Fantasy Baseball Sleepers 2012: 10 Pitchers Who Will Far Exceed Expectations

Tim Karan@timkaranContributor IIMarch 22, 2012

Fantasy Baseball Sleepers 2012: 10 Pitchers Who Will Far Exceed Expectations

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    The funny thing about expectations (especially when it comes to fantasy baseball pitchers), is the lower they are, the happier you'll be.

    That's why Carlos Zambrano has the potential to make you ecstatic this year (unless you really only expected him to destroy another Gatorade machine, in which case, you probably would have been satisfied either way).

    But that doesn't necessarily mean the best fantasy baseball owners are the most pessimistic.

    Each season, a handful of pitchers rise from semi-obscurity into fantasy stardom, and those are the guys who make and break seasons.

    Guys like who? Glad you asked.

10. Jonathon Niese (NYM)

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    Can a new nose make Niese a new man?

    The Mets' promising young southpaw (pictured here pre-op for full resonance) underwent an off-season nose job at the behest of former teammate Carlos Beltran, and Niese says the benefits are more than just aesthetic.

    Apparently, his straightened shnozz lets him breathe easier, which directly led to better workouts and indirectly led to his reporting to camp 10 pounds lighter than expected. 

    But even pre-rhinoplasty, Niese was on the cusp of a breakthrough. He was on his way to 15 wins last season with a 2.52 BB/9 rate before an intercostal strain stole six weeks—and that was on a Mets team that finished fourth.

    Niese seems to have picked up right where he left off in the Grapefruit League with nine K's and a 2.61 ERA through ten innings, which makes most projections on him (around 12 wins and 140 K's) seem a little conservative.

    He may not be the sexiest pick (literally), but he could be a smart one.

    And that's what really counts, right?

9. Tommy Milone (OAK)

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    After a hotly contested hunger game for the final two remaining spots in the A's rotation, Milone seems to have emerged as the No. 3 starter—even after an uneven spring.

    Along with Brad Peacock, he was one of the Nationals shipped to Oakland over the winter for Gio Gonzalez, but not for lack of talent. The guy is crafty and almost physically incapable of walking anyone.

    He averaged 9.69 K's per walk in 24 starts for Triple-A Syracuse before his call-up last year, and that's basically a historic pace (only three major leaguers have finished above 9.0 since 1901). 

    He didn't set the world on fire in five starts with the Nats last year (15 K's and a 3.81 ERA), but A's manager Bob Melvin says Milone is "big-league ready."

    Draft kits forecast Milone going about 7-6 with 115 K's, but that was before he started to solidify a starting spot. If he keeps the job all season, add two or three wins and throw in up to 40 more K's.

8. Carlos Zambrano (MIA)

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    You probably didn't think I was serious about Carlos Zambrano.

    I didn't think I was either, but maybe the soothing sounds of the ocean can calm him down.

    Although he posted a winning record for the Cubs every year since 2003, Big Z's lack of control (of both his pitches and his temper) led to a steady decrease in K's and an increase in fines accrued.

    Things turned so ugly after he was ejected from a game against the Braves last August, he cleaned out his locker and threw around retirement talk.

    But Zambrano didn't retire. He just moved to Miami.

    Not only are the Marlins a shiny new team with a new name, new uniforms and a new stadium, they've also got a brand new manager (Ozzie Guillen) who just might be crazier than Zambrano and (theoretically be) able to handle him.

    Already this spring, Zambrano seems to have a little jump back in his step. He's third among all pitchers with 16 K's in, like, half the innings of the guys who are first and second.

    He probably won't be better than a No. 3 pitcher on your staff, and that's being kind, but any positive production from Zambrano at all will likely blow away any projections you read in a magazine.

7. Rafael Betancourt (COL)

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    Blame his high-altitude address or the fact that many fantasy owners might have seen their concentration slip to football in August.

    But nobody seems to realize that Rafael Betancourt is an upper-echelon closer being drafted as an afterthought.

    It's sort of crazy to me.

    I understand drafting guys like Heath Bell and Drew Storen ahead of him, but I trust Betancourt far more than the Kyle Farnsworths of the world. 

    First, he was brilliant setting up Huston Street last season. Then when Street went down with a groin injury (which is just about the worst way to lose a job), Betancourt turned superhuman.

    In two months, he posted video game-type numbers: The eight saves don't sound like much, but the 0.44 ERA and 0.25 WHIP sure do. 

    Now Street plays in San Diego.

    Next slide.

6. Chris Sale (CWS)

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    At his current price, you don't want to miss this Sale.

    (I am so sorry about that.)

    Chris Sale is one of those guys who seems a little sketchy because he's moving from relief to the rotation (see also: Bard, Daniel). He's been just about as good as anyone coming out of the bullpen, but will that translate to starter stuff?

    With Sale, it sure seems like it should.

    Remember, this kid is still just 22, and can handle change: He made only made 11 relief appearances in the minors before getting promoted in 2010.

    He's a cannon in human form, and while he'll have to get used to stretching out over more innings, his performances this spring (two a little rough but the last one a two-hit gem against the Reds) were relatively reassuring.

    Worried about the homer rate at U.S. Cellular Field? Sale has the highest career ground ball rate of any pitcher on the team. His average stat projections reflect something like seven wins and 130 K's, but let's call that a worst-case scenario.

5. Francisco Liriano (MIN)

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    Don't laugh. Okay, laugh a little.

    Everyone's been burned by Liriano. There's something about seeing the guy's name in a draft queue that makes you think he's the answer.

    He almost never is.

    If his fastball is at max capacity and his slider is dropping off the face of the earth, he's as dominant as the most dominant guy you can think of. But if either of those things are off—and it seems like one of them always is—you'd get better stats out of him by leaving him on your bench.

    Even when he pitched a no-hitter last May, he somehow managed to walk six guys.

    But my reasoning is this: If ever you were going to give Liriano just one more chance, this has to be the year. He's never really had two bad seasons in a row, and last year was about as bad as it gets.

    Spring training stats may or may not be entirely meaningless, but he does have 18 K's to two walks through 13 innings.

    The highs are high with Liriano, and the lows are super-low, but even if he does have an ERA above 5.00, I bet he still has close to 180 K's. 

4. Brandon McCarthy (OAK)

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    McCarthy was decidedly underwhelming this spring—and that's easily the best thing that could happen to you. Fantasy-wise, at least. Fantasy baseball-wise.

    Many of the other owners in your league probably don't even realize the former White Sox prospect and Rangers cast-off is now the No. 1 pitcher on a young (except you, Bartolo Colon) Athletics staff.

    And if they didn't realize that, they definitely don't realize McCarthy posted career bests across the board during a deceptively quiet 9-9 season last year.

    Maybe some of the thanks should go to Oakland's spacious Coliseum, but McCarthy gave up the fourth fewest homers in the AL last year (only 11 in 170 innings), and he had an impressive 1.32 BB/9 ratio.

    He's currently being drafted around the 20th round with projections like 11-12 with 140 K's and an ERA of 3.70. The win total is probably about right, but if things go his way, McCarthy could move up a draft tier or two next year. 

3. Cory Luebke (SD)

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    Cory Luebke won't be sneaking up on anyone again.

    Last year, he surfaced as a viable if not valuable starter for the Padres with a 3.29 ERA and 154 K's in 139 innings.

    Considering he plays home games at PETCO Park (the poster stadium for pitchers' parks), he's pretty universally a top-35 starter this year.

    But he could move up about 20 spots if everything comes together just right. Last season's 6-10 record is uninspiring, but that's more symptomatic of an anemic offense. After all, Luebke's 9.92 K/9 was third best among starting pitchers.

    Conservative estimates are spotting him around eight wins with 150 K's, which means you can get him around Round 14. In next year's draft, though, he might be Round 7 material.

2. Kenley Jansen (LAD)

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    Kenley Jansen will be a top-tier closer in the majors someday.

    Why can't that day come this year?

    Yes, he's currently relegated to setup duties. But Jansen is the league's preeminent strikeout artist. Coming out of the pen in 2010, he punched out 41 in 27 innings. Then he followed it up last year with an absolutely insane 16.10 K/9 ratio.

    So what's standing in his way?

    Javy Guerra. And I don't know about you, but Guerra's walk rate is bound to rise and he seems to me like one of the less permanent closers out there.

    Still, all it will take is a quick trip to the DL to give Jansen enough face time with the boss (Don Mattingly) to take the gig indefinitely. 

    If that happens, you're looking at this year's Craig Kimbrel. But even if it doesn't, Jansen's K's and ratios might provide more value to you than you think.

1. Derek Holland (TEX)

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    The Rangers obviously have heightened expectations of Derek Holland. After all, they just gave him $28.5 million for five more years and it's highly unlikely it was for his Harry Caray impression

    Holland proved to be a workhorse last year with 19 quality starts and tied for the AL lead with four shutouts.

    His velocity also went up 2 mph in 2011 on his way to an out-of-nowhere 16-5 record. And if you're worried about him pitching in Arlington, he actually gave up more home runs on the road.

    Oh, he also held the Cardinals to two hits in Game 4 of the World Series.

    Right at this moment, he's not being drafted until around Trevor Cahill and Phil Hughes, but he could be worth guys like Dan Hudson and Michael Pineda—and even that might be underselling him.

    If you're throwing darts with your late-round picks, you could do a lot worse than aiming for Holland. Of all the guys on this list, he's the one most likely to be a long-shot Cy Young candidate.

    Just don't expect that, otherwise you missed the whole point of this exercise.

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