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  • Will Garofalo

Return From the IL Part 2

Back again talking injured starting pitchers! The last edition featured four starting pitchers who are still being drafted in the top 120 picks of NFBC DC drafts. If you didn’t catch that one, you can find it here.

A couple of notes from the last article, 1) I do have to mention that I have to pump the brakes on Ohtani a bit given the news his throwing program has been ramped down. 2) I said I’d cover the next five starting pitchers in this article and that was clearly far too optimistic with the holidays this week. Sorry!

So this article will have the next three SP injury returners. A couple of reminders of our perimeters, and then let’s dive back into the medical list.

- Looking at SPs who had less than 36 MLB IP in 2019

- NFBC Draft Champion (DC) Leagues are 15 team, 5 by 5 Roto categories

Sean Manaea (168.02 117/205) 2019 IP: 29.2

September was likely very refreshing for the big (245 lb, 6’ 5”) left-hander that spent almost a calendar year rehabbing from left shoulder surgery. Albeit a very small sample (29.2 IP), the results were impressive as he posted a 1.21 ERA, .78 WHIP and 9.1 K/9 (up from 6.05 and 7.94 in 17 and 18).

However, when you take a look at his underlying stats, it is not difficult to see there was likely moderate to significant negative regression on the horizon. His FIP (3.42), xFIP (3.98), BABIP (.194) and LOB% (100%) all point to the likelihood that he was a bit lucky in his return.

The question for me then becomes how much negative regression can we expect in 2020? Obviously we don’t expect a sub 2 ERA, but could an ERA somewhere around his xFIP be realistic, say around 3.8 - 4 with a 1.1-1.2 WHIP? Maybe.

A big indicator for me in 2020 will be if he maintains the K/9 gains he showed in 2019. Is it possible that the shoulder surgery helped clean up his mechanics? Possibly, as he has had issues with it since 2017 (two strains then impingement that led to surgery).

I’ll be curious to see what his fastball velocity looks like in the spring, as I’m hoping he can get back closer to 2017 velocity (92.1) rather than the 90 MPH average FB he displayed in 2019. While his deception does make his fastball play up (8+ pVAL in 18 and 19), diminishing velocity will only put more pressure on his control and command of his three pitches (FB, SL, CH).

As a pitcher who doesn’t have overpowering stuff, Manaea has to rely on locating his pitches or else he’ll struggle to go deep in games. That would be bad news as it would limit his volume, affecting his wins and strikeouts potential, and likely making it difficult for him to return a profit on ADP.

While I like his huge smile and the flashes of brilliance a la 2018 against the Red Sox, I’ll likely be passing on Manaea come his ADP range. Even if he’s more of a 9 K/9 pitcher, his profile has too much downside for me to take him over the likes of Mike Minor, Jake Odorizzi, David Price, or Andrew Heaney. In my eyes, he cuts more of a Dallas Keuchel (100+ picks later likely due to age) soft-tossing, control is key profile rather than the ones I just mentioned.

Lance McCullers Jr. (186.48 153/232) 2019 IP: 0

Boy, it’s been a while since we’ve seen McCullers Jr. stomping around the mound, breaking off nasty curveballs. Remember those? I wouldn’t be surprised if you remember the 24 he consecutively threw to end the Yankees’ 2017 dreams (sorry Yankee fans!). Let’s take a look at his 2018 Stat cast snapshot to review:

That’s a profile I like; plus velocity, the ability to spin it and miss bats. McCullers Jr. has a bag of tricks and I feel like I should maybe just bite my tongue when talking about his previous pitch usage as he could come into 2020 with a totally refined arsenal. However he decides to deploy his talents, I’m sure we will see power stuff with at least two offspeed weapons he can use to put away hitters. He did mention on Twitter to Alex Fast of Pitcher List that he was planning on throwing more change-ups, which I’m here for.

Unfortunately, we were deprived of any LMC passion in 2019, as he has been recovering from Tommy John surgery. It later came out that his elbow was bothering him most of 2018, so there’s reason to believe those numbers may have been affected by injury. Come spring it will be 16 months since surgery and I am hoping that might help mitigate some of the typical TJ rust, commonly with control, that can be experienced by those in their first year back on the mound.

I suppose the Astros could baby him some and watch his innings, but I could also see the Astros not landing much more quality pitching and having to lean on him throughout the year. If he can stay healthy, he checks a lot of boxes as he has enough weapons to get through a lineup three times, is backed by a strong team for win potential, punches out about 10 K/9, and is an ERA (3.5 and 3.1 FIP in 18/17) and WHIP (1.17 and 1.3 in 18/17) contributor.

That’s four category potential. I’m fine to pay in the upper 160-185 range, but I really love him at a 200+ pick price. A strong spring likely pushes his price a good amount so I am grabbing him everywhere I can before it’s too late.

McCullers Jr. is the type of player I like to bet on as he seems dedicated to his craft and determined to being the best pitcher he can be. There are many pitchers who are like that as it takes unparalleled work ethic to even get close to the big leagues, but in my opinion, there are few who match McCullers Jr.’s passion. I’m typically out on first year TJ returners, but here we have an exception. Sign me up!

Michael Kopech (257.95 185/316) 2019 IP: 0

Another power arm returning from Tommy John surgery, Michael Kopech, is getting a good amount of hype early in the 2020 draft season. Like McCullers Jr., Kopech will have 16 months to recover before he meets up with his White Sox friends in Arizona for Spring Training.

Unlike McCullers Jr., Kopech will likely start the season in Triple-A and have his innings monitored throughout the year. We can also look to the pitching acquisitions of Keuchel, and Gio Gonzalez as indicators that Kopech may be more of a slow burn.

With that being said, that doesn’t mean there isn’t potential value here. Kopech has a tool box that includes blazing fastballs, knee-buckling sliders, fading changeups and a solid curveball, which rounds out a complete bag of tricks. The stuff is electric and has garnered comps to Thor of New York. His control has always been the key to unlock his potential.

Now, not to be a wet blanket, but that does give me some pause for buying in big on Kopech for 2020. As previously mentioned, control can be sporadic for TJ returners in their first year back, and if we’re adding that to the equation of Kopech’s past issues of harnessing his pitch mix, then there could be some ugly starts in his future.

I’m still willing to grab some shares at his current cost of pick 258, and hope for 100+ quality innings with solid strikeouts. He is one of many SPs I like in this ADP range, so I’ll be seeking opportunities to grab at least two out of Brendan McKay, Alcantara, Houser, DeSclafani, Garrett Richards, Dylan Cease, and Aaron Civale (ADPs within 30 picks). My pitching staff composition will determine whether I favor ceiling or floor (Yarbrough/Matz) type SPs.

There is a chance that with the White Sox SP signings his price actually drops, at which point I’d be even more in as I could surely get him with some of the SPs I mentioned above. But that could be wishful thinking as it might be difficult to find a league where at least one team isn’t still high on him. Something to monitor.


In review with their current ADPs in mind, I’m likely passing on Sean Manaea, definitely buying Lance McCullers Jr., and picking my spots with Michael Kopech with an eye to buy more if his price drops.

In the next article, I’ll take a look at the next four SPs, two old and two young, who are hoping to make their injury-plagued 2019 seasons a faint drifting memory of the past.

* ADPs listed are as of 12/26

Statistical credits: FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, Baseball-Reference.

Photo Credit (pre-edit): Bob Levey, Getty Images