It’s never too early to prepare for your draft, and some of us draft fiends are already setting our draft dates for 2021 or even drafting now. The hot stove league is just taking shape, but it’s still a fun time to look toward the 2021 fantasy baseball season.
For the seventh year in a row, I’ll be breaking down category sleepers at each of the 5x5 roto categories. The first four articles in the series were batting average, WHIP, home run, and strikeout sleepers. This week, we’ll be looking at ERA 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
Zach Eflin, SP, Phillies
Over the last three seasons, Eflin has established himself as a reliable middle of the rotation starter for the Phillies with ERAs of 4.36, 4.13, and 3.97, respectively. He’s had success largely due to plus control, with a career 2.4 BB/9, certainly fulfilling the potential he showed as a prospect and former first-round pick. Still, Philadelphia is hoping for more from Eflin in 2021 as their No. 3 starter behind Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, and there are signs from last season that he’s ready to make the jump.
We have to be careful when comparing the truncated 2020 season to other full seasons given the smaller sample size, but Eflin’s strikeout rate showed huge improvement with an outstanding 10.7 K/9 and 29% strikeout rate due to clear adjustments. In short, Eflin became a sinkerball pitcher, throwing the pitch 52% of the time compared to only 22% in 2019, and he also showed slight velocity improvement with the pitch. That helped Eflin produce a career-high 47% groundball rate, and on top of that adjustment, his curveball flashed solid improvement to become a true out-pitch, showing a great 44% whiff rate and resulting in him throwing the pitch about 2.5x more than 2019. Across the board, Eflin’s ERA metrics were even better than his final ERA, including a 3.39 FIP and 3.50 SIERA. These adjustments bring solid momentum into 2021 with profit potential from his ADP near 209 in NFBC leagues.
Tony Gonsolin, P, Dodgers
The Dodgers pitching depth has consistently been among the best in baseball over the last several seasons. It’s a clear benefit of the team’s resources, but the team’s starting rotation shuffling and phantom injured list placements can also be frustrating for fantasy managers. Often, the limited starts for talented young pitchers puts a cap on their innings and makes them overlooked. Such is the case for Gonsolin, who has only 86.2 innings to his name over the last two seasons in LA but has a glistening 2.60 ERA over that time. When on the mound, Gonsolin has been a boon for fantasy managers, but skepticism over has innings his limited his ADP to 203 in early drafts.
It’s clear that Gonsolin has pitched well enough to earn a regular spot in the starting rotation to begin 2021, and more importantly, he’s shown the talent to maintain the elite performance we’ve seen to this point. At age 26, he posted an elite 6.57 K/BB ratio and 1.4 BB/9 last season, and his ERA metrics weren’t that out of line with his final 2.31 ERA after producing a 2.29 FIP and 3.68 SIERA. There should be some skepticism over Gonsolin’s two home runs allowed in 46.2 innings given that he allowed a 42% flyball rate, but the success was also built on clear talent improvement with a fastball that averaged 95 mph, more than one mph better than 2019. This probably isn’t a sub-3.00 ERA pitcher over a full MLB season, but an innings total in the 140-160 range should make an even greater positive impact in 5x5 leagues.
Yusei Kikuchi, SP, Mariners
Kikuchi has done nothing but disappoint in the first two seasons of a three-year, $43 million contract, posting ERAs of 5.46 over 32 starts in 2019 and 5.17 over nine starts last season. The performances have been a far cry from what the lefty did in Japan, with a 2.77 ERA over eight seasons. In spite of two poor seasons, there’s still reason for hope in 2021.
There was some buzz regarding Kikuchi’s uptick in velocity last spring, and it carried over to the regular season with a fastball that was up nearly three mph, averaging 95 mph. Kikuchi also trashed a curveball that was completely ineffective during his rookie season in favor of a cutter that was effective, and across the board he missed more bats, with a K/9 that went from 6.5 to 9.0. Almost as significant for Kikuchi’s ERA potential was the added sink he was getting on his fastball, helping him produce an excellent 52% groundball rate, up eight percent from 2019. He didn’t see the result, but the ERA metrics showed a far improved pitcher with a 3.30 FIP and 4.34 SIERA. Obviously, we can’t assume that Kikuchi’s velocity will hold next season, but there’s reason to believe we’ll see a vastly improved pitcher in 2021 if it does. With a dirt cheap 344 ADP, Kikuchi is an exciting sleeper.
Brady Singer, SP, Royals
Since winning the World Series in 2015, Royals fans have watched another painful rebuild. We did start to see the returns of that rebuild in the pitching staff last year when Singer, the 18th overall pick in the 2018 draft, was promoted. A polished college pitcher at Florida, Singer broke in nicely in his one and only minor league season with a 2.85 ERA and 3.54 K/BB ratio in 26 starts between High-A and Double-A and 2019, and the strong command held last season (2.65 K/BB), helping him produce a very respectable 4.06 ERA and 1.17 WHIP.
It looks like Singer has even more upside, but how soon can we expect it? Based on his September adjustments and strengths, there’s hope we’ll see improvement in 2021. We often see control pitchers pitch well upon promotion before hitters adjust and start pounding them, but Singer’s rookie trend was the opposite, saving his best for September. He had a 2.73 ERA and 30/9 K/BB in 29.2 innings during that month, allowing one earned run or fewer in three of his five starts. Singer’s plus sinking fastball is also conducive to groundballs, with an outstanding 53% groundball rate that was similarly strong in the minors. The ERA metrics nearly match his final ERA (4.08 FIP and 4.29 SIERA), and the late-season progress shows real profit potential with a 224 ADP.
Single League Sleepers
Edward Cabrera, SP, Marlins
There was a lot of attention paid to the Marlins starting rotation last year, with high-end talents like Sandy Alcantara, Sixto Sanchez, and Trevor Rogers showing big potential. There’s more where that came from for the Marlins with Cabrera. Unfortunately, he was prevented from helping during the 2020 regular season due to right arm discomfort, though the Marlins did consider adding Cabrera to the roster during their playoff run.
Let’s hope Cabrera is healthy in spring training because he has a great chance to not only crack the Marlins roster, but become a major asset in the starting rotation. He became an elite prospect in 2019 after posting a 2.23 ERA and 10.8 K/9 in 19 starts between High-A and Double-A at age 21 with an elite fastball-slider combo and very good control (2.9 BB/9). With the added aid of roomy Marlins Park, Cabrera has everything he needs to succeed when he arrives to the majors. Yet, the hype train was derailed after the lost season, so there’s reason to believe Cabrera can still be had for a favorable price in NL-only redraft leagues.
Braxton Garrett, SP, Marlins
How about another Marlin? Unlike Cabrera, Garrett did make his MLB debut last season, but it was nothing to write home about. He had a 5.87 ERA in two starts, struggling to keep the ball in the park or avoid walks. The lefty isn’t the pitcher Miami envisioned when they drafted him seventh overall in 2016 out of high school, with a fastball that averages only 90 mph, but that doesn’t mean he won’t find success in the majors.
Garrett overcame Tommy John surgery to post a 3.54 ERA in 2019 between High-A and Double-A over 21 starts, with an impressive 10.0 K/9 and groundball rate above 50%. We saw his ability to miss bats and provoke groundballs in his brief time with the Marlins last season, flashing a plus curveball to go along with great groundball potential. Control still remains a concern for Garrett that could cause him to start 2021 in the minors, but he’s likely to be a factor at some point this season with the ability to hold down his ERA due to his combo of strikeouts and groundballs.
Josh Lindblom, SP, Brewers
The nearly unhittable rotation combo of Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes overshadowed the rest of Milwaukee’s pitching staff in a disappointing 2020 season. Lindblom was signed for a bargain basement price of $9 million over three years after two seasons of success in Korea, but he seemed barely worthy of that price in his MLB return with a 5.16 ERA over 45.1 innings.
Among Lindblom’s 10 starts, he recorded more than 15 outs only once, but there was still a lot to like from his peripherals. The right-hander had an excellent 10.3 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9, working off a well-rounded six-pitch repertoire in which he didn’t throw any single pitch more than 35% of the time. He also did a fair job of keeping the ball in the park, with six homers allowed, helping Lindblom produce a 3.87 FIP and 4.09 SIERA. The limited innings per starts could make Lindblom a frustrating mixed league play, but there’s plenty of reason to expect improvement and an NL-only asset in 2021.
Cal Quantrill, SP, Indians
Quantrill had his share of hype as a prospect in the Padres farm system as the son of long-time MLB reliever Paul Quantrill and the eighth overall pick in the 2016 draft out of Stanford. His minor league results were far from spectacular with a career 4.46 ERA and 8.3 K/9 over four seasons, but Quantrill has filled the swingman role nicely between San Diego and Cleveland, particularly last season with a 2.25 ERA in 32 innings.
After Cleveland acquired Quantrill in the Mike Clevinger trade last season, they mainly used him in relief, but there’s reason to believe he will get a chance to start this year after the team gave him two starts to close out 2020 and traded Carlos Carrasco this offseason. Quantrill fared very well in those two starts, allowing one earned run over seven innings and showed off very good peripherals overall in 2020 with an 8.7 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9. Already averaging 95 mph on his fastball, Quantrill could even add more velocity in Cleveland’s pitching development program if recent improvement from the likes of Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale, and Zach Plesac are any indication. There’s a lot to like here and reason to watch Quantrill’s spring results with anticipation.