It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2019 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2019 fantasy baseball season.
For the fifth year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. The first four articles in the series were batting average, WHIP, home run, and strikeout sleepers. This week, we’ll be looking at ERA 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
Alex Cobb, SP, Orioles
There should be no sugarcoating the fact that Cobb was destructive to many fantasy teams in 2018. After signing a four-year, $57 million contract in spring training, the right-hander completely imploded with the O’s. Despite entering last season with a career 3.50 ERA in 115 starts, he produced a 4.90 ERA in 28 starts. He also had the worst K/9 of his career (6.0) and struggled to keep the ball in the park at Camden Yards.
So why the optimism? Two words: The thing. More specifically, Cobb’s changeup affectionately referred to as “the thing” came back late last season. That’s a significant development, as Cobb seemingly lost the pitch after having Tommy John surgery in 2015. After posting a 6.41 ERA in 17 starts before the All-Star break last season, Cobb produced a 2.56 ERA in the second half, even while working through blister issues. His FIP didn’t support the outstanding ERA results at 4.28, but it was also still significantly better than what we saw from Cobb in the first half. He also produced the best average velocity of his career last season, adding some hope that the strikeout rate will start to increase to his pre-surgery 7.7 K/9 that he had from 2011-2014. While it’s difficult to expect the sub-3.00 ERA that Cobb had twice in Tampa Bay, he is highly capable of being at least a league-average starter again and a useful piece in deeper mixed leagues.
Jon Gray, SP, Rockies
It was a frustrating 2018 season for Gray and his fantasy owners. The Rockies right-hander’s ERA went from 3.67 in 2017 to 5.12 last year, and he was even demoted to the minors at one point. There was much controversy over that demotion because of his ERA metrics. Despite a 5.76 ERA at the time of the demotion in late June, Gray had a 2.93 FIP and 3.24 SIERA at the time. Gray’s ERA after returning improved to 4.37, though his ERA metrics were actually far worse due to a dropping strikeout rate.
Following the season, Gray admitted that he was pitching through injury. Regardless of the injury, Gray was one of the unluckiest pitchers in baseball during 2018. His full-season FIP (4.08) was a full run lower than his final ERA, and his SIERA was even better at 3.68. In fact, Gray has had a sub-4.00 SIERA in all four of his major league seasons and more than one strikeout per inning in each of his last three seasons. Many fantasy owners prefer to avoid Rockies starters due to Coors Field, and the risk is certainly present due to Gray’s home confines, but he has a history of success and comes in at a very reasonable 199 ADP in NFBC currently. The strikeout rate still shows his immense upside.
Joe Musgrove, SP, Pirates
Musgrove found his footing while pitching out of the Astros bullpen in 2017, posting a 1.44 ERA and 31/5 K/BB in 31.1 innings. The Pirates hoped those results would continue into starting after they acquired Musgrove in the Gerrit Cole trade last offseason, but Musgrove didn’t make his first start of 2018 until late May due to shoulder soreness. It was mostly worth the wait, as Musgrove had a career-best 1.8 BB/9 and 4.06 ERA in 19 starts, and the ERA metrics were even better with a 3.59 FIP and 3.93 SIERA.
Musgrove’s season ended with an abdominal injury that required surgery, but he’s expected to be ready for spring training. Not only do Musgrove’s ERA metrics from last season show the likelihood of better results, but his minor league track record is phenomenal with a 2.86 ERA, 8.6 K/9, and 1.1 BB/9. Musgrove already appeared to be a great WHIP option after posting a 1.18 WHIP last season, and the ERA upside makes him an all-around terrific buy that can be had outside the top 200 picks, according to NFBC ADP.
Andrew Suarez, SP, Giants
Among Giants rookie starting pitchers last season, Dereck Rodriguez got most of the attention. He was worthy given the results, but Suarez also pitched better than the 5x5 results appeared. For the season, the lefty went 7-13 with a 4.49 ERA, and 1.30 WHIP, but he finished with a 4.30 FIP and 4.07 SIERA, showing impressive command (2.89 K/BB ratio). Suarez’s arrival wasn’t highly anticipated despite an outstanding minor league track record, with a 3.11 ERA and 3.75 K/BB ratio over four seasons.
It is somewhat concerning that major league hitters seemed to catch up with Suarez during the second half, as he produced a 3.94 ERA and 8.3 K/9 in the first half compared to 5.17 ERA and 6.1 K/9 after the break. Part of that can probably be explained by Suarez simply wearing down, as his velocity was slightly down overall in the second half. Still, there is a lot to like here on top of the ERA metrics, with a solid 51 percent groundball rate, adding hope that he will do a better job of keeping the ball in park going forward. Suarez isn’t even currently in the top 500 picks in NFBC ADP, so he comes as a cheap flier for deep mixed leagues.
Single League Sleepers
Erick Fedde, SP, Nationals
Although Fedde was the 18th overall pick in the 2014 draft by the Nats, he didn’t have the fastest path to the majors. The UNLV alum didn’t get his first promotion until late in the 2017 season and still only has 14 major league starts. During those starts, his ERA is a hefty 6.44, so it’s not as if fantasy owners are in a hurry to collect those numbers. There is reason to believe that better results are on the way. The right-hander had a 3.56 ERA and 3.81 K/BB ratio in his minor league career and has consistently been a strong groundball pitcher, helping him keep the ball in the park.
While the high groundball rate has continued into the majors with a 62 percent rate in his 2017 debut and a 53 percent rate last season, it hasn’t shown in his ability to keep the ball in the park with Washington. That does seem likely to change. Fedde showed increased velocity last season, and his ERA metrics were far better than his actual ERA. Fedde’s 4.71 FIP and 4.27 SIERA were far more impressive than his 5.54 ERA last season, and there’s no reason to think Washington has soured on their former first-round pick. As it stands now, Fedde is on the outside looking in on a rotation spot after the team signed Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez this offseason. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take much imagination to project 20-plus starts for Fedde in 2019 with the injury histories of Sanchez, Stephen Strasburg, and Joe Ross.
Dustin May, SP, Dodgers
A third-round pick out of high school in 2016, the 21-year-old May has emerged as one of baseball’s best pitching prospects. That’s pretty much par for the course in the Dodgers farm system, which has routinely produced elite pitchers in recent seasons, with Walker Buehler being the most recent example. A 6-6 power pitcher, May resembles Buehler in one key way that should help his ERA in the future. May has shown a great ability to provoke groundballs in the minors, with a groundball rate above 50 percent at almost every level where he has pitched thus far. He did that last season between High-A and Double-A, along with an 8.3 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9, to help him produce a 3.39 ERA in 132.2 innings. Those results are especially impressive given the hitter’s leagues where he pitched.
With only six starts at Double-A, it’s almost a certainty that May will remain in the minors at the start of 2019. The major league rotation depth that the Dodgers possess currently also makes May’s path to helping this season a bit more difficult, but certainly not impossible. May has already shown the control to move quickly with a 2.0 BB/9 or better every pro season thus far. It’s not a stretch to project May’s arrival after the All-Star break, and at that time he would be a popular NL-only addition, if not better.
David Paulino, P, Blue Jays
Paulino is a pitcher I’ve mentioned in the past while with the Astros. Injuries and a suspension have sidetracked his career, but I’m not ready to give up on him just yet. Acquired by Toronto in the Roberto Osuna trade, Paulino has missed time over the last several seasons due to elbow and shoulder injuries, as well as a PEDs suspension in 2017. He made only 14 appearances during all of last season, including seven relief appearances with Toronto, but nearly all of his minor league history is as a starter. His minor league track record is simply dominant, with a 2.62 ERA, 10.0 K/9, and 2.5 BB/9, though he’s had limited work at Triple-A due to the injury and suspension disruptions.
The big right-hander did look very good late last season out the bullpen for the Blue Jays (1.35 ERA in 6.2 innings), averaging 93 mph on his fastball. Toronto seems to be in a bit of a rebuild as they wait for their elite hitting prospects to get established, and have some spots in their rotation available, at the time of this writing. If Paulino is finally able to avoid injuries, the great command and success in the minors shows not only upside for AL-only leagues but possibly even mixed leagues at some point in 2019.
Ranger Suarez, SP, Phillies
Among the Phillies top pitching prospects, Suarez is rarely mentioned. The 23-year-old lefty got his first taste of the majors late last season after a very good season between Double- and Triple-A at age 22, posting a 2.75 ERA in 21 starts. A pro since age 16, Suarez has produced a sub-3.00 ERA in five consecutive seasons and has an amazing 2.27 ERA in 451 minor league innings. The recipe for success has been simple, with an above average groundball rate hovering near 50 percent for most of his pro career that’s helped him prevent extra-base hits and a 2.0 BB/9.
There is legitimate concern about Suarez’s ability to pitch in the majors due to his lack of an out-pitch. His K/9 was only 6.6 in the minors, and often pitchers with that profile struggle to find themselves in the majors. That concern certainly isn’t unfounded, but there’s also something to be said for Suarez’s ability to keep the ball down. Enyel De Los Santos is likely ahead of Suarez on the Phillies prospect depth chart, but the organization’s lack of pitching moves during the offseason to this point is good news for Suarez’s opportunities at some point in 2019. He’s a deep league flier or in-season pick up in NL-only leagues that could contribute some quality innings for ERA and WHIP.