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April 27, 2005

Fantasy Focus

Fantasy Trends--NL Central

by Erik Siegrist

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No sooner do I call out Troy Percival for his poor strikeout total than he goes and gets a save against the Twins, gunning down two batters in an inning of work. For a moment I thought Percival might end up being one of the folks in this series who I jumped the gun on, and misread an April blip as something meaningful, until I saw who it was he'd struck out...

...Luis Rivas. And Nick Punto.

Now certainly, an out is an out, and a K is a K, especially for fantasy owners. Nonetheless, I'd like to see Percival blow a fastball past somebody who could actually get it to the warning track if they turned around on it before writing off that recommendation as a bad one.

Chicago Cubs

Buy Low: There's no one on the Cubs right now who profiles as a great buy-low candidate--Aramis Ramirez has lurched to a .229 batting average in 70 at-bats, but with three home runs and 12 RBI he won't be too underpriced. A better target would be two potential closers, Joe Borowski (recovering from a broken wrist) and unheralded Michael Wuertz (nine Ks against three walks in 9 1/3 IP), each of whom should see ninth-inning action in the wake of Chad Fox's latest injury, LaTroy Hawkins' latest perceived meltdown and Borowski's pending return from injury.

Sell High: Jason DuBois has some nice upside, and has posted decent numbers in limited playing time this year (.286/.348/.524), but he has two strikes against him: a manager in Dusty Baker who doesn't trust young 'uns, and a manager in Dusty Baker who really doesn't trust young 'uns who strike out nine times in 21 at-bats. Despite the Cubs' injuries and need for offense, don't expect DuBois to get much of a chance to produce, unless and until he's dealt for a player with a bit more gray in his beard.

Watch Out For: For whatever reason, a few Cubs starters have given up an unusual number of home runs this April. Greg Maddux surrendering four in 24 innings isn't that surprising given his last couple of seasons, but Carlos Zambrano's five in 26.2 innings is about triple his career rate, and Kerry Wood has allowed five himself in 23.1 innings, double his career rate. You can't even blame the wind at Wrigley, as all of Zambrano's gopher balls have come on the road. This is likely just a blip, but especially in Zambrano's case you may want to keep an eye on it, just in case.

Cincinnati Reds

Buy Low: Danny Graves, the Reds closer, has seven saves in seven chances. He also has yielded seven walks, vs. only two strikeouts, in 8.1 innings pitched. Sooner or later, one of those trends has to give, and we're guessing it'll be the perfect save record. Graves is in no danger of losing his spot in the Reds bullpen unless he completely collapses, but with the much more stat-friendly Ryan Wagner (8/1 K/BB ratio in 9.1 IP) waiting in the wings, the temptation in Cincinnati to deal Graves while he's still valuable is going to mount. You should nab Wagner now on spec--at worst you'll have a solid set-up man who gets some strikeouts.

Sell High: Aside from Graves, of course, there's also Wily Mo Pena and his heady .333 batting average in 42 AB to think about cashing in. His strike zone control has actually taken a step back (two walks, 12 Ks) from 2004 so far. The power might be for real, but the batting average almost certainly isn't.

Watch Out For: Eric Milton's numbers so far are superficially adequate (4.98 ERA, 1.384 WHIP) but six home runs allowed in 21 2/3 IP, and only 12 strikeouts, mean those figures could be his ceiling. While Great American Ballpark didn't live up to its bandbox expectations last year, so far in 2005 it's been something of a launching pad, surrendering 29 home runs in just 10 Reds games. Consider that your hopeful sign that power-hitting Reds like Ken Griffey and Austin Kearns and lesser thumpers like Sean Casey will start banging out souvenirs soon enough.

Houston Astros

Buy Low: Adam Everett provided a modicum of fantasy value last year, hitting .273 with 13 steals. Despite his current .235 (16-for-68) batting average, however, 2004 might only have been a teaser. Everett's previous best walk rate in a full season was 6.4/100 PA, set in 2003. So far this season Everett's drawing free passes at an 11.4/100 PA rate--a huge spike, and one befitting a leadoff hitter (which is where Phil Garner has been using him). Once a few more singles fall in for him, and Lance Berkman returns from the DL to drive him in, Everett's value could take off, especially if his early walk spike is for real.

Sell High: There aren't enough superlatives to describe what 42-year-old Roger Clemens has done this April. Thirty-two strikeouts in 28 innings, a 0.32 ERA... it's the stuff of legend. But the fact of the matter is there's nowhere for him to go but down, and for a 42-year-old power pitcher it could be a long, long way down. The Rocket is still a superstar talent, and you should demand a superstar-level return in any trade, but time and history say he won't be the safest of investments.

Watch Out For: Brandon Backe has given up an awful lot of hits so far, 31 in 23.1 IP, but the fact that balls are landing in play isn't the problem; it's where they're landing that's cause for concern. Over the last three seasons, small sample sizes all, his opponents' batting average has gone from .247 to .290 to .320; but his isolated slugging average (ISO) allowed has gone from .154 to .185 to now, .206. Backe isn't just allowing more hits as batters build up their books on him, he's allowing more extra-base hits. He'll still get his Ks (20 so far), and his 6.17 ERA will probably come down, but maybe not as much as a devout DIPSian might think.

Milwaukee Brewers

Buy Low: J.J. Hardy certainly has the 'low' part of the equation down, hitting a paltry .130/.259/.174 so far. But is he worth buying? Well, only one strikeout is a good indicator for batting average upside, and eight walks in 56 PAs are even nicer. But mainly, the thing working in your favor on Hardy is the fact that you have almost nothing to lose. He won't cost much, and if he keeps hitting like this he'll be back down in Triple-A in no time.

Sell High: Three True Outcome stalwarts don't always hit for a terrible batting average (Jay Buhner, for instance, consistently hit around .270 in his prime) but Russ Branyan is about as likely to maintain his current .344 average as I am to hit a fastball as far as Branyan. You've already gotten the best part of his season, even if he does hang onto a starting spot. Skim the cream, and send him packing.

Watch Out For: The Brewers bullpen isn't quite the roiling mass of chaos the Royals 'pen is, but it's getting there. For one thing, they're one closer behind KC, Derrick Turnbow having just inherited the job after Mike Adams had a bit of trouble with that whole strike zone thing (six walks in 6.2 IP). Turnbow, however, hasn't been much better (five walks in 8.2 IP) and unlike the Royals there aren't any 21-year-old fireballers at Double-A waiting to bail them out. If Turnbow chokes on the bit, the next pitchers in line would seem to be journeyman Matt Wise (7/3 K/BB ratio in 9.1 innings), top prospect Jose Capellan (just 10 strikeouts in 14.1 Triple-A innings as a starter), Nashville closer Jeff Bennett (9/3 K/BB in 8.1 Triple-A innings, with four saves) or maybe the most interesting candidate, 29-year-old former Indians semi-prospect Kane Davis (16/4 K/BB in 10.1 innings at Nashville.) This is exactly the kind of situation where, if you need saves, you should toss a couple of darts around and try to get lucky.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Buy Low: Craig Wilson has all of one extra-base hit so far this season, a double back on April 18. While it's theoretically possible that date will go down in Pirates history as the last time Wilson got an XBH, somehow I think there might be more on the way. Better he gets them on your roster than someone else's.

Sell High: Josh Fogg is off to a tremendous start to the year, posting a 2.45 ERA after three outings, with an equally sharp 1.255 WHIP and 14/6 K/BB ratio in 18.1 IP. But he's also allowed four home runs, at least one in each game, and by a happy coincidence all four have been solo shots. Home runs have hurt him in the past (his career rate coming into 2005 was 1.14 HR/9), and eventually they're going to hurt him again.

Watch Out For: It was just one start, but Oliver Perez certainly looked to be back Monday night. He won't go on a Johan Santana-like fantasy run--not with the Pirates offense giving him what we laughingly call run "support"--but he should still put up some nice numbers... John Grabow has been very hittable in the past, but so far he's been doing a fair Mike Gonzalez impression (7/1 K/BB ratio in 6.1 IP) in the Pittsburgh bullpen. It's a better impression than Gonzalez himself (10 Ks, but four BBs, in 7.2 IP) has managed, at least... In a touching show of solidarity to his namesake teammate, Jack Wilson also has only one XBH, an Opening Day double. While he too will hit more of them, I'm a bit less optimistic about a full rebound for Wilson J. then Wilson C., given that names like Rennie Stennett and Jose Lind (there's some painful memories for Bucs fans) litter his PECOTA comparables list like tombstones.

St. Louis Cardinals

Buy Low: Runs are often overlooked in 5x5 leagues, the thinking being that if you acquire enough players with starting spots, they'll just naturally come around to score. That philosophy can backfire, especially if an offense you assumed would be productive underachieves. If runs are what you're looking for, take a peek at David Eckstein's numbers. Hitting in front of that modern Murderer's Row, Eckstein has posted a .288 batting average, a .408 OBP, and scored all of six runs. The OBP is a surprise (his nine walks are 20% of the way to his career best, in 10% of the plate appearances) but so are the lack of runs. Expect some regression to the mean in both, and a nice boost to your fortunes in the forgotten 5x5 category.

Sell High: Jeff Suppan has a 3.38 ERA. He's also walked more batters (seven) than he's struck out (six) in his first 18 2/3 innings. Suppan's never been a huge strikeout guy, but the bottoming out of his K/9 rate is more than a bit alarming. He, too, features some scary names on his PECOTA comparables list (Richard Dotson, James Baldwin, Jaime Navarro) and the risks don't seem worth the reward of 12+ wins and a possibly league average ERA.

Watch Out For: Another closer off to an unsettling start is Jason Isringhausen. Izzy has seven saves, and six strikeouts in eight innings, but has also walked five batters. He hasn't had any major control problems since he escaped the Mets' Meat Grinder of Doom, so it's possible the walks are more than just April noise. With Cal Eldred on the shelf the logical successor would be Julian Tavarez, but he's had some issues of his own to deal with (a ridiculous .351 opponents' batting average has led to a 6.23 ERA.) Isringhausen owners looking for some insurance may want to try their luck with Al Reyes instead. Reyes hasn't gotten a full crack at the majors in many years, never appearing in more than 19 big league games since his 53 in 1999. So far in 2005, though, he's been electric (12/2 K/BB ratio in 6.1 IP), with those numbers coming on the heels of a 47/14 ratio in 39.2 Triple-A innings last season. Even if he only ends up filling the Kiko Calero set-up role on the Cardinals staff, he'd be worth picking up, and at this point in the year he should cost you next to nothing.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Triple-A,  Year Of The Injury,  The Call-up

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