Fantasy baseball win vultures: Seven relievers in position to pick up wins

Garrett Whitlock pitched the final four innings for the Boston Red Sox in relief of Rich Hill on Tuesday. Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

A full turn of big-league rotations is in the books, and here's the harsh reality: Take those starting pitching returns and simply throw them all out. Right in the trash, all of them, at least as far as anything that'll cause you to make any rash decisions, especially if said decision has to do with cutting said player.

The reality is that starting pitching workloads aren't even close to where they should be at this time of year, and the statistics reflect it. Thanks to the 99-day lockout, spring training began a good three-plus weeks late, with the exhibition seasons beginning 18 days late and shortened to just shy of three weeks, rather than their traditional four-to-five.

Doing the math, that means starting pitchers lost effectively two whole rotation turns traditionally spent in Arizona and Florida ramping up workloads, and that's on top of those lost February throwing sessions in advance of spring games. If we're talking about a typical spring ramping-up timetable, then by a starting pitcher ramping-up timetable, today would be the effective equivalent of March 20-25, and that's being aggressive considering the lost February time.

Worse yet, if you're a longtime fantasy baseball manager, surely you're aware of the dreaded "dead arm period" that often strikes even the most prominent pitchers, which typically arrives at that particular stage of season. That's why I can't get too worked up over Shane Bieber's 2-mph drop in average fastball velocity through two starts, though that trend absolutely has landed him on my list of players to monitor.

Here's the rough statistical truth, averaging out starting pitchers' workloads through the first six days of each of the past three seasons:

  • 2022: 76.7 pitches, 4.38 innings, 18.8 total batters faced per start, 10.7% quality starts

  • 2021: 82.9 pitches, 4.90 innings, 20.8 TBF, 27.4 QS%

  • 2020: 73.5 pitches, 4.43 innings and 18.8 TBF, 20.3 QS%

Considering the 2020 season was played under somewhat similar circumstances, with an abbreviated spring training -- then called "Summer Camp" -- leading to workload limitations, it's no shock to see comparable numbers in 2022. Still, that's a steep drop in quality starts, signaling both less efficiency and effectiveness, and unless it reverses to closer to the 25% range by May, it's a topic fantasy leagues as a whole -- those that use quality starts, that is -- will need to consider as far as their future scoring.

That's not to say that things are much better for leagues that use wins. Would you believe that only 40% of all wins have gone to starting pitchers? For the 2021 season as a whole, which had a historically low rate, 55.4% of all wins went to starters. It's clear, then, that there's a short-term opportunity to pile up some cheap wins from long relievers, especially since some of those pitchers might eventually prove themselves worthy of longer outings as starters or prominent short relievers.

Listed below are seven who stand out, all of whom are worthy pickups even in ESPN standard 10-team leagues, as they are well worth slotting into your pitching lineup spots when your traditional starters aren't scheduled to work.

Garrett Whitlock, RP, Boston Red Sox (Rostered in 39.7% of leagues): He's my favorite of the multi-inning relievers who can pile up wins and meaningful relief innings, best evidenced by his four-inning win to close the Red Sox's Tuesday victory. The team has already given every indication they see a future for him as either full-time starter or closer, the latter particularly important since Matt Barnes' diminished velocity puts the team in a tricky place, effectively without a closer. Whitlock has the raw stuff to close, plus has provided the evidence -- as, again, he did Tuesday -- that he can succeed in a starter's role, between his 95-plus-mph sinker, slider and changeup. He is a must-roster still available in more than 60% of ESPN leagues.

MacKenzie Gore, SP, San Diego Padres (6.6%): He's the "sixth starter" on this list, and might soon be inserted into the team's rotation, having been added to the Padres' taxi squad on Tuesday following the injury to Blake Snell. Gore had an electric, bounce-back spring, striking out 16-of-47 batters he faced (30.0%), then tossed five shutout innings of seven-strikeout, zero-walk ball in his first start for Triple-A El Paso. That came on the heels of an encouraging finish to 2021, after he had adjusted his mechanics, and he was throwing 98-99 mph on the high end in Cactus League action. If you have a bench spot to burn, or at the moment he's activated, he's an immediate pickup based upon the fact he should at least occupy a fifth-sixth starter/swingman role.

Jesus Luzardo, SP, Miami Marlins (23.4%): OK, maybe it's cheating, but as the Marlins' fifth starter behind a formidable front four, Luzardo probably won't be prioritized in terms of workloads, at least not in the season's early stages. He looked excellent throughout spring training, however, and flashed a greatly elevated 97.6 mph fastball in his first start of 2022, which helps explain how he racked up 12 K's. I'd expect the Marlins to squeeze a good 150 innings out of him, at least.

Aaron Ashby, RP/SP, Milwaukee Brewers (6.1%) : A name from my preseason "Tristan's List," Ashby has settled in nicely as the Brewers' sixth man/swingman, continuing to flash the sinker/slider/changeup combination that should minimize the hitting-friendly effects of Miller Park. He's already starter/reliever eligible, so in leagues that split them up, he provides a good amount of flexibility. I'd be surprised if Ashby isn't tasked with at least 100 sure-to-be-effective innings in 2022.

Jhoan Duran, RP, Minnesota Twins (4.4%): The sleeper among this list, Duran opened eyes during spring training, striking out 10-of-23 hitters he faced with only one walk, earning himself a spot on the Opening Day roster. With the trade of Taylor Rogers, the Twins are sure to mix and match the late innings wherever they can, and Duran's 100-mph fastball and splitter are sure to help him pile up strikeouts, while proving effective over multiple innings. He might well deliver a fantasy impact akin to Tejay Antone's first two months of 2021, and if that doesn't sound tantalizing, remember that Antone had three saves, five holds, a 1.61 ERA and 37 K's in that time.

Jordan Hicks, RP, St. Louis Cardinals (7.5%): Unexpectedly tabbed the team's fifth starter exiting spring training, Hicks had his first start of 2022 pushed back by postponements, instead getting in his work as a long reliever on Tuesday. While his sinker checked in nearly 2 mph lower on average in that game (97.4) than in his 10 appearances in 2021 (99.2), that's still an effective velocity range, not to mention that's not his swing-and-miss pitch. In one role or another, Hicks should be tasked with 100 innings of his own, and it helps his comeback cause that he'll be doing it with one of the better pitchers parks called his home.

Spencer Strider, SP, Atlanta Braves (8.4%): Speaking of hard throwers, Strider made the Braves on the strength of his 98.5 mph average four-seam fastball, initially expected to piggyback the team's sixth starter role with Tucker Davidson as the team didn't have a day off for any of the season's first 14 days. Strider instead made a pair of effective long-relief outings, on Opening Day and Monday, and with continued success should nail down that role for the long haul, I'd expect most teams are going to need a Cristian Javier type, to reference the Houston Astros' long man. Best yet, since the Braves rotation has a hint of injury risk, as well as limited experience on the back end, Strider might well get an opportunity to regularly start before long.