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September 9, 2005

Fantasy Focus

Turning the Corner

by Jeff Erickson

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Rotisserie league owners are always on the lookout for players that they can add to their squad at a bargain rate. A winning team needs its share of star players to stay healthy to win the league, but what separates the better teams from the competition is their ability to find solid production on the cheap, either in terms of auction dollars or a low draft pick. Common sources of such bargains are post-hyped prospects that are either slow in developing or are coming off bad years. To that end, here are two pitchers and two position players that are in that position and now appear to be turning the corner.

Scott Kazmir: Perhaps lost amid the debuts of Felix Hernandez and Zach Duke this year has been the development of Kazmir. Kazmir's first full season with the downtrodden Devil Rays has been a success, partially obscured by the team's overall struggles. While his 8-9 record (on a 59-82 team) and 4.02 ERA alone are positives, it's important to notice his progress in other areas. Kazmir has lowered his walk rate by nearly a full walk per nine innings since last year's trial, from 5.67 walks per nine innings to 4.69; if you take a look at his post All-Star break starts, that rate drops to 4.25. He's done this despite maintaining a high strikeout rate (8.31 per nine for the year, 10.16 after the break), while allowing only 11 homers in 161.1 innings. He also leads the team in VORP with 21.5 runs prevented. He needs to improve against right-handers--right-handers have hit 10 of the 11 homers that Kazmir has allowed, and they're hitting .270 against him, as opposed to the .192 batting average lefties have hit against him. One final promising note is his 2.95 ERA against AL East foes this year, encompassing 79.1 innings over 13 starts.

Austin Kearns: Kearns has tested the patience of many of his fantasy owners and Reds fans alike after a brilliant debut in 2002. Injuries can be blamed for much of his struggles in 2003 and 2004, both in terms of missed time as well as his attempts to play through those injuries. Among the injuries he suffered included a torn rotator cuff suffered when sliding headfirst into home plate on a wild pitch, a broken forearm when getting drilled by a pitch, and bone spurs in his thumb. All sapped his power, and two of the three injuries were of the fluke variety. He got off to a slow start this year, eventually getting sent down to Triple-A Louisville to work on his stroke and to improve his conditioning (he reportedly lost 20 pounds there). After tearing up Triple-A pitching (again) during his five-week exile, Kearns has posted a very respectable .273/.361/.517 line. More importantly, interim manager (and likely full-time manager next year) Jerry Narron has believed in Kearns, playing him on a more regular basis than Dave Miley played Kearns prior to his demotion. Kearns best represents the proposition advanced by BaseballHQ.com's Ron Shandler that once a player displays a skill at the major league level, he owns it. One final factor that bodes well for Kearns' playing time in the future is his defense, and that of his putative competition in Wily Mo Pena. Kearns generally draws strong reviews for his defense in right field and is capable of playing center field in a pinch. Pena's approach to balls in play has been compared to an approach of a live hand grenade.

Noah Lowry: After going 6-0 with a 3.82 ERA as a rookie in 2004, Lowry was on a number of sleeper lists heading into this year. His rough first half left a lot of his owners wishing that they had slept through their respective drafts, posting a whopping 5.07 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP in 18 starts. Since then, it's been a different story--heading into Thursday's start he has had a 1.67 ERA since the break and went on a particularly torrid stretch in August. So what happened in the first half? The short answer would be that Coors Field happened--he had his first two starts there in the first six weeks of the season, giving up 13 ER (on six homers) over 9.1 innings. Take away those two starts and his first-half ERA is 4.33. The longer answer is that he had issues with his command, both finding the strike zone (walking nearly a full batter more per nine innings before the break than afterwards) and within it (16 of his 18 homers allowed were pre-All-Star break). Two small concerns remain for Lowry. One, his home ERA (2.98) is over a run and a half lower than it is on the road (4.68)--although to be fair, we should at least partially discount the effect of those two Coors Field starts on his road ERA. Two, he's shouldered a high workload for the season, especially during this current hot streak. He's on pace to top 200 innings pitched, easily surpassing a career-high, and is coming off of a 122-pitch start.

J.J. Hardy: A first glance at Hardy's season reveals very little to be optimistic about--he's hitting a paltry .235/.326/.358 for the year. However, there's a number of extenuating circumstances at work here that give rise to optimism. Hardy missed most of the 2004 season after suffering a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder, not getting winter ball work until he joined a Mexican League team in December. Despite missing most of 2004 and having only 26 games of Triple-A experience, the Brewers handed Hardy the starting shortstop job out of spring training. He struggled mightily in the first half, but since the All-Star break he has hit .308/.378/.500 with five homers. Hardy, who just turned 23 in August, also has maintained excellent plate discipline throughout the season, walking 41 times in 307 at-bats, while striking out only 40 times. Finally, like Kearns, he has an excellent defensive reputation, which should earn him more playing time over Bill Hall in the long run. Given the lack of quality depth at shortstop in the NL, it's not unforeseeable to see Hardy taking the leap next year to be among the top five NL fantasy shortstops.

Jeff Erickson is the senior editor at Rotowire, and the host of XM Radio's "Fantasy Focus," heard every weekday at noon ET on XM Channel 175. He can be reached here.

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Premium Article Prospectus Matchups: T... (09/09)
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Fantasy Article Fantasy Focus: Hoping ... (09/19)
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