Written By Matt Lutovsky
Fantasy baseball owners go into every season knowing that there will be monumental busts and plenty of surprise breakouts at the starting pitcher position. Whether it’s because of injuries, “bad/good luck”, or just simple decline/improvement, end-of-season rankings rarely resemble preseason rankings for starters. A lengthy list of SP sleepers is a necessarily tool for your 2020 fantasy baseball cheat sheet, as it can help you spot value picks and worthwhile fliers at the end of your draft.
We tried to give you a decent variety with the potential sleepers listed below. Some have already had mini-breakouts or are well-known prospects, while others are overlooked veterans who are deemed boring because a perceived low ceiling. Still others have as many red flags as positive attributes, but if things break right they could really pay off. Either way, we see all as potentially undervalued and having the ability to help your fantasy team in 2020.
DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: Ultimate 2020 Fantasy Baseball Cheat Sheet
Jesus Luzardo, A’s. Luzardo was supposed to make a big impact last season, but a strained lat limited his time in the majors. The 22-year-old lefty still showed his impressive repertoire of stuff last season, posting a 2.51 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 11.9 K/9 ratio in 43 innings across three levels of the minors and a 1.50/0.67 line with 16 Ks in 12 major league innings. Given his career minor league numbers (2.53/1.04, 10.8 K/9 ratio), he should have success right away and could easily pay off even more than expected.
Luke Weaver, Diamondbacks. Teammate Zac Gallen seems to be garnering more hype, and while he impressed in his 15 starts last year, his advanced stats and peripherals suggest he’s no sure thing. Even with a down 2018 on his resume, Weaver has more of a track record of success, posting a 2.94/1.07 line with a 9.7 K/9 ratio last year and a 3.88/1.26 line with a 10.7 K/9 ratio as a rookie with the Cardinals in ’17. To be fair, Weaver made just 12 starts last season because of an elbow injury, so health is a concern, but if he can stay in one piece, the 26-year-old righty has big upside thanks to an improving BB-rate and solid K-rate.
Dinelson Lamet, Padres. Lamet performed well in his 14 starts last year after returning from Tommy John surgery, posting a 4.07/1.26 line and 13.0 K/9 ratio. The 27-year-old righty still gives up a few too many homers, particularly when you factor in his home park, but that comes with the territory for the fly-ball pitcher. His BB-rate crept down last year (3.7), and given his high K-rate, he has the chance to be a big-time fantasy contributor even if it comes with the occasional dud start.
Adrian Houser, Brewers. There are some obvious red flags with Houser, starting with his starter/reliever splits last year. In 30.2 relief innings, he had a 1.47 ERA and 0.95 WHIP; in 80.2 innings as a starter, he posted a 4.57/1.35 line. The good news is his K-rate was roughly the same (9.7 as a reliever, 9.4 as a starter), and his BB-rate actually went down as a starter (2.9 compared to 3.2). Overall, the peripherals are strong, from the ground-ball rate (53.4 percent) to the K/BB ratio (3.2), and Houser should open the season as a starter. If he can settle into a consistent rotation spot, Houser should post solid all-around stats.
Carlos Martinez, Cardinals. Martinez is a former stud starter who turned into a stud closer last year after dealing with shoulder issues. Heading into 2020, he’s stated he’s 100-percent healthy and will begin the year in St. Louis’s rotation. Assuming he’s healthy, we know how good Martinez can be in that role, and if he’s forced to the ‘pen again, then you still have a useful fantasy commodity because it’s likely Martinez will work as the Cardinals’ closer. The big worry is injury, but give Martinez’s ADP, he’s no more of an injury risk than virtually any other similar pitcher.
Brendan McKay, Rays. Most of the peripherals were good for McKay in his 49-inning MLB stint last year (10.3 K/9 ratio, 2.9 BB/9 ratio), but he gave up too many homers (8) and wound up with mediocre standard stats (5.14 ERA, 1.41 WHIP). Given his pedigree (1.78/0.84, 11.8 K/9 ratio in 172 minor league innings), the 24-year-old lefty has major upside once he gets in Tampa’s rotation. It could be as soon as opening day, but given Tampa’s organizational philosophy concerning starters, McKay could start the season in Triple-A. Either way, he likely won’t stay there long.
A.J. Puk, A’s. Puk missed all of 2018 and a big chunk of ’19 because of Tommy John surgery, but the big 24-year-old lefty is competing for a rotation spot. Puk’s standard minor league numbers haven’t been lights out, but his sky-high K-rate (12.9) has always been a constant and he wasn’t overwhelmed in his first taste of the majors (3.18/1.32 in 11.1 innings last year). Consistency could be an issue, but Puk has the stuff to be a dominant pitcher once he settles into a steady role.
Mitch Keller, Pirates. Keller had one of the biggest differences in his ERA (7.13) and FIP (3.19) last year. His 12.2 K/9 ratio, 3.0 BB/9 ratio, and 1.13 HR/9 ratio in 48 innings were all solid for a rookie starter, but he was clearly done in by a .475 BABIP that will regress. The 23-year-old righty has a solid minor league track record (3.12/1.16, 9.4 K/9 ratio) and plays in a favorable pitchers park, so even when the K-rate inevitably comes down, Keller should still be effective.
Aaron Civale, Indians. Cleveland continues to churn out solid young pitchers, and Civale fits the mold of its recent breakouts: He doesn’t give up many walks or homers and he strikes out a reasonable amount of batters. The K-rate (7.2 in the majors last year, 7.5 in the minors) is likely a little too low to excite most fantasy owners, but if Civale can continue to keep the homers and walks down, he can continue to outperform his advanced stats and post something similar to his 2.34/1.04 line in the majors last season. Chances are the 24-year-old righty won’t be quite that good, but there’s also the possibility he raises his K-rate and has a greater overall fantasy impact.
Zach Plesac, Indians. Plesac is yet another low-walk, low-homer pitcher from the Indians organization, though his 21-start stint in the majors last year didn’t totally reflect that (3.1 BB/9 ratio, 1.5 HR/9 ratio). Plesac’s career marks in the minors (2.1 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9) are likely closer to what you can expect this year. His K/9 ratio will likely be in the 8.0-9.0 range, and he should have a decent ERA and very solid WHIP. The main worry for Plesac (and Civale, for that matter) is a consistent starting role, but both should be in Cleveland’s rotation at some point early on.
Jose Urquidy, Astros. Urquidy isn’t guaranteed a spot in Houston’s loaded rotation, but the high-K, low-BB righty has big upside in whatever role he fills. In 41 major league innings last year, he struck out 40 and walked just seven. He gave up a few too many HRs (6), which was also a problem at Triple-A, but Urquidy has the stuff to keep the ball in the yard and produce at a high level.
Griffin Canning, Angels. Canning tossed 90.1 innings in the majors last year, posting a 4.58/1.22 line with a 9.6 K/9 ratio. It’s worth noting that Canning threw just 129.1 innings in his minor league career (3.27/1.22, 9.9 K/9 ratio), so he’s really just begun to scratch the surface in his professional career. He should continue to improve, and that could mean a breakout in 2020.
Justus Sheffield, Mariners. Of all the players on this list, Sheffield might be the most “boom or bust”, but the 23-year-old lefty is at least worth watching early in the season. In 36 innings with the big club last year, Sheffield struck out 37, but he also allowed 18 walks and five homers. Command has been an issue for him throughout his professional career, but it wasn’t until he got to Triple-A last year that homers became an major issue. If he can’t keep the ball in the yard, he’ll be back in the minors before you know it, but if he can put it all together, he can settle in as a back-of-the-rotation starter for fantasy teams.
Tyler Mahle, Reds. Mahle has one big bugaboo: HRs. Over the past two seasons, he’s allowed 1.8 and a 1.7 HR/9 ratios, respectively, which has pushed his ERA around the 5.00 mark both seasons. Homers will remain a worry, particularly in Cincinnati’s tiny home park, but Mahle did show improvement in one key area last year: He lowered his BB/9 ratio from 4.3 to 2.4. With a K/9 ratio around 9.0 and a much improved ground-ball ratio (47, up from 38.7 in 2018), the 25-year-old righty is clearly making strides. Perhaps he’ll never overcome the homer issues while playing in Cincinnati, but there is evidence pointing to a breakout.
Josh Lindblom, Brewers. Lindblom pitched in Korea over the past two-and-half years, posting a 40-10 record, 2.85 ERA, and 8.7 K/9 ratio. Back in the majors, he profiles as a mid-rotation starter who should produce around a strikeout per inning and keep his WHIP relatively low. It’s easy to overlook someone like Lindblom, but like Miles Mikolas a few years ago, there’s low-cost upside here.
Kevin Gausman, Giants. Gausman has been on and off fantasy teams since 2013, but he flashed higher strikeout upside last year (10.0 K/9 ratio) and had advanced stats (3.98 FIP) that far outpaced his standard numbers (5.72 ERA). Those numbers were juiced by an impressive 14-game stint as a reliever for Cincinnati, but Gausman was just better overall last season. Now in a great pitchers park in San Francisco, which should help him limit homers, Gausman has late-round fantasy appeal if you can stomach making a “boring” pick.