Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitcher Preview: Sleepers, breakouts, busts, top prospects, rankings, and more

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. 

2020 Draft Prep

Starting Pitcher Preview

2020 Draft Prep

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2020 Draft Prep

Starting Pitcher Sleeper, Breakout, & Bust

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2020 Draft Prep

Starting Pitcher Top Prospects

1. Jesus Luzardo, Athletics

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. 

4. Michael Kopech, White Sox

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.

6. Forrest Whitley, Astros
7. Brendan McKay, Rays
8. Matt Manning, Tigers
9. Ian Anderson, Braves
10. Sixto Sanchez, Marlins

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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