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February 2, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Mound Quandaries

by Marc Normandin

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Last week we took a look at some of the hitters who were switching leagues, and what the changes in competition, park factors, and lineups would do to affect their fantasy value. This time around we'll do the same for a few of the pitchers who have swapped circuits.

Mark Hendrickson has been a starter for much of his career, but it should be obvious by now that the 35-year-old is not very successful at it. The Marlins noticed this in 2008 and bumped him to the bullpen, where he was more effective than he had been as a starter; this shouldn't be a surprise, given his body of work in the past, as well as his limited repertoire and velocity. Losing Hendrickson to the pen was no blow for fantasy owners, since his value in the rotation was limited, even in the weaker NL and pitching in a park that favored hurlers over hitters.

Now he's back in the American League East, pitching for Baltimore, the third team he's been with in the division. It's hard to believe, but according to the O's depth chart at MLB.com, Hendrickson is not only in the rotation, but he's initially rated as their second starter behind Jeremy Guthrie. Now, admittedly the starters behind Guthrie have yet to be determined as the Orioles attempt to pick a rotation from a large number of candidates, and Hendrickson's competition is not exactly made up of standouts (Danys Baez, anyone?)

PECOTA thinks that this is a bad move for both Hendrickson and Baltimore, forecasting a weighted mean ERA of 5.27. To make things worse, that projection considers him as a part-time starter and reliever, indicating that things might look even bleaker were he to start all season long-remember that the average ERA for relievers is lower than it is for starters.

If Hendrickson does ultimately win a spot in the O's rotation, you're going to want to avoid the temptation of picking him up just because he'll be getting innings early on. Keep in mind, many of those frames are going to be against potentially the three best teams in the league: the Rays, Red Sox, and Yankees. Hendrickson is going to get hammered and he'll have a hard time racking up wins, especially since Baltimore is expected to finish in last place.

Part of the reason that Hendrickson was signed is that the Orioles allowed Daniel Cabrera to escape to the Washington Nationals as a free agent. It's scary to consider, but Cabrera's best season out of the last three was the one where he walked 6.3 batters per nine; at that point, he at least countered that by whiffing 9.6 batters per nine while keeping home runs to a minimum (0.7 per nine). The next season saw a dip in both strikeouts and walks, but despite an increase in ground balls (1.1 to 1.4 G/F with a nine percent jump in ground-ball percentage) he gave up more homers and saw his ERA climb to 5.55, while his FIP increased by about the same amount.

Things came to an ugly head in 2008, with Cabrera maintaining his "improved" walk rate, but losing nearly three more strikeouts per nine, and without any positive change in his home-run rate. Even more of a concern is his ebbing velocity: in 2005, Cabrera averaged 96.2 mph on his fastball, but he has seen slight drops each year since, and his heater sat at just 92.6 last season. While some of this may be intentional in an attempt to better control his wildness, the strategies surrounding the dip make little sense; he increased his fastball usage from 65 percent in '05 to nearly 83 percent in '08, and the curveball and changeup he was working on when he first entered the majors as a 23-year-old have been abandoned almost completely, with just his slider still in use to complement his fading heater.

Perhaps a fresh start is just what Cabrera needs in order to fulfill some of the potential seen in him in years past, or maybe (another) new pitching coach might be able to point him in the right direction. He should be superficially improved this year, as he has left the powerful AL East behind and moved into a park that depresses offense slightly, and even more so against left-handed hitters.

That's good news for Cabrera, a right-hander often torched by lefties, who hit .283/.383/.443 against him from 2006 through 2008, and .308/.400/.487 in 2008 alone. Don't get too excited about his new venue, but for the later rounds that you'd be drafting Cabrera in, it can't hurt to keep it in mind. PECOTA isn't in love with him, but his forecasted ERA (4.31) is a significant improvement from his recent performances.

The Diamondbacks recently signed Jon Garland to fill a hole in their rotation and give them one more veteran option in case one of the kids in town doesn't pan out right away. Garland's fantasy value took a hit last year, with an ERA that rose to 4.90 and a strikeout rate (4.1) that only your opponents could appreciate. The low whiff rate shouldn't be a surprise, as Garland hasn't cracked five punchouts per nine since 2004, but what is surprising is his lack of improvement after having increased his ground-ball rate significantly. In 2007, 39 percent of balls in play were grounders, but in '08 that figure increased to 50 percent, giving him a G/F ratio of 1.8.

Garland's lefty/righty splits from the past few seasons had been relatively even, but in 2008 lefties got the better of him, hitting .300/.342/.484. That's not the only red flag here: he also pitched terribly on the road (5.94 ERA, 1.3 HR/9) and in the second half (5.99 ERA, 1.3 HR/9). There is a problem with home runs there, in spite of the increase in grounders, that is linked to his issues with left-handers.

This is why you should forget about drafting Garland, despite his moving to the weaker league. Arizona is one of the best parks in the majors for left-handed hitters, second only to Coors Field; for home runs specifically, there is a nearly 15 percent increase for lefty hitters over the league average. The park also boosts production for right-handers, and though the former Angel doesn't have as hard of a time against them, the results will still not be pretty. Garland doesn't need any help struggling, but he's going to get an assist anyway.

It's hard to believe, but Brian Fuentes was actually better than his 2.73 ERA last year, posting an FIP of 2.24 thanks to a K/9 of 11.8 and a K/BB of 3.7. Even though he pitched in Colorado and is a severe fly-ball pitcher, homers were not an issue, with just 0.4 per nine allowed on the year. His PECOTA forecast isn't quite as optimistic, given that homers were more of a problem the two seasons before and his strikeout rates were nowhere nearly as impressive, but there's still some hope that he will outperform his weighted mean.

Moving from the offensive haven of Coors Field to the much more neutral home of the Angels in Anaheim is a start. Coors boosts production for both lefties and righties more than any other park, while Anaheim Stadium depresses both slightly. Yes, Fuentes will be facing stiffer offensive competition in the American League, but within his own division, he'll be facing the light-hitting Mariners and Athletics during a huge chunk of the schedule.

While betting on him to perform at the same level as last year may be asking too much-he is 33 years old and doesn't have many seasons like that on his resume-the chances of him hitting his PECOTA forecast are superb. His Beta, which measures the volatility of a projection, is 0.82; in plain English, that means that his forecast isn't very risky at all. People in your league may overvalue him in the same way that they overvalue all closers, so he'll probably go in an early round, but if you're forced into a situation where you need to take a closer and Fuentes is still on the board, he may very well be one of the best picks available to you thanks to the home-field switch.

Related Content:  Jon Garland

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