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June 27, 2008

Fantasy Focus

Deep in the Heart

by Jeff Erickson

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The Astros and Rangers both play in big media markets, but they don't often catch the attention of the national baseball media, aside from the odd instances of a scrub pitcher (with apologies to Todd Jones) assaulting his general manager. They have one World Series appearance between the two of them, and are among the teams well ensconced in baseball's middle class right now. They just finished up six games against each other in interleague play, splitting them down the middle.

But these two teams are heading in opposite directions. The Rangers began the painful process of rebuilding in earnest last year with the Mark Teixeira trade, and have already promoted a couple of their top prospects, with more on the way in a pretty rich farm system. The Astros, on the other hand, decided to make another run at contending in the perceived weak NL Central this offseason, trading for Miguel Tejada and Jose Valverde, while signing Kazuo Matsui to a multi-year deal. The Tejada trade cleaned out an already weak farm system, one that got very little in the draft in a well-publicized fiasco in 2007.

Let's take a look at some of the bigger issues facing each team, and the fantasy inferences we can draw from those issues.

Houston Astros

Starting Rotation: Heading into Thursday's games, the Astros' pitching staff in ranked 24th in the majors in pitcher VORP. While Wandy Rodriguez's eight-inning, nine-strikeout gem on Thursday will most likely improve their ranking a little, their starting pitching has been a collective disappointment. The biggest culprit has to be their ace, Roy Oswalt, who is at career-worst levels in ERA (4.77) and WHIP (1.399). Oswalt's strikeout rate has been in decline the last three years, but it's actually up a tick; the problem is that he's giving up homers at a far greater rate than at any time in his career. The 18 homers he's allowed already match his career high for a season. It's that factor that has me worried about him over the second half. Even though his last two starts have been pretty good, don't trade for expecting a return to vintage form; I don't think he's an especially good buy-low candidate.

Instead, you might want to target Wandy Rodriguez. A slow-healing groin injury kept him on the shelf for nearly six weeks, but in 10 starts he's built upon the progress he made in 2007. He's walking fewer batters and allowing significantly fewer homers, while maintaining a nice strikeout rate (7.7 per nine innings). Last year he had a large home-road split, allowing a 2.94 ERA at home and 6.37 ERA on the road. This year, while he's still been better at home, the split isn't as severe (1.89 vs. 3.80), albeit in only four road starts. If he can perform at least at that level on the road regularly, he'll make for a pretty decent second or third fantasy starter. Rodriguez also has the good fortune to miss facing the Red Sox this weekend.

There's not much else in the Astros' rotation to be of much use to you, or to them. Brandon Backe has pitched well enough at home, but he's been a disaster on the road. He also has given up 20 homers on the year, tied with Paul Byrd for most in the majors. Brian Moehler actually leads the Astros' rotation in pitcher VORP because Rodriguez was out with his injury for so long, but his performance isn't all that special (4.03 ERA, 35 strikeouts in 58 2/3 innings), and is fairly likely to worsen over the second half. Runelvys Hernandez makes his Astros debut on tonight against the Red Sox; we haven't seen him in the majors since his fight with teammate John Buck in Kansas City in 2006. He's replacing Shawn Chacon in the rotation.

There's not much help on the way for the Astros from their farm system, either. Bud Norris has been on the DL since early May at Double-A Corpus Christi with a shoulder impingement, Brad James has 37 strikeouts in 83 Double-A innings, and very few other pitchers at Triple-A Round Rock stand out. One pitcher that might get a chance is Josh Muecke, who has a 3.98 ERA at Round Rock, but he's striking out fewer than six batters per nine innings. Felipe Paulino is out for probably most of the season because of a pinched nerve in his arm. This is where the trade with the Orioles really hurts the Astros-they have no usable depth among their arms in the farm system.

Stolen Bases: Astros manager Cecil Cooper has really embraced the running game; only the Rays have more stolen bases and attempts. The Astros' prowess on the basepaths starts with the acquisitions of Michael Bourn (30-for-37 in his stolen base attempts) and Kaz Matsui (15-for-18), but there's more to it than that. Lance Berkman (12-for-14), Miguel Tejada (6-for-9), Hunter Pence (5-for-11), and even Ty Wigginton (4-for-6) are running more than they did in the past. What does this mean for you in a fantasy context? If you're trading for Berkman, he won't get another 12 stolen bases over the second half, but he shouldn't stop running altogether. If you're in a deep NL-only league, recent call-up David Newhan might get a few chances to run while Matsui is out.

Catcher: J.R. Towles was often paired with Geovany Soto in fantasy circles this spring-if you didn't end up getting Soto in your league, Towles was considered a nice consolation prize, especially in keeper leagues. Unfortunately, Towles turned out to be more of a fantasy booby prize than prized pick, hitting just .145 before his demotion at the beginning of June. He hasn't yet got straightened out at Triple-A Round Rock, hitting just .205/.327/.386 in 14 games there. His BABIP with the Astros was a ludicrously low .155, but that's only a partial explanation for his struggles. He also was striking out significantly more often than he did in the minors and generally struggled to make good contact. Don't write him off yet; remember, he only had 61 games in Double-A and 13 games in Triple-A last year. He might just need more seasoning in Round Rock. Meanwhile, the Astros are starting to use Humberto Quintero more often at the expense of Brad Ausmus while Towles is down; don't confuse that playing time with upside potential. Quintero has been hanging around Triple-A since 2004. He'll offer a semblance of power and no patience at the plate. Looking at all the problems that the Astros have offensively at this position, their overdraft of Jason Castro in the first round of this year's draft is a little more explicable.

Texas Rangers

Blalock Shenanigans: Hank Blalock has been one of the more frustrating fantasy players to own this season, given all his false starts in attempting to return from first his hamstring injury and now from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. On multiple occasions, Blalock has been thisclose to coming back, needing just a couple of rehab assignment games, only to have a setback. Those owners with weekly moves that have acted in reliance of his return have been burned multiple times. His latest setback seems as if it could have been avoided. Blalock said that his surgically-repaired hand was still swollen when he tried to start his rehab assignment, but he was told by team doctors that he was still clear to play. He's now been pushed back to around the All-Star break, at best, and he's bitter about the experience.

Meanwhile, the Rangers still plan to move Blalock to first base, despite moving top prospect Chris Davis back to first from third in the minors, and then calling Davis up this week with the news of Blalock's latest setback. This doesn't seem to fit their long-term plans; Ramon Vazquez is hitting well right now, but he's not a prospect, but is rather a 31-year-old on a hot streak. Travis Metcalf is struggling at Triple-A Oklahoma, and German Duran isn't really a third baseman. The pieces don't really fit here, so don't be surprised to see the Rangers try to peddle Blalock at the trade deadline, because he'll be a free agent at the end of the season anyway.

Farm System Kicking In: Unlike the Astros, the Rangers are getting contributions from their farm system, with more help on the way. In the last week, they've called up Davis and Max Ramirez, and before that pitcher Eric Hurley and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia got the call. Davis has enormous power potential, hitting 36 homers between High-A and Double-A last year, before slugging 23 more between Double- and Triple-A this year. He's pretty raw, still, posting a combined 35:150 BB:K last year and 26:75 BB:K this year. Still, they plan on using him right now, starting at first base against most, if not all, right-handers. Ramirez isn't your standard injury-replacement catcher call-up. He's a legitimate prospect who was absolutely raking at Double-A Frisco. The big question for him is whether Ramirez will stick behind the plate, or if his long-term position will be at either DH or first base; he started at first on Sunday. Check your league's eligibility rules to see where he's going to qualify; if you get him at catcher for this season, he's worth the look. Ramirez probably will be up for about six weeks, until Gerald Laird returns, though at that point the Rangers' priorities might change enough to allow him to stick around as Davis' platoon partner.

The Rangers have a lot more depth behind this first wave of prospects. On the hitting side of the ledger, John Mayberry is hitting .312/.362/.554 at Oklahoma, Taylor Teagarden is nursing a sore shoulder but nevertheless has an OPS of 805, Elvis Andrus is one of the better shortstop prospects in the game, Julio Borbon looks like a good leadoff prospect, and they got one of the steals in this year's draft in nabbing first baseman Justin Smoak. Among their pitching prospects, Matt Harrison is the closest to being ready now, and Kevin Goldstein favorite Neftali Feliz is tearing it up in the Low-A Midwest League. There are other worthwhile prospects in the system, and these are just the most notable. A quick comparison with the Rangers' system reveals just how slim the pickings are in the Astros' system.

Handicapping the Bullpen: Once again, the downfall of the Rangers has been their pitching. Their cumulative 2.7 Pitcher VORP places them 29th overall in VORP for pitchers, and they've been having problems in both their rotation and bullpen. We'll focus on the bullpen, and specifically their closer. C.J. Wilson recently had to get the dreaded vote of confidence from manager Ron Washington, and it was a lukewarm one at that: "Right now, he is still our closer. We're going to give him the opportunity to try and work through the tough patch he's going through."

Wilson's problems stem largely from a lack of command. He's walked 17 batters in 32 1/3 innings, and thrown first-pitch strikes to only 53.7 percent of the batters he's faced. Though he has 16 saves, evaluating him from a Pitcher VORP perspective, he hasn't even been a positive factor for the Rangers, and for a closer, his WXRL isn't all that special, ranking only 51st overall.

So if Wilson eventually loses his job, who should take his place? The Rangers spent a bit this offseason trying to bolster their bullpen, just in case Wilson didn't work out as their closer. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out as they planned. Kazuo Fukumori had four gruesome outings before getting sent down to Oklahoma. Joaquin Benoit has had shoulder problems and command issues stemming from the injury, and is coming off of a brutal outing on Tuesday night. The reliever that scores the best for them, at least in terms of Pitcher VORP, was Franklyn German, but he's already been designated for assignment and claimed by the Pirates. So who's left?


Pitcher            K/9     VORP      WXRL
Joaquin Benoit     7.6     -5.0    -0.822
Eddie Guardado     5.1      5.6     1.812
Jamey Wright       6.1      5.2     0.689
Frank Francisco   10.7      3.3     0.839

Francisco's strikeout rate sticks out here; alas, so would his walk rate, which is at dangerously high 5.2 per nine innings. He has been used more in high-leverage situations lately, including a big bases-loaded jam over the weekend against the Nationals. Still, he's not the one normally pitching the eighth inning. That honor has gone to Guardado, who has the best ERA and WHIP among the leading candidates to supplant Wilson despite the lowest strikeout rate. Guardado also gives up a significant number of fly balls, which doesn't bode well for his success later this summer. One dark horse for the role is Triple-A reliever Warner Madrigal. The Rangers snagged Madrigal away from the Angels as an unprotected six-year minor leaguer this winter, and have installed him as a closer, first for Double-A Frisco and now for Oklahoma. He's a converted position player with a big fastball, and has struck out 43 batters in 36 innings between the two levels, with 16 walks. He's a bit raw, and the walk rate is a concern, but don't be surprised if he gets a big league trial down the road.

There are plenty of other major issues facing both teams from the Lone Star State, but these are a few of the ones that you might be able to act upon to help your fantasy squads this season.

--

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

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