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April 15, 2005

Fantasy Focus

Early Season Injuries: Obstacles or Opportunities?

by Erik Siegrist

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Injuries are a scary thing for a fantasy owner. You see the name Vladimir Guerrero crawl across the bottom of ESPN's screen, followed closely by the word "knee," and your entire season flashes before your eyes. And no matter how many Cubs fans there are out there, I suspect it's his roto owners, not the Wrigley faithful, fueling the Daily Mark Prior Update.

A sprain or strain early in the season, however, may not be the worst thing in the world. They can open up playing time for young, deserving prospects who might otherwise have been buried in the minors. From a fantasy perspective, they can also give you a chance to audition an interesting free agent you might not otherwise have had the roster room to pick up--a free agent who could end up being an improvement over the player who went down, or who could at least provide you with some juicy trade bait once your regular starter returns from the DL. Players don't often get "Pipped" in real life, but in the cutthroat world of fantasy baseball it happens all the time.

So let's take a look at some of the early season victims of the injury bug, and the most likely windfall candidates available to you, using (what else?) PECOTA's 50th (the reasonable view of what they might do) and 75th (the optimistic, but not crazy, view) percentile projections.

First Base

Justin Morneau's concussion probably left you scrambling for a replacement, as most decent first basemen get snapped up quickly. There are a couple of interesting players likely to be floating around unclaimed, however.


Player           PECOTA 50th     PECOTA 75th
Hee Seop Choi   .248/.360/.475  .280/.399/.536
Adrian Gonzalez .249/.302/.396  .284/.341/.451

Hee Seop Choi is off to a poor start with the Dodgers (hitting .158 with one home run in his first 19 at-bats), following on the heels of his poor performance after being traded west, but PECOTA still thinks he's a decent bet to at least produce some power (18 home runs at his 50th percentile), and with David Ortiz and Mike Epstein's 30-homer 1969 campaign as his top two comparables, Choi's upside can't be written off.

Adrian Gonzalez barged into the Rangers lineup after an impressive spring, and while PECOTA doesn't see him with the same power potential as Choi in 2005, his ceiling for batting average is a lot higher (up to .301 in his 90th percentile). Either one of them would be better replacements than a predictable retread like a Tony Clark or Travis Lee.

Second Base

No one's title hopes are hinging on Todd Walker or Jose Castillo--losing a player of that caliber should almost be viewed as a lottery ticket, giving you a chance to strike fantasy gold with minimal risk or investment. Chase Utley in Philadelphia and Ruben Gotay with the Royals would make interesting pick-ups, but both broke camp with starting jobs (or at least, in Utley's case, seemed to) and could already be gone in your league. So let's dig a little deeper.


Player       PECOTA 50th      PECOTA 75th
Chris Burke .267/.338/.392  .290/.366/.427
Mark Ellis  .259/.333/.385  .276/.353/.410
PECOTA doesn't foresee more than a couple hundred at-bats for Chris Burke (apparently the algorithms can account for irrational veteran worship) but if he can work his way into solid playing time, his stolen base potential could make him a fantasy keeper. That .314 batting average on his 90th percentile isn't too shabby either.

Mark Ellis doesn't have anywhere near Burke's upside, but his defense gives him a leg up in the battle for playing time at second base in Oakland, over Keith Ginter and Marco Scutaro. He's the kind of guy you can pick up to fill your middle infield hole, then pass along--ideally at a slight profit--to another owner when they have a rash of injuries up the middle.

Third Base

Under different circumstances, two guys you're probably looking to replace (Garrett Atkins and Mark Teahen) would be two of the guys you'd be looking at as replacements. Third base is a position in flux, with a horde of promising young talent either just breaking into the majors or not quite ready. That doesn't necessarily mean prospects are the only players you should be looking at, though.


Player          PECOTA 50th     PECOTA 75th
Terry Tiffee  .261/.300/.410  .286/.327/.448
Jose Valentin .233/.309/.444  .246/.324/.469
Terry Tiffee is in an interesting situation. He isn't likely to stick around after Morneau returns, but the Twins roster--even aside from the obvious presence of Luis Rivas in the starting lineup--has a fair amount of dead wood that could be trimmed to create a spot for him, not least of which is a fourth catcher. If Tiffee hits too well to send back to the minors, it wouldn't be much of a chore for Minnesota to find room for him.

Jose Valentin is exactly the kind of useful but limited player who slips through the cracks at the beginning of the season. He'll provide you with solid power numbers, and if the Dodgers keep him in a strict platoon and away from left-handed pitchers, he may not hurt you too badly in batting average. If you're feeling particularly sneaky, Valentin could make an excellent component of a "poison pill" strategy. If at mid-season you can't make a trade to improve your own standing in batting average, maybe you can trade a Valentin or Jeromy Burnitz to one of the teams just ahead of you in the category...

Shortstop

Ellis got a nod at second base, but he'd also make a decent fill-in for Bobby Crosby at short. Pre-season Rookie of the Year Candidates like Jason Bartlett and Russ Adams are likely already gone, too, although if they're not, what are you waiting for?


Player         PECOTA 50th      PECOTA 75th
J.J. Hardy   .257/.315/.423   .290/.350/.476
Felipe Lopez .251/.326/.406   .270/.348/.436

J.J. Hardy's prospect status dimmed after he got hurt in 2004. He should get all the playing time he needs to start carving out a nice little career for himself this season, however, unless the Brewers get carried away by their hot start and trade for a "proven veteran" like Neifi Perez. And when you're looking for value, playing time is always an asset.

His .143 batting average in his first 10 at-bats isn't impressive, but given Felipe Lopez's career trend, the fact that he has yet to strike out offers a tiny shred of hope that this might be the year for him. It's not like Rich Aurilia is giving the Reds any reason to deny Lopez a fifth (or is it sixth?) chance.

Outfield

Admit it--you weren't really expecting Moises Alou to stay healthy all year, were you?


Player                PECOTA 50th     PECOTA 75th
Ryan Church         .258/.328/.437  .289/.364/.489
Michael Restovich   .238/.298/.418  .261/.325/.459
Emil Brown          no PECOTA projections
Ryan Church had his own minor injury to battle through, but is now beginning an extended trial as the Nationals' everyday center fielder. Players with both upside and opportunity are the first ones you should be targeting, as they disappear from the free agent ranks quickly--just pray you're able to get to Church in time (don't be afraid to groan. I did, and I wrote the line).

If you're a former top prospect whose star dimmed once everyone figured out you couldn't hit a curveball, finding yourself in a Rockies uniform must be something close to a religious experience (don't worry, there are no Father Brown references coming in the next paragraph). Michael Restovich is getting his best, and probably last, chance to prove he belongs in the majors, and it won't cost you much to see if he makes good.

Emil Brown was one of this year's winners of the Spring Training Sweepstakes, made up of players who weren't on anyone's radar coming into March, but wound up on a 25-man roster anyway. (Leo Mazzone seems to build entire pitching staffs out of players like these). No one has yet taken one of the Royals' corner outfield spots and made it their own, which means Brown still has a chance to do so.

Pitchers

Every fantasy owner is always looking for pitching--a key injury to your staff just makes the hunt that much more frantic. Fortunately, every season also provides a number of pitching surprises, both great and small. Funny how that works out, isn't it?

For pitchers, the numbers below are projected innings, ERA, WHIP and strikeouts.


Player                 PECOTA 50th          PECOTA 75th
Pedro Astacio       72.67/5.30/1.486/50  81.33/4.45/1.426/57
Brad Halsey         95.33/4.77/1.416/66  111/4.03/1.324/77
Michael Wuertz      62.33/3.78/1.251/59  66.67/3.15/1.170/64
Roberto Hernandez   no PECOTA projection
Counting Thursday's loss to the Blue Jays, Pedro Astacio has put together two good starts in a row to start the year. Talent has never been (too much) in question with him, only health, so as long as he's able to pitch, he's worth a look on your roster.

Arizona needs all the rotation help it can get, so Halsey's impressive first outing probably bought him a month in the rotation. He'll never fill Randy Johnson's shoes, of course, and his fantasy upside is limited given the state of the team around him, but pitchers do have good years for bad teams. Just ask Ben Sheets.

The Cubs bullpen is still a little unsettled, with Joe Borowski out and LaTroy Hawkins always one hanging curve away from losing an entire city's confidence. Michael Wuertz has been the best of the rest of the bullpen so far, and it's not too far-fetched to see him muscle his way into the closer's role just like Borowski did. Closers aren't born, after all--they're stumbled across in the dark.

Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson has taken on a number of projects this year--Victor Zambrano, Kaz Ishii--but none are as surprising as Roberto Hernandez. He isn't likely to close ever again, but he's no more unlikely a comeback story than Doug Jones was. Twice. Besides, flogging another Mazzone retread job in this spot was just so cliche.

Erik Siegrist is a beat writer for RotoWire, covering the Marlins, Nationals and White Sox.

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Premium Article Prospectus Today: Fenw... (04/15)
<< Previous Column
Fantasy Article Fantasy Focus: NL East... (04/12)
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Fantasy Article Fantasy Focus: Fantasy... (04/18)
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