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September 19, 2005

Fantasy Focus

Hoping for a Mulligan

by Jeff Erickson

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It's been a pretty good year for me. Most of my teams have avoided major injuries and have managed to stay in contention. Still, there were a number of players who I was wrong about, some badly so. It's worth a little time to review some of those players, and see why there was an error and if there's anything to learn from the mistake.

This column will avoid players whose health wiped out his projection, unless the projection of injury risk led to the incorrect projection (i.e., Ken Griffey Jr.). At the risk of parroting the omnipresent billboards peppering Los Angeles to promote the new show featuring Jason Lee, I'm sorry.

  • Ken Griffey Jr.: This is mostly health-related. We were so confident that Griffey would have a setback with his surgically repaired hamstring that we had a Griffey DL pool in the RotoWire office and I had him down for mid-June. We projected just 250 at-bats for him this year, and 16 homers for the season. After he hit only one homer in all of April, that projection wasn't looking too bad. After he hit 13 homers in May and June combined, it started looking silly. Now it looks like ludicrous. Even though he has been sidelined for September, Griffey's injury has been to a foot tendon, and unrelated to his previous hamstring injuries. What to take away from this? Perhaps I should have a little more faith in modern medicine, and what a world-class hitter can do when finally healthy. Still, even next year my projection for him will be fairly cautious.

  • Zack Greinke: My three big pitching purchases in Tout Wars were Curt Schilling, Octavio Dotel and Greinke. While Schilling's injury might have been worse than predicted, and while there were some signs of Dotel's injury before it occurred, it's Greinke's season that particularly disappointed and surprised me. Greinke actually didn't pitch all that badly for the first two months of the season, posting a 4.23 ERA through May 31. His first two starts in June, however, permanently scarred his still faithful fantasy owners; he gave up 18 runs (all earned) in just 8 2/3 innings, 11 to the Diamondbacks in an especially onerous outing. His ERA is at 5.95, dropping below 6.00 for the first time in two months following his decent effort against the White Sox earlier in the week.

    What happened here? Was he called up too early? That certainly didn't seem to be the case last year, when he posted a 3.97 ERA over 24 starts. Has he been pitching hurt? It's not likely. The only report of injury we've seen all year was from his first start, when he had to leave early after taking a line drive off his forearm. That ended up being only a bruise, and he pitched six shutout innings in his next start.

    I think that this season can be simply chalked up as a learning experience for Greinke, as he's had to learn to challenge hitters rather than try to be too fine on the corners. That was the analysis provided by the television analysts after they talked to the Royals' coaching staff before a recent outing against the Yankees, and Greinke's performance in that outing bore that out. In the first inning of that game, he got ahead of at least four batters, then tried to peck away on the corners, running the count full before either walking the batter or giving up a hit. While not trying to extrapolate too much from four batters in one outing against one of the better lineups in the game, the spike in Greinke's walk rate and hit rate implies a repeating pattern of similar outings. His style might have been influenced in part on the very low level of run support he received to start the year. Before that infamous Arizona outing, Greinke had a received a league-low 2.05 runs of support per nine innings, and was already 1-7 at that point.

    I'm not ready to give up just yet on Greinke. That said, I should have been more cognizant of the risk of him flailing, at such a young age, with such a bad team. His steep decline might not have been foreseeable, but the Royals' overall ineptness certainly was.

  • Justin Morneau: Both the Twins and Morneau's fantasy owners counted on a lot more from Morneau, but his .240/.307/.437 line has to be a huge disappointment. Even though Morneau has been able to play in 127 games and get 442 at-bats, injuries are the real story here. His woes began in the offseason, as he suffered from appendicitis, chicken pox and a lung infection that led to pneumonia. In spring training he needed a surgical procedure to remove a cyst that developed from his appendectomy. Once the season began, he got beaned and went on the DL with a concussion. Since then, he's been playing with a bone chip that developed in his left elbow.

    What to take away from this? One, don't write off an ailment just because it happened over the offseason--the ramifications often last longer than you'd expect. Otherwise, pay close attention this offseason, but be ready to write this entire year off. He'll have a pretty optimistic projection from us again in 2006.

  • Bob Wickman: He's going to lose that closer's job any day now, I can feel it. What, Wickman leads the AL in saves? In fairness, part of my concern about Wickman was his health, an issue that never materialized to be a problem this year. After an ugly start to the season, Wickman has been solid all year long and superb lately, picking up saves in the Indians' last four games and six of the last eight. Not all bodes well for Wickman, however. His strikeout rate has continued to decline, dropping from 7.98 per nine innings last year to 5.59 this year. He has also given up a career-high (as a reliever) nine homers, yet despite that has only given up 17 runs. I may not be so bold as to suggest he'll lose his job next year, but a decline is almost certainly likely.

  • Dave Weathers: Danny Graves lost the Reds' closer job as expected, but I didn't think Weathers would get the resulting saves. Ryan Wagner was pitching awfully well at the time, and was (is?) the Reds' closer of the future. Weathers got off to a stormy start, but now leads the team with 13 saves, while Wagner has yet to record a save. That may not seem like a lot of saves, but the very boom or bust nature of the Reds (both the offense and the starting rotation) provide them with very few save opportunities. The team has recorded only 29 saves total, 19 after Graves' departure. Weathers' contract option for 2006 has already vested, so I'll have to give him serious consideration for the Reds' closer job for next year as well.

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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