KEEPERS: 2019 Building Blocks—SP (NL)

MacKenzie Gore (LHP, SD)

This is our annual off-season series focused on helping keeper league and dynasty owners identify emerging targets that can ensure perennial title contention. We've refreshed the format this year and have renamed the series "Building Blocks," but the goal remains the same: To identify top prospects and young players at each position who can be procured before they become household names, so keeper league owners can continually build upon the foundation for long-term success that prevents the need for white-flag-waving, tanking-oriented rebuilds.

Each week we will examine a different position, looking for players (“pieces”) that have potential to be solid long-term contributors to a winning fantasy franchise. Obviously different keeper/dynasty formats allow for varying degrees of speculation on unproven players, so you will need to adjust your sights on these targets, accordingly. For the purpose of this series, we group players under four general designations:

Cornerstones: Premium quality franchise difference-makers, essential to the foundation of a true dynasty juggernaut. These pieces are top priority acquisitions, either by draft or trade.

Building Blocks: High quality prospects with potential to be solid elements of a winning core. Desirable pieces that should be targeted as part of the ongoing championship franchise building process.

Support Pieces: Interchangeable lower grade parts that may provide help in a specific category or offer a lower ceiling than more desirable foundation pieces.

Dicey Accessories: Lower probability, high-risk players who may be targeted for upside gambles, but who should not be counted on as core championship pieces. (Possible trade-chip candidates if timed properly.)

Players are listed with 2019 season age and major league organization, along with a designation if left-handed hitter (*) or switch-hitter (#). Please see the Organization Reports in our Scouting section for more detailed analysis on specific players and be sure to pick up a copy of the Minor League Baseball Analyst which makes a great complement to the indispensable Baseball Forecaster for league-winning insights on all relevant players.

We will attempt to identify top pitcher building targets within the following criteria:

  • ​Will play majority of 2019 season at 25 years old or younger (25 as of July 1, 2019)
  • Less than 50 MLB IP in 2018 and less than 150 MLB IP career
  • Reasonably projected to be MLB-ready prior at some point in the upcoming 2019 season (may extend time horizon for high-profile prospects)

Previous articles in this series:  C  |  1B  |  2B  |  3B  |  SS  |  OF (NL)  |  OF (AL)

After working our way through the hitters in previous articles of this series, we now turn our attention to pitchers. As our own Jock Thompson so cogently pointed out in this series last year, “starting pitching has become almost ridiculously speculative,” and it is only getting more ridiculous.

Only 58 starting pitchers qualified for the ERA title in 2018. Of those 58, only 25 repeated the feat from the prior season, and just 13 starting pitchers qualified for the ERA title (minimum 162 IP) in three consecutive seasons, 2016-18. Of those 13, only 3 (three!) starting pitchers earned $10+ in each of those three seasons. Of course, this short list is made up of three pretty familiar (and veteran) names—Max Scherzer (31 years old in 2016), Corey Kluber (30), and Justin Verlander (33).

Not only does this illustrate that rostering a perennially reliable, workhorse starting pitcher is rare, but investing in a young phenom under such a premise is essentially fool’s gold. Even MLB teams are unsure of how to handle their top young pitching investments. Consider a couple widely hyped phenoms in recent years who keeper league owners undoubtedly fought over the rights to. RHP Dylan Bundy and LHP Julio Urias were both considered to be such can’t-miss future studs that their respective MLB organizations decided to limit their innings and pitches in order to ensure both remained healthy during the course of their development. Of course, both broke down, leaving the ultimate upside of each now in question.

The point of all this is to say that optimal keeper league pitching strategy entails a much more short-term perspective. Longer-term projection-oriented investments are better served focusing on the much more predictive hitters highlighted throughout the previous articles in this series, all of which are linked above.

That said, pitching is still half the game, and the key to a short-term strategy is being ready to pounce just as health and talent are about to meet opportunity. In that spirit, below are some up-and-coming names to have on your radar as we approach the 2019 campaign.

 

CORNERSTONES

MacKenzie Gore* (20, LHP, SD) – Considered by many to be the top pitching prospect in the 2017 draft, Gore was dominant in seven rookie ball starts after signing. Even though he was a year out of high school, the Padres had a plan to push him through the system relatively quickly, so confident are they in his mature approach and package. Unfortunately, blister problems dogged him throughout the summer before a fingernail issue forced an early end to his season in mid-August. With four solid pitches, Gore features solid control, as well as the ability to miss bats. Though the hand issues set back his development a bit, and the investing-in-pitchers disclaimer should not be ignored, Gore has the potential to come quickly and could be a factor as early as 2020.

Chris Paddack (23, RHP, SD) – After missing the 2017 season following Tommy John surgery, Paddack picked up in 2018 right where he left off before going under the knife—dominating minor league hitters “with some of the best command and control in the minors.” Featuring a plus fastball with plus-plus command and what is considered by some to be the most devastating change-up of any prospect in the game, Paddack is on the verge of making an impact at the big league level. Though he was limited to 85 pitches per start in 2018 and will no doubt be monitored closely as the 2019 season gets underway, there’s no sense in wasting too many bullets in the minors with a powerful, refined arsenal such as this. Recently added to the 40-man roster, Paddack is now just a phone call away, which could come as soon as late June.

 

BUILDING BLOCKS

Mike Soroka (21, RHP, ATL) – This guy puts the PITCH in pitcher, which is a refreshing change-of-pace in today’s max-effort, strikeout-or-walk, short-stint environment. Soroka has four solid pitches and he knows how to use them. The only blemish he gets knocked for is a marginal 8.0 Dom across 3+ minor league seasons, but he offsets that with fantastic control and an ability to limit damage (only 14 HR allowed in 387 professional innings). The biggest concern entering 2019 is a mysterious shoulder issue that caused him to miss the bulk of the 2018 season, though the trendy young-pitcher-overprotection is likely partially responsible for his absence extending into the fall. Health permitting, Soroka should be a member of the Braves starting rotation on Opening Day. This is the kind of pitching staff Building Block that helps fantasy owners sleep peacefully at night.

Ian Anderson (21, RHP, ATL) – A power pitcher who misses bats with a plus three-pitch mix, Anderson seems to be getting better as he climbs the ladder. While his control wavers at times, he offsets it with an excellent strikeout rate. Solid bet for possible top of the rotation status. Not yet on the 40-man roster, he may be something of a long shot to make his big league debut before mid-2020.

Bryse Wilson (21, RHP, ATL) – An acclaimed football player in high school, Wilson looks like a linebacker on the mound. He comes at hitters with a plus fastball that has some extra giddy-up and is normally around the strike zone. He shot from the high-A Florida State League all the way to the big leagues last year and, while he still has some polishing up to do, Wilson has the look of a solid mid-rotation workhorse. The biggest problem facing both Wilson and keeper league owners is the plethora of in-house competition for major league innings in Atlanta. He is on the 40-man and in the mix, so it’s only a matter of time, though he is likely slated to begin 2019 in triple-A.

Kyle Wright (23, RHP, ATL) – A college pitcher from the top-grade Vanderbilt program, Wright rocketed to the majors, making his big league debut with four relief appearances at the end of his first full pro season. He gets a lot of ground balls to go with his fair share of strikeouts, and profiles as yet another Braves solid mid-rotation starter who is expected to begin the year in the triple-A rotation. The good thing about Wright shooting up to the big leagues so quickly is that he is already on the 40-man, leaving him just a phone call away when opportunity arises.

 

SUPPORT PIECES

Logan Allen* (22, LHP, SD) – A workhorse-type lefty, Allen is not overpowering, but offers a solid three-pitch mix with the ability to use it effectively. He posted a sparkling 2.55 ERA and a 1.088 WHIP in 2018 between double-A (19 starts) and triple-A (5 starts), along with a fine 9.2 Dom and solid control, though both of those numbers regressed a bit at the higher level. While he has been invited to big league spring training camp, the lack of Allen’s presence on the 40-man roster likely leaves him destined to at least start the year at triple-A. His performance as the summer progresses will determine how quickly he becomes a viable promotion candidate.

Corbin Burnes (24, RHP, MIL) – After a dazzling 2017 season vaulted him to the top of the Brewers prospect rankings, Burnes came back to earth at triple-A in 2018, due in large part to massive home-road splits as he dealt with the difficult Colorado Springs pitching environment. Regardless, the Brewers called him up at the midway point of the season, using him exclusively in relief, where he posted excellent numbers, including a perfect but impossible-to-count-on 7-0 win-loss record. Brewers GM David Stearns has stated that Burnes will return to starting in 2019, and his performance during his 2018 major league debut would seem to give him a good shot at making the big club’s rotation out of spring training. With the makings of a very strong Support Piece, this may be a good time to target him in keeper leagues.

Mitch Keller (23, RHP, PIT) – Pirates top prospect, who is methodically making his way up through the minor leagues. Surface stats took a hit with 2018 mid-season promotion to triple-A, but underlying peripherals remained solid. His offspeed pitches are inconsistent, with minimal effectiveness when behind in count. Keller could profile as a top relief type if his starter development stumbles, though there has been no public discussion of such a transition at this point. Added to 40-man roster recently, Keller projects to make his big-league debut as early as mid-summer, 2019.

Tony Santillan (22, RHP, CIN) – A big-bodied fireballer who brings the heat, yet fails to dominate hitters, due to inconsistent secondary stuff, Santillan's performance has been good enough to maintain consideration as a solid starting prospect for the pitching-starved Reds. Projected to start 2019 at triple-A, Santillan could get a shot in the majors as a starter sometime this summer, but seems like an ideal candidate for conversion to a short-burst, late-inning role that might make power stuff play up.

 

DICEY ACCESSORIES

Alex Reyes (24, RHP, STL) – Despite a greatly anticipated arrival in 2016 and then a similarly celebrated return (from Tommy John surgery) in 2018, Reyes has pitched only 50 career major league innings, due to a pair of serious injuries. He enters 2019 recovering from surgery for a torn right lat that knocked him out in his first 2018 outing, and now faces a restricted workload that could see him vying for back-end-of-the-bullpen work. If healthy, any innings Reyes does throw figure to be high quality, but with only 26 professional innings under his belt over the last two years, the premiums on insuring this high-risk asset are undoubtedly through the roof.

Sandy Alcantara (23, RHP, MIA) – A fireballer who remains more thrower than pitcher, even as he settles into the rotation of the tankbuilding Marlins, Alcantara continues to issue too many walks without enough strikeouts to offset them. He may ultimately be better served by a conversion to the back end of the bullpen where he can focus on simply developing one secondary pitch to complement his high-octane heat. Until then, he runs a high risk of doing damage to fantasy ERA/WHIP categories that is not offset by any counting stats he might provide.

Touki Toussaint (23, RHP, ATL) – Climbing from double-A to the big leagues in 2018, Toussaint was even included on the post-season roster for Atlanta, pitching in two games. Unfortunately, the bugaboo that merits a “dicey” keeper league outlook was on display in those playoff appearances. When a scouting report on a pitcher says, “struggles repeating mechanics,” that is code for “can have trouble finding the strike zone at times." It is concerning that in a year in which Toussaint reportedly “took a big step forward” (with a 3.5 Ctl between AA & AAA), the biggest issue holding him back reared its head during his final 29 innings in the big leagues. He labored to a horrendous 6.5 walks per nine innings, before issuing four more free passes in three innings of post-season work. With a power curve and a splitter that are both effective weapons when he is ahead in the count, it will all come down to command of the fastball that allows him to use the full arsenal.  The top rankings Toussaint gets across much of the industry all seem to be counting on the fact that he will grow into this command. He is still young and very well might. Just be warned that such a development is not a given.

Sixto Sanchez (20, RHP, PHI) – Talent is not the issue here. Sanchez throws gas, and then pulls the string on a plus change-up like nobody’s business. The issue for keeper league owners at this stage is the near-term outlook with regard to health and durability. Sanchez was shelved in early June 2018 with inflammation in his throwing elbow (red flag Tommy John precursor). Though doctors deemed his injury not to be “serious,” he was shut down for a few weeks of rest. Curiously, Sanchez never stopped resting (bigger red flag TJ precursor). Sanchez finally resumed throwing in August, but never returned to the mound in game action. To top off a lost season, plans for Sanchez to make up for some lost time by getting in some work in the Arizona Fall League were scrapped when he developed “soreness in his collar bone.” (What the heck even is that?!?) Sum it all up and the smart keeper league money is to let another owner warehouse him until he is fully healthy and much closer to the majors.

Jon Duplantier (24, RHP, ARI) – Considered one of the game’s top pitching prospects skill-wise, Duplantier struggles with the most important ability of all—availability. In addition to a persistent hamstring problem that has nagged him as a professional, Duplantier has dealt with an alarming variation of arm-related issues. He missed his entire 2015 (sophomore) season at Rice University with a shoulder injury, though he avoided surgery. Then, he was shut down with elbow soreness shortly after being drafted in 2016. After a relatively healthy 2017, Duplantier was sidelined for almost two months with biceps tendinitis in mid-2018. He did manage to finish the season healthy, including six moderately successful starts in the Arizona Fall League. The upside is without question and he is getting reasonably close to the big leagues, making a mid-2019 debut within reach, but keeper league owners looking to invest in a durable rotation stabilizer are advised to shop elsewhere.

 

DON’T FORGET ABOUT…

Matt Strahm* (24, LHP, SD) – Considered by many to be the Royals top prospect prior to the 2017 season, Strahm was stolen by the Padres in a mid-season multi-player swap shortly after he suffered a season-ending torn patellar tendon in his left knee. The lengthy injury rehab forced Strahm to miss the first month of the season and led San Diego to use him out of the bullpen exclusively in 2018. Now healthy again, with a full off-season to workout and prepare, Strahm intends to come to camp competing for a spot in the starting rotation. He features a solid four-pitch mix that plays up in a starting role. While Strahm has had issues with walks, it is interesting to note that the two seasons (2015-16) in which he has primarily been a starter, his control and command have both been very good. Even in the big leagues in limited spot starting opportunities in 2017-18, Strahm’s peripherals played up when he got the ball first. This could be a sign that when he lets his plus stuff naturally work in longer outings, as opposed to more of a max-effort approach associated with shorter-type relief work, he is more effective. If nothing else, he has proven himself to be a solid source of production out of the bullpen with the potential for more if he captures a starting role in the spring. Strahm is a prime end-game speculative play.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.