Along with turning my nose up at catchers, another one of my dynasty mantras is Don’t Pay for Pitching Prospects. By now, we know how volatile a pitcher can be and how an injury can derail their value or change their expected outcome. The Ringer just released an excellent long-form piece that details how scarce the pitching landscape is compared to previous years. Just a couple of years ago, Lucas Giolito, Alex Reyes, Brent Honeywell, Michael Kopech, Anderson Espinoza, AJ Puk and Jay Groome littered the top half of Top 100s. While many of them are still seen as bonafide starters, owners probably expected them in the majors by now and with less risk than they carry. Simply put, it’s too risky a proposition to pay full freight for a top pitching prospect right now, whether that means a high draft pick or moving significant trade pieces.
Instead, you should focus on targeting starting pitchers who are currently discounted thanks to an injury that shelved them for portions of 2018, big or small. The idea is the pitcher should retain the same upside they had pre-injury, but with a slight increase in risk that’s made palpable by the presumed discount. Think of it as buying refurbished instead of buying new.
What follows are the pitchers I’d be targeting. Note: There are guys I left out because I wasn’t huge fans of them or there was minimal dynasty impact. These were your Adbert Alzolays and Anthony Bandas of the world. If you’re curious about someone not listed, just ask in the comments.
The Pricey Injured Guys
This group comprises six names that are considered Top 100 fantasy prospects and that won’t come as cheap as you’d like, but still cheaper than if they were entirely healthy.
AJ Puk, LHP (Tommy John, set to return mid-2019)
I’m higher on Puk than most, maybe because I’ve been following his career since we both shared a campus at Florida and I saw the strides he’s made. With a fastball and slider combo that have both received plus-plus grades and massive extension off the mound coming from a 6-foot-7 lefty, it’s a miracle anyone ever hits him. He’s surrendered just three home runs in 157.2 innings and owns a whopping career 33 K%. There are some control issues that still crop up but I’ll take a high-ish WHIP to reap the rewards of this strikeout monster.
Brent Honeywell, RHP (Tommy John, set to return mid-2019)
If Puk is too risky for you, Honeywell is likely the safest of the bunch. The soon-to-be 24-year-old already logged 123 innings at Triple-A in 2017 with a 3.64 ERA (2.84 FIP) and a 23 K-BB% (the same mark Trevor Bauer posted in 2018). Thanks to his expansive arsenal that includes a plus fastball, changeup and above-average screwball and curve, Honeywell can toy with hitters and not rely on his heater to set up his at-bats. He’s someone I don’t expect to struggle much after he shakes off the rust in rehab starts.
Alex Reyes, RHP (Torn Lat Tendon, set to return Opening Day 2019)
It’s comical that Reyes is still a prospect despite pitching in the bigs in 2016. Alas, the former top pitching prospect in baseball is still here and I think he’s the riskiest of this group only because no one outside the Cardinals organization can say with certainty whether he’ll be a reliever or a starter. Ultimately I want to believe he’ll be a starter because his stuff is so good, but this is the team that said “Screw it” and made Carlos Martinez a reliever to close 2018. However, trading for Reyes is a gamble I’d make and there’s a chance his value dips a little bit more if the team formally announces he’ll begin the year in the bullpen.
Michael Kopech, RHP (Tommy John, set to return early 2020)
Kopech climbed to the majors before blowing his elbow out, dashing all the hopes of dreams of seeing him turn into the next Thor. While up, the fireballer averaged 96 mph according to Brooks Baseball with a plus slider that had 15 miles of separation from the heater. For the second year in a row, Kopech struggled in the minors in the first half to find his control only to once again harness it and turn into a monster in the second half. Relative to his upside, which is a strikeout heavy SP2 that could be a top 10 pitcher in fantasy in peak years, he could come at a solid discount if his owner needs a win now piece.
Sixto Sanchez, RHP (Collarbone soreness, right elbow injury, set to return MiLB Opening Day 2019)
The Marlins’ new top prospect is one of the few pitchers who possesses top of the rotation in all of minor league baseball and I’d argue that his true ceiling is higher than all but Alex Reyes’ in this group. The Phillies were extra cautious with their former prized possession. While he hasn’t undergone any serious injury (yet), his stature, which already portended to some reliever risk, isn’t encouraging enough to guarantee he can be a 200-inning workhorse. Like Honeywell though, his arsenal is explosive and he shows off a precociousness that’s rare in a pitcher his age. His future home is a pitcher’s haven and while he’s a fair ways away from debuting, he’s someone that shouldn’t cost you as much as you think.
Hunter Greene, RHP (UCL sprain, set to return return MiLB Opening Day 2019)
Greene is the “cheapest” of this group and for good reason. The 19-year-old already damaged his UCL and while he’s set to be OK to open the upcoming season, can you blame me if I think there’s Tommy John in his future before he debuts? Regardless, Greene’s upside is immense, especially if you believe he can make the mechanical tweaks to bring his secondaries along as well as add some run to his flat fastball. Right now, I’d bet he can make said changes because he is an exceptional athlete and those are the guys who can repeat deliveries well and pick up new tweaks. But the lead time is tremendous and so is the risk. If you have less than 20 minutes to spare, here’s a podcast debate me and Lance Brozdowski had on the Reds fireballer.
The High ROI Potential Guys
The majority of the following names might be rostered in your leagues already, but their prices are nowhere near the above group’s. Your best bet to land these guys before their price skyrockets is by trading for them now.
Anderson Espinoza, RHP (Tommy John, set to return early 2019)
Man, remember in 2015 when Espinoza pitched 40 innings and allowed just three earned runs in the GCL…as a 17-year-old? I can’t help but think we view Sixto Sanchez now like we did Espinoza: a precocious flamethrower with advanced feel for secondaries. Alas, the soon-to-be 21-year-old hasn’t appeared in a minor league game since August 2016 and we’re left wondering how much of his stuff will return and if he’ll be as electric as we remember. He’s already throwing bullpen sessions in spring training and should be ready to tackle about 75 innings this year. Of the names covered in this post he’s top three in risk. But at the same time if you told me he’d be a backend top 100 name a year from now, I’d easily believe it. Let’s not forget he was cracking top 40s in 2016.
Michael Grove, RHP (Tommy John, set to return early 2019)
Here’s someone who might be new to you. The Dodgers drafted Grove in the second round last year, despite the fact that he missed the entire year as he recovered from Tommy John. The West Virginia alumnus looked great in his sophomore year, flashing a plus fastball (92-95 mph) and a high-spin slider with a changeup that’ll likely be the first item Dodgers coaches tackle. I love the arm speed and the size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and I think he can move relatively quick for someone returning from surgery. Not to mention that the Dodgers seem to have success developing this profile. I’ve seen him get some quiet buzz here and there and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s a much more well known name in a few months.
Braxton Garrett, LHP (Tommy John, set to return early 2019)
Garrett’s totaled just 15.1 innings since the Marlins selected him seventh overall in 2016. I always like to call him the rare “safe prep pitcher” because of his strong command and control profile along with his 70 grade curveball. Of course, I’m not sure how appropriate that moniker is for someone with such limited professional experience. Like Espinoza though, he’s still young enough that his loss of development is not as detrimental. The upside here is not tremendous and I see him turning into a low-end fantasy SP3 at best. But he’s a good throw in to ask for if you’re negotiating a larger trade.
Clarke Schmidt, RHP (Tommy John, set to return MiLB Opening Day 2019)
I’m bending the rules slightly here. Schmidt returned to pitching in late 2018, accruing 23.1 innings. The Yankees pounced on the South Carolina pitcher with the 16th overall pick in 2017 as he recovered from his surgery. He’s expected to make his full-season debut this year where he’ll get to show off his four-pitch arsenal, all of which project to at least average, led by a fastball and slider that have flashed 55s. He’s shown good command and feel of all four of them, which is the most encouraging thing. Because of his age and advanced repertoire he’ll be a sneaky fast mover despite his experience and if you’re about to enter a contention window, is a good buy.
Thomas Szapucki, LHP (Tommy John, set to return MiLB Opening Day 2019)
Szapucki is exactly the type of injured pitcher worth asking another owner to include in trades. He landed himself on dynasty radars in 2016 when he racked up a ridiculous 42 K% in 52 innings between Kingsport and Brooklyn. After 29 innings the next year in his full-season debut however, he blew out his elbow. All signs point to Szapucki still having his plus fastball and curveball combo that torment batters thanks to changing release points from a low three-quarters slot. Admittedly it’s not an ideal delivery for a starter, but the Mets are intent on keeping him there for now.
The Freebie Flyers
If these pitchers are owned in your dynasty league, you’re in a really deep one. Even if they are, his owner might be hanging on for fear of getting nothing in return if they just drop them. Don’t be afraid to buy for a late 2020 pick or a peripheral major leaguer. The risk is high with these guys and the ceilings vary, but they’re low risk gambles.
Sam Carlson, RHP (Tommy John, Set to return early 2020)
A Mariners second-round pick in 2017, Carlson was on a steady climb in velocity from high school where he was in the high 80s to the Mariners where he was sitting 93-95 and touching 97. He’ll still be 21 by the time he gets back into games, but with just three innings of pro ball under his belt. I’m a Carlson fan thanks to his live fastball that has both sink and run and a slurve that is loopy as hell. The changeup is a little more advanced than you might think for a prep kid, but there are delivery tweaks to be made (head whack, finish). We’re looking at an SP3 upside with Carlson.
Chris Rodriguez, RHP (Stress reaction in back, Opening Day 2019)
Rodriguez is my favorite in this bunch thanks to the upside he possesses and because the injury he suffered wasn’t arm related, even if it forced him to miss all of 2018. The 20-year-old Angels righty has a plus fastball that sits 93-96, a plus slider, an above-average curveball and a changeup that’s flashed average along with reportedly good game IQ. That certainly doesn’t sound like the ingredients for someone who should be this cheap, huh? He has the highest upside of any Angels pitcher and some believe his best outcome is beyond a mid-rotation pitcher. The concerns right now are his delivery, which is a bit herky jerky as he begins rearing back, and reducing the head whack. Rodriguez is a popular breakout pick in that org, so buy now for dirt cheap.
Jay Groome, LHP (Tommy John, Set to return late 2019)
You got to feel for Groome. The 12th overall pick in 2016 has barely pitched thanks to injuries and has dealt with a slew of off-the-field issues that have marred his image even though it’s not his doing. Seen by some as the best pitcher in his draft class, let’s not forget he’s a 6-foot-6 hulking lefty with a fastball that sit mid-90s and a double-plus curveball. Now, it’s fair to wonder how much of that will be back after he returns, but the frame and raw stuff is tantalizing. He’s a forgotten asset by most (including myself), but if you’re in a rebuilding phase, now’s a good time to either pick him up assuming you roster more than 200 prospects or trade for him on the cheap.
Joe Palumbo, LHP (Tommy John, set to return MiLB Opening Day 2019)
Palumbo is in a similar boat to Schmidt. He returned from Tommy John surgery late last year and reached Double-A. The 24-year-old pitched 45.1 innings, exhibiting a sparkling 59/10 K/BB using a 92-94 mph fastball and a plus curveball that tumbles out of the strikezone. Palumbo’s biggest challenge this year is developing the changeup to give him a weapon against righties, as he currently suffers from platoon issues. I’ve seen his name and Chris Paddack’s mentioned in the same breath, but that’s more to do with the similarity in injuries and control. Palumbo likely tops out as a WHIP-friendly SP4.
Honorable Mentions: Kyle Funkhouser, Jose De Leon, James Kaprielian