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July 30, 2006

Fantasy Focus

Charging the Mound

by Jeff Erickson and Chris Liss

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To: Jeff Erickson
From: Christopher Liss
Subject: Charging
Date: Wed, 26 Jul 2006 02:24:11 -0700

So I'm looking at my disastrous AL LABR pitching staff (King Felix, Shawn Chacon, Daniel Cabrera, Chad Orvella, Mike MacDougal--I'm leaving out Joel Zumaya and Curt Schilling because they can't by themselves undo the damage), and I'm thinking: "Why didn't I go with the all rookie plan?" Six or seven bucks on Francisco Liriano, a few more on Justin Verlander, stick with Zumaya for a buck, maybe throw three or four at Jon Papelbon, a buck on Jered Weaver, and I'd be all set. I could even have rounded out the staff with Jon Lester and Jeremy Sowers on reserve. When in recent memory have so many rookie pitchers in the AL, facing the DH every time through the order, had such fantastic seasons? Probably never. And for that reason, the idea of drafting all rookie pitchers never occurred to me. But should it have? Was there something special about Verlander's or Liriano's minor-league numbers that should have told me these guys would be instant successes?

Verlander pitched great at high-A and Double-A last year, but he had just 66 innings at the latter stop, and benefitted from an incredibly low hit rate. Liriano pitched well at Double-A, then destroyed Triple-A (112 Ks in 91 IP), but so what? Chad Billingsley had 162 Ks in 146 innings, and he was headed to the NL and an extreme pitchers' park. Of course, Billingsley didn't show the control that Liriano or Verlander did, but what about Cole Hamels? Sure, he was coming back from injuries, but he had a 36/1 K/BB at Triple-A this year in 23 innings! And what about Rich Hill? Hill has 135 Ks in 100 IP and just 21 walks. His stats are every bit as good as Liriano's and Verlander's. Sure, he's 26 years old, and that might limit his ceiling, but at the same time, he should be more ready. Hill's gotten pounded every time he's gone to the big leagues, but that's my point. Minor-league pitching dominance is by no means a guarantee of immediate major-league success, especially in the AL. Doesn't BP have an acronym for that?

What's going on here, and why didn't I see it coming? And did anyone think Liriano and Verlander would be better than the greatest pitching prospect in the last 10 years - Felix Hernandez? In fairness to Hernandez, his strikeout rate, walk rate and GB/FB ratios are all quite strong, and his unsightly ERA should probably be a good deal lower if he had even average luck. But he's not even on the same planet as Liriano who right now is the best pitcher in baseball.

Help me out here, Jeff. Why have Verlander's and Liriano's minor-league numbers transferred right over and not some of the other big time pitching prospects over the last few years who haven't made it? Is there such a thing as a pitching prospect?

------------

Date: Thu, 27 Jul 2006 11:17:09 -0700
To: Christopher Liss
From: Jeff Erickson
Subject: Re: Charging

Well, given that we're going to be talking with the folks that coined the term/acronym, "there's no such thing as a pitching prospect," this is certainly an appropriate topic. You're right, this really is a remarkable year for AL rookie pitchers. I think it's a confluence of a lot of talent coming up at or near the same time, and all of these guys are staying healthy. For young pitchers, that's a bigger hurdle than actually doing well once they get there. Besides that, I don't see any particular rhyme or reason why they're doing well while other classes or pitchers have not.

I will say this, Liriano and Verlander were both spoken of with nearly the same superlatives used for King Felix before the start of the season. If Felix Hernandez was the best pitching prospect to come down the pike the last 10 years, both Liriano and Verlander (and maybe Billingsley too) were in the conversation, perhaps in the top 10. Liriano displayed that level of dominance the last year and a half, right along the same level as Hernandez's minor-league numbers. Speaking of King Felix, it's not all bad here. Besides the good supporting strikeout, walk and GB/FB numbers, he's been much better the last two months, lowering his ERA and giving up fewer homers as well. Don't forget that he's only 20, for that matter. I think almost any team would take a 20-year old pitcher that gives them plenty of innings, strikeouts and an ERA that's within a standard deviation of the league average, if it weren't for the hype attached to King Felix's name. Yes, Liriano has surpassed him clearly, but that doesn't mean that can't change back again. Most of our competitors who own him to begin with in these leagues probably knows better, but I think now is a great time to trade for him, doubly so if you're in a keeper league.

Speaking briefly of Rich Hill, wasn't it you that had the theory that Hill wouldn't be as successful in the major leagues as his minor-league stats might otherwise portend, because of his repertoire of pitches (i.e., his high strikeout rate was a reflection that minor leaguers couldn't hit a big breaking ball or lay off it, but that he didn't have a major-league fastball to go with it)? Or was that our friend and colleague Dan Quon? Also, as far as Hamels goes, not only does he have a long minor league injury history, don't forget that he went on the DL shortly after getting called up. I think there's plenty of adjustment a pitcher has to make once he reaches the majors, but when you have to make that adjustment when you're not necessarily 100%, it's even harder.

Since the trade deadline is coming up, I think it's worth our time to briefly discuss a side effect of all the successful rookie pitchers in the AL this year. I think it makes the value of other remaining pitching prospects go way up, both in real life, and also in fantasy leagues. If I'm a Matt Garza or Hayden Penn owner right now and I've got a chance to win this year, I'd definitely go out and see what sort of value he has on the trade market. Don't forget to throw Jeff Niemann in that group as well, now that he's pitching fairly well for Double-A Montgomery in the Devil Rays' chain. It's always been my favorite tactic to trade pitching prospects in these keeper leagues--sure, every once in a while trading away a cheap Dontrelle Willis will haunt you, but even if those guys have a big first year, there's still a lot of risk attached to them. I think this year has created a perfect situation to manipulate.

How about you - is there anything that you do differently around the trade deadline? If you're the GM of a contending team and have one of those top notch pitching prospects, would you be willing to see what you can get for them, in light of what's happened this year?

--------------

From: "Chris Liss"
To: "'Jeff Erickson'"
Subject: RE: Charging
Date: Thu, 27 Jul 2006 18:28:11 -0800

That was Quon's point about Hill, and so far, he's been right. I just look at the Triple-A numbers and wonder why he fares so horribly in the majors, particularly in the NL. And I've been bullish on Hernandez all year--his peripherals are right there with Verlander's, and he's largely been the victim of bad luck. Still, the results are far different, and Hernandez's peripherals are merely what we might have expected, not the off-the-charts ones that Liriano, Weaver and Papelbon are putting up.

If I'm in contention in a keeper league, I'm always willing to dump decent pitching prospects. Last year, I got rid of Zach Duke and Anthony Reyes, and I don't regret it. This year, I moved Ricky Nolasco and Reynel Pinto for Carlos Delgado. Duke was pitching great last year, and look at him now. Nolasco's been pretty good, and I like him long term, but so what? The only exception I'd make is for an elite pitching prospect like Felix or Liriano. (And I'm not talking about Liriano now, but Liriano last year--now he's an All-Star). Not that I wouldn't deal them, but I'd be a lot less cavalier about it, and I'd need to feel the players I got in return were very likely to put me over the top.

What about you, Jeff? Are there any pitchers who have yet to break out that would be untouchable on your roster? What about hitters? Alex Gordon, Howie Kendrick, Delmon Young? Would you be more hesitant to move one of those guys than Billingsley or a healthy Cole Hamels?

-----------

Date: Fri, 28 Jul 2006 10:23:14 -0700
To: Christopher Liss
From: Jeff Erickson
Subject: Re: Charging

I'm with you--I'm also willing to trade cheap talent to win now. Just look at what I did last year, when I traded Ian Stewart for Billy Wagner and Rickie Weeks for Alfonso Soriano. It gave me a chance against you, but I still fell short. I sort of regret the Weeks deal, because while Soriano wasn't in his walk year, his price was too much ($57 in a $260 cap league) to consider keeping...or at least, that's what I thought. Meanwhile, Weeks cost his new owner only $3, in the first year of his contract, too. Still, I thought that's what it would take, and if I were in a similar position, I'd do a similar deal again.

That said, are there certain prospects that are untouchable? No, not really. There are some that I had to get help not only now but also in the future (Alex Gordon, if I had a minor-league deal on him, comes to mind), but I really try to avoid using the "untouchable" label with anyone. You end up closing yourself off to good opportunities that way. Sure, you may end making a trade that you ultimately regret that way (perhaps David Wright is that way for you), but as we always, always preach: Flags Fly Forever. If you get that chance, I think you have to go for it. Just make sure to do a good vetting process ahead of time, that you really have a legit chance to win first.

I probably wouldn't make the same elite pitching prospect exception as you, but I'm also far less likely to own that elite pitching prospect to begin with. In our keeper league, the vetting process with pitching prospects begins early, so you're usually basing your selection in our fantasy draft on either low-A/high-A numbers, or worse yet, his MLB draft pedigree. I'd rather take my chance on the elite hitting prospects in building my fantasy farm system.

--

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.

Chris Liss is the Managing Editor of RotoWire.com, and can be reached here.

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