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Brendan Tuma’s Prospect Report: Starting Pitcher Breakdown (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

by Brendan Tuma | @toomuchtuma | Featured Writer
Jun 3, 2021

It’s been a while since the discussion over who the top pitching prospect in baseball is has been such a tricky-yet-fun one to answer. Before his injuries and move to the bullpen there was Alex Reyes, who had some publications anointing him as the No. 1 overall prospect in our sport. Then there was Forrest Whitley. His story as a prospect is still being written as he recovers from Tommy John surgery this year, but it’s notable that he isn’t even one of my honorable mentions listed below.

And at this time last year there was another young arm who was widely considered the best pitching prospect the minor leagues had to offer. We’ll get to him in a second, but there’s plenty of debate about that statement now, which leads us to today. Further muddying the situation is a plethora of thrilling performances to begin the spring. Therefore, it’s important to note that this conversation isn’t a depressing one by any means.

Despite the recent troubles of those who were previously touted as No. 1, there are plenty of young arms to be excited about for fantasy purposes moving forward. I eventually settled on my personal answer, but this article is more of a celebration of all these guys.

Reminder to reach out with questions on Twitter anytime – @toomuchtuma.

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The Incumbents 

MacKenzie Gore (SP – SD)
12 months ago there was no debate. Gore was the top pitching prospect in baseball after a 2019 campaign that saw him register a 1.02 ERA, a 0.71, and 110 strikeouts in 79 1/3 innings at High-A. He was promoted to Double-A later in the season where he made five starts, but these weren’t as impressive. Still, that High-A performance was downright tremendous, and the late-season results could theoretically be chalked up to fatigue setting in against tougher competition. It was odd when the Padres never called him up last summer, but we later learned that he was struggling with his mechanics at the alternate training site.

Some inconsistencies with the repeatability of his windup aren’t a huge surprise since Gore utilizes a very high leg kick to keep hitters off balance. His control/command has seemingly been more affected lately, perhaps because he isn’t facing Single-A hitters any more (who were more likely to chase). Regardless of the exact reason, the troubles have persisted. Gore owns a 5.94 ERA and a 1.80 WHIP through four Triple-A starts this spring. He’s also dealing with a blister issue. Gore is still a very talented pitcher and someone to be excited about long-term, but it’s no secret that his stock has fallen.

Sixto Sanchez (SP – MIA)
It’s beginning to shape up as a lost season for the young right-hander, who absolutely dazzled in seven big league starts last summer. Sanchez’s latest setback is shoulder discomfort, which he recently felt between bullpen sessions. Injuries have always been a concern for the 22-year-old, and this year’s troubles certainly aren’t helping. Even if he’s able to return later this season, Sanchez is unlikely to handle a big workload in 2022. He’s still an asset in dynasty leagues, but 2021 hasn’t gone as planned.

Nate Pearson (SP – TOR)
As disappointing as Sanchez’s season has gone, I’m even more bummed out about Pearson, who was a consensus top-15 prospect for the past 12 months. Similar to Sanchez, the ability to handle a meaningful workload has been in question for Pearson for a while now, and thus far he hasn’t answered it in a positive way. The 24-year-old has dealt with both groin and shoulder injuries this year. He also hasn’t been all that productive in his actual starts. Pearson’s stuff remains electric, which means I still see him as a big league pitcher. However, I’m growing increasingly skeptical about his ability to start. Perhaps he’ll follow the same path as Alex Reyes and become a stud closer.

The Risers

Logan Gilbert (SP – SEA)
Gilbert finally completed six innings as a major league pitcher in his most recent start, but he still gave up a good amount of hard contact. Whereas Pearson has an explosive repertoire, Gilbert succeeds with control and pitchability. He’s advanced enough to the point where we can be confident in him as a long-term SP3, but there are questions as to how much ace-upside he can provide. Of course, we often see talented players make leaps once arriving in the big leagues. Perhaps it takes a few years, but I’m not ruling out an ace-like run for Gilbert by any means. Given his floor, though, he’s a seemingly “safe” bet to tout as the top pitching prospect in baseball.

George Kirby (SP – SEA)
Another one of Seattle’s top young arms, Kirby was the club’s first-round selection back in 2019. Known as a control master, Kirby reportedly added some exciting velocity gains this spring. He hasn’t pitched much in 2021, but the innings he has provided have been encouraging. Through 8 1/3 frames the 23-year-old has a 12:1 K:BB ratio. He’s only in High-A right now, so we shouldn’t get too carried away with this small sample, but if he starts adding strikeout upside to his profile then Kirby could skyrocket up prospect rankings once he gets to higher levels of competition.

Hunter Greene (SP – CIN)
Greene was the No. 2 overall pick back in 2017. At the time he was most known for potentially being a two-way player, but he has since converted to pitching full-time. Now fully recovered from 2019’s Tommy John surgery, Greene’s fastball is as lively as ever, and the production has been there despite an aggressive assignment to Double-A Chattanooga. Through five starts Greene has a 1.91 ERA, a 0.95 WHIP, and 41 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings. I need to see more from a workload / “secondary offering” perspective before I can consider him one of the top pitching prospects, but he was barely on my radar entering 2021. The early returns have been thrilling.

Grayson Rodriguez (SP – BAL)
The 21-year-old might be my second or third choice for this question right now. After dominating High-A for five starts the Orioles promoted him to Double-A, which is where he pitched on Wednesday. “G-Rod” cruised through five frames, posting an 8:2 K:BB while allowing just one run on four hits. Whereas we are beginning to see Gore, Sanchez, and Pearson “fail”, Rodriguez is trending in the right direction. His clean delivery and three-to-four pitch arsenal seemingly give him a good chance at remaining a starter long-term.

The Rocket Ship

Alek Manoah (SP – TOR)
The 23-year-old officially had his “rookie moment” on Wednesday against the Marlins, getting tagged for four earned runs in just 3 1/3 innings. From my amateur scouting eye, Manoah was catching far too much of the zone, especially with his hellacious slider. It’s tough to blame him as he has been able to get away with it up until this point, but that’s certainly an adjustment he’s going to need to make.

Manoah has a strong, three-pitch repertoire that should allow him to get through the order multiple times (meaning there’s no RP concern as of now), but he’s a “rocket ship” because Wednesday’s start was just his 11th (!!) as a professional. Perhaps it’s crazy to even consider him as the No. 1 pitching prospect, but the results have just been so dominant. The stuff plays and the burly right-hander certainly possesses the “it” factor. I expect more “rookie moments” throughout 2021, but it’s hard not to dream about what he could become as he gets more experience under his belt. If I had to anoint someone at this moment, it’d be him.

The Honorable Mentions

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Brendan Tuma is a correspondent at FantasyPros. To read more from Brendan, check out his archive and follow him @toomuchtuma.

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