Trying to predict which rookie pitchers will contribute at the big-league level (and be sleepers in fantasy baseball leagues) can be a fool’s errand. It’s a virtual certainty that at some point in the season just about every big-league rotation will suffer from injuries and lackluster performance, which will in turn lead to opportunities for top prospects. In addition, some clubs will experiment with six-man rotations. Some will manipulate service time and call up their prospects at midseason, while others will wait until September to give their minor leaguers a chance.
In other words, given the range of possibilities, the only sure bet is that we’ll most likely be surprised by who gets called up and when. So, in the spirit of controlling what we can control, the following is a list of the top-20 rookie pitchers who are likely to make an early-season impact. This ranking doesn’t necessarily reflect long-term potential, but it’s how I would draft these guys in a re-draft fantasy league or order them on watchlists for keeper and dynasty leagues. For my overall prospect rankings, click here.
2021 FANTASY BASEBALL RANKINGS:
Catcher | First | Second | Third | Short | Outfield | Starter | Reliever | Top 300
2021 MLB Top Prospects: Fantasy Baseball Rookie Pitcher Sleepers
1. Sixto Sanchez, RHP, Miami. Sanchez impressed in 2020 during a late-season cameo and is projected to open the season in the Marlins’ rotation. He had a delayed start to spring training but has plenty of time to get into game shape. Sanchez has the potential to be a front-line starter given his high-90s fastball and plus change. He’ll need to sharpen his breaking ball, be more consistent with all his pitches, and learn how to set up hitters to reach his full potential, but in 2021 he should at least match last year’s performance (3.50 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 9.0 K/9).
2. Ian Anderson, RHP, Atlanta. Anderson was dominant over six regular season starts in 2020 and then excelled in the postseason. He’s in line for a rotation spot to open the season, and, while he probably won’t match his 2020 numbers, he should be a solid contributor for the Braves. Anderson has a plus change that was virtually unhittable last season, a plus mid-90s fastball, and a solid breaking ball. He should post an ERA under 4.00, a WHIP around 1.20, and a 9.0 K/9.
3. Triston McKenzie, RHP, Cleveland. Like Sanchez and Anderson, McKenzie also had a successful big-league debut in 2020 and is projected to win a rotation spot this spring. McKenzie ranks lower than the other two in terms of both pure stuff and durability. When healthy, he has above-average command of four pitches: High-spin low-90s fastball, plus curve, improved slider, and solid change. However, he has had a hard time staying healthy, and his slight frame has raised questions about his long-term role. If he can last a full season, McKenzie can probably log numbers similar to those of Anderson but with a slightly better WHIP and slightly lower strikeout totals.
4. Casey Mize, RHP, Detroit. Mize’s stock took a hit after he struggled in seven big-league starts last season, but he still has significant potential. At his best, Mize has excellent command of three plus pitches (nasty splitter, mid-90s fastball, and sharp slider), but his stuff was flat last season, with merely average movement and spin. He’s competing for a starting role this spring, and even if he doesn’t break camp with the big club, he should gain a rotation slot before midseason. He’s a little bit of a risky gamble for 2021 but I’m betting on the upside, which for Mize is that of a front-line starter.
5. Dane Dunning, RHP, Texas. Dunning was effective in seven starts last season with the White Sox (3.97 ERA, 35 strikeouts, and .197 BAA in 34 innings) before being traded to Texas in the offseason. He’s competing for a starting spot this spring and could slot into the middle of the Rangers rotation. Dunning has a above-average sinker/slider combination and also mixes in a fringy four-seamer and average change. His command stuff should allow him to post solid numbers (ERA of around 4.00, average WHIP, and close to 9.0 K/9).
6. Deivi Garcia, RHP, New York Yankees. Garcia held his own over six big-league starts last season and is competing for a rotation spot this spring. Garcia has a four-pitch mix, including a plus curve, a lively low-90s fastball, a solid change and a developing slider. Garcia’s curve wasn’t that sharp during his six major league starts, but his fastball was an effective weapon. He throws consistent strikes but doesn’t always command his pitches within the zone, leading to occasional bouts of gopher-itis. If he can regain the normal bite on his curve, he should better last season’s numbers and post an ERA in the 4.00s with a good WHIP and average strikeout totals.
7. Nate Pearson, RHP, Toronto. Pearson scuffled during a five-game big-league debut last season but was competing for a rotation spot this spring when a groin injury sidelined in early March. He now is unlikely to open the season in the majors, but he if his injury doesn’t linger he should be back in the mix soon. On pure stuff and potential, he’s one of the top pitchers on this list. At his best, Pearson commands an excellent high-90s fastball, a plus slider, and a solid change. He has the upside of a No. 2 starter, but he’ll need to harness his stuff this in order to succeed in the bigs. If he can regain his command, he has the potential to post big strikeout totals and solid ratios.
8. Spencer Howard, RHP, Philadelphia. Howard struggled in six big-league starts last season but is in the mix for a rotation spot this spring. At his best, Howard has elite stuff, including a mid to high-90s fastball, a plus change, and a plus breaking ball. Howard didn’t command his pitches well last season, and his stuff didn’t have its usual movement. If he can revert to his pre-2020 form, he profiles as a No. 2 starter. Even if he begins the season in the bullpen or at Triple-A, Howard should get another look in Philadelphia’s rotation in the first half of 2021.
9. Luis Patino, RHP, Tampa Bay. Patino had a rough big-league debut as a reliever with the Padres last season before being traded to the Rays in the offseason. In 2020, Patino’s normally solid command deserted him as he walked 14 in just 17 innings, but the Rays have an excellent pitching development program and should get him back on track. At his best, Patino has electric stuff featuring an upper-90’s heater, a sharp slider, and a decent changeup. He’s in the mix for a rotation spot this spring, and even if he opens in the bullpen or at Triple-A, he’s almost certain to get a chance to start for Tampa at some point in 2021. Long-term, he has the stuff to be a No. 2 starter.
10. Trevor Rogers, LHP, Miami. Rogers showed flashes of excellence (39 Ks in 28 IP) in a bumpy big-league debut last season and is competing for rotation spot this spring. Rogers has the stuff (mid-90s fastball, sharp slider, effective change) to be a mid-rotation starter. If he can consistently execute all three pitches and refine his command, he could post an ERA in the 4.00s and log more than a strikeout per inning.
11. Emmanuel Clase, RHP, Cleveland. Clase missed all of 2020 due to injury and a PED suspension, but he’s a candidate to close for Cleveland this season. I’m not certain he wins the job, but he could slot into a setup role if he loses out. Clase’s main weapon is a triple-digit cut fastball that he pairs with a 90-mph slider. It’s a dominant arsenal when he’s locating, but it’s a hittable package if he’s not. Clase is a guy to track this spring. If he wins the closer gig, he would move up five or so spots on this list. If he’s a setup guy, he would fall to the bottom third.
12. Garrett Crochet, LHP, Chicago White Sox. Crochet impressed as a big-league reliever only months after being drafted 11th overall. His triple-digit fastball was virtually unhittable even though he threw it 85 percent of the time over six scoreless innings. His slider is also an above average weapon, and the development of his changeup gives him a chance to be a starter long-term. He’ll almost certainly be a reliever for all of 2021, but his stuff is good enough to dominate in a late-inning role.
13. Adbert Alzolay, RHP, Chicago Cubs. Alzolay performed well in a late-season cameo (2.95 ERA, 29 Ks and just 12 hits allowed in 21.1 IP) and is competing for a rotation spot this spring. Alzolay has a mid-rotation starter’s arsenal, but his command will determine whether he sticks as a starter. His mid-90s fastball, plus breaking ball, and solid change are effective when he locates, but he’s a high-risk, high-reward guy. If he improves his command, he will post excellent strikeout numbers and solid ratios. If he can’t, he’ll have a few good games interspersed with some clunkers and could eventually end up in the bullpen.
14. Michael Kopech, RHP, Chicago White Sox. Kopech missed the 2019 campaign after undergoing Tommy John surgery, then opted out of the 2020 campaign. He is projected to open the season in the Sox bullpen, but he has the stuff to be a front-line starter. The team has been clear that they expect Kopech to resume a starting role but hasn’t committed to a timeline. In the meantime, Kopech’s electric upper-90s fastball and plus slider should allow him to be an effective late-inning reliever.
15. Kohei Arihara, RHP, Texas. Arihara comes to the U.S. after a successful career in Japan, where he was Nippon Professional Baseball’s best pitchers. Arihara has an average fastball but shows a deep repertoire featuring a solid splitter. He is projected to win a starting spot this spring and should slot into the middle of the Texas rotation. There’s not a lot of upside in his profile, but his excellent command and extensive pitch mix should allow him to stick in the rotation and post average numbers.
16. A.J. Puk, LHP, Oakland. Puk is coming off shoulder surgery and has been eased back into live action this spring. When healthy, there’s no denying the quality of his stuff – high-90s fastball and a plus slider that project him as a No. 2 starter. However, shoulder surgery is hard to overcome, and Puk has a long injury history. Although Oakland is talking about Puk as a rotation candidate, I just don’t see it happening in 2021. Instead, I think the best case is that he pitches out of the bullpen, where he assumes a late-inning role. If he’s healthy, he should post good numbers as a reliever. If he can improve his command and show that he can throw multiple innings, he might even get some late-season starts.
17. Tarik Skubal, LHP, Detroit. Skubal was one of the fastest rising prospects heading into last season but had an underwhelming big-league debut in 2020 (5.63 ERA in 32 innings). He’s in the mix for a rotation spot this spring, but there’s a good chance he begins the year in the minors. He’s a guy to track during Grapefruit League action to see if he can regain his normally good command and if his offseason work to develop a split-change pays dividends. Skubal pitches off a mid-90s, high-spin fastball and projects as a solid mid-rotation starter. A hot spring could vault him up this list.
18. Keegan Akin, LHP, Baltimore. Akin produced mixed results in limited 2020 big-league action and now enters this season with a chance to slot into the Baltimore rotation. Akin uses his low-90s fastball 60 percent of the time, then mixes in an average change and two non-descript breaking pitches. The fastball-change combo is good enough for him to survive at the backend of a rotation, but that’s about it. His 2020 ratios (4.56 ERA, 1.44 WHIP) are probably what we’ll see him produce in 2021, and he should continue to log strikeouts at a rate of at least one per inning.
19. Dean Kremer, RHP, Baltimore. Kremer made four starts last season for Baltimore and is favored to win a rotation spot this spring. His fastball-curve combo are good enough for him to be a No. 4 or 5 starter, but his breaking ball doesn’t elicit many chase swings and the fastball doesn’t overpower hitters. He can probably improve a little on last year’s numbers (4.82 ERA, 1.45 WHIP), but don’t expect too much more than that.
20. Kyle Cody, RHP, Texas. Cody was effective pitching mostly out of the Rangers bullpen in 2020 and is competing for a rotation spot this spring. Cody has an average three-pitch mix (fastball, slider, change) and certainly has the stuff to be a back-of-the-rotation starter. His command will need to improve to win and hold a big-league spot.
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