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April 4, 2007

Fantasy Focus

In-Season Job Battles

by Jeff Erickson

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We spend a lot of time in spring training tracking job battles, and our articles tracking those battles are among our most-read as fantasy players prepare for their drafts. But the job battles don't end with spring training, even though many fantasy players' focus on them might. That's really a shame, because decisions based on spring training results are often built on a shaky foundation. All too often we see a player win a job in March, only to lose it in April. We've already seen one such case in Cincinnati, where the Reds released their presumptive closer, Dustin Hermanson. Here are a few other cases where a spring training decision will likely be reversed.

Nationals CF

Dating back to his days as the Reds' general manager, Nats GM Jim Bowden has an enduring fascination with toolsy, athletic outfielders. Sometimes he's gotten a return on his investment, as he did with Wily Mo Pena, other times he's ended up with Deion Sanders or Brandon Watson. This year, Nook Logan is the apple of his eye. Logan hit .300 in a September tryout with the Nationals last year, but he's got a career OBP of .317 and has absolutely no power to go with his lack of on-base skills. For a team that's going to be struggling to score runs all year, Logan is going to be hard-pressed to keep his starting job. The sprained foot that put him on the DL after one at-bat on Opening Day might make this a moot point, especially if either Kory Casto or Chris Snelling hits well in his absence.

Cubs Closer

Ryan Dempster sank his fantasy owners down the stretch in 2006. He recorded his final save of the season on August 14, and from that point on his ERA jumped almost a full run. Meanwhile, he lost the closer's job to Bob Howry, who had out-pitched him virtually all season. Nonetheless, Dempster was given the job back even before the Cubs reported to spring training this year. There was no job battle here--with his contract (he's signed for two more years, at $5 million per), he was going to get another shot. Yes, he reported to camp in better shape, but he has serious flaws, particularly his lack of command. He walked 42 batters in 92 innings in 2005 (not counting his intentional walks), and another 33 in 75 innings last year. There's no reason to believe the walks won't be present again this season--ultimately, his success or lack thereof is tied to luck with balls in play, because he puts so many runners on to begin with. Once/if Kerry Wood is healthy enough to contribute in the bullpen, manager Lou Piniella can be more aggressive in replacing Dempster, either with Howry or Wood.

Twins Starting Rotation

If there's such an animal as conventional wisdom in the fantasy baseball world, the consensus is that there will be change in the Twins starting rotation, probably soon. Carlos Silva is the captain of the All-Polaroids Team, as in who does he have Polaroids of to keep his rotation slot? After giving up 38 homers and posting a 5.94 ERA last year, he "won" a rotation slot over Matt Garza this spring despite an 8.44 ERA in spring training. He'll debut this year in Chicago against the White Sox, perhaps his worst possible opponent. Last year they battered him around in five games, hitting .375 against with 11 homers in 25.1 innings. Next in line is Sidney Ponson, who has a similarly ugly history against the White Sox, particularly in U.S. Cellular Field. The last time Ponson didn't actively hurt his team was back in 2003, so don't expect that to change with him in another new uniform. He pitched better than Silva this spring (3.94 ERA), but only struck out six batters in 16 innings. Last on the list of likely replacements is Ramon Ortiz, who had the best spring of the three veterans, but wasn't able to keep his ERA below 5.50 last year despite pitching in RFK and in the NL East. Now he gets to face the DH again and the potent lineups of his AL Central Division foes. This isn't going to end well.

Meanwhile, the Twins are loaded with pitching prospects that are close to being ready for the prime time, beginning with Garza, who narrowly lost the spring training competition with Silva for the final spot in the rotation. Assuming he rebounds reasonably well at Triple-A Rochester to begin the season, he should be up fairly quickly. Garza blew through three minor league levels last year, putting up a 154:32 K:BB ratio over 135.2 innings before finishing the year with the Twins. His major league numbers were sketchy, but he interspersed some dominant outings against the weaker AL offenses with a handful of tough outings against the Yankees, Blue Jays, and White Sox. Expect some improvement when he finally gets the call. Also waiting in the wings for the Twins are Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, and Scott Baker. All four have talent and could get the call at some point this season.

Astros Starting Rotation

Somehow, the great Wandy Rodriguez entered spring training without having to fight for his spot in the starting rotation, despite a 5.64 ERA last year and a 5.58 career ERA over 264 major league innings. On the eve of spring training, his manager Phil Garner defended Rodriguez's track record, suggesting that ERA can be a misleading stat. While that's partially true, he didn't quite have the stathead explanation we might have been hoping for:

Wandy's won (19) games in the big leagues... ERA can be deceptive. Some of those guys' ERAs are better. The bottom line is, do you win? If you have a 10 ERA and win more games than you lose, to me that's what counts.

Yes, Phil Garner was an avid Baseball Prospectus reader, once. Alas, it was only for one day (and for those who think I'm not a Keith Woolner fan, please check the date of the article).

Scarily enough, Rodriguez is the Astros' fourth starter, ahead of someone else (Chris Sampson). At any rate, Rodriguez's component numbers, particularly the walk rate, have always been poor, suggesting that his high ERAs and WHIPs haven't been a fluke. If he continues to get torched at his historical rate, the Astros will be forced to turn towards one of their many alternatives, most likely Matt Albers or Fernando Nieve, both of whom seem to be much better options.

Reds First Base

Between Scott Hatteberg and Jeff Conine, the Reds have one of the least potent first base combos in baseball. Hatteberg has his merits, in that he draws a few walks, doesn't strike out much (on a team that has many strikeout artists), and plays decent defense at first base. Still, against lefties he's nearly helpless (.231/.333/.346), so the Reds have to aggressively platoon him with Conine. Meanwhile, Joey Votto is nearly ready to assume the first base duties. Votto's bat is probably ready right now for the majors, but the Reds want him to work on his defense. In winning the Double-A Southern League MVP last year, Votto hit for average, hit for power, drew 78 walks in 508 at-bats, and even stole 23 bases. It's just a question of when they hand him the job, not if.

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These are just a handful of the playing-time situations likely to change over the course of the season. You can probably sniff out a few more of them on your own as well. What makes them relevant to fantasy is how an owner takes advantage of these situations. Many of the players likely to benefit from these changes are in the minor leagues, making them ineligible as free-agent acquisitions if they went undrafted. However, many of these players were drafted in deeper leagues (such as Tout Wars or the BP Kings Scoresheet Leagues) and are now sitting on their owner's bench, especially if your league drafted early.

As a result, now is a great time to trade for these players, before they inherit their rightful role on a major league team. In many cases, their owners are scrambling for playing time if they have a number of these speculative picks. Remember that, despite the best efforts of some major league clubs, talent usually wins out. Now is the time for you to acquire that talent.

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Jeff Erickson is the Senior Editor at RotoWire, and the host of XM Radio's "Fantasy Focus." He can be reached here.

Related Content:  Starting Rotation,  The Who

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