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NL-Only Starting Pitchers: Late-Round Draft Fliers

This year more than ever, starting pitchers are a sought-after position in fantasy drafts. Understandably, with uncertainty about innings limits in 2021, fantasy managers are keen to bolster their rotations with the defacto top-tier starting pitchers available.

As important as it is for your top starting pitchers to perform at an elite level, success in your league is regularly a result of those later-round picks who perform above expectations. You hear the phrase 'you can't win a league with your early draft picks, but you can lose it'. Whilst that's true, you can take a big step towards winning your league if you manage to unearth a hidden gem or two, especially a starting pitcher in the last few rounds of your NL-only draft.

Here, we take a look at some starting pitchers who could put up good enough numbers to warrant being a regular fixture in your starting lineups all season. All of whom have an ADP of 350 or greater in NFBC drafts and thus will be available in the later rounds of NL-only drafts.

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Spencer Howard, Philadelphia Phillies

ADP: 440

When Spencer Howard was called up to the Major League last year, fantasy managers clamored to their waiver wires to add Howard to their rosters, expecting him to lead their teams to fantasy glory. Unfortunately, it didn't quite pan out that way. Howard put up a 1-2 record in six starts with a 5.92 ERA and 1.64 WHIP. Given he'd only had 30.2 IP experience in Double-A and hadn't reached Triple-A before last year, his struggles shouldn't have come as a surprise. His ERA was a little unlucky as Howard had a 5.03 xFIP and a 4.87 SIERA with a 20.0% HR/FB rate which can happen in such a small sample.

Howard remains the Phillies top prospect and 42nd overall (according to MLB Pipeline). His fastball is very good (averaging 94.0 MPH in 2020) and he has three secondary pitches that grade out above average (with 50 being league average on the 20-80 scale). Although it's unclear if he'll start the season in the Majors, it shouldn't be too long before he joins the Phillies pitching staff given they'll likely have two of Matt Moore, Vince Velasquez and Chase Anderson in their rotation to start the year. As Howard should only cost a late-round draft pick in NL-only drafts, he should be someone worthy of a stash on your fantasy team's bench and even if you only get 100 innings from him in 2021, that should still provide value given his ADP.


Trevor Rogers, Miami Marlins

ADP: 507

Rogers is currently locked in a battle for the Marlins' fifth spot in their rotation. However, I don't think there is a case for him not getting the role and there is a case for him potentially being the Marlins best starting pitcher in 2021. Despite a 6.11 ERA in seven starts (28.0 IP), Rogers had a 3.67 xFIP and 3.86 SIERA. Of all Marlins pitchers in 2020 who pitched 20 or more innings, only Elieser Hernandez had a lower xFIP (3.54) and SIERA (3.17). Like Howard, Rogers also had an inflated home run to flyball rate (20.8% HR/FB) that contributed to his bloated ERA.

Also like Howard, Rogers has yet to pitch in Triple-A and could start the season in the Minor Leagues. If he does, it shouldn't be long until Rogers gets recalled to the Majors with the Marlins showing a propensity to blood their prospects at the Major League level when they're ready. At 22 years old and with only 209.0 IP as a professional, the projections of Rogers pitching between ~100 - 120 innings this year seem fair. Rogers had a 30.0% K% last year and a 26.3% K% in the Minors so can rack up the strikeouts as demonstrated this spring too with 13 strikeouts in 8.1 IP. Although 2020 was a small sample, Rogers displayed enough promise to believe he is Major League ready and there was a lot of higher than average percentiles in his numbers last year suggesting he can be a fantasy asset in 2021, especially in NL-only league.


JT Brubaker, Pittsburgh Pirates

ADP: 537

Despite the Pirates looking like the worst Major League team on paper in 2021, there might be some bright spots this year including the emergence of Brubaker as their rotation ace. Like the previous names on this list, Brubaker made his Major League debut in 2020 but unlike Rogers and Howard, Brubaker does have a lot of Minor League experience including 140.0 IP in Triple-A. Brubaker's Triple-A numbers are impressive too with a 3.02 ERA and 1.29 WHIP. Brubaker's 4.94 ERA in 2020 was greater than his 4.14 xFIP and 4.28 SIERA which is reflected in his 2021 projections that have his 2021 ERA between 4.21 - 4.32.

Brubaker's 23.4% K% last year was league average and better than his 19.86% K% in the Minors so he can chip in with enough strikeouts to help your fantasy teams too. Wins might be few and far between given how bad the Pirates project to be in 2021 but Brubaker's five-pitch arsenal should help Brubaker to develop into the Pirates no.1 starting pitcher. Last year, Brubaker's fastball was his least effective pitch but he only threw it 13.9% of the time (sometimes his sinker registered as a fastball when it didn't sink). Brubaker's pitch usage helps provide a solid floor and as a late-round pick in NL-only drafts, he has a clear route to providing good value on his ADP.

Pitch Usage xBA xSLG xWOBA Whiff%
Sinker 35.1% .266 .436 .337 17.0%
Slider 32.3% .164 .359 .289 36.9%
4-seam Fastball 13.9% .324 .440 .405 19.4%
Curveball 13.7% .249 .358 .262 36.4%
Changeup 5.0% .289 .376 .295 31.3%


Kyle Freeland, Colorado Rockies

ADP: 627

Freeland has had something of a tumultuous career so far. A 4.10 ERA in his debut 2017 season was followed by a 2.85 ERA in '18 and a fourth-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting. In 2019, Freeland crashed down to earth with a 6.73 ERA in 104.1 IP that ultimately saw him demoted to the Minors but he returned to some semblance of form last year, posting a 4.33 ERA in 13 starts. In seven spring innings this year, Freeland has yet to give up an earned run and has just five hits and a walk against him. Most interestingly this spring, Freeland's fastball velocity has averaged 93.8 MPH (according to Statcast) when the fastest he's averaged over any season is 92.1 MPH (in 2020).

The usual caveat of a pitcher in Coors applies but Freeland's career home/road splits aren't too egregious. He has a 3.98 ERA on the road and a 4.35 ERA at home having thrown 266.2 IP both home and away. He's not a big strikeout pitcher, as evidenced by a career 17.5% K% but he did manage to lower his walk rate to a career-low 7.6% in 2020. The Rockies look likely to be a sub-.500 team this year and wins won't come easily for Freeland. But even in NL-only leagues, Freeland is going undrafted and other than his 2019 season, he's put up solid numbers throughout his career. In leagues allowing daily roster moves, you can easily pick and choose when to start Freeland but even in weekly leagues, Freeland has value as a late-round draft pick.

Edit: After submission of this writeup, Freeland suffered a shoulder in spring training. The team is still awaiting test results but he could be sidelined to start the season, making him a stash or midseason waiver wire add.

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