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February 11, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks in the Rotation

by Bill Baer

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The New York Mets' 2011 rotation is based on a lot of hope, but one pitcher expected to take strides is Jonathon Niese. The 24-year-old left-hander showed promise with a 7.7 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, and 3.91 SIERA. However, after a string of one-run starts from August 6-21, Niese appeared to stop dead in his tracks in terms of progress. In his next six starts to finish the season, he posted a 7.57 ERA and his walk rate ballooned to 4.8 per nine innings. Our own Marc Normandin thought he looked fatigued, and Niese admitted on Wednesday that he was.

Niese told reporters that he is working to improve his conditioning and throwing methods to avoid fatigue problems going forward. In 2011, Niese is not a big fantasy name, but with a spacious home ballpark, a propensity for ground balls, and a decent infield defense, he should emerge as a solid third-tier pitcher. PECOTA is more pessimistic, putting Niese at a 6.5 K/9, 3.6 BB/9 and 4.69 ERA. While I trust PECOTA more than my own subjective, biased judgment, I will bet on a better year for Niese.

Jeremy Guthrie has been one of those pitchers you expect to hear about every year but ends up slipping into the background unnoticed. Unfortunately, he has played on some bad teams and his disastrous 2009 seasons did not earn him much fantasy baseball respect last year. He has good control but does not often miss bats. Think of him as a slightly better version of Kyle Kendrick. His 4.62 SIERA put him in the same company as Paul Maholm and Bronson Arroyo, 116th out of 147 pitchers who threw 100 or more innings last year.

Guthrie, somehow, has evaded his SIERA in three out of his four full seasons with the Orioles. Last year, the gap between his ERA and SIERA was about 0.8; in '08, it was 0.9; and in '07, about 0.5. His BABIP has ranged from .254 to .286 so we may be seeing some legitimate ability to induce weak contact. His fly ball BABIP is not far from the American League average, but his ground ball BABIP is about 30 points below. The Orioles have not exactly had elite defenses according to PADE, so he either induces weak ground balls or has been very lucky so far.

Freddy Garcia is expected to compete for a spot in the Yankees' starting rotation in spring training. Mike Axisa of River Avenue Blues calls Garcia "the front-runner based on 157 innings he threw last year that were unquestionably below average but still better than replacement level". That is a very accurate description.

Ultimately, Garcia is not a great fantasy asset. His K/9 will fall in the 5.0-6.0 range and his overall true talent level is around a 4.50 ERA pitcher. Given his new team's elite offense and his ability to pound the strike zone, he should be better than the typical 4.50 ERA pitcher in the wins and WHIP categories. He is poison in mixed leagues, but has some limited utility in AL-only leagues.

The short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium is very scary for a pitcher like Garcia, but surprisingly he did not have much of a platoon split last year. Last year, his xFIP against right-handers was 4.67 compared to 4.52 against lefties. Neither side had a home run advantage, with right-handers converting 11.4 percent of fly balls into homers while lefties converted 11.7 percent.

Throughout his brief Major League career, Happ has been a bit of a mini Matt Cain—a pitcher who defies his ERA retrodictors due to a perceived ability to induce weak contact. Unlike Cain, however, the results finally caught up (somewhat) with the performance last year for Happ. To quote Austin Swafford of Austin's Astros 290 Blog,

Happ came over as the major piece of the [Roy] Oswalt trade and promptly did everything the critics said he would, save one–he gave up lots of flyball outs, ran up high pitch counts and walked a lot of people.  But he didn’t get shelled.  Nine of his 12 starts were quality as he went 5-4 with a 3.75 ERA.

The walks are concerning: his BB/9 for 2010 was at 4.8—unacceptable for a pitcher whose K/9 is not approaching or exceeding 10.0, like Brandon Morrow. Happ's strikeout rate, though, was above-average at 7.2. The control problems last year were not fluky, as Happ had problems even in the minors. His overall BB/9 in over 565 innings of Minor League baseball was 3.6 and hit as high as 4.7 in 2007, when he was 24 years old and threw 118-plus innings for Triple-A Ottawa.

PECOTA puts Happ on a 4.35 ERA with a 7.2 K/9 and 4.0 BB/9. It is basically last year's performance with the results he should have had. PECOTA is right on the money here: the Astros' infield defense does not appear ready to do Happ any favors. With Brett Wallace or Carlos Lee at first base, Bill Hall at second, Chris Johnson at third, and Clint Barmes at shortstop, there isn't anyone who can help lower Happ's ERA with their glove. Last year, with a different cast, the Astros ranked 29th out of 30 teams in PADE.

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

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