The list of aces going under the knife got one name longer Tuesday when the Mets announced Noah Syndergaard will undergo Tommy John surgery to repair a torn UCL in his right elbow. Syndergaard joins Luis Severino and Chris Sale among those who will miss the 2020 season, whenever it might be played.
Syndergaard began feeling soreness in the elbow before Spring Training was suspended, and will undergo the surgery Thursday — the original date for opening day. He will miss all of 2020 and likely won't be ready for the start of the 2021 season either, his final year under Mets team control.
When we started Fantasy baseball draft prep season, Scott White had close to 40 starters he trusted, but that group has taken several hits, and this is just another. Syndergaard was a popular bounce-back candidate around these parts, especially as he started showing signs that he might be rediscovering his harder slider in spring training. His strikeout rate dipped the past two seasons, but the velocity was still elite, so there weren't really any signs of this coming after Syndergaard had even thrown a career-high in innings in 2019.
What this means for Fantasy players who have already drafted is you're out of luck. Syndergaard is gone, and you're going to have to weaken your team elsewhere to find a replacement via trade, or more likely, hit the waiver wire for replacement options.
You might want to consider at least one of Syndergaard's former rotation mates, Steven Matz. Earlier in the spring it looked like Matz might split the fifth starter role with Michael Wacha, with one or the other serving as a long man. Now, Matz should have a clear path to an every-fifth-day role. Matz's 284 ADP per FantasyPros.com means there's at least a chance he'll be available on waivers in your league, and I still believe there is room for him to break out.
However, Matz wouldn't be the first name I look for. He doesn't have ace upside at this point, and you'll need to swing big to replace an arm like Syndergaard. Here are five starters to look for with an ADP of 249 or below:
Mitch Keller SP
PIT Pittsburgh • #23 • Age: 24
I'm high on the Pirates pitching staff this year, and Keller isn't the only name you'll find here. But he has become arguably my top late-round pitching target this season, which might come as a surprise given his numbers in the majors as a rookie. However, Keller was let down by a Pirates coaching staff that had failed to embrace modern approaches to pitching, instead taking a one-size-fits-all, fastball-heavy approach that made Keller too predictable in his first taste of the majors. He spent the offseason refining his already-good slider and curveball, and both he and the new Pirates pitching coach talked about putting more of an emphasis on them. That should help the mid-to-high 90s fastball play up, and could make Keller the next big thing in Fantasy. If you play in a league with me that already drafted, I've got bad news: Keller is already on my roster. If not, you may still have a chance to grab him.
CHW Chi. White Sox • #34 • Age: 24
It would only be fitting if your Syndergaard replacement was also the young pitcher most likely to replace Thor at the top of the average fastball velocity leaderboard. Kopech is coming back from Tommy John surgery himself, and it will be interesting to see how the delayed season affects his return because he had only made one in-game appearance before spring was shut down. However, if he is ready to go, or close to it, whenever the season starts up, Kopech could be a dominant force. He was already showing signs of figuring out his control problems before the surgery, and if he does that, there's easy top of the rotation potential here.
Chris Archer SP
PIT Pittsburgh • #24 • Age: 32
Archer might feel like a bit of a comedown from two of the most hyped pitching prospects of the past few years, and many of you may have already added him to your "Never Again" list after the way the past few years have gone, but I'd like you to reconsider. Archer figures to benefit from the Pirates new approach to pitching, and we saw signs of it in the second half last season. Archer ditched his sinker in early June, and while he still had a 4.65 ERA over his final 12 starts, his 3.83 FIP is a better indicator of how well he pitched. His strikeout rate climbed back to where it was at his best in Tampa, and he did a better job keeping the ball in the park, too. I'm not expecting Archer to become a Fantasy ace, but he probably has the best chance of 200 strikeouts and a manageable ERA of anyone on this list, and that was always the most likely outcome for Syndergaard.
Alex Wood SP
LAD L.A. Dodgers • #57 • Age: 29
Wood is another veteran who might not get your blood flowing, especially surrounded by flamethrowers such as he is, but there's actually quite a bit to like about him. He will be in the Dodgers rotation when the season starts, and the last time we saw him there, he had a 3.68 ERA and 1.20 WHIP; the year before, he saw a velocity spike and sported a 16-3 record, 2.72 ERA, and 1.06 WHIP. Wood's velocity was back in that 2017 range during spring, and if that's where it sits come the regular season, he figures to be a very useful. Fantasy option on a great team.
Dylan Cease SP
CHW Chi. White Sox • #84 • Age: 24
Like Keller, Cease struggled mightily in his first taste of the majors, allowing 15 homers in 14 starts en route to a 5.79 ERA. Perhaps more concerningly, he wasn't particularly great in Triple-A either, with a 4.48 ERA and a career-low strikeout rate. However, the stuff looked plenty healthy even amid his struggles, and I'll bet on that. He shouldn't be the first pitcher you reach for to replace Syndergaard, but if none of these other names are available — or you have a roster spot to play with — I would take a chance on Cease.