It's very easy to pick superstar fantasy players in the first four or five rounds of the draft. It doesn't take a genius to pick Verlander, Kershaw or Strasburg. Everyone is working off of the same list, so these picks can be somewhat predictable. But, what happens when the draft begins to die down? People begin to lose interest and would rather watch March Madness and drink an extra beer or two than pick their sixth starting pitcher in the 17th round. This, I would argue, is where the draft is won or lost.
There are some very talented pitchers on some really horrible teams. No, I am not talking about the obvious guys named Felix or Johan. I am talking about the pitchers who slip below the radar because the team they pitch for is in a small market and/or can't win games. And if your favorite team doesn't play them too frequently during the year, you may not even know what team they pitch for when asked.
All of the following pitchers are on teams that finished below .500 last season, and for most of them, for many recent seasons. Will these pitchers be the ace of your fantasy staff? Probably not. But they could be the guys who help you win a nail biter that comes down to final game of the week.
Jonathan Niese - New York Mets
No, the Mets are not a small market team. But, they have been terrible for many years and can't seem to get out of their own way. And yes, Johan Santana is the ace of the staff. That being said, Niese had a great 2012 campaign where he was 13-9 with a 3.40 ERA. This underrated lefty has a tremendous WHIP and strikes out batters at a nice clip. Playing on a team that finished 14 games below .500 and 24 games out of first, can you imagine what his record would have been on a good team? Take Niese as a low-risk, high-reward starting pitcher.
James McDonald - Pittsburgh Pirates
Many would argue that the Pirates aren't necessarily "bad" anymore. I can see that argument, but I would counter that by saying they haven't finished over .500 since 1992. So, until they prove otherwise, they are bad. McDonald started the year very strong, but was plagued by the injury bug. He did end up starting 29 games, but his numbers dropped off by the end of the season. He ended the year at 12-8 with a 4.21 ERA. His WHIP was way down from 2011 and his strikeouts increased. Look for this 28-year-old to keep improving and maybe even help get the Pirates over that .500 mark.
Scott Diamond - Minnesota Twins
Talk about a guy no one knows. Diamond plays on a small market team that finished 30 games below .500 in 2012. The Twins were horrific last season and couldn't score runs at all. Diamond pitched in 27 games and finished with an impressive 12-9 mark. His ERA was a phenomenal 3.54 and he only walked 31 batters the entire year. His strikeouts are pretty low, but for a guy who most people don't even know, he could be a steal in the late rounds of your fantasy draft. A "diamond in the rough" maybe? Bad joke, but good pitcher.
Jeff Samardzija - Chicago Cubs
This former football standout made the successful transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation in 2012. He can throw the ball into the upper-90s and was made a starter out of necessity. You look at his final record (9-13) and may not be impressed. Keep in mind, the Cubs finished a putrid 61-101 and couldn't score runs. Despite only winning nine games, Samardzija averaged more than a strikeout per inning, which not many pitchers in the entire league can say. He also had a great WHIP and is only 28-years-old. If the Cubs find offense, Samardzija will find wins.
Lucas Harrell - Houston Astros
Yeah, that's right. The Astros have a pitcher who's worth drafting. This kid finished with a fantastic 12-12 record last season. Why is this fantastic? He pitched for a minor league team dressed in big league jerseys. The Astros finished with one of the worst records in the history of baseball, 55-107. So, for anyone who can pitch .500 ball on that squad is great in my book. Harrell also has a pretty good strikeout ratio. If the Astros ever figure out how to field a Major League team, Harrell could up the win total into the teens. He's a great late round pick who won't hurt you.
Honorable Mention: Clayton Richard - San Diego Padres, Ricky Nolasco - Miami Marlins, Bruce Chen - Kansas City Royals
When your friends are disinterested in the final rounds of the fantasy draft picking guys who are hurt, past their prime or even retired, jump in and draft a promising starting pitcher that has some upside. It's not the "sexy" thing to do, but it will help you win games.
Many careers are made or broken depending on what team drafts them. If drafted by the Yankees, Angels, or Giants, the player will have a better chance at success. On the contrary, getting picked by the Pirates, Twins, or Astros could ruin a man's time in the big leagues. Luckily, fantasy baseball is not like that. Pick the aforementioned sleepers and watch your squad flourish!