Lottery Ticket Starting Pitcher Watchlist
With Opening Day less than a month away, it’s time to begrudgingly turn off The Mandalorian and start paying attention to spring training storylines. On a recent episode of the Circling the Bases podcast, Scott Pianowski discussed the importance of entering fantasy drafts with a list of high-variance, late-round, lottery ticket starting pitcher targets. The following column isn’t intended to serve as a comprehensive target list, but instead highlights seven intriguing starting pitchers – who have been selected, on average, outside the top-200 picks in NFBC Draft Champions leagues since February 1 – that are fighting this spring for a spot in their club’s respective season-opening rotations and could make an impact for fantasy managers at the outset of the regular season.
Reid Detmers, SP, Angels
NFBC ADP: 214th overall since February 1st
It’s difficult to comprehend the seemingly widespread trepidation associated with selecting Detmers in fantasy drafts this spring, especially since the 23-year-old left-hander reportedly worked with the Angels’ minor league pitching coordinator Buddy Carlyle following a midseason demotion to Triple-A Salt Lake to uncover and correct a mechanical issue with his delivery that enabled him to re-discover his previously-elite strikeout stuff. He went on to compile a strong 3.04 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 78/25 K/BB ratio across 71 innings over his final 13 starts to close out last season and recorded five strikeouts over two scoreless innings last weekend in his Cactus League debut. Detmers, who is already locked into a spot in the Angels’ season-opening six-man starting rotation, is the most prominent of the seven names on this makeshift list of late-round sleeper candidates, and figures to see his average draft position rise exponentially if he continues racking up strikeouts this spring.
Andrew Painter, SP, Phillies
NFBC ADP: 297th overall since February 1st
The hype is real, folks. Arguably the top pitching prospect in baseball, Painter has turned heads this spring in Phillies’ camp and lit up radar guns on Wednesday in his Grapefruit League debut against the Orioles, yielding one run over two innings of work. The 19-year-old phenom, who has made just five starts above High-A in his professional career, is competing with lefty Bailey Falter for the final spot in Philadelphia’s season-opening rotation and has looked like he belongs so far, thanks to a five-pitch mix that includes a newly-added cutter. There’s no guarantee that the Phillies will hand him a spot in the Opening Day rotation, but fantasy managers should be willing to roll the dice on Painter as a speculative late-round gamble on the slight chance that he forces his way to the majors with his performance moving forward. At a bare minimum, he’s among the most exciting pitchers in baseball to monitor closely over the next few weeks.
Hayden Wesneski, SP, Cubs
NFBC ADP: 338th overall since February 1st
Wesneski recorded four strikeouts over two shutout innings on Wednesday in his Cactus League debut against the Mariners and appears to be the early favorite to secure the final spot in the Cubs’ season-opening starting rotation with Kyle Hendricks still recovering from a shoulder injury and swingman Keegan Thompson set to open the year in a relief role. The 25-year-old right-hander, who was acquired last August from the Yankees at the trade deadline in exchange for reliever Scott Effross, posted a stellar 2.18 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 33/7 K/BB ratio across 33 innings (six appearances, four starts). Fantasy managers should expect Wesneski’s average draft position to rise over the next few weeks, especially if he’s officially handed the fifth-starter role.
Kyle Bradish, SP, Orioles
NFBC ADP: 358th overall since February 1st
Bradish showcased his entire five-pitch arsenal on Tuesday, firing two perfect innings in his Grapefruit League debut against the Pirates, requiring just 26 pitches (18 strikes) to retire all six batters he faced. Perhaps more importantly, he also displayed a slight uptick in velocity on his four-seam fastball from last year, averaging 95.8 mph and maxing out at 96.3 mph in his first spring outing. The 26-year-old righty appears poised to open the regular season in the Orioles’ starting rotation and has shown some flashes of immense fantasy potential this spring, thanks to his fastball/slider combination. Some of the uncertainty surrounding his role has likely suppressed his average draft position this spring, but it will skyrocket if he continues to pitch this well in the Grapefruit League over the next few weeks.
Brandon Pfaadt, SP, Diamondbacks
NFBC ADP: 427th overall since February 1st
Fantasy managers are excused if they had zero idea who Pfaadt was entering spring training, but he put himself on the map with a pair of impressive scoreless innings on Monday against the Cubs in his Cactus League debut. The 24-year-old righty’s prospect rankings are all over the map -- with opinions ranging from a lofty 27th in Baseball America’s rankings to 83rd on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 list – after finishing last year with a 3.83 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 218/33 K/BB ratio across 167 innings (29 starts) between Double-A Amarillo and Triple-A Reno. He has a chance to be an impact fantasy contributor that consistently piles up lofty strikeout totals, if every component of his three-pitch mix that includes a low-90’s fastball, slider and changeup, is working effectively. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him edge out Ryne Nelson, Drey Jameson and Tommy Henry for the final spot in Arizona’s season-opening starting rotation.
Luis Ortiz, SP, Pirates
NFBC ADP: 511th overall since February 1st
Ortiz possesses the longest odds of any dark horse breakout candidate in this column, but has a chance to make an impact for fantasy managers once his number is called for good in Pittsburgh. The 24-year-old right-hander didn’t look overwhelmed during a late-season four-start cameo with the Pirates last September, and looked extremely sharp on Tuesday in his Grapefruit League debut against the Orioles, reeling off a pair of scoreless innings. He possesses triple-digit fastball velocity and a plus mid-80’s slider that generates a ton of swinging strikes. If he develops any sort of consistent third pitch, or improves the command of his formidable fastball/slider combo, he has superstar potential. Even if he’s jettisoned to Triple-A Indianapolis for some additional seasoning, there’s a possibility he’s back in Pittsburgh sooner than later since veterans Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez represent short-term stopgaps rather than long-term solutions. He’s a worthwhile lottery ticket for fantasy managers in deeper mixed leagues to stash at the outset of the regular season on the chance that he gets a real shot for the Pirates at some point soon.
Clarke Schmidt, SP/RP, Yankees
NFBC ADP: 517th overall since February 1st
There’s a chance the Yankees opt to install Domingo Germán into their season-opening starting rotation in the wake of Frankie Montas’ shoulder surgery, but Schmidt looks like he’s going to make it an extremely difficult decision after piling up five strikeouts over two perfect innings on Sunday against the Braves in his Grapefruit League debut. The 27-year-old right-hander threw his newly-added cutter 11 times during the 31-pitch outing and finished with a robust 35 percent CSW (called strikes plus whiffs). The former first-round pick posted a serviceable 3.71 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 56/23 K/BB ratio across 57 2/3 innings (29 appearances, three starts) last year, working mostly in long relief, and would be an interesting late-round gamble for fantasy managers this spring, if he secures the final spot in New York’s rotation.