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April 12, 2007

Fantasy Focus

The Limbo Zone

by Jeff Erickson

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Fantasy players are in an odd period of the season right now. There's a natural tendency to tinker with one's lineup after finally seeing meaningful ballgames, but at the same time, there's also a real danger of overreacting. It takes a bit of willpower stay the course.

Further compounding the dilemma is that often the more meaningful free agents are acquired in April and May off of your league's waiver wire. Take last season, for example-after starting off as free agents, in many leagues Brandon Phillips, Jonathan Papelbon, Dan Uggla, and Takashi Saito were rostered in fantasy leagues within the first two or three weeks. Getting players of that caliber early on can make a huge difference in the standings.

So, with that in mind, let's take a look at some of the potential opportunities to find those difference-makers for this season:

Closer Carousel

Roughly one-third of the closer jobs turn over each season, either because of poor performance or through injury. We've already seen our first change of this season, with Dan Wheeler replacing Brad Lidge for the Astros. We've seen this movie before, and nobody liked the ending the last time. As closer-worthy as Wheeler might be, we simply can't trust Phil Garner to make up his mind and stick with it. Even on Tuesday this week, Garner brought in Wheeler to protect a 4-0 lead in the ninth, and after a couple of runs came across, Lidge started warming up. Wheeler eventually finished the game, but the point here is that he's not necessarily secure in his possession of the job. Wheeler was clearly the better pitcher by most metrics last year, even though Lidge kept getting the opportunities. Even with the uncertainty over his role, bid aggressively if you get a chance to acquire Wheeler.

Meanwhile, after his most recent blown save, Jorge Julio is getting perilously close to losing his closer's job. He tantalizes teams with his raw stuff, but his lack of command has caused him to lose jobs in three other locales. With that in mind, you should believe that it's only a matter of time before he loses the closer's job with the Marlins. The big uncertainty here is who will replace him. Lee Gardner finished off the save on Sunday for the Marlins after Julio loaded the bases, but he's already been sent down, making room for Taylor Tankersley as he comes off of the DL. Tankersley was the preseason favorite in some circles, back before his shoulder injury forced him to the DL. I'd still pursue Tankersley if he were available, and before he gets any or many save chances. Lack of command is still an occasional problem for him, and the shoulder issue still lingers, but there's a buying opportunity here. Henry Owens seems like the other likely candidate, especially after getting the save on Monday on Julio's day off. Owens is probably owned in most leagues after that save, but if not, go get him. The strikeouts haven't come yet, but Owens possesses a nasty fastball and has been otherwise effective.

Comeback Stories

In two starts so far, Zack Greinke has a 1.38 ERA, a 12:1 K:BB ratio, and has yet to allow a home run. This comes on the heels of a fantastic spring training, one which he started off merely hoping to win the fifth starter's job. He's now the Royals' third starter, but could effectively be their ace. After missing part of the 2006 season dealing with clinical depression, Greinke seems to have regained confidence in his considerable talents. It's especially encouraging to see him pitch well against the Red Sox and Blue Jays, although the latter's lineup is skewed too much to right-handed bats. Suffice to say, he's going to beat both RotoWire's and PECOTA's projections for him for 2007. It's possible he might still be floating around on the waiver wire, or available for cheap in trade talks. That won't last-get him now before the price goes up.

Meanwhile, Josh Hamilton started for the second day in a row on Wednesday, this time in right field for Ken Griffey Jr., and homered for the second day in a row. Hamilton might have been the single hardest player to project this season. When his spring training stats are the most relevant body of stats you can possibly use, doing any projection is a leap of faith. He's one player where professional scouts have a far better chance of suggesting what he might do. Still, the early returns here have to be encouraging. Hamilton doesn't have a regular starting role, but let's face it, betting on Ryan Freel and/or Ken Griffey Jr. to get hurt is a fairly safe proposition. Now's your last chance to get Hamilton in your NL-only leagues, and if you have the bench spot available in mixed leagues, it's better to pounce now than wait for him to get the job.

Stolen Bases

We often look at the Angels, who led the majors in stolen bases, as a source for finding players who might get us a few extra stolen bases above what we'd normally project for them. Manager Mike Scioscia isn't subtle about this-he expects his players to be aggressive on the basepaths. Catcher Michael Napoli stole a base on Opening Day, and before he injured his groin, Shea Hillenbrand attempted a pair of steals. It's this philosophy that led me to get Gary Matthews Jr. in virtually all of my leagues -I didn't necessarily set out to get him, but I do have him projected for more steals than most.

There's another team, however, that's running at a more prolific rate so far. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, managed by Scioscia-protégé Joe Maddon, have 11 stolen bases and 19 attempts in just eight games, leading the majors in both categories. Yes, they're blessed with a lot of rabbits, guys like Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and B.J. Upton, but the running game hasn't been limited to those three players. Akinori Iwamura already has three steals in four attempts, Ben Zobrist has two stolen bases, and Delmon Young has attempted two swipes already. The team's low success rate is a little discouraging from a sabermetric standpoint, but I doubt Maddon is too concerned about that. Look for them to stay active on the basepaths.

Trends

Finally, it's worth noting just how poorly the Nationals have played so far this season. They've led in a ballgame for exactly one moment all year-when they came back against Jorge Julio in the bottom of the ninth last week. In all of their nine games, they've trailed by at least the score of 3-0 at some point in the game before scoring their first run. They're not going to maintain this level of incompetence, but this team is going to be just awful, and not just at a garden-variety 95-loss level. They've been outscored 61-21 in their nine games so far. What do we take away from this? It's imperative you get your starting pitchers up against the Nationals, and to find starters on the waiver wire who are facing them. Mike Pelfrey will likely make his 2007 debut against them on Friday. In many mixed leagues on Yahoo and other sites, you're allowed to make daily moves, so if you're one of those leagues, pick Pelfrey up and start him. Maybe the offense will click for the Nats eventually-they do have some interesting components-but chances are that more often than not they'll be a safe haven for your starting pitchers.

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Premium Article Player Profile: Geoff ... (04/11)
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Fantasy Article Fantasy Focus: In-Seas... (04/04)
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