Fantasy 2013: Pitching Sleepers (Pt. 1)

Fantasy season is nearly in full-swing, and if you’re an owner, your draft is likely taking place in the next few days. This will be a two-part series: each article will spotlight three starting pitcher “sleepers” for 2013 — players who are likely to significantly outperform their average draft position.

Each of the following players have, by my estimations, a pretty good chance of moving into the top 20 for starting pitchers this season:

Matt Moore, Rays

Ok, this was an easy one. You’ll probably find Moore on just about every sleeper list this preseason. But it’s certainly for good reason.

It might be a bit unfair, but it’s fun comparing Moore to fellow left-hander Clayton Kershaw. Moore, like Kershaw, has dynamite stuff, but has been plagued by serious control issues early in his career (4.11 BB/9 in 2012). Similarly, Kershaw posted a 4.35 and 4.79 BB/9 in his first two MLB seasons. Of course, Kershaw was able to rectify those problems and has since developed into a Cy Young-winning ace. Again, it may be a bit unfair to compare any pitcher to a generational talent like Kershaw, but Moore has the pedigree: he dominated hitters at every level of the minors and was ranked #1 by MLB.com, among others, on its list of top prospects before the 2012 season.

The strikeouts are there for Moore (8.88 K/9 and an excellent 11.8% swinging strike rate last season); time will tell if he is able to curb the walks and put it all together. He likely needs to learn to induce a few more ground balls to become a legitimate #1 fantasy starter, too, but that’s something likely to happen more in the long-term than this season.

It’s a better idea to grab Moore now than have to pry him from another owner’s grasps if he shows signs of reaching his potential this year. A sub-3 ERA is unlikely, but not impossible. Draft him with confidence and expect a low-3s ERA — and hope for better.

Projections: 14 wins, 3.34 ERA, 210 K, 76 BB

Mike Minor, Braves

If you compare Minor‘s 2011 and 2012 numbers, it looks like he actually took a step backwards last season. His strikeout rate fell and he allowed 1.3 HR/9, resulting in spikes in both FIP and xFIP. Furthermore, his swinging strike rate declined to a pedestrian 7.8%.

However, Minor did take a step forward in the walks department, lowering his BB/9 from 3.27 in 2011 to 2.81 in 2012. Despite the falling K rate, he has previously displayed above-average strikeout ability in both the minors and majors (though in a small sample size) and has always had the stuff to back it up.

He is more of a fly-ball pitcher, which means he’ll still give up his fair share of home runs and limits his upside, although he does pitch in the rather cavernous Turner Field. A .252 BABIP last season looks worrisome, and some may think that he’s due for some regression here, but I’m not as worried about a low BABIP for a fly-baller with deep fences and good defensive outfielders (think Jered Weaver). Plus, steps forward in strikeout and walk rates this season could easily offset the difference of BABIP regression.

I like the old saying, “Once you display a skill, you own it.” Minor has shown the skills to put up an 8+ K/9, and since then, he’s certainly matured as a pitcher. He’s just 25 years old, and if he’s able to get his strikeouts back up while keeping the walks down, or even lowering them further, we could be looking at another low-3s ERA guy with a great chance of moving into the top 20 this season. If everything goes well, he could start working deeper into games, too, which further increases his value and opportunity to pick up wins.

Projections: 14 W, 3.38 ERA, 185 K, 55 BB

Josh Beckett, Dodgers

Year after year, I’m a sucker for Josh Beckett. Off-the-field issues aside, I still love his skillset and he displays a strange on-year, off-year fluctuation in his ERA. By that logic (a sound argument, but maybe not a valid one), Beckett’s due for a good season. One might think he’d be motivated to show the Red Sox that they made a mistake by trading him, too.

Beckett’s K/9 dropped last season to a meager 6.97 — the lowest it’s been since 2006 and only the second time in his entire career it’s fallen below 8.0. However, his swinging strike rate was actually in line with those of his previous 6 seasons, so there’s reason to think that the decline was due to shoulder and back injuries he suffered throughout the year and not a serious loss of skill. The peripherals still look solid and he still turns “just” 33 in May.

It isn’t prudent to chase wins, but it’s hard to believe he’ll have a problem picking up Ws with a loaded Dodgers squad this year. There’s reason to be leery of Beckett — he hasn’t pitched a full season of 200 innings since 2009 — but a bounceback seems possible, and I like him as a sleeper pick to move back into the top 20 starting pitchers this year. If anyone will let me down, it’s Beckett, but what can I say — I’m a sucker.

Projections: 15 W, 3.45 ERA, 182 K, 58 BB

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