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Top 10 Pitching Prospects (2020 Fantasy Baseball)

by Josh Shepardson | @BChad50 | Featured Writer
Jan 23, 2020

Jesus Luzardo could make an immediate impact in Oakland’s rotation if healthy.

The list of pitching prospects who can have a positive impact in 2020 is lengthy. In fact, Nate Pearson, Forrest Whitley, and Matt Manning were among the tough cuts even after expanding from the standard top-five list to a top 10. Ultimately, the list had to cut off somewhere, and that trio barely missed. The back half is kicked off by three hurlers who spent time at Double-A last year, and the remaining seven prospects all have big-league experience.

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10. Sixto Sanchez (MIA)
Sanchez was the headline prospect shipped from the Phillies to the Marlins last year in return for catcher J.T. Realmuto. The flame-throwing righty started the season at High-A after starting 13 games at that level in 2017 and 2018 combined. He didn’t waste many bullets there before making 18 starts spanning 103 innings in Double-A. He tallied a 2.53 ERA, 2,92 xFIP, 1.03 WHIP, 4.6 BB%, 23.6 K%, and 11.6 SwStr%, according to FanGraphs.

Sanchez is only 21 years old, yet he’s not far from making his debut in “The Show.” His fastball is a blistering heater that averages 97 mph and reaches 101 mph, per Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs. They presently grade the pitch a 55 with a future 60, and MLB Pipeline’s last 2019 report graded the offering a 75 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale. The disparity between the rankings is stark; FanGraphs is likely more bearish on the pitch because of its underwhelming bat-missing ability despite the elite velocity.

He backs his cheddar with a slider that FanGraphs grades a present 50 and future 55 and MLB Pipeline calls a curve with a 55 grade. The righty’s changeup might be better grading as a 55 at MLB Pipeline, but it checks in as a 60 with a future 70 at FanGraphs. He ties it all together with average to plus command and control.

Health permitting (and he’s had health issues in his career), Sanchez should build on the 114 innings he threw last year. The Marlins are in the midst of a rebuild, so they can opt to let him spend significant time in Triple-A if they want. That’s part of why he ranks 10th as opposed to a bit higher. When he does reach the majors, he’ll call what should still be a pitcher-friendly park home, but it’s worth noting there will be significant changes to the ballpark starting this year. Although Sanchez could be viable in leagues as shallow as 12-team mixers right out of the chute when he debuts, questions about when he’ll pitch for the parent club make him more of a priority in-season addition rather than a draft-and-stash player.

9. MacKenzie Gore (SD)
Gore is arguably the top pitching prospect in baseball. On FanGraphs’ last top-100 prospect list of 2019, Gore was the second-highest ranked pitcher and fourth-ranked prospect overall. Additionally, he ranked as the top pitching prospect and third overall prospect on Baseball Prospectus’s midseason top-50 prospect list last year. He also slotted in as the premier pitching prospect and fourth-ranked prospect on MLB Pipeline’s last list in 2019.

Wilson Karaman of Baseball Prospectus described Gore’s arsenal as featuring “four above-average-or-better pitches, highlighted by a fastball that’ll work into the mid 90s with rare explosiveness and finish.” Karaman also gushed over Gore’s curve. MLB Pipeline hasn’t yet updated its top-100 prospect list, but it ranked Gore as the top left-handed pitching prospect and awarded 60’s across the board to his fastball, curve, slider, changeup, and control. His player card at FanGraphs has the least flattering grades, but they’re still strong with a 55 present and future fastball, 45 present and 50 future slider, 50 present and 55 future curve, and 50 present and 60 future changeup. His control/command earns average or better grades, too.

Gore was excellent last year between High-A and Double-A. He finished with just 101 innings, though, as San Diego carefully managed his workload. With most of his time spent at the lower of the two levels, he tallied a 1.69 ERA, 2.77 FIP, 0.83 WHIP, 7.4 BB%, and 35.7 K%. He tied High-A hitters up with a 16.8 SwStr% and continued to miss bats at an elite clip with a 14.7 SwStr% in Double-A.

Long term, Gore’s upside is immense. This year, however, he’ll almost certainly face an innings limit and spend a decent chunk of them in the upper minors. His fantasy value would be enhanced — namely in head-to-head leagues — by the Friars making a postseason push and opting to limit his innings earlier in the season. They could then lean on him down the stretch, which would coincide with the head-to-head fantasy playoffs. Gore, like Sanchez, is a priority in-season addition, but one who doesn’t need to be drafted and stashed in most redraft formats.

8. Casey Mize (DET)
The right-handed Mize resides just a few places behind Gore on top prospect lists. He ranked as the eighth-best prospect on FanGraphs’ final 2019 list, fifth on Baseball Prospectus’ midseason update, and seventh on MLB Pipeline’s final list for 2019. He has a four-pitch arsenal that includes a fastball, cutter, slider, and split. FanGraphs grades his slider and splitter a 55 currently with 60 future grades, a 60 current and future grade on his fastball, and a 60 present and 65 future grade on the splitter. MLB Pipeline only notes three pitches, grading his fastball and slider as a 60 and his splitter as 70. Jeffrey Paternostro of Baseball Prospectus wrote that Detroit’s top prospect will “show four plus pitches.”

Mize edged Gore out for the eighth spot on this list due to pitching a few more innings and pitching more at the Double-A level. Detroit’s prized hurler threw 109.1 innings overall, with 78.2 of them spent tormenting Double-A hitters. At that level, he twirled a 3.20 ERA, 3.13 xFIP, 1.11 WHIP, 5.6 BB%, 23.5 K%, and 14.1 SwStr%.

The Tigers are rebuilding, so there’s an incentive for them to manipulate Mize’s service time while continuing his development in the upper minors. I suspect he’ll pitch well enough to force their hand and get some big-league innings over the summer. I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but Mize will be a priority addition if/when he gets a look by the Tigers in leagues as shallow as 12-team mixers. He’s not, however, worth drafting and stashing in most formats.

7. Dustin May (LAD)
May pitched at three levels last year, opening in Double-A, reaching Triple-A, and finishing the season in the majors (including a couple of relief appearances in the playoffs). While he’s pitched well at each stop, he hasn’t really put up jaw-dropping numbers. Of course, it’s easy to forgive him when recognizing he was promoted aggressively as one of the youngest players in the majors last year.

May made four starts and 10 relief appearances for the Dodgers during the regular season last year, tallying a 2.70 ERA (4.71 xFIP and 3.79 SIERA), 1.10 WHIP, 3.6 BB%, 22.7 K%, and a modest 8.7 SwStr%. Although his below-average swinging-strike percentage isn’t promising for projecting a helpful strikeout rate, his cutter’s 16.8 SwStr% is nifty. Furthermore, his four-pitch arsenal could help him keep hitters off balance and pick up some looking strikeouts.

As for his arsenal, MLB Pipeline recently graded his fastball as his best pitch (70), his changeup as his worst (50), and his curve (55) and cutter (65) both as above-average offerings. Baseball Prospectus described May’s stuff as “electric,” and FanGraphs assigns him average to plus grades (present and future) on his offerings with the exclusion of his changeup, which they grade as a 45 now and 50 future.

May’s ranking on this list is with the expectation he closes the gap between his performance and stuff. He should have a crack at joining the rotation, but the Dodgers’ depth of viable starters can allow them to get creative with managing May’s (and others’) innings this year. Having said that, he totaled 144.2 innings including the postseason last year, and he has a legitimate shot at pitching the most big-league innings of any pitcher on this list. His ho-hum strikeout rate won’t be an issue in most head-to-head leagues without a weekly innings ceiling, but he is less than ideal in roto formats with an innings max for the season. May has an ADP of 241 as the 69th starting pitcher off the board in Fantrax leagues, and that feels about right.

6. Michael Kopech (CHW)
I’m giving May the benefit of the doubt in regards to pitching at a level more appropriate for his top-shelf stuff, and I’m making a similar leap of faith expecting Kopech’s stuff to return. Kopech underwent Tommy John surgery in September of 2018, and he missed all of last year rehabbing. My optimism isn’t a completely baseless leap of faith, as he was reportedly throwing gas and breaking off sliders and curves last October in instructional league ball.

Prior to injuring his elbow, Kopech got a brief taste of big-league coffee with four starts spanning 14.1 innings for the Pale Hose in 2018. He didn’t blow the roof off of the place with a 5.02 ERA (4.95 xFIP and 3.88 SIERA), but he attacked hitters with a 2.9 BB% and 70.6 F-Strike%. Prior to reaching the majors, he spent the rest of 2018 totaling 126.1 innings in 24 Triple-A starts. Kopech wasn’t as precise with his control there, issuing a free pass to 11.1% of batters faced. His wicked power arsenal — MLB Pipeline grades his heater as an 80 on the 20-to-80 scale, tying Pearson for the best fastball among right-handed prospects — gives him some room for error, though, and he used his stuff to strike out a whopping 31.3% of Triple-A batters faced while notching a 12.7 SwStr%.

Kopech will assuredly face some sort of innings limit this year, but he could have a realistic shot at breaking camp in Chicago’s rotation if he demonstrates he’s shaken off the rust. Despite spending heavily this offseason, the White Sox can use some pitching reinforcements in order to make a postseason run. Kopech is being popped with an average pick of 239 as the 68th starting pitcher off the board in Fantrax leagues, coincidentally just one spot ahead of the guy directly behind him on this list. My feelings are similar to those about May’s ADP, and I believe Kopech’s price is fair as a late-round flier.

5. A.J. Puk (OAK)
Puk missed the entire 2018 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and he was limited to 36.2 innings across four levels last year. His 11.1 innings in the majors actually represented his most at any spot. All of his work for the A’s came in 10 relief appearances, but he appears poised to start this year.

In the linked piece, MiLB.com’s Sam Dykstra points out the likely need to limit innings for Puk and a forthcoming southpaw teammate. Manager Bob Melvin’s quotes are nevertheless encouraging for Puk’s usage this year. In fact, he probably has a legitimate shot at breaking camp in the rotation, though you’ll want to keep tabs on spring training news to make sure they don’t have him start the year late as a creative means for managing his innings.

Puk is a tall lefty who wasted no time showing off his big fastball and bat-missing slider. FanGraphs credited him with an average velocity of 97.5 mph and max of 100.1 on his four-seam fastball, and his slider generated a robust 20.0 SwStr%. Interestingly, his changeup did an even better job of missing bats with a 26.3 SwStr%, but his grade on that offering lags behind the heater and the slider at multiple outlets.

As part of his writeup as Oakland’s second-best prospect, Paternostro described Puk’s fastball as an “easy 70” and said his slider “is another potential plus-plus weapon in his holster.” Jonathan Mayo of MLB Pipeline also graded Puk’s slider a 65, the best mark among left-handed pitching prospects.

In his limited time in the bigs, Puk did an excellent job of throwing strikes (48.5 Zone% compared to 41.8% for the league average) and getting ahead (63.8 F-Strike% compared to 60.9%). Despite pitching in the zone and getting ahead at above-average rates, he still walked 10.6% of the batters he faced. Puk’s control is below average, but his bat-missing stuff gives him more room for error than many of his prospect peers. If he’s not able to keep his free passes in check, his fastball/slider combo would make him an elite reliever who could be called on for multiple innings or save situations. For now, that’s a fallback option.

Don’t make the mistake of overlooking Puk in drafts. Because he debuted in the bullpen, he’s only reliever eligible. This could actually be a plus depending on your league settings. He right ahead of Kopech with a 238 ADP in Fantrax leagues. I went back and forth with who to rank fifth and sixth between the two, so their respective ADPs are fitting and fair.

4. Mitch Keller (PIT)
Keller barely qualifies as a prospect, having pitched 48.0 innings — 50 is the cutoff point for rookie status — for the Pirates last year. The righty served up a ghastly 7.13 ERA, but, as his ranking on this list should probably tip you off to, his underlying stats (3.47 xFIP, 3.78 SIERA) were more promising.

Keller’s biggest issue was an unsustainable .475 BABIP surrendered, but his 59.6 LOB% hurt him immensely, too. Keller coughed up a .366 BABIP in 10 starts spanning 52.1 innings at Triple-A in 2018, and he yielded a .324 BABIP in 19 starts totaling 103.2 innings back at that level to begin last year as well. It’s possible he’s a bit hittable, but a .475 BABIP would be unsustainable against a pitcher throwing batting practice.

As for the rest of his statistical profile from his debut, Keller walked only 7.1% of batters faced, struck out a whopping 28.6% of them, and rattled off an 11.8 SwStr% that bested the 2019 league average of 11.1%. The young righty’s slider was especially devastating with a jaw-dropping 26.8 SwStr% and a 50.5 O-Swing%. His curve was decent, too, with a 13.2 SwStr% and 39.5 O-Swing%.

His changeup didn’t fool anyone with a 3.6 SwStr%, 40.0 LD%, and 391 wRC+ against. MLB Pipeline’s grades from 2019 were the most bullish on Keller’s changeup with a 50, but FanGraphs tabbed it a current 40 and future 45 offering. Both MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs graded his fastball as a plus (65 at MLB Pipeline and 60 current and future at FanGraphs). Each tabbed his curve as a plus (55 at both sites with a 60 future grade at FanGraphs), and only FanGraphs noted the slider with a 55 present and future grade. For now, the changeup should be considered below average, but if it takes even a minor step forward, it could make a huge difference for Keller.

It’s also possible he can avoid a sizable platoon split by keeping lefties off balance mixing his pair of breakers. With 151.2 innings under his belt last year in Triple-A and the majors combined, he should be awarded the leash to exceed 170 this season. That mark would hardly be noteworthy when starters were treated like workhorses, but only 51 major league pitchers bested it last year. Keller’s Fantrax ADP of 246 is just a wee bit behind the previously covered May, Kopech, and Puk, so, suffice to say, I love Keller at his cost.

3. Brendan McKay (TB)
I agonized over ranking Keller or McKay third before ultimately landing on McKay. I might end up placing him behind Keller in my rankings for FantasyPros when it’s all said and done, but expanding upon my thinking here helped nudge McKay into the third spot. Pitching in the AL East against the stacked lineups of the Yankees and Red Sox as well as a potentially emerging lineup north of the border is a knock against McKay that has nothing to do with his talent level, but it’s very much a fantasy consideration. With that in mind, his ranking assumes gamers in leagues with daily lineup changes will make the prudent decision to be a bit picky with his starts and avoid potential blow-up spots at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park until he earns trust. In leagues with weekly lineup changes, I’d flip McKay and Keller.

As for McKay, he remarkably received more big-league experience than Keller last year! McKay qualifies for this list by the skin of his teeth after pitching 49 innings for the Rays last season. He, too, took some lumps in his debut with a 5.14 ERA in 13 appearances (11 starts). Like Keller, his underlying stats (4.38 xFIP, 4.17 SIERA) were better than his ugly ERA. McKay dealt with an ugly .331 BABIP and his own strand issues (64.0 LOB%).

On the plus side, he walked just 7.4% of batters faced and fanned 25.9% of them. McKay’s 10.8 SwStr% was a little bit below league average, but it was respectable. The southpaw used a four-pitch mix that included a four-seam fastball, curve, cutter, and changeup. Each pitch induced a 10.0 SwStr% or higher, with his curve (12.6%) narrowly edging out his changeup (12.1 %) for his best bat-missing option. The depth of his arsenal should aid him in keeping lefties and righties in check.

McKay checked in third on MLB Pipeline’s recently released list of top left-handed pitching prospects. They graded his curve and changeup a 50 each, and his fastball and cutter a 60 each. They also tabbed him as one of three lefties having the best control with a 60. It’s an impressive total package, and gamers aren’t sleeping on him in Fantrax leagues with a 216 ADP. That isn’t unreasonable, but I’d rather have Keller and each of the forthcoming top-two pitching prospects at their costs.

2. Jose Urquidy (HOU)
Urquidy was a pop-up prospect last year, rising from what appeared to be organizational depth to much more. He actually pitched 51 innings in the majors last year, but 10 came in the postseason, thus, keeping him prospect eligible. Longhenhagen and McDaniel wrote about Urquidy earlier this month when they ranked him second in the Astros’ farm system. They noted an uptick in velocity and the addition of a second breaking ball to his arsenal as helping fuel his breakout. They have Urquidy’s grades maxed out with identical present and future marks of a 55 fastball, 50 slider, 50 curve, 60 changeup, and 60 command. Four average or better pitches with above-average command is a fantastic foundation to work with.

Urquidy used his goodies to post a 3.95 ERA (4.30 xFIP and 4.03 SIERA), 1.10 WHIP, 4.2 BB%, 24.0 K%, and 12.0 SwStr% in nine regular-season appearances (seven starts). Digging into his pitch-by-pitch data, he had a trio to coax empty swings with; his changeup, curve, and slider respectively sported SwStr rates of 13.6, 14.5, and 21.7%. Everything looks legit, and after pitching 154.0 innings last year between Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors (including the postseason), he should be set to handle 170-plus innings this season. I haven’t fleshed my starting pitcher rankings out yet, but I suspect he’ll hover around the top 50. He has an ADP of approximately 227 at Fantrax as the SP64 off the board, making him a steal. I’ll gladly snatch him up within the top-200 picks.

1. Jesus Luzardo (OAK)
Luzardo was limited to only 58 innings last year due to injury, namely a shoulder strain, but that’s truly the only fly in the ointment. Continuing to get the negative out of the way, though, injuries aren’t something new to the 22-year-old southpaw, who also has a Tommy John surgery on his resume and a single-season high of only 109.1 innings in 2018.

Healthy to end last year, he shoved against big-league hitters while getting his feet wet in the bullpen. In six relief appearances spanning 12 innings, Luzardo twirled a 1.50 ERA (3.87 xFIP and 2.77 SIERA), 0.67 WHIP, 6.5 BB%, 34.8 K%, and 14.6 SwStr%. Lordy, those are great numbers even when accounting for the caveats that it’s a small sample totaled in relief.

The scouting grades are dreamy. MLB Pipeline grades his curve and slider each as a 55, his fastball and changeup each as a 65, and his control a 60. His write-up at MLB Pipeline does note that there’s some debate as to whether he has two truly different breaking balls or one power slurve from which he can manipulate and add and subtract velocity. His changeup is his elite secondary offering; Jonathan Mayo of MLB Pipeline rated it as the best among southpaw prospects while specifically pointing out in his write-up that the pitch is actually the best changeup among all prospects, not just lefties.

Steamer projects Luzardo to spin a 3.98 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and 24.1 K% in 149.0 innings. I’m a touch more optimistic. I try to avoid becoming too enamored with the buzz-generating rookies, but I’ll make an exception for Luzardo. Although he has an ADP of approximately 122 in Fantrax leagues and is being selected as the SP37, I’d be willing to reach a bit early to secure his services.

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Josh Shepardson is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Josh, check out his archive and follow him @BChad50.

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