It was really hard to rank these pitchers. I’m not looking for sympathy or pity since it was also fun as heck, but it was hard. There’s just so much impact pitching talent in the upper minors right now that putting one guy ahead of another almost doesn’t seem right. Balancing the long term and immediate impact of these pitchers is particularly hard.
Archie Bradley should be offended that Erik Johnson is ahead of him on this list, since his stuff is bonkers, but I don’t know when Bradley’s getting called up this year. If Bronson Arroyo slices his finger on a guitar string then this list goes out the window. But that’s the nature of baseball in general and pitchers in particular — someone can get hurt and your plans have to change on the fly. Because of that, I wouldn’t be surprised if any pitcher whose name is written below this sentence were to win a Rookie of the Year Award, and I wouldn’t be surprised if half of these guys don’t throw more than 20 innings in the majors. Pitchers are mysterious and fickle. If there’s one thing you should take from this list, it’s that.
Also, you should note that this is a list of pitchers, not starters or relievers. That being said, this list is entirely composed of starters, or players I believe will be big league starters for the bulk of the season. Why? Because you simply can’t project relievers for fantasy baseball purposes, and you can barely project them for real life baseball purposes. The best rookie reliever last year was Trevor Rosenthal, and yeah, you could’ve had an idea that would happen. But the second best for fantasy was probably Danny Farquhar. Right. That guy who was on five minor league teams in four organizations in 2012. Of course. You know how I just said pitchers are mysterious and fickle? Relievers are beyond that. They wear burlap robes covered in emory boards and vaseline while they chant in some Crimean Gothic language scholars thought died 150 years ago. They’re out there.
Some of these pitchers might get broken in in the bullpen, Earl Weaver style, others will come up and start right away. I can’t know who that will happen to, but I can educatedly guess. That’s this:
1. Masahiro Tanaka — New York Yankees | (NPB: 1.27 ERA 183/32 K/BB in 212 IP)
Masahiro Tanaka tops this list quite easily. The general consensus is his stuff will translate to the majors, and he’ll be a solid number two or three starter from Jump Street. And I generally agree with the consensus. I have two major concerns with Tanaka — his workload and the guys playing behind him. Tanaka would routinely throw more than 120 pitches a game in Japan, but he had more rest in between starts than his MLB counterparts did. I don’t think his arm will come flying off this season, but there are legitimate concerns that the transition to MLB won’t be seamless for him. My bigger concern is that Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts are going to be starting behind him. Neither Roberts’ nor Jeter’s defense has been even average in years, and they’re baseball geriatrics. A lot of ground balls will be singles in the Bronx this year.
Draft Advice: I see Tanaka going in the sixth to eighth round in most standard draft formats, and that seems about right to me. He’s on a team that should win 85-90 games, and he should be an asset in four of the five standard scoring categories. He’s good, but don’t overdraft him because he’s shiny and new.
2. Taijuan Walker — Seattle Mariners | (AA/AAA: 2.93 ERA, 160/57 K/BB in 141.1 IP)
I love Taijuan Walker. I love the strikeouts, I love that he doesn’t walk too many guys, I love that Double-A and Triple-A hitters couldn’t hit him last year and I love that he’s only been able to legally drink since August. He’s not going to go all Jose Fernandez on us next season, but that’s a bar set unreasonably high. Since the Mariners just spent nearly the GDP of São Tomé and Príncipe on Robinson Cano, I can’t see them monkeying around with Walker and his service time. I think Taijuan is on the big league roster on Opening Day and stays there for the season. There will be bumps in the road, but I bet he’ll have double digit wins, a K/9 around 8, and an ERA below 3.75. Again, I love him.
Draft Advice: I’m probably going to overdraft Walker, and I’m probably going to do that in the 14th round or so. You can probably get him in round 15 or 16 in standard 12 team leagues.
3. Yordano Ventura — Kansas City Royals | (AA/AAA: 3.14 ERA, 155/53 K/BB in 134.2 IP, MLB: 3.52 ERA 11/6 K/BB 15.1 IP)
Yordano Ventura flew under radar a little bit last season, but his performance gets him the final spot in the top five. The main reason is all of those strikeouts — any time I see a K/9 over ten I get a little swoony. That, and he’s got a rotation spot all but sewn up coming out of spring training, which is huge for our purposes. The question I have about Ventura is how many innings the Royals will let him throw — he threw 109 in 2012 and 134 last year, so I can’t imagine them letting him throw more than 170 or 180 this year. If he’s as good as I think he’s going to be, then you’re probably going to miss him come playoff time. But he’ll help you get there. I see an ERA around 3.70 and nearly a strikeout an inning.
Draft Advice: Take him in the 20s. He’ll be available and you’ll be happy that you’ve got him.
4. Erik Johnson — Chicago White Sox | (AA/AAA: 1.96 ERA , 131/40 K/BB in 142 IP, MLB: 3.25 ERA, 18/11 K/BB in 27.2 IP)
Erik Johnson didn’t come out of nowhere in 2013, but he definitely came out of the same county. He was ranked in most of the top 10 lists you see around, but nobody thought he was going to put up a sub-2.00 ERA in the minors. That being said, don’t let the flashy ERA fool you — he’s not going to come up and dominate this season. No, he’s much more likely to come up and just…be steady. He won’t strike a ton of people out, maybe 140 or so if he gets up to 180 or 190 innings pitched. And he won’t have a sub-2.00 ERA again, but he’ll probably keep his just a bit below 4.00, and if he’s lucky enough he might win ten games. That’s a solid back of the rotation starter in 12 team leagues, and a really valuable piece in deeper ones.
Draft Advice: Johnson’s worth a pick in the 20’s, but you can probably grab him off of the waiver wire.
5. Archie Bradley — Arizona Diamondbacks | (A+/AA: 1.84 ERA, 162/59 K/BB in 152 IP)
I don’t think Archie Bradley’s going to be up until June — May at the absolute earliest. And there a pitchers below him that will most definitely be up earlier than him and get more opportunities to help your fantasy squad. And yet, he’s fifth on this list of stacked pitchers, because he’s just that good. He has the body you want your ace to have, he strikes guys out, and his fastball sits at 94-95. Hell, he’s from a place called Broken Arrow. I think he could use a couple months in the minors, but look out when he gets the call to majors. I picture him walking through a wheat field, cutting a straight, uncompromising line, with shattered bits of Louisville Slugger falling in his wake.
Draft Advice: Do you have bench spots? Do you want to lock up this monster in March? Sure, draft him in the last round, then pity your competition if they laugh at you. You’ve drafted a pitching Golem that needs but a few weeks to prepare in the minors before he’ll rise up and start laying waste. Pity them.
The Next Five
6. Jameson Taillon — Pittsburgh Pirates
7. Marcus Stroman — Toronto Blue Jays
8. Robert Stephenson — Cincinnati Reds
9. Alex Meyer — Minnesota Twins
10. Eddie Butler — Colorado Rockies
Matt Barnes — Boston Red Sox
Dylan Bundy — Baltimore Orioles
Kevin Gausman — Baltimore Orioles
Casey Kelly — San Diego Padres
Rafael Montero — New York Mets
Anthony Ranaudo — Boston Red Sox
Noah Syndergaard — New York Mets
Kyle Zimmer — Kansas City Royals