As deep as pitching is these days, it’s difficult to sneak up on anybody with your favorite sleeper. We’re seeing plenty of trendy names right now, many of whom I like, but they are falling off the board in the middle rounds of mixed league drafts. I’m talking about the likes of Raisel Iglesias, Taijuan Walker, Patrick Corbin, Carlos Rodon, and Yordano Ventura. I intend to dig a little bit deeper with this column.
According to NFBC, all pitchers below currently have an average draft position (ADP) of 230 or lower. That’s late-round flier territory in standard leagues. I’m not expecting a group of fantasy aces here, though that would certainly be nice, but I think each of them have a chance to deliver real profit given the minimal investment involved.
Andrew Heaney LHP, Angels
I was a big fan of the Angels getting Heaney for one year of Howie Kendrick, but the jury’s still out on his fantasy upside. The southpaw faded after some initial success last season and finished with a 3.49 ERA and 78/28 K/BB ratio in 105 2/3 innings across 18 starts. He doesn’t have electric velocity, so his slider is his big swing-and-miss pitch. He got most of those whiffs against left-handed batters last season, so improving against right-handed batters could be the key to him moving up a tier or two among fantasy starters. Heaney is a fly ball pitcher, but making half of his starts in pitcher-friendly Angel Stadium mitigates some of the risk.
Nathan Eovaldi RHP, Yankees
Eovaldi was a popular breakout pick a year ago after being swapped from the Marlins to the Yankees, but I wasn’t really buying it. We all knew about the big-time velocity, but he never missed many bats and his arsenal was incomplete. I wanted to see some changes before I got on board. We finally saw it midway through 2015 after he began relying on his splitter more often and changed his grip on the pitch. He didn’t get many whiffs on the splitter, but it made his fastball more effective. He posted a 3.46 ERA and 67/29 K/BB ratio in 78 innings over his final 13 starts prior to going down with elbow inflammation in September. Granted, his control wasn’t as good during that time, but he saw a nice increase in his ground ball rate. Pitching in the AL East doesn’t provide much margin for error and his health is worth watching, but a full season with this pitch mix could make him really intriguing.
Aaron Nola RHP, Phillies
The rebuild is off and running in Philadelphia and Nola is already the most interesting name in the starting rotation for fantasy owners. After moving quickly through the minors, the 2014 first-round pick posted a 3.59 ERA and 68/19 K/BB ratio over 77 2/3 innings during his first stint in the majors last season. He allowed three earned runs or fewer in nine out of his 13 starts. The 22-year-old might not have the velocity you’d look for in a fantasy ace, so his ceiling could be limited, but his curveball is a legitimate out-pitch and he throws plenty of strikes. He logged 186 innings between the minors and majors in 2015, so fantasy owners won’t have to worry about an early shutdown. The Phillies’ offense might not score many runs for him, but I expect him to be a solid mixed league contributor.
Eduardo Rodriguez LHP, Red Sox
Maybe it was because the Red Sox finished in last place again, but it feels like Rodriguez’s rookie season didn’t get as much attention as it deserved. After coming out of the gate red-hot, he finished with a 3.85 ERA and 98/37 K/BB ratio over 121 2/3 innings. There were some rough outings in there, which could have been related to some pitch-tipping, but he allowed three earned runs or fewer in 16 out of his 21 starts. Not bad for a rookie in the AL East. The fastball velocity was there and he got plenty of swings and misses with his changeup. His slider still appears to be a work in progress, but it’s easy to see the ingredients which could eventually lead him to emerging as one of the top left-handers in the American League. Here’s hoping his recent knee injury turns out to be a non-issue.
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Rodriguez is now expected to begin the season on the disabled list.
Anthony DeSclafani RHP, Reds
The likely Opening Day starter for the Reds’ this season, DeSclafani is coming off a solid rookie campaign in which he posted a 4.05 ERA and 151/55 K/BB ratio in 184 2/3 innings across 31 starts. Those numbers aren’t going to blow you away, but I was impressed by what he did during the second half. After making some changes with his pitch mix, he put up a 65/9 K/BB ratio in 64 2/3 innings over his final 11 starts. The development of his curveball was his most encouraging trend. His progress was somewhat obscured by his 4.59 ERA during that time, which is why I think he’s flying under the radar a bit. I’m excited to see if he can carry that momentum into 2016. Similar to Nola, the only real downside is that he’s going to be pitching for a bad team.
Kevin Gausman RHP, Orioles
It feels like we’ve been waiting forever for a legitimate breakout from Gausman, so it’s understandable that some are beginning to wonder if it may never happen or if a change of scenery is required. Sure, the 25-year-old has an underwhelming 4.21 ERA in the majors thus far and has been better as a reliever than as a starter, but he could really benefit if the Orioles finally let him loose in the rotation for a full season. The stuff is still plenty intriguing, as Gausman throws in the mid-90s with his fastball and gets plenty of swings and misses with his splitter. The development of a third pitch will likely be the key to a potential breakthrough. Pitching in Camden Yards and the American League East isn’t easy, but he’s a fine late-round target. The opportunity should be there for him this season, even after the recent addition of Yovani Gallardo.