Earlier this off-season, I wrote an article focusing on position players currently buried on the depth chart that if given a chance could have a significant fantasy impact. Between injuries, unexpected struggles, and trades we should always be aware of players who are the next man up. Sometimes they are top prospects and other times they are veterans who have been overlooked. This article holds the same idea but focuses on pitchers. With Spring Training in full swing, there are plenty of exciting arms that are currently not a part of their team’s five-man rotation but have shown flashes of greatness. Some of these arms performed well last year and others are off to a fast start this spring. Keep reading to know which three sixth starters you should be drafting in your fantasy leagues.
The season is not here yet, but why not get a head start and jump in a Fantrax Classic Draft contest? Get a jump on the season with a Best Ball league or maybe a Draft and Hold. Or put some green on the line with a new season-long league to try and conquer. There’s no better time than now to get your baseball on!
Sixth Starters to Draft for 2023
Hayden Wesneski, RHP Chicago Cubs
Starters Ahead of Wesneski:
- Jameson Taillon
- Marcus Stroman
- Kyle Hendricks
- Drew Smyly
- Justin Steele
The Cubs acquired Hayden Wesneski from the Yankees last season for relief pitcher Scott Effross. He was the Yankees’ sixth-round pick back in 2019 and has moved quickly through the Minor Leagues considering the lost year of development in 2020. Before the trade, Wesneski was performing well in Triple-A but had not received any consideration for a Major League rotation spot. The Cubs however had no issue giving their new promising arm a chance. He made his first two appearances out of the bullpen before making four starts down the stretch. He posted a 1.85 ERA during those starts with a 2.82 FIP. Right now, he is not projected to be part of the Opening Day rotation, but that could change quickly.
There is plenty to be excited about when it comes to Wesneski. As a prospect, Wesneski was given a future grade of at least 50 on four different pitches. He utilized a five-pitch mix during his Major League stint that saw him generate a whiff percentage north of 30 on three separate pitches. The best of these is a wipeout slider that features over 18 inches of horizontal break. Adding to the excellent movement is a spin rate that ranks in the 82nd percentile of all sliders. Wesneski relies on this pitch primarily against righties but has no problem throwing it to lefties. Overall, it is his most used pitch and one that generated a BAA of .119 and held opponents to a .310 slugging percentage.
Wesneski does not overpower hitters with his fastball, but the pitch plays up thanks to excellent extension. The pitch sits comfortably around 93 but is especially effective in working up in the zone. Hitters’ eyes light up at a mid-90s fastball coming in at the letters, but they still struggle to make hard contact off it. His biggest issue last year was locating the pitch consistently. According to PLV, his bad pitch percentage was 51.2% which is well below the league average of 39.8%. In comparison, his sinker graded out as an above-average pitch. To reach his full potential, Wesneski will need to utilize both fastballs to generate strikeouts and the sinker to limit hard contact.
While the Minor League strikeout numbers might not pop off the page, Wesneski is being criminally underrated by both the Cubs and fantasy players. On top of having four pitches that grade as at least average, Wesneski has excellent control of the strike zone. He walked just seven batters across his 33 innings last year after posting strong walk rates throughout his Minor League career. His opponents’ barrel rate of 4.5% and average exit velocity of 84.5 mph rank among the best in baseball. If Wesneski can hold opponents to similar numbers as they were at the end of last season, he could be in for a monster 2023.
Right now, the first three spots in the rotation are locked in terms of pedigree. The Cubs went out and signed Drew Smyly and Justin Steele and posted a 3.18 ERA across 119 innings for them last season. That being said, Kyle Hendricks will not be ready for Opening Day with a shoulder injury, Smyly has not thrown over 126 innings since 2016, and Justin Steele has already experienced arm fatigue this spring. The Cubs’ rotation is more open than it appears on paper and Wesneski is a prime candidate to have a big 2023 season. Thanks to his spot on the depth chart, he is currently going outside the top 325 in terms of ADP. That late in drafts, upside is valuable and Wesneski has just that. Ignore the depth chart and target Wesneski in your fantasy drafts.
Luis Patino, RHP Tampa Bay Rays
Starters Ahead of Patino
- Shane McClanahan
- Drew Rasmussen
- Jeffrey Springs
- Zach Eflin
- Tyler Glasnow/Yonny Chirinos
The recent Tyler Glasnow injury has added some intrigue to the Rays’ rotation. What seemed to be written in stone, now is a battle that could have a significant fantasy impact. Luis Patino is battling with Yonny Chirinos and I am all in on the prospects of drafting Patino late in deep leagues. I was in on Patino last season after some encouraging results out of the bullpen in 2021. Unfortunately, Patino’s first start of the season was cut short due to injury and he never fully seemed to get right after that. He finished the season with an 8.10 ERA in 20 innings and more walks than strikeouts. The 2022 results were ugly pushing him way down draft boards this season.
Patino’s profile comes with plenty of pedigree. After being universally ranked inside the top 30 heading into the 2020 season, Patino headlined the return package from San Diego for Blake Snell. He was given a 60-grade future value by FanGraphs and the move to Tampa only made his profile more encouraging. After early struggles in his career, it seems as though everybody has given up on the former top prospect. Well, everybody except for the Rays. Many in the organization continue to speak very highly of Patino and the potential in his profile. He will still only be 23 for the entirety of 2023 and there is plenty of reason for optimism.
Over the past three seasons, Patino has seen the velocity on his four-seam fastball dip each year. Much of the drop in velocity from last season can be attributed to his oblique injury. Patino admits that he never felt comfortable in Spring Training and it never fully seemed like he was right even after returning. Early results from this year’s Spring Training show Patino sitting comfortably around 95 and even touching 96. The most important part of this was being able to maintain this velocity into the second inning. His four-seam surrendered a .464 wOBA last season and regaining his velocity could be key to seeing better results.
Not only is his four-seam showing signs of life, but Patino is working to implement his sinker more which can help keep limit the hard contact. He has been working on the pitch since 2021 and has continued to work on adding more vertical break to it. This is an attempt to force hitters to get on top of the ball more and limit the home runs. Patino surrendered six home runs last year (2.70 HR/9).
One obstacle that caused Patino some issues in 2021 was facing left-handed batters. Lefties posted a .356 wOBA against him compared to a .256 wOBA for righties. The explanation is that Patino was not using his one-pitch designed to get lefties out. During the 2021 season, Patino only threw his changeup 10.2% of the time to lefties. During his small sample of 20 innings last year, he upped his usage to 29.6% against lefties. This pitch generated a 36.4% whiff rate to lefties along with a .100 batting average. The Rays and Patino made it a point to attack lefties differently and saw much better results.
If Patino had no talent, he would not have been the centerpiece of a trade for a former Cy Young award winner. If Patino had no talent, the Rays would have given up on him or turned him into a reliever by now. Prospect fatigue is easy and happens all the time, but Patino is still only 23 years old. He has the raw stuff that has looked good so far in Spring Training. He also has a clean bill of health heading into the 2023 season. The Rays are known for their ability to get the most out of their pitching prospects and I still believe they can help Patino. He is currently going right next to Daniel Lynch in terms of ADP. Draft Patino now before he breaks out in 2023.
Kyle Muller, RHP Oakland A’s
- Paul Blackburn
- Shinatro Fujinami
- James Kaprielian
- Drew Rucinski
- Ken Waldichuk
Kyle Muller is the most difficult name on this list to figure out. The former second-round pick from 2016 has shown flashes of greatness in the Minor Leagues but has not seen much success in two Major League stints. Muller posted a 4.17 ERA and an encouraging 3.66 FIP in 36 innings back in 2021 but flopped last season posting an 8.03 ERA in 12 innings. The Braves decided to cash in on his potential making him the headline piece in the Sean Murphy trade this off-season. Now in Oakland, Muller remains without a clear path to the starting rotation. He currently projects as the sixth starter but even that is a little bit cloudy with Adam Oller and Adrian Martinez in the mix. However, I am confident he will get a chance to start this season and make a significant fantasy impact once he does.
The Athletics would not have traded their best player if they did not believe in Kyle Muller’s potential. The team was fielding offers from all over the league for Murphy and hand-picked Muller as one of their primary targets. The move to Oakland benefits Muller in every facet (except wins). The Coliseum is a much more pitcher-friendly park than Atlanta. In terms of Statcast Park Factors, Atlanta ranks as the 12th most hitter-friendly park while Oakland ranks 28th. With no sinker in his arsenal, home run prevention will be an important part of Muller’s future value. Oakland has a park factor of just 76 for home runs ranking only ahead of Comerica Park (which could change with new dimensions). The Coliseum is as pitcher-friendly as it gets which helps boost Muller’s value.
Muller has big-time strikeout stuff. He boasts a fastball that sits in the mid-90s but plays up thanks to a good extension and excellent spin rates. His slider and curveball have both yielded excellent results in both Major League stints. The slider has posted whiff rates of 34.6% and 45.5% while the curveball has posted whiff rates of 48.1% and 38.9%. The samples are small, but Muller clearly has the stuff to put Major League batters away.
The one area that Muller has never quite been able to figure out is his command. Combining his two stints at the Major League level, Muller has walked over 13% of the batters he has faced. He especially struggles to command his fastball. If you look at the heat map of his pitch location below, Muller is throwing too many pitches over the heart of the plate.
Hitters are either able to punish his fastball over the middle or lay off and not chase the secondary stuff. This is the biggest area that Muller will need to show improvement in.
If there were not any concerns, Muller would not be a sixth starter going late in fantasy drafts. His ADP is currently outside the top 600 which is well worth investing at. That late in drafts prioritizing upside is important. Muller has already shown that he has the stuff to strike batters out at the Major League level. With a new pitcher-friendly home ballpark, Muller has a chance to breakout in a big way. Target him late in drafts despite his current spot on the depth chart.
For more great analysis check out the 2023 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit!
A couple of things working in Muller’s favor: 1) short-term, Blackburn is starting the season on the IL with a fingernail issue and 2) longer-term, Fujinami will only pitch every sixth day, so a sixth starter will be needed to some extent once the schedule starts filling up.
Nice list however there are only 3 SP listed here?