KEEPERS: 2020 Building Blocks—SP (AL)

We continue our annual off-season series focused on helping keeper league and dynasty owners identify useful targets that may be available in the current offseason. Each week we examine a different position, looking for players (“pieces”) that have potential to be solid parts in the construction of a winning fantasy franchise. We group them under three 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 players 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 – More interchangeable lower-grade parts that may provide help in a specific category or offer a lower ceiling than more desirable foundation pieces.

Players are listed with 2020 season age and major league organization, along with a designation if left-handed hitter (*) or switch-hitter (#).

We will attempt to identify top building targets who may be available by using the following criteria:

  • Will play majority of 2020 season at 25 years old or younger (25 as of July 1, 2020)
  • Earned less than $10 in standard 5x5 roto in 2019
  • Reasonably projected to be MLB-ready at some point during 2020 season (may extend time horizon for Cornerstones)

Please see the Organization Reports in our Scouting section for more detailed, team-by-team analysis on prospects discussed here. Also, from time to time there may be slight differences between evaluations offered in this series and in our Organization Reports. Use that as your reminder that evaluations can differ. For each individual roster decision, you must factor in your specific team needs and goals.

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

 

After working our way through hitters at every position in previous articles of this series, we are now focused on the mound. We looked at National League starting pitchers last week, and this week we turn our attention to the Junior Circuit. Investing in young pitching continues to be a dubious proposition, as injuries, pitch counting, and arbitrary workload management can conspire to undermine a seemingly solid investment with little notice.

While the keeper league allure of capturing shiny young phenoms making headlines in the lower minors can be tempting, the safer (and wiser?) strategy is to focus resources on pitching that is close to or already at the major league level. 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.

Pitching is still half the fantasy game, of course, 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 2020 campaign.

 

CORNERSTONES

Jesus Luzardo (22, LHP, OAK) – Similar to Forrest Whitley below, Luzardo is a top pitching prospect whose workload has been limited by injury. Unlike Whitley, however, Luzardo has been dominant when he has been able to take the ball. Sure, his workload may be “managed,” but that analytic angle may be increasing for all top players if MLB goes forward with the everyone-gets-a-trophy gimmick that allows half the teams into the new "reality show" post-season. The A’s are at least offering encouraging words. Bottom line, Luzardo projects to be in the big league rotation and projects to post solid fantasy production when he is on the mound. ’Nuff said.

Nate Pearson (23, RHP, TOR) – Has been blowing away hitters with an overpowering fastball and a nasty slider since being drafted in the first round in 2017. Unfortunately, a freak injury in his only 2018 outing has stunted his development. Even so, Pearson was able to finish 2019 with a pair of excellent starts at Triple-A before a stumble in his final outing of the year. Equally tough on both righties and lefties, Pearson could be ready to contribute right away this spring, though his debut will more likely be delayed until mid-season. With solid command of his high-octane stuff, Pearson has the look of a top-flight starter or even a door-slamming closer if the Jays ended up going that direction for some reason (though nothing points to that at this time). Either way, he looks like a premium quality investment.

 

BUILDING BLOCKS

Griffin Canning (24, RHP, LAA) – Called up to reinforce a banged-up Angels rotation in late April, Canning proved to be a shot in the arm, posting a 3.06 ERA with 34 strikeouts against only 9 walks over 32 innings in his first six starts. Things got a little rough after that, but Canning was showing positive signs when inflammation in his pitching elbow curtailed his rookie season in mid-August. He was throwing again by November and should be at full strength, ready to grab a full-time rotation spot out of spring training. Canning is a prime growth investment with near-term breakout potential.

Matt Manning (22, RHP, DET) – An excellent 2019 campaign spent entirely at Double-A puts Manning on the doorstep to making his major league debut. He finished with a flourish, striking out 36 against only four walks over his final 35 innings, as he went 4-1 over his last six starts with a 1.82 ERA. Manning has the look of a rotation workhorse who can help in every aspect of the fantasy pitching game. Unfortunately, the tanking Tigers will most certainly force him to languish in Triple-A until at least mid-summer. He is still not on the 40-man roster, which is a hurdle he will need to clear in order to make his debut, but at least he will be in big league camp this spring. A solid long-term investment.

Michael Kopech (24, RHP, CHW) – Still working his way back from September 2018 Tommy John surgery, Kopech was reportedly looking good while he got in some work during Instructional League in the fall. While the quality of his stuff is without question when healthy, his control was a question that TJ recovery would only seem to exacerbate. Kopech has had some trouble with walks, but has been able to overcome it with pure stuff. Big league competition may not be quite so forgiving however. Kopech had reached the big leagues before his elbow gave way, though he will likely begin 2020 shaking off the rust in Triple-A. As he appears well on his way to a full recovery, the stuff makes Kopech a high-grade investment, but there is just enough risk in the profile to keep him from Cornerstone status.

A.J. Puk* (25, LHP, OAK) – A successful 2019 return from Tommy John surgery has Puk slated for a spot at the back end of the Oakland starting rotation. With a pair of dominant pitches complemented by an improving change-up, he profiles as a solid starter and quite possibly more. Interestingly, Puk has been tougher on right-handed hitters than lefties as a professional. The ability to negate the platoon split advantage sets him up nicely for success in a starting role. A solid investment.

Jose Urquidy (25, RHP, HOU) – Since recovering from 2017 Tommy John surgery, Urquidy has added velocity and he broke out in 2019 with improved command (6.4) and control (1.8) rates between Double-A and Triple-A to go with a nice 11.7 Dom. He made seven big league starts and a couple relief appearances during the second half and, while the Dom and Cmd dropped a bit, his control was even better. Eleven of his 18 runs allowed were packed into two rough outings. In the other seven big league trips to the mound, he posted a sterling 1.82 ERA and 0.81 WHIP. Especially tough on left-handed hitters, Urquidy makes for an intriguing target to build on his 2019 emergence.

Logan Gilbert (23, RHP, SEA) – A thinking man’s pitcher who just throws strikes and gets outs. Gilbert dominated at Stetson University, posting a robust 11.6 Dom with 5.5 Cmd and 2.1 Ctl between his sophomore and junior seasons, including seven strong outings in the Cape Cod Summer League. Unfortunately, he was hit with a bout of mono shortly after after being selected in the first round of the 2018 draft, which cost him his first pro summer. But Gilbert came back strong in 2019, doing similar work from the Sally League up through the hitting-friendly California League, and into Double-A, where he wrapped up a sterling debut campaign by finding success at his third level in three months. The nine-start Texas League trial was a little more of a test, but that is to be expected. The Mariners love his intangibles and Gilbert has a legitimate shot to be a factor in the big leagues in 2020. Gilbert has the look of a solid keeper league investment that could be a sneaky source of value sooner than might be expected.

Clarke Schmidt (24, RHP, NYY) – Selected in the first round of the 2017 draft despite being on the mend from Tommy John surgery, Schmidt has been everything the Yankees hoped for since returning to action. He has the makings of three plus pitches with command and control. Though his innings have been limited, he finished 2019 at Double-A. The shackles should be further loosened this summer and Schmidt can put himself in line for a late-2020 promotion if he continues his post-surgical progression. A good name to monitor.

Casey Mize (23, RHP, DET) – After being select first overall in the 2018 draft, the Tigers limited Mize to only five abbreviated starts before conspicuously shutting him down with more than two weeks left in the season. Perhaps it was concern about his 115-inning workload at Auburn earlier in the spring. Perhaps it was concern about a strain in his pitching arm that caused Mize to miss time as a sophomore the year before. Perhaps it was something else. Regardless, Mize returned in 2019 looking healthy and strong. He carved up hitters in the High-A Florida State League over four dominant starts before a promotion to Double-A, where he proceeded to fire a no-hitter in his Eastern League debut. He sailed through the next month-and-a-half, going 6-0 with a miniscule 1.21 ERA and 50-11 K-BB over 52 IP before suddenly pulling up lame during a mid-June start. Inflammation in his pitching shoulder kept Mize sidelined for the next month, and after he came back it was not with the same dominant stuff. He labored to a 7.09 ERA while going 0-3 over his final six starts before being unceremoniously shut down in mid-August for the second straight season. As an advanced pitcher from a major college program with plus stuff and premium command, Mize makes for an intriguing target without question, but if there aren’t red flags here, they are at least bright yellow. It is just a reminder of the danger that comes with investing too many resources in young pitching. He will be in big league camp for the second straight spring and one would think that Detroit would not want to waste too many bullets in the minors if Mize is healthy and going good, but if they are intent on continuing with their blatant tank job, timing his arrival may be tougher than it should be.

Brendan McKay* (24, LHP, TAM) – Despite starter’s stuff and an excellent resume, McKay’s fantasy outlook is clouded both by his two-way status, as well as the convoluted manner in which Tampa Bay insists on shuffling their big league pitchers. When the Rays drafted him with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft, they claimed to value him more for his hitting, yet his bat has lagged badly behind his work on the mound since turning pro. McKay made it to the big leagues in 2019 on the strength of his arm after having his way with hitters at Double-A and Triple-A. Unfortunately, that success did not immediately translate to the major league level, as McKay devolved into more of a two-pitch pitcher, largely neglecting his cutter and change-up that helped to keep minor league hitters off-balance. We can expect that maturity will bring with it a better mix of his diverse repertoire, but have to wonder just a bit if the struggles at the plate are wearing on him. He likely has the inside track on a slot at the back end of Tampa Bay’s rotation, though whether that comes at the beginning of games or after the Rays trick the other team by having a reliever pitch the first inning is yet another issue that may cause havoc in some fantasy formats. All in all, McKay represents an investable fantasy commodity, but one that comes with some issues.

Forrest Whitley (22, RHP, HOU) – He may be pretty much the consensus number one right-handed pitching prospect in the game, but Whitley is starting to run out of slack in his development line.  Between drug suspensions and injuries, his ability to get in-game development experience has been severely limited. This issue has been compounded by Whitley’s inability to throw strikes when he has had the chance to pitch. He's still only 22 years old, and has stuff that makes scouts drool, but after being burning fantasy competitors who counted on him providing a mid-season boost last year, it does not seem particularly wise to be banking on it again in 2020. Quickly becoming the wildest of wild cards.

 

SUPPORT PIECES

Dylan Cease (24, RHP, CHW) – Made his major league debut in 2019 despite posting middling numbers in Triple-A prior to his promotion. It should be no surprise that Cease found success tough to come by in the big leagues, as he had done little in 2019 to suggest the time was right for the promotion. Cease continued to struggle with sketchy command and control, a problem that was compounded by a brutally high home run rate (1.85 HR/9). He still racked up the Ks with his electric fastball, but it was not enough to offset the damage he inflicted on fantasy pitching staffs. The upside remains and Cease is slated for a spot in the White Sox rotation, but earning a profit on this investment may take longer than anticipated.

Deivi Garcia (21, RHP, NYY) – Diminutive starting pitcher with solid four pitch mix, advanced for his age. Garcia blew away opposing hitters in the Florida State League (16.8 Dom) and then the Double-A Eastern League (14.6 Dom), but came back to earth a bit after being promoted to Triple-A, as he struggled with marginal control and the MRB (Manfred Rabbit Ball). However, he is suddenly in the mix to compete for a spot in the Yankees rotation in the wake of James Paxton’s injury. He probably could use more time in Triple-A, but Garcia’s progress is worth tracking.

Brent Honeywell (25, RHP, TB) – A premium prospect before injuries cost him the last two full seasons, Honeywell has just recently “resumed throwing.”  Needless to say, this comeback will be a process and any 2020 fantasy contributions figure to be minimal, at best. The smartest course of action is probably to simply monitor his progress and try to roster him if/when he shows signs of recapturing the form that made him so highly thought of before he broke down.

 

DON’T FORGET ABOUT…

Reynaldo Lopez (26, RHP, CHW) – Left for dead in fantasy circles after a miserable first half of 2019, Lopez suddenly got the wheels back on the road, going 3-1, 2.13 in his first five starts after the All-Star break. He still mixed in enough second-half clunkers to keep his stat line looking plenty ugly, but with his ability to miss bats and his incumbency in the almost-ready-to-start-trying-again White Sox rotation, Lopez offers some intrigue as spring training gets under way. If nothing else, he could be useful as a potential matchup-based streamer in formats where that is a reasonable strategy.


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