September 2, 2005
Managing September Injuries
First Pitch Arizona
I'd like to start off with a quick plug for First Pitch Arizona, an annual Fantasy Baseball Symposium held at the Arizona Fall League, hosted by Ron Shandler and the folks from BaseballHQ.com. I'm fortunate enough to be sharing the dais this year with a number of great speakers at this year's Symposium, including Joe Sheehan from BP, Rob Neyer from ESPN.com, Jim Callis from Baseball America and Toronto Blue Jays scout Kimball Crossley, among many others. If you've never been to the Arizona Fall League, there's no other experience like it. Games are relatively sparsely attended, so you get your choice of the best seats in the house. While the caliber of play certainly isn't major league quality, it does consist of some of the top prospects in the game, perhaps more so this year than in years past--check out the complete roster list here. Finally, and I think this is the best selling point of the event, is the camaraderie built with fellow baseball fans at the sessions, the games, and the poker games/bar outings at night afterwards. I've been able to attend five of the last six years, and it's always one of the highlights on my calendar.
In my previous two articles, I detailed the progress of the first round of the 2004 draft class, plus a few other notables. I neglected to discuss two players in the "Others of Note" section--Grant Johnson and Eric Campbell, the first picks of the Cubs and Braves, respectively.
Grant Johnson, SP, Cubs: Johnson was taken by the Cubs with the 66th pick of the 2004 draft out of Notre Dame, where he was a rare draft-eligible redshirt sophomore. Johnson missed the 2003 collegiate season with a shoulder injury that required surgery, one that was performed by Cubs team physician Dr. Michael Shafer. Johnson didn't sign until August, so his debut was pushed back until this year, when it was delayed further (until June) because of a hamstring injury. So far his numbers at low Single-A Peoria haven't been that great. In 13 starts encompassing 68 innings, Johnson has a 3.84 ERA (plus 11 unearned runs) and a 48:24 K:BB ratio.
Eric Campbell, 3B, Braves: Campbell, the final pick of the second round (#71 overall) quickly signed last year and was promoted to low Single-A Rome at the end of last year, where he struggled. The Braves slowed him down a little, having spending all of 2005 at the rookie-level Appalachian League in Danville. The move paid off, with Campbell hitting .313/.383/.634--good enough to share Player of the Year honors for the league. He turned 20 in early August, so he's not necessarily behind schedule by spending all of 2005 in Rookie ball.
Managing September Injuries
Losing a player to an injury is an unpleasant experience at any time of the year, but September injuries can be particularly vexing. Each game missed now has a disproportionate impact, given the lack of total games remaining. This goes double both for starting pitchers as well as for fantasy league owners that are in head-to-head/points leagues and are heading into their playoffs. Further exacerbating the problem for us is the reality that the stream of information on these players, already imperfect, slows to a crawl in September. In the case of losing teams, the hometown newspaper(s) will start dedicating fewer resources to covering the team, especially when they're on the road, and especially when the team shares the market with an NFL franchise. Teams involved in the pennant hunt, on the other hand, are less likely to divulge complete information on a key player's status the closer they get to the playoffs. When that team (let's just call them the "A's") is reluctant to give out that information to begin with, getting complete information on your player becomes a nearly impossible task.
Also, don't expect to be able to put your injured player(s) on the DL. Many leagues require a player to be placed on the DL before you're allowed to reserve him. Because of the September roster expansion, there's little need for a team to clear space for an injured player's replacement. Thus, players like David DeJesus and Mike Sweeney will remain "day-to-day" with injuries that otherwise would have put them on the DL.
Another trend to be wary of is the tendency of teams that are out of the race to shut down their injured young players and pitchers rather quickly, as a means of protecting their investments. The Brewers quickly did just that with Ben Sheets and the Cubs did the same with Kerry Wood. The Pirates are taking their time bringing back Zach Duke from the DL, and when he does come back they could go with a six-man rotation, further lessening his workload.
So, what do you do in reaction to the hurdles presented? First of all, expect to be without that player longer than the initial estimate indicates. Take, for example, Rich Harden. His "slight right-lat strain" initially was expected to push his start back two days. Two days became a full turn in the rotation, but with the promise that he'd make his next start (Thursday's loss to the Angels). After having a side session pushed back a day and then postponed entirely, Harden now could miss his next two starts and there's still a possibility that he could miss all of September. If you're in a non-keeper league and can't replace Harden without dropping him, you might very well consider taking that course of action. Dropping him sounds crazy, but consider the low risk of it coming back to haunt you. You can gain a couple of extra starts from someone else to gain that extra point in wins and/or strikeouts. Meanwhile, his replacement might have a potentially higher ERA or WHIP, but the likelihood of your standing in those categories being changed significantly by a couple of starts at this point in the year are pretty slim. With the added possibility that he doesn't return at all in September, you run even less of a risk of an opponent picking him up and using him to your detriment.
One benefit for fantasy owners stuck with injuries in September is the expanded player pool they'll have to choose their replacement players from. Not only will more players hit the free agent rolls, but also at this point fewer league members will be actively competing for their services. In a six-month season, you're going to get a natural amount of attrition, both in terms of attention span and also in terms of lack of competitiveness. Factor in the start of football season, fantasy or otherwise, and you'll have a great opportunity to at least address the loss of your players, sometimes even improving for the better.