walker-buehler.jpg

If you've followed me for the past year or so, you know I've come to value high-end starting pitchers above everything else, to the point I consider them to be the only real currency in Fantasy Baseball (apart from maybe base-stealers in a 5x5 league).

I'm going even further with it this year. I have to.

Part of the reason is because so many others have joined in the fun, elevating the cost of all pitchers with a pulse. Part of the reason is because the shortened 2020 season will only serve to exacerbate the problem.

I've broken it down in great detail elsewhere, but the gist of it is this: If diverging workload expectations are largely to blame for the disparity within the pitcher ranks and workload expectations are largely driven by each individual player's workload history, what happens to workload expectations after a year in which no pitcher throws even 100 innings?

There is no precedent for this. There are only guesses, and my best guess is that only the most established innings-eaters will get to eat innings in 2021. Teams will be extra cautious with their developing arms, not wanting an oddball season to be the reason for a potentially career-altering injury.

That's just standard operating procedure, of course. The difference this year is that so many pitchers are afflicted all at once, to the point that maybe some teams will have no choice but to bend their rules just to make sure all the innings are covered. Contending teams especially may be inclined to do so.

Bottom line is there is no clear standard. It'll be defined team by team and individual by individual, with little warning of what's come. Given that starting pitcher is the most consequential position, leaving no clear path to victory if you mess it up, I see no other choice than to hedge my bet, to gather up maybe six hurlers with stud potential instead of last year's four so that I have alternatives in place when things inevitably go wrong.

Hopefully, at least two of those six will come from this first group:

Studs with few workload concerns

2021 ADP2020 PPG2020 ERA2020 K/9
619.082.8411.6
717.922.3813.8
824.331.6314.2
1521.461.7312.3
1721.132.0111.0
2116.463.4812.1
2215.673.2812.1
2710.064.9110.9
2919.202.169.6
3013.463.2111.4
4315.922.7510.3
4413.733.0511.1
5121.002.7010.8
5517.503.329.5
7413.922.9110.9

There's a Big Three here, as you may already know. Shane Bieber, Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole are all likely first-rounders, which itself shows how much the pitching market has changed, and I would take them in that order despite what the ADP column shows. I'm a little surprised Cole is still coming out ahead there.

Trevor Bauer, Yu Darvish, Lucas Giolito and Aaron Nola are all probably off the board by the end of Round 2, and I'm not totally opposed to grabbing one of them even if I have one of the Big Three. It's almost a must if I don't. To some degree, it depends on the quality of hitter I'd be passing over, not to mention whether it's a points (favoring pitchers) or categories (favoring hitters) league. But I can't stress enough how your early picks -- say, the first seven rounds -- are your only chance at standout production at a position where no one will have enough.

Position Strategy: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | OF | SP | RP    

I'm taking some personal liberties with the "few workload concerns" designation. I don't think anyone would argue with the names I've already mentioned, nor Luis Castillo, Lance Lynn and Carlos Carrasco. But these others? Jack Flaherty is still only 25 and barely got to pitch last year. Clayton Kershaw can never make it through a full year healthy. Zac Gallen has yet to pitch a full major-league season. Ditto Brandon Woodruff. Kenta Maeda kept getting shifted to the bullpen by the Dodgers in his years before joining the Twins, so we don't really know how he'll hold up as a starter.

Let's just say I'm reading between the lines for these pitchers, taking my cues from how deep they're allowed to go into games, where they slot in the starting rotation, and what their career high in innings looks like. My intuition tells me that all of these pitchers will have a long leash, even coming off an pandemic-shortened season.

This next group not so much ...

Studs with some workload concerns

2021 ADP2020 PPG2020 ERA2020 K/9
1811.383.4410.3
4711.053.2411.3
4815.054.0814.3
5915.002.1113.3
6618.50^3.32^10.8^
6721.442.289.3
6915.422.699.7
7717.382.0912.1

^2019 stats

Walker Buehler probably stands out here given that he's a second-round pick on average, but the Dodgers have always handled him so cautiously, having him more or less skip spring training the past two years and instead build up in-season. He made it six innings in only one of his starts this past year. Factor in the Dodgers' unparalleled rotation depth, and Buehler seems like the perfect candidate to have his workload suppressed. At that cost, I will have no shares.

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For many of these pitchers, it was already happening in starker fashion. Maybe Blake Snell will get a longer leash with the Padres than he had with the Rays, but this really isn't the year to test the theory. Tyler Glasnow, meanwhile, is still subject to the Rays' ways. Corbin Burnes has spent most of his major-league career in relief, so asking him to throw even 120 innings might be a stretch. Who knows how Dinelson Lamet's elbow will hold up?

The most likely exceptions are Stephen Strasburg, Zach Plesac and Hyun-Jin Ryu. I was tempted to put Plesac in the previous group, actually, given that he threw seven-plus innings more consistently than any pitcher in 2020, but it's just such a small track record. Track record isn't Strasburg's problem, of course, but he's coming off a carpal tunnel procedure that hasn't been explored much in a baseball setting. Ryu has a pretty significant injury history himself.

All of this is to say that if you're grabbing your first starting pitcher here, you're probably too late. It won't be someone you can bank on all year, provided he's even in a position to throw six innings a start. I'm not saying this group should be avoided, but optimally, you'll be grabbing your third and/or fourth starter here.

Others for whom a stud outcome is possible

2021 ADP2020 PPG2020 ERA2020 K/9
6115.912.258.0
6513.273.7011.6
7817.672.887.1
8411.334.009.7
9115.052.926.7
9515.581.9511.4
9616.003.579.7
9912.384.039.0
1019.924.738.9
10210.384.129.0
10416.553.299.9
11313.213.467.6
1186.894.7410.0
12311.03.939.2
1277.914.668.2
1488.313.8612.5
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Frankie Montas OAK SP
1537.275.6010.2
15816.10^2.68^7.3^
1946.57^5.80^9.6^

^2019 stats

Definitely some fence-straddlers here who I could be talked into moving up or down a tier. The ones who were good in 2020 I'm still a little suspicious of (Max Fried, Framber Valdez, Dylan Bundy). The ones who were bad in 2020 I now have reason to be suspicious of (Chris Paddack, Charlie Morton, Patrick Corbin). And then there are Ian Anderson, Sixto Sanchez and Jesus Luzardo, who I'm convinced have stud talent but haven't been vetted enough yet.

The name for this group is fitting, though. I do think all of these pitchers have a possible stud outcome, so they're the kind I like to target as my fifth and sixth starters. If something goes wrong with one of my top four, hopefully I can just slot one of these in his place. It's much better than turning to the waiver wire.

Of course, my comfort level with someone like Kyle Hendricks is vastly different than for someone like Corey Kluber, and the difference in ADP should tell you as much. But I genuinely think Kluber could bounce back with stud numbers after a couple of injury-plagued years, and for the purposes of this exercise, I didn't want to omit anyone who I thought had that kind of potential. Better not make him more than your sixth starter, though. Seventh would be even better.

Will probably have an impact

2021 ADP2020 PPG2020 ERA2020 K/9
11212.503.277.4
12912.963.619.3
13315.643.008.4
13611.422.577.1
13812.213.6211.9
13918.553.108.3
16413.043.758.0
16611.00^4.28^10.7^
16815.052.297.9
17211.633.2411.3
17311.294.748.4
17415.911.996.0
18613.782.318.9
18811.103.5911.3
18914.302.735.2
19212.253.488.9
195-8.2537.8016.2
21311.98^3.22^7.8^
22413.903.388.4
3336.606.6411.5

^2019 stats

The downside to loading up on so many pitchers early is that I miss out on most of the guys I find interesting here, having to turn my attention to hitting instead. No regrets or anything. The hitters going in the same range are by and large better and certainly more trustworthy, but in a perfect world, I'd like to take a shot on Kevin Gausman's spiking strikeout rate.

Most of these pitchers don't have that kind of upside, instead making up the tiny middle class at the position. Guys like Marco Gonzales, German Marquez and Dallas Keuchel you'll probably never feel compelled to drop, but they're not setting you apart either.

Generally, I'll still come away with one of these pitchers, and it just depends on who falls. The ones I like most (for the upside) are Gausman, Triston McKenzie and Tyler Mahle, though I've come to believe Michael Pineda is pretty underrated himself. Shohei Ohtani and James Paxton of course have upside, too, but they're purely lottery tickets at this point.

The Sleepers

2021 ADP2020 PPG2020 ERA2020 K/9
19611.924.469.5
20412.463.9710.7
20510.57^4.10^7.2^
20813.28^4.40^13.3^
21014.84^3.81^9.4^
2198.604.538.7
2216.006.008.0
23313.203.729.7
24013.47^4.28^9.2^
2535.815.6210.4
2552.006.998.3
26115.24^4.03^9.6^
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Luis Severino NYY SP
27310.50^1.50^12.8^
28113.084.988.7
2923.55^3.18^10.3^
33010.794.068.5
3347.355.119.6
341---------------
34212.073.979.3
34412.403.587.8
345-----1.69*12.0*
3468.003.4214.4
3509.273.999.0
3688.602.916.7
3854.085.928.5
4557.922.9512.2

^2019, majors
*2019, minors

Here's where you throw up a prayer in the late rounds and hope it amounts to something. A couple of these guys (OK, mainly just John Means) I like so much that I'm tempted to include them with the previous group, but the bottom line is that none of them has earned anything in the way of trust. All it would take for you to dump them is a bad start or two at the beginning of the year, which is how it should be for late-round picks.

There are some pretty high-profile prospects here that might be worth stashing longer, like Nate Pearson, Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, A.J. Puk, Michael Kopech, MacKenzie Gore and Spencer Howard, but particularly the ones who have reached the majors already will need to deliver at some point to justify the roster spot in a re-draft league. And of course, for Luis Severino, Chris Sale and Noah Syndergaard, who are all recovering from Tommy John surgery, stashing is the entire goal.

My favorites from this group are Means, Griffin Canning and Drew Smyly, who all saw their strikeout rates spike down the stretch last year. Adbert Alzolay also fits that description to a lesser degree. Deivi Garcia is being overlooked as an up-and-comer who got to work pretty deep into games for the Yankees last year, and I'm intrigued by the bounce-back potential of Jameson Taillon and Eduardo Rodriguez. 

So which Fantasy baseball sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued first baseman can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy baseball rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Will Smith's huge breakout last season, and find out.