It can be difficult to navigate a fantasy draft no matter what format in which you play. The task becomes even taller when your roster is restricted. However, you can get ahead of the game and turn roster restrictions into a strength by understanding how to take advantage of them. In leagues where pitching staffs are restricted to a certain number of starters and relievers, starters eligible as relievers are great at subverting restrictions and producing excess value out of a roster spot that is historically limited. Understanding the player pool from which you can fish for pitchers adept at solving roster restrictions is the first step of the process.
Many SP/RP options that were enticing earlier in the offseason have since lost their luster. A.J. Puk was slated to transfer to the rotation in Oakland before being dealt to an SP-rich Marlins team. Additionally, Aaron Ashby, who was likely to see his fair share of starts, has had shoulder troubles and will miss the first couple of months of the season. Even still, there are 15 names that will inevitably bring immense value to rosters that are limited by league settings that enforce a set number of starters and relievers in a pitching staff.
To qualify for the list, pitchers had to appear in at least eight games out of the bullpen. This is a common games played minimum and will allow for deeper pitchers to be uncovered. That means players such as Cristian Javier, Zach Eflin, Hunter Brown, and Tylor Megill that appeared as a reliever in 5-7 games won’t qualify for this list even though they will qualify in leagues where the position eligibility minimum is just five games. The pool widens even further when the minimum is set to just one game out of the bullpen. Make sure you are completely tuned in to your league settings so you can take advantage of such quirks.
This list is heavily influenced by Nick Pollack’s Top 300 Starting Pitchers (with a few tweaks), so if you are in need of more insight or just want to hear what Nick has to say about each of these pitchers, make sure to check out his extensive article. Without further ado, let’s rank the top 15 reliever-eligible starters.
There are plenty of mediocre options well outside of the top 150 starters, but some of them deserve an honorable mention because of their status as locked-in members of a rotation with a tinge of upside. Trevor Williams will have a long leash in the Nationals rotation and was more than serviceable as a swingman in recent seasons. His xFIP suggests a low 4.00 ERA, and if his 22% K% rate sticks, he could be a very average pitcher with limited run support. In a very similar situation in Pittsburgh, Vince Velasquez will transition from swingman to full-time starter with a secure rotation spot on a bottom-of-the-barrel Pirates team. Having never lived up to the hype that surrounded his ascension in Philadelphia, the righty will, at the very least, provide a decent amount of innings and strikeouts. The most interesting honorable mention is probably Brad Keller because he is the youngest of the group and could stand to improve the most with the addition of a third pitch. For now, he’ll rely on an above-average slider (76th percentile PLV), a great ground ball rate (55.2%), and his hunger for innings to push him toward relevancy in leagues that limit the types of players comprising a pitching staff. Luke Weaver would have more hope in his new home if it wasn’t located in Great American Ballpark. He was a full-time reliever in 2022, but as recently as 2019 he pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA with a 26.5% K%. The final player that should garner at least a little consideration is Ryan Yarbrough – bulk reliever extraordinaire. A soft-tossing kitchen sink guy, the lefty should at least benefit from a longer leash in games and one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks.
15. Aaron Ashby
The aforementioned lefty out of Milwaukee would have landed about eight spots higher on this list if not for an injury that could force him to miss a third of the season. Even still, once he returns, he has the potential to have a massive impact in both the Brewers’ rotation and in fantasy leagues. A deep arsenal that induces plenty of ground balls (58.8% GB%) and swings and misses (33.2% CSW) is sure to take Ashby to high places. It might not be this year, but in leagues with unlimited IL slots, he could be a great stash for a fantasy manager looking for a midseason boost with a high-upside starter in a reliever slot.
Wow! What a performance by Aaron Ashby out of the bullpen for the save!
4 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 8 K, 1 SV
55 pitches, 42% CSW%, 44% Whiff%
SL: 6 Whiffs, 50% CSW%
CB: 3 Whiffs, 69% CSW%
SI: 3 Whiffs, 28% CSW%pic.twitter.com/57q7uxEOHr
— Crump. (@jakecrumpler) May 15, 2022
14. Yusei Kikuchi
It has not been a kind transition from Japan to MLB for Kikuchi, but there is clearly another level to his game. The Blue Jays seem intent on trusting him with a spot in the rotation, so if he can hone his control (12.8% BB% in 2022), he could hint at the pitcher that pitched to a sub-2.00 ERA in Japan in 2017. Even without any improvements, the lefty will provide between 100 and 150 innings and will strike out around a quarter of batters, providing volume in the K department that is difficult to find in a reliever.
Here’s a few pitches from a (bearded) Yusei Kikuchi #BlueJays pic.twitter.com/popgXaOcPk
— Keegan Matheson (@KeeganMatheson) February 13, 2023
13. Clarke Schmidt
Schmidt’s not yet guaranteed a spot in the rotation, but if the Yankees choose him over Domingo Germán to take the slot vacated by Frankie Montas, he has considerable upside thanks to a three-pitch mix buoyed by a 40.1% CSW slider. If he doesn’t end up in the rotation to start the year, he will still be great out of the pen in the swingman role he filled last year and would likely be the first man up to fill another open slot. This is one to watch in Spring Training as there is a solid floor and clear upside regardless of Schmidt’s role.
"He has the weapons to be a starter"
– Aaron Boone on Clarke Schmidt pic.twitter.com/HLLhGcNoxA
— Yankees Videos (@snyyankees) February 18, 2023
12. DL Hall
The only prospect on this list (#4 among left-handed pitching prospects according to MLB Pipeline and #9 pitching prospect to stash according to our very own Jake Maish), Hall brings velocity, strikeouts, and potential to the table. He still needs to ensure he cracks the Opening Day rotation, but when he does inevitably get the chance, he’ll utilize a 96 mph heater to rack up whiffs (36.1% K% at Triple-A in 2022). A lack of control (14.2% BB% at Triple-A in 2022) is the only thing holding him back. With the help of some Major League coaching and the friendly confines of Camden Yards, he could really capitalize on his pedigree, but be aware of the risk he becomes a reliever to begin his career.
DL Hall, K'ing the Side. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/1vFygzpzjq
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 13, 2022
11. David Peterson
Peterson is a polarizing player, but you don’t get polarizing players without positives. Starting with the negative; he clearly doesn’t have a spot in the rotation and will have to compete with Tylor Megill if one opens up. He also has yet to pitch more than 105 innings in his career and walks too many batters (10.6% BB%). That being said, he has an elite slider (25.9% SwStr%) and induces ground balls over half of the time. The deep sleeper potential is palpable. While draftable in deep leagues, I’d wait until Peterson gets his shot or use him as a streamer in your RP slot and cross your fingers that he sticks and improves his control.
David Peterson had a higher Whiff/Swing rate than Lodolo, Gausman, Morton, and Springs last season.
He also had a better xFIP than Kirby, Musgrove, Javier, and Cease.
The stats are a bit skewed b/c of IP and some RP app. but he will get his shot. He is worth the 398 ADP. pic.twitter.com/ez3l3HsRmy
— Michael Simione (@SPStreamer) February 13, 2023
10. Matt Brash
Success faded quickly for Brash in 2022 and necessitated a move to the bullpen where his stuff played up immensely. Now on the outside of the rotation looking in, there’s a chance Brash is used as a contingency plan in the event of an injury, as Seattle doesn’t have tons of starting depth. Obviously, he’d have to maintain the improvements he made while relieving, but we’ve seen him pitch admirably as a starter during his time rising through the minor league system, so it’s not out of the question. This is a boom-or-bust selection that could provide enticing dividends. It also makes it easy to drop him if he never gets his shot in the rotation.
Remember the name: Matt Brash. pic.twitter.com/tO8z0xsffk
— MLB (@MLB) April 12, 2022
9. Tanner Houck
While Houck may not have the same upside as some of the pitchers ranked behind him (don’t get me wrong, he still has upside), he does have the clearest path to a spot in the rotation. On top of being stretched out this Spring, Houck is a member of a Red Sox team that employs a rotation filled with injury-prone and unproven starters. Chris Sale and James Paxton are both returning from injury, Corey Kluber tossed just over 100 innings from 2019-21, and Garrett Whitlock has never surpassed 80 IP, leaving one starter (Nick Pivetta) with a clear path to consistency. Not only will Houck have plenty of opportunities for spot starts, but he could have a secured spot in the rotation as soon as May given this group’s track record. An inconsistent arsenal will keep him from a full breakout, but a career 3.02 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 27.6% K% (146 IP) can’t be ignored.
Tanner Houck, Wicked Sliders. 🤢🤢 pic.twitter.com/2LwR1mAvHA
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 10, 2022
If you thought the previous pitchers had uncertain roles, just wait until you hear the case for Morejon. The Padres have a ton of starting depth and are considering a six-man rotation, one that doesn’t involve Morejon at the moment. A strong Spring could force the Padres’ hand, especially when considering the fact that two of the members of the projected rotation were relievers in 2022. Morejon’s workload will be light because he recently returned from Tommy John surgery and set a career-high with 34 innings pitched last year. Nonetheless, armed with a fastball that sits 97 and two offspeed pitches (slider and curve), he could soar given the opportunity. A six-man rotation would actually be perfect to limit his innings, but he’ll need to earn his way aboard.
Adrián Morejón, K'ing the Side with ⛽️ pic.twitter.com/h5aiM2cBOc
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 24, 2022
7. Matthew Boyd
The Boyd Boys are back in town! We saw very little of him in 2022 and only a half-season in 2021, but he has a role in the Tigers rotation and could maintain it with success prior to the returns of Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal. The biggest question will be if his slider is the same as it was before the injury because that was his bread-and-butter pitch during his heyday. It’s hard to predict what to expect after such an extended absence but a low-to-mid 4.00 ERA with around 130 innings would be mighty valuable in an RP slot because of the volume alone. If he’s able to somehow recapture the potential he displayed at the beginning of both 2019 and 2021, you could have a monster on your hands.
Tiny sample in 2022 & 🔊, but Matt Boyd threw the 4-seam at the lowest % w/ the Mariners since 2018.
Should probably ⬇️ the 4-seam% w/ a career .273 BA, .509 SLG, & .359 wOBA.
-.373 SLG, .275 wOBA, 14.5% SwStr%
-.436 SLG, .324 wOBA, 25% SwStr% pic.twitter.com/56z3cngf2t
— Corbin (@corbin_young21) December 14, 2022
6. Seth Lugo
Lugo is one of the pitchers boxing Morejon out of a rotation spot. Lugo’s and the Padres’ desire to move him back to the rotation after years of success in the bullpen is curious, leading me to believe the experiment doesn’t last long. However, he’s currently penciled into the rotation, which is more than half of this list can say. Additionally, a deep, four-pitch arsenal that features one of the highest spin curveballs will garner whiffs in any role and gives Lugo a ceiling that would only be limited by his innings total. This is another one to monitor in spring. It’s worth a shot if he gets the role, he’ll be easy to avoid if he doesn’t, and he’ll be a quick drop if he doesn’t succeed because of the presence of rotational depth in San Diego.
The 19 fastest-spinning pitches thrown so far this postseason were all thrown by Seth Lugo. pic.twitter.com/wD1Bs1W2fN
— Codify (@CodifyBaseball) October 10, 2022
Funnily enough, Martinez is the other pitcher blocking Morejon from a shot in the rotation. Therefore, it’s easy to just echo the sentiments expressed in Lugo’s blurb, but every pitcher deserves their time in the sun. Martinez began last year in the rotation and was moved to the bullpen because of overcrowding. He was an exciting signing in the 2021 offseason because of his success in NPB, but now that we’ve seen his stuff stateside, the hype has died down. Even still, locked-in starts and a depressed draft stock make him easier to stomach. I’ve got the feeling he’s closer to the level of the honorable mentions than we’d like to think, but he spices things up by being on a winning team and hinting at a higher ceiling with a less fluid role.
Nick Martinez, Disgusting Changeups. 🤮 pic.twitter.com/IeUBqlOaiN
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 12, 2022
Now we’re getting to the pitchers that are actually viable in all formats and will be coveted even higher in SP/RP leagues. The Giants signed a couple of starters this year and employ plenty of depth, but considering Stripling’s $12.5 million salary, he’s ensured every opportunity in the rotation. A 3.01 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 2022 makes him more than deserving of that, but his biggest question mark will be innings, as he set his career-high last year with 134.1. It would seem as though 150 is the ceiling, but that’s nothing to scoff at from someone you’re slotting into an RP role. There’s also the hope that the Giants put him through the cheating factory and he comes out the other end an even more appealing pitcher. He won’t strike out tons of batters (20.6% K% since 2020) and he won’t be an innings eater, but he’ll make up for that by walking nobody (3.7% BB% in 2022) and being RP eligible while locked into a rotation on a team that’s overflowing with magic pitching dust.
Going through some PLV. Umbers and found more Ross Stripling propaganda for you all
Stripling’s changeup was absurdly good last year. How good? Its 5.79 PLV was good for 7th best among **all pitches in baseball** last year pic.twitter.com/MEsd6TOQV4
— Ben Palmer (@benjpalmer) February 9, 2023
In the same vein as Lugo and Martinez, Whitlock has had plenty of success out of the bullpen, but his team wants to get more out of him. The righty had a 4.16 ERA with a 23.2% K% in nine starts (39 IP) in 2022 before converting to the bullpen full-time, during which he pitched to a 3.34 ERA with a 29.5% K% (29.2 IP). The clear caveat here is that Whitlock has never had a full run in the rotation, and given that this year, could flourish with more experience. His sinker is elite (12.7% SwStr) while his changeup induces weak contact (87th percentile xwOBA) and his slider is underused and underrated (18% usage, 38.1% CSW). If an offseason prepping to start helps Whitlock maintain the consistency he previously found in the bullpen, you could have a top-50 starter sharpied into your RP slot for the entirety of the year. If he is once again relegated to the arm barn, you’ll still have a prolific reliever that can go multiple innings and occasionally steal saves.
Garrett Whitlock showed off the filth in his 1st career start. 🤢
(MLB x @Citrix) pic.twitter.com/AP4t0oSV8K
— MLB (@MLB) April 24, 2022
It’s a big jump from Whitlock to Springs in terms of starter rankings (and the next jump is even bigger), revealing the status of the top two pitchers as clear outliers among their eligibility peers. Springs took the opposite path of Martinez and Whitlock, transitioning to the rotation after a month in the bullpen. The lefty broke out with a 2.46 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP with a 26.2% K% across 135.1 innings overall on the back of a changeup that was a swing-and-miss machine (22.6% SwStr%). Absolutely locked in to a rotation spot after signing an extension this offseason, Springs should push 150 innings while maintaining a mid-3.00 ERA. The only question mark is if the Rays will limit him and if he can repeat his success coming off an out-of-nowhere breakout. The Rays and a lack of a complete arsenal will do their best to act as roadblocks, but it’ll be difficult to find anyone that fits that SP/RP mold better than Springs.
Jeffrey Springs, Filthy 3 Pitch K (all changeups). 👌👌👌 pic.twitter.com/JdkVKdURfe
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 29, 2022
This pick was so easy that it made itself. Strider is far and away the best SP/RP option and it’s not even close. Not only does he have incredible skills, past success, and a secure role as a starter, but he’s also a consensus top-15 pitcher with a limitless ceiling. Pros: pumps gas (98.2 mph avg fastball velocity), induces whiffs (17.9% SwStr%, 3rd best in baseball), and gets weak contact (18.9% HC%, 4th best in baseball). Cons: only threw 131.2 innings, is a two-pitch pitcher, and is prone to blow-ups. The man set the record for the quickest pitcher to 200 strikeouts, and that wasn’t even a rookie record. He beat out Randy Johnson in a race to 200 Ks in a season. On top of everything, he has an incredible mustache and massive quads. What’s not to like? In an SP/RP league, Strider should be a target, necessitating a slight bump in your rankings to ensure he ends up on your team, giving you flexibility in a format that looks to prevent flexibility.
Iconic look for @SpencerSTRIDer. pic.twitter.com/CFiDrlSArx
— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) February 21, 2023
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)
I love the premise of this article, but a handful of the names you mention don’t fit the requirements you state: “To qualify for the list, pitchers had to appear in at least 10 games out of the bullpen.”
Based on 2022 usage, these pitchers failed to make 10 relief appearances:
Ashby – 8 RP games
Stripling – 8 RP games
Peterson – 9 RP games
Springs – 8 RP games
Hey Mark, you’re absolutely correct. I was under the impression the list I was working off of had a 10 game minimum, but it was actually eight. The list doesn’t change at all and I’ve updated the article to reflect the correct qualifiers. I appreciate you pointing this out!