I haven’t blogged in a while, but I’m back with a March Madness tradition: my Sweet 16 fantasy baseball pitchers list, which I write every year to point out sleeper and bargain hurlers.
I’m focusing on pitchers with an Average Draft Position of 200 or higher, according to RotoWire’s free ADP report from NFBC and Fantrax leagues and mocks, as of March 13.
This leaves out numerous middle-round arms I like (Lance McCullers, Jeff Samardzija, Garrett Richards, Danny Duffy and Kevin Gausman included), and I chose not to include injured but hyped Ervin Santana.
1. Taijuan Walker, Diamondbacks (203.58 ADP)
Many remain skeptical about the steps forward Walker took in 2017. Despite his best full-season ERA (3.49), the right-hander struggled to limit walks and home runs while dealing with blister issues that affected his pitch grip.
Of course, Chase Field’s upcoming installation of a humidor increases the potential of every Diamondbacks starter, but he’s hiding behind the expensive trio of Robbie Ray, Zack Greinke and Zack Godley. Walker’s 2.92 road ERA and 4.18 home split last year paints a brighter picture with Arizona’s upcoming changes, which should give him better control with his pitching hand.
Now seemingly past health and mechanical issues that have halted his climb, the 25-year-old – yup, he’s just 25, with all that experience — could finally put his skills together for a huge payoff.
2. Blake Snell, Rays (208.18)
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Two minor-league demotions last year following continued battles with walks led to a refreshed approach in the second half. Snell became more aggressive around the strike zone while fixing his mechanics and mound positioning, which fueled his 3.49 ERA, 8.61 K/9 and a sparkling (for him) 2.91 BB/9 after the All-Star break.
The Rays’ offense won’t help him, but the organization still knows how to cultivate pitching. The 25-year-old owns four pitches with a plus rating or plus potential. Given the changes he made, judging him by his season-ending 4.04 ERA from 2017 will be a major error that could make you miss out on this year’s next big thing.
3. Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays (201.48)
Another blister victim: Sanchez dealt with recurring issues in 2017, likely in part exacerbating preexisting issues and attempting to adjust to the seams on newer baseballs. This seemingly has erased the memory of his suffocating arsenal that made him one of fantasy’s most pleasant surprises of 2016.
Barring major changes or good fortune, his K/9 won’t have the ceiling of others on this list, but his control-groundball profile is a fine foundation for a middle-rounds mixed staff. I want to take the chance that he surpasses even his sparkling 2016 line (3.00 ERA, 7.55 K/9, 2.95 BB/9) at the price of a replaceable starter in most leagues.
4. Michael Wacha, Cardinals (228.39)
Wacha’s run from 2013 to 2015 (3.21 ERA, 118 ERA+, 3.48 FIP) has been turned on its head over the last two years (4.56 ERA, 91 ERA+). But his FIP for those first three seasons (3.48) wasn’t far off from 2016-2017 (3.76).
Last year, his left-on-base rate (68.4 percent) and BABIP (.330) ruined any possible success he could’ve worked off his career-best fastball velocity (95.1 mph) and a rebound in swinging strikes (9.6 percent).
Wacha is focusing on making more use of his cutter and curveball, two offerings that could help him work with more authority around the plate. I’m willing to buy the 26-year-old’s FIPs, not his ERAs, from the past two years.
5. Mike Clevinger, Indians (205.38)
For one, Clay Link has this right-hander’s poster on his wall, so that’s an endorsement.
Clevinger was named to the rotation recently, a victory for skills buyers and a sign that his ADP will climb rapidly.
Winning 12 games last year (between starting and relieving) gave the secret away, and he’ll need more seasoning to reduce a potentially crippling walk rate. That strikeout punch, however – 12.4 swinging-whiff rate, 63.4 first-strike rate last year – stands out.
6. Dinelson Lamet, Padres (207.09)
The right-hander punched out 139 in 114.1 innings last season, but Lamet owners may lament potentially major flaws: The Padres won’t help him pad the win column, and he needs to figure out a way to limit the damage done by left-handed bats.
But Petco Park pitchers remain a commodity, and the 25-year-old’s efforts to incorporate a changeup and curveball more heavily could help his journey toward the next step. NL-only players who rely on him as a rotation centerpiece may be disappointed, though at the price he can be landed in many mixed leagues, he’s a logical opportunity for clearance-rate strikeouts.
7. Lucas Giolito, White Sox (215.72)
Young pitchers often have mechanical issues in their early years, and the 6-foot-6 Giolito has struggled with similar structural woes and a tendency to overthrow.
He may be nearing the final steps to make the most of his tantalizing arsenal, however, especially following his 2.38 ERA in the seven starts he made for Chicago to end 2017.
Giolito already has said he wants to use his changeup more (especially against lefty bats) to complement his mid-90s fastball and potentially lethal curveball. Years after inhabiting the top tier of prospect lists, Giolito looks ready to establish at least a big chunk of his once-prominent ceiling.
8. Sean Manaea, Athletics (247.13)
The southpaw endured a shoulder strain and significant weight loss due to his ADD medication in 2017, which likely contributed to his diminished velocity. Even while not throwing as hard as usual, Manaea churned out a 3.54 ERA over his final five starts and whiffing 23 batters in his final 28 innings.
Even if owners may be forced to deal with less-than-helpful control, Manaea has renewed power in his delivery and new medical treatment give him what he needs for a strong rebound, especially since he still makes home starts in a pitcher haven.
9. Matt Harvey, Mets (333.92)
He’s had a lot to overcome during his recovery from surgery to fix thoracic outlet syndrome, including a horrific 2017 performance.
New manager Mickey Callaway, who recently helped build the Indians’ juggernaut rotation, and pitching coach Dave Eiland appear to have cleaned up his mechanics, citing a specific start that might’ve led to Harvey’s downfall.
Harvey’s upside is one you should be glad to pluck this late.
10. Eduardo Rodriguez, Red Sox (314.12)
Recovery from offseason knee surgery puts Rodriguez on track to open the regular season on the disabled list, but when healthy, E-Rod has flashed elite dominance, with his K/9 climbing from 7.3 to 8.4 to 9.8 across his three MLB seasons.
He still needs to work on walks but has shown he can limit them for extended stretches, especially after Rodriguez fixed a bout of pitch-tipping. A full recovery would make him worth the wait.
11. J.A. Happ, Blue Jays (251.58)
Happ’s walk rate has climbed in each of the last three years, but it peaked at an acceptable 2.85 last year. His ERA hasn’t topped 3.61 in any of them, and he hasn’t struck out fewer than 7.5 per nine. He’s posted swinging-strike rates of 9.6 and 9.4 percent in the past two seasons, respectively.
The AL East is a tough place to pitch, and Happ’s 20-win 2016 doesn’t look possible for a flawed Blue Jays club. But the changes he made with Pittsburgh in 2015 to harness his fastball-sinker mix (under the guidance of guru Ray Searage) haven’t gone away, keeping him in the discussion as a top-50 fantasy starter, if not better.
12. Tyler Chatwood, Cubs (258.55)
Any Rockies pitcher who escapes Coors Field earns an immediate boost in fantasy attention, especially someone who posted a 3.49 road ERA last year. The fact Chatwood ended up in this favorable landing spot (windy Wrigley Field for an organization who can cultivate pitching) takes the optimism a step further.
Despite pitching coach Chris Bosio’s exit, Joe Maddon is reunited with former Rays guru Jim Hickey. Perhaps the club will help increase Chatwood’s strikeout rate, but he’s recorded a 9.0 swinging-strike percentage in two of the last three seasons, which means he may help himself naturally. Chatwood’s career 54.7 percent groundball rate points to a skill he owns that could immediately make him a mixed-league sleeper.
13. Tanner Roark, Nationals (246.64)
As with Sanchez, Roark mostly relies on weak contact to make a living. His Fangraphs soft contact percentage dropped from 23.1 percent in 2016 to 16.7 percent last year, and his ERA rose nearly two full runs to 4.67.
What I’m banking on is a rebound in left-on-base percentage, which cratered to 66.3 percent in 2017. A rebound that should bring him closer to a 4.00 ERA and a useful collection of 180-plus innings.
He already has a favorable team context, but if he can somehow sustain surprising yet support strikeout growth (8.9 swinging-strike rate in 2016, 10.1 in 2017), that’ll be a bonus.
14. Miles Mikolas, Cardinals (292.79)
As Derek VanRiper and I talked about on our most recent Tuesday podcast, MIkolas struggled to start spring, possibly because he’s readjusting to life in American baseball again. We know he has also been tinkering with pitch grips and usage – notably his sinker – so that’s not going to prevent me from buying.
I found myself nodding in approval as early as December, when DVR wrote this great piece.
15. Andrew Heaney, Angels (404.61)
I have to draft family, right?
Clawing his way back from 2016 Tommy John surgery and a shoulder impingement late last season, he’s enjoyed a dazzling start to spring, with 12 strikeouts, one walk and a 1.08 ERA in three starts, and Heaney even enjoyed a six-inning, 10-strikeout masterpiece in August.
His potential will be capped as long as the Angels have a six-man rotation, but even 20 or so starts from Heaney will help many deep-league fantasy squads.
16. Chris Stratton, Giants (455.16)
You’re looking for any reason for optimism this late. His eye-popping and Statcast-breaking curveball is that reason. It also helps that his team with the advantageous home park also has boosted its offense this offseason.
For more on Stratton, check out Jason Collette’s stellar NL West bold predictions article.
Honorable mention: Julio Teheran, Braves; Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks; Cole Hamels, Rangers; Jacob Faria, Rays; Lance Lynn, Twins; Reynaldo Lopez, White Sox; Tyler Glasnow, Pirates; Matt Shoemaker, Angels; Kenta Maeda and Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dodgers; Brandon Woodruff, Brewers; Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb and Luiz Gohara, Braves; Jharel Cotton, Athletics; Jake Junis, Royals