Pitching is deep and plentiful these days, but we are still seeing a lot of the same "sleepers" mentioned for the early-to-mid rounds of mixed league drafts this year, including Carlos Carrasco, Marcus Stroman and Mike Fiers. I like those guys too, but I am going to dig a bit deeper for the purposes of this annual column.
If you read this piece last year, you might have been more inclined to draft eventual AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber along with Tyson Ross, Alex Wood and Rick Porcello. Not a bad group. My method stays the same this year. According to NFBC, none of the pitchers below have an ADP (average draft position) higher than 220 at NFBC at the moment. It's hard to beat what we did last year, but let's give it a try anyway.
Brandon McCarthy RHP, Dodgers
McCarthy's 2014 doesn't stand out on the surface, as he had a 4.05 ERA (including a 94 ERA+) across 32 starts, but his peripherals were much stronger and he was a very different pitcher after being traded from the Diamondbacks to the Yankees in July. The 31-year-old finished the year strong by posting a 2.89 ERA with an 82/13 K/BB ratio in 90 1/3 innings over 14 starts with New York. There was something tangible behind his success, as he relied more on his cutter, a pitch the Diamondbacks discouraged him from using. McCarthy has a lengthy injury history (most notably a stress reaction in his right scapula), so I can understand some reason for pause, but he reached the 200-inning mark for the first time last season and did so while posting the highest velocity of his career. He also pushed his ground ball rate above 50 percent for the first time. There's a lot to like here, especially now that he's back in the National League and will be making half of his starts at the pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium.
James Paxton LHP, Mariners
The biggest thing preventing Paxton from a breakout is his health. He was limited to just 13 starts last season, first missing time with a strained lat and then having his return delayed due to shoulder inflammation. However, the southpaw was very effective when healthy, posting a 3.04 ERA with a 59/29 K/BB ratio in 74 innings while allowing three earned runs or fewer in 12 out of his 13 starts. His lone blemish was a six-walk performance (8 ER in 2 2/3 innings) against the Blue Jays on September 22 which skewed his overall numbers. We're still working with a very small sample of major league innings, but Paxton induces grounders, has mid-90s heat and gets plenty of whiffs on his curveball. He also calls a pitcher-friendly ballpark home and should go into spring training with a rotation spot. The ingredients are here for him to make a big jump in 2015 if he can take the ball every fifth day.
Derek Holland LHP, Rangers
Hey, remember this guy? Judging by his ADP (average draft position), he seems like a forgotten man these days. Don't make that mistake. Holland required microfracture surgery on his left knee last January after suffering a freak accident at home and experienced a couple of setbacks before finally making it back to the Rangers in September when they were playing out the string and most people weren't paying attention. He was quietly excellent in that small sample, as evidenced by his 1.46 ERA and 25/5 K/BB ratio across 37 innings. Holland's control has improved over time and his swinging strikes were trending up in 2013, so I'm excited to see what he can do this season. Pitching in Texas hurts his chances of emerging as a frontline starter in fantasy leagues, but he should be a reliable option in all formats.
Kevin Gausman RHP, Orioles
Gausman mostly functioned as a reliever after making his major league debut in 2013, but he pitched exclusively as a starter during the regular season last year while bouncing back and forth between the big club and the minors. While his numbers didn't really jump off the page and his control waned at times, he missed more bats as the season moved along, including a 2.87 ERA with a 29/9 K/BB ratio in 31 1/3 innings over five starts in September. He pitched in relief during the playoffs, but his performance against the Tigers was swoon-worthy and a good reminder of why he should be on your radar going into 2015. Gausman mostly relies on a mid-90s fastball and a splitter, so improving his slider could be his ticket to becoming a fantasy ace. He's not quite there yet and the AL East is mostly an unforgiving environment to pitch in, but I'll pay in hopes that he takes the next step.
Jesse Hahn RHP, Athletics
A former high school teammate of Matt Harvey in Connecticut, Hahn didn't exactly take the smoothest path to the majors. He had Tommy John surgery in 2010 and didn't end up making his professional debut until 2012. While he has been on innings limits ever since, he emerged as a solid prospect with the Rays prior to being traded to the Padres in the Logan Forsythe trade last winter. The deal turned out quite nicely for San Diego, as the 25-year-old posted a 3.07 ERA and 70/32 K/BB ratio over 73 1/3 innings as a rookie last season before being moved to the Athletics this winter in the Derek Norris deal. Hahn mostly sits in the low 90s with his fastball, but he gets a bunch of ground balls with his two-seamer and his curveball results in plenty of whiffs. He relied on his fastball-curveball combo 90 percent of the time last season, so a third pitch is a work in progress, but calling O.Co Coliseum at least gives him some margin for error. I don't think he can be counted on for 30 starts, but he has frontline potential if healthy and the cost shouldn't be prohibitive.
Danny Salazar RHP, Indians
The hype on Salazar was through the roof this time last year on the heels of promising debut in 2013, but he was a disappointment to those who invested heavily on draft day. However, I'm willing to give him another shot now that price tag is more palatable. Salazar really struggled with his control and the home run ball prior to his demotion last May, but he looked much better after returning in July, posting a 3.50 ERA and 73/18 K/BB ratio across 12 starts while allowing just five home runs in 69 1/3 innings. His velocity was also a bit higher than where he was to begin the year. Refining his mechanics and his pitch mix were keys to his strong finish. While Salazar will have to beat out T.J. House (who is another nice sleeper) for a rotation spot this spring, I love his stuff and wouldn't want to miss out on the chance of him putting it all together.