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

It's hard to go against Justin Verlander, who gets the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Thursday. Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

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.

Don't bet against Verlander

What can't Houston Astros RHP Justin Verlander achieve? Shoulder trouble kept the future Hall of Famer on the injured list until last week, when he made his season debut with six innings of two-run ball to beat the lowly Nationals. On Thursday, Verlander heads to Wrigley Field to face the more formidable Cubs. Verlander has made two starts in the historic ballpark, winning both, with a 1.98 ERA. It is one of four active ballparks in which he boasts a sub-2.00 ERA.

Verlander, 41, (probably) can't pitch forever, but there is little indication the end is nigh. He is rostered in "only" 80.6% of ESPN standard leagues, a direct result of his missing weeks with the shoulder ailment. The Astros -- and fantasy managers -- likely expected Verlander to miss more time. Fantasy managers are generally an impatient lot, and if Verlander was out until May, many figured it could be someone else's problem. They may have also ignored the potential for a top-20 fantasy campaign.

Some looked at Verlander's work in 2023 for the Mets and Astros as indication he was a risky investment this season, especially entering spring training with a balky shoulder. After all, the version of Verlander who won the 2022 AL Cy Young Award with the Astros (18-4, 1.75 ERA, 0.82 WHIP) regressed last season, with a lesser strikeout rate and higher walk and home run rates. He still fashioned a 3.22 ERA over 27 starts.

Most Cubs have never faced Verlander, which would seem to favor the hurler. C Yan Gomes is the only one to bat against him more than 10 times, posting a .660 OPS. 1B/OF Cody Bellinger is 1-for-8 against Verlander with six strikeouts. SS Dansby Swanson is hitless in three at-bats. Does it matter? Even past the age of 40 and with a compromised shoulder, it seems wrong to assume Verlander will pitch poorly, perhaps ever, regardless of foe and venue.

What you may have missed on Wednesday

By Todd Zola

  • Blake Snell was scratched for Wednesday's start and subsequently placed on the IL due to a moderate left adductor strain. San Francisco Giants manager Bob Melvin indicated Snell would probably be out for multiple weeks. Yesterday, Ryan Walker served as the opener with Sean Hjelle being the primary pitcher in the Giants 8-2 loss to the New York Mets. It's unclear how the Giants will fill the rotation void. One option is to recall Daulton Jefferies from Triple-A Sacramento. Jefferies is sporting a 3.44 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP over 18 1/3 innings with 17 strikeouts.

  • The Boston Red Sox' injury-depleted rotation lost another starter with Brayan Bello having been put on the 15-day IL due to lat tightness. The club is hopeful that Bello will require just the minimum stay. However, with Nick Pivetta and Garrett Whitlock both already out until early May, the club will continue to scramble. Cooper Criswell and Josh Winckowski will probably garner at least three more starts before Pivetta and Whitlock return. Today will be a bullpen game with Chase Anderson starting today's rubber game of a three-game road series with the Cleveland Guardians.

  • One positive for the Red Sox is that their offense did receive a boost yesterday with Rafael Devers returning to the lineup and serving as the Boston DH. Devers was 3-for-4 with a home run in his return.

  • Check to make sure Corey Seager is in today's lineup for the Texas Rangers when they host the Seattle Mariners in the rubber game of a three-game set. Last night, Seager was hit in the shin by a pitch in the seventh inning. He stayed in to run the bases, but then left the game with Josh Smith shifting to shortstop and Davis Wendzel taking over at third base.

  • Zack Gelof is headed to the IL after suffering a left oblique strain. Abraham Toro handled second base for the Oakland Athletics yesterday and will likely continue to see action at the keystone.

  • If last night is any indication, the Tampa Bay Rays will use a closer-by-committee while Pete Fairbanks is out due to an undisclosed nerve issue. With the Rays holding a 7-5 lead over the Detroit Tigers, Jason Adam threw a clean seventh and eighth inning before passing the baton to Garrett Cleavinger who captured his second save. Colin Poche also has two saves, along with four holds. Adam remains the primary fantasy option, but on days where you have an opening in your pitching staff, doubling down with either Cleavinger or Poche is a viable ploy.

  • Joel Payamps collected his third save in eight days and fourth overall last night in the Milwaukee Brewers' 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. After Abner Uribe failed to convert a pair of save chances earlier in the month, Payamps has seemingly emerged as the closer. However, manager Pat Murphy will probably choose to ride the hot hand. If Payamps were to hit a rut, Uribe and Trevor Megill would both be back in the picture.

  • On Tuesday, Yency Almonte saved the Chicago Cubs victory over the Houston Astros. Last night, Hector Neris sealed the deal in the club's 4-3 win in Wrigley Field. Neris made things interesting by yielding a homer to Jose Altuve to lead off the ninth, but Neris then retired Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker to earn his second save. Adbert Alzolay recorded his first hold since being removed from closing consideration.

Everything else you need to know for Thursday

  • Ten games grace the schedule, with nine of them starting before traditional dinner time on the East Coast. Milwaukee Brewers-Pittsburgh Pirates gets things going at 12:35 p.m. ET, with team aces Freddy Peralta and Mitch Keller meeting. Peralta is one of the top pitchers in fantasy, boasting a 1.90 ERA and an MLB-leading 36.7% strikeout rate. Keller, however, has a 4.80 ERA and 1.47 WHIP, and he walked four Red Sox batters in his most recent outing. Keller isn't a fantasy ace, but investors expect more from the veteran that struck out 210 last season. Since Keller is 0-4 with a 6.23 ERA lifetime versus the Brewers, improvement may have to wait until May.

  • Texas Rangers LHP Andrew Heaney may be pitching for his rotation spot against the Mariners. Heaney is rostered in fewer than 10% of ESPN standard leagues anyway, but something is going to have to give with Rangers' rotation options soon, so each outing warrants notice. Heaney has yet to go more than five innings in a start, though he has faced some difficult lineups (Braves, Rays, Astros twice). Oddly, he is permitting a .200 batting average to right-handed hitters, while lefties are 4-for-12 against him. LHP Cody Bradford (back soreness) may return soon, and future Hall of Fame RHP Max Scherzer is making a minor league rehab start this week. The Mariners entered Wednesday hitting only .218 versus left-handed pitching, but we cannot recommend Heaney.

  • In Thursday's lone battle of left-handed starting pitchers, and the lone night game, Oakland Athletics LHP Alex Wood faces New York Yankees LHP Nestor Cortes. Wood is really struggling, with nary a quality start to his early-season ledger. One would think this is a great opportunity for struggling Yankees right-handed hitters such as OF Aaron Judge and 2B Gleyber Torres (neither have faced Wood), and it is, but do not shy away from the lefties, either. Wood is permitting an OPS on the wrong side of 1.000 against lefties and right-handed batters! Cortes hasn't permitted a run in two of his past three starts. Go with the Yankees here.

  • Betting tips of the day: Sticking with the Yankees, the way Cortes and Wood are pitching, go with the Yankees to win at a hefty (-270), Cortes to strike out more than 6.5 (-160) and perhaps Juan Soto homers for the third time in his career against Wood (+500).

It's not too late to start a free fantasy baseball league. Leagues drafted this week will start scoring fresh the following Monday. Come and join the fun!

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