Post-Hype Pandemonium: 2021 Pitcher Sleepers and Breakout Candidates
Written by: Adam Ehrenreich (@mel_reich)
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Let’s change it up this season. As we roll out my annual Post-Hype Pandemonium series, let’s start by discussing pitchers who are bound to have bounce-back, breakout or affirmative performances in the upcoming season.
Being a site that hangs its hat on analyzing prospects, we know the market is always looking for the next big thing, which is often most evident in pitching prospects. In redraft leagues, I find it hard to stash arms, because the likelihood of them panning out and providing significant value from the jump tends to be very unlikely. For every surprising and stellar rookie season, there seem to be a dozen or more pitchers who flame out or get hurt. The way a pitcher addresses his craft and makes his adjustments—especially once opponents form a ‘book’ on the young arm—is what separates the best from the rest.
Last season, we hit on Dinelson Lamet, Julio Urías and Corbin Burnes who all excelled in the shortened season. 2020 was especially hard on young pitchers who did not get in a full spring training to hone their skills. After gaining major league experience, some of these pitchers merely need the reps to solidify their arsenals and hit their stride. 2021 could be a big year for breakout pitchers, so this list is a little longer than in years past. Here are several pitchers who look to follow suit and breakout, taking that next step into fantasy relevancy and potential stardom.
Adbert Alzolay (CHC) – While 2019 wasn’t so impressive, his six appearances in 2020 were the complete opposite. A 2.95 ERA and 1.17 WHIP combined with a 12.2 K/9–thanks largely to a ridiculous slider and sinker combo–gave the Cubs confidence that he can handle an expanded role at some point in 2201. While he currently projects to begin the season at the alternate site, it’s only a matter of time before it is Alzolay and the hard-throwing Brailyn Marquez are staples within the Cubs rotation for years to come, and that is a scary thought. Alzolay is worth a shot with a late-round pick in draft and hold leagues. March NFBC ADP: 477.69
Ian Anderson (ATL) – The Braves next ace made his debut in 2020 and didn’t disappoint. In six starts, Anderson had a 1.95 ERA and 1.08 WHIP with 11.4 K/9 as icing on the cake. He followed that up with three excellent starts in the postseason. While the hype train is likely hot for Anderson, this was a buildup that may give some fantasy players pause. After years in the minors, Anderson has officially arrived. Don’t sleep on your last opportunity to draft him with a triple-digit ADP, as I believe he can become a top-30 player by 2022. March NFBC ADP: 100.83
Dylan Cease (CWS) – Cease was highly touted when he was originally promoted in 2019, but he’s been a bit of a disappointment thus far at the big league level. His plus stuff in the minors didn’t immediately translate, which is common. After continuing to display a high walk rate and low K rate in 2020, his stock plummeted, and he is all but free now in redrafts. I still believe in the former top prospect, known for his elite swing and miss repertoire and off-speed stuff. I believe that Cease will turn it around this year, with a full offseason to work on improvements and a new pitching coach in Ethan Katz. A strong spring and a cleaner delivery only affirm this notion. Cease is a high upside chance worth taking. March NFBC ADP: 332.44
Emmanuel Clase (CLE) – One of the key pieces of the Corey Kluber trade in 2020, Clase is known to have “closer stuff”. After being suspended for PEDs, the right-hander is back with the Indians for 2021 and should compete for a setup role behind James Karinchak. If he can improve the control of his 100 MPH cutter, the back of this bullpen is going to be lethal. Karinchak is known to have control issues himself, so this could end up being a timeshare for save opportunities down the line, and Clase can be drafted for free, giving you potentially elite strikeouts with saves mixed in. Don’t be surprised if it’s actually Nick Wittgren who begins the season in the ninth inning role for Cleveland. March NFBC ADP: 546.64
Dane Dunning (TEX) – One of the pieces sent to Texas in the Lance Lynn trade, Dunning showed a ton of promise in seven 2020 starts for the White Sox. A 2.59 ERA and 0.95 WHIP showed that he was ready for the show. He has an impressive arsenal that garnered an 11.5 K/9, so if the repertoire remains intact while pitching in the friendly confines in Texas, Dunning is going to be an underrated asset in fantasy leagues. March NFBC ADP: 335.45
Pete Fairbanks (TB) – We all saw Fairbanks dominate in the 2020 postseason, and while I don’t expect the hard throwing righty to lead the team in saves, he will get his share. Generally speaking, you are investing in a multi-inning relief star with a mean streak and an elite swing and miss arsenal. The right-hander will most likely play an important role for the Rays in 2021, and he is a great Nick Anderson-alternative for saves speculators. March NFBC ADP: 451.91
Michael Fulmer (DET) – After winning the ROY in 2016 and being an All-Star in 2017, Fulmer’s production has simply fallen off a steep, steep cliff. Injuries are mostly to blame, missing 2019 due to Tommy John and having a terrible 2020, which he attributes to not being “fully back”. The lack of Spring Training didn’t help. Believe it or not, Fulmer is still only 27 years old, and he seems motivated to get back to his pre-injury form. Thought of as a stopgap between the present and the future of the Tigers rotation, Fulmer signed a one-year “prove it” deal, and I love the motivation behind someone who is betting on himself. If he can get back to form, Fulmer can be a great, high floor, fantasy asset. March NFBC ADP: 727.85
Rich Hill – TB – When healthy, Rich Hill is among the most underrated fantasy pitcher in the majors. At 40 years old, the southpaw continues to enhance his production and has gotten better and better with age. Even if only 10-15 starts, Hill is a steal at his ADP. Since 2014–his age 34 season–Hill has averaged a 2.72 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 10.9 K/9, an impressive improvement from his overall career numbers (3.79/1.22/9.5). Hill will certainly miss starts throughout the season, but the Rays trust him to be a veteran anchor. If you’re willing to deal with the injuries, the southpaw is an intriguing pick at the end of drafts. March NFBC ADP: 478.09
Spencer Howard (PHI) – The excitement for Howard in 2020 was loud enough to convince me to pick him for NL ROY, but an injury-riddled 5.92 ERA and 1.64 WHIP left a lot to be desired. Howard still has the stuff to turn into a fantasy ace, with a fastball that sits at 94 MPH, a wipeout slider with 40% whiff rate and a bat-missing changeup. Don’t let the tough rookie year with no real spring training scare you away in 2021. March NFBC ADP: 470.45
Matt Manning (DET) – While Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal made their debuts in 2020, it is easy to forget that some believe Manning is the best arm of the trio. In 2019, Manning had a 2.56 ERA, a sub 1.00 WHIP, and 10 K/9. Now healthy after a forearm strain last summer, Manning has the frame and fastball/curve combo that should lead to success once he debuts. He’s ore of a stash in redrafts, but once he’s up, this is a rare pitching prospect I am promoting as a worthwhile add in their rookie season. March NFBC ADP: 608.30
Nate Pearson (TOR) – The first impression was a mix of good and bad, but the bad is what everyone will see when looking at the 2020 stats. A 6.00 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in 18 major league innings leaves a lot to be desired. His stuff is undeniable and the hype from last year was not unwarranted, so before writing him off, give Pearson one more shot. A groin injury in Spring Training likely means his 2021 debut will be a bit delayed, which has knocked his ADP down even further. March NFBC ADP: 288.14
José Urquidy (HOU) – Urquidy is the ultimate buy low. After missing time in 2020 due to COVID-19, Urquidy picked up where he left off in 2019, with a 2.73 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in five starts during the sprint season. By the time he debuted, it was likely around the fantasy playoffs for most leagues, and for that reason, Urquidy is the overlooked man in the Astros rotation by fantasy gamers. With Framber Valdez now hurt and without a timeline to return, the right-hander will be relied upon to carry the load behind Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers and Christian Javier. Urquidy is my favorite pitcher in this group, a steady, hard-throwing grinder at a great price. I am more than comfortable with Urquidy as my SP3, giving you a reason to wait on pitching after acquiring your ace. March NFBC ADP: 203.98
Honorable Mention: Freddy Peralta (MIL), Jose Alvarado (PHI), Tejay Atone (CIN), Tanner Houck (BOS), Griffin Canning (LAA)
If you are looking to wait on starters or speculate saves and bolster your offense, this article just gave you the potential path to success. While I would advise taking at least one starter in the first 10 rounds, you can then fill in the gaps with these pitchers and hopefully strike gold. Good luck this season, make it a great one.
Follow P365 MLB Analyst Adam Ehrenreich on Twitter! @mel_reich
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365