If we really wanted to, we could make our 2021 pitching sleepers list 50 names long. Check that — 150. There’s no shortage of potential SP breakouts and values leading up to draft day, and between the inevitable injuries, surprise prospect call-ups, and need for spot-starters, fantasy baseball owners will find themselves combing the starting pitcher rankings — both during the late rounds of the draft and on the waiver wire — more than a few times throughout the year.
Because of the way baseball is trending, strikeouts are easier to find than ever, but no matter how much fantasy owners crave low ERAs and WHIPs and a high likelihood to get wins or quality starts, the most reliable stat remains the easiest to find — Ks. That makes our job a little tougher, but it just means we need to focus even more on things that might not be traditional fantasy stats, such as BB rate, HR rate, BABIP, FIP, etc. That can help us discern whose ERAs and WHIPs are likely to be palatable once the season starts.
Heading into 2021, there’s another factor that could wreak havoc on rotations — innings limits. No pitcher had a “normal” workload last year, which could be particularly worrisome for young pitchers. Such pitchers compromise the bulk of this list, so keep that mind. Depth and flexibility will be key this year, as plenty of pitchers who don’t start the year on major league rosters with have major league impacts. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should draft them, but if you have IL or minor league spots, make sure to take advantage of them.
Also, don’t be afraid to make moves early. Our sleeper lists try to encompass potential “values” in all types of leagues, from 10-teamers to 14-teamers. Some of the players on this list might not be “sleepers” in your league; others might never be draft-day considerations. If a player on this list isn’t drafted, make sure to pay attention to his early-season performance. If your preferred sleeper is struggling, you don’t necessarily have to keep him around. After all, you will make plenty of roster moves this season, so there’s no shame in starting early.
Fantasy Baseball SP Sleepers: Breakout pitchers, late-round steals
Ian Anderson, Braves. Anderson isn’t sneaking up on any fantasy owners this season, not after posting a 1.95/1.08 line with an 11.4 K/9 ratio in six starts with the Braves last year. The 22-year-old righty won’t post such ridiculous numbers this season, but an elite K-rate and low peripherals aren’t out of the question. At this point, you probably have to reach for Anderson, so it’s tough to say that he really qualifies as a “sleeper,” but he certainly has breakout potential and could still outperform his draft position.
Cristian Javier, Astros. In 377 career minor league innings, Javier posted a 2.22 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 12.2 K/9 ratio. In 12 appearances (10 starts) last year with the Astros, he posted a 3.48/0.99 line with an 8.9 K/9 ratio. His advanced numbers suggested he was fairly lucky last season, but clearly the 24-year-old righty has elite stuff. Regardless of his role, he’ll have fantasy value, and he could be an upper-tier starter as soon as this season.
Triston McKenzie, Indians. McKenzie has dominated at every strop in his professional career (2.68/1.00, 10.8 K/9 in 329 career minor league innings; 3.24/0.90, 11.3 K/9 in 33.1 major league innings last year), so there’s no reason to think he can’t excel as soon as this season. A slight frame is the biggest knock on the 23-year-old righty, but given the pitching lineage of the club he plays for, we expect big things.
Kevin Gausman, Giants. At this point in his career, it’s not exciting to draft Gausman, but the “journeyman” righty has seen a big uptick in Ks the past two seasons (10.0 K/9 ratio in 2019; 11.9 last year), and his peripherals actually matched his stuff last year (3.62/1.11). Wins are a bit of a worry, but given his home park and modest walk rate, Gausman is a relatively cheap source of production.
Framber Valdez, Astros. Valdez is dealing with a fractured left ring finger that could force him to start the season on the DL, but that just creates an even bigger value opportunity in drafts for the 27-year-old southpaw. Valdez showed significant progress last year, pitching to a 3.57/1.12 line with a 9.7 K/9 ratio in 12 appearances (10 starts). Most important, he lowered his BB-rate to 2.0. If he can continue to keep it in between 2.0-3.0, Valdez will strike out enough hitters to produce solid all-around numbers. Keep tabs on his injury, but if he’s ready to go before the end of April, he’s worth stashing.
Tony Gonsolin, Dodgers. Over the past two years, Gonsolin has posted a 2.60/0.92 line with an 8.6 K/9 ratio in 20 major league appearances (14 starts). Despite having a low ground-ball rate (37.7 percent), Gonsolin doesn’t give up many homers (0.62 HR/9 ratio), which bodes well for his future outlook. His role is certainly up in the air heading into this season, but he’ll have value one way or another.
Sixto Sanchez, Marlins. Sanchez made good on all of his promise in seven starts last year, posting a 3.46/1.21 line with 33 Ks in 39 innings. Perhaps surprisingly, the 22-year-old righty was never a high-strikeout guy in the minors (7.9 K/9 ratio) despite a 97.6-mph average fastball, so that’s still something that could develop, but even as is, Sanchez has major breakout potential this year.
Aaron Civale, Indians. Civale is yet another Indians pitcher with a low-BB, solid-K repertoire. He might not be a K-per-inning guy, but the 25-year-old righty won’t be far from that threshold. His numbers last year (4.74/1.32, 8.4 K/9) won’t jump out at anyone, but Civale posted a 3.12/1.10 line with a 7.5 K/9 in 381.1 minor league innings, and he seems to be developing more of a knack for strikeouts as he moves up the ladder. He has late-round gem written all over him.
Josh Lindblom, Brewers. In his first season back from pitching overseas, Lindblom posted a 5.16/1.28 line with a 10.3 K/9 ratio in 12 appearances (10 starts). That doesn’t sound great, but it’s worth noting he had a 3.88 FIP, and his K-rate certainly suggests he has more upside. His ground-ball rate (26.9 percent) is a concern, but Lindblom should be a steady, high-K, back-end producer.
Tyler Mahle, Reds. Most fantasy owners have probably streamed Mahle in favorable spots over the past couple years, but the 26-year-old righty might be due for a full-fledged breakout. We hate his home park, but Mahle raised his K-rate (11.3) to an elite level last year while significantly cutting down on the HRs (1.13 HR/9 ratio). Obviously, last year’s numbers came in limited appearances (10 total, nine starts), so we’re taking those with a grain of salt, but Mahle has the stuff to be more consistent and post steady numbers at a bargain price.
Dane Dunning, Rangers. Dunning mostly impressed in seven starts with the White Sox last year (3.97/1.12, 9.3 K/9 ratio), building off a successful rise through the minors (2.74/1.13, 10.2 K/9). The 26-year-old righty has an effective four-pitch mix, and even in a worse pitchers park, he should be able to rack up Ks and limit baserunners.
Deivi Garcia, Yankees. Garcia has electric stuff despite a small frame, but he’s yet another young pitcher whose role is undefined heading into the season. Regardless of when he pitches, he’s going to strike out hitters. His career minor league line of 3.77/1.14 with a 12.7 K/9 ratio is even more impressive when you realize he’s still just 21.
Adbert Alzolay, Cubs. Alzolay has had an up-and-down minor league career, but something seemed to click in 2019 when he dialed up his K/9 ratio to 12.5 in 15 starts. Last year, in six major league appearances (four starts), he struck out 29 and gave up only one HR in 21.1 innings. The 26-year-old righty could pitch in a variety of roles throughout the season , but he figures to rack up Ks either way. If he can keep his walks at a semi-reasonable level and continue to keep the ball in the yard, he should settle in as a nice mid-rotation fantasy contributor.
Michael Kopech, White Sox. Between recovery from Tommy John surgery and last-season’s opt-out, Kopech hasn’t pitched in two years. He’s slated to be used as a reliever this season, but we all know plans can change. At some point, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the 24-year-old righty start, but even as a middle-man, Kopech has some intrigue. Prior to injury, Kopech was a flamethrower with four effective pitches, which is shown by his career 11.7 K/9 ratio in the minors. Even though he figures to be on an innings limit this year, Kopech could have legit fantasy value depending on his role.
Brady Singer, Royals. Singer was steady in his 12 starts last year, posting a 4.06/1.17 line with an 8.5 K/9 ratio, which was in line with his one year in the minors (2.85/1.19, 8.4 K/9 ratio). The 24-year-old righty is unlikely to be an upper-tier pitcher, at least this year, but he can be a solid back-of-the-rotation guy for fantasy owners, especially in favorable matchups.
Tarik Skubal, Tigers. An elite strikeout pitcher, Skubal posted a 13.2 K/9 ratio in 145 minor league innings. In his 32 innings in the majors last year, he registered a solid 10.4. A sky-high HR-rate (2.5) kept his ERA and FIP high (5.63, 5.75, respectively), but Skubal didn’t have that issue in the minors (0.4 HR/9), so there’s reason to believe the 24-year-old lefty will adjust. Either way, his K-rate alone makes him worth a late-round draft pick.
Brent Honeywell, Rays. Honeywell hasn’t pitched since 2017 due to various arm injuries, so he’s certainly an injury risk, but the former top prospect is healthy now and on the cusp of finally making the majors. He’ll start the season in the minors, and if he can dominate there like he did before his injuries (2.88/1.08, 9.9 K/9 ratio), he’ll get a shot in the Rays rotation. Yes, he’ll be on an innings limit, but the 25-year-old righty has a lot of upside and should be high on your watchlists.