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March 1, 2006

Fantasy Focus

Future Fantasy Free Agent Battles - Pitchers

by Jeff Erickson

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I've already completed a number of industry-related drafts, including a marathon effort in the XM Experts' League a week ago. One thing that's really difficult to deal with in these early drafts is that we don't get to see any of the job battles get worked out in spring training before the draft. Often those battles are of lesser fantasy consequence, but there are some that have pretty significant impacts. All that said, not all of these situations will be resolved by spring training. There are some situations that are almost certain to change at some point during the season, where you can find some value. Let's take a look at two such pitching situations; we'll look at three hitter situations in the next article.

Reds Closer:

Last year the Reds as a team managed only 31 saves, lower than anyone besides the Royals. Making matters worse, the saves were split between a number of pitchers, starting the year with Danny Graves (10) before Dave Weathers (15), Kent Mercker (4) and even Matt Belisle (1) got into the act. The Reds enter this spring with another closer committee, most likely with Weathers at the head of it, but there's no guarantee that he'll keep the job. In his favor are his high G/F ratio (important in the Great American Ballpark) and overall experience. Working against him is his relatively low strikeout rate and perception as a set-up man. In a perfect world, the Reds would like to use him to set-up. Unfortunately, the Reds don't live in a perfect world--looking at their roster, nobody in particular jumps out as being closer-ready, especially when looking at their 2005 stats. Here are some of the options:

Pitcher              ARP     VORP     K/9IP     K/BB
David Weathers       9.1     11.5      7.07     2.10
Kent Mercker         5.3     10.7      6.57     2.37
Brian Shackelford    8.7      9.1      5.16     1.89
Jason Standridge     0.7      4.9      4.94     1.06
Todd Coffey          0.6      2.5      4.03     2.36
Matt Belisle         0.1      3.6      6.20     2.27
Ryan Wagner        -10.5     -5.1      7.69     2.30
Rick White          -6.9      6.7      4.3      1.34
Chris Hammond        6.1      8.9      4.9      2.33
While Weathers measures out as the best of the group (good for 81st among all qualifying relievers in 2005), that's damning with faint praise. The Reds don't have a big strikeout man in the bunch among their top options. Coffey has been mentioned as a potential closer, but until his major league strikeout numbers come within an area code of what he did in the minors, he's not closer-worthy. Wagner still has the "closer of the future" label and did have the best strikeout rate of the bunch, but at the same time, his overall results (particularly with the game on the line) have been less than desirable. A shoulder injury sidelined him over the second half, and purportedly he emerged from his rehab and Instructional League play with better mechanics. The Reds might have erred in letting Chris Booker get away in the Rule 5 draft after barely giving him any sort of chance last year. He closed at Triple-A Louisville and has the sort of dominant stuff that most of the current bullpen lacks. He certainly could not be any worse than Rick White. Finally, on the surface, Hammond looks like a decent signing, but his numbers across the board are in a severe tailspin over the last three years.

Look for Weathers to start out as the closer, but with his lack of overwhelming stuff, don't be surprised if the Reds look elsewhere by midseason. One wildcard in the entire equation is former Twin Grant Balfour, who is working his way back from Tommy John surgery and probably won't be back until June.

Nonetheless, even the worst teams with the shakiest of bullpens can still end up with 30-40 saves, so it's worth paying attention to what manager Jerry Narron does with his bullpen not only this spring, but during the course of the season as well.

Yankees Starting Rotation:

The Yankees enter the 2006 season as the oddsmakers' favorite to win the World Series, yet still face significant question marks outside of their rotation. Granting for a second that Randy Johnson is a relatively safe fantasy pick (some might argue the degree of how safe, but for sake of argument, we'll leave him out of this discussion), every other spot in the rotation should be considered a risk. As one barometer, look at where the XM Experts League (a 15-team, 5x5, mixed league) ended up drafting each member of the rotation.

Pitcher           (round, pick)    VORP        K/9; K/BB
Randy Johnson        (4.12)        44.1        8.42; 4.5
Mike Mussina         (17.2)        23.3        7.11; 3.0
Chien-ming Wang      (20.1)        17.3        3.64; 1.5
Carl Pavano          (20.5)        -1.3        5.04; 3.1
Shawn Chacon         (23.1)        25.1        4.56; 1.3
Jaret Wright        Undrafted      -9.8        4.81; 1.1
Aaron Small         Undrafted      22.1        4.38; 1.5
Al Leiter           Undrafted      -1.7        6.50; 1.2
Mussina's elbow has been sore each of the last two seasons--his declining strikeout rate and rising ERA since 2003 is reflective of that. Mussina turned 37 in December--don't expect those trends or his elbow problems to right themselves this year. Wang got by last year in part because of his astounding G/F ratio (2.96). His exceptionally low strikeout rate plus his late season shoulder soreness don't bode well for 2006--PECOTA's median forecast seems to agree that a decline is likely. Pavano spent much of 2005 on the DL with a shoulder problem, and manager Joe Torre has already said this spring that Pavano could begin 2006 on the DL with a back problem. Before his injuries, Pavano was decidedly mediocre in his Yankee debut. As bad as Pavano was, Jaret Wright was an even bigger free agent bust. The Yankees want to have him pitch in the bullpen in 2006--nothing like paying a long reliever $7 million per season.

That leaves Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small, the two pleasant surprises from 2005 for the Yanks. Back in November, I shared a panel with Joe Sheehan and Rob Neyer at Ron Shandler's Arizona Fall League Fantasy Symposium, titled "Fact or Fluke? The Surprises of 2005." Both Chacon and Small were on the docket, and in both cases, all three of us weighed in that their performances were flukes. Chacon has a better chance of panning out than Small, in part because (despite a relatively high flyball rate), he does a decent job of keeping the ball in the park. Neither pitcher's strikeout rate nor K:BB ratio is inspiring.

With all these question marks, the likelihood of the Yankees needing to go outside of this pool of pitchers is pretty high. Where else can they turn? The trade market is always a possibility, but as demonstrated last summer and explained elsewhere, it's not as easy for the Yankees to make their "rent-a-player" trades as it has been in the past. Looking in-house, it's painfully apparent that there's little if anything left in the tank for Al Leiter and Scott Erickson.

The top two options in the farm system are Sean Henn and Matt DeSalvo. Henn had three very bumpy starts for the Yankees last year, but was decent if not dominant at Triple-A Columbus last year. If he has a good first half in Columbus in 2006, he could either get the call or be used as trade bait. A lefty with a mid-90's fastball, Henn lost his command in his big-league starts last year. DeSalvo is a real darkhorse--he made great strides, albeit as a 24-year old, at Double-A Trenton last year, striking out just over a batter per inning. In the past he has struggled initially upon reaching a new level--if he can avoid that fate at Columbus this spring, it's not too difficult to envision a scenario where he could get a few starts for the Yankees.

At any rate, the odds are significantly high that the Yankees won't finish the year with the same rotation that they started with. Given the run support and somewhat improved defense that they'll provide for their starting pitchers, it's going to be well worth paying attention to gets their shot at the starting rotation, to see if they can become this year's version of Aaron Small.

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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