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June 23, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Ailing Starters: Who to Watch

by Bill Baer

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At this point in most fantasy baseball leagues, most of the new and improved pitchers have been plucked out of the free agent pool. For instance, after three consecutive scoreless starts Jason Hammel is taken in one out of every three ESPN fantasy baseball leagues, probably more once you exclude the leagues that have gone dormant and AL-only leagues. Ian Kennedy is nearly as popular while Jason Vargas is taken in one out of every five ESPN leagues.

You need pitching help and the available talent seems barren. What are you to do? In this situation, I like to look at pitchers that are scheduled to come off of the disabled list soon to see if they may be of some use to my team. Here are a few that may be able to help you.

Erik Bedard, Seattle Mariners

Bedard has yet to pitch an inning in 2010 due to left shoulder inflammation. On the road to recovery, Bedard threw 52 pitches in a rookie league start in Peoria with good results. The Mariners will handle him with care as he is not expected to make a return until mid-July. If he returns to the Majors with the same stuff he had over the past few years, expect a well-above average strikeout rate (about 8.5 per nine) and an average walk rate (about 3.5 per nine).

Initially, after he returns, he will likely be on a pitch count which means four and five inning starts may make up most of his pitching efforts for a little while, hampering his ability to accrue wins. Furthermore, the Mariners have the American League's second-worst offense (3.41 runs per game) ahead of only the Baltimore Orioles (3.26 RPG). As such, Bedard's value is mostly tied up in ERA, strikeouts (or K/BB ratio) and WHIP.

Doug Fister, Seattle Mariners

Fister had an auspicious beginning to the 2010 season before succumbing to right shoulder fatigue at the start of June. Seven of his ten starts were of the quality variety and in eight of the ten starts he went at least seven innings. He enjoyed success despite a lack of strikeouts -- averaging just barely over four per nine innings -- due to a very low walk rate (1.3 per nine), a high rate of ground balls (52.5 percent) and a very low .240 BABIP. Despite the 2.45 ERA, SIERA put him at 4.26. Additionally, seven of Fister's ten starts were made in the spacious confines of Safeco Field, a well-established pitcher-friendly ballpark that has further deflated his numbers.

He is likely to make a return some time this weekend barring any setbacks. Take him for the ERA and WHIP and hope he put quarters in the meter so his carriage does not turn back into a pumpkin. Despite the too-low-for-comfort strikeout rate and BABIP, Fister is still better than a lot of what is available in most free agent pools, which is why he is taken in over 20 percent of ESPN leagues.

J.A. Happ, Philadelphia Phillies

Before landing on the disabled list in mid-April, J.A.  Happ defied the odds and did not allow a single earned run in ten and one-third innings of work despite a 6.50 SIERA. In those two starts, Happ walked a multitude of batters (eight) and enjoyed similar BABIP luck (.272) that catapulted him to second place in last year's National League Rookie of the Year voting.

Happ may be activated as early as the first weekend in July. Happ is not a wonderful fantasy option unless he continues to evade BABIP as his strikeout and walk rates are average and he allows far too many fly balls, especially in a hitter-friendly home ballpark in Philadelphia. Given the Phillies' offense, despite the recent struggles, Happ's biggest asset may be a propensity to accrue wins.

Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta Braves

The Braves are in a bit of a quandary when Jurrjens is activated: do they remove Kris Medlen or Kenshin Kawakami from the starting rotation? Medlen has been outstanding, allowing three runs or fewer in six of his seven starts while reaching the sixth inning in five of those seven starts. Meanwhile, Kawakami has not had nearly as much success, going only two innings in his last start against the Kansas City Royals. As such, Kawakami may be the odd man out according to David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Meanwhile, Jurrjens had started the 2010 season similar to Happ -- a decline in strikeouts and an increase in walks -- but with drastically different results. His 6.38 ERA was a lot closer to his 5.21 SIERA than the Braves would have liked. It should make you hesitate before adding Jurrjens, owned in over 40 percent of ESPN leagues, to your roster.

Bud Norris, Houston Astros

Norris will make one more Minor League start before being activated. He compiled a 6.80 ERA before landing on the disabled list in late May, but he was the victim of an astronomically-high .400 BABIP, as his 3.65 SIERA will testify. I think of Norris as a clone of Brandon Morrow: lots of strikeouts, lots of walks. The highly volatile pitcher has done well in the Friday "Value Picks" as Morrow and Felipe Paulino's production will testify. Hopefully Norris can satisfy some more fantasy baseball players.

Personally, I prefer the Morrow/Norris brand of pitchers as opposed to the Jurrjens/Happ types because they are not subject to the whims of the placement of batted balls and the quality of their defense. Plus, Norris is only taken in half of one percent of ESPN leagues. Of the five pitchers on this list, Norris would be my number one choice followed by Fister, Bedard, with Happ and Jurrjens (tied) bringing up the rear.

Bill Baer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bill's other articles. You can contact Bill by clicking here

Related Content:  Jair Jurrjens,  J.A. Happ,  Doug Fister

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