KEEPERS: 2020 Building Blocks—SP (NL)

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 off-season. 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)

 

After working our way through hitters at every position in previous articles of this series, we now turn our attention to the mound, beginning with starting pitchers in the National League. 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

MacKenzie Gore* (21, LHP, SD) – Gore is a prime example of the challenge presented by fishing in the shark-infested waters of pitching prospects. While his sky-high ceiling is without question, just how quickly he can attain it is something of a conundrum. The Padres have been cautiously aggressive with the young lefty since signing him to the largest bonus in franchise history as the third overall selection in the 2017 draft. He made seven starts in the summer after signing at the rookie-level Arizona complex league, but was limited to working no more than four innings or facing 15 batters per start, averaging just over three and 12, respectively. In 2018, a recurring blister issue helped cap Gore’s workload at 61 total innings and 16 starts in the Midwest League. Finally healthy and rested up for the 2019 campaign, it was a front office algorithm that conspired to arbitrarily limit the phenom to 101 innings over 20 starts, including the last five at double-A, which featured two good starts, two rough outings and a final abbreviated outing where he was only permitted to face six hitters, despite striking out five of them. While there are calls for Gore to be part of the big league staff out of spring training, that would figure to be a stretch, and he appears quite a way from being a reliable “workhorse.” Gore is a no-doubt premium keeper league pitching investment, but we may need to have patience with just how quickly he can be counted on to make a major impact.

Dustin May (22, RHP, LA) – The best pitching prospect in a loaded Dodgers system, May is a strike-thrower skilled at inducing ground balls. He has also shown the ability to miss bats at a fine clip with mid-90s heat. Add it all up and May makes for an excellent keeper league asset, still at the tender age of 22. Best of all, he has already made it to the big leagues, finishing 2019 with four starts and ten more appearances out of the Los Angeles pen. The only real hurdle remaining for the youngster is navigating the Dodgers tendency to aggressively manage the workloads of all their starters, especially those of the peach-fuzz variety. The bad news is that May could be shuffled between the rotation and the bullpen, or even triple-A for a stretch. The good news is he should inevitably get some good SP run for the same reason, regardless of the rotation depth around him. May is an excellent keeper league asset, just about ready to blossom.

Sixto Sanchez (21, RHP, MIA) – After being safely stored in bubble wrap for the greater part of the 2018 season while he rehabbed a balky pitching elbow, Sanchez was finally unleashed on May 3 of 2019. The 5-foot-10 righthander did not miss a turn the rest of the summer, as he amassed a career high 114 innings, mostly at double-A, while carving up the Southern League. Best of all, Sanchez finished with a flourish, going 5-0 with a 0.95 ERA, 0.74 WHIP and a strong 5.6 Cmd over his final eight starts. With a big fastball coming out of his small frame, plus excellent secondary stuff, Sanchez elicits thoughts of the great Pedro Martinez. He works quickly on the mound, similar to Pedro, and stands a chance of likewise being commonly referenced by first name only. Recently added to the Marlins 40-man roster, only Miami’s level of tankiness should keep the restraints on his ascension to the big leagues. Look for Sixto to make an impact in the second half.

Spencer Howard (23, RHP, PHI) – A power pitcher with plus secondary stuff, Howard advanced from high-A to double-A in 2019, showing elite 6.1 Cmd  between the two levels to go with excellent 1.9 Ctl and 11.8 Dom. As a college draftee in 2017, Howard could come quick and appears to be on the way to doing just that. He will report to big league camp for spring training, though chances of sticking around for Opening Day are almost non-existent. Howard could easily be a factor by the midway point of 2020, and projects as a prime 2021 contributor for a Phillies rotation in need of reinforcements.

 

BUILDING BLOCKS

Zac Gallen (24, RHP, ARI) – Rode a breakout season at triple-A to a solid major league debut that even saw him mercifully traded out of Miami. Improved velocity on his heater combined with command of a good secondary mix was credited for the emergence. Now with a better team, Gallen should see his chances for wins increase to match his solid peripherals. A solid growth stock.

Mitch Keller (24, RHP, PIT) – After his 11-start major league debut was marred by an incredibly unlucky 48-percent hit rate, Keller could be discounted in fantasy circles heading into 2020. He continues to offer high-K upside, with a reasonable walk rate, though his off-speed stuff remains inconsistent, which could be an issue at the highest level. Keller is a shoe-in to begin the season in the big league rotation and offers prime profit potential.

Julio Urias* (23, LHP, LAD) – A variety of factors have kept Urias from becoming a mainstay in the Dodgers rotation, but the one-time phenom enters 2020 with his first legitimate opportunity to do just that. Urias has been handled with kid gloves since undergoing major (anterior capsule) surgery on his pitching shoulder in 2017, but it appears the young lefty is about to be unleashed. While his workload will undoubtedly be monitored, Urias can be expected to use 2020 as a jumping off point to get back on his track to stardom. It may be the last chance to get him cheap in keeper leagues.

Luis Patino (20, RHP, SD) – Similar to Sixto Sanchez, above, Patino packs a big punch in a small frame. He was the youngest starting pitcher in the Midwest League in 2018 and again in the high-A California League last summer, finding plenty of success at both stops. While he finished with a pair of starts at double-A, Patino still could use more development time at the higher levels. Most pressing are his lefty-righty splits. While he has dominated right-handed hitters to the tune of a .156/.236/.205 line over almost 600 professional plate appearances, lefties have combined to post much healthier .295/.353/.448 marks. Patino did show improvement in 2019, perhaps due to the development of his change-up. It is also worth noting that he has yet to cross the 100 IP threshold in a season, due in part to problems with blisters that curtailed his 2019 campaign at the 95-inning mark. While Patino offers premium upside, he may be farther away from making a meaningful impact than it appears.

 

SUPPORT PIECES

Kyle Wright (24, RHP, ATL) – The Braves 2017 first round pick out of Vanderbilt, Wright quickly worked his way up through the minors and opened the 2019 season in Atlanta’s rotation. After three starts in which he coughed up 10 walks and 11 runs in 14 innings, Wright was shipped back to triple-A, where his struggles continued, as he was cuffed around for a 7.22 ERA over his first nine triple-A starts. In mid-June, Wright suddenly found his footing and proceeded to go 8-0, 2.57 with 86 strikeouts in 76 innings over his final 12 triple-A starts (sandwiched around one more major league clunker). He returned to the big leagues in September, making three garbage time relief appearances, but walked none while striking out four over three combined innings. While there was no major adjustment reported to account for the mid-season turnaround, we might well chalk it up to the maturation process of a young pitcher. Wright is back in the mix for the big league rotation once again as spring training approaches and could represent something of an intriguing post-hype sleeper.

Tyler Mahle (25, RHP, CIN) – With a career 4.88 ERA through two-plus seasons, Mahle will likely be an afterthought in most circles heading into 2020. Heck, he’s not even penciled in for a spot in the rotation at this point. However, his poor results masked some intriguing skills growth in 2019 and Mahle is definitely worth consideration on what should be a rejuvenated Reds team.

Jordan Yamamoto (23, RHP, MIA) – A solid start at double-A plus his presence on the 40-man roster got Yamamoto the call to the big leagues when an injury-related opening occurred in mid-June. Seven shutout innings in his debut bought him another start, in which he duplicated the feat. By mid-July, Yamamoto was 4-0 with a 1.59 ERA and on the way to the Cy Young, carving up major league hitters like nobody’s business. Just as suddenly, the dream was over. Yamamoto was torched for a 7.68 ERA as he went 0-5 over his next eight starts before finishing on a high note with a one-hit, three-walk, ten-K performance in his final start covering six innings. Add it all up and we have an inconsistent youngster with solid if not spectacular stuff, surrounded by a weak supporting cast. There's worse places to invest your keeper league pitching capital, but we may have already seen his best.

Ian Anderson (22, RHP, ATL) – Even as Anderson continues to miss bats at a high clip with a power arsenal, poor control and command remain a concern. His five-start triple-A debut at the end of 2019 was particularly discouraging, as he walked 18 batters in 25 innings while getting tagged for a 6.57 ERA. Anderson will be in big league camp for the first time this spring, but is not yet on the 40-man roster and remains farther away than a spot in the triple-A rotation might otherwise imply.

Sandy Alcantara (24, RHP, MIA) – Pitched 197.1 innings in 2019 to rank 17th in all of MLB, but that was more a function of being the number one starter on the tanking Marlins than any sign of him becoming a reliable “workhorse.” While he does throw hard, Alcantara throws everything hard, which can be a problem facing big league hitters. He finished strong, with a 2.78 ERA over the final two months, but even that only netted him two wins for the moribund Fish. Alcantara pitches in a great home park and may well approach 200 IP once again in 2020, but he still walks too many and Ks too few to offer hope of much upside, short of a sudden increase in his ability to take something off the ball.

Dakota Hudson (25, RHP, STL) – In the MRB/pitch-count era, we know that chasing wins from a back-end starter is a fool’s errand. Looking past Hudson’s 16 Ws in 2019 leaves little to get overly excited about. He has a top-shelf ground ball rate, but that is neutralized by poor control and weak Dom. Do you feel lucky?

Alex Reyes (25, RHP, STL) – Long considered a future frontline starter, Reyes has been beset by a litany of injuries, as well as difficulty throwing strikes. Now 25 years old, Reyes will reportedly compete for a bullpen role this spring in hopes that he may not only maintain better health, but also better harness his high-end stuff. While that strategy quickly fell apart last year, Reyes was dominant the only previous time he worked out of the pen as a pro, compiling a sparkling 0.52 ERA over seven relief appearances back in 2016, albeit while walking ten in just 17 innings. As much as Reyes has disappointed over the last three years, his risk-reward ratio as an endgame lottery ticket may actually be higher than ever.

 

DON’T FORGET ABOUT…

Josh Lindblom (33, RHP, MIL) – He will turn 33 years old in June and has registered a pedestrian 4.10 ERA over 147 innings in parts of five major league seasons, but Lindblom might as well be considered a hotshot rookie for 2020 fantasy purposes. Originally a second round pick by the Dodgers back in 2008, Lindblom bounced around between five different organizations, mainly pitching out of the bullpen. He went to Korea in 2015-16, working as a starter, and had enough success to return to the States with the Pirates in 2017, but that endeavor quickly went south, and Lindblom headed back to Korea for the second half of the 2017 season. He remained overseas in 2018 and suddenly something clicked. Lindblom went 15-4 with a 2.88 ERA, striking out 157 in 169 innings while only walking 38, as he won the equivalent of the Cy Young award as Korea’s best pitcher. In 2019, he got even better. Lindblom posted a 20-3 record with a sparkling 2.50 ERA as he struck out 189 while walking a miniscule 29 batters in 195 innings on the way to being named not only Korea's best pitcher, but also the MVP. Now he is returning to MLB once again, this time with the security of a three-year contract and a pending spot in the Brewers rotation. With players increasingly finding a Korean tour rejuvenating, Lindblom makes for an intriguing endgame target.


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