Sleepers: Pitchers (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
The 2020 Major League Baseball season is already unforgettable. Not only will we have a 60-game regular season, but the offseason — and, thus, draft season — will extend to late July. Some fantasy leagues have delayed their drafts while others are scrapping everything and starting over. Regardless of your path to this point, it is clear that the landscape of this upcoming season has changed vastly over the past few months.
When addressing sleeper hitters, the main focus was volume. More at-bats in a short season yield a greater percentage of opportunities for our hitters. It’s not entirely the same with pitchers.
Of course, volume is paramount — we can’t gain fantasy points from a player who doesn’t see the field — but there is now a different route to volume than we originally expected.
There were, at the onset of a full season, roughly 32 starts to be earned for a particular pitcher. The key, however, is that not all pitchers would have full access to their allotted 32 games. Many would be limited. Some would be returning from injuries while others were to be treated carefully to protect a young arm.
This is where the 2020 season differs from most. And this is where we must find our edge.
Pushing the season’s start date to late-July undeniably helps a few pitchers who were targeting a mid-season return to action. It also does wonders for young starters who were at-risk of seeing their seasons meet an early end when an innings cap was reached. Now, everyone has an innings cap thanks to the 60-game season. Those who would have thrown 200 innings are no longer poised to deliver twice as many innings as those with a hard cap of 100. The gap may not be completely closed, but it is smaller.
Every advantage we can get brings us one step closer to a fantasy baseball championship. We will take said steps by finding sleeper pitchers that can ultimately over-deliver relative to their low draft positions.
Shohei Ohtani (SP/DH – LAA): ADP 129
I’ll immediately cheat with a player who is hardly a sleeper, but must be mentioned because of two increases in value over the last few months. The first is the news that Shohei Ohtani will pitch in 2020. That, alone, makes him eligible for this list. The second reason is that the delayed season works perfectly for his timeframe. Not only has Ohtani been given additional time to heal and build up arm strength, but his eventual innings limit will be a non-factor. Ohtani’s direct value still depends on league settings — where he becomes a must-own in a league that allows daily moves — but be ready to pay up to land the elite two-way player in a season where every inning — in Ohtani’s case, on the mound or at the plate — matters.
Julio Urias (SP/RP – LAD): ADP 145
Julio Urias has always been the ideal sleeper because of his potential. We could dream of what he could become. Last year, he finally put together the numbers worthy of his hype — a sub-2.50 ERA, to be exact — but he did it in only eight starts. Prior to the season’s delay, Urias was being groomed for a starting role, but his stock will surely spike now that David Price has announced he will sit out in 2020. Urias has one fewer arm ahead of him in the pecking order, a short season that will not impact his innings limit, and the potential to deliver massive returns on a small investment.
Lance McCullers Jr. (SP – HOU): ADP 176
Like the aforementioned Ohtani, Lance McCullers, Jr. is returning from Tommy John surgery after not logging a single inning on the mound in 2019. His ADP suggests that an ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ effect has taken place, where is being drafted outside of the top-150. This should rise in the coming weeks, as the Houston Astros’ offense provides plenty of run support and win potential, while McCullers’ strikeout rate — which has sat above one-per-inning in each of his four seasons — carries solid value even if he doesn’t go deep into games.
Sean Manaea (SP – OAK): ADP 159
Although Sean Manaea has already logged at least 140 innings in three Major League seasons, an injury that cost him the majority of the 2019 season led to a likely innings limit in 2020. Like so many others, this limit has probably been removed and the former top prospect can return to action with another opportunity to breakout. Therein lies the value of Manaea. Like Urias earlier in this list, Manaea has carried extreme potential for years and looked to finally be tapping into said potential prior to his injury. Prospect fatigue and a total of five starts since 2018 has easily moved Manaea out of the forefront of fantasy owners’ minds. Don’t make the same mistake. Manaea was dominant in the short time he pitched in 2019, and it’s a glimpse into what he could approximate in another abbreviated campaign.
James Paxton (SP – NYY): ADP 135
Noticing a trend here? If a player doesn’t make this list because the innings limit has been removed via the shortened season, then said player is likely here because a prior injury is no longer a concern. Enter James Paxton. Paxton’s draft stock crumbled in March as fantasy owners had to determine exactly how much value they would be extracting from Paxton in the half-season he would pitch. More accurately, the “half-season” was nothing more than an assumption. Owners were not only trying to gauge Paxton’s value but the real timeframe for his return. Now that Paxton is at full strength, we can look at his high strikeout rate and win potential and draft accordingly.
Joe Musgrove (SP – PIT): ADP 209
I’ll break format now that I have mentioned the obvious pattern with this list. Joe Musgrove is not a sleeper because of a return from injury nor an innings limit that has been removed. Joe Musgrove is a sleeper because he is overlooked and undervalued. Maybe it’s because he pitches for the Pittsburgh Pirates — and the assumption is that his win potential is low — or maybe it’s because he lacks outstanding numbers — he has never finished a season with more than one-strikeout-per-inning or a sub-4.00 ERA. Still, he is a solid pitcher with as steady a floor as it gets. He won’t crumble your rotation and, in a season filled with uncertainty, he might be the closest we get to stability at a low price. The Pirates also replaced their pitching coach during the offseason, and Musgrove is positioned to make tremendous strides as a result.
Giovanny Gallegos (RP – STL): ADP 177
When I’m generally not a fan of trying to predict exactly which player earns the closer’s job, I can stomach calculated risk for players who will perform even if they are not the main sources of saves. In addition, with the shorter season, the gap between the top and mid-range closers’ save totals is likely to be small. If Giovanny Gallegos is announced as the St. Louis Cardinals’ closer, then his ADP will spike. Until then, I’m still buying him for his talent. His numbers are great across-the-board, and he earned the Cardinals’ trust with 66 appearances in 2019. With so many unknowns about the depth that starting pitchers will bring in 2020, Gallegos has sneaky fantasy value with the added upside of potential saves.
Mitch Keller (SP – PIT): ADP 248
This is more of a formality than anything else. Mitch Keller has been one of my top, must-own sleepers for the entire 2020 offseason, and nothing has deterred me from buying heavily. If anything, he gains the same added boost from the lack of an innings limit that the shortened season will bring. In case you need a refresher from basically any article I have written since March, I am targeting Keller because of his excellent strikeout rate and bloated ERA. The FIP was still great — 3.19 to be exact — and the hideous 7.13 ERA in a small sample size has pushed people away from Keller. Don’t follow the crowd. Buy in now.
A.J. Puk (SP/RP – OAK): ADP 229
Internally, I have fought myself regarding the expectations surrounding A.J. Puk in 2020. Prior to the delay of the season, it seemed impossible that the Oakland Athletics would let him throw without a limit. Now, he is freed from said limit and is already expected to be a member of Oakland’s rotation. The risk is that the organization still treats Puk with extreme caution and doesn’t allow him to pitch deep into games. The important part for us, however, is the risk versus potential reward. Puk is still wildly under-drafted — for now, but news of him earning a rotation spot will cause his value to rise — and can, if healthy and ready to take his proverbial next step, thrive in a short season. I’m generally too early on a player instead of too late, and, until Puk becomes too expensive to acquire, I want to be the one to draft him.
Brendan McKay (SP – TB): ADP 266
I am admittedly not in love with the fact that Brendan McKay is not projected for the Tampa Bay Rays’ starting rotation, and it has resulted in me sliding him down my sleeper ranks. Regardless, McKay will pitch for the Rays in 2020, and his short history and impressive prospect pedigree combine for a clearly undervalued asset. McKay’s 5.14 ERA and 1.408 WHIP are enough to turn people away, but he also delivered 10.3 strikeouts-per-nine-innings and had allowed only three earned runs through his first three career starts. A five-start stretch from the end of July through August inflated all of his numbers, but McKay finished the season with another five appearances in which he allowed a total of six earned runs — granted, two were in relief. The potential is there. We just need the volume to go along with it.
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