Fantasy 2013: Pitching Sleepers (Pt. 2)

A few days ago, we identified a few players who are candidates to move into the top 20 for starting pitchers this season. Now, we’ll examine 3 more starters and assess their chances of becoming top-tier fantasy options.

Homer Bailey, Reds

Bailey‘s career has been somewhat of a disappointment so far — but only because expectations for him were so high. Since his 2007 debut, the former 7th overall pick has shown flashes of dominance routinely interrupted by periods of inconsistency. Last season’s 3.68 ERA was the first time Bailey has finished with an ERA below 4, though his FIP was a more pedestrian 3.97.

He has good stuff and pitched well in the minors, but he hasn’t been able to strike out enough batters at the big-league level to reach his potential. However, his swinging strike rate has actually steadily improved each year since 2008, up to a strong 9.4% in 2012. Despite this improvement, Bailey’s strikeout and walk rates were amazingly similar between 2011 and 2012: his K/9 rose ever so slightly from 7.23 to 7.27, while his BB/9 stayed the exact same at 2.25.

It’s also a little surprising that his K/9 actually reached its highest in 2010, which was a disappointing year for Bailey. He finished that season with an 8.26 K/9 but an uninspiring 4.46 ERA. Homer has also struggled with the long ball, allowing 1.23 HR/9 in 2011 and 1.13 HR/9 in 2012.

But, despite the fact that his strikeout rate has stagnated and home runs have been a problem, there are reasons to think that Homer could finally be ready to break out in 2013.

Again, I’m a believer in the phrase, “Once you display a skill, you own it.” Bailey has the pedigree to back up his 8.26 K/9 in 2010, and those skills haven’t gone anywhere. His average fastball velocity has hovered around 93 mph for a few years straight and, as mentioned before, his swinging strike rate is still on the rise. Throughout his career, he has consistently induced ground-balls at a strong clip, up to nearly 45% last season. And a further look at his home run numbers suggest that a bit of bad luck could be at play: he allowed 0.41 HR/9 on the road compared to an ugly 1.90 at the notoriously hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark. A little bit of regression on his 18.4% home HR/FB rate could result in serious improvement in 2013.

Bailey has excellent peripherals and, with an improved K rate and a bit of good fortune when pitching at home, could be looking at a low-3s ERA this season. He’s entering his age-27 season, so there’s reason to think he still has time to further advance and polish his game. Last year was the first time he pitched a full 200-inning campaign; perhaps this is the season he puts it all together and develops into the ace so many had predicted him to become. He could very well end up among the top 20 starting pitchers.

Projections: 14 W, 3.38 ERA, 185 K, 50 BB

Jeff Samardzija, Cubs

Samardzija will probably be another popular sleeper pick this preseason. It feels like he’s been around for a while, and, before last season, was somewhat of a failed starter-turned-reliever for the Cubs. He’s a big, lanky power pitcher who has struggled with long bouts of inconsistency and ineffectiveness over his 5-year career.

He was given another chance to start 28 games last year, and the results were eye-popping. His peripherals were simply dominant: a 9.27 K/9, 2.89 BB/9, and 44.6% ground-ball rate placed him among the league’s best, and his 12.4% swinging strike rate was elite. Though his ERA was an average 3.81, his FIP and xFIP were a much more impressive 3.55 and 3.38, respectively. Home runs were a bit of a problem, evidenced by a 1.09 HR/9, something Samardzija has struggled with throughout his career.

It remains to be seen whether the 28-year-old can carry over the excellent walk rate — or perhaps improve upon it — in 2013, since his previous career-low was 3.89 in just 2 starts and 20 relief appearances in 2009. But if he can, the Cubs may have found themselves a new ace.

The home runs will likely cap his upside a bit, but with those peripherals, the potential is huge — I’m not going to reach too far for him, but I’m drafting him in as many leagues as possible. Though he might not collect many wins with the woeful Cubs this season, I’m taking the gamble on those rates all day. Reaching the top 20 is a very realistic possibility for Samardzija in 2013.

Projections11 W, 3.35 ERA, 205 K, 60 BB

Adam Wainwright, Cardinals

Last, but not least, Wainwright has the biggest upside of all 6 pitchers we’ve looked at in this series. After losing the entire 2011 season to Tommy John surgery, the now-31-year-old Wainwright didn’t look his best in 2012. A 3.94 ERA was uncharacteristic of the former Cardinals ace, but it was probably a bit unfair to expect a full return to form so soon.

Despite the unimpressive ERA, Wainwright still managed an elite 3.10 FIP and 3.23 xFIP. His strikeout and walk rates were in line with his previous Cy Young-caliber seasons, and a 50.8% GB% illustrates his dominance. There’s no reason to think that he won’t be an ace again this season.

He doesn’t sound like too much of a sleeper — everyone knows about him and he’s currently being drafted as or near a top 20 pitcher now. However, he still has a great chance to significantly outperform his average draft position. Wainwright was a true fantasy ace just a couple of years ago, and his peripherals suggest he’s picked right back up where he left off. He was on an unofficial innings cap coming off surgery in 2012, and if the Cardinals let him throw the 230+ innings he’s capable of this year, he could reemerge as a top 5 starting pitcher. Draft him with utmost confidence — if you’re lucky, he could end up as the #1 or #2 pitcher in fantasy this season once again.

Projections: 18 W, 2.85 ERA, 210 K, 60 BB

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