There’s an unusual leaguewide trend I’ve noticed so far in doing this series, one I don’t recall seeing to this degree in previous seasons. Formerly free-swinging players are showing significantly more control over the strike zone. Players as diverse as Juan Encarnacion and Brandon Inge are drawing walks like it’s going out of style (maybe it is, given the early succes of the White Sox). For most of these players, it’s probably just an April sample-size illusion, but if it turns out to be a new chapter in the career of one of them, somebody’s going to go from sabermetric pariah to Prospectus poster boy in 2005.

The fun, of course, will come from guessing which one it will be.

Chicago White Sox

  • Buy Low: There’s something to be said for predictability. For the third straight year, the White Sox haven’t been able to get out of April without major question marks surrounding the incumbent closer. Make no mistake, Shingo Takatsu‘s numbers have been pretty much awful so far: A 7.94 ERA and four home runs allowed in 5 2/3 innings. But his strikeout-to-walk ratio (6/2) is still good, and a big part of Takatsu’s problem might be new catcher A.J. Pierzynski‘s pitch calling. “Mr. Zero” recorded his sixth save in seven chances on Sunday, so while Damaso Marte and Dustin Hermanson might poach a save here and there, if Takatsu and Pierzynski can get their signals uncrossed, the sidearmer should be fine from here on out. Try to parlay his unsightly ERA into a bargain acquisition…just don’t pay too much for him, in case Takatsu has no one to blame for his woes but himself.
  • Sell High: If you believe his April numbers, Joe Crede has apparently found the secret to hitting at the major-league level: walk even less than you did before. With just two free passes in his first 69 plate appearances, the clock would seem to be ticking on Crede’s productivity. Don’t get caught holding him when it strikes midnight.

  • Watch Out For: Jon Garland is another Pale Hose off to a white-hot start (3-0, 2.57 ERA, 1.000 WHIP through three starts). His weak 8/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio would seem to indicate a downturn is coming, but the key to Garland’s success so far has been an outstanding groundball/flyball ratio (39:19). While that’s not quite at the level sinkerball pitchers like Jake Westbrook and Danny Kolb managed in 2004, it’s still far and away a career high for Garland, and could indicate a breakout season. Don’t be afraid to trade him if you get blown away by an offer–the sample size on that G/F ratio is tiny, after all–but at this point, considering you probably got him dirt cheap, it might be worth hanging on to find out if he’s for real.

Cleveland Indians

  • Buy Low: Victor Martinez‘s poor start (.227/.316/.379) might have his owner thinking 2004 was just a fluke. It wasn’t; Martinez still owns the strike zone (9/9 K/BB in 64 at-bats), and it’s just a matter of time before he gets rolling. Snap him up if you can.
  • Sell High: Alex Cora has a .297 batting average, a couple of steals and a shot at a starting job if one of the many trade rumors involving him comes to fruition. He’s also walked just once, against eight strikeouts, in 37 at-bats. If he does get dealt to the Cubs to replace Nomar Garciaparra, his value will never be higher, and depending on how anxious the owners in your league are it might be nearly at its peak already. Shop him now, especially if Garciaparra’s owner is in a panic looking for a solution not named Neifi Perez.

  • Watch Out For: The Indians’ offense, which has crawled out of the gate (12th in the AL in runs scored, 11th in OPS), actually has a number of “buy low” candidates. After missing 2004, Aaron Boone is off to a .117 start in his first 60 at bats; Travis Hafner has zero home runs and just six RBI; Ben Broussard is batting .214 with one home run and five RBI. Boone is likely rusty (he’s struck out 17 times so far), but all three should rebound sooner or later.

Detroit Tigers

  • Buy Low: With Magglio Ordonez out, the Tigers need Craig Monroe‘s bat. So far it’s been MIA, as he’s hitting .207/.266/.328. His walk rate (five in 63 plate appearances) is actually up a tick from his career rate of 6.6/100 PA, however, and while it’s still not good enough to make any guarantees about his batting average, it should mean that his power is on its way.
  • Sell High: 35-year-old Troy Percival may be done. Two strikeouts, three walks and two home runs allowed in his first 7 1/3 innings, plus a blown save in his first (and so far only) save opportunity, are not a good way to endear himself to his new team. As a name closer, someone looking for saves might be willing to take a chance on Percival and give you a decent return despite his performance to date. You should probably take them up on it.

  • Watch Out For: Brandon Inge came into the season having walked 6.5 times every 100 PA through his career. So far in 2005 he’s nearly doubled that rate, to 12.2 (nine walks in 74 PAs). He may not be a .369/.446/.569 hitter, but he may not give back all his gains either.

Kansas City Royals

  • Buy Low: Denny Bautista still has some control issues to work out, but his 5.32 ERA is undeserved, given his 1.225 WHIP and 18 strikeouts in 23 2/3 innings. See if you can get him as a throw-in to a larger deal; there’s a very real possibility that, unless the trade is a true blockbuster, Bautista could end up as the best player involved by year’s end.
  • Sell High: Mike Sweeney is off to a solid .308 start with 15 RBI, and there’s nothing in his statistical profile to indicate a drop-off might be coming. So why list him as a “sell high” candidate? Two reasons: one, it’s been three years since he played in more than 126 games, and he’s played in just 214 games the last two seasons, so chances are he’s got some time off coming. Two, Kansas City figures to have the worst offense in the AL this season (with only Pittsburgh keeping them from being the major-league favorite for that dubious title) and dwindling opportunities could keep him off his current 90+ RBI pace. He’s a nice bat to have in your lineup, but his current level is his ceiling.

  • Watch Out For: Every team in the AL Central has been trying to duplicate the Twins’ success over the last few years, but the Royals may have stumbled onto the best plan of them all: find the next Johan Santana. Like Santana was back in 2000, Andy Sisco is a left-handed Rule 5 pick in his early 20s with monster upside. Unlike Santana, Sisco isn’t struggling in his first look at the majors, posting a 15/5 K/BB in 14 innings. He’s already being used in set-up situations, and if the revolving door at closer spins once more for K.C. (they’re already on their third stopper, having gone from Jeremy Affeldt, to Nuke LaLoosh… err, Mike MacDougal to wunderkind Ambiorix Burgos, fresh up from Double-A Wichita), it could be Sisco trying to nail down the saves. His future looks bright, and he could be teaming with Zack Greinke as a fearsome 1-2 punch in the rotation before long, but his present ain’t too shabby either.

Minnesota Twins

  • Buy Low: Michael Cuddyer hasn’t done much at the plate so far (.218/.283/.291) but his walk and strikeout rates (5/10 in 55 at-bats) are right in line with his career numbers, so it seems likely his other stats will come around. It’s not like Luis Rivas, his main competition for at-bats if the Twins decide to make a change (i.e., call Terry Tiffee back up), is doing any better (.235/.270/.235).
  • Sell High: I think I’ve finally figured out Joe Mays‘ 2001 season (although I’m equally sure someone’s beaten me to it). Mays entered 2001 as a mediocre pitcher with poor strikeout and walk ratios and a bad home-run rate. In his breakout year, he shaved off some walks and homers at the cost of some strikeouts, but still posted a career-best 3.16 ERA thanks to a .235 opposition BA, a figure completely out of line with the rest of his career. Until now, that is, as Mays is once again keeping his hits allowed down (.245 opp. BA) and his ERA along with it (3.21). Is Mays in store for another 2001-level performance? I don’t think so, for two related reasons. In 2001, Mays gave up more fly balls than ever before, posting a 1.28 G/F–not a big difference from the 1.56 he put up the year before, but still significant. 2001 also featured a new regular center fielder for Minnesota, one Torii Hunter, who was having the best defensive season of his life (33 FRAR, according to Clay Davenport). Mays isn’t surrendering quite as many fly balls this year (1.40 G/F so far), and the 2004 version of Hunter isn’t catching as many of them, anyway. Expect Mays’ hit rate, and ERA, to rise.

  • Watch Out For: Jacque Jones is another hitter showing signs of figuring out this whole strike zone deal, walking as many times as he’s struck out so far (eight of each, in 50 at-bats). He won’t keep hitting .400, but it isn’t too late for him to have a career year… Once again the Twins bullpen is arguably the best in the league. Unlike the approach teams like the Angels seem to use, Minnesota’s pen is built mostly from within (or by trading farm products, in the case of closer Joe Nathan) rather than from spare parts. The results speak for themselves, as the top four pitchers (Nathan, Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain and J.C. Romero) have combined for a 31/6 K/BB in 27 innings, with a 0.67 ERA. If you need middle relief help, start looking in Minnesota… Speaking of sick K/BB ratios, Johan Santana is on pace for a 305/17 K/BB this year if he gets 33 starts. You tell him he can’t do it.

Erik Siegrist is a beat writer for RotoWire, covering the Marlins, Nationals and White Sox.

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