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May 23, 2007

Fantasy Focus

Rookie Risks and Rewards

by Kenn Ruby

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The essence of the game is simple: to know more about baseball than everyone else in the league. How do we prove we know more about the game than anyone else? By drafting "safe" players like Lyle Overbay, Mike Lowell, and Chris Capuano? Of course not! That would be boring.

Instead, the fantasy player needs to prove that we picked the next big star before everyone knew about him, and he scours the prospect lists, looking for a big-impact rookie. That way, he can say "I called it!" There's one guy in my league who's had Jason Neighborgall on his roster for three years. When the Snakes' minor league wild man finally makes his big league debut in 2013, that guy will be ecstatic. I'm guilty of the same thing--during the last round of my very deep draft I was wavering on my pick and someone sarcastically said, "go ahead, I think you need another minor league pitcher." I picked up Troy Cate. Who? Exactly.

Two things are probably true in your league:

  1. Every hyped rookie probably got picked up by someone.
  2. The guy who took Alex Gordon in the fourth round is in last place in your league.

The important issue to remember is that few rookies live up to the hype right away. The success of the 2006 rookie class is an aberration, not the rule. Now, a quarter of the way through their first full seasons in the league, it's time to take a look at some of the most-hyped newcomers of 2007, ranked from most-disappointing to worth-every-penny. Please forgive me if I've ignored your favorite rookie. If that guy becomes a star, you have permission to remind me that yes, you called it.

With the way Alex Gordon swung the bat in Wichita last season, he looked like a can't-miss star. Well, he's missed, a lot. Gordon has 43 strikeouts in 41 games, and is hitting a paltry .177 with only five RBI. The Royals are running out of patience, so a trip back to the minors looks likely.

Going into this season, I saw Kevin Kouzmanoff projections of 20 homers and 100 RBI. His batting eye and contact rate were cited as reasons why he would be a star as early as 2007. That doesn't look like it's going to happen. In April, Kouzmanoff hit .113, struck out 22 times, and drew only four walks. After starting May 1-for-13, he's starting to show some signs of life. Still, a .185 batting average with one home run is not what fantasy owners had in mind when they shelled out $15-20 for him.

Mike Pelfrey made it onto many sleeper lists going into 2007, but by the time he was sent down last week, he looked like one of the worst starting pitchers in the National League. In six starts, he was 0-5 with a 6.53 ERA, a 1.75 WHIP, and an abysmal 13:17 K:BB ratio. He gave up only one run in his first start after the demotion, but with the Mets clearly a World Series contender this year, they may not take the chance of pitching him in any meaningful games this summer.

Some fantasy experts listed Troy Tulowitzki as a potential Rookie of the Year candidate. He'll have to pick it up a bit, as he's hitting only .257 with little power; you could've had Aaron Miles for a buck for that kind of production. He's a buy-low candidate if not a roto stud, in part because he's walking a fair amount at the big league level, but he needs to improve on his .210/.319/.294 line against righthanded pitching.

Brandon Wood had just one hit during his two cups of coffee with the Angels this spring. His time in Triple-A hasn't been much more productive: he's hitting just .237 and slugging .412 in 131 at-bats, with 39 strikeouts. Still, with five home runs and 21 RBI, he's not far off the pace of his 2006 Double-A totals of 25 and 83 respectively. As long as the Angels don't treat him like a human yo-yo, he might still have a chance to get in a groove this year.

Adam Lind started the year in Triple-A Syracuse, where he hit .394 in 2006. He got called up after 36 at-bats, but his 10:0 K:BB ratio in Syracuse was an ominous sign. He projects to be a .300 hitter with power eventually, but so far with Toronto he's not hitting well at all (.230/.285/.381), thanks to a 29:9 K:BB ratio. Until he learns to make better contact, he'll hit the occasional homer while struggling to hit .260.

Felix Pie and Billy Butler have had very similar experiences this season. Both had good shots of making their respective teams out of spring training, but neither did. When injuries struck, they both found themselves promoted to the bigs and getting an opportunity to stick; again, neither did. Pie and Butler both played nearly every day of their brief major league careers, and they combined for one home run, eight RBI, zero stolen bases, and a .233 batting average in 86 at-bats. One other similarity: they're both tearing it up in the minors this year.

Philip Hughes pitched well over three starts in Triple-A before getting called up by the desperate Yankees. He struggled in his first start, but we all know what happened in the second: 6.1 innings of no-hit ball, followed by a hamstring injury. He's thrown off flat ground, and the more desperate the Yankees get, the sooner you might expect that he gets back on the mound.

Delmon Young of the D-Rays answered his critics last year with a strong stint in St. Pete in September. He proved to be more than just the bat-throwing troublemaker he was in the minors, and seemed poised for a strong 2007. Unfortunately, he's been a disappointment to his owners so far, hitting .234 with just two stolen bases. On the plus side, he's hit six homers and has added 22 RBI and 22 runs, so if he gets his bat going, he could still justify the hype. A multi-walk game last week gives hope.

Although his .268 batting average is nothing to write home about, Chris B. Young is putting up the solid numbers that many of us thought he would. He's on pace for a 20-20 season, and he's turned things on a bit in May. A sore groin sidelined him last week though, so his value could decline a little in the near term as he's kept out of the lineup.

Andrew Miller has already impressed at three levels in 2007, highlighted by six scoreless innings in his first big league start last week. In nine 2007 starts, he has a 2.60 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP. Miller's stay in the majors won't be long--he's just a fill-in while Jeremy Bonderman is hurt--but as Detroit's top pick in the 2006 draft, big things are still expected of him.

When Tim Lincecum made his Major League debut on May 6, the hype was at a fever pitch. Already one of the top pitching prospects in the game going into 2007, Lincecum blew through five Triple-A starts with a 0.29 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, and a 46:11 K:BB ratio in just 31 innings. He was ready. So were the Phillies, who sent him to the showers in the fifth inning on national TV. Fortunately for Lincecum and his owners, he bounced back with two strong starts in a row, and now has a 3.44 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and a 21:7 K:BB ratio. More importantly, the Giants kept him in the rotation even after activating Russ Ortiz from the DL, preserving the opportunity to start for the rest of the season. He looks like the real deal.

Some don't consider Daisuke Matsuzaka a rookie, but he's certainly lived up to expectations. At 6-2 with a 4.06 ERA and 1.18 WHIP, not to mention the 58 strikeouts, he may have been worth the money he commanded in fantasy auctions (whether he's earned the money Boston paid is a different matter). If you stashed Dice-K on your reserve roster before last year, you can certainly tell everyone you "called it."

With 28 home runs and 17 stolen bases in Double-A last year, great things were expected of Hunter Pence coming in, and he hasn't disappointed. A strong three-week stint in Triple-A (.341/.398/.588) led to a promotion to Houston, where Pence has kept up the hot hitting (.364/.402/.675). Pence won't be able to keep it up all season, but if he keeps driving in runs (he had 15 RBI in his first 16 games), he has a strong chance of winning the NL Rookie of the Year.

---

Kenn Ruby is a contributing writer at Rotowire. He can be reached here.

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