If you read articles on sleeper starting pitchers this spring, you'll almost certainly see names like Alex Cobb, Sonny Gray, Danny Salazar and Andrew Cashner featured prominently. I like those guys too, but I have decided to dig a bit deeper for the purposes of this column. According to NFBC, none of the pitchers listed below have an ADP higher than 220 at the moment. Drew Smyly is just above my cut-off line, but I like him a lot too. Dig in and find some potential gems.
Rick Porcello RHP, Tigers
If you picked up Rotoworld's new draft guide in stores, you'll know that I said in our "Bold Predictions" that Porcello will emerge as a top-20 starter in mixed leagues this season. Why so bold? Well, as I said in my post-hype column, everything finally appears to be trending in the right direction for him. While his 4.32 ERA last season was underwhelming on the surface, an increased reliance on his curve ball to a significant increase in his strikeout percentage (13.7 percent to 19.3 percent) while his walk rate (2.14 BB/9) and ground ball (55.3 percent) rates remained excellent. His 3.19 xFIP last season was quietly 13th-best among qualified starters, just behind teammate and AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. Porcello has underperformed relative to advanced metrics before, but an improved infield defense in Detroit could finally put him on track to a long-awaited breakout year.
Corey Kluber RHP, Indians
Kluber missed some time during the second half last year due to a finger injury, but that could work in the favor of fantasy owners, as his excellent season is being overlooked. The 27-year-old posted a 3.85 ERA in 24 starts and two relief appearances while averaging 8.3 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9. Among pitchers with at least 140 innings pitched, his K/BB ratio ranked 11th while his 3.10 xFIP came in at 12th. Yes, if he had some better luck on the BABIP front (it was .329 last year), his season could have been even better. Mostly relying on a fastball and a cutter, Kluber throws harder now than he did as a prospect, so it's easy to understand why his success has sneaked up on many. Just don't make the same mistake in 2014, as he could be an excellent find in late round of mixed league drafts.
Alex Wood LHP, Braves
I included Wood in my "Fantasy Risers" column for the NL East back in December, so it only makes sense that he lands on this list as well. Known for his unorthodox delivery, the 23-year-old southpaw impressed in his first taste of the majors last year by posting a 3.13 ERA and 77/27 K/BB ratio in 77 2/3 innings between the rotation and the bullpen. There was a lot to like here, as he also had a ground ball rate of 49.1 percent. While he was admittedly more effective as a reliever, his strikeout rate remained solid (8.7 K/9) in his 11 starts. Armed with a low-90s fastball to go along with an excellent changeup and a developing curveball, Wood projects to begin 2014 with a rotation spot and has a legitimate chance at a breakout season. Some early struggles could put his spot in jeopardy, as Gavin Floyd looms as a possibility to return by the end of May, but Wood should be on the mixed league radar for now.
Tyson Ross RHP, Padres
Ross had a 5.33 ERA over his first 148 2/3 innings in the majors, but it looks like he found himself last year. The 26-year-old was dominant after joining the Padres' starting rotation full-time after the All-Star break, compiling a 2.93 ERA and 85/23 K/BB ratio in 80 innings across 13 starts. While it was a small sample size, this wasn't just a matter of taking advantage of calling PETCO Park home. He made real strides with his control while his slider suddenly became flat-out dominant. According to the excellent Brooks Baseball, only Arizona's Patrick Corbin had a higher whiff rate on the pitch among starters last year. Ross has had issues staying healthy during his career and it would be nice to see him make more progress with the other pitches in his arsenal, so he's far from a sure thing to sustain his success in 2014, but he's definitely someone to keep an eye on for a possible full-fledged breakout.
Marco Estrada RHP, Brewers
Estrada was hyped as a sleeper last spring, but he failed to live up to expectations early on by posting a 5.32 ERA over 12 starts prior to a hamstring injury in early June. However, the 30-year-old was dynamite upon his return in August, putting up a 2.15 ERA and 56/11 K/BB ratio over his final nine starts. The big difference down the stretch is that he managed to keep the ball in the ballpark, as he gave up just five home runs over his final 58 2/3 innings pitched after allowing 14 of them in just 69 1/3 innings prior to his injury. Home runs will always be a risk as long as he continues to give up so many fly balls, but Estrada has quietly averaged 8.8 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9 over the past two seasons. Only Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright have a better K/BB ratio among pitchers with at least during 260 innings pitched during the same time span. Not bad for a guy who mostly sits around 90 mph with his fastball and relies on his changeup as an out-pitch. There are some warning signs here, but you could do worse than to buy on Estrada's impressive peripherals in the later rounds of drafts.
Jenrry Mejia RHP, Mets
We're digging a little deeper for this final one. Fitting the mold of a post-hype sleeper, Mejia was a top pitching prospect for the Mets before Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, or Noah Syndergaard were even in the organization. Of course, things haven't worked out as hoped in the early part of his career, as he was rushed to the majors in 2010 as a reliever and required Tommy John surgery in 2011. The 24-year-old has struggled to stay on the mound since, but he was very impressive in a small sample with the Mets last season prior to an elbow cleanup procedure in September. I'm not going to make too much out of five starts, but it was hard not to be encouraged, especially with the development of his slider. Health remains the big question -- he has never thrown more than 108 2/3 innings in a season before -- but he could surprise even if the Mets send him down to the minors to begin the year. Watch him closely.