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May 9, 2007

Fantasy Focus

Pitchers in Common

by Jeff Erickson

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Let's start off with some feedback from a previous column. In Cutting Bait, I mentioned that I still prefer playing in the deep AL- or NL-only leagues that mirrored the format of my first leagues (not to mention the original format of rotisserie baseball). The feedback on that point has been mixed. A critique of Tout Wars or LABR-style leagues is that they tie an owner's hands in-season by limiting the number of valuable players on the waiver wire. By doing so, it places an undue emphasis on the draft. This is especially true the earlier the draft occurs, when not all of the spring training battles have been sorted out. It also gives a big advantage to the teams that avoid injuries the best. As much as you might be prepared from reading Stephania Bell, Will Carroll, or Rick Wilton, luck is still a huge component here. As Joe Sheehan discussed before the Tout Wars drafts, part of the problem in these leagues is that the rules for creating the fantasy rosters haven't kept up with the roster constructions of major league teams.

These are all fair points. Perhaps having smaller reserve rosters and limited DL slots could alleviate much of this problem, so that whenever you pick up a player, you have a hard decision on whom to cut. That still happens in these leagues (last year's AL Tout title was in part decided by one owner's decision to cut Akinori Otsuka two weeks before he replaced Francisco Cordero as the Rangers' closer), but not nearly as frequently as some owners might like. It's also important to distinguish between the alternatives--there's a balance that can be struck between this dire waiver wire situation and having a 12-team mixed league where each team is an All-Star squad. Nonetheless, there are still good reasons why I prefer the current format of these deep leagues:

  • Major Draft Day Decisions Carry Consequences: Did you invest full value in Alex Gordon? You'll have to live with his slow start--there are no Melvin Moras drifting out there on the waiver wire as a safety net. On the flip side, if you gambled on Roger Clemens signing with the Yankees in your AL-only league, investing some of your draft day budget on that hope, there's hopefully a big payoff when he dons the pinstripes.
  • More Trades Are Likely to Occur: Your mileage may vary depending on who is in your league, but if you're not going to find much batting help on the waiver wire, you're going to have to get that help from your league-mates. The leagues I've enjoyed the most over the years are the more active leagues where more trading goes on.
  • Knowing the Entire Player Pool Gets Rewarded: One of my favorite aspects of fantasy baseball is finding my little sleepers that develop into valuable role players. Guys like Erick Aybar, Chad Gaudin, and Fernando Cabrera should be rostered. One of my biggest complaints about mainstream baseball reporting is when the commentator doesn't bother to research the players in the game. When the analyst can't discuss Matt Murton's role or dismisses his value because "he hasn't seen him play" in person, it just drives me up the wall. I'm veering off-track a little here, but the point is that these guys have or could have considerable value in the right situation, and that should be reflected in fantasy leagues.

Perhaps this discussion is an exercise of question-begging, however. The most widely played format of fantasy baseball is the 12-team mixed league, with daily moves in many cases. However, it's been my assumption that our readership is more likely to play in deeper leagues with more intricate formats. Am I wrong in this assumption? In which formats do you play? What sort of issues would you like to see addressed?

---

Last week I discussed some of the position players I had in common across my various leagues. This week I'll do the same with pitchers.

Boof Bonser : I really bought into his strong finish last year, particularly the 57:12 K:BB ratio over his last 65.2 innings. He was a relative bargain in two of the leagues where I own him, but in Tout Wars I had to pay a double-digit auction price. He's been a bit of an enigma this year--with 21 walks in his first seven starts, he's nearly matched all of last year's total, but yet has struck out more than a batter per inning. While an 0-1 record with a 3.96 ERA so far might indicate that he's been unlucky (and only three runs scored per game for him by the Twins supports that), opposing hitters have an OPS of 965 against him, and he has a strand rate of nearly 83 percent. Six of the 23 runs he's allowed have been unearned (three of those coming on his own throwing error on Tuesday night), so it's likely that his current ERA is artificially low.

Chris Capuano : In the past, Brewers players always seemed to come at a discounted price. That's not necessarily true any longer, and if they keep up their strong start and win the NL Central, that certainly won't be the case next year. Nonetheless, Capuano's price in this year's drafts seemed fair at worst. Ben Sheets is the ace of the team, Dave Bush was a lot of fantasy analysts' trendy sleeper (guilty as charged), and Jeff Suppan was the team's high-profile free agent addition, but Capuano was seemingly overlooked in many circles. I think it's a case of an over-correction from his 18-win season in 2005. Yes, that win total was a fluke, but saying that obscures the fact that Capuano's skills have improved. He improved his K:BB ratio from 1.9 to 3.7 in 2006, and has cut down on his HR/9 rate two years in a row. He may not be an ace, but his good start is no fluke.

John Lackey : Lackey is probably too obvious to include here, but I never miss an opportunity to restate that my love for him is pure. I only wish I had him on more teams than I do.

Ted Lilly : Lilly is this year's Bronson Arroyo--a league-average starter in the AL East that now gets to feast on the watered-down lineups of the NL Central. All seven of his starts this year have come against the other five NL Central teams; two of those teams, the Pirates and the Cardinals, are 28th and 30th (respectively) in runs scored in the majors. While the Reds have scored their share of runs, they've struggled against left-handers. Lilly will have some tougher starts later this season, and certainly he's benefited from the cold weather in Chicago, but in the aggregate his strong start should hold up.

Greg Maddux : Without damning with faint praise, Maddux is the Moises Alou of pitchers in fantasy leagues this year. By that I mean he's often overlooked as the old boring veteran, one clearly in the decline phase of his career. He doesn't throw as hard as he used to, he doesn't strike out as many batters as he used to, and he won't pitch as deep into games. But for all of those criticisms, he still throws strikes, he'll have an ERA below the league average, he won't give up homers, he pitches in a great ballpark, and he has the benefit of a superb bullpen. Not every spot in your fantasy rotation has to be filled by a rising star--having someone like Maddux gives you the flexibility to chase the wild cards.

James Shields : I'd own Shields in more leagues, but then I'd have to stop playing in the same leagues with Jason Grey from Fantasybaseball.com. I own Shields in virtually every other league. Shields' high strikeout rate is no fluke--he has displayed that skill in the last three levels he's pitched, and did so in the majors in his rookie season in Tampa Bay. Yes, he has the problem of pitching in front of a shaky defense and shakier bullpen, but in his case you want to invest in skills, and not try to chase likely wins.

Chris Sampson : When doing our 2007 projections, I didn't particularly have Sampson in mind as one of our sleepers. Even though he did a superb job both at Triple-A Round Rock and in a brief audition with the Astros, he was initially under my radar, until I got around to projecting the Astros and really saw what he had accomplished. His background as a failed shortstop prospect turned college coach turned pitching project also kept him under most radars; his major drawback is that he doesn't strike out a lot of hitters, and there are multiple prospects in the Astros' organization with higher profiles. That's also what made him such a cheap acquisition--in deep 5x5 leagues, any sort of competent starter has value. He's risky to own in your basic Yahoo! League, due to his lack of strikeouts and possible inability to work deep into games, but as a $1 cheapie, I'll take him.

Fernando Cabrera : I always try to speculate on future closers, and while some of those closers-in-waiting like Joel Zumaya or Scott Linebrink were costly to acquire, Cabrera was available for the minimum in most leagues because of a poor 2006 season. I thought the reasons for his decline were flukish and not likely to repeat, and because I don't believe in Joe Borowski, he made for an ideal target. Now if Borowski could just cooperate and blow a few more save chances, all the pieces will be in place.

Jason Frasor : For two weeks, I looked pretty smart with this one. Now? Not so much. That said, I'm holding onto Frasor--he struggled early last season as well, but ultimately finished with good overall numbers. Furthermore, it's no sure thing that B.J. Ryan will be back in June; we certainly can't assume any sort of good faith from the Blue Jays when it comes to disclosing injury information.

J.J. Putz : Putz came at a discount compared to other elite AL closers. His lack of experience led to a degree of mistrust, and then his spring training elbow injury further lowered his acquisition cost. I took a leap of faith on his component numbers from last season, choosing to believe they were for real. The fact that the Mariners had so many games postponed in April and didn't have any save opportunities for Putz might have worked in his favor, allowing him to rehab the elbow at a slower pace without feeling the pressure to push himself early on. Putz isn't entirely in the clear with his elbow injury, but so far so good where my investments are concerned.

Jose Valverde : There are times when Valverde looks like he could be one of the more dominant closers in baseball. Then there are other times when he looks like Jorge Julio. Enjoy his high strikeout rate and that the Diamondbacks have played a lot of close games so far--just don't watch him if you can help it. The National League still is full of shaky closers, and so far Valverde's high-wire act has paid off, but it's also why he came at a bit of a discount despite the high strikeout rate.

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Under The Knife: Athle... (05/08)
<< Previous Column
Fantasy Article Fantasy Focus: Commons (05/03)
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Fantasy Article Fantasy Focus: Changes... (05/17)
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Morning in Chicago (05/09)

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