Fantasy baseball strikeout stars: Six pitchers to pick up before it's too late

Shane Bay of the Tampa Bay Rays has looked strong in three rehab starts, as he works back from an elbow injury. Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Modern major league rotations might be in constant flux, but it certainly feels like a larger-than-normal number of rotations have changed in recent days. That trend might only continue in the coming weeks, especially with 16 make-up games scheduled between now and the All-Star break.

Interestingly, a large number of the new-to-rotation arms are strikeout artists, exactly the trait fantasy managers want to see in a pitcher. Simply put, if a pitcher can miss bats, he probably has filthy stuff, and that makes him much more likely than the average starter to quickly adapt to his higher-profile role. It's prime time to be speculating on high-upside starting pitchers, if you have the roster space.

The six pitchers examined below share some key traits: Each has struck out at least 30% of the batters he has faced, combined between the majors and minors, since the beginning of last season; each is between 22 and 24 years of age; and each has either joined his big-league team's rotation within the past 10 days or has been widely discussed as a prospective new rotation member in the coming days. Naturally, all six of them also share the common thread that they are not rostered in nearly enough ESPN leagues, considering their strikeout prowess. Go get them now!

Aaron Ashby, Milwaukee Brewers: A preseason sleeper of mine, Ashby has graduated into a firmer role in the team's rotation, as a direct result of injuries to Freddy Peralta and, most recently, Brandon Woodruff. Ashby has been excellent all season despite constant shifting of his role -- his 89 fantasy points scored ranks 67th among all pitchers, amassed in five starts, five long-relief and one short-relief outing -- but what stands out about his recent performance has been slight improvement in his control. In his past four appearances, including his 12-strikeout gem Monday against the Chicago Cubs, he has a 7.6% walk, 66.4% first pitch strike and 53.8% pitches-in-the-zone rates, 5%, 5% and 6% respectively better than his career rates. Ashby gets a ton of grounders thanks to his 96-mph sinker, and while it's easy for fantasy managers to dream of a "left-handed-Peralta" comp, Ashby isn't really that style of pitcher. He's a K-generating, elevated-floor type who is a universal add-and-start with a rotation spot his for the foreseeable future.

Shane Baz, Tampa Bay Rays: Unsurprisingly, he has pitched brilliantly during his rehabilitation stint for Triple-A Durham, and Baz becomes eligible for activation from the 60-day injured list this coming Monday. He has a combination of 97-mph fastball, slider and curveball, which explains how he's a member of the 30%-plus K rate crew, even if his rate came in more limited action than the rest of the group. Baz will benefit from calling one of the most extreme pitchers' environments his home in Tropicana Field, not to mention he pitches for one of the most highly-regarded organizations as far as developing pitchers. He'll be needed by what has been a mix-and-match pitching staff that doesn't like to push its starters too far in terms of seasonal workload, and it's not a difficult case to make that he'll be the team's second highest-earning Rays pitcher in fantasy the rest of the way.

Edward Cabrera, Miami Marlins: He was to be summoned to start Tuesday's game, before that tough-as-nails matchup at Coors Field was washed out, which simply pushed it back to today at the same hitters-heaven venue. Cabrera should be avoided at all costs for that one, but he still has that high-90s fastball, elite changeup and slider that should make him a good source of strikeouts. Like Baz, Cabrera will call an extreme pitchers' environment his home, which should help mask his shaky control, as he has walked 14.3% of the hitters he has faced between Triple-A ball and the majors to this point. His range of 2022 outcomes is probably the widest of any of the six pitchers on the list, but it's tough to pass over a pitcher with his raw stuff.

Roansy Contreras, Pittsburgh Pirates: A sleeper as prospects go, Contreras' fastball velocity spiked following his inclusion by the New York Yankees in the January 2021 Jameson Taillon trade, and we saw the results as he averaged nearly 97 mph with the pitch in his first two starts for the Pirates over the past eight days. All of Contreras' pitches have a great deal of spin -- we're already talking 90th-percentile-or-better on his fastball and curveball -- and, just as the two names above him, he'll work his home games in a plenty friendly environment to a pitcher. While the Pirates probably won't provide him much run support, hurting his win potential, he might also benefit from the low-pressure environment as he adapts to the majors. Contreras was a sleeper at the dawn of 2022 and he's easily still the sleeper of this list.

Grayson Rodriguez, Baltimore Orioles: The only pitcher in professional baseball to face at least 500 batters and strike out at least 40% of them since the beginning of last season, Rodriguez has been widely rumored on the verge of a promotion by the Orioles due to his stellar pitching in Triple-A ball thus far. Considering the team already promoted top prospect Adley Rutschman, it's clear that the Orioles' future is here, and Rodriguez is a key part of that, not to mention that the team has been severely hurting for rotation depth. Rodriguez is widely regarded the best pitching prospect still in the minors, thanks to at least four and potentially five quality offerings, from his fastball to cutter to slider to curveball to changeup. In that regard, he reminds me a little of Jacob deGrom at the time of his big-league debut in 2014. Available in 91.8% of ESPN leagues, Rodriguez needs to be scooped up right now, because if you wait until the news of his promotion in the coming days, you'll be in a mad rush to get him, and subject to a big FAB bid or waiver position.

Spencer Strider, Atlanta Braves: While his first big-league start on Monday didn't look quite as promising as hoped, seek the silver lining that he struck out 7-of-19 batters he faced while totaling 14 swings and misses and 14 called strikes. Strider also averaged 98.2 mph with his fastball, maintaining the elite velocity that made him one of spring training's biggest breakthrough stories. He could stand to improve his control, having walked 11.4% of the hitters he has faced between bullpen and rotation this season, and he'll need to develop his changeup in order to avoid a potential platoon split, but he has a ton of strikeout potential and a rotation spot right now. Strider should be added immediately in all formats with a new role in hand.

Other strikeout-artists thoughts:

  • Another member of the 30%-plus K club from 2021-22, Cade Cavalli, might soon be considered for a Washington Nationals rotation spot. He struggled initially for Triple-A Rochester, but tossed a seven-inning gem in his most recent turn this past Saturday. As the Nationals' rotation is especially thin, Cavalli might be needed sooner than later, especially if Stephen Strasburg's rehabilitation process doesn't go completely smoothly.

  • Hunter Greene is a name you know, especially after he started his Cincinnati Reds' no-hitter loss on May 15, but to date at the major league level he has largely struggled. Still, he has a well-above-average 14.2% swinging-strike rate and has been one of the unluckier pitchers to date (4.78 Statcast xERA), so he's one I'd keep around as he adapts to big-league competition.