Fantasy baseball pitcher rankings, lineup advice for Thursday's MLB games

Al Leiter's son Jack is ready to make his MLB debut. Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Look for our fantasy baseball starting pitcher rankings, hitter upgrades and downgrades daily to help you make smart fantasy baseball lineup decisions and for MLB betting tips. MLB game odds are provided by ESPN BET, and fantasy advice is geared toward ESPN 10-team leagues with standard scoring.

Note: This file has been updated with any overnight pitching changes or weather-related game postponements, along with the addition of the latest MLB game odds as of the indicated time of publication.

You can call him Al's son

A mere five games grace the Thursday slate, with a clear highlight of the big league debut of Texas Rangers RHP Jack Leiter. The son of former LHP Al Leiter (Yankees, Blue Jays, Marlins, Mets), and the No. 2 pick in the 2021 MLB draft out of Vanderbilt. Jack Leiter struggled in his first two minor league seasons at Double-A and Triple-A, compiling a 5-16 record with a 5.37 ERA and 1.50 WHIP, dampening the hopes of fantasy investors expecting an ace but wondering if the big-name prospect was close to worth it.

This season, Leiter, who turns 24 on Sunday, appeared in three games for Triple-A Round Rock, starting two, and looking more dominant than in his first two minor league seasons. Leiter struck out 28% of hitters in 2022 and 2023. This season, with his hard, rising fastball and tight curveball, he has 25 strikeouts in 14⅓ innings, for a 44% rate. That tends to get noticed, and the defending World Series champion Rangers surely did, opting to push struggling LHP Andrew Heaney back a day and giving Leiter a mid-April debut for a day game at Detroit.

Fantasy managers should always keep expectations in check for young hurlers, and Leiter, whose prospect pedigree is way down from two years ago, is no exception. He threw 66, 78 and 83 pitches in his three outings for the Express, and five of the six earned runs he permitted came via home runs, including one to Astros OF prospect Joey Loperfido, and another to recently promoted Dodgers OF Andy Pages. The Tigers are one of the lower-scoring offenses in baseball, and are up there in strikeouts, so perhaps Leiter misses a high percentage of bats, but the outing could also be quite brief.

Leiter's time in the major leagues also may be brief, as the Rangers rely on RHPs Nathan Eovaldi, Jon Gray and Dane Dunning, along with the LHP Heaney, while free agent RHP Michael Lorenzen debuted this week. LHP Cody Bradford and his 3-0 record and 1.40 ERA went on the injured list this week for lower back soreness, likely a short-term malady, and one surely recognizes the injured starters on the mend for activation this summer in RHPs Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Tyler Mahle.

Still, big-league debuts for big-name prospects are appointment television, and many eyes will be on Leiter, analyzing his every move. The move in fantasy is to look elsewhere for now.

What you may have missed on Wednesday

By Todd Zola

  • Back during drafting season, Robert Stephenson was one of the more popular speculative closer targets. Stephenson was coming off a dominant second half with the Tampa Bay Rays, so the Los Angeles Angels signed him to fortify their bullpen. Some drafters selected Stephenson even though Carlos Estevez, last season's closer in Anaheim, was still available. Yesterday, it was announced that Stephenson will miss the rest of the season due to an elbow injury. Coincidentally, Estevez blew his first save yesterday, allowing two runs -- to the Rays -- in a game the Angels lost 7-3 in 13 innings.

  • The Angels were playing somewhat shorthanded with Brandon Drury only available to pinch hit. A sore hamstring has sidelined Drury for the last two games and will also keep him out today, at least to start. He's again available to pinch hit if needed.

  • A right thumb contusion prevented Gabriel Moreno from starting yesterday for the second consecutive game. The Arizona Diamondbacks' primary backstop was able to serve as a defensive replacement on Tuesday, and as a pinch hitter last night, so the club hopes he'll be able to be back behind the plate for tonight's road date with the San Francisco Giants.

  • The Colorado Rockies were down a couple of key bats again last night. After missing four games due to a sore back, Kris Bryant was finally placed on the IL. Sean Bouchard was called up from Triple-A Albuquerque to fill the roster spot. The Rockies are off today, but will return home for a weekend series against the Seattle Mariners. Brendan Rodgers missed his third consecutive start due to illness, but he should be back in the lineup for the weekend series in Coors Field.

  • Despite his resistance to the idea, Garrett Whitlock will spend the next 15 days on the IL with what is termed a low-grade left oblique strain. As such, the club is optimistic that Whitlock will require the minimum stay. With Nick Pivetta also currently convalescing on the IL, Boston's starting pitching depth is being challenged, with swingman Chase Anderson being a potential fill-in candidate.

  • Staying in Beantown, Rafael Devers served as the DH last night, but he fanned three times in four at bats. Devers was lifted from Tuesday's contest thanks to a sore knee. He's not in today's lineup, but it's reportedly a "maintenance day" with the Red Sox playing a day game after a night game. Tyler O'Neill is also missing from today's lineup, marking his third straight absence since colliding with Devers on Monday. The Red Sox are optimistic that O'Neill will return to the lineup for Friday's interleague road series with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

  • With the shorthanded lineup, the Red Sox only scored two runs last night, but it was twice as many as Tanner Houck needed. The right-hander recorded his first ever complete-game shutout over the Cleveland Guardians. Houck has posted three quality starts in his four outings, each of the scoreless variety. His lone blemish came against the Angels, who scored four earned runs (seven total) on 12 hits over 5 2/3 innings. For the season, Houck has 28 strikeouts with only two walks in 26 2/3 innings.

  • Jake Irvin delivered his second straight quality start in the Washington Nationals' 2-0 shutout of the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chavez Ravine. Most of the focus when it comes to Nationals pitching has typically gone to MacKenzie Gore and Josiah Gray Especially with Gray out due to a right flexor strain, Irvin warrants attention. It's not just two quality starts in a row -- it's that Irvin's four-seam fastball velocity is up compared to early last season. In 2023, Irvin's velocity increased over the course of the season. It's already matching last August's level. In addition, Irvin is using his rising fastball more while throwing fewer sinkers and curves. The 27-year-old righty is also deploying a cutter this season. It's early, and a lot of pitchers have initial success with a shakeup of their pitch mix, only to later fizzle. Irvin's next outing is a rematch with the Dodgers early next week, this time in Nationals Park. Asking for another scoreless effort is aggressive, but at a minimum, Irvin merits tracking.

Everything else you need to know for Thursday

  • Weather permitting, Rangers-Tigers and Angels-Rays commence the day's action at 1:10 p.m. ET, followed shortly by Guardians-Red Sox. Tampa Bay RHP Ryan Pepiot gets the highest ranking for all starting pitchers for the day, even ahead of reliable Giants RHP Logan Webb, thanks to hosting an inconsistent Angels offense. Pepiot hasn't been so consistent himself, as his lone positive performance came in his second start, at Colorado's feared Coors Field, when he tossed six shutout innings and fanned 11. His other two outings came at home (Rangers, Giants), and he permitted 10 earned runs in 10 2/3 innings. Don't look at home/road splits yet. This is an emerging hurler in an advantageous matchup. Oh, and don't worry about Webb. He is awesome.

  • The Guardians present former star RHP Carlos Carrasco his fourth start of the season, at Fenway Park, and this seems like a good opportunity to rely on Red Sox hitters. Carrasco, 37, offers a misleading 3.55 ERA, but it comes with a worrisome 1.66 WHIP, thanks to nine walks in 12 2/3 innings. The inefficient Carrasco averages barely four innings per start, and his ERA may not look fine when he starts allowing home runs. He hasn't yet, but his fastball is down to 90.5 MPH, and it seems only a matter of time before the Guardians replace him. Carrasco is no stranger to Fenway Park, posting a 9.45 ERA over 20 innings, allowing 44 hits and 10 walks, and much of that came when Carrasco was a reliable fantasy option. Among the readily available hitters, get Jarren Duran, Ceddanne Rafaela and Connor Wong in lineups if you can.

  • Perhaps similarly, the Giants host the Diamondbacks and RHP Ryne Nelson, and there should be opportunity for offensive exploits here. Nelson is likely to lose his rotation spot to new LHP Jordan Montgomery, scheduled to debut on Friday against Blake Snell, who boasts a 5.27 ERA and 1.61 WHIP through three starts, though his most recent outing went well (6 innings, 1 run). Six current Giants have faced Nelson, and, albeit in small samples, five of them have hit .333 or greater. Michael Conforto and Wilmer Flores have homered. Nelson is oddly permitting a .364 batting average to right-handed hitters, which is fueled by wild, early BABIP but also an indicator any Giants hitter comes recommended, including the readily available Thairo Estrada, Flores, LaMonte Wade Jr. and Mike Yastrzemski among them.

  • Betting tip of the day: Myriad runners are going to cross home plate at Fenway and if there was an over/under on pitchers used, you should take the over. Carrasco can't go five innings. Boston knows it is using multiple arms. Take over 8.5 runs (-135).

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Starting pitcher rankings for Thursday

Reliever report

To get the latest information on each team's bullpen hierarchy, as well as which pitchers might be facing a bit of fatigue and who might be the most likely suspects to vulture a save or pick up a surprise hold in their stead, check out the latest Closer Chart, which will be updated every morning.

Best Sub-50% rostered hitters for Thursday

Best and worst hitters from the day are generated by THE BAT X, a projection system created by Derek Carty using advanced methods like those used in MLB front offices, accounting for a variety of factors including player talent, ballparks, bullpens, weather, umpires, defense, catcher pitch-framing, and lots more.

Worst Over-50% rostered hitters for Thursday

THE BAT X's Best Stacks for Thursday