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March 27, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

Use Your Disabled List

by Josh Shepardson

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Fantasy owners rarely draft a team and fail to fill a starting position. However, year after year I see owners fail to completely fill their rosters. Disabled list spots, in leagues that include them, are available like all other openings, and they should be utilized. There is value in stashing players, especially in head-to-head leagues.

Investing in injured players carries risk, and it is best to mitigate that risk by gambling on cheaper players that are on the mend. Below, I've highlighted a half-dozen injured players that are, on average, being selected after pick 300 in drafts.

Player

ADP (NFBC drafts)

Highest Selection

Estimated Return

Logan Morrison

308.64

191

Early May

Brandon Beachy

351.16

253

Late June

Cory Luebke

387.07

234

June or possibly later

Colby Lewis

395.15

271

May

Francisco Liriano

412.49

234

May

Michael Pineda

441.41

242

June at the earliest

Morrison is the only hitter listed in the table above. Other injured batters that may have fantasy relevance in standard mixed leagues are being drafted too high to qualify for inclusion. In December 2011, Morrison underwent surgery to repair a partial patellar-tendon tear in his right knee. Unfortunately, he re-injured the same knee early last season, was placed on the disabled list in late July, and ultimately underwent a second operation to repair the same tendon. He isn't going to play in any spring training games, but he is hitting off a tee. Joe Frisaro reported that if everything goes as scheduled, Morrison could be playing in games around April 15, with a return to the Marlins' lineup by May 1 a possibility.

Morrison has yet to fully live up to his potential, but the 25-year-old first baseman did hit 23 homers in a 525-plate-appearance 2011 season. Morrison's 2012 campaign was a disappointing follow-up, though he should be cut some slack since he was playing most of the year hurt. He is no longer going to be miscast as an outfielder, and a full-time move to first base will hopefully allow him to concentrate more on hitting and tap into more of his potential at the dish. That said, his previous playing time in the outfield gives him that eligibility in fantasy leagues and his position flexibility is a bonus for his owners. The upside for this season isn't immense, but Morrison has a realistic shot to outperform his draft cost and provides owners in need of outfield or corner-infield depth with a nice late-round target.

Among the starting pitchers on the above list, Beachy is being drafted highest. Highest is a relative term, though: With an average pick of 351, he's a 30th-round selection in 12-team leagues. This speaks to both the depth of starting pitching available in drafts and the minimal cost of gambling on a talented, but injured pitcher. Beachy’s rehab from Tommy John surgery, which he underwent late last June, is going well, and if he doesn't suffer a setback, a return toward the end of the coming June is attainable.

In 2011, Beachy was a bat-missing machine, posting a 10.7 K/9. He didn't walk many batters, either, with a 2.9 BB/9, and those stellar rates resulted in a 3.68 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. Last year, he got off to an even better start in terms of ERA (2.00) and WHIP (0.96) though those numbers can be misleading. His strikeout rate dropped to 7.6 K/9 and his walk rate rose to 3.2 BB/9, with the former being driven by a decrease in both his swinging-strike and chase rates, as well as an increase in contact on pitches in the zone. It's unclear exactly what type of pitcher Beachy is or will become, but he's talented and worth casting a proverbial dart at the dartboard late in drafts to find out.

Luebke had Tommy John surgery earlier than Beachy did last year, but his recovery timetable sounds less clear. The lefty has taken a break from throwing the past three weeks, and Corey Brock reported that he is likely to visit Padres team physician Dr. Heinz Hoenecke about revising his throwing program. The uncertainty around when the southpaw will be able to contribute to fantasy teams makes him a slightly dicier pick than Beachy.

Luebke flourished after making the transition from relieving to starting in 2011. In 25 career starts, he has a 9.1 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 with a 3.30 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. He's not a product of Petco Park, but calling that his home yard doesn't hurt. If Luebke resumes throwing next week like he anticipates, he'll remain a stash option; if the visit to see the Padres' team physician doesn't go well, we’ll need to reevaluate his status at that point.

Unlike the first two hurlers discussed, Lewis isn't coming back from Tommy John surgery—instead, he had surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon last July. The initial timetable for recovery was 10-12 months, but Lewis is already throwing bullpen sessions and is close to facing batters. He has been throwing his slider and curveball, and T.R. Sullivan stated in an article on the Rangers website last Saturday that Lewis would likely need six weeks from his first live batting-practice session to be ready to pitch in a game for the Rangers.

Lewis sandwiched strong fantasy seasons in 2010 and 2012 around a lousy 2011 campaign. His declining fastball velocity leaves him with none to spare. In 2010, when he returned to the United States from Japan, Brooks Baseball measured his average four-seam fastball velocity at just above 90 mph. Last year, his average four-seamer was just a bit below 89 mph. His success last season with diminished velocity is encouraging, but he has little room for error with a fastball that fails to crack 90 mph regularly. Lewis was successful last year because he issued very few walks (1.20 BB/9), and he backed his pedestrian heater with a curveball, changeup, and devastating wipeout slider. If his slider isn't sharp upon return, he's unlikely to succeed even if his fastball velocity returns to its 2010 level. He'll also need to continue to pound the strike zone effectively. Neither skill retention is a given, but Lewis should answer the questions about whether he'll be helpful to fantasy owners sooner than Beachy and Luebke will. And, if the answers are affirmative, he'll have a greater impact this year.

Liriano is the least risky pitcher—bear with me on this one—of the bunch from a health perspective. He'll open the year on the disabled list because he broke his non-throwing arm in a freak accident over the winter. Liriano has thrown all his pitches in batting practice, and he must now progress to facing hitters. Liriano believes he'll be ready to pitch in less than a month, but Pirates general manager Neal Huntington wasn't ready to go that far. Regardless, the lefty should be in the Pirates rotation by May.

He is far from a model of consistency, but Liriano owns a 9.1 K/9 for his career in over 800 major-league innings and has struck out more than a batter per inning in two of the past three years. His ability to pile up strikeouts, and the not-so-distant memory of his stellar 2010 season, earns him chance after chance from fantasy owners. I'm a sucker for him, I'll admit it. In fact, he's my favorite stash option featured in this column.

A move to the National League serves as yet another reason to give Liriano a shot in 2013. He recently stated that he intends to throw his sinker less and his four-seam fastball more, because he feels that he has better control of the latter offering. Brooks Baseball shows he has actually thrown a higher percentage of four-seam fastballs for balls than sinkers every season he has been in the majors, so from a data standpoint, the pitcher’s assertion is unsupported. That said, if Liriano is more confident in locating his four-seam fastball and throwing the sinker less, the change in pitch usage could help him get back to his 2010 success.

When Liriano's stuff is right, he's incredibly tough to hit, but it doesn't matter when he's unwilling or unable to throw it in the strike zone. It's often best to take player- and coach-speak with a grain of salt, and doing so with Liriano's quotes is wise, though they shouldn't be dismissed entirely. The cost of seeing how Liriano takes to pitching for a National League club for the first time in his career is minimal—and the reward is potentially enormous.

Pineda is the longest shot of this group of players to help fantasy teams this season. His inclusion is intended to remind dynasty leaguers that he is still on the comeback trail. Pineda underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum last May, and while pitchers have normally bounced back from elbow injuries without a hitch, they haven't had the same degree of success in bouncing back from labrum surgery.

Last April, Jay Jaffe looked at a number of pitchers that attempted to come back from labrum surgery and the success that they had. Anyone considering investing in Pineda in dynasty leagues should read Jaffe's article to gauge the risks involved and determine whether he's worth stashing in their format. Pineda was scheduled to throw a bullpen session yesterday, but, as of this writing, I couldn't find any word on how the session went. It wasn't his first bullpen session, though: He was throwing his slider from the mound on March 12.

On Monday, Chad Jennings wrote at The LoHud Yankees Blog that Pineda is scheduled to throw to live batters in two weeks. Back in February, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman suggested that it was possible Pineda could pitch for the Yankees in June, but he also cautioned that a setback could come at any point. If we can find out how Pineda's bullpen session went on Tuesday and whether or not he remains on pace to throw to live batters in two weeks, that information should shed some light on how his rehab is progressing. 

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