Pitching is always the most unpredictable part of baseball — and, as such, fantasy baseball. Injury risk is high among pitchers and, as a result, end-of-the-year rotations often look very different than opening-day rotations. This frequent chaos often creates unexpected sleeper opportunities for young hurlers. At the same time, rookies are no less prone to injuries themselves. Last year saw three top-50 pitching prospects miss the season due to injuries (Brett Honeywell, Alex Reyes, and A.J. Puk), and this year two top guys have already been slowed by health concerns (Mike Soroka and Josh James). That’s in addition to keeper/dynasty league favorite, Michael Kopech, who went down at the end of last year and won’t be back until 2020.
This season, there is already a sizeable number of rookie pitchers who are projected to win rotation spots. Right behind them are several dozen others who could see significant big league time this year.
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MLB Top Prospects: Pitcher
Atlanta’s Touki Toussaint (No. 34 in our prospect rankings) started slowly this spring but was dominant when I saw him in Florida last week and looks set to win a rotation spot in Atlanta. At his best, Toussaint has a big fastball, plus curve, and solid changeup. His command has been an issue, but this spring he’s been attacking the strike zone and throwing more quality strikes. His fastball/curve combination is good enough to overpower hitters, and if he can maintain the command gains he’s shown this spring he could eventually be a No. 2 starter in the majors. As a rookie, he’ll probably have nights when he looks like a front-line starter and other nights where he loses command and struggles. Regardless, he’ll post high strikeout numbers and should log 10-12 wins this year while pitching for a high-quality Braves club.
Chris Paddack (No. 40) has been a revelation in Padres camp this spring and should open the season in the San Diego rotation. There’s even been talk of having him start on opening day. Paddack has exceptional command and has only walked 20 batters while striking out 230 in 177.2 minor league innings. His mid-90s heater is a plus pitch, and his sinking change is a nasty put-away offering. His curve has looked better this spring and could add a third weapon to an already impressive arsenal. Right now, he profiles as a quality No. 3 starter. If his curveball continues to develop, he could be a No. 2.
Japanese free-agent signee Yusei Kikuchi will be a part of the Mariners rotation this season and appears ready to contribute solid numbers right away. A polished lefty with good command, Kikuchi looked good when I saw him in Arizona this spring. He threw four pitches for strikes, dialed his fastball up to 95 mph, and showed a consistently plus slider. There’s nothing exceptional about Kikuchi, but his combination of above-average stuff, good command, and ability to mix pitches should allow him to post 12-plus wins, notch an 8.0 K/9, and log an ERA around 4.00.
The Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara posted a solid 3.44 ERA in six big league starts last season and should begin the 2019 campaign in the Miami rotation. Alcantara has a big mid-90s fastball, but his command and secondary stuff are both inconsistent. The rebuilding Marlins will probably let him learn on the job, which means there’s a good chance that he sticks in the rotation all year even if he doesn’t perform all that well. If he can improve his command and sharpen his off-speed pitches, he could be a mid-rotation starter. As a rookie, he should post good strikeout totals but probably won’t win many games pitching for a weak Marlins squad.
Injuries to the Yankees’ rotation mean that Jonathan Loaisiga should open the year as New York’s No. 4 starter. Loaisiga has not looked good this spring and he was merely average in a brief big league cameo last year, but the depleted Bombers don’t have many starting pitching options at the moment. Loaisiga actually has quality stuff, including a mid-90s fastball, above-average breaking ball, and solid change. He also typically shows good command, pounds the zone, and generates lots of ground balls. If he can return to form this spring, he could be a successful back-end starter. However, right now he’s a risky play.
Merrill Kelly has emerged as a contender for the Diamondbacks’ rotation after pitching for the past three seasons in the Korean professional league. Kelly has been solid thus far in Cactus League play and could be an effective back-end starter. Kelly shows good command of three pitches (fastball, curve, change) and demonstrates an ability to mix pitches and set up hitters. He’s a bit of a wild card, but he’s a guy worth tracking if he can continue his recent success (three hits, six Ks in his past 8.2 innings).
The Padres have three rookie pitchers who are still in the mix for the fifth starter role. Jacob Nix was the leading candidate before arm soreness shelved him last week. Logan Allen and Cal Quantrill now stand an outside chance of taking the fifth starter spot, although neither has been particularly effective. If Nix can return to the mound quickly, he could claim the role. His fastball-curve combo is above-average, and he shows solid command. He probably won’t be anything more than a back-end starter, but pitching in San Diego will bolster his stats. Allen has better stuff and projects as a mid-rotation starter despite the need for more seasoning against advanced hitters. Quantrill is a bit overrated and shows average stuff and command. Whether he can stick as a starter is an open question.
Dakota Hudson is still battling for the Cardinals’ fifth starter role and has pitched well in Grapefruit League action. Hudson has plus stuff, but it’s inconsistent, as is his command. At his best he throws a lively mid-90’s fastball that generates lots of ground balls. His slider will flash plus, and his cutter can induce weak contact. If he can tighten his command and execute his pitches more consistently, he could be a mid-rotation starter. Right now he’s a risky back-end guy.
The Cardinals’ Alex Reyes (No. 16) will probably begin the season in the bullpen, but he has electric stuff and looked dominant when I saw him in Florida last week. Reyes missed most of the past two seasons due to injury and is being eased back into regular use. Reyes has been up and down this spring, but in the inning I saw he was unhittable. Reyes has four plus pitches (high-90s fastball, slider, curve, and changeup) and, at his best, toys with hitters by mixing speeds and locations. He’ll need some time regain his consistency and command, but, if he can avoid injury, he’s almost certain to get a shot at the rotation sometime in 2019.
The pitching-rich Braves have enough big league ready prospects to fill two starting rotations. In addition to Toussaint, Kyle Wright, Mike Soroka, and Bryse Wilson are all solid starters who could get a shot in Atlanta this season.
Wright (No. 37) has been the most impressive of these five this spring and would probably be first in line for a call-up in Atlanta. Wright looked good when I saw him last week in Florida, and thus far he’s posted a 3.00 ERA with 16 strikeouts and only two walks in 12 Grapefruit League innings. Wright has struggled with command as a pro, but he’s cleaned up his delivery and looks much more consistent this year. Wright has the stuff (four quality pitches, including a plus mid-90s fastball that he’ll also cut or sink) to be a No. 2 starter if he can maintain the command improvements he’s shown this spring.
Soroka (No. 32) performed well last year in five big league starts before a shoulder issue derailed his 2018 campaign. The issue flared up again this spring, but he’s reportedly feeling better and could resume game action in the next few weeks. Soroka shows consistently good command of three above-average pitches and profiles as a No. 3 starter. If he can return to health, he could get another big league shot by midseason.
Wilson looked great when I saw him in Florida last week. His plus fastball was sharp, and his changeup was much improved. Wilson’s plus stuff, good command, and aggressive approach should allow him to eventually win a spot as a mid-rotation starter. This spring he’s shown that he can succeed against big league hitters, and he could be in line for a call-up sometime this season.
Meanwhile in Houston, top prospect Forrest Whitley looks big league ready, while Josh James and Framber Valdez may also contribute in 2019.
Whitley (No. 3) has been electric this spring in Grapefruit League action and appears ready to make his big league debut sometime this season. The Astros rotation has some question marks this year, and a hot start at Triple-A could launch Whitely to the majors. Whitley has the dominant stuff of a front-line starter (mid-90s fastball, plus curve, plus change, and quality slider). He commands all four pitches well and has improved his pitch execution from year to year. Whitley is currently the best pitching prospect in baseball and should be successful even as a rookie.
James (No. 39) was in line to compete for a rotation spot with Houston, but a quadriceps strain sidelined him until last Saturday, when he made his first spring appearance. The Astros might keep him in the bullpen to open the season, but he has the stuff (mid-90s fastball, above-average change; above-average slider) to be a mid-rotation starter. He’ll need to tighten his command to reach his potential, but a return to health and a hot start to the season could put him back in the rotation mix.
Valdez was also competing for a rotation slot this spring but poor command has torpedoed his chances. Valdez has a plus sinking fastball and a solid curve. As a two-pitch guy he is more likely to end up in the bullpen, but the Astros continue to give him opportunities to start and he could be serviceable as a back-end guy.
Keep an Eye On
Oakland’s Jesus Luzardo (No. 7) has been lights-out in Cactus League action, but he’ll certainly begin the season in the minors. Luzardo is one of baseball’s top pitching prospects with excellent command of three quality pitches: a plus fastball, plus change, and above-average breaking ball. If he carries over his spring performance into the regular season, he could get a midseason promotion. If he can improve his pitch sequencing and tighten his curve, he’ll soon reach his potential as a frontline starter.
Brent Honeywell (No. 17) is coming off Tommy John surgery and has yet to throw a pitch for the Rays this season, but he’s been tossing bullpens and is on track to return to game action in May. The rebuilding Rays have no incentive to rush Honeywell’s return, but he could get a late-season call-up. Honeywell shows good command of five quality pitches, including a fastball that reaches the mid-90s, a plus change, and a nasty screwball. He attacks hitters, mixes well and the stuff and makeup to be a No. 2 starter.
Pittsburgh’s Mitch Keller (No. 19) will open the season in Triple-A, but he should finish the year in the majors. Keller shows good command of a mid-90s fastball, a plus curve, and above-average changeup. He’ll need to be more consistent to fully realize his potential as a No. 2 starter, but he has all the tools to be a very good big leaguer. A hot start in the minors could get him a quick promotion to Pittsburgh.
Oakland’s A.J. Puk (No. 29) missed last season due to Tommy John surgery and will begin this year in the minors. Puk has battled command issues as a pro, but before getting hurt last spring his stuff and his control were both much improved. When healthy, the big lefty shows an electric fastball and wipeout slider. If he can throw consistent strikes when he returns to game action this season, he’ll be in line for a promotion to Oakland where he has the upside of a No. 2 or 3 starter.
White Sox righthander Dylan Cease (No. 30) will open the season at Triple-A but could crack the big league rotation by midseason. Cease has plus stuff, including a high-90s fastball and a plus curve. Last season, he improved his command and posted impressive numbers in a season split between High-A and Double-A (2.40 ERA with 160 strikeouts in 124 innings). He’ll need to improve his changeup to reach his potential, but he has the stuff to be a No. 2 or 3 starter.
Seattle’s Justus Sheffield (No. 33), didn’t make the opening day roster, but he showed well in big league camp and should be in lineup for a call-up sometime in 2019. At his best, Sheffield has an overpowering fastball/slider combination, but his release point can be inconsistent and his command can waver. This spring his changeup seems sharper and his command has been better. If his command remains solid and his change is effective, he profiles as a No. 2 or 3 starter.