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Fantasy Baseball Rookies to Target in 2020: Top-10 Pitchers

When it comes to fantasy baseball rookies, pitchers are a whole different animal. There’s a reason why the acronym TINSTAAP was created. Rookie pitchers tend to create more headaches for fantasy managers than we’d like and rarely excel out of the gate. Sure, we’ll get a Walker Buehler or Chris Paddack every year, but they serve as exceptions and not expectations. With that said, the crop of rookie pitchers for this shortened 2020 season is filled with high-upside arms that are capable of making a significant impact right away. I’d never recommend counting on a rookie hurler to anchor your fantasy staff, but if you are able to build a reliable staff around them, I’d take a shot on one or two of the names below.

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Top-10 Fantasy Baseball Rookies for 2020: Pitchers

1. Jesus Luzardo (LHP – OAK)

This was easy. In addition to being one of the top-5 pitching prospects in baseball, and maybe even #2 behind MacKenzie Gore, Jesus Luzardo also has a rotation spot locked up entering this shortened 60-game season.

That was how I started this section BEFORE Luzardo tested positive for COVID. Ugh. While this isn’t ideal by any stretch of the imagination, Luzardo was so far ahead of #2 on this list, I’m still leaving him here in the top spot.

Even with missing the first week or two of the season, Luzardo potential impact this season is still vast. He possesses the best combination of ceiling, floor, and opportunity of anyone on this list. And frankly, it’s not even close. We saw a glimpse of what Luzardo is capable of down the stretch last season when dominated for 12 innings out of Oakland’s bullpen. Luzardo’s dynamic four-pitch arsenal can carve up opposing lineups and his above-average to plus command and control keeps him of trouble for the most part. Three of those four pitches (fastball, slider, changeup) grade as plus too, with the curveball flashing above-average at times as well.

Whenever Luzardo gets back on the mound for the Athletics, he has what it takes to perform like a top-20 fantasy pitcher the rest of the way. Don’t draft him too early due to the inevitable missed time due to COVID, but if you can get Luzardo for a good value, I’ve got a feeling you’ll be happy with your investment at season’s end.

2. A.J. Puk (LHP – OAK)

If Luzardo’s COVID diagnosis scares you off, go ahead and take his fellow dynamic southpaw teammate several rounds later. When looking at current ADP, Puk is being taken around 130 picks behind Puzardo on both Fantrax and NFBC. Luzardo is the better arm overall, but when it comes to value, I’d take Puk at that price tag all damn day. With his elite fastball and wipeout slider, Puk is a strikeout king in the making that should find himself high on the strikeout leaderboard year in and year out. If you need proof of that, Puk’s K/9 was 12.9 in the minors, including a 13.5 mark last season.

There are some command and control kinks to be ironed out that limit his upside a bit, but even with those warts, we could be looking at a Robbie Ray caliber pitcher at least with the upside for more. It’s sounding like Puk will be in the Oakland rotation on opening day, so using a post-200 draft pick on him could be a worthwhile investment in this shortened season.

3. Dustin May (RHP – LAD)

You can thank David Price for this ranking. While Dustin May was already going to have a role with the Dodgers this season, he and Ross Stripling benefit greatly from Price opting out as they should soak up the majority of those vacant innings. Regardless of who gets the rotation spot, the added innings makes May an intriguing option for this shortened season.

While he doesn’t quite have the massive strikeout upside that Puk before him or Pearson after him have, May features three above-average to plus pitches (2-seamer, cutter, curveball) that he can land for strikes or use as out pitches. All three offerings have incredibly high spin rates too that ranked among the best in baseball last season. And while May isn’t a big strikeout guy, he has exceptional command and control that makes the floor here higher than most on this list. Definitely give May a long look in the middle rounds as pitchers like him, that can pitch multiple innings multiple times a week, are highly-valuable in a 60-game season.

4. Nate Pearson (RHP – TOR)

Nate Pearson is going to be a problem. Not for fantasy teams, but for Major League hitters that step in the batter’s box to face him. After dominating across three levels last season and ending in Triple-A, Pearson is knocking on the door to Toronto’s rotation and is expected to join it early in the season.

On stuff alone, you could make a substantial argument that Pearson is the best pitching prospect in baseball not named MacKenzie Gore. The bog 6’6 right-hander cranks his fastball up into triple-digits with regularity and usually sits 96-99 in games with the ability to maintain that velocity deep in his starts. You could even say that he gets stronger as the outing goes on. In my last live look at him last season on August 10th, this is how Pearson’s velocity looked in the 1st inning and in the 6th inning, his last inning of the night.

1st: 96, 98, 98, 98, 99, 98, 98 = 97.9 avg

6th: 98, 101, 98, 100, 102, 99, 99 = 99.6 avg

As impressive as the fastball is, Pearson’s slider can trade blows with it for the full 12 rounds. Thrown in the upper-80’s, Pearson’s slider features late and filthy two-plane break that he can use as an out pitch and land for strikes as you can see in the video above. Add in a curveball and changeup that both are at least average and flash more than that and you have a dominant force to be reckoned with. Pearson has the stuff to dominate right out of the gate. It’s just a matter of when that first start will be.

5. Spencer Howard (RHP – PHI)

As I mentioned with Pearson, Spencer Howard is another candidate to join the rotation very early this season, potentially even on opening day. Back in Spring Training 1.0, you know, the actual spring training, Howard was rumored to be in the running for that #5 starter spot on opening day, pushing Vince Velasquez or Zach Eflin to the bullpen. Nothing appears to have changed on that front either.

Once Howard does join the rotation, you’re going to want him on your fantasy team. After teasing us with his potential for a couple of seasons, Howard finally put it all together in 2019, posting a 2.03 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, and 11.2 K/9 across 15 starts last season. Only six of those came above Single-A, but Howard is an advanced arm that has shown he’s ready to contribute at the Major League level. His fastball, slider, and changeup all grade as at least above-average with the fastball and changeup grading as plus or better. This dominant three-pitch mix along with a serviceable curveball and solid command gives Howard a lofty ceiling and sturdy floor as well. This type of upside and opportunity makes Howard a great pick around 250 or so in drafts.

6. Mitch Keller (RHP – PIT)

Mitch Keller is an interesting prospect to roster, both in redraft and dynasty leagues. Depending on where you look, you’ll likely see a wide array of long-term projections on him ranging from a future ace to more of a mid-rotation starter. Me? I’m more in the middle, projecting him as a back-end #2 or high-end #3. Keller has flashed two plus breaking balls and will sit in the mid-90’s with his heater and crank it up into the upper-90’s at times. However, the problem has been command that fastball. Spotty command with the heater has gotten Keller into trouble and we saw that last season in Pittsburgh. Although, he pitched much better than his surface numbers indicated.

If Keller can improve the effectiveness of his fastball, that will go a long way in reaching his upside as someone that could front the Pittsburgh rotation moving forward. His ADP is currently sitting outside pick 200, which is very reasonable for a pitcher with this kind of upside and a rotation spot locked up.

7. Jose Urquidy (RHP – HOU)

In a general sense, I’m not incredibly high on Jose Urquidy. In fact, he didn’t even make my top-250 overall prospect rankings. However, for 2020 there’s definitely some value to be had here. To start, Urquidy is penciled into the Astros rotation to start the season with no real threat of losing the spot either. In fact, roster resource has him listed as Houston’s #3 starter behind Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke.

While Urquidy’s arsenal won’t blow anyone away, he can attack hitters with four pitches, headlined by a plus mid-80’s changeup. His plus command and control elevates the effectiveness of his entire arsenal as well and helps keep his walk rate quite low. I wouldn’t count on Urquidy for much more than a K per inning, but this is an arm that can help stabilize your ratios. Boring, yet effective.

8. MacKenzie Gore (LHP – SDP)

Wouldn’t it be nice of the Padres to just hand MacKenzie Gore a rotation spot coming out of spring training? As nice as that sounds, it’s not looking likely at this current point in time. That’s the reason why the top pitching prospect in baseball is only 8th on this list. If A.J. Preller hinted as Gore getting the Chris Paddack treatment from a year ago, he’d be #2 on this list, only behind Jesus Luzardo.

A future ace in the making, Gore attacks hitters with four pitches that all project as above-average or better Major League offerings. On top of that, he’s shown advanced poise on the mound with solid command and control over his entire arsenal. While there’s likely a Cy Young award or two (or more) in Gore’s future, we’re likely going to have to wait until 2021 for any substantial fantasy impact. We can’t forget that Gore only has five starts under his belt above the Single-A level. But with all that said, there’s a high chance that Gore debuts at some point this season and would be a must-add in all formats. I’m just not sure stashing him out of the gate in this shortened season is a great idea outside of deeper leagues.

9. Kyle Wright (RHP – ATL)

An 11th-hour addition to this list, Kyle Wright now has a golden opportunity to make the Atlanta Braves rotation on opening day following the news that Felix Hernandez isn’t going to play this season. On stuff alone, Wright is one of the most talented pitching prospects in the game today. However, his command and control have both proven to be inconsistent which has held Wright back at times.

The arsenal consists of both a four-seam and two-seam fastball that both sit around 93-95, a low-80′ curve, mid to upper-80’s slider, and a mid-80’s change. The fastball, curve, and slider can all be plus in any given start with both breaking balls registering a 30+% putaway rate in his short stint with Atlanta last season. And while the changeup is behind, it projects as at least a Major League average changeup. It’s all about whether or not Wright can reign in his command and pound the strike zone. With a rotation spot now open for the taking, Wright’s upside is worth a late-round flier in fantasy leagues.

10. Brendan McKay (LHP – TBR)

One would think that Brendan McKay would warrant a higher ranking due to having a rotation spot locked up following his 2019 MLB debut. However, this is the Tampa Bay Rays we’re talking about and their current rotation doesn’t include the talented southpaw from Louisville. It’s not like they’re blocking him with undeserving arms or anything, but there are plenty just too many mouths to feed at the moment which has McKay on the outside looking in.

If McKay does get a chance to pitch significant innings this season, whether that’s in the rotation or as a multi-inning swingman, his combination of ceiling and floor would make him worthy of your attention. If ranking on floor alone, McKay would be a top-10 pitching prospect. Plus command and control are the foundation of McKay’s lofty floor and his four-pitch arsenal allowed him to carve up the minors during his rapid rise up to Tampa Bay. Pitching prospects, in general, are a risky gamble this season but McKay would be worth a shot if the Rays give him a chance to log impactful innings this season.

Honorable Mention

Forrest Whitley (RHP – HOU), Sixto Sanchez (RHP – MIA), Logan Gilbert (RHP – SEA),  Ian Anderson (RHP – ATL), Matt Manning (RHP –  DET), Casey Mize (RHP – DET), Luis Patino (RHP – SD), Justus Sheffield (LHP – SEA), Justin Dunn (RHP – SEA), James Karinchak (RHP – CLE), Michael Kopech

Media Credit: Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire, Alex Fast.

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