It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2019 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2019 fantasy baseball season.
For the fifth year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. The first three articles in the series were batting average, WHIP, and home run sleepers. This week, we’ll be looking at possible pitcher strikeouts sleepers. Over 10 weeks, I will be providing a list of sleepers for each 5x5 roto category (BA, HR, RBI, R, SB, W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV). Since the hot stove league still has a long way to go this offseason, for the next few weeks we will focus on players in categories that are less based on opportunity and more based on skill. Other roto categories that are more dependent on opportunity, supporting cast, and batting order spot (R, RBI, SB) or team and manager (W, SV) will be discussed in the latter half of the 10-week series.
Before reading any further, it’s important to note the definition of a sleeper. In this case, it’s a player who will exceed draft day ADP AND projections in a particular category. The players are broken down by mixed league sleepers and single league sleepers.
Mixed League Sleepers
Josh James, SP, Astros
Astros top prospect Forrest Whitley is getting most of the press going into 2019, but James has a strong chance to produce better value for fantasy owners. The right-hander had a breakout season last year, posting a 3.23 ERA and 13.5 K/9 in 114.1 innings between Double- and Triple-A, followed by a 2.35 ERA and 11.3 K/9 in 23 innings with Houston in September. At age 25, James saw a sharp increase in fastball velocity, averaging mid-90’s and seeing his K/9 jump by five strikeouts in the minors compared to 2017. Added to a strong slider, James was fanning major league hitters almost at will into the playoffs.
Houston is set to move Collin McHugh to the rotation after losing Lance McCullers (injury), Charlie Morton, and Dallas Keuchel from last year’s roster. However, that still leaves the team with two more rotation spots to fill, and James has an excellent shot to fill one of them. James has managed to avoid much of the hype that we see from elite strikeout minor leaguers because of his very recent improvement, yet there’s reason to think it’s real based on his MLB results. There should be some concern about James’ control given his career 3.5 BB/9 in the minors, but he’s a viable possibility to profit with a current ADP of 214 in NFBC.
Tyler Glasnow, SP, Rays
Glasnow is a fairly obvious sleeper this year, and his value already seems to be rising with an ADP of 175 in NFBC. Still, there should be some strikeout profit to be had if the ball rolls his way. The former top prospect in the Pirates farm system stuck in Tampa Bay’s rotation full-time after being traded in the Chris Archer deal, making 11 starts and posting a 4.20 ERA and 10.3 K/9 in 55.2 innings. Wins were tough to come by, as Glasnow averaged only about five innings per outing, though he built more stamina after a few outings with his new team last year. Glasnow showed two mph more velocity last season compared to 2017, and most impressively, that velocity held when he was moved to the rotation. That’s an exciting prospect for a pitcher that had an 11.9 K/9 for his minor league career.
There are still concerns about Glasnow’s ability to remain in the rotation, if for no other reason than Tampa Bay’s current pitching depth. After signing Charlie Morton, the Rays have no fewer than nine rotation candidates going into the year, so a slip up of any kind could sacrifice Glasnow’s spot in the rotation. That’s a possibility that should be built into his innings projection and fantasy value, but the 6-foot-8 right-hander also has legitimate 200 strikeout upside if he can stick it out as a starter.
Drew Smyly, SP, Rangers
Buying pitchers that are returning from injuries provides ample opportunities for profit, and Smyly fits in that category. The lefty was traded from the Cubs to the Rangers following the 2018 season, as Chicago was trying to create payroll space for Cole Hamels. While Smyly hasn’t appeared in an MLB game since 2016, he did make an appearance in the minors late last year as he recovered from Tommy John surgery and should be ready for spring training.
Smyly produced a 4.88 ERA in 30 starts with the Rays in 2016, hardly what fantasy owners are hoping for from a viable pitcher. Still, he has a career 3.74 ERA in five seasons with an excellent 8.7 K/9 as a result of a low-90’s fastball and very good curveball. It should be noted that 2016 was the first time Smyly posted an ERA above 4.00 in his major league career, as the extreme flyball pitcher had major trouble keeping the ball in the park with the Rays. The task doesn’t get any easier in Arlington, but at this point Smyly is basically free in mixed leagues with an ADP in 491 in NFBC. He’s a bit of a crapshoot after such a long layoff coming back from injury, but Smyly only turns 30 in June and has shown far too much strikeout ability to go undrafted in 12-plus team mixed leagues.
Julio Urias, P, Dodgers
Speaking of pitchers returning from injury, Urias did just that late last season with the Dodgers. There were major concerns about Urias’ ability to bounce back to what we saw during his 2016 debut at age 19, but the left-hander was terrific while pitching out of the Dodgers pen. He allowed just one baserunner in four innings to close out the regular season, earning a key role during the playoffs. The success continued with two runs allowed over 6.1 innings between the NLCS and World Series.
After posting a 9.8 K/9 mostly as a starter in his 2016 debut and a career 10.6 K/9 as a minor league starter, there are two bits of info from last season that are notable. First, Urias’ velocity upon his return was on par with what we saw from the lefty pre-shoulder surgery. Second, manager Dave Roberts said Urias would be built back up as a starter in 2019. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Dodgers are conservative with Urias’ innings, as they were with Walker Buehler last season, but the move back to the rotation is still great news for Urias’ strikeouts and fantasy value. Currently with an ADP of 278, the price is right given the upside of 150 innings and 160-plus strikeouts.
Single League Sleepers
Dylan Cease, SP, White Sox
At least based on their offseason moves to this point, the White Sox look like a team trying to compete in 2019. Not only have they been rumored in the running for blue-chip free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, but the team has added Ivan Nova, Alex Colome, Kelvin Herrera, James McCann, Yonder Alonso, and Jon Jay so far this offseason. There’s still a long way to go for a 100-loss team from last season, but the development is encouraging for their top prospects like Cease to get an opportunity sooner than later.
Acquired from the Cubs in 2017 for Jose Quintana, has shown ace upside in the minors with a career 2.67 ERA and 11.9 K/9. He brings a mid-90’s fastball that helped him produce a 2.40 ERA and 11.6 K/9 between High-A and Double-A last season. With only 10 starts at Double-A under his belt, Cease is unlikely to make the team come Opening Day, but he has a shot to help before the All-Star break if his annual trend of improving control continues. The right-hander had a career-best 3.6 BB/9 last season, and the control has come a long way after posting a 6.0 BB/9 during his pro debut in 2015. We should still expect some hiccups based on that control, but as of now, there aren’t many formidable pitchers to jump in Chicago for Cease to get his first shot.
Yoan Lopez, RP, Diamondbacks
Fantasy owners shouldn’t forget about middle relievers when compiling their rosters, even with the strikeout category. Lopez is one pitcher that could be helpful in that area. The Cuban took an odd path before finally reaching the majors last season, but that doesn’t make him any less intriguing. Given a signing bonus of greater than $8 million by the former Diamondbacks front office regime in 2015, Lopez appeared to be a major bust as a starter in his first two seasons in the minors. The worst results came in 2016, with a 5.52 ERA and just 5.2 K/9 in 14 starts at Double-A. Lopez’s velocity at the time was below the mid-90’s that was advertised before he arrived, and he even contemplated quitting baseball.
Fortunately, Lopez stuck it out and has dominated as a reliever over the last two seasons. He had a 0.85 ERA and 16.8 K/9 in the low minors in 2017, and posted a 2.92 ERA and 12.7 K/9 at Double-A last year before making 10 appearances with Arizona. The bullpen really seems to suit Lopez well with a fastball that averaged 97 mph and a great slider during his MLB debut at age 25 last season. He was terrific in nine MLB innings with 11/1 K/BB, and has a chance to work into a key role this season with the Diamondbacks looking more toward the future than 2019. The exact role and innings upside remain to be seen for a pitcher that made only 55 appearances last season and is still relatively new to the bullpen, but the stuff and recent results make Lopez a dark horse for 90-plus strikeouts, and even some save opportunities.
Jesus Luzardo, SP, Athletics
The small market A’s need to win trades in order to compete, and it’s fair to say they did that when they acquired Luzardo and Blake Treinen for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from Washington in 2017. A former third-round pick out of Stoneman-Douglas High School, Luzardo has fast become an elite pitching prospect. His command is well beyond his years, with a 4.30 K/BB between three minor league levels last season and a resulting 2.88 ERA. He reached Triple-A already last season at age 20, and Oakland is already discussing the lefty as a possible rotation candidate in spring training.
Starting the year in the MLB rotation would seem to be optimistic given his lack of extensive Triple-A experience and the service time rules, but the team’s front office is saying all the right things in that regard. Consider this quote from Oakland special assistant Grady Fuson that compares Luzardo to Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Gio Gonzalez. Finishing with a 10.6 K/9 last season, added with quotes like Fuson’s, Luzardo’s ADP could pick up quickly as word gets out. Even so, the price remains very reasonable for the time being, with Luzardo going around pick 270 in NFBC. Oakland has plenty of room in their starting rotation at this time with seemingly only Mike Fiers and Daniel Mengden guaranteed spots, so it’s not a stretch to project 130-plus innings with Oakland and just as many strikeouts in 2019.
Taylor Widener, SP, Diamondbacks
Another breakout minor leaguer from 2018 on the list, Widener has become arguably Arizona’s best pitching prospect after being acquired last spring from the Yankees in the Steven Souza Jr. three-team deal. It looks as though Arizona did well to get the right-hander after he posted a 2.75 ERA and 11.5 K/9 in 137.1 innings at Double-A Jackson. A reliever for much of his time at the University of South Carolina, Widener has taken well to starting full-time over the last two seasons with a fastball that has improved to the mid-90’s and a strong changeup.
As for Widener’s timetable, it partially depends on how much the Diamondbacks continue to dump this offseason. They’ve already lost Patrick Corbin, Clay Buchholz, and Shelby Miller from last year’s roster, and Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray have at least been mentioned in trade rumors. The team has a full starting five at the moment following the additions of Merrill Kelly and Luke Weaver, but prospects Widener and Jon Duplantier likely figure into their plans. Despite the lack of any Triple-A experience, Widener turned 24 in October and could be seen in the majors before the All-Star break if he can build some early-season momentum. He certainly looks like a worthy NL-only stash.