Starting Pitchers with Relief Pitcher Eligibility (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
The ability to slot a starting pitcher in a relief pitcher slot can be advantageous in fantasy leagues, depending on the settings. There are quite a few starting pitchers–or potential starters–who carry over reliever eligibility into this season. Below, I highlight some of my favorite relief-pitcher eligible starters.
Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh (HOU)
Houston’s duo of pitchers kicks off a few sets of teammates featured in this piece. They’re unique in that they’re the only pitchers included who don’t also have starting-pitcher eligibility. Peacock and McHugh both spent the entire season in Houston’s bullpen, but both enter this spring with sights set on returning to the rotation.
Dallas Keuchel remains a free agent, Charlie Morton signed with the Rays, and Lance McCullers will miss the entire season after undergoing Tommy Jonn surgery last November. The Astros did add Wade Miley via free agency, and Joshua James closed a breakout 2018 season with six appearances (three starts) spanning 23.0 innings in which he twirled a 2.35 ERA. Fellow youngster Framber Valdez saw time on the parent club last year and is in the mix, and top prospect Forrest Whitley is waiting in the wings, too. In short, rotation spots aren’t guaranteed for Peacock and McHugh, but I like the odds of at least one of them opening the season in the rotation. Furthermore, there’s potential for both filling rotation spots initially.
Peacock and McHugh are coming off outstanding seasons spent in the bullpen, and you only have to look back at 2017 to see what each is capable of as a starter. In 21 starts spanning 111.2 innings, Peacock ripped off a 3.22 ERA (3.08 FIP, 3.65 xFIP, and 3.79 SIERA), 1.22 WHIP, 9.9 BB% and 29.1 K%. During that same season, McHugh amassed a 3.55 ERA (3.82 FIP, 4.66 xFIP, and 4.30 SIERA), 1.29 WHIP, 7.4 BB%, and 22.9 K% in a dozen starts spanning 63.1 innings. They both have top-50 upside as starters, but McHugh and Peacock are extremely cheap with ADPs of 253.4 and 352.8, respectively. I’ll second the ADP with a preference for McHugh over Peacock, but both are low-risk fliers with talent exceeding their ADPs who can be dumped prior to the season if they miss out on a rotation spot.
Derek Holland and Drew Pomeranz (SF)
From 2014-2017, Holland totaled a putrid 5.06 ERA in 338.0 innings. There was essentially no reason to expect him to even stick in the bigs last season. However, he did more than just stick. In the lefty’s 30 starts, he pitched 161.2 innings to the tune of a 3.67 ERA (3.96 FIP, 4.21 xFIP, and 4.35 SIERA), 1.31 WHIP, 9.3 BB%, and 22.3 K%. The Giants brought him back on a one-year deal, so he’s an adequate option to fill out fantasy rotations in 12-team leagues or deeper with an ADP of just 376.8. Having said that, in addition to Holland regressing to his underlying metrics (or worse), there’s potential for him getting dealt during the season away from a team unlikely to compete.
Pomeranz was an unmitigated disaster for the Red Sox in 2018, but he spun a 3.32 ERA (3.84 FIP, 4.15 xFIP, and 4.31 SIERA) and 1.35 WHIP with a 23.5 K% in 32 starts totaling 173.2 innings in 2017. There’s no need to draft him in anything other than extremely deep mixers or NL-only formats, but file his name away as a potential reclamation project. Look no further than Holland’s 2017 as an example of the Giants turning around a southpaw who looked completely washed up.
Alex Wood and Sonny Gray (CIN)
Cincinnati revamped its rotation with Wood and Gray as the two major acquisitions. The lefty of this duo was solid if unspectacular with the Dodgers last year, but he’ll have to deal with a major ballpark change. Great American Ball Park was tied for the ninth-highest park factor for runs (1.045) and had the fourth-highest park factor for homers (1.205). Conversely, Wood’s former home ballpark of Dodger Stadium had the fourth-lowest park factor for runs (0.890) and played a pinch below neutral (0.995) for homers. Last season’s 3.68 ERA is probably better than he’ll turn in this year, as most of the projection models have him hovering around a 4.00 ERA.
Gray’s 2018 ERA checked in at 4.90, but it was 5.26 in 23 starts totaling 113.0 innings. His underlying stats were more flattering, though, and he’ll escape the American League. Furthermore, his home ballpark change is slightly favorable. Yankee Stadium had the seventh-highest park factor for runs (1.060) and second highest for homers (1.265). Additionally, Yankee Stadium was a house of horrors for Gray. In 59.1 innings pitched in the Bronx last year, he totaled a ghastly 6.98 ERA (5.98 FIP and 5.10 xFIP) and 1.90 WHIP. On the road, though, he held opponents to a 3.17 ERA (2.65 FIP and 3.27 xFIP) and 1.15 WHIP in 71.0 innings. Wood’s ADP of 234.2 is a bit high for my liking, and I’d prefer Gray at his 299.6 ADP.
Ross Stripling and Kenta Maeda (LAD)
The Dodgers’ starting pitching depth is enviable. As a result, they simply don’t need to overexert their backend starters. Still, Stripling and Maeda managed to best 105 innings as starters, and each totaled more than 120 innings overall last year. Only 106 pitchers reached the 120-inning threshold last year, making their innings upside less of a concern. Stripling and Maeda are going one pick apart with ADPs of 241.2 and 242.4, respectively, and their quality work is worth their costs of acquisition.
Brad Keller (KC)
Keller’s 3.08 ERA (3.28 ERA as a starter) in 2018 isn’t fooling drafters, as evidenced by his ADP of 396.6. In 20 starts totaling 118.0 innings, he totaled a 3.56 FIP, 4.30 xFIP, and 4.61 SIERA with a 1.35 WHIP and 16.8 K%. He’s not a helper in WHIP or strikeouts, so ERA regression will kneecap his fantasy value. Keller’s fantasy appeal is limited to AL-only formats and extremely deep mixers.
Wade LeBlanc (SEA)
LeBlanc’s ADP is nearly identical to Keller’s at 397.0, and his value is limited to the same league types. The 34-year-old southpaw is coming off of a career year in which he totaled a 3.64 ERA in 27 starts spanning 148.1 innings, but his FIP (4.29), xFIP (4.44), and SIERA (4.37) were all more than a half run higher. Like Kansas City’s righty, he doesn’t move the needle much in strikeouts with a 19.6 K% last year as a starter. However, he does do a better job of filling up the strike zone, and his 6.2 BB% as a starter as well as some batted-ball luck helped him post a 1.16 WHIP. LeBlanc’s a more desirable AL-only arm than Keller, but again, neither should be drafted in standard mixers.
Matt Strahm (SD)
Grossly undervalued with a 418.3 ADP, Strahm is one of my favorite 2019 late-round picks. The left-handed hurler thrived last year as an opener. He’ll have a chance, though, to earn a rotation spot this year. The young southpaw features a four-pitch mix that gives him the requisite goodies to retire left-handed and right-handed batters while working through the order multiple times. Strahm did an excellent job of getting ahead with a 66.5% first-pitch strike rate (60.6% league average F-Strike last year), but he wasn’t just pounding the zone and finding lumber.
He also did a fantastic job of missing bats with a 12.6% swinging-strike rate (10.7% league average SwStr in 2018). Three of Strahm’s four offerings posted a SwStr% north of 11.0, starting with the changeup (11.2%), followed by the four-seam fastball (12.3%), and headlined by his slider (23.5%). I currently have Strahm ranked just outside the top-50 starting pitchers and think the cream will rise to the top. The cost of rolling the dice on his talent netting a rotation spot is too good to pass up.
Carlos Martinez (STL)
In 575.0 innings pitched across 92 starts from 2015-2017, Martinez rattled off a 3.26 ERA (3.58 FIP, 3.56 xFIP, and 3.74 SIERA), 1.23 WHIP, 8.3 BB%, and 23.9 K%. He dealt with shoulder issues last year, however, and was limited to 118.2 innings pitched in 18 starts and 15 relief appearances. He closed last year in the bullpen, but he’s expected to return to the rotation this season. The righty’s 2015-2017 work speaks to his upside, but the fact he dealt with a shoulder strain and turned in a career-worst 11.5 BB% last season means the upside is accompanied by ample downside. The spring hype for Martinez has already begun, but when baking in the downside, he’s closer to a fringe top-50 SP than a top-30 SP in my rankings.
Tyler Glasnow (TB)
Once a highly regarded prospect, control issues prevented Glasnow from putting things together with the Pirates. The Rays acquired him via trade, and after walking 14.0% of the batters he faced as a reliever for the Pirates, he walked just 8.4% of batters faced in 11 starts to close the year. The righty’s Zone rate increased from 44.3% with the Pirates to 46.6% with the Rays, but, more impressively, his F-Strike rate skyrocketed from 52.3% to 64.9% with his new club. Glasnow didn’t have to sacrifice bat-missing ability to make his control gains, either. In fact, his SwStr rate rose from 11.5% to 12.0%.
The tall righty throws hard with an average fastball velocity of 96.6 mph last year, according to FanGraphs. He backs his cheddar with a rarely used changeup (3.7% usage with the Rays) and a pair of breaking balls. His already blistering fastball is reportedly cooking a little hotter this spring, too. Per MLB.com’s Juan Toribio, Glasnow also noted improved “spin efficiency” thus far in camp.
Glasnow was already a spin darling. Among the 141 pitchers who threw a minimum of 1,500 four-seam fastballs last year, he ranked 20th in average spin rate (2,365 RPM), per Baseball Savant. Using the same 1,500-pitch minimum, he ranked 14th out of 131 pitchers in average curve spin rate (2,809 RPM), and he led 114 pitchers in slider average spin rate (2,919 RPM). Glasnow’s current ADP barely cracks the top 200 at 195.6, and he squeaks into the top-50 starting pitchers at SP49. I currently have him ranked SP31, and I’d gladly spend a top-150 pick on him.