Staff Roundtable: Pitching Prospects to Target in Fantasy in 2021
While they’re a bit more volatile than hitters, pitching prospects can play a significant role in fantasy leagues as well. In 2020, the impact rookie arms were Sixto Sanchez, Tony Gonsolin, Ian Anderson, Dustin May, Justin Dunn, and several others. That doesn’t even include the big-name prospect arms like Nate Pearson, Casey Mize, Spencer Howard, and Luis Patiño who mostly struggled in their debuts. The 2021 season should be no different with plenty more intriguing arms expected to debut, headlined by MacKenzie Gore, a name we decided to exclude here as he’s everyone’s favorite pitching prospect for 2021 fantasy leagues.
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Pitching Prospects to Target in 2021
Eric Cross (@EricCross04) – Matt Manning
Coming into the 2020 season, each of Detroit’s three-headed pitching prospect monster was expected to make their Major League debuts. Two did. Both Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal endured up and down rookie seasons while Matt Manning waited his turn at the alternate site before being shut down in September due to a right forearm strain. Assuming that strain doesn’t have any lasting effects (back off Tommy John), Manning should make his MLB debut fairly early in the 2021 season with big impact potential right away.
Now, I always caution to temper expectations with rookie pitchers, but Manning’s strikeout ability alone should provide value in 2021, even if his ratios aren’t what we expect right away. For most of his professional career, Manning has gotten the vast majority of his strikeouts via his mid-90’s fastball or low-80’s hammer curveball with the latter serving as his main out pitch. And when you have a curveball as majestic as this, it’s hard to blame Manning for going to it as frequently as he did, especially in two-strike counts.
That’s pure filth right there. But if Manning was going to continue his success in the upper levels of the minors and into the Major Leagues, improving his fastball command and changeup were going to be key. Check and check. While Manning’s changeup is still a bit inconsistent, he made major strides with the offering which now flashes above-average to plus in starts with plenty of fade and tumble.
The evolution of Manning’s changeup and fastball command vaulted him from really good to one of the top pitching prospects in the game in 2019, and while some are shying away due to the forearm strain, I’m still all-in on the potential future frontline starter. If I could only take one of the big-three Tiger arms for fantasy purposes, I’m going with Manning. Once he gets the call, you’re going to need to pony up some serious FAAB to get him on your squad.
Chris Clegg (@RotoClegg) – Forrest Whitley
My favorite pitching prospect for 2021 is one that many have soured on for various reasons. That pitcher is Astros’ prospect Forrest Whitley. The big 6’7” righty was one of the most dominant pitchers in the MILB prior to a rough 2019 and an injury-riddled 2020. While he has fallen out of grace with many prospectors, I am still extremely high on him.
Whitley possesses what is arguably the best arsenal of pitches of any Minor League pitcher, with five potential plus pitches. His fastball is arguably his best offering, which usually sits between 93 and 97 mph that can cut or sink. His changeup is one of the best in the MILB and plays very nicely off his fastball. Whitley’s curveball and slider both produce extremely high spin rates, which give them high strikeout potential. There is no questioning Forrest Whitley has the arsenal to be an elite pitcher and there is a reason he was ranked as the best pitching prospect in baseball for some time. Command and control have been issues for Whitley but if he can achieve at least average command, he can be an ace.
— Baseball America (@BaseballAmerica) July 16, 2017
The wheels did come off for Whitley in 2019 as he pitched to a 7.99 ERA between four Minor League levels. He altered his mechanics to maintain better posture and have less stress on his shoulder. After pitching the same way for over five years, I’m sure it was challenging to try and switch things up. The good news is Whitley rebounded nicely in the Arizona Fall League where he led the league in strikeouts and posted a 2.88 ERA in 25 innings.
Whitley did not pitch in 2020 due to arm discomfort, which is never a good sign. But, if it was an issue that leads to the dreaded Tommy John surgery, I feel like we would have heard by now. Whitley has plenty of time to get healthy and ready for 2021. The Astros will also need a starting pitcher considering they will be without Justin Verlander next season.
If you own Forrest Whitley in a dynasty league, it is best to hold and not sell low on him. In redraft leagues, there is a high probability he will not get drafted unless we get good news or see him performing well in Spring Training. So you can take a late-round flier on him in a deeper league or wait and be ready to spend some FAAB on him if he gets a rotation spot.
Jake Devereaux (@DevJake) – George Kirby
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a trend in baseball of command profile guys with somewhat average stuff breaking out in a big way. Perhaps this is due to technologies like Rapsodo and others which help pitchers figure out why certain pitches are or are not effective. More than ever pitchers have the means to be able to go into the lab and work on improving their offerings. No team has done a better job of that over the last few years than the Cleveland Indians and specifically Shane Bieber. In searching for the next organization that could start doing this with its pitchers we need to take a hard look at the Seattle Mariners.
The Mariners have been collecting players with plus command profiles and very good but not great stuff. Logan Gilbert is one such example, none of his current secondary offerings grades out above a 55, but a plus fastball with plus command allows all of them to play up. His teammate George Kirby is another such example. Drafted out of Elon University as the 20th overall pick in the 2019 draft the 6’4” 215lb righty has given us plenty of reasons to get excited in his brief time in the minor leagues. In his 23 innings pitched at short season ball he put up a 25/0 strikeout to walk ratio. FanGraphs also pointed out that dating back to college and his time in the cape league his total ratio is 307-51—a four percent rate.
The numbers prove that Kirby has plus to double plus command depending on who you talk to. I believe he has double plus command. This summer Kirby pitched at the Mariners alternate site and the reports on his stuff started to get me pretty excited. His fastball, which had been an offering that sat in the low to mid 90’s was now playing up and sitting more in the 97-99 mph range. In addition to this he is making strides with his already very strong curveball and his slider a pitch that needs a little bit of work. Reports also stated that he’s been working on improving the spin and speed differential between his fastball and changeup.
All told this is the kind of player I’m going to be hitching my wagon to in dynasty leagues. I’m going to bet on the guy with a clean bill of health, double plus command, perfectly repeatable mechanics, and potentially four above average pitches to turn into a stud major league pitcher. There isn’t a ton that Kirby needs to do to prove he’s ready and I could see both he and his teammate Gilbert getting the call this year as Seattle starts to bring up Jarred Kelenic and the rest of this promising young core.
Corbin Young (@Corbin_Young21) – Clarke Schmidt
With injuries to the Yankees rotation coming into 2020, I hoped Clarke Schmidt would make an appearance early and often during the season. However, in 2020, Schmidt only logged 6.1 innings, a 7.11 ERA, 1.89 WHIP, and seven strikeouts. He made three appearances with two relief appearances and one four-inning start in late September against the Marlins. With such a small sample, it’s not worth overreacting to his 2020 production.
Throughout the minors, Clarke Schmidt didn’t log a ton of innings partially due to injuries and recovering from Tommy John surgery. In 2019, Schmidt totaled 90.2 innings across three levels with 28 walks and 102 strikeouts. His best pitches include a plus fastball at 95.3 mph and a plus-plus curveball at 84.9 mph. Schmidt primarily uses a mixture of the sinker, four-seamer, and curveball while also sprinkling in a changeup.
His main issues reside in the control and command, with his walk rate ranging from 2.16 BB/9 and 3.41 BB/9 throughout the minor leagues. However, the Yankees starting rotation looks messy outside of Gerrit Cole with Luis Severino and James Paxton suffering long-term injuries, meaning Schmidt could find himself battling for a rotation spot in 2021. Another reason to like Schmidt involves his ground ball tendency, and that’s where Schmidt tends to find success.
According to Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs, Schmidt added 400 rpm to his curveball, and the spin/velocity mix compares similarly to Dustin May. With two nasty, plus grade pitches, I look forward to watching Clarke Schmidt as my favorite pitcher prospect for 2021. Schmidt is a good bet in 2021 with the great stuff, potential opportunity, and gif worthy strikeout ability.
Clarke Schmidt is absolutely disgusting. 🤮 pic.twitter.com/AoHpM1Qwr7
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) February 27, 2020
Justin Johnson (@JJ_JetFlyin) – Matt Manning
My immediate reaction to which rookie pitcher I like the best heading into 2021 was Matt Manning. After doing a little more digging, it was still Matt Manning. A 6’6” former basketball star, Manning came out of high school as a raw prospect, with major upside after being the 9th overall selection in the 2016 MLB Draft.
In the 2019 season, Manning showed that he is unlocking that potential. Across 133.2 innings pitched in Double A, manning had a 2.56 ERA, a 0.98 WHIP, and 148 strikeouts. All the while maintaining the lowest walk rate of his career, and an elite 20.9 K-BB%.
The Tigers were hesitant to use Manning in 2020, as he saw fellow rookies Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal get their chance at the majors. The Tigers felt like Manning could still use a little fine-tuning. The struggles of Mize and Skubal likely made the Tigers hesitate even further, and then an injury to Manning finally put an end to any hope he would debut in 2020.
2021 will be a different story (hopefully) however. Manning will likely open in Triple A, assuming the minor leagues return in 2021. But he should quickly be up to the majors of his oblique injury isn’t too severe. Armed with a great fastball that can reach the mid-upper 90’s, an elite curveball, and a good changeup, Manning has the swing and miss arsenal to be successful right away for your fantasy teams.
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