Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: Starting pitcher preview, top-24 ranking, sleepers, breakouts, busts, prospects
There just aren't enough aces to go around, so the draft prices keep rising for Fantasy managers, risks or not.
The question has never been whether you want an ace for your Fantasy baseball team. Of course you do, the more the better. The question is whether you need to invest heavily to ensure you get one.
Once upon a time, the consensus in the Fantasy industry was that it wasn't really worth paying up for pitchers. In auctions, you were only supposed to spend a fraction of your total budget on pitchers, and paying a big price for high-end pitching was begging for risk — you could always find pitching on waivers.
That isn't necessarily the case anymore. For one thing, we've just gotten better at predicting pitcher performance, even if it's still harder to predict than hitting overall. We're smart enough to know that while Mike Soroka finished 20th at starting pitcher in 2019, he probably won't repeat a 2.68 ERA, while Chris Sale's 4.40 ERA probably wasn't representative of his true talent level.
However, there is also a more clear delineation between the true aces and the rest of the field in 2019, when so few pitchers actually give you an ace workload. In 2010, 45 pitchers threw at least 200 innings. In 2015, 28 still did it. However, there haven't been more than 15 pitchers to toss 200-plus innings in any of the last four seasons, with 2018 representing the low water mark with just 13 hitting that level.
The number of pitchers capable of giving you ace performance and an ace workload is smaller than ever, and so it creates separation between the haves and the have-somes at the position. There are still risks with investing heavily in pitcher — injuries, chiefly, though in 2019 we also have the specific case of some of the priciest options at the position also being in their late-30s — but if you can get one of the true 200-inning aces, they can still set your team apart.
Starting Pitcher Preview
Gerrit Cole SP
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #45 • Age: 29
The Astros turned Cole into the best pitcher in the league. Can he keep it up in Yankee Stadium? Given the age of the two guys behind him, you have to bet on Cole.
HOU Houston • #35 • Age: 37
Verlander was actually a little bit better than Cole for Fantasy last season, but the younger guy gets the edge here — Verlander will be 37 on Opening Day, so he's closer to his last pitch than his first.
Max Scherzer SP
WAS Washington • #31 • Age: 35
Scherzer is the cautionary tale for Justin Verlander, as his string of 30-start seasons came to an end at 10 in 2019. He still threw 172.1 innings with a 2.92 ERA, so you don't want to overstate the case against him, but this is what happens when pitchers reach their mid-30s. He's still an ace, but there's some risk in his profile for the first time in years.
Jacob deGrom SP
NYM N.Y. Mets • #48 • Age: 31
DeGrom might actually be the second pitcher taken in many drafts, because it's a three-way coin flip between him, Scherzer and Verlander. He's a bit younger than the two guys ahead of him, and has been an elite run preventer in each of the last two years. His strikeout ceiling is a bit lower, but that's hardly a knock on him — deGrom is a worthy pick as soon as Cole is off the board.
Chris Sale SP
BOS Boston • #41 • Age: 30
The margin for error is so slim. In many ways, Sale looked like the same pitcher as always in 2019 — his 13.3 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 were in line with his recent seasons, and his 3.00 SIERA was still one of the better marks in baseball. However, Sale's velocity was way down early on, and he just didn't seem to have much trust in his fastball all season long. Oh, and his season ended with an elbow injury, a platelet-rich plasma injection, and a visit with Dr. James Andrews. He is expected to be ready for spring training, but Sale carries a ton of risk in 2020 — and yet could be a huge steal as the 10th starter off the board in early ADP.
CLE Cleveland • #52 • Age: 29
When he was on the mound, Clevinger was just about as good as anyone in 2019, and his injuries weren't exactly the kind of injuries you should have a ton of concern about moving forward. The question is if he can sustain his 33.9% strikeout rate, which would have been the fourth-highest in the league if he had enough innings to qualify.
Shane Bieber SP
CLE Cleveland • #57 • Age: 24
Bieber was a huge win for those of us who trust in advanced stats and peripherals, as his combination of elite control and strong strikeout rates allowed him to make the leap to the near-ace tier. He did it by limiting his fastball usage and relying more on his swing-and-miss pitches, which helped his fastball play up even more. There might be pitchers with more upside, but Bieber's profile looks about as safe as they come, with three straight seasons of at least 173 innings pitched going back to the minors.
STL St. Louis • #22 • Age: 24
It was a tale of two seasons for Flaherty, who struggled with a 4.90 ERA through his first 17 starts, and then posted a 0.93 mark in his final 16. What changed? He relied on his fastball less as the season went on, but it's not like the fastball was the source of his early troubles, so that isn't a super compelling argument for how he got better. It seems like a talented pitched just started executing better.
LAD L.A. Dodgers • #21 • Age: 25
Buehler mostly managed to live up to expectations in 2019, and now he's likely to be a top-five pitcher in most drafts. He has elite velocity and a four-pitch mix with elite command, and it's always possible he goes back to throwing his changeup and gives opposing hitters even another look to deal with. There's a pretty much non-zero chance we're talking about Buehler as the No. 1 pitcher this time next year.
WAS Washington • #37 • Age: 31
Strasburg finally stayed healthy, and would you look at that, he was one of the best pitchers in Fantasy. He made some changes to his approach, trading sliders for curveballs, and it led to his highest groundball rate since 2013 and an uptick in swinging strike rate. Still, the biggest reason Strasburg's standing has improved is because he stayed healthy, so it's up to you to decide if you want to buy into that happening again.
LAD L.A. Dodgers • #22 • Age: 31
The days of Kershaw being the best pitcher in baseball are long gone, but we shouldn't overstate the extent to which he has regressed. Kershaw's season got off to a delayed start due to a shoulder issue, but he was on the mound by April 15 and didn't miss a start from that point on. Only three pitchers had more starts of at least six innings than Kershaw's 26, and his strikeout rate crept back up to 26.8% after falling to 23.9% in 2018, his lowest rate since he was a rookie. Kershaw has settled into the second half of his career as a rock-solid, dependable near-ace.
WAS Washington • #46 • Age: 30
Corbin couldn't sustain all of the gains he made from his breakout 2018 season, but he also mostly proved it was no fluke, throwing 200 innings for the second straight season with elite strikeout numbers and a low-3.00s ERA. He's not as exciting or controversial as he was this time last year, but he's here to stay.
CHW Chi. White Sox • #27 • Age: 25
Giolito had a historic turnaround, dropping his ERA by nearly three full runs in his breakout season, and most of the peripheral stats back it up. If he can sustain the velocity spike that fueled it, he'll finally live up to that top prospect billing.
Castillo was one of the league's best pitchers in the first half, but slumped after the break. Still, he gets a ton of strikeouts and ground balls, and has shown plus control in the past. There's a ton of upside here if Castillo puts it together for a full season.
Aaron Nola SP
PHI Philadelphia • #27 • Age: 26
There wasn't really any good explanation for Nola's struggles in 2019. His velocity didn't fall, he didn't miss any starts with injuries, and he didn't really change his pitch mix much. That's a good reason to think he'll bounce back in 2020, and he's being priced to do so.
Blake Snell SP
TB Tampa Bay • #4 • Age: 27
As lucky as Snell was to have a 1.89 ERA in 2018, he was just as unlucky to sport a mark over 4.00 in 2019. In most respects, he looked like the same exact pitcher, and most of his peripherals back that up. Buying him coming off a down season makes a ton of sense, especially since the elbow surgery he had last summer didn't feature any structural damage.
Zack Greinke SP
HOU Houston • #21 • Age: 36
The year is 2090. Most of Earth's surface is unlivable — the colonies on Mars are growing overpopulated. Zack Greinke has turned in his 73rd straight season with an ERA below 3.50. People have been waiting for Greinke to fall off for years, and he stubbornly refuses to do so. Expect the Astros to continue to get the most out of him.
TB Tampa Bay • #50 • Age: 36
Morton might just be the best value on the board at starting pitcher if he gets to 180 innings. He was every bit as good as the Flaherty and Bieber class last season, but his age and lack of track record hold him back in many eyes.
NYM N.Y. Mets • #34 • Age: 27
Over the past two seasons, 58 pitchers have thrown at least 300 innings, and 24 of them have a higher strikeout rate than Noah Syndergaard, including Jake Odorizzi, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Foltynewicz. For someone with Syndergaard's raw stuff, that should not be the case. If you want to bet on him finding his pre-2017 level, there's a ton of profit to be found here.
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #40 • Age: 26
Another pitcher who could provide a significant return on investment around pick 60 or so, Severino just has to prove he's over the shoulder injury that essentially wrecked his 2019 season before it ever began. He came back in September and pitched well, but also saw a significant dip in his velocity. That's not too troubling, given the limited rehab time available, but it's a warning sign. If he's right, Severino can be a top-five pitcher.
TB Tampa Bay • #20 • Age: 26
For one glorious month (and change), Glasnow lived up to every hope anyone ever had for him. The big righty made seven starts to open the season, allowing just seven runs and seven walks in 43 innings with 46 strikeouts. The Rays worked with him to fix his delivery, and he became a strike throwing machine. Unfortunately, he would throw just 60.2 innings total in 2019, as an elbow injury sidelined him for most of the rest of the season. He came back in September and looked solid, but the control wasn't quite as sharp. There's top-five upside here, along with catastrophic risk that the improvements don't stick or the injury returns. You'll have to take a leap of faith.
Yu Darvish SP
CHC Chi. Cubs • #11 • Age: 33
For the first two months of the season, Darvish could barely find the strike zone, tossing 43 walks in 61 innings in his first 12 starts, with a 5.02 ERA to show for it. It was like a switch was flipped from that point on, however, as he walked just 15 batters in his final 19 starts, to go with a whopping 156 strikeouts. In the end, the numbers looked a lot like what you'd expect a Darvish season to look like.
Trevor Bauer SP
CIN Cincinnati • #27 • Age: 29
Here's Trevor Bauer's ERA over the past four seasons: 4.48, 2.21, 4.19, 4.26. Here's Bauer's SIERA over the last four seasons: 4.14, 3.21, 3.80, 4.22. It sure looks like 2018 was the outlier, huh? He showed the ability to pitch at a high level, so you have to bake that into your expectation, but the most likely outcome is a bunch of strikeouts, a high-3.00s to low-4.00s ERA, and plenty of flashes of brilliance and maddening displays in equal measure.
MIL Milwaukee • #53 • Age: 27
Woodruff is a test case for how good a pitcher can be in 2019 without a truly plus secondary pitch. He racks up whiffs at a high level with his fastball, but his slider has a middling whiff rate, while his changeup got crushed. Few pitchers rely on their fastballs more than Woodruff did in 2019, and most of them don't get many strikeouts, so it's a tough needle to thread. He'll probably need to improve his slider to really take a step forward, but it's an enticing base to build from.
Don't forget about ...
James Paxton SP
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #65 • Age: 31
When he's on, Paxton is as good as anyone. He's just not on — the mound or the top of his game — as often as you'd like. Still, there's ace upside here, and you don't really have to pay full price for it anymore. Don't be surprised if Year 2 in Yankee Stadium goes better.
Zac Gallen SP
ARI Arizona • #23 • Age: 24
Gallen wasn't even on many prospect radars before last season, but he was arguably the best pitcher in the minors before throwing 80 very good innings in the majors. He was uncharacteristically wild in the majors, but if he can get back to his 2.4 BB/9 rate from his prospect days, there's borderline ace potential.
SD San Diego • #29 • Age: 27
There might be someone in your draft who loves Lamet enough to make him a top-100 pick, but if he falls to the 10th round or later, it could be worth pouncing on his upside. He's a two-pitch pitcher, so the margin for error is slim, but he could give you 200-plus strikeouts and a mid-3.00s ERA.
Matthew Boyd SP
DET Detroit • #48 • Age: 29
It's not often you can get 240-strikeout upside around pick 150, which means Boyd obviously has some flaws in his game. Most notably, he struggles to keep the ball in the yard despite a home park that should help him out a lot in that regard. Still, if he can solve that issue, or at least keep it in check, you could be looking at a top-20 pitcher at a discount.
HOU Houston • #43 • Age: 26
Even including the minors, McCullers has never thrown more than 157 innings in a season, and you shouldn't expect much more than that coming off Tommy John surgery. However, you know the Astros are going to get the most out of him when he's on the mound, and with so few pitchers racking up big innings totals these days anyway, that's less of an issue for McCullers' value than it might have been, given how good he'll likely be on a per-inning basis.
Starting Pitcher Sleeper, Breakout, & Bust
CLE Cleveland • #59 • Age: 32
Can a guy with over 1,000 innings under his belt who has been a Fantasy mainstay for a half-decade really qualify as a sleeper? In Carrasco's case, yes. His ADP rests outside of the top 100, coming off a season where he threw 80 innings with a 5.29 ERA, but that doesn't even come close to telling the whole story. Carrasco had his season derailed due to a leukemia diagnosis in June, and while his numbers weren't where we expected them to be prior to the diagnosis, it seems fair to write that off as a result of the illness. This was and is a scary situation, but all indications are Carrasco has had a normal offseason and will be in the rotation to begin the season. He's a bit older than you might think at 33 on Opening Day, but he's been a near-ace caliber pitcher as recently as 2018. A bounceback season seems likely.
OAK Oakland • #47 • Age: 26
It's interesting to compare Montas to Tyler Glasnow, as both enjoyed abbreviated breakout seasons. Glasnow was better, to be sure — 1.78 ERA, 3.18 SIERA for Glasnow; 2.63 ERA, 3.76 SIERA for Montas — but he also did it in just 60.2 innings, compared to 96 for Montas. More importantly. Glasnow's season was knocked off track due to an elbow injury that kept him out for three full months, while Montas was popped for a PED suspension in the midst of his breakout. It makes sense to bet on Glasnow being better — or at least having a higher ceiling — but Montas was quite good in his own right in 2019, fueled by the development of a splitter that turned into an immediate weapon. You're taking on quite a bit of risk in drafting Glasnow at his current cost, around SP24, in the sixth through eighth rounds. Montas, by comparison, comes off the board 50-70 picks later on average. I'll bet on Montas avoiding suspension and emerging as a viable No. 2 SP all season long.
Castillo is the kind of young pitcher everyone wants to invest in. First of all, he's incredibly fun to watch pitch, armed with one of the liveliest fastballs in the league and a changeup that might legitimately be the league's best, all unleashed in a max-effort delivery that maximizes entertainment value. Plus, when Castillo is on, he legitimately looks like one of the best pitchers in baseball; he had a 2.29 ERA with 124 strikeouts in 106 innings before the All-Star break last season. However, the results haven't quite matched the hype or expectations so far, as he finished 2019 19th in the majors in SIERA and 20th in FIP. He's going off the board as the No. 14 pitcher in early ADP, and while he certainly has the upside to match that and then some, he gets hit harder than you think — career 17.8% HR/FB rate, and 17.9% each of the last two seasons — and plays in a tough park, both of which have served to limit his actual results so far. Castillo isn't a bad pick once the ace tier is off the board, but he's not quite as close to that tier as you think.
Starting Pitcher Top Prospects
Age (on opening day): 22
Where he played in 2019: Rookie, high Class A, Triple-A, majors
Minor-league stats: 2-1, 2.51 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 43 IP, 8 BB, 57 K
Major-league stats: 0-0, 1.50 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 12 IP, 3 BB, 16 K
A strained rotator cuff prevented Luzardo from claiming a rotation spot in spring training, and a strained lat kept him from doing it midseason. While his debut ultimately came in relief, it was as seamless as advertised, positioning him for an ace turn in 2020 with his three plus pitches and pinpoint command.
2. MacKenzie Gore, Padres
Age (on opening day): 21
Where he played in 2019: high Class A, Double-A
Minor-league stats: 9-2, 1.69 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 101 IP, 28 BB, 135 K
The third overall pick in 2017 was always going to need some breaking in, being drafted out of high school, but is now beginning to look like the most talented pitcher in all the minors, falling just a few innings short of setting an all-time record with a 1.02 ERA in the notoriously hitter-friendly California League. He's like a left-handed Walker Buehler with his two plus breaking balls, and his long reach makes his fastball appear even faster.
3. Casey Mize, Tigers
Age (on opening day): 22
Where he played in 2019: high Class A, Double-A
Minor-league stats: 8-3, 2.55 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 109 1/3 IP, 23 BB, 106 K
A bout with shoulder inflammation derailed what was a storybook first season for last year's No. 1 pick, one in which he put together a 0.92 ERA through 13 starts. It raises some durability concerns perhaps, but such efficient mastery of Double-A at such an early stage of development obviously speaks to his upside and readiness. More of the same in 2020 will necessitate a midseason call-up, rebuild or not.
Age (on opening day): 23
Where he played in 2019: Did not play -- injured
2018 minors: 7-7, 3.70 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 126 1/3 IP, 60 BB, 170 K
The 5.02 ERA from Kopech's four-start debut back in 2018 is misleading. One horrible start tipped off the need for Tommy John surgery, which has kept him sidelined since. But the buildup to that debut saw the prospect made famous for a 105-mph fastball dial it back just enough to find the strike zone with it, and the result was a 1.84 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 12.1 K/9 over his final seven minor-league starts.
5. Nate Pearson, Blue Jays
Age (on opening day): 23
Where he played in 2019: high Class A, Double-A, Triple-A
Minor-league stats: 5-4, 2.30 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 101 2/3 IP, 27 BB, 119 K
After a fractured forearm sidelined him for most of the previous year, Pearson was one of the biggest prospect risers of 2019, introducing himself as sort of the next Kopech with an 80-grade fastball and wipeout slider. The Blue Jays were excessively cautious with his workload, often limiting him to two innings in the early going and not letting him exceed five until almost August, so we'll need to see how his ratios hold up the third time through a lineup.
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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