Fantasy baseball weekend watch: Pirates promote Paul Skenes

Circle Saturday on your calendars, as Paul Skenes, arguably the most ballyhooed pitching prospect since Stephen Strasburg, will be recalled on that date by the Pittsburgh Pirates to make his MLB debut against the Chicago Cubs.

Skenes represents the latest "must add" among prospects, a pitcher whose immediate impact might be akin to that of fellow No. 1 overall draftees of the past 15 years, Strasburg (2009 pick, June 2010 debut) and Gerrit Cole (2011, June 2013). Skenes has already been added to ESPN rosters in 26.6% of leagues in just the past 24 hours, and if you're in one of the roughly 40% of leagues in which he remains available, head to your free-agent list right now to pick him up. (Don't forget to then return here to read more about him as well as what else is ahead this weekend!)

While the only higher-ranked prospect recalled since Opening Day, Jackson Holliday of the Baltimore Orioles, flopped in his first taste of big league action, there are only so many opportunities to roster a player with Skenes' potential. Some prospects will disappoint during their first try, as Holliday, Spencer Torkelson and (*gasp*) Mike Trout did, but others, like Adley Rutschman, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bryce Harper, will instantly thrive.

Skenes has the skill set to do the latter, equipped with a four-seam fastball that has averaged 99.9 mph in his seven starts for Triple-A Indianapolis, a slider that has generated a 43% whiff rate on hitters' swings, a splitter that has a 38% whiff rate and a changeup that is a perfect 8-of-8 in getting whiffs. There's a reason he's often compared to Strasburg and, to a lesser degree, Cole, as they were pitchers who delivered 1.5 and 1.4 WAR values and sub-3.25 ERAs in their debut seasons.

If there's a concern to amplify with Skenes, it's the Pirates' careful management of his workload as a professional. Through 12 professional starts, another during spring training and a relief outing during said Grapefruit League action, he has never thrown more than 75 pitches in a single game, averaging 45 over the 12 games (spring training included) that were tracked. That said, he threw 65, 71, 75 and 66 in his last four for Indianapolis, as the Pirates advanced his ramping-up program.

Pacing Skenes' 2024 minor league innings, he's on track for roughly 120, which is a realistic year-end target -- subtract his 27⅓ in the minors and we're talking approximately 95 in the majors -- and the Pirates' decision to introduce him as a member of a six-man rotation follows that design. A fair guess would be 100 MLB innings over 20 starts and an average of 80 pitches per start.

That's not a far cry from the 2023 workload of then-Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Bobby Miller and remember that Miller was in a more pressing situation as far as the team expecting a big contribution at the time. Skenes' impact might be along similar lines, and Miller finished 2023 as the SP57 (and 198th overall) in fantasy points scored, despite not debuting until May 23.

Defending champs visit Coors Field

The Texas Rangers reap both the hitting benefits and pitching pitfalls of a weekend trip to Colorado's Coors Field, in which active staff ace Jon Gray is scheduled to make his first start there -- likely on Friday, after Dane Dunning landed on the IL -- since he left the Colorado Rockies as a free agent following the 2021 season.

The Rangers boast four hitters who were selected among the top-100 overall picks in ESPN leagues, Marcus Semien, Corey Seager, Adolis Garcia and Evan Carter. Another, Jonah Heim, ranks among the top 10 in fantasy points among catchers for the season. Nathaniel Lowe, meanwhile, is the team's leader in scoring since his April 20 activation. All six are well worth having in your lineup for all three games -- always check the daily lineups in standard leagues, of course -- as all shape up as regulars for the team.

Can Gray succeed again at Coors, where he averaged 9.9 fantasy points-per-start during his Rockies career? This season, in which the Rockies' 3.88 runs-per-game average at Coors ranks just 22nd in home games, not to mention well beneath the league's overall 4.36 average, presents the rare "consider 'em" decision for pitchers visiting Coors. In 15 games there thus far, opposing starters have averaged 12.9 fantasy points-per-start, with seven of those outings worth 15-plus.

Gray, as well as closer Kirby Yates, are worth your while in most situations -- always evaluate the starter's point projection when deciding -- though plenty of offense should be expected from lineups against the other five scheduled starters between both teams.

Comeback trail

It's quite the weekend for starting pitchers returning from injuries, though at publication time, few of their teams had made official announcements.

  • The Seattle Mariners, having demoted fill-in starter Emerson Hancock to Triple-A Tacoma on Wednesday, are expected to welcome Bryan Woo back into their rotation, probably on Friday. Between the home assignment, a matchup against the rebuilding Oakland Athletics and 67 pitches thrown in his final rehabilitation start for Tacoma last Saturday, he's well worth the immediate activation once announced.

  • Cristian Javier threw 68 pitches and allowed three runs on three hits over 3⅓ innings of a rehab start for Double-A Corpus Christi last Saturday, but the Houston Astros declared afterward that the right-hander would rejoin the rotation at some point during their weekend series against the Detroit Tigers. It's a plus-matchup from both a run-production and strikeout standpoint, even if Javier is capped at around 80 pitches, making him well worth the activation once his return date becomes official.

  • The Miami Marlins could get a pair of starters back into their injury-ravaged rotation, with Braxton Garrett activated on Wednesday and Jesus Luzardo perhaps right behind him. Garrett finished his rehab stint on a big-time high note, striking out 13 batters over 5⅔ shutout innings on Monday (granted, in rookie ball) while Luzardo tossed 5⅔ scoreless frames of his own for Class A Jupiter on Tuesday. That should align them for Saturday and Sunday assignments against the Philadelphia Phillies, one of the tougher matchups around. It's an obvious "keep them both benched for evaluation" scenario.

  • Despite his having allowed three runs (two earned) on four hits over 2⅔ innings of a 52-pitch rehab start for Double-A Portland on Tuesday, Brayan Bello declared himself ready to rejoin the Boston Red Sox rotation on Sunday. He'll probably be on a limited pitch count, perhaps 70-75, while facing the light-hitting, albeit contact-oriented, Washington Nationals offense. He has an advantage over the aforementioned Marlins arms from a matchups perspective, but is less appealing than either from a workload standpoint.

Quick hits

  • The New York Yankees visit Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field, where they are 21-27 during manager Aaron Boone's seven-year tenure. Granted, these Yankees lacked Juan Soto in those prior matchups, and the Yankees are off to a substantially better start to 2024 than are the Rays. The Yankees also have a sizable projections advantage throughout the three-game series. (On an aside, does any projection system ever really love the Rays?) This could be a telling series for both squads. Taj Bradley is another pitcher who will be making his return to the rotation after injury, though his presumed Friday assignment swings things sharply in the direction of Yankees hitters.

  • The Cleveland Guardians have a dream series of pitching matchups this weekend, playing four games on the road against the Chicago White Sox. All of Ben Lively, Carlos Carrasco, Triston McKenzie and Logan Allen are available in more than three-quarters of ESPN leagues, and all bring a degree of streaming appeal facing what is baseball's juiciest pitching matchup. McKenzie is a must in all formats, while Carrasco's year to date has followed a matchups-driven pattern.

  • Similarly, the Kansas City Royals could have quite the weekend on the pitching side, facing the now Mike Trout-less Los Angeles Angels. In the eight games since Trout's last appearance, the Angels have averaged only 3.63 runs and, among the four starters projected to draw those matchups, Michael Wacha and Alec Marsh are available in more than 90% of ESPN leagues. Seth Lugo is out there in 29%.