If you play in deep, competitive fantasy leagues, you know that one of the commodities you can never get enough of is pitching. No matter how stacked your staff is coming out of your draft or auction, injuries and under-performance always create holes over the summer, and that’s before you factor in strategies like streaming SPs.
As such, it’s always helpful to know where to look to find pitchers who may not be on the fantasy radar in March but could wind up being key contributors in June. By now, the statistical markers for pitching sleepers are well known — strikeouts good, walks and home runs bad — but there’s one area that doesn’t get a lot of focus that has produced some gems in recent years.
If I gave you the following Triple-A pitching lines, you wouldn’t think the hurlers in question were particularly interesting prospects, would you?
Pitcher A: 4.52 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 63:24 K:BB in 75.2 IP
Pitcher B: 4.60 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 145:43 K:BB in 133.0 IP
Of course, you can guess the punchline here. Pitcher A is Jacob deGrom, who put up that line for Las Vegas in 2013 before bursting onto the scene with the Mets in 2014. Pitcher B is his rotation-mate Noah Syndergaard, who posted that mediocre line in Las Vegas in 2014 before his own splashy MLB debut.
Want some more examples? Matt Shoemaker stumbled to a 4.64 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 184.1 innings at Salt Lake in 2013 before he got his first real shot with the Angels the following season, while teammate Garrett Richards spat out a 4.21 ERA and 1.58 WHIP in his last extended look at Salt Lake in 2012. Chase Anderson put together a woeful 5.73 ERA and 1.59 WHIP at Reno for the D-backs in 2013 before making his big-league debut the next year and eventually putting things together in 2017.
Certainly some of those arms, like Thor and Richards, had big-time prospect pedigrees at the time of their Triple-A struggles, but guys like Shoemaker didn’t at all. The common denominator for all of them, though, was that they spent significant time pitching in one of the PCL’s brutal hitter’s parks — Vegas, Reno, Salt Lake, Colorado Springs or Albuquerque, all of which usually inflate runs by 15 percent or more — and managed to not lose their confidence when doing so. Their numbers may not have looked good on the surface, but in a home park like those, looking merely “not good” can be a victory in itself.
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Since 2014 — the year deGrom. Shoemaker and others came out of seemingly nowhere to make fantasy impacts — I’ve kept an eye on pitchers toiling in those five offensive hot boxes, looking for the next surprise contributor. Pitchers who can survive those crucibles are the kinds of pitchers who can thrive at the next level if and when they get their shot.
With that in mind, here are a couple of guys who jump out at me as possible 2018 sleepers:
Brandon Woodruff, Brewers: Woodruff got 16 starts at Colorado Springs last season and held his own, posting a 4.30 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and 70:25 K:BB in 75.1 innings before a relatively disappointing eight starts in the majors. Given the environment at Colorado Springs, those numbers are darned good, and it’s no wonder he’s a popular sleeper pick heading into spring training. Craig Counsell has said he’ll get a shot at winning a rotation spot right out of the gate, and the 24-year-old already has a quality fastball and slider in his arsenal. The front office could muddy the picture if they pull the trigger on Yu Darvish or otherwise bolster the top of their rotation, but even in that case it’s easy to picture Woodruff breaking through for good some time in the first half, if not the first week of April.
Ryan Carpenter, Tigers: Sometimes, a front office can be too smart for its own good. The Rockies long ago learned not to leave their top pitching prospects at Colorado Springs for too long, sometimes even jumping the level entirely with a prized arm, and that hasn’t changed since they switched their top affiliate to Albuquerque. The flip side of that, however, is that a pitcher parked at Triple-A in the Rockies’ system is clearly not seen as a future contributor by the organization, and guys like Carpenter can then fall through the cracks. The 27-year-old lefty had an undistinguished minor-league career until last season, when he added a slider to his repertoire in early June and went on a tear that left him with a 4.15 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 161:39 K:BB in 156 innings. Those are strong numbers for Albuquerque, but they’re downright shocking when you consider he had a 6.04 ERA and 1.50 WHIP on June 3 — after that, he reeled off a 3.08 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 9.69 K/9 in 99.1 innings with 12 quality starts in 17 outings. A minor-league free agent, he wound up with Detroit in the offseason, and while the Tigers have lots of guys ahead of him on the depth chart, they also lack established, reliable arms after saying goodbye to Justin Verlander. Carpenter doesn’t have one dominant pitch, instead relying on a four-pitch arsenal and his command to get outs, but if he has a strong spring he could get his chance at the expense of someone like Buck Farmer or the ever-frustrating Daniel Norris.
There are other names just on the edges of my radar as well — Osmer Morales of the Angels, the D-backs’ Anthony Banda — but Woodruff and Carpenter seem to have the best combination of stuff and opportunity heading into 2018. If either or both of them win rotation jobs and seem poised for some early success, even in shallow leagues I’m not going to wait long before tossing some FAAB dollars in their direction, and neither should you.