Starting Pitchers with Relief Pitcher Eligibility (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
In leagues that don’t distinguish between starters and relievers, eligibility for hurlers isn’t of concern. However, in leagues that do have separate starting slots for starters and relievers, there are advantages to rostering starters with reliever eligibility. In non-traditional points leagues, RP-eligible starters can be gold. In traditional scoring formats with daily changes, having an RP-eligible reliever might allow you to stick an extra probable starter into your lineup if you have a bunch of probable starters and not enough SP slots to use them all on a given day. In leagues with weekly lineup changes, you can also pick up extra starts by using a starter in a reliever spot.
I’m not highlighting all RP-eligible starters in this piece, but below is a large number of them with varying appeal from universal viability to deep-league options only. In the interest of discussing fresh faces, I didn’t include RP-eligible starters Kyle Gibson, A.J. Puk, Jesus Luzardo, and Carlos Carrasco. I’m a fan of all four in 2020 and you can read what I previously wrote about Gibson here, Puk and Luzardo here, and Carrasco here.
Julio Urias (LAD): 168.5 ADP
Dustin May (LAD): 223.8 ADP
Tony Gonsolin (LAD): 364.0 ADP
Jimmy Nelson (LAD): 463.0 ADP
Yup, that’s right. That’s four pitchers from the Dodgers. Initially, that last sentence read “a half-dozen pitchers from the Dodgers,” but then the Mookie Betts blockbuster and a separate deal with the Angels happened. The Dodgers dealt a forthcoming RP-eligible starter in the Betts deal, but they also received David Price and cash to offset his large contract as part of the trade. In other words, one departure didn’t totally unclog things with Price coming back, however, the second deal removed a hurler from the rotation competition. Not included among the pitchers above is Alex Wood, who is also in the mix for a rotation gig. Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler are rotation locks and Price is presumably going to claim a rotation spot, too — unless he’s flipped in another deal.
I previously discussed May as one of my top-10 ranked pitching prospects. Nelson was dreadful, totaling a 6.95 ERA in 10 appearances (three starts) spanning 22.0 innings for the Brewers last year. It was his first season back from a year spent rehabbing and recovering from shoulder surgery to repair his rotator cuff, anterior labrum, and capsule. Perhaps another year removed will help him recapture his 2017 form in which he tallied a 3.49 ERA (3.05 FIP and 3.42 SIERA, per FanGraphs), 1.25 WHIP, and 27.3 K% in 29 starts spanning 175.1 innings. He’ll need to show something before rostering him in even NL-only and 16-team mixers or larger. He also doesn’t need to be drafted.
Urias is supremely talented, but the 23-year-old southpaw’s innings were kept in check last year. He was largely used in relief and pitched just 85.1 innings including a minor-league appearance and his postseason appearances. His talent is not in question, but how many innings he’ll be allowed to throw is. He’ll probably spend some time in the bullpen to suppress his innings, but a step forward in innings this year should allow him to spend the majority of the year in the rotation.
Gonsolin is intriguing, but he has options remaining. My money is on him opening the year in Triple-A to receive further seasoning. He’s pitched just 85.2 innings in the upper minors — all last year — splitting 44.1 innings in Double-A and 41.1 in Triple-A. Despite the limited experience in the upper minors, he acquitted himself well in 40.0 innings split between starting (six starts) and relieving (five relief appearances) for the Dodgers. Gonsolin totaled a 2.93 ERA, but his 3.86 FIP and 4.63 SIERA were less flattering.
Ryan Yarbrough (TB): 311.0 ADP
Yonny Chirinos (TB): 336.8 ADP
Trevor Richards (TB): 462.0 ADP
The Rays haven’t been shy about using pitchers unconventionally with some toggling between opening and piggybacking an opener. As a result, you have the likes of Yarbrough, Chirinos, and Richards all possessing starter and reliever eligibility. Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, and Tyler Glasnow are rotation locks. Lefty Brendan McKay figures to log meaningful innings for the Rays primarily as a starter. Having said that, he and Yarbrough are lefties and Chirinos and Richards are righties, so there’s some potential for the club to manage all four pitchers’ innings while maximizing their matchups by having them open and piggyback off of one another on occasion.
Despite the unconventional usage over the last two years, Yarbrough has logged 289.0 innings and Chirinos has logged 223.0. Yarbrough’s totaled a 4.02 ERA (3.88 FIP and 4.11 SIERA), 1.15 WHIP, 5.9 BB%, and 20.6 K%. Chirinos’s totaled a 3.71 ERA (4.07 FIP and 4.13 SIERA), 1.12 WHIP, 5.9 BB%, and 21.0 K%. Neither Yarbrough nor Chirinos are exciting high-ceiling options in drafts, but both finished as top-50 starters according to our Value Based Rankings in 2019 and represent sneaky bargains as the SP83 and SP94 in ADP, respectively. Richards figures to be on the outside of the rotation looking in to start the year, but he’s a name to file away as an RP-eligible starter if injuries force him into some spot starts.
Kenta Maeda (MIN): 216.8 ADP
Maeda was the not-so-mystery man teased above in the write-up for the four highlighted hurlers on the Dodgers. Maeda has been used primarily as a starter in four seasons with the Dodgers, but he’s also regularly seen relief work. He’s started 103 games totaling 546.2 innings, spinning a 3.92 ERA (3.76 FIP and 3.86 SIERA), 1.16 WHIP, 7.5 BB%, 25.8 K%, and 12.7 SwStr%. Why have they even wasted time with him in the bullpen, you might be asking yourself.
Well, his 175.2 innings in 32 starts in his first season with the Dodgers back in 2016 both represent his career highs. Last year he started 26 games totaling 153.2 innings and both of those totals are his second-highest marks. He has a 3.55 ERA as a starter the first time through the order, 3.70 ERA the second time through the order, and a 4.85 ERA the third time through the order when he starts, according to FanGraphs. Furthermore, his first-half ERA in his career is 3.51 and rises to 4.44 in the second half. The Dodgers were probably wise to use him the way they did, but Maeda was understandably not a fan of his usage as it prevented him from hitting numerous bonuses in a contract with an under-market base of $3 million a year.
The Twins don’t boast the rotation depth the Dodgers possess, so it seems unlikely Maeda will be jerked between the rotation and bullpen to manage his innings. The good news is that means more innings for Maeda. However, the bad news is that could come with diminishing returns.
Additionally, the move to the American League means he’ll now face a designated hitter in lineups rather than the pitcher spot or a cold pinch-hitter coming off of the bench to replace said pitcher in a National League lineup. According to the league stats at FanGraphs for 2019, both American League and National League hitters struck out an identical 23.0% of the time, but NL hitters totaled a 94 wRC+ and AL hitters totaled a 99 wRC+. The league change slightly dings Maeda’s value, but the positive of more innings — even with a likely dip in his ERA and WHIP — outweighs the negatives. His ADP will rise and he belongs in the top-150 or perhaps even the top-125 picks.
Adrian Houser (MIL): 324.8 ADP
Houser enjoyed a surprising age-26 breakout for the Brewers. The righty made 17 relief appearances and 18 starts totaling 111.1 innings in which he twirled a 3.72 ERA that was largely supported by a 3.88 FIP and 3.91 SIERA. The overall numbers are solid, but he was decidedly better as a reliever.
In 30.2 innings relieving, he tallied a 1.47 ERA (2.99 FIP and 3.46 SIERA), 0.95 WHIP, 9.6 BB%, 28.7 K%, and 12.0 SwStr%. In 80.2 innings as a starter, he totaled a 4.57 ERA (4.22 FIP and 4.08 SIERA), 1.35 WHIP, 7.5 BB%, 24.2 K%, and 9.0 SwStr%. On the plus side, his velocity dipped minimally from 94.9 MPH on average on his fastball in relief to 94.3 MPH on average as a starter, according to FanGraphs.
On the negative side, he lacks a top-shelf out pitch and does a poor job of getting hitters to fish out of the strike zone. Houser generated an 11.6 SwStr% on his four-seam fastball, a 12.3 SwStr% on his slider, and 14.2 SwStr% on his changeup. His four-seamer, curve, and slider all had O-Swing percentages south of 25% at 24.0%, 22.2%, and 23.1%, respectively. His sinker generated a 35.4 O-Swing% and his changeup had a 35.7 O-Swing%.
Ultimately, Houser did enough well to warrant a pick around his ADP to see if he can take a step forward in some areas this year. However, he’s not a pitcher to reach on.
Ross Stripling (LAD): 326.0
Stripling has been a valuable swingman for the Dodgers since debuting back in 2016. In 52 starts spanning 257.0 innings in his career, he has a 3.71 ERA (3.71 FIP and 3.66 SIERA), 1.20 WHIP, 5.2 BB%, 23.5 K%, and 9.8 SwStr%. His swinging-strike percentage is underwhelming, but it’s up to 10.8% as a starter over the last two years. Stripling’s been a bit better in 130.0 innings of relief in his career with a 3.12 ERA (3.36 FIP and 3.50 SIERA), 1.18 WHIP, 6.8 BB%, 23.8 K%, and 11.4 SwStr%.
It appeared he’d head to greener pasture in an agreed-upon deal with the Angels — where he almost assuredly would have been in the rotation — but he’ll remain with the Dodgers — at least for now. Perhaps the two teams will come to a new agreement or he’ll be flipped elsewhere, but, for the time being, he’ll presumably compete for a rotation spot. Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw are rotation locks. Recently acquired David Price is a good bet for the rotation, too. Above are four other competitors for the rotation, and, in that write-up Wood is mentioned as another rotation competitor, too. My guess is Stripling will remain in his valuable swing-man role as long as he’s with the Dodgers, and that depresses his value. Having said that, he’s still a solid speculative pick a bit earlier than he’s going. Spending a pick just inside the top-300 picks on Stripling has a few avenues to paying nifty dividends including him surprisingly winning a rotation spot, another starter ahead of him getting bit by the injury bug opening a spot early in the year, or a new deal arises in which he’s shipped to a club where he’d start.
Kevin Gausman (SF): 379.0 ADP
In 16 starts spanning 80.0 innings for the Braves last year, Gausman was lit up for a 6.19 ERA. Bad luck had a hand in Gausman’s grotesque ERA as he had a 4.20 FIP and 4.42 SIERA. Neither of his ERA estimators is anything to write home about, but they were considerably better than his actual ERA.
Even while getting knocked around with the Braves, he maintained a solid 23.6 K%, 7.5 BB%, and an excellent 13.4 SwStr%. Regardless, his poor pitching resulted in the Braves moving on, but the Reds saw enough to claim him off of waivers. The Reds almost exclusively used him out of the pen, awarding him 14 relief appearances and just one start.
With the Reds, Gausman spun a 4.03 ERA (3.17 FIP and 2.89 SIERA), 1.16 WHIP, 5.5 BB%, 31.9 K%, and 19.6 SwStr% in 22.1 innings. Gausman will look to continue his rebound with the Giants, but he’ll have a chance to do so starting out of the chute. In the linked piece by Dalton Johnson of NBC Sports Bay Area, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said regarding Gausman and fellow free-agent addition Drew Smyly, “we see both guys starting in the rotation.”
During a three-year span from 2016 through 2018, Gausman sandwiched a pair of sub-4.00 ERA seasons around a 4.68 ERA. In that time frame, he piled up 550.0 innings (all starting) with a 4.07 ERA (4.30 FIP and 4.17 SIERA), 1.36 WHIP, 7.2 BB%, 21.3 K%, and 11.0 SwStr%. Those aren’t numbers that will carry a fantasy rotation, but they’d play in 14-team mixers or deeper leagues. As an added bonus, if he falters as a starter, the Giants’ largely unproven bullpen could open up high-leverage situations that yield holds — or maybe even saves — to Gausman. The 29-year-old righty should be selected closer to pick 300 than a pinch inside the top-400 players, where his 379.0 ADP currently resides.