Every Saturday during the 2021 season, I will be posting a list of 10 pitching prospects to stash in redraft leagues. This is important, as I am solely evaluating prospects for their ability to impact fantasy teams in 2021—and not beyond.
The biggest news of this past week is who is, and who is not, on the US Olympic Team. A pair of Tampa Bay pitching prospects, Shane Baz and Joe Ryan, are included on the roster, meaning they (most likely) will not be added to the 40-man roster until after August 7th. That’s not a guarantee, obviously, but for that reason, I have removed Baz from this list and excluded Ryan and Toronto right-hander Simeon Woods-Richardson, although I left them in the given consideration category.
The Red Sox said they wanted to be able to promote outfielder Jarren Duran if he were to stay with the Olympic squad, and instead, the Olympic committee decided to cut him, so I think it’s a fair assumption that the group that is going is unlikely to get added to the 40-man until the Olympics are over.
However, Cardinals left-hander Matthew Liberatore, like Duran, was left off the roster – clearing the way for him to potentially get called up sooner rather than later and allowing him to slide onto the list in place of Baz.
The rest of the names will look familiar, although I did a fair amount of shuffling the order around over this past week as well. All that gives us a considerably new look list as we continue to barrel toward the mid-point of the season, and eventually, the final few months where prospect call-ups could be aplenty.
Without further ado, here is the first look at the top 10 pitching prospects to stash in 2021 redraft formats.
1. Tanner Houck, RHP, BOS – ETA July
Red Sox right-hander Tanner Houck made three appearances with Boston earlier this season, throwing 10.1 innings with an excellent 12/1 K/BB ratio and five earned runs – giving him a 4.35 ERA but a far more palatable 2.32 FIP. All those appearances came in early April, and after missing six weeks with an injury, Houck returned to Triple-A Worchester in early May and has made four appearances while he builds his arm strength back.
He’s rocking a 4.61 ERA through 13.2 innings, with his latest the only one so far where he has made it through four innings. He does boast a 20:1 K:BB ratio, however, and ultimately the main goal is just getting him to the point where he can throw 80+ pitches in an outing, a mark that once he reaches will likely get him a ticket up to Boston to help shore up their struggling pitching rotation.
Houck was never a super highly regarded prospect, despite being a first-round pick back in 2017, but he rose through the minor leagues fairly quickly with very good strikeout numbers and less than stellar command. His three-game cameo in 2020 yielded an outstanding 33.3% strikeout rate and a 0.53(!) ERA, along with a 14.3% walk rate and a 3.25 FIP.
I don’t think his command is magically this good (a 2.2% walk rate is insane) but he does look much improved in this small sample, and at the very least he has absolutely filthy stuff – which makes the strikeout numbers look sustainable. As previously stated, Boston’s rotation could use some reinforcements, and while Houck isn’t going to come in and start posting quality starts until he is fully stretched out, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him back in the big leagues very shortly.
Houck may continue to get shuttled between Boston and Triple-A Worcester, but he is worth rostering in deeper redraft leagues if you have a spot, and could easily make himself a must-own in 12-teamers if he gets a chance to take the ball every fifth (or sixth) day for the Sox.
2. Edward Cabrera, RHP, MIA – ETA August
After missing the first few months of the season with an injury, Edward Cabrera is back and better than ever for Miami. He made two appearances in Single-A before earning a promotion to Double-A, where he has thrown 21.1 innings and posted a ridiculous 30:4 K:BB ratio, while surrendering just two earned runs in total.
I thought the Marlins were going to give right-hander Cabrera a look last year, but he ended up getting shut down with a mysterious infection while at the team’s alternate site. Nevertheless, the data before his shut down indicated his changeup was taking big strides forward, which paired with his 97 mph fastball and 55-grade slider make him a potentially very solid No. 2/3 starter type.
In fact, many scouts liked Cabrera’s overall arsenal even more than fellow Marlin Sixto Sanchez, with Cabrera’s slider showing more sweep. Both pitchers are afflicted with fastballs that, while very impressive from a velocity standpoint, struggle to miss bats and could impact their overall strikeout ability at the next level – something we’ve already seen with Sanchez.
Still, Cabrera has excellent stuff, solid command, and a developing out pitch with his changeup – and while Miami doesn’t have a clear opening in their rotation it would not be surprising to see Cabrera fill in at some point as the season goes on. The Marlins have had plenty of success developing pitching over the last few years, and Cabrera looks to be next in line. Those in deeper redraft leagues might want to find a spot for him early in the year, as the end-of-season results could be well worth it.
3. Daniel Lynch, LHP, KC – ETA Late July
After a disastrous three-game cameo with the Royals to begin the season, which resulted in a 15.75 ERA across just eight innings – thanks to a horrific start on May 8 where he gave up eight earned runs without getting through the first frame – Daniel Lynch was sent back down to Triple-A Omaha to iron out the kinks. Some believe Lynch may have been tipping his pitches in that start, although the White Sox are known to crush left-handed pitching – so it may have just been a recipe for disaster.
Regardless, Lynch has posted up-and-down results in his ensuing performances at Triple-A Omaha, where he now has a 4.24 ERA through seven starts – although a 42:15 K:BB ratio is at least some cause for celebration.
The terrible big league start pushed Lynch onto the waiver wire and off the radar in basically all redraft leagues, but Kansas City will almost certainly turn to Lynch again at some point this season, and now that he has gotten the debut jitters out of the way (and hopefully fixed any issues potentially related to tipping) Lynch could be a sneaky add in deeper redraft formats as a stash candidate.
The presence of fellow left-hander Kris Bubic, who is in a hybrid role with the big club, as well as the impressive start to the minor league season by Jackson Kowar (although his big league starts didn’t go so well either), could be a hindrance for Lynch, but don’t be surprised to see the hard-throwing left-hander back in Kansas City’s rotation by the end of the summer – where he could easily be up for good.
4. Daulton Jefferies, RHP, OAK – ETA Late July
After a very promising showing in spring training, where he posted a 1.50 ERA in six outings, A’s right-hander Daulton Jefferies saw his chances of winning an Opening Day rotation spot dashed by biceps tendinitis, which delayed him for the first month of the season.
He finally made his season debut on May 24 with Triple-A Las Vegas, and since then he has been quietly excellent in the hitter-dominant Pacific Coast League. In his first six starts, Jefferies posted a 3.77 ERA with 20 strikeouts and just three walks before his most recent outing, a two-inning blowup that resulted in six earned runs. Outside of that appearance, and a four-inning blowup on June 14, Jefferies has not given up more than two earned runs in a single appearance this season, and his five total walks all came in his two rough outings.
Unfortunately, even with a handful of injury issues throughout the year, the A’s don’t need Jefferies to come up and help them right away, thanks to strong performances from the back end of the rotation guys like Cole Irvin and James Kaprielian. That makes Jefferies’ overall timeline less predictable and could merit a longer stay in Las Vegas if Oakland doesn’t ultimately need him.
Jefferies possesses plus command of a solid three-pitch mix, and could help fantasy teams plenty down the stretch if and when he does get called up. In deeper redraft leagues and/or AL-only formats, he’s not the worst candidate to stash on your bench while we wait and see how he progresses with bigger pitch counts in Vegas over the next few weeks. He may not be the sexiest, most overpowering guy, but he has the potential to be very helpful in the dog days and toward the end of the year.
5. Roansy Contreras, RHP, PIT – ETA August
Roansy Contreras joined the Pirates in the Jameson Taillon trade this offseason, potentially paving the way for Pittsburgh to get some pitching capital back after losing so much in the Chris Archer trade a few years ago. Contreras was a promising pitcher coming up through the Yankees system, topping out at High-A in 2019 where he made 24 starts and posted a 3.33 ERA with a rather pedestrian 21.1% strikeout rate.
Now, through his first nine starts at Double-A Altoona, Contreras looks like a much different pitcher. He’s posting an improved walk rate along with nearly double the strikeouts (35.5%) and a ridiculous 2.35 ERA (2.47 FIP) along with a 0.91 WHIP.
His first two starts were simply outstanding. He threw 11 total innings with zero earned runs, just two walks, and 11 strikeouts in each game. It’s still early, obviously, but considering Pittsburgh’s woeful big league roster, Contreras is a guy who could get a look later this season, even though he is still just 21 years old.
The big question for Contreras is the development of his changeup. He has a fastball/slider combo that should play well in the big leagues, and command that should be good enough to stick as a starter, but he’ll need that changeup to continue to develop if he wants to be more of a mid-rotation arm, rather than a back end guy or even long reliever.
His age, the lack of innings thrown in 2020, and Pittsburgh’s potential to keep him down for service time reasons make him among the riskiest potential stash arms out there right now – but in deeper leagues, he is worth keeping a very close eye on.
6. Nick Lodolo, LHP, CIN – ETA August
This season, so far at least, has seen a ton of pitching prospects who were on the fringe of top 100 lists have a lot of success (like Shane McClanahan, Alek Manoah, Hunter Greene, and Ethan Small) while many of the more highly rated pitching prospects (like Matt Manning, Logan Gilbert, MacKenzie Gore, Triston McKenzie, and Nate Pearson) have struggled.
File Reds left-hander Nick Lodolo into that first category. Ranked outside the top-75 on most media outlets, including No. 77 on my top 100 rankings, Lodolo has exploded onto the scene at Double-A Chattanooga so far this season. Across six starts, spanning 30 innings, Lodolo has posted a staggering 0.90 ERA with a 1.53 FIP, 0.83 WHIP, and a ridiculous 45:6 K:BB ratio.
In fact, outside of a 3.1 inning, four walk outing in his second start, Lodolo has posted six or more strikeouts with one or less walk in every appearance this year, while only surrendering three total runs. This level of dominance likely won’t hold all year long, but Lodolo is making quick work of the hitters at Double-A, and could be in line for a promotion to Triple-A, and the big leagues, shortly after he returns from nagging blister injuries which have kept him off the bump since June 12.
He is expected back soon, however, and it might not be much longer until he is pitching in a Reds uniform, although he is probably behind equally impressive, but more volatile right-hander Hunter Greene in the pecking order.
The 23-year-old was the seventh overall pick in the 2019 MLB draft and was thought at the time to be a quick-to-the-bigs type of arm. The lost 2020 season obviously tempered those expectations, but had he participated in a full minor league season in 2020 it would not seem weird at all the have him debut this summer – much like we are seeing from fellow 2019 first-rounder Alek Manoah.
Lodolo is a sinker/slider pitcher with elite command and a burgeoning changeup, which should allow him to stick comfortably in the middle of Cincinnati’s rotation for years to come – although there are some questions about how much his strikeout ability will translate against big league hitters.
Still, Lodolo is a pitcher I could see coming up toward the of the season when he is fully healed – particularly if he stays super hot at Double-A – and in deeper redraft leagues I’d be considering tossing him into a N/A slot or a deep bench role if you can.
7. Matthew Liberatore, LHP, STL – ETA August
Acquired in what is now known as the Randy Arozarena trade, Cardinals left-hander Matthew Liberatore spent his first year with his new club unable to pitch professionally due to the pandemic. That made it somewhat of a surprise when he was given an assignment at Triple-A to begin the 2021 campaign, a rather aggressive way to start his Cardinals career for the 21-year-old.
And indeed things were pretty tough for the top prospect out of the gate, as he struggled to a 5.48 ERA and 1.31 WHIP through his first four starts with a 21.2% strikeout rate and a solid 5.6% walk rate. His next four starts were much better, however, as he posted a 3.42 ERA and 1.01 WHIP with an uptick in his strikeout rate to 25.3%. That did come with an uptick in walks (7.4%) as well, but it is clear the big left-hander is settling into his new digs.
In fact, St. Louis seems to have had a say in the decision to leave Liberatore, who is not on the 40-man roster, off the Olympic team. Cardinals beat writer Jeff Jones indicated that Liberatore is not on the roster in part because the Cardinals don’t have the organizational depth to lose him for a month:
As expected, Matt Liberatore is not on Team USA’s final Olympic roster. #stlcards simply don’t have the organizational depth to lose him for a month.
— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) July 2, 2021
This isn’t a guarantee that Liberatore will be up before the end of the Olympics (August 7) but it means St. Louis is prepared to add him to the 40-man before then if need be.
Liberatore has a big breaking ball and a ton of velocity on his heater, but still has some refinement to do with both pitches, and his fringier secondary’s, before he reaches his potential as a mid or even top-end starter. At just 21, it wouldn’t be crazy for the Cardinals to keep him down all year, or just give him a call in September, but you could do much worse than stashing him in deeper redraft leagues to see if they test him a little earlier than that. Clearly, it’s not something they are too afraid to do.
8. Ethan Small, LHP, MIL – ETA September
While his first start after getting promoted to Triple-A did not go so well, Small made things look much easier the second time around, striking out four in six shutout innings, with just two walks and three hits surrendered. He also absolutely crushed Double-A hitters across eight starts – posting a 1.96 ERA with a 2.17 FIP, a 1.14 WHIP, and a stellar 67:21 K:BB ratio. The promotion to Triple-A is of course a good sign for him making his big league debut at some point this season – and the struggles of fellow prospect Aaron Ashby in his big league debut could accelerate that timeline.
Ashby may still get the next opportunity, we can’t punish him too hard for one disaster outing, but Small’s combination of improved command and strikeout potential makes him a very intriguing stash in deeper redraft formats, and a guy who could step in and contribute at the big league level right away – obviously what you are looking for out of a stash candidate.
Small does have a deception-over-stuff profile, which can turn analysts and fantasy players away, but there is little reason to believe he won’t continue to succeed as he continues to rise up the ranks – which could include some big league action before the year is up.
9. Jackson Kowar, RHP, KC – ETA Late July
Like Daniel Lynch earlier in the year, the Royals aggressively promoted top prospect Jackson Kowar after he absolutely dominated at Triple-A, posting a 0.85 ERA with 41 strikeouts in just six starts. However, also like Lynch, Kowar did not translate that success to the big league level. Making three appearances, two starts, Kowar couldn’t find the strike zone whatsoever – throwing just five innings and striking out two with five walks and 10 earned runs, leading to an 18.00 ERA and a quick demotion back to the minors.
His first start back at Triple-A wasn’t so good either, as he only lasted 3.2 innings before getting pulled after surrendering three earned runs on six hits and two walks, although he did have six strikeouts. Kowar and Lynch are both vying for the next opportunity to pitch for the Royals, but right now I’d lean Lynch because of his recent success in Triple-A and his overall potential to contribute to a big-league rotation before the end of the season.
Kowar has a mid-90’s fastball and a devastating changeup, and his breaking pitches have steadily improved during his time as a pro. The bullpen is still a distinct possibility for Kowar long-term or even short-term, but for now, he is still worth keeping a close eye on in case the Royals turn to him again this season.
10. MacKenzie Gore, LHP, SD – ETA September
MacKenzie Gore’s saga over the past year and a half has been well-documented, as the Padres were unwilling to give him a call during the abbreviated 2020 slate and, so far in 2021, despite injuries to Adrian Morejón, Dinelson Lamet, and the missed season for Mike Clevinger, Gore has remained in the minors, paving the way for fellow prospect Ryan Weathers to earn a rotation spot in his place.
The latest news for Gore is even more troubling, as he is being sent to Arizona away from game competition to work on his mechanics, while also recovering from a persistent blister issue on his throwing hand.
Gore hasn’t done anything to help assuage any of the concerns plaguing him this season, posting a 5.85 ERA and a 1.80 WHIP through his first six starts at Triple-A, along with 18 strikeouts and 12(!) walks. Simply put, the overall body of work is indicative of someone who just isn’t ready to be in the big leagues quite yet.
Of course, we don’t just want to ignore Gore’s absolute dominance in the Cal League in 2019, which to me indicates he is still capable of being the true ace pitcher many believe he can be – it just is not going to show up in the big leagues in the year 2021.
Gore’s never been a huge power pitcher, relying more on deception, location, and his mechanics to get hitters out. But it strikes me as notable that San Diego hasn’t given him a look just yet, especially if he is suffering from some combination of command/mechanical issues and/or the yips.
He is just 22 years old and a former top-10 prospect in all of baseball, so he still finds himself on this list – regardless of the mystery surrounding his last 18 months.
Gore is no longer a must-add in all formats when he does eventually get the call, but he is a player I can see rostering in 16+ team leagues to stash on the bench while we wait for his arrival to the show. It is just not reasonable to roster him in 12-teamers right now, but if you have a watchlist and are hoping for a boost later this year, Gore should remain on your radar.
I’m not nearly as confident that Gore will be worth the wait when he does get the call – but he still has the potential to be a high-quality fantasy pitcher in due time, even if it’s not in 2021.
Added: Matthew Liberatore
Removed: Shane Baz
Photo from David John Griffin/Icon Sportswire | Design by Quincey Dong (@threerundong on Twitter)