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Fantasy Baseball's AL or Nothing - AL Sleepers: Taking the Fifth!
By Ryan Carey
There are not many things that are more satisfying in fantasy than getting a breakout season out of one of your late-round pitchers. In deep or single-league formats, every team is going to have to take more than a few shots for the back of their rotations or on their benches, and those teams that hit on their picks sometimes reap the rewards of ace-level stats for their faith. Just ask anyone who was lucky enough to land Jose Fernandez last year. I speak from experience as I was able to land Fernandez in a bunch of leagues, and he helped me bring home two titles and another money finish in three separate leagues. The difference of course is I had to spend a sizeable chunk of my free agent budget to get him in every case. While he was still worth it in the end, it would have been even sweeter to have used a reserve round pick on him instead.
I have already announced my affection for Drew Smyly this year as he slides into his new role as the TIgers' fifth starter. His price has been on the rise now that he has the job, and as such the odds of my rostering Smyly on more of my teams go down every day his draft stock rises. If someone in my league snipes me on Smyly, I will move along to some of my other sleeper picks in the American League. Here is a quick look at some of my other favorite arms that I think are poised to break out in 2014. I have drafted every one of these guys in at least one of my early leagues so far. Only time will tell if I hit the jackpot with any of my lottery tickets this year.
Carlos Carrasco, CLE - The Indians head into 2014 fresh off their first playoff berth since 2007 and with an internal belief that they can take the next step and even knock the vaunted Detroit Tigers off their perch atop the league's Central Division. It may seem like crazy talk, but they only came up one game short of that unlikely goal a year ago. The biggest question mark for the team this spring is who will step up and claim the fifth starter's job, vacated by the loss of Scott Kazmir in free agency.
Carrasco is my pick to emerge as the victor in a battle with Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, Aaron Harang and Shaun Marcum for the coveted final spot. Carrasco is a former top prospect who came over from the Phillies in the Cliff Lee deal in 2009, and is the only one of the four players the Indians received in that deal still with the team. He showed some promise in 2011, before succumbing to Tommy John surgery and missing all of 2012. He made it back to the mound last year, and while he struggled with his control in seven mediocre starts, there were some positives for him to build on.
First and foremost was the increase in the velocity of his fastball, which went from an average of 92.5 mph to 95 mph. It is not uncommon for a player coming back from TJS to see an increase in velocity coupled with issues with control. This was certainly the case for Carrasco, who posted an ugly 6.75 ERA and 1.76 WHIP for the season last year. Were it not for some decent work out of the bullpen late in the year, those numbers would have been even worse.
On the bright side, he was pretty solid all year long in Triple-A, is still relatively young at 27 and will be two years removed from surgery. He also has always demonstrated a nice ground ball tendency, which should help him be successful if he can figure out how to harness his improved stuff. Since he is out of options, he's almost a shoo-in to get first crack at the job, but it is nice to see him show up to camp in good shape (he reportedly lost 15 pounds) and motivated to earn Terry Francona's trust. He has looked good early in camp, while Bauer is once again struggling with his control.
Yordano Ventura, KC - I will state up front that I am pretty high on Ventura this year, as I have already drafted him in two early 15-team leagues. In both cases, I got him just prior to the reserve rounds, a price that I think will look pretty nice by the time the season starts. See, I fully expect the young flamethrower to win the Royals' fifth starter job outright this spring.
His main competition for the job is Danny Duffy, with Wade Davis, Luke Hochevar, Chris Dwyer and Brad Penny also in the mix this spring. Hochevar was dominant out of the bullpen last year, and seems headed for that role again this year, especially now that he's injured. Davis regressed once he was moved back to starting last year, so I think he will start in the bullpen and hope to get another shot at some point this year.
So that leaves Duffy and Ventura, and I think when the dust settles, the team just won't be able to deny Ventura a rotation spot if they are serious about contending in the division this year. This isn't so much a condemnation of Duffy's skills, just more my belief that when you have a guy that can light up the radar gun like Ventura can, it's tough not to want to unleash him on opposing lineups. As with any young pitcher, the usual warning flags are in play here, but Ventura has a very nice curveball to complement his electric fastball, and also an improving changeup that is a work in progress.
The success of Fernandez, Tony Cingrani and a host of other young pitchers last year should provide enough reasons to not be afraid to take a shot at some upside at the draft table this year. Ventura, even if he starts the year in the pen or at Triple-A, won't stay in either spot long, and once he hits the rotation he will rack up strikeouts along with the league's best. Yes, he will get hit hard at times, especially if his change doesn't improve, but I don't see too many arms with his upside available late in drafts. The closer the season gets, the higher his price tag will get, so my advice is to try and get some shares in him while he's still a bargain.
Hector Santiago & Garrett Richards, LAA - I am very intrigued by both Santiago and Richards as potential sleepers, enough that I have rostered both in a couple of places already this year. I drafted Richards as a late reserve in Perry Van Hook's JBL league in January and recently ended up with both in my CBS AL Auction league.
In Richards, we have a case of a young pitcher who looks poised to take the next step, and finally take advantage of his plus fastball. He has always had great "stuff," but he has lacked the poise and control needed to be consistently successful at the big league level. The funny thing is, he didn't generate a ton of strikeouts last year despite the plus fastball. What he did do, however, was evolve into an elite ground ball pitcher. His GB% shot up to 57% last year, and if he can sustain those gains, he has a great chance of delivering an ERA under 4.00. Some have compared him to Justin Masterson, and I think it's a fair comparison. I think he offers more upside for my AL-only team, but if he can figure out how to utilize his heater a little more effectively, without it affecting his groundball tendencies, then we could have a real breakout on our hands.
Santiago is a player that has grown on me as draft season has progressed, partly because of where some of my competitors were tabbing him in both real and mock drafts. I am always open to investigate further on a player that other owners whose judgment I respect seem to like more than I do. This is one of the best things you gain from doing early drafts and mocks. Santiago, who came over in the Mark Trumbo deal, is kind of lurking under the radar due to a solid, if unspectacular, skill set. He doesn't have an electric fastball, but he mixes up his pitches, including an improving screwball, and gets plenty of looking K's. Perhaps the best thing working in his favor this year is his change of venue. Home runs have been his Achilles heel, and he gets to leave U.S. Cellular behind and move into spacious Angel Stadium, which will help keep more of those long flies in play.
Some other starters that I like as late-round targets include:
Erasmo Ramirez, SEA - Ramirez will look to put his injury-plagued 2013 behind him and take advantage of injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker to lock down his place in the Mariners' rotation. His stock is down, but this is the same guy who turned heads two years ago in his initial call-up in 2012.
Kevin Gausman, BAL - The Ubaldo Jimenez signing has put a little damper on the prized rookie's stock, since he now looks headed to the minors to start the year. He was one young gun who didn't exactly hit the ground running last year, but he has as good a pedigree as any prospect who made his debut last year. He will get a chance in the rotation at some point this year and will hope for better results the second time around.
Nick Tepesch, TEX - Tepesch won the first round in his battle with Colby Lewis to win the fifth starter job for the Rangers. He profiles better as an AL-only option, but could make for a nice reserve arm that you stream in for favorable matchups.
Brandon Workman, BOS - Workman got roughed up in his first spring start, and likely will start the year in the minors. Still, the departure of Ryan Dempster has created an opportunity at the back of the world champions' rotation and Felix Doubront will give way to the prized prospect at some point. He has great potential and should be stashed in AL-only leagues.
Sano to Miss Entire 2014 Season
Miguel Sano, one of the top power-hitting prospects in all of baseball, got some bad news last week when it was revealed that he will undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and likely miss the entire 2014 season. It is a tremendous blow to the Minnesota Twins, and they will have to pray that the 20-year-old can pick back up where he left off when he eventually returns from a long rehabilitation process. The burgeoning slugger hit a combined 35 home runs between High-A and Double-A last season, and had hopes of mashing his way into the majors at some point this season. The rumblings on the young third baseman's elbow had been swirling around since he got shut down in winter ball, but the Twins were hopeful that rest would heal the ligament and allow Sano to avoid surgery. It didn't work out that way, unfortunately, for either the team or the player, but the organization is putting the best possible spin they can on the terrible news. For anyone who already drafted Sano in an early league, that's one lottery ticket down. All dynasty owners can do is wait for 2015.
Tanaka Impressive in His Spring Debut
Masahiro Tanaka received rave reviews after his spring training debut for the Bombers in Tampa over the weekend. Pitching before a host of assembled media, in a game that was televised on major Japanese stations as well as on the MLB Network, the prized free agent lived up to his billing, hurling two scoreless innings, with three strikeouts. He threw 32 pitches, 22 of them for strikes, his fastball topped out at 94 mph and he even unveiled his signature splitter, which was as nasty as advertised. He used the pitch to punch out Ben Revere for one of his strikeouts with a splitter that dived late into the dirt. He will make his second appearance this Thursday against the Phillies.
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