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January 2, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Starting Pitchers

by Marc Normandin

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As we begin the New Year, it's time to start thinking about who you'll be drafting for your 2009 fantasy teams. Leagues begin forming as early as February, and while it's a bit early for rankings, it's never too soon to begin digging through lists of names in search of those players who can help you win next season. This week, we'll take a look at some pitchers with newly secured roles who surprised or struggled with their performances in 2008, and what might be expected from them going forward.

Left-hander Glen Perkins was the Twins' first-round pick back in 2004, drafted 22nd overall. Though he had spent most of his time starting in the Minnesota minor league system, he relieved in 19 games for the 2007 Twins, striking out 6.3 per nine while walking 3.8. That walk rate, coupled with the just slightly above-average punchout rate, meant that his 3.14 ERA was lower than it should have been, and his FIP of 4.22 said as much.

Minnesota threw Perkins into the rotation in 2008, and once again his ERA was more attractive than his performance merited. Despite just 4.4 strikeouts and 1.5 homers per nine, Perkins posted an ERA of 4.41, roughly three-fourths of a run better than his adjusted FIP. It's not as if he has wicked stuff, and his merely average lefty velocity offers little reason to hope that he might fix this issue any time soon.

His switch to relief saw his fastball move from the low 90s up into the 93 range, occasionally touching 95, but after returning to a starting role, his velocity again dropped into the low 90s. His changeup was a plus pitch in the minors, but he doesn't use it often enough, instead relying on his fastball, and though e'll mix in a slider or a curve now and then, he's really just a two-pitch starter, which can be problematic.

Given this mix of information, it's unlikely that Perkins is going to be of much use to your team in 2009. Without the velocity or a third pitch, he won't have enough strikeouts to merit drafting him, and the home runs are cause for concern as well. Perkins is a guy you will want to wait and see on; further development of either of his breaking balls, or the return of some of that missing velocity could make him a useful in-season pickup.

Garrett Olson is another left-hander who has failed to make much of an impression during his time in the majors following some quality minor league seasons. From 2006-2008, Olson had struck out a minimum of 8.4 batters per nine in the minors, topping out at 9.7/K9 in '08 in 36 1/3 innings at Triple-A. In his major league debut with the Oriles in 2007, he had 28 strikeouts in 32 1/3 innings for a 7.8 K/9, but he unfortunately paired those with 27 unintentional walks. Over 132 2/3 major league innings this past year, he improved on the walks (4/1 BB/9), but at the expense of his strikeout rate (down to 5.6 K/9).

The free passes are an issue exclusive to his major league time, as more advanced hitters find it easier to pick him apart since he lacks a true out pitch. His curve graded as an excellent offering in the minors, but he needs to refine the command of his changeup, and his fastball has been losing the low-90s velocity that it once had during his promising years as an Orioles' prospect.

If he's not going to strike people out, he'll have to earn his outs elsewhere. Olson's 1.1 G/F ratio is around the average, teetering towards fly-ball centric, however, and nearly 40 percent of balls in play against him are hit in the air, with roughly 10 percent of those leaving the park, so the cards are stacked against the possibility of his having a successful 2009 campaign. You should leave him alone on draft day, though if he is able to improve on the command of his changeup or find some of that lost velocity on his fastball, he may still have some value. Unless his numbers begin to resemble those from his minor league days, he's just another former prospect who you'll be watching and waiting for.

The third of today's 24-year-old left-handers is Greg Smith, a pitcher who has already had to pack up his bags and move multiple times in his short career. Prior to the 2008 season, Smith was traded from the Diamondbacks to the Athletics as part of the package for Dan Haren. He ended up throwing nearly 200 innings for the A's, posting an ERA of 4.16, and tying for the league lead in pickoffs with 16.

Things are not as rosy as they may seem for Mr. Smith after that first glance though; his unintentional walk rate isn't pretty (3.9 per nine), and his 5.3 strikeouts per nine are lacking as well. He gave up just one home run per nine, but he benefitted from pitching in the spacious McAfee Coliseum, a place that also helped him post a very low batting average on balls in play. There is nothing we can say about Smith that would explain why he was able to do what he did, outside of noting all of the help that he had from his defense (the Athletics ranked fourth in Defensive Efficiency).

Smith has a high-80s fastball that he complements with a slow change and a slider, but none of the three pitches are exceptional. He's moving to a park and a situation that are the polar opposites of his previous ones: a new home field that is likely to adversely affect his performance, and a defense behind him that ranked near the bottom of the league in the same statistic that saved his 2008 season. Given his lack of stuff and his fly-ball tendencies, the Rockies' interest in adding him to their staff was perplexing, and the only thing that might be even more confusing than their move would be if you were to consider adding him to your roster on draft day.

Hiroki Kuroda is much older than the other pitchers discussed today, but 2008 was the 33-year-old's first season in a major league uniform. He posted an ERA of 3.73 on the strength of just 1.7 unintentional walks per nine and 0.6 homers per nine. Even though he struck out just 5.7 batters per nine, his G/F rate of 1.7 helped to counter that weakness. Putting the ball on the ground well over half the time is a good way to get outs, and that may become even more important for Kuroda in 2009.

Jeff Kent has never been known for his glove, and 2008 was no, with various defensive metrics rating him anywhere from below average to awful. Despite a torn meniscus that caused him to miss nearly a month, he played second base the majority of the year for the Dodgers. That won't be happening in 2009, with Blake DeWitt, the team's third baseman for much of last season, taking over at second. DeWitt isn't the best fielder around, but he's an improvement on Kent defensively, and with Rafael Furcal's quality defense at short for (hopefully) a full season, the Dodgers' middle infield suddenly looks better with the leather.

That's great news for Kuroda; the more outs he can depend on picking up on the ground, the less of a problem his average strikeout rate will be. Having Casey Blake at third base may nullify some of the overall defensive upgrade, but let's remember the names the team was trotting out at shortstop in 2008: Angel Berroa, who somehow ended up with 256 plate appearances for a division-winning club, and the surgically repaired Nomar Garciaparra, who does not move the way he used to following a never-ending stream of leg injuries.

Kuroda's performance was both realistic and high quality, and any improvements to his supporting cast will make him even more useful for you come draft day. If the Dodgers sign another big bat, whether it be Adam Dunn or Bobby Abreu or a full season's worth of Manny Ramirez, it should help Kuroda to put a few more notches in his win column as well. Keep an eye on this one, as he is under-appreciated and likely to be available due to his less-than-stellar strikeout rates.

Related Content:  Hiroki Kuroda,  The Who,  Glen Perkins

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Prospectus Q&A: All th... (01/02)
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