Fantasy baseball pickups: Trio of starting pitchers returning from injury

Edward Cabrera of the Miami Marlins has not surrendered a run in two starts since returning from the IL. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

It's a big week ahead for East Division teams, in both the American and National Leagues, as head-to-head contests provide good opportunity for contenders to separate themselves in the standings. In particular, the wild card-hopeful Baltimore Orioles get a pair of intradivisional series, with it a good time for them to begin making some moves in that race. They're the team from which you'll find my top pickup for Week 18:

Jorge Mateo, OF/2B/SS, Orioles: The Orioles begin their week facing ice-cold Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, and conclude it against the Boston Red Sox, whose starting catcher, Kevin Plawecki, is one of the league's weakest at reining in opposing base stealers. The Mateo recommendation, however, is every bit as much about his recent improvements as it is this week's schedule. He has been on a hitting tear since the All-Star break, batting .333/.368/.611 with four home runs, 13 RBIs, five stolen bases (albeit on eight attempts) and 16 runs scored in 21 games, fortifying his everyday shortstop role. During that time, Mateo has seen his hard-contact rate swell to 39.3%, up from its modest 28.9% first-half number, which provides optimism that he can easily exceed his .233 career batting average going forward. He's one of the most underrated stolen base sources, a multi-position eligible, and begins the week available in nearly two-thirds of ESPN leagues.

Edward Cabrera, SP, Miami Marlins: Yet another of the high-ceiling, young Marlins starting pitchers, Cabrera has been outstanding in limited work between his injuries this season, in 4-of-5 starts this season scoring 20-plus fantasy points. Elite velocity has had quite a bit to do with it, his four-seam fastball averaging 96.5 mph, but he also brings a pair of effectively unhittable pitches in his slider, which has been responsible for nine of his 29 strikeouts, and changeup, which he has ramped up to 36.3% usage and with which he has gotten 11 of said K's. Cabrera's injuries -- he has already missed time with biceps and elbow issues this season alone -- cast some doubt upon both his future ability to stay healthy as well as his workload going forward, but he's well worth the pickup in all formats based upon his upside. He's currently aligned to pitch once this week, at home against the San Diego Padres, the home assignment at least granting him a park-factor edge despite the challenging matchup, but he'd then get an easy assignment the following Monday at the Oakland Athletics.

Lance McCullers Jr., SP, Houston Astros: Speaking of high-upside, strikeout-oriented starters, McCullers' 2022 debut couldn't have gone much more smoothly than it did on Saturday. Sure, the matchup against the Athletics was about the best he could draw, but that he managed six shutout innings of 81 pitches bodes well for his immediate future, especially on the workload front. McCullers' signature curveball looked every bit as lethal as pre-injury, responsible for 2-of-5 strikeouts and five swinging strikes. What's more, he and the Astros face one of the most fantasy-friendly schedules the remainder of the year, so more matchups in the range of that Oakland one will be plentiful, and the team is sure to use him a good share as they determine his postseason role as well as provide additional rest to their other starters. McCullers is well worth the add in all formats, especially considering this might be his next-five-starts schedule: @ATL, BAL, @LAA, LAA, OAK.

Other Week 18 notes:

  • Speaking of starting pitchers on the mend, Dustin May is expected to make his long-awaited return to the Dodgers' rotation on Saturday, but he didn't get a writeup and recommendation above because he's much more likely than someone like McCullers to face pitch counts in his initial starts back and a limited role down the stretch. Still, May was regarded one of the more promising young starters at the time of his May 2021 Tommy John surgery, and he had a brilliant final rehabilitation start for Triple-A Oklahoma City on Sunday, striking out 10 batters in five innings, including an immaculate inning. He should be added in all NL-only and 15-team mixed leagues in advance of his return.

  • The Nationals' rebuild has opened up several spots for relative unknowns to pick up playing time, so don't overlook the opportunity that journeyman Joey Meneses is now receiving. He hit 35 home runs in 184 games combined between the Boston Red Sox' and Nationals' minor league systems, in Double- and Triple-A, between this and last season, and already has five in 10 games since his recall. Meneses has seemingly moved into an everyday, fifth-in-the-lineup spot between first base and right field, and he's out there for the taking in 90.9% of ESPN leagues.

  • Sticking with the Nationals, they are expected to recall C.J. Abrams, a huge part of the Juan Soto trade return, to take over as their everyday shortstop on Monday. He'll step in for the injured Luis Garcia, and could provide rotisserie league managers a good number of stolen bases, even if he needs time to get comfortable as a hitter at this level.