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Sleeper SP: Marco Estrada

Of starting pitchers who threw at least 100 innings last year, the top three strikeout-to-walk ratios belonged to Cliff Lee, Colby Lewis, and … Marco Estrada. His 5.32 K/BB as a starter helped propel him to an overall 3.64 ERA, which marked the best season of his career and put him on fantasy radar for the first time.

The 29-year-old doesn’t possess a power repertoire that naturally leads to lofty strikeout rates, but Estrada proved to be a pleasant surprise for fantasy owners who plucked him off the waiver wire last season. He ended the 2012 season with the tenth-highest strikeout rate (9.26 K/9) among starting pitchers who threw at least 100 innings.

But perhaps fantasy owners shouldn’t have been surprised that Estrada could rack up the strikeouts once he was given a full-time role in the starting rotation. After all, he has a career 9.02 K/9 strikeout rate and a career 10.2% swinging-strike rate. His career has only been 262.1 innings over bits and pieces of the past five years, but at the very worst, this is becoming a legitimate trend worth watching.

Marco Estrada offered more than just strikeouts last season, though, which is what makes him such an intriguing sleeper for the 2013 season. The right-hander also severely limited free passes, which helped him maintain a low WHIP (1.14). He was one of the few pitchers available in later rounds — or the waiver wire — who offered an above-average strikeout rate without sacrificing WHIP or ERA last year.

His 3.64 ERA also appears sustainable. His 3.35 FIP and 3.19 SIERA suggest he actually pitched better than his 2012 ERA otherwise indicates. Estrada occasionally struggles with giving up home runs — and that issue can be exacerbated by mostly pitching in Miller Park — but his home run rate was only slightly above the league average last season. He is essentially a lock to serve as the Brewers’ number-two starter and should be the beneficiary of a potent Brewers offense. That could lead to a double-digit win total for Estrada, which would be yet another advantage for fantasy owners in standard roto leagues.

Some have expressed concern regarding his slight velocity drop from 2011 to 2012. He dropped almost a mile per hour on his average fastball from 91.0 mph to 90.2 mph, but it’s important to remember that his 2011 velocity numbers mostly came out of the bullpen. That obviously lends itself to higher velocities. Most likely, Estrada’s velocity dip is most likely a result of transitioning to the starting rotation, not an indication of a potential injury.

Despite Estrada’s career year in 2012, he doesn’t project to cost and arm and a leg on draft day. In the most recent auction draft discussed on this site, Estrada went for $4. In the most recent snake draft, he wasn’t drafted until round 18. For a starting pitcher who can potentially provide value in strikeouts, WHIP, ERA, and wins, that’s a steal.