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 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
Kevin Gausman, Giants
Fantasy owners are very much aware of Gausman and the inconsistency that he’s shown throughout his career. A former top prospect in Baltimore, Gausman has a respectable 4.30 ERA in seven seasons but is coming off the worst year of his career between Atlanta and Cincinnati. The last two seasons have shown a decline in Gausman’s velocity, and leaving the AL and Camden Yards didn’t help the long ball issues he had previously. Yet, for all the struggles we saw last season (5.72 ERA, 1.42 WHIP), there are reasons to be optimistic about 2020.
Simply put, Gausman showed signs of dominance after going to Cincinnati in early August. Pitching mostly in relief, Gausman had a 5.80 K/BB with a career-best 11.7 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9. Even before that point, Gausman had a career-high 9.6 K/9 in Atlanta after trashing his slider in favor of his splitter. For the season, Gausman’s 3.98 FIP and 4.10 SIERA show a pitcher who should have been much more effective, and he gets another potential ERA boost with the move to a roomier ballpark in San Francisco. It’s a perfect situation for Gausman to rebuild his free agent value for next offseason and potentially keep the ball in the park more often.
Julio Urias, Dodgers
Urias is already being hyped for 2020, with a current ADP of 163 in NFBC leagues, but I’d like to make the case that there’s still room to profit at that spot. Returning from major shoulder surgery, Urias was phenomenal last season between starting and relief with a 2.49 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 3.15 K/BB ratio. As a starter, in particular, he had a 3.26 ERA and 11.0 K/BB in 30.1 innings over eight starts. Among the positive signs we saw from Urias were a two mph increase in his average fastball velocity, and the velocity increase carried over to his other pitches.
The lefty will enter the season getting stretched out as a starter, but the recent signing of Alex Wood complicates matters slightly. As usual, the Dodgers are loaded with pitching depth entering the year, with conceivably 8-10 pitchers on the Opening Day roster looking to get stretches as starters. Regardless, few have more upside than Urias, and the Dodgers will certainly want him to build on the 79.2 innings that he threw last season. At age 23, it’s reasonable to expect an innings cap from Urias, but even with somewhere in the neighborhood of 140-150 innings, he looks like a nice profit opportunity at his current price.
Austin Voth, Nationals
A long-time backend starter prospect, Voth filled in admirably late last season as Washington’s fifth starter. During his four start run in September, the right-hander had a 2.61 ERA and 20/7 K/BB in 20.2 innings. It was a surprising run for a 27-year-old minor league control artist who had previously struggled to get an MLB opportunity. Voth’s ascent wasn’t luck. Prior to last season he worked in the upper-80s and low-90’s, but Voth saw a sharp velocity increase last season, with fastball velocity that was nearly two mph better than 2018.
The product of Voth’s velocity increase was more than one strikeout per inning for the year between four levels, including the majors. It was the first time that he accomplished that feat since 2014, when he shared time between Low-A, High-A, and Double-A. The end product for Voth’s 2019 season in Washington was a 3.30 ERA, 3.38 K/BB ratio, 3.79 FIP, and 4.24 SIERA. He does have a long track record of success in the minors mostly due to his control (2.7 BB/9), and it looks like Voth has the ability to do the same in the majors if his velocity holds. That’s not a surefire bet, but with a 487 ADP in NFBC leagues, Voth is basically free for the taking in mixed leagues.
Logan Webb, Giants
Webb is one of many interesting young pitchers competing for the fifth spot in the Giants starting rotation. The results during his MLB debut were mixed, with a 5.22 ERA in eight starts. Despite those results, his skillset and peripherals make Webb look far more interesting. He showed decent command with a 2.64 K/BB ratio, and the ERA metrics (4.12 FIP, 4.45 SIERA) were far better than the end product. Really, it’s the former fourth-round pick’s sinker that makes him most intriguing. His groundball rate was well above 60% in the minors last year, but declined to a still strong 49% in San Francisco.
The right-hander’s success in the minors last season, mostly at Double-A, was terrific. He finished the year with a 1.85 ERA, 9.8 K/9 and 4.60 K/BB ratio. It’s nothing new for Webb, as he’s finished with a sub-3.00 ERA in the minors in three consecutive seasons, working with his fastball and plus slider. Webb doesn’t have great velocity, but he has the building blocks of a high floor, quality starting pitcher in the majors who is a definite breakout candidate despite his current 621 ADP in NFBC leagues.
Single League Sleepers
Elieser Hernandez, Marlins
The Marlins had several young pitchers make noise on fantasy rosters last season, but Hernandez wasn’t one of them. In fact, he posted an ERA above 5.00 for the second consecutive season in the majors between his 15 starts and six relief appearances. Those struggles were a direct product of his inability to keep the ball in the park, allowing a whopping 20 home runs in 82.1 innings. That issue shouldn’t come as a shock for a pitcher who had an extreme 49% flyball rate and averaged just 91 mph on his fastball.
The potential downside in Hernandez’s home run rate should prevent owners in shallow leagues from taking a chance, but there is still a lot to like here. Hernandez fanned more than one batter per inning in Miami and finished with an excellent 3.27 K/BB ratio. His performance at Triple-A New Orleans earlier in the season was also staggering, with a 1.13 ERA in nine starts and 12.9 K/9. Hernandez started to throw his slider more often last season and with outstanding success and a 37% whiff rate. His minor league track record also shows a very effective pitcher overall, with a career 3.15 ERA and 9.4 K/9 over eight seasons. The former Rule 5 draft choice is in the right park to fix his long ball issues, and his ability to miss bats shows that he’s well worth a flier in NL-only leagues.
Mike Montgomery, Royals
Veterans of NL-only leagues should be very familiar with Montgomery, who was very productive with the Cubs in 2016-2018 as a swingman. That began to change last year while pitching in relief for Chicago, as Montgomery posted a 5.67 ERA in 27 innings before he was traded to the Royals. He also missed time for the second consecutive year with a shoulder injury.
Montgomery was immediately placed in KC’s rotation after he was traded, and started to pitch better with a 4.64 ERA and 2.43 K/BB ratio in 13 outings. Despite those results, he continued to have major long ball issues with the juiced ball, producing an ugly 1.8 HR/9 for the season. For the season, his 49% groundball rate was down from the previous three seasons and was likely part of the reason he had so much trouble keeping the ball in the park. Now with a defined role as a starter for the first time since 2015, the hope is that Montgomery will be able to put his shoulder issues behind him and get his sinker working again. He’s far from a difference maker with a career 6.9 K/9, but Montgomery has proven capable with a career 4.14 ERA as a starter due in large part to his groundball capability.
Sterling Sharp, Marlins
Even for NL-only leagues, this name is a major darkhorse heading into 2020. Sharp was the third pick in this offseason’s Rule 5 draft, meaning that the Marlins will be required to keep him on their roster in order to retain him. The right-hander hasn’t pitched above Double-A, but he has the talent to stick around. The 24-year-old made only 12 starts last season due to a back injury but posted a 3.53 ERA and 3.47 K/BB ratio mostly at Double-A when he was on the mound. This offseason he was one of the Arizona Fall League’s best pitchers with a 1.50 ERA in 24 innings over six starts.
What makes Sharp such a good prospect is the combination of his sinker and changeup. He posted an elite 63% groundball at Double-A last season, helping him allow only one home run in 49.2 innings. Sharp also did a better job of missing bats than previous levels, with an 8.0 K/9 at Double-A. As we stand now, Miami doesn’t have a great deal of starting pitcher depth, so Sharp could at least compete for a spot in the rotation. Most likely, he will enter the year as a swingman if he does make the team, but the sinker should be able to play immediately if he can throw strikes. Sharp’s ceiling is low, but he shows potential as a serviceable backend starting pitcher.
Framber Valdez, Astros
The fifth starter job in Houston currently looks like it’s up for grabs, with names like Brad Peacock, Forrest Whitley, and Valdez in the running. Valdez really flashed well during his MLB debut late in 2018 before stalling last year. Of course, last year’s struggles shouldn’t have come as a big surprise given the lefty’s lack of control, posting a 5.8 BB/9 in 2018 and 5.6 BB/9 last season. His track record in the minors is mixed, with inconsistent control and success in the upper minors.
For all the control woes, what makes Valdez worth following this season is the extreme groundball rate. He had a 75% groundball rate at Triple-A last season and 62% with Houston. Those rates are in line with what he’s done in previous seasons, and why Valdez’s talent fits the current juiced ball times we are in now. It’s a major risk to count on Valdez entering the season with his complete lack of control in the majors, but he’s absolutely worth watching in spring training for the faint hope he can make a spring training adjustment similar to what we saw from Aaron Sanchez in 2016, as Valdez’s fastball-curveball pitch movement is elite.