The following is Week 5 of the 10-part series of sleepers for each 5x5 roto category (BA, HR, RBI, R, SB, W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV). The first five weeks have featured categories more dependent on skill than opportunity, but the Winter Meetings are sparking rapid offseason movement and a clearer picture of team opportunity. Those 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
Nathan Eovaldi, Marlins
This probably isn’t the first sleeper list Eovaldi will appear on before 2015, nor will it be the last. He’s such an obvious sleeper candidate with strong indicators across the board in 2014, including a FIP exactly one run below his 4.37 ERA and a 3.91 SIERA. Eovaldi has also generally done a nice job keeping the ball in the park during his career with a 0.6 HR/9, and he corrected his usual control issues last season with a great 1.9 BB/9.
So if all these indicators are solid, why did Eovaldi struggle last season? He was roughed up in the second half, with a 1-10 record and 5.51 ERA in 14 starts, particularly having issues finding outs in July and September. During those two months, Eovaldi allowed five or more earned runs a total of four times. While it’s certainly a limited sample size, he had 12/7 K/BB and 31 hits allowed in 20.2 innings during those starts. There isn’t much to be alarmed about from Eovaldi’s velocity during those starts, but it should be noted that he has a <a href=” http://m.marlins.mlb.com/news/article/57311006/”>history of tipping pitches</a>. Removing those four bad appearances, Eovaldi had a 3.67 ERA, far more in line with his ERA metrics. It’s foolish and overly simplistic to assume Eovaldi won’t have any similarly poor starts in 2015, but a look at those young pitcher growing pains does show that he doesn’t have far to go to help your ERA.
T.J. House, Indians
House is present as a sleeper mostly due to the skepticism of fantasy owners given his mediocre minor league track record. He produced an outstanding 3.35 ERA in his rookie season, showing uncharacteristically strong control with a sub-2.0 BB/9 after posting a 3.0 BB/9 in his minor league career. The difference for House was additional velocity on his sinking fastball compared to his earlier minor league days, as the lefty averaged nearly 91 mph on the pitch. That velocity helped him generate an awesome 2.45 GO/FO ratio and groundball rate above 60 percent.
While House had strong groundball rates before last season, his groundball percentage was typically closer to 50 percent. The risk in House’s 2015 projection is betting on continued velocity and grounders, though it’s looking like House has the ability to make adjustments with a sub-3.00 ERA in each of the last two months of the season. House is a real candidate to post a sub-3.00 ERA next season if his indicators remain steady, as we see from his 2.96 SIERA last season. There is limited strikeout upside with a career 7.0 K/9 in the minors, but House is certainly worthy of a roster spot in mixed leagues for the strong ERA potential.
Brandon McCarthy, Free Agent
I’ve tried to avoid mentioning free agents in the sleeper series to this point for their unpredictability, but McCarthy’s indicators are too great to pass up. His control since reemerging in 2011 is well documented, with a sub-2.0 BB/9 in each season. However, he’s fallen off the radar a bit in mixed leagues over the last two seasons with his struggles in Arizona, producing an ERA above 4.00 during his time in the desert.
McCarthy made vast improvements after getting traded to the Yankees last season, producing a 2.89 ERA in 14 starts. However, his indicators were strong throughout the season. He had a drastic increase in velocity of more than two mph, and saw the results with a career high 7.9 K/9 and 1.78 GO/FO ratio. McCarthy has redefined himself as a groundball pitcher over the last two seasons, throwing what Pitch f/x now regards as a sinker more than 50 percent of the time. It didn’t do much for him keeping the ball in the park in hitter-friendly home environments, but such an increase typically leads to suppressing extra-base hits.
There are concerns for McCarthy at this point. Last season was the first time he’s reached 200 innings since reaching the majors, and he has a history of shoulder issues. The shoulder will probably cause some hesitancy in the free agent market among prospective teams, though McCarthy’s 3.55 FIP, 2.87 xFIP, and 3.00 SIERA last season provide huge reason for optimism. He could be quite the upside play in the right environment.
Jimmy Nelson, Brewers
Nelson got some time as Milwaukee’s fifth starter during the second half of 2014, and he struggled on the surface. Milwaukee’s top pitching prospect went 2-8 with a 4.76 ERA in 12 starts. Despite those results, the indicators show great progress for a pitcher whose weakness was his control prior to last season. Nelson had a 2.95 K/BB ratio as a starter in the majors last season, and a 3.56 K/BB ratio at Triple-A. That’s a significant improvement over his career 2.32 K/BB ratio in the minors as a result of a poor 3.8 BB/9.
Nelson was absolutely dominant in his second go-around at Triple-A Nashville last season with a 1.46 ERA in 111 innings as a result of that control. His ERA didn’t carry over due to his atrocious .345 BABIP, but Nelson showed a strong 3.78 FIP and similar SIERA. He’s never had issues keeping the ball in the park, though it’s clear his command within the strike zone was an issue last season. However, the control improvement is an exciting development for a pitcher with a plus arm, and provides optimism for mixed league value and a mid-3’s ERA in the immediate future.
Single League Sleepers
Matt Andriese, Rays
Acquired last offseason in the Alex Torres/Jesse Hahn trade, Andriese has shown every indication that he will be a solid No. 5 starter in the majors. He has a strong minor league track record with a career 3.38 ERA and good groundball rate over four seasons. Most recently, Andriese produced a 3.77 ERA at Triple-A Durham last season and showed good control again. With a fastball that touches the low-90’s, control and groundball rates are Andriese’s calling cards. He has a career 2.3 BB/9, and has rarely had issues getting outs in the minors. The Rays are likely to give Andriese a long look in spring training with a rebuilding roster that currently lacks much starting pitching depth. Andriese has limited upside with a career 7.6 K/9, but already has the polish to potentially produce a sub-4.00 ERA in the majors as an under the radar flier for AL-only owners.
Colby Lewis, Rangers
Returning from major elbow and hip issues, Lewis had a rough go last season. He finished with an AL-worst 14 losses, and would have likely been pulled from the rotation early in the year if the Rangers had alternatives. Despite an ERA of 5.18, there is some reason for encouragement.
Lewis showed drastic improvement during the second half with a BABIP that evened out, helping him produce a 3.86 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 13 starts. Still, Lewis’ control was strong throughout the season at 2.5 BB/9, and he had a solid 2.77 K/BB ratio for the season. His indicators are off what he produced the previous three seasons in Texas, when Lewis had an 8.1 K/9 and 3.93 cumulative ERA, but his velocity has mostly returned and the control remains intact. Lewis’ FIP is nothing to brag about at 4.46, but the late-season progress and track record shows some promise heading into 2015.
Zach McAllister, Indians
Cleveland’s rotation has somehow turned into an embarrassment of riches, and we shouldn’t count out McAllister just yet. He was removed from the rotation on multiple occasions last season, though the indicators show that he deserved much better. After posting a cumulative 3.99 ERA in 259.2 innings in 2012-13, McAllister ran into trouble last season despite showing the best velocity of his career. Further, his command was solid at 2.64 K/BB, and he did a nice job of keeping the ball in the park. It all went wrong with McAllister’s .333 BABIP, yet he had a 3.45 FIP for the season. Not much has changed in the indicators from McAllister’s previous success to his struggles last season, and that’s a good sign for his ability to rebound as a sub-4.00 ERA AL-only pitcher in 2015.