It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2021 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2021 fantasy baseball season.
For the seventh year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. The first three articles in the series were batting average, WHIP, and home run sleepers. This week, we’ll be looking at possible pitcher strikeouts 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
Tyler Mahle, SP, Reds
Mahle has been a popular “sleeper” for the last several years, but things have yet to come together for him. The overall profile is an attractive one, with a career 2.87 ERA in the minors, along with a 4.25 K/BB ratio, but finding consistency in MLB has been a problem. Through 62 appearances (61 starts) over four seasons in MLB, he has a mediocre 4.68 ERA and has been plagued by the long ball. The poor ERA overshadows an impressive 9.1 K/9 for his career that has increased in every season, peaking at 11.3 last year. The fact that there was clear reason for that increase is what should make fantasy managers take notice.
Over 47.2 innings last year, Mahle made clear adjustments that resulted in his strikeout increase. His 94 mph average fastball velocity was the best of his career, but Mahle all but trashed his curveball in favor of his slider. He threw the pitch 32% of the time with a brilliant 42% whiff rate, proving to be significantly more effective than the last time he threw it regularly in 2018. Of course, Mahle was also seeing more effectiveness from his improved fastball. His fortunate .255 BABIP and extreme flyball rate could cause some anxiety, but the upside looks huge with a rotation spot imminent after the Reds lost Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani.
Luis Patino, P, Rays
If you like young pitchers, the Rays starting rotation could be a lot of fun in 2021. Gone are top starters Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, but Tampa Bay doesn’t lack viable replacement options. The team’s creativity in using openers and quick hooks with “starters” does complicate matters for fantasy managers somewhat, but if recent history has told us anything, there will still be quality bulk innings to be had behind top starters Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough.
One of the more intriguing arms is Patino, who was part of the Rays return from San Diego for Blake Snell. The right-hander made his MLB debut with San Diego last season, mostly in relief, posting a 5.19 ERA over 17.1 innings and 11 appearances. At age 20, his readiness for MLB wasn’t clear, walking 14 batters over that small sample, but the strikeout potential still makes him someone to watch. Patino was a regular starter in the minors with increasing strikeout rates in each season, peaking with an 11.7 K/9 over 94.2 innings between High-A and Double-A in 2019. He featured a 97 mph fastball upon his arrival last year that will likely decline somewhat in a bulk innings role. However, Patino also features an excellent slider and changeup that should allow him to eventually get comfortable going deeper into games once he gets his control issues rectified. At this point, Patino looks like more of an early-season stash whose innings will likely be capped, but the strikeout potential still makes him an interesting late-round addition whose ADP is near 450.
Alex Reyes, P, Cardinals
Four years ago Reyes had a strong argument as the top pitching prospect in baseball. The former first-round pick looked on the cusp of stardom after an exciting MLB debut and dominant minor league track record (3.53 ERA, 12.4 K/9) with a high-90’s fastball and impressive secondary repertoire. Unfortunately, it’s been seemingly one injury after another for Reyes over the last several seasons that have included Tommy John surgery, lat surgery, and a fractured hand.
After all the lost time, 2020 finally showed some sign of Reyes getting on track. He posted a 3.20 ERA over 19.2 innings, including one start and 14 relief appearances. During that time, Reyes’ velocity was the best we’ve seen from him in MLB, with a fastball that averaged nearly 98 mph and a great curveball. There remained big hiccups with Reyes’ control, but his 27 strikeouts showed the dominance we long anticipated. While the Cardinals have some pitching depth even before making a decision on whether to bring back Adam Wainwright, Reyes looks like a rotation candidate with a tryout in spring training imminent. The injury history brings extreme risk, but an ADP around pick 377 shows profit potential.
Drew Smyly, SP, Braves
I admit that Smyly is a personal favorite and has appeared in this space previously, but there’s even more reason to like him this year. It’s not a stretch to expect big strikeout potential from a pitcher with a career 9.0 K/9 like Smyly, though he’s been frustratingly fragile and inconsistent over the last several seasons. However, the Braves wasted little time giving the lefty a whopping $11 million for 2021 based at least partly on what they saw in San Francisco last season.
While Smyly threw only 26.1 innings due to a finger injury, he was absolutely nasty in the innings that he did throw. Smyly had an incredible 14.4 K/9 over five starts and two relief appearances with skyrocketing velocity that was up nearly three mph his previous average fastball. The velocity also carried over to his cutter and curveball, which were also more effective than normal. Smyly was particularly outstanding during four appearances in September with 31 strikeouts in 18 innings. Fantasy managers should rightfully ask if Smyly can maintain the new found velocity or stay healthy considering he’s reached 100 innings in the majors only three times since his arrival in 2012, but with an NFBC ADP around 230, the price is right for the upside.
Single League Sleepers
Logan Gilbert, SP, Mariners
Gilbert’s name was also in this spot last season, but the rebuilding Mariners were resistant to use him in the shortened season. Given their lack of competitiveness, that was probably a smart financial decision for the organization but still disappointing with the readiness that Gilbert has displayed in the minors. If healthy, the 14th overall pick in the 2018 draft is almost certain to see his time come this season.
The former Stetson ace looks the part at 6-foot-6 with a mid-90’s fastball and terrific command that allowed him to dominate in his first professional season in 2019. He pitched at three levels between Low-A and Double-A with a 2.13 ERA, 11.0 K/9, and 2.2 BB/9 in 26 starts, and strikeouts were also a big part of his game at Stetson, including a 13.1 K/9 in his final college season. At age 24, Seattle might not be hesitant to give Gilbert some significant innings depending on when he makes it to the bigs. His draft value could also see some real helium with a good spring training.
Adrian Morejon, P, Padres
The Padres have been one of the big stories of a slow 2020-21 offseason so far, adding aces Blake Snell and Yu Darvish to a loaded starting rotation that already includes Dinelson Lamet and Chris Paddack. Assuming health, the top four spots in the Padres starting rotation are spoken for, leaving one spot for a bevy of high upside, young arms.
MacKenzie Gore is arguably baseball’s best pitching prospect, but the former third overall draft choice didn’t make his debut last season. Instead, another high upside lefty got a look. Morejon has had cups of coffee in each of the last two seasons for the Padres, and the young Cuban has really impressed more recently with 25/4 K/BB in 19.1 innings over nine appearances last season at age 21. His upside certainly shouldn’t be understated, receiving $11 million when he signed in 2016 and showing off elite strikeout numbers during his entire pro career. Over three minor league seasons, Morejon had a 9.6 K/9 and 3.78 ERA in 43 starts. He showed off a fastball that averaged better than 96 mph last season, along with a slider and splitter that both produced a whiff rate around 50%. The aforementioned pitching depth will allow the Padres to work in Morejon slowly and be careful with his workload in 2021, but his per inning strikeout numbers could be a boon for fantasy managers. A swingman role could provide for well over 100 strikeouts and plenty of profit in NL-only leagues.
Joe Palumbo, SP, Rangers
The Rangers look like they’re in another mini rebuild after trading Lance Lynn and allowing Mike Minor to walk in free agency. The team still has several talented young players who have yet to break through, including some well-known former prospects like Willie Calhoun and Nate Lowe, as well as some players on a lower tier.
Palumbo is one of the lesser known prospects who could get his opportunity in 2021. The former 30th round pick was terrible in his MLB debut back in 2019, allowing 17 earned runs in 16.2 innings, and he made only two relief appearances last season due to ulcerative colitis. The upcoming season will be a big one for Palumbo at age 26, but the minor league track record still shows big potential. For his career, Palumbo has a 10.7 K/9 that only increased as he worked his way to the upper minors, working off a low-90’s fastball with excellent spin and a very good curveball. Palumbo has been more than just a source of strikeouts, though, with a 3.00 ERA over 63 innings at Double-A and a 2.67 ERA over six starts at Triple-A. This spring will be interesting to watch in a starting rotation that has spots up for grabs behind Kyle Gibson, Dane Dunning, and Jordan Lyles.
Michael Wacha, SP, Rays
Sometimes single leagues require fantasy managers to really go fishing for fliers with upside. Wacha has been relevant in the past while with the Cardinals, but years of decline and injuries made him an afterthought more recently. Last season seemed like rock bottom with a 6.62 ERA and 1.56 WHIP with the Mets over 34 innings, but a deeper dive into the numbers and adjustments shows why he was still able to garner a one-year, $3 million contract from Tampa Bay early this offseason.
There’s no doubt that Wacha struggled big-time, especially keeping the ball in the park, but he also had an ace-like 9.8 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9. We must use the disclaimer that the performance was over a very limited number of innings, but his dominance of the strike zone was all reflective of his adjustments on the mound. Wacha almost threw no curveballs, a pitch that he’s featured 10-15% of the time in most seasons, in favor of his cutter and changeup. The changeup usage is particularly intriguing since it’s been his most effective pitch over the last two seasons, and he used it nearly 30% of the time last year. The Rays have demonstrated repeatedly that they are one of the smartest organizations in the game, and it’s clear that they see potential from last year’s peripherals, albeit brief. He should be a very interesting late AL-only pickup with a rotation spot.