure-thing aces are the only players you can count on for 200 innings and elite ratios, and that's why Scott White says they're the only true currency in Fantasy baseball in 2020.
Of course, the abridged spring training showed us that even those pitchers can't truly be relied on — Justin Verlander, Chris Sale, and Max Scherzer were all dealing with injuries before action was suspended this week, and obviously Sale and Scherzer dealt with struggles last season that limited their value. Pitchers get hurt, a lot, and you'll need more than just those Draft Day aces to win.
That is why you need as many late-round dart throws as possible. It's all about identifying pitchers who can take the next step and grabbing as many of them as you can. That's what this No. 1 contenders series has been all about — finding discounted players with elite potential. Here are eight pitchers who could pull off the trick in 2020:
Corey Kluber SP
TEX Texas • #28 • Age: 33
It is possible, of course, that last season was the beginning of the end for Kluber, who struggled mightily in April even before a line drive off the bat of Brian Anderson in early May. On the other hand, Kluber similarly struggled in 2017 to begin the season before going on the IL with a back injury, and then came back to win a Cy Young award. Which is to say, a slow start is not necessarily a sign that he's losing it. In the case of Kluber, we never got to see whether he was going to bounce back, and there is some risk with him heading to Texas in a new stadium. However, at this time last year, he was a top 10 starting pitcher pick, and all he has to do is prove last April was the fluke to get back there.
Sonny Gray SP
CIN Cincinnati • #54 • Age: 30
A lot of attention and hype has been garnered by the incredible second-half runs from the likes of Jack Flaherty and Yu Darvish, but Gray's has sort of flown under the radar. He was fifth in the majors in ERA among starters after the All-Star break and 12th in strikeout rate. Gray saw a significant increase in his strikeout rate, to a career-high 29.0%, so you might expect some regression. However, Gray also adjusted his pitch selection and took a big step forward from a stuff and command perspective, ranking among the very best pitchers in the game based on Aaron Sauceda's ACES metric on CBSSports.com. Gray's up and down history makes Fantasy player skeptical to buy into him, but there was a lot to like about his breakout 2019 season. I'm buying it.
OAK Oakland • #47 • Age: 27
Montas is another pitcher who is facing some skepticism after his breakout, and he's another one I'm definitely buying. Montas has always had plenty of velocity to spare and a pretty good slider, but it wasn't until he added a splitter to his repertoire that he took a big step forward. That splitter, a new pitch for 2019, had a whiff rate of 40.3% and an expected wOBA allowed of .197, elite marks. That pitch helped him take a huge step forward, but the skepticism comes from his trouble staying healthy in the past and his PED suspension in 2019. However, it's not like he started throwing significantly harder in 2019 and that's why he was better — the splitter was the game-changer, and that wasn't the result of PED.
OAK Oakland • #44 • Age: 22
Actually getting to watch Luzardo in Spring Training was causing his ADP to rise, but plenty of people were on him well before that -- your humble author included. Luzardo was dominant in relief in 2019, making six appearances in the majors after his season was largely derailed by shoulder issues, and that dominance was just an extension of everything he has done since becoming a professional. In 195.2 innings in the minors, Luzardo has a 2.53 ERA with 234 strikeouts and a 1.04 WHIP. There is Fantasy ace upside here, nobody doubts it; the question is whether he can hold up to an ace's workload, or will even be given the opportunity. However, if he can get to, say, 150 innings, and pitch like an ace while doing it, you'll be strongly rewarded for your investment.
Zac Gallen SP
ARI Arizona • #23 • Age: 24
Here's a young pitcher who actually doesn't have innings concerns. Gallen threw 171.1 innings in 2019, posting a 2.27 ERA with 208 strikeouts. Of course, much of that came when he was in the minors, when he posted arguably the most impressive numbers of any pitcher in professional baseball last season, but he was still plenty impressive in his 80 MLB innings. The only blemish on his record was an inflated walk rate (10.8%), but given that he had a 6.4% rate in 382 career minor-league innings, I'd bet on that improving. Gallen has command of a four-pitch arsenal, and he's confident enough to throw any of the pitches in any count. If the control improves, as it should, we could be talking about Gallen as a top-12 pitcher this time next year.
Matthew Boyd SP
DET Detroit • #48 • Age: 29
Boyd has one elite pitch, a slider that helped him rack up a whopping 238 strikeouts in 2019. The question now will be finding the pitches to complement that one. The fastball is about average in terms of velocity, the other secondaries need significant work. But they looked good in his limited spring work, and Boyd certainly showed signs of taking a significant step forward last season, even if his ERA didn't show it. His 3.61 SIERA and 3.88 xFIP look a lot better than that, and the addition of even one useful secondary pitch besides the slider could be a huge thing for him. Don't be surprised if Boyd takes a Patrick Corbin-esque leap, and his ADP probably would have kept rising if spring hadn't been suspended.
STL St. Louis • #18 • Age: 28
Martinez might have the easiest case to make of anyone here: If he's healthy, he's probably going to be a top-15 starter. He was consistently drafted that way before arm issues in spring training in 2019 sent his stock tumbling, and he stilled pitched that way when he came back from the injury, albeit in relief. Martinez has basically pitched to a low 3.00s ERA whenever he is healthy, and he's healthy right now. That's all you can ask for, especially at his price.
Mitch Keller SP
PIT Pittsburgh • #23 • Age: 23
Ignore Keller's 2019 ERA. Just throw it away. He was a rookie pitching for a team that has consistently mishandled elite pitching prospects in the past — just ask Tyler Glasnow. That old coaching staff is gone, and has been replaced by a more analytically inclined staff that Keller has already complimented. His secondary pitches were his strength in 2019, while his fastball got absolutely demolished. The Pirates have already talked to Keller about relying on his fastball less and his very good curveball and slider more, which should help him rack up more whiffs and should help the fastball play up. Pitching with the juiced ball in Triple-A, Keller still managed a 3.56 ERA last season, and something similar — if not better — is possible with a new approach. He'll be one basically every one of my teams in 2020.
So which sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued first baseman can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Kenta Maeda's huge breakout last season, and find out.
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