Fantasy baseball waiver wire: How to replace top pitchers

Tanner Houck could be a pitcher that fantasy managers who have lost aces can turn to off the waiver wire. Getty Images

It has been a rough past week on the starting pitching front.

Between the news that both Shane Bieber and Eury Perez require season-ending Tommy John surgery, and Spencer Strider has a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow that could result in the same, pending the results of a soon-to-be-determined reevaluation, baseball has lost three pitchers who began spring training regarded as prospective top-30 positional options. Throw in Gerrit Cole's elbow injury, which landed him on the 60-day IL and offers no guarantee he'll be able to avoid a similar surgery, and that's a lot of elite pitchers on the shelf.

We can debate the causes of this rash of pitching injuries all we wish -- spikes in velocity and spin rate, the pitch clock, the sweeper, etc. -- but most critical to fantasy managers is moving forward and seeking meaningful replacements.

Bearing in mind that many players who are picked up in the season's early stages wind up being the ones most likely to develop into long-term assets, especially with several new rotational candidates thrust into the spotlight due to the aforementioned injuries as well as the ailments to other, unmentioned arms (Justin Steele, Justin Verlander and Eduardo Rodriguez, just to name three), it's a good time to stash starting pitching depth in the hopes that one becomes a keeper.

Here are three who strike this columnist as being more than near-term streamers:

Tanner Houck, SP, Boston Red Sox (36.1% rostered in ESPN leagues): Through parts of four big-league seasons entering 2024, he hadn't yet gotten a fair shake as a regular member of the Red Sox rotation, between his riding the Triple-A/Boston shuttle in 2021, his back issues of 2022, or the line drive he took to the face in June 2023. This season, however, Houck emerged from a spring competition between four pitchers to claim what appears to be a more permanent role, thanks to a 2.40 ERA, 16 strikeouts and three walks in his five Grapefruit League appearances.

He has carried that excellence into the regular season, spinning back-to-back performances of six shutout innings. Houck has made one notable change thus far, shelving his four-seam fastball that had been one of his least-effective pitches in the majors (career 0 Statcast runs above average), while leaning more upon his sinker and splitter, but he had been plenty effective even before the change (career 3.94 ERA, 25.3 K% as a starter). He needs to be universally rostered.

Frankie Montas, SP, Cincinnati Reds (35.4%): While his injury history has been checkered, he has been a very productive starter when fully healthy. Montas was the No. 14 starting pitcher in fantasy points as recently as 2021, and Statcast had him with at least one pitch worth 10-plus runs above average in each of 2019 (slider, 11) and 2021 (splitter, 10). So far this year, so good, as the right-hander has 34 fantasy points (25th best at his position) through two starts, while his splitter has generated a healthy 50% whiff rate. If that sticks, Montas brings a considerable amount of upside, especially in the strikeout department.

Sean Manaea, RP/SP, New York Mets (25.1%): Speaking of strikeout upside, Manaea has struck out 24.6% of the batters he has faced since the beginning of 2022, yet he has struggled to find consistency (either in terms of performance or his role) during that time. Now a committed starter with the Mets, he has delivered 39 fantasy points across his first two starts, coming against decent Reds and Detroit Tigers offenses, including increased velocity (93.3 mph on average) in his most recent turn. Manaea met all the "Kings of Command" thresholds in the preseason, a hint that his year-to-date returns are closer to his true fantasy value than his disappointing 2021-22 seasons were.

Deeper league pickups

Michael Lorenzen, SP, Texas Rangers (2.3%): Although he agreed to terms with the Rangers late in spring training (March 21 to be exact), Lorenzen is ticketed for the team's rotation after probably one more minor league tuneup. Though hardly a consistent fantasy performer, he has had his moments -- most notably his no-hitter in his second start with the Philadelphia Phillies last August -- but also with his 2.98 ERA against losing teams from 2022-23. At the very least, Lorenzen brings streaming appeal to fantasy managers in shallow formats. In AL-only and 15-plus team mixed leagues, he's too talented to leave out there beyond the point of his Rangers debut, which should come either Sunday or a day or two later.

Will Brennan, OF, Cleveland Guardians (0.8%): One of the more under-the-radar hitters who made preseason adjustments, Brennan's changes to his batting stance have fueled spikes in terms of his average launch angle, hard-hit and contact rates. While the sample size for each has been small, it's good to see after a standout spring training. He's not much of a power source but is one of the more disciplined hitters in the game and, between that and his solid raw speed, he could be a .325-plus OBP, 25-SB performer if he gets the at-bats.

Final waiver wire thoughts

Tyler O'Neill, OF, Red Sox (42.9%): Although he's tough to trust on the health front, O'Neill's hot start should not be overlooked. He's been a Statcast darling for years, generally delivering barrel rates around 13-15%, hard-hit rates around 45% and sprint speeds around 28-29 feet per second. If those numbers don't mean anything to you, be aware that they all generally place in the 75th percentile or better in those categories. O'Neill also stands to benefit from Trevor Story's shoulder injury (which opens up the 3-hole in the lineup between Rafael Devers and Triston Casas). This should lead to more plate appearances, and with it, more potential run production.

Feel free to cut: Story (17.0%), Kenta Maeda (35.4%), Luis Rengifo (36.2%), Jeff McNeil (64.3%).