The abbreviated 2020 season only seems to have emboldened teams in the promotion of their top prospects, and at no position is it truer than starting pitcher.
And it's gone well enough after some early misses, adding much-needed length to a position that didn't offer nearly enough to go around.
Ranking these pitchers would be a frustrating endeavor subject to endless rearrangement since most have too few starts to parse in that way. Still, the question of priorities comes into play, so to answer that question, I've sorted them into tiers that I believe will best encapsulate my disparate levels of trust in them.
Below are those tiers for 20 noteworthy rookies, along with the requisite commentary.
Three of these pitchers have spent only a hot minute in the majors, and the other, Jesus Luzardo, hasn't quite lived up to our expectations for him. Nonetheless, what I've seen from all of them makes me reluctant to take them out of my lineup ever.
Part of Luzardo's issue is that his numbers were greatly skewed by a particularly bad start Aug. 14 at the Giants. Remove it, and he's sporting a 3.08 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. Of course, he's still at less than a strikeout per inning, but since the whiff rate is high on both his curveball and changeup, I'm not taking it as an indictment of his stuff.
Ian Anderson, Sixto Sanchez and Triston McKenzie all come with a top prospect pedigree (even if McKenzie's had eroded some due to injury), so it's not surprising to see the way their stuff has played up. Sanchez might be the safest of the three as an extreme ground-ball pitcher who has already developed elite control, throwing a whopping 69 percent of his pitches for strikes through his first four starts, but whether he can keep up with Anderson and McKenzie in the strikeout department remains to be seen.
You might take exception to me slotting these three a tier lower given how bankable they've all been so far, but there are some red flags that suggest their continued success is touch and go.
The most concerning is Cristian Javier, whose strikeout rate has dropped precipitously since that first start against the Dodgers when he struck out eight in five. He has the second-lowest swinging-strike rate among qualifiers and rarely puts the ball on the ground, and it's not like he's a particularly good control pitcher either. By most traditional measures, it's a disastrous profile, which helps explain his 5.32 xFIP. And yet the quality of contact is so poor that Statcast suggests he has earned every bit of that 3.38 ERA, actually giving him a 3.34 xERA (to go along with a .198 xBA).
But more than that, the reason I'm not necessarily counting on steep regression for Javier is because he was weirdly dominant in the minors last year, too, compiling a 1.74 ERA and 0.97 WHIP between three levels. Of course, he also had 13.5 K/9, but the .130 batting average was the more striking number. He's so good at disrupting hitters' timing despite having fairly ordinary stuff that it's possible he's a one-of-a-kind case.
Tony Gonsolin, likewise, didn't rate particularly high as a prospect but had a dominant 2018 season in the minors and a strong showing as a spot starter/long reliever type upon reaching the majors last year. We still need to see him stretched a little further given that he has yet to throw 85 pitches in a game, but the whiff rate on his slider/splitter pairing has been so good this year, ranking up there with Dinelson Lamet, that I'm about ready to declare him the real deal.
For Dustin May, the concern is that he has mostly leaned on his ground-ball rate for his success, but his stuff is so visually striking that I halfway expect him to improve in other areas before the regression comes.
For Dane Dunning, Dean Kremer and Trevor Rogers, the sample is so small that it won't take much to shift them up or down a tier. None of those three placed particularly high in the prospect rankings, with only Dunning ever cracking a top-100 list, but they were all prospects I "liked" — a common trait among those whose production exceeds their pedigree.
Dunning had a 2.71 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 between two stops in 2018 before succumbing to Tommy John surgery that year. Kremer, meanwhile, had a 2.88 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 12.2 K/9 in 2018, leading all minor-leaguers with 178 strikeouts. Rogers' most noteworthy numbers came in the 18 starts prior to his promotion to Double-A last year, when he put together a 2.53 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 10.0 K/9.
You might say I'm cherry-picking the most impressive stat line for each, and, well, you're right. But when presenting an upside case for a player, it makes sense to look at the best they've brought to the table so far.
The one I'm most sold on is Dunning, whose 2018 numbers were basically in line with the rest of his minor-league career and who might already be on the verge of must-start status if he showed he could sustain it for more than five innings in any of his first three starts. His swinging strikes have been consistently high — good for a 17.5 percent rate that would rank behind only Jacob deGrom, Lucas Giolito and Shane Bieber among qualifiers — and he has a deeper arsenal that he's put out there so far.
Rogers, in contrast, has just a show-me breaking ball to go along with his fastball and changeup, but those two play off each other so well that he has yet to have a misfire in his three starts, going six innings in the latest one. Kremer also went six in his debut Sunday, flipping some GIF-worthy curveballs in a one-hit effort against the Yankees, but he also threw just 53 percent of his pitches for strikes. Need to see more from him.
Justus Sheffield stands out from this group in that he has had a rotation spot from the beginning and has gone on an impressive five-start run with a 3.03 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 8.5 K/9 after settling on the right pitch mix. But he has become more of a ground-ball pitcher than one who misses bats, limiting his upside.
The upside for this group is inarguable, and while they've all shown flashes of it in their first major-league season, they've combined for just two quality starts in 19 attempts. One of those was Deivi Garcia's even though he has made all of two starts. I'd be willing to move him up a tier if the Yankees would stop sending him down after every start, but he's reportedly coming back for another one this week.
The other quality start was Tarik Skubal's most recent outing, and even a fleeting moment of success is enough to move a pitcher up near the top of this group. The 23-year-old seems like he may have been rushed, showing little confidence in anything other than his fastball, but he at least seems to be trending the right direction. Until we see something similar from these others, they'll remain buckets of potential worth stashing away in dynasty but of virtually no value in re-draft leagues.
This group isn't especially usable in re-draft leagues right now and isn't of such high standing that you have to stick with them in dynasty leagues. But they're all interesting enough to monitor and could put themselves in play for 2021 with a strong finish.
The main one to watch here is Tejay Antone, whose numbers have come mostly in long relief but who was stretched to five innings in his latest start Sunday. He's been in and out of the rotation as doubleheaders have required, which has prevented him from gaining a foothold in Fantasy, but he's a different pitcher now than the one that barely cracked the team's top 30 prospects coming into the season, throwing a couple miles per hour harder and leaning on a slider that apparently didn't exist before.
Kris Bubic — who had a 2.23 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 11.1 K/9 in the minors last year — was known to have a nasty changeup and has gotten better results with it his past two times out after struggling to make the jump from A-ball earlier. Ljay Newsome is another pitcher who barely registered on the prospect scene but did have a 3.54 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 9.8 K/9 between minor-league stops last year, which makes any modicum of success in the majors, even if only in brief outings, worthy of note. He throws strikes, if nothing else.