Make no mistake: Pitching is going to be a hot mess this season. Teams were already creating new challenges for fantasy managers by moving away from traditional roles and using hurlers in unique ways, and things will get even wackier this year, as clubs attempt to manage starters who threw fewer innings than usual last season.
The tumult at this position only increases the value of finding some sleeper arms in the middle or late rounds of a draft. Here are a few of my personal favorites.
Carlos Carrasco (NYM, ADP 100)
Carrasco doesn’t fit the traditional sleeper profile, as fantasy managers are already well aware of his impressive career resume. But he finds himself on this list anyway, due to an unusually low ADP in Yahoo! leagues. A top-70 pick in high-stakes formats, Carrasco is sitting on the board 2-3 rounds later in most drafts on Yahoo! Although “value pick” may be a better term than “sleeper” for Carrasco, he is certainly someone who Yahoo! drafters are sleeping on at the moment.
Cristian Javier (HOU, ADP 209)
The projections systems don’t love Javier. The scouts also don’t love him. You know who else doesn’t love Javier? Opposing hitters. The right-hander has been dominating hitters throughout his professional career, allowing a .170 opponents average in his Minor League career and a .188 mark across 54.1 Major League innings thus far. His strikeout rate in the Minors was absurd (12.2 K/9) and he continued to mow down batters in his rookie year. Fantasy managers should be happy to invest a mid-round pick on someone who continuously defies the odds.
Zach Eflin (PHI, ADP 204)
Few fantasy managers seemed to notice Eflin break out last season. His strikeout rate spiked to 28.6 percent, and the righty continued to show excellent control (6.1 percent walk rate). His surface stats (3.97 ERA, 1.27 WHIP) were hampered by a .344 BABIP that was nearly 50 points higher than his career mark, despite having continued a long-term trend of limiting hard contact. With better luck this time around, Eflin could surpass Zack Wheeler as the Phillies No. 2 starter.
Elieser Hernandez (MIA, ADP 223)
A lat strain limited Hernandez to six starts last season, which allowed his breakout results to mostly fly under the radar. The right-hander logged a stellar 34:5 K:BB ratio across 25.2 innings, en route to posting a 3.16 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP. Hernandez is overshadowed by other Miami starters such as Sandy Alcantara and Pablo Lopez, but he is equally as likely to break out this year.
John Means (BAL, ADP 234)
Means will never be confused with a strikeout artist, but his 23.9 percent mark from last season is respectable. The lefty’s path to success can be mostly credited to a combination of limiting walks (4.0 percent rate in 2020) and generating plenty of easy outs (career 48.6 percent fly-ball rate). The problem for Means is the same as that for every fly ball pitcher — sometimes those fly balls end up in the outfield seats. But Rob Manfred is doing his best to solve the problem, and Means is among the pitchers who should benefit most from changes to the baseball. The fact that Means pitches for an also-ran team in a good division is the only reason I’m holding back on a full breakout prediction.
Ryan Yarbrough (TB, ADP 233)
And you thought Means had good control?! Yarbrough takes stinginess to another level, having posted a 1.3 BB/9 rate in 2019 and a 1.9 mark last season. In fact, across that two-season stretch, only Kyle Hendricks and Zack Greinke have thrown as many innings as Yarbrough while logging a lower walk rate. With the Rays having thinned their pitching staff during the offseason, the guess here is that Yarbrough uses a longer leash to rack up career highs in innings and strikeouts, to go along with helpful ratios.
Drew Pomeranz (SD, ADP 189)
A failed starter, Pomeranz has become one of the best relievers in baseball, posting a 2.00 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP, and a 14.8 K/9 rate across his past 45 innings of work. He is the best arm in an unsettled Padres bullpen and has an excellent chance to beat out Mark Melancon and Emilio Pagan for ninth-inning duties. The lefty could be a top-five reliever this year, and his worst-case scenario is being one of baseball’s best setup men.
Jordan Hicks (STL, ADP 210)
Among relievers with an ADP past pick-200, Hicks has the best chance for a dominant season. The right-hander averages over 100 mph on his fastball, and he has fully recovered from missing all of last season due to 2019 Tommy John surgery. He went 14-for-15 in save chances across 28.2 innings in ’19 and could easily reach the 30-save plateau by returning to his role as the Cards closer. Wise managers will draft Hicks and then show some patience if he is handled with kid gloves in April.