It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2020 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2020 fantasy baseball season.
For the sixth year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. The first three articles in the series were batting average, WHIP, and home run sleepers. This week, we’ll be looking at possible pitcher strikeouts sleepers. Over 10 weeks, I will be providing a list of sleepers for each 5x5 roto category (BA, HR, RBI, R, SB, W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV). Since the hot stove league still has a long way to go this offseason, for the next few weeks we will focus on players in categories that are less based on opportunity and more based on skill. Other roto categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot (R, RBI, SB) or team and manager (W, SV) will be discussed in the latter half of the 10-week series.
Before reading any further, it’s important to note the definition of a sleeper. In this case, it’s a player who will exceed draft day ADP AND projections in a particular category. The players are broken down by mixed league sleepers and single league sleepers.
Mixed League Sleepers
Mitch Keller, SP, Pirates
There was immense hype surrounding Keller when he made his MLB debut last May, but it quickly faded based on his early results. The top prospect allowed six earned runs in three of his first five starts and never really got on track in his rookie season over 11 starts, finishing with a 7.13 ERA and 1.83 WHIP. Those numbers bombed the stats of any fantasy owners who kept Keller active, and were especially disappointing after posting a 3.56 ERA in 19 starts at Triple-A Indianapolis.
As a result of last year’s poor performance, Keller is very cheap in early drafts around pick 232 in NFBC. That’s a relatively cheap price for the upside, however, especially Keller’s strikeouts. For all his struggles, Keller sported a tremendous 12.2 K/9 during his debut and has also regularly been a strikeout fiend in the minors (9.4 K/9 for his career). Despite elite velocity with a fastball averaging 95 mph last season, Keller’s heater was surprisingly ineffective. Even so, his .475 BABIP was comically unlucky, and Keller showed sub-4.00 ERA metrics across the board. Keller has clear ace potential based on his pure stuff and early strikeout rate, and new pitching coach Oscar Marin (formerly of the Rangers) could also have a positive impact. On a rebuilding team like the Pirates, there should certainly be plenty of leeway to give Keller an opportunity to pile up strikeouts, regardless.
Eric Lauer, SP, Brewers
Lauer had a mediocre sophomore season for the Padres (4.45 ERA, 1.40 WHIP) and was included along with Luis Urias in a trade to Milwaukee this offseason. The list of starting candidates for the Brewers is long entering the year, but Lauer should have an edge on a spot given his experience. It might be his late-season improvement that made the Brewers most interested in acquiring the former first-round pick.
The lefty finished 2019 with a respectable 8.3 K/9, but he was particularly effective during the last two months of the season. Over that time, Lauer posted a 4.32 ERA and 57/20 K/BB in 50 innings, good for a 10.3 K/9. The differences that stand out during that stretch were increased velocity across the board and heavier use of his slider. Those are factors the Brewers surely identified, and Lauer’s minor league track record was also tremendous with a 9.9 K/9 and 2.93 ERA over 178 innings. The upside based on both recent and minor league results seems much higher than his 527 ADP in NFBC leagues would indicate, and he looks like a viable mixed league flier despite moving into a less favorable home ballpark.
A.J. Puk, SP, Athletics
Puk was arguably the most hyped pitcher available in the 2016 draft and fell to Oakland at No. 6. He had an accomplished three-year career at Florida, posting a 12.0-plus K/9 in his final two seasons, and has been even more deceptive as a pro with a 12.9 K/9 in 183 innings. Unfortunately, the hard-throwing lefty’s career was halted for more than a year after he suffered a torn elbow ligament in spring training of 2018, but Puk was able to return late last season. The result was mostly relief appearances, including 10 appearances with the A’s in which he posted a 3.18 ERA and fanned 13 batters in 11.1 innings. During that time, he averaged 97 mph and also used a heavy dose of his electrifying slider.
As we get closer to spring training, Puk is at least in the starting rotation conversation for Oakland. The only pitchers locked into spots are Sean Manaea, Frankie Montas, and Mike Fiers, with Jesus Luzardo, Chris Bassitt, Daniel Mengden, and Puk likely battling for the final two spots. That gives Puk a pretty good shot of gaining a rotation spot at some point in 2020, if he doesn’t break camp as a starter. He’s shown a dominant ability to miss bats at every level, including the majors, but a current NFBC ADP of 256 puts him at a reasonable price to profit for fantasy owners given the elite strikeout upside.
Drew Smyly, SP, Giants
Smyly was a name mentioned in the single league portion of this article last year. Despite a terrible year in his return from Tommy John surgery, the lefty actually gets an upgrade. He struggled in the first half of the season, missing time with elbow irritation while in Texas before the team finally released him in late June with an ERA above 8.00. After a pit stop in the minors with Milwaukee, Smyly ended up with Philadelphia and posted a 4.45 ERA in 12 starts. Most notably, he started to show signs of his old form with a 3.24 K/BB ratio and 9.8 K/9 in 62.2 innings.
The big issue for Smyly has always been the long ball, and that was especially the case last year with the juiced ball. His HR/9 was an atrocious 2.5 for the season, and pitching at hitter-friendly ballparks in Texas and Philadelphia certainly didn’t help. Fortunately, that’s about to change with his move to San Francisco. He signed a one-year deal with the Giants yesterday, and they likely saw the positive late-season signs, along with his career-best fastball velocity. Smyly has a strong track record despite the recent struggles, including a cumulative 3.24 ERA of his first four MLB seasons from 2012-2015, and his career 8.8 K/9 shows plenty of upside if he’s able to build on his late-season control improvement.
Single League Sleepers
Deivi Garcia, SP, Yankees
Every Yankees prospect draws their fair share of hype, and Garcia was no exception last year. At age 20, he was dominant between High-, Double-, and Triple-A with a 4.28 ERA and 13.3 K/9. Sometimes compared to Pedro Martinez and Johnny Cueto due to his lack of size, Garcia has missed bats on command during his pro career with a 12.7 K/9 in four seasons. He showed off a nasty fastball/changeup combination, but Garcia might get some more seasoning to start the 2020 season given his age and brief time at Triple-A (40 innings).
The signing of Gerrit Cole this offseason also buys the Yankees some time, of course. The starting rotation, at least on paper, isn’t seen as the weakness that it was for New York last season, especially with the returns of Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery. Given the depth, the Yankees probably hope they can work in Garcia more slowly as a reliever, especially after posting a 4.4 BB/9 last season. Either way, he should get his fair share of innings in 2020, and is an interesting redraft play, in addition to his value for those fantasy owners waiting on him in keeper leagues.
Cristian Javier, P, Astros
Here we are in mid-January, and the Astros are now lacking a GM, manager, and clear fifth starter. The first two voids seem much more dire in the wake of the sign stealing scandal, as the Astros do have plenty of options to start including Brad Peacock, Framber Valdez, and top prospect Forrest Whitley. It would be a surprise if one of those arms doesn’t win the job and fill-in well, but Javier might also eventually get his turn.
Over five seasons in the Astros farm system, Javier has been spectacular with a career 2.27 ERA and 12.2 K/9 between starting and relief. He spent 2019 between High-, Double-, and Triple-A with a 1.74 ERA and minor league best 13.5 K/9 in 113.2 innings. Javier’s mid-90’s fastball has proven almost unhittable in the minors, and his curveball-slider combo aren’t too shabby, either. Still, he’s split time between starting and relief likely due in part to his lack of control, most recently with a 4.7 BB/9 last year. That’s an issue that could keep him out of the rotation in the short term, but in today’s era of five-inning starters, that’s not a certainty. Regardless, there is huge upside for Javier, and the $5 million fine that Houston took for sign stealing could make them less likely to pursue another starter before Opening Day. Javier has been overshadowed by some of Houston’s other prospects, but should certainly be stashed in AL-only and keeper leagues.
James Karinchak, RP, Indians
Karinchak is coming off a legendary minor league season and is one of the few relief prospects worthy of note for fantasy owners. Just how legendary? Over 30.1 innings between Rookie Level, Double-, and Triple-A, he posted a 2.67 ERA and 22.0 K/9. That means 74 of 91 outs by Karinchak came by way of the strikeout! Cleveland got a brief look at Karinchak late in the year, and the success continued with one run allowed in 5.1 innings, along with eight strikeouts.
The hard-thrower very well could be Cleveland’s closer of the future, though those prospects took a hit when the team acquired Emmanuel Clase in the Corey Kluber trade. Regardless, the Josh Hader-like strikeout potential is clear. Karinchak averaged an elite 97 mph on his fastball upon his promotion to Cleveland late last season, complementing it with as nasty curveball that should also play in the majors. In the time of fewer big innings totals from starting pitchers, Karinchak shows the potential to prop up your strikeouts.
Tarik Skubal, SP, Tigers
At the time of this writing, William Hill Sportsbook has set the Tigers win over/under for 2020 at just 55 wins. There’s a good reason for that based on last year’s 47-114 record and the current state of their roster. That said, there’s a lot for Tigers fans to be excited about, led by former No. 1 overall draft choice Casey Mize, former first-round pick Matt Manning, and Skubal. While he was just a ninth-round pick in 2018, Skubal very well could have the highest ceiling of the three impressive arms.
The lefty has simply been a whiff machine as a pro. Last season he had a 13.1 K/9 in 24 starts between High- and Double-A to go along with his 2.42 ERA and 2.7 BB/9. The control has improved vastly after struggling in his final season at Seattle University, when he had a 6.3 BB/9. Combining mid-90’s fastball velocity with a great curveball, Skubal had the third best K/9 in the minors last season. While he could use some Triple-A seasoning, the only thing really holding Skubal back are service time concerns. Still, we should expect him to contribute during the second half of the season if his positive momentum continues, and the plus arm seems well worth the stash in redraft AL-only leagues.