March Madness is finally back. I always enjoy this time of year, when I and so many others pretend to know everything about college basketball and fill out a bracket with blind confidence.
I know a little bit more about fantasy baseball, and March brings about another favorite activity: picking middle- and late-round starting pitchers primed to break through for the coming season.
Last year's offensive explosion may prompt many drafters to reach for big arms, but that can't preclude fantasy players from finding late-round values.
So, here's my fourth annual installment (first on RotoWire) of the Sweet 16 Starting Pitcher Sleepers list, which focuses on hurlers who can be had for cheap but deliver a sturdy foundation among bargain arms.
Oh, and I threw in candidates to be this year's Cinderella, as well, because it's always fun to dig deeper.
Note: I'm limiting the sample to pitchers with an Average Draft Position of at least 200, as of March 15, in NFBC leagues (15-team mixed). Some sleepers and breakout candidates – Kevin Gausman, Jameson Taillon, Steven Matz, James Paxton, Sean Manaea and Vince Velasquez among them – are hardly secrets anymore. Thanks, fantasy pundits.
Sweet 16 starting pitchers
Aaron Nola, Phillies (ADP: 202.58): The 23-year-old appears to be over the elbow issues that destroyed his once promising 2016, and while he may carry more risk than most because of that, his underlying stats from last year (9.81 K/9, 2.35 BB/9, 63.7 LOB%, per Fangraphs) say he would've been much, much better if healthy.
Michael Pineda, Yankees (208.25): I've gushed about his skills before. "Big Mike" needs more bite to his work around the plate. Maybe his "one skill away" is repeating his delivery.
Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks (215.37): The southpaw finished second among qualified starting pitchers in K/9 (11.25) last year behind the late Jose Fernandez. Of course, his control (3.67 BB/9), left-on-base rate (68.7 percent) and HR/FB (15.5 percent) limited what came of that. Still, when drafters reach the point of taking a chance on big-time upside, few profiles match his, especially if he can find success tinkering with secondary offerings.
Drew Smyly, Mariners (221.26): The two chief things he needs: health and home run suppression. Last year, Safeco Field wasn't as friendly for preventing them as typically believed, though the big park and steady outfield defense preserve his high ceiling, which was on display during his eight-strikeout appearance in the World Baseball Classic.
Matt Shoemaker, Angels (225.50): An unfortunate end to his 2016, when he was struck by a line drive in the head, hid a significant growth season, especially with his velocity (90.3 mph in 2015 to 91.6 mph on his four-seamer) and changeup. In all three of his "full" seasons, he's topped 7.71 K/9 and has never walked more than 2.33 per nine, giving opportunistic drafters elite command at a discount.
Blake Snell, Rays (235.19): A cheaper Robbie Ray with more dynasty juice, the 24-year-old is this year's Rays arm to buy as a dice roll. If he can add better work in the strike zone to match his elite 10.9 swinging-strike rate from lat year, Snell will carry a profile for season-long success.
Garrett Richards, Angels (243.52): Continued non-surgical treatment of his elbow will include an innings limit, and his walk rate docks his value a bit. Still, if he can regain his formerly heavy groundball action, Richards should enjoy an ERA that splits the difference between 2015 (3.65) and his limited-sample success last year (2.34 in six starts).
Joe Ross, Nationals (244.69): Another hurler expected to receive kid-glove treatment, but when on the mound, the 23-year-old control freak should continue maturing quickly, and Ross can accelerate that path with an improved changeup.
Jharel Cotton, Athletics (245.84): The 25-year-old's velocity has climbed, but home runs remain an issue. On the bright side, his diverse secondary stuff will help keep hitters guessing, and Oakland's home park helps any competent pitcher limit big flies. Cotton won't keep the ridiculous 2.15 ERA from his first five MLB starts, but any fantasy owner in deep leagues should remain comfortable wearing his fabric.
Ivan Nova, Pirates (268.90): The Buccos pillaged him from the Yankees last summer and gave him the now-famous Ray Searage makeover. During his 11 starts for Pittsburgh, Nova accrued a 5-2 record and a 3.06 ERA with three complete games ... and three walks ... total. His new zone-pounding approach and favorable home ballpark line him up for potentially sparkling season-long results, even if you might have to make up for whiffs elsewhere.
Daniel Norris, Tigers (287.74): Last year, Norris rattled off a 3.38 ERA, 9.22 K/9, 2.86 BB/9 – wow, not a bad follow-up to 2015. Sure, he may have lived in a van down by the river (though not so much like Matt Foley), but he didn't need help with his motivation in 2016: First of all, before the season, he beat cancer. Then, his swinging-strike rate (9.2 percent to 10.5) and first-strike rate (53.4 percent to 64.6) signaled significant growth working around the plate. The left-hander added more than 1 mph to his four-seam fastball, too. Another hurler who turns 24 in April, Norris could add to the young crop of breakouts in a full season (though doing so while giving back some ERA).
Lance Lynn, Cardinals (293.42): Sure, he's not yet at 18 months removed from Tommy John surgery, but early spring returns (save for only four strikeouts in nine frames) look good, mainly because he has one walk in that window through Wednesday. This ADP is a wee bit high for my liking, but considering he hadn't delivered higher than a 3.03 ERA in 2014 and 2015, I get it. Even 150 innings of that would pay off.
Eduardo Rodriguez, Red Sox (298.78): His 2016 season was delayed by knee issues and hindered when he reportedly was tipping pitches. After a demotion to clean up his approach, Rodriguez churned through 14 second-half outings (3.24 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 9.15 K/9). David Price's elbow injury could plant E-Rod into Boston's rotation to start the year, and the post-hype prospect, who turns just 24 in April, has the goods to keep that duty all year.
Francisco Liriano, Blue Jays (314.46): Ironically, another hurler turned around after leaving Pittsburgh. Liriano spun a 2.92 ERA with 52 strikeouts and only 16 walks in 49.1 innings, over 10 outings (eight starts) for Toronto after last summer's swap. The club altered his mechanics after acquiring him, and the southpaw relished his reunion with elite pitch-framing catcher Russell Martin: The duo holds a career 2.94 ERA and a .621 opponents' OPS in 42 games. The Jays quietly have turned into a pitching powerhouse, and the 33-year-old should continue his rebirth.
Mike Foltynewicz, Braves (318.81): When a pitcher boasts mid-90s velocity, a jarring curveball and a developing changeup, it's easy to see a bright future. "Folty", 25, comes off a year of displaying, in a nice chunk of 123.1 innings, his best control (2.55 BB/9) at any professional level. The Braves appear to have extracted more from his prospect stock than the Astros might've been able to do. Regardless of how SunTrust Park plays for hurlers, this hard-throwing but blossoming arm ranks as one of the best-kept pitching secrets in fantasy baseball and looks primed to break through with authority in 2017.
Joe Musgrove, Astros (323.48): Mike Fiers' hamstring injury may allow Musgrove to break camp as Houston's No. 5 starter. Hope so: His 4.06 ERA last year masked alluring indicators of7.98 K/9, 2.32 BB/9, after his 8.69 and 1.08 in 59 frames at Triple-A Fresno. The 24-year-old will have a few setbacks pitching in the AL but remains worth chasing as a late-rounds mixed grab.
Who's the next George Mason ... or Carl Spackler?
Taijuan Walker, Diamondbacks (232.17): That ADP is insanely high for the risk he carries. I don't feel confident enough to list him as a core Sweet 16 member, especially since his home run problem could get worse with home starts at Chase Field. But at least his WHIP will remain manageable as a flyball hurler. Plus, his career 8.12 K/9 and 2.50 BB/9 give him an enticing bedrock. His lower body appears healthy. Arizona is placing a new emphasis on pitch-framing, with Jeff Mathis as the likely top backstop. Walker won't face the DH in typical starts anymore. If those stars line up, Walker could explode.
Dylan Bundy, Orioles (270.76): I'm far from the president of Bundy's fan club – at least for 2017 – but I'm a trial member. The former top prospect ran through competition in the second half as he returned to the rotation. While I want to see how he does when stretched out further, as a No. 6 mixed starting pitcher, Bundy could offer a sizable return on investment, and that price carries little risk.
Gio Gonzalez, Nationals (293.89): Flawed? Yes. Last year's 4.57 ERA? That's his new norm – especially since he posted the lowest walk rate of his career in 2016 (2.99). Gonzalez has the look of late-round gold, or at least silver, even if fantasy players merely bet on his strikeouts.
Zach Davies, Brewers (298.22): The walk-suppressing right-hander makes the most of sitting mostly in the high-80s with his two-seamer and the mid-80s with his cutter. Miller Park doesn't help its pitchers, though his changeup is heralded as a difference-maker, and his curveball could make him tough to deal with and produce more whiffs.
Alex Cobb, Rays (300.38): Throw out last year, for the most part, because it was his first action after 2015 Tommy John surgery. Remember: In 2013-14, he totaled a 2.82 ERA, with a 8.2 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9, with a 134 ERA+. He deserves more noise – though hopefully not in my leagues.
Luke Weaver and Michael Wacha, Cardinals (328.06, 350.66): Those ADPs should be flipped-flopped. Sure, Weaver has exciting control for a 23-year-old arm, which he flashed with 45 K and 12 BB in 36.1 innings last year, despite that 5.70 ERA. But Wacha has the MLB track record, for as erratic as it was. He's allowed just two runs in 13 innings this spring, with 11 strikeouts and three walks. I'd bet Wacha returns to 2015 success before Weaver breaks out to that level, though both are decent gambles for the cost.
Brandon Finnegan, Reds (332.69): His changeup matured late last year and, though he teased an unsustainable ceiling with that 2.93 second-half ERA, the youngster prove he can increase his efficiency. Speculators would prefer his flyball rate to dip, considering his home park, but despite his K/9 dip, Finnegan kept his swinging-strike rate at an acceptable level. Turning 24 next month, the southpaw has enough pieces and a lauded pedigree that should earn late-rounds intrigue for mixed players.
Dan Straily, Marlins (334.91): Moving to the gaudily designed cathedral that is Marlins Park could stave off the expected regression from his 2016 revival. Someone needs to eat innings for this club, after all, and the 28-year-old has flirted with brilliance for stretches.
Jose Berrios, Twins (371.65): Those horrific 58.1 innings while debuting at age 22 shouldn't erase his former prospect buzz. Minnesota's addition of backstop Jason Castro could be the key to Berrios working the corners like a pro.
Alex Wood, Dodgers (389.34): If I knew this dizzying left-hander had a set job locked down, he'd be much higher on this list. Unfortunately, the Dodgers have a veritable cornucopia of pitcher possibilities, and Wood may wind up as a middle reliever. In deeper leagues, however, it's "bet on skills, not role". Wood, who to be fair is coming back from arm and elbow woes last year, may find extended stretches as a starter sometime this year, especially if Los Angeles works to conserve top prospect Julio Urias and brittle veterans Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu. If Wood lands an opportunity, add him immediately.
Andrew Triggs, Athletics (393.79): Speculating on A's starting pitchers remains a tried-and-true fantasy practice. Triggs' successful five-start audition near the end of 2016, after a year of riding the (long) shuttle back and forth from Triple-A Nashville. His K/9 as a starter was nearly two batters lower than it was in his relief efforts, but the control sparkled as a result (0.35 BB/9 in six GS), a good sign for this role change.
Shelby Miller and Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks (405.90, 459.52): Obviously, extreme positive regression is at play. Corbin looks good so far in spring, and Miller is one year removed from a performance that convinced someone to trade Arizona's top prospect for him. They'll cost pennies with few strings attached, so don't hesitate to try them while no one is looking.
Matt Boyd, Tigers (412.15): Another young(ish) left-hander for Motown, Boyd looks poised to seize the No. 5 rotation job heading into the regular season. The 26-year-old may struggle to reach six innings consistently, though his notable year-to-year improvements in swinging-strike rate (8.2 percent to 9.5) and first-strike percentage (59.1 to 62.9) show Boyd has more to offer.
Charlie Morton, Astros (476.78): Few people may realize the right-hander all but has a spot locked in for the Opening Day rotation. The right-hander has flashed Roy Halladay tendencies – hard sinker, great control – and even lit up the radar gun with a 1.5 mph jump on his two-seamer and 1.3 on his sinker from 2015 to his abbreviated 2016. Combine that with steady-to-great pitch-framing catchers, and Morton may finally call back to his promising 2013-14 run with the Pirates, with more strikeouts to boot.
Drew Hutchison, Pirates (505.07): Is the long-embattled righty the latest Searage reclamation project? Hutchison looks like the club's No. 5 SP as camp ends. His straightish fastball looks like it has more punch on it. PNC Park helps pitchers, so even with his aerial-slanted ways, Hutch could wind up as a huge bargain.
Wily Peralta, Brewers (541.03): Maybe this is barking up the wrong tree, a la Henderson Alvarez, who has a similar penchant for heavy sinking heat but failed to make waves with punchouts. But, for admittedly justifiable reasons – 4.86 ERA – few seemed to care that Peralta's K/9 jumped nearly two batters and his swinging-strike rate rose nearly 2 percentage points from 2015 to 2016, while his BB/9 remained almost identical. Plus, someone with his groundball favoritism shouldn't have a 17.1 percent HR/FB, so good fortune may swing back violently toward the positive side. Or Milwaukee could turn him into their Dellin Betances, with his stuff playing up out of the bullpen.
Martin Perez, Rangers (567.59): Remember when he was a top prospect? The community missed, but maybe his Tommy John surgery has been a significant obstacle for him proving them wrong. He's years removed from that, and his velocity ticked up a little last season. The southpaw remains contact-friendly, but there's a glimmer of hope he can wind up as something more than a rough innings-eater.
Eddie Butler, Cubs (669.84): In front of Butler for the No. 5 rotation spot sit a former prospect who's bounced between starting and relieving (Mike Montgomery), and an injury-prone veteran who's struggled to pitch a full season (Brett Anderson). Butler's prospect hype vanished into the thin air of the Rockies, but the righty has some groundball cred and can dial up his fastball to the mid-90s. With this welcome move, the 26-year-old could discover a reawakening under the guidance of pitching coach Chris Bosio, who's helped elevate Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks to stud levels.
Others to watch
- Luis Severino, Yankees
- Jose De Leon, Rays
- Edinson Volquez, Marlins
- Jimmy Nelson, Brewers
- Nathan Karns, Royals
- Luis Perdomo, Padres
- German Marquez, Rockies