Fantasy baseball: Five pitchers to salvage your 2023 season

It's been one rough week on the pitching injury front -- as if any week can't be described as that -- with the news that both Shane McClanahan, a top-25 positional point scorer at the time of his IL placement, and Joe Musgrove, a top-25 points-per-start performer for the season, will miss most (if not all) of the remainder of the season.

Perhaps it's a bit of selfish interest talking, as I've got an "in the thick of the race" team (third place among 15, 11 points back) fronted by these two pitchers, and am now scrambling to find reinforcements for the season's final seven-plus weeks. Thankfully, it's not a head-to-head league, in which playoffs might be arriving around month's end.

Still, the news on McClanahan (where there's a pretty good chance that his forearm injury is a season-ender) and Musgrove (who will rest his shoulder for three weeks before resuming throwing) serves a reminder that any starting pitcher could be lost at the most critical time of our seasons. Yes, that old adage "you can never have enough pitching" is apt. I'll be scouring the free agent list for the remainder of 2023 in that league -- though, in fairness, our trade deadline hasn't yet arrived -- and you'd be best prepared with a reinforcements list of your own, just in case.

However, lest you consider the aforementioned McClanahan/Musgrove catastrophe to be a season-killer and that there's no possible way to replace them via free agency, think again. From this point one year ago through the conclusion of last season, Nick Lodolo, Cal Quantrill, Brady Singer, Blake Snell and Jeffrey Springs all delivered top-25 pitching point totals after having previously contributed little to their 2022 fantasy teams. There are always pitching contributors out there at any stage of the season -- they are simply tougher to extract and much more risk/reward at this point.

With that in mind, let me share some of the deeper research I've been doing this past week. Listed below are five starting pitchers who could become "unsung heroes" for a fantasy team down the stretch, à la that 2022 quintet mentioned above. Note that every one of these pitchers is currently available in a majority of ESPN leagues.

Grayson Rodriguez, Baltimore Orioles: Let's start with a personal favorite prospect of mine, Rodriguez, who had a 2.40 ERA and 35.9% strikeout rate during his minor league career. He has shown glimpses of that potential so far in the majors (Tuesday included). While his first stint in the bigs didn't go smoothly -- an 11.14 May ERA resulted in his return to Triple-A Norfolk -- what has changed for Rodriguez since his recall is noteworthy, to say the least.

His average fastball velocity is up considerably (98.1 mph in his five starts, to be exact), he has a miss rate 2% better than league average and he has been pumping first-pitch strikes. His 72% rate since the All-Star break is third best in the majors. Rodriguez is beginning to scrape the surface of his future Cy Young potential, and I'd take his upside ahead of anyone's in the game except for maybe only the top 8-12 pitchers in my rankings.

Dane Dunning, Texas Rangers: Currently one of the most underrated pitchers in the game, Dunning has seven wins, nine quality starts and a 3.50 ERA in 17 turns since joining the Rangers rotation in May as Jacob deGrom's fill-in, solidifying his spot -- even with the deadline acquisitions of Max Scherzer and Jordan Montgomery -- ahead of Martin Perez. While Nathan Eovaldi's eventual return could reignite those questions, Dunning deserves to stick around even in a six-man rotation arrangement, considering how sharp his overall control has been this year.

Dunning's strikeout rate is nothing special (only 17.3%), but the command of his sinker has been so good that Statcast grades it the majors' fourth-best pitch overall (18 run value). We can revisit the right-hander's repeat prospects heading into 2024 -- pitchers this reliant upon hitting their spots face heightened repeat challenges -- but this looks quite a bit like 2023's version of the aforementioned Quantrill.

Michael Lorenzen, Philadelphia Phillies: If Dunning doesn't fit that Quantrill-esque description, Lorenzen surely does. Call this one a hunch on my part, as it's not a great thing from a home park factor perspective for the right-hander to move from Detroit's Comerica Park to Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, one of the game's most homer-friendly venues. Still, I see a lot of potential in -- and a sizable role from -- Lorenzen in Philadelphia.

He's flashing the best control of his career, walking only 6.3% of the batters he has faced and using -- and getting better performance from -- his slider more than he has at any point. He's sure to be tasked with easing the workload strain on his new Phillies rotation-mates.

Tanner Bibee, Cleveland Guardians: If we're talking "underrated," Bibee is very much that -- a pitcher whose performance to date should be generating a lot more American League Rookie of the Year chatter than it has. Among his 18 starts so far are seven worth 15-plus fantasy points and only three worth five or less. As far as staying power, four of his five outings since the All-Star break have been worth 14-plus points.

Additionally, in those five second-half starts, Bibee has top-15 numbers (among 81 qualifiers) in terms of miss rate (31.4%), first pitch strike rate (68.0%), chase rate (35.0%) and average exit velocity allowed (86.1 mph), which is a great sign when four of the matchups involved were ones that the Forecaster graded as difficult. About my only question surrounding his staying power is tied to workload concerns, but seeing as he's currently 15⅔ innings below his 2022 pro-levels total, it's not a pressing one.

Graham Ashcraft, Cincinnati Reds: He's a tough one to read and easily the most risk/reward name on this list. His ERA for the season is 5.18. His home, Great American Ball Park, is one of the game's most hitter-friendly and his upcoming schedule is one of the toughest around. Still, I watch Ashcraft and see little hints of prospective greatness and, with the Reds failing to acquire rotation reinforcements at the deadline, I think he'll be pushed beyond 2022's 143⅓ innings (he has 113 thus far).

What's good is that his cutter-slider repertoire has been excellent at reeling in hard contact, his hard-hit rate allowed since July 1 ranks in the 83rd percentile and his slider is a genuine swing-and-miss pitch when he can get to two-strike counts. What's bad is that he struggles to get to two-strike counts and to command the strike zone generally, as his first pitch strike rate is a 16th percentile 59.7% and his walk rate an ordinary-to-below-average 8.7%.

This one takes some faith that Ashcraft can improve in those regards going forward, but he does have a 2.17 ERA over that same six-start stretch. I'm optimistic about his prospects.

Other names to consider: Kyle Bradish, Zack Littell, Matt Manning, Chase Silseth, Gavin Williams.