Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Starting Pitchers (2023)
With just two editions of this series to go, we move onto the starting pitchers. We made our way through all of the positional editions of this series and now we take to the mound. Starting pitcher may be the second most important position when it comes to fantasy baseball. Starting pitching is the most rostered position in fantasy baseball. You typically start five with the possibility to start more with additional blanket pitcher positions.
Like the outfield, starting pitchers must be drafted early. You need to anchor your pitching corps with a strong front man. With the position being so deep and featuring the most roster spots, there will be room to not only add sleepers in terms of bench spots, but oftentimes, some of these sleepers may anchor the tail end of your starting positions and that's where this article comes into play.
Due to most leagues offering five-plus starting spots for starting pitchers, I will be offering my five favorite sleepers opposed to the three for the infield positions.
Each year I do this sleepers series, offering my favorite sleepers per position leading up to draft season. Typically per position I will offer my three favorites, while offering five sleepers for the outfield, starting and relief pitchers.
You can find the other editions of this series below:
First Base: https://www.weknowfantasy.com/post/fantasy-baseball-sleeper-series-first-base-2023
Second Base: https://www.weknowfantasy.com/post/fantasy-baseball-sleepers-second-base-2023
Patrick Sandoval (Los Angeles Angels)
2022 Stats: 6-9, 148.2 IP, 2.91 ERA, 1.339 WHIP & 151 SO
2023 Projections: 6-9, 141 IP, 3.38 ERA, 1.27 WHIP & 142 SO
Patrick Sandoval saw a decrease in his strikeout rate from 2021 to 2022 but his whiff rate remained in the 76th percentile and he posted a career high in chase rate at 31.8-percent. He at times struggles with his command but with the increased whiff rate and chase rate, it won’t be as big of an issue as it once was.
Sandoval has seemed to have perfected his pitch arsenal as well. He uses a fastball, sinker, slider and changeup. His best pitch is his slider, in which he threw at a clip of 12-percent more often a year ago. His career low ERA a year ago of 2.91 too will almost certainly climb back over that three mark, but it is promising that he was able to maintain a sub-three ERA while throwing 61 more innings than his previous career high.
He’s currently being drafted in the 18th round of 12-man leagues. The wins may not be there while being tagged to the underperforming Angels despite the few superstars the team possesses. The rest of his game will help you out however. His projected ERA and WHIP via Baseball Reference sees him at 3.38 and 1.27 respectively. With a strikeout number near that 150 mark across 141 innings pitched, there are worse ways to invest an 18th round pick.
Edward Cabrera (Miami Marlins)
2022 Stats: 6-4, 71.2 IP, 3.01 ERA, 1.074 WHIP & 75 SO
2023 Projections: 6-6, 99 IP, 3.64 ERA, 1.192 WHIP & 100 SO
If there’s one thing the Miami Marlins do right, it’s developing players, namely, pitchers. Cabrera is one of the most popular sleepers across the community prior to the start of the fantasy baseball draft season. His ADP will begin to climb the closer we get to the start of the MLB season and should be watched closely. Either way, with a current ADP in the 20th round of 12-man leagues, even if he begins to climb, he’ll still be considered a sleeper.
The knock to Cabrera’s game was his seventh highest walk rate (11.3-percent) among all pitchers with at least 70 innings in the majors. He’ll need to shave a few percent off that but I don’t see how he won’t with a full spring training and a season of work behind him. He offered a very good quality of contact metrics a year ago and had three pitches with a whiff rate of at least 30-percent.
The injury history too is there which throws some red flags up. If he can remain healthy and take the potential steps forward we highlighted, he offers ace-like potential. It won’t be this season that he begins to turn into an ace, but the potential is there. The draft capital is low enough that taking a stab at Cabrera could pay off in a big way.
Aaron Ashby (Milwaukee Brewers)
2022 Stats: 2-10, 107.1 IP, 4.44 ERA, 1.425 WHIP & 126 SO
2023 Projections: 4-7, 103 IP, 4.11 ERA, 1.291 WHIP & 114 SO
The Brewers, like the Marlins, are known for the development of pitchers. Due to this, Ashby is on the outside looking in in terms of the rotation. He’ll likely begin as a bulk-inning reliever and a spot starter but is one injury away from getting his shot in the Brewers’ rotation.
Ashby misses bats and induces ground balls at an exceptional rate. Of pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2022, only Framber Valdez, Andre Pallante and Alex Cobb had a higher ground ball rate than Ashby’s 56.9-percent mark. Ashby was the only one of the names listed prior to also have a SwStr rate above 12-percent. He also has an impressive 30.1-percent chase rate and 29.4-percent whiff rate.
He offers up to five pitches with the sinker being his best offering, which attributes to his impressive groundball rate. That too has room for improvements. If he locates that sinker a bit better this season, he’ll be in the Brewers’ lineup sooner rather than later. He’s currently being drafted in the 22nd round of 12-man leagues.
Kenta Maeda (Minnesota Twins)
2022 Stats: 6-5, 106.1 IP, 4.66 ERA, 1.298 WHIP & 113 SO
2023 Projections: 4-3, 71 IP, 4.06 ERA, 1.225 WHIP & 71 SO
It wasn’t that long ago that Maeda was showing ace-like potential. In 2020 he was throwing a slider and splitter that was getting a ton of chases along with a fastball he could sneak into the zone. In 2021 he struggled with his command and then went on to have Tommy John surgery that kept him out through the 2022 season. We now have a healthy Maeda.
He’s thrown 5.2 innings in spring training at the time of writing this where his fastball is in the 90-to-91 miles-per-hour range. He looks good. You’re finding him in the 26th round of 12-man leagues where he may even go undrafted all-together.
The risk to the reward is very low due to his current ADP. He’s going to offer you a low walk rate and even through his struggles and injuries in 2021, he produced a 25-percent strikeout rate. He comes with a repaired elbow and I don’t see him returning to his nine hits per-nine-innings form he was in 2021. Take the leap, the risk is very low and you're getting top 20 starting pitcher potential.
Ryne Nelson (Arizona Diamondbacks)
2022 Stats: 1-1, 18.1 IP, 1.47 ERA, 0.818 WHIP & 16 SO
2023 Projections: 4-4, 69 IP, 3.39 ERA, 1.159 WHIP & 66 SO
What excites me about Nelson is his impressive four-pitch arsenal he offers. He has a four-seam fastball with plus rise, a slider with four inches more horizontal movement than average and a changeup and curveball that both rate as above-average. He can also command these pitches nearly the same across the board. That’s hard to find.
What keeps Nelson’s ADP really low is his below-average strike-out rate and the possibility that he doesn’t make the Diamondbacks' rotation. He did have a great strikeout rate prior to Triple-A and when he gains the confidence to utilize his secondary pitches, those weaknesses should be no more. He failed to use his fastball often a year ago.
He also pitches in a pitcher’s ballpark, adding to his list of positives. You’re getting him essentially undrafted as well. His ADP of 428th puts him in the 35th round of 12-man leagues. Leagues don’t have that many roster spots. The risk-reward is essentially non-existent beyond a roster spot on your team. Take the chance because it could pay off in a big way.