Fantasy baseball: Fish or cut bait on Alcantara and other slow-starting arms

Constructing a pitching staff in fantasy baseball is never an easy task, but doesn't it feel like, this season, that the challenge has heightened even further?

Injuries have hindered the progress of six of the game's top-25 drafted starting pitchers from the preseason, with Robbie Ray's season already finished, Jacob deGrom, Max Fried and Brandon Woodruff all currently on the IL with some uncertainty to each of their return dates, and Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander having already missed time because of injuries of their own.

Beyond them, however, four other fully participating pitchers have done nothing but cause headaches for their fantasy managers, fueling questions about whether to keep them around in shallow mixed leagues. With lineups now smaller in our standard game, quicker, bolder decisions are often necessary, even on the pitching side.

Today, let's take a closer look at what's causing this quartet's struggles, and make a call on whether to remain patient with or move on from each.

(For the notes below, ADP is Average Draft Position, using both ESPN and NFBC, or National Fantasy Baseball Championship rotisserie format, data, while FPTS is current fantasy point total and PR is Player Rater ranking.)

Corbin Burnes, SP, Milwaukee Brewers (ADP SP3-ESPN, SP3-NFBC; Currently SP51-FPTS, SP48-PR): His current rankings might be the most frustrating if only because of his lofty price, earned by his having won the 2021 National League Cy Young Award and following that up with a 202-IP 2022 season that led to a No. 3 finish in SP fantasy points.

Burnes' issues this season center upon his 19.8% strikeout rate, which would be his lowest of any of his eight professional seasons (his 23.4% combined rate between the majors and minors in 2018 was his next-lowest). A drop in his average cutter -- his primary pitch, whereas most tend to lean on the four-seam fastball -- could partially explain it, as it has averaged just 93.8 mph this season after 95.0 last year (though that number was 94.6 mph through an equal number of team games).

Still, there are reasons to have faith in a turnaround here. He left an April 17 start in Seattle after 5⅓ innings and 85 pitches due to a pectoral strain and then, much more importantly, reported that he had lost between 10-12 pounds over a three-day span thereafter due to an illness. That could explain some of Burnes' diminished velocity, and it's enough to warrant patience as he builds back to full strength. If he's at all available as a trade target for any price beneath those ADP thresholds, pounce.

Sandy Alcantara, SP, Miami Marlins (ADP SP5-ESPN, SP6-NFBC; Currently: SP53-FPTS, SP74-PR): The reigning NL Cy Young and MLB leader in innings in 2022, the Marlins ace has a to-date stat line that looks awfully ordinary by comparison. Like Burnes, Alcantara has a bit of an injury excuse, having missed an April 22 start due to right biceps tendinitis, but that would typically result in more worry than forgiveness for a pitcher who, since the beginning of the 2020 season, has thrown 13⅓ more innings than anyone else.

Digging into the pitch data, Alcantara's four-seam fastball seems fine, in terms of velocity, spin and whiff rates and overall performance, but his changeup has been getting hit much harder this year than the last (a minus-25 Statcast Run Value last year, and a plus-1 this season).

Fortunately, Alcantara is coming off easily his best start of the year (on Sunday), during which he averaged his highest average fastball velocity all season, not to mention allowed his second-lowest average exit velocity. The Marlins would surely remind you, too, that the right-hander got off to a somewhat ordinary start to last season, going 3-of-6 in quality starts with a 3.03 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 21.4% strikeout rate as of this same date. Sunday looked like it might be a springboard to bigger things for Alcantara, and if the time hasn't already passed, it's certainly "last call" to trade for him.

Dylan Cease, SP, Chicago White Sox (ADP SP12-ESPN, SP13-NFBC; Currently SP68-FPTS, SP89-PR): He has never had the sharpest control, with a 10.9% career walk rate as a pro and in only one season posting a sub-10% rate (2021's 9.6%), but this season he has been getting hit harder than he ever has before in the majors. Like Burnes, Cease's velocity is down, his four-seam fastball averaging 95.6 mph this season after 96.8 mph last (96.3 mph after an equal number of team games), and his slider isn't getting the same, top-shelf results that it did in 2022.

Now, Cease is getting ahead in the count more often and his 62.4% first pitch strike rate would easily represent a career best. Still, even with the improvements he's at best league-average, and across all counts he's throwing way too many pitches across the heart of the plate. This year, 9.6% of his fastballs are middle-middle (the middle third of the plate both horizontally and vertically), compared to only 7.0% last year.

Yes, this paints a picture of control issues that Cease theoretically can work through, but let's not forget how ridiculously sharp he was during his breakthrough 2022 and how unlikely it was that he'd be able to repeat it. It's probably too late to peddle him at close to a top-10 starter's price point, but unless his velocity snaps back in the process, I'd use the next back-to-back solid starts he has as an opportunity to shop him.

Alek Manoah, SP, Toronto Blue Jays (ADP SP16-ESPN, SP20-NFBC; Currently SP108-FPTS, SP135-PR): His sluggish start to the season raises the most warning flags of them all, and there's a compelling case to make that he's a wise sell-low. Manoah's walk rate has swelled to 13.1%, which would be the first time he has had a rate greater than 10% since his sophomore year at West Virginia (2018, 10.9%). Plus, his previously league-average first pitch strike rate has dropped to 57.9%, which ranks 62nd among 75 ERA qualifiers.

His individual pitches haven't performed well, either, his average fastball velocity being a mere 92.9 mph after 93.9 last season (and 94.1 mph through an equal number of team games), and he has already allowed as many home runs off his slider as he did in all of 2022 (4). That's not to say that Manoah can't turn things around in the coming weeks, but considering his skill set wasn't quite that of the pitchers in the top-10 rankings class during the preseason, we might be talking a high-water point among the positional top 25.

Manoah has, however, made 5-of-8 starts against offenses that the Forecaster grades as the 10 best in baseball, although that's probably not going to improve significantly in a division that has all five teams playing over .500 baseball. Manoah has a 2.76 ERA in his other three starts this season, but also a scary 18.1% walk rate in those games.