Something New

Kyle Lohse, St. Louis Cardinals (26 percent ESPN, 31 percent Yahoo!)

Is the Kyle Lohse of 2008 back? It certainly looks that way. The Cardinals' right-hander missed three months last year after having surgery on his right forearm. He did not show much after his return in mid-August, but with significant time to recover during the off-season, Lohse looks as good as ever.

Never a strikeout master, Lohse's current 6.5 K/9 would be his best since 2006, and his 0.8 BB/9 would quite obviously set a career low. Those are encouraging numbers to say the least, especially backed by a 50 percent ground ball rate. Will he maintain his 2.82 ERA? You may call me crazy, but I think that ERA will move upwards throughout the year. However, that does not preclude Lohse from being a useful fantasy baseball asset.

Using your retrodictor of choice, be it xFIP, SIERA, or what have you, it is apparent that Lohse has been pitching as well as his ERA indicates. Realistically, we would expect his K/9 to drop slightly and his BB/9 to rise up to the 2.5-3.0 range, which would push him up into the 4.00 ERA range in terms of expectations—quite good for a pitcher that was all but forgotten in fantasy drafts and auctions before the season.

Until he shows cracks in his armor, Lohse is now relevant in mixed leagues. His popularity is quickly skyrocketing, however.

Jeff Francis, Kansas City Royals (10 percent ESPN, 10 percent Yahoo!)

If you saw Francis starting off the 2011 season with a 3.00 ERA in his first four starts, you are a liar. Nostradamus himself is befuddled. Behind a shockingly low strikeout rate (4.7 K/9), an even more shockingly low walk rate (1.0 BB/9), and a stellar ground ball rate (55 percent), Francis has earned his ERA for sure.

As a rule of thumb, I am highly skeptical of pitchers' success that is not backed by average-ish or better strikeout rates. No, Francis will not be in the running for the AL Cy Young when all is said and done, but there is some evidence that the Royals' lefty is back and perhaps better than ever. In the past, he has been a ground ball generator with good control, even though his whiff ability was never anything to write home about.

The expectation with Francis should be an ERA in the 4.25-4.50 range, but he could very easily be better than that. For now, he is an AL-only target.

Brandon McCarthy, Oakland Athletics (9 percent ESPN; 11 percent Yahoo!)

Despite a brilliant minor league track record, McCarthy has not yet been able to translate that success to the majors. His injury history has had a lot to do with that, having spent time on the 60-day disabled list in both 2008 and '09. He spent all of last year re-establishing himself with Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he authored a 3.38 ERA with a 7.0 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9. That performance helped bring him to the majors this year, where his success has continued through three starts.

Now with his third franchise, McCarthy has rewarded the Athletics for taking a flier on him, as he is currently sitting with a 2.45 ERA. The strikeouts still are not there (5.7 K/9) and may never be, but his walk rate is microscopic (0.8 BB/9) and has been getting a lot of grounders (48 percent). The one surprising stat is a goose egg under "home runs allowed".

McCarthy is a target for mixed leagues, but expect his HR/FB rate to go from zero percent to at least seven percent, and his BB/9 to regress up to at least 2.5. The ground balls and his home ballpark will help buoy his ERA.

Hitting the Ol' Dusty Trail

Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians (65 percent ESPN; 61 percent Yahoo!)

Last week, I expressed my own uncertainty with Masterson, remembering back to last year when he was on and off the Value Picks list. I still harbor those concerns in 2011 despite his 4-0 record and 1.71 ERA. In three of his four starts, he has gone at least six innings and allowed two or fewer runs while striking out three or fewer. The lone start that truly impressed me was a nine-strikeout, one-walk performance against a pitiful Seattle Mariners offense.

Masterson's popularity has skyrocketed, as expected. If you are one of those fantasy baseball players that owns him, now is a great time to sell high because there will be a rather sharp return to Earth. His five walks against the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday was a perfect illustration of his Jekyll and Hyde style (despite that he allowed only two runs).

Based on the statistics that best predict a pitcher's future success, we should expect Masterson to finish closer to a 4.00 ERA, which is still quite nice, but is not justified by the huge surge in his popularity. His popularity excludes him from the Value Picks list, but I expect him to reappear at some point during the season.

For your NL-only…

Esmil Rogers, Colorado Rockies (5 percent ESPN; 6 percent Yahoo!)

Rogers was mentioned last week, then promptly threw a clunker against the San Francisco Giants. Still, I am bullish despite an inability to miss bats and some shaky control in his last two starts—if the Rockies let him stick around, that is. His next start against the Florida Marlins will dictate his future in the majors.

Last week, I said he was targetable in mixed leagues, but I am guilty of jumping the gun on that one. Since he is in no way guaranteed a spot in the Rockies' rotation, and is dealing with some major league adversity, the conservative bet is to relegate him to NL-only rosters. If he is able to maintain some consistency, however, he should be able to post strikeout and walk numbers (and subsequently the ERA) to justify taking in mixed and shallower leagues, but that will be some time from now.

For your AL-only…

Bruce Chen, Kansas City Royals (15 percent ESPN; 12 percent Yahoo!)

Color me surprised by Chen. The Royals' lefty sports a 2.42 ERA through four starts, one reason why the team is off to such a great start. Such success is typically unsustainable, especially when backed by a meager 5.5 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9, as is the case with Chen. Worse, he is very fly ball-prone, so his HR/FB rate should skip back towards his 13 percent career mark, as opposed to his current seven percent mark.

Chen did show improvement last season, when he finished with a 4.17 ERA, but over-performed his SIERA by nearly 0.60. That should be the expectation with Chen going forward—an ERA around 4.50 with a below-average strikeout rate and a walk rate that will not be low enough to justify the high fly ball rate and lack of missed bats. Regardless, Chen may be one of the more underappreciated arms in AL-only leagues. 

Thank you for reading

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Note that this article was written before Brandon McCarthy's stellar outing against the Seattle Mariners late last night. :)
I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on what Dillon Gee can do if he lands a permanent spot in the rotation, probably when Young is shelved for good in May with an injry.

Alos, with Westbrook really struggling, any chance Lance Lynn gets a shot soon? I know Larussa loves his vets, so maybe Lynn needs to wait for an injury. Given a chance, can Lynn succeed in the Majors with his average stuff?
I'm not real big on Dillon Gee. In a small sample of Major League experience, he's been rather mediocre, walking too many hitters and not striking out enough of them. I don't know that he's yet fully recovered from a shoulder injury in 2009, or if he ever will be. His numbers got significantly worse starting in 2009.

I'd pinpoint Gee's expected ERA somewhere in the 4.50-4.75 area. He's just an NL-only player at this point, and begrudgingly so.

As for Lance Lynn, I would bank on Jake Westbrook being given time to iron out his kinks. Dave Duncan is a miracle worker, after all. Can Lynn succeed in the Majors? He needs more development time; right now, he's a #5 starter (to generalize his skill level), but he still has room to improve. His fastball gained some velocity last year according to reports, which is a good sign. If Lynn does get the nod at some point, he's an NL-only player for sure, but definitely one few people will pick up on.
While it may have been dumb, I just dumped Esmil for Javier in my league. I have read nothing positive about Javier, but if he can get it remotely going, the NL East maybe the worst offensive division in baseball from top to bottom. At least that's what I tried to tell myself.
I can't disagree with that rationale. Both come with inherent risk; Vazquez slightly more, but it is balanced out by slightly more reward as well. A break-even move, I'd say.

I dropped Rogers for Todd Helton because Mike Napoli isn't getting enough playing time.