To get this series wrapped, I’ll slam together both Eastern divisions. So far my preseason guesstimate that pegged RFK Stadium as a pitchers’ park has been accurate. The Nationals have a team OPS 50 points higher on the road (790 vs. 740). Visitors have struggled along to a miserable 620 OPS in Washington, while matching the Nats pace elsewhere (792). The most noticeable impact has been in home runs. RFK has given up 16 dingers so far, while Nationals road games have seen 24 balls leave the park. It’s still very early though, and a month of data doesn’t prove much one way or the other.

And if you are the owner of one of the closers I have seemingly cursed with this column, I do apologize. I swear I do not own an Armando Benitez voodoo doll.

Baltimore Orioles

  • Buy Low: There are very few underachieving Orioles right now, but someone with a ton of unrealized potential is B.J. Ryan. His peripheral stats (19 strikeouts, four walks in 11 2/3 innings) are outstanding and his fantasy stats (3.09 ERA, 1.285 WHIP) are solid, but he has just four saves–mainly because of all those overachieving hitters creating leads bigger than three runs. When the offense cools down, the saves will come, so try to work a swap netting you Ryan in exchange for a closer with a gaudier save total, but a weaker overall skill set.
  • Sell High: While Brian Roberts is the obvious candidate here, it can sometimes be tough to trade a player who is off to a truly otherworldly start and get good value, as no one is quite sure what his true level is going to be. Roberts won’t hit 40 home runs (I think…), but will he hit 30? 25? 15? A much safer asset to cash in is Sammy Sosa, whose plate discipline has completely collapsed this season (just three walks in 96 at-bats, along with 18 strikeouts). It’s not a positive trend for a 36-year-old. Sosa might maintain his power stroke, but his batting average could wind up plummeting to .230 or lower. There are safer sources of home runs available.

  • Watch Out For: While there may be a power surge coming from Rafael Palmeiro, it’s just as likely the 40-year-old has simply reached the end of a long and impressive career… Jorge Julio has been back to his 2002 form so far (11/3 K/BB in 12 2/3 IP, with zero home runs allowed.) Given the number of established closers who have already fallen by the wayside, if you’re looking for saves you may want to pick up Julio on the off chance he gets dealt.

Boston Red Sox

  • Buy Low: Trot Nixon has always been a patient guy at the plate, but he’s gone nuts this April, already walking more times in 77 plate appearances (17) than he did in all of his injury-plagued 2004 (15, in 167 PAs.) As yet, the extra strike-zone control hasn’t translated into fantasy stats (.281 BA, with three home runs and 11 RBI) but it should only be a matter of time for Nixon, provided of course (always the question with him) that he can stay healthy. This might be the year to risk Nixon’s injury-magnet reputation.
  • Sell High: Bronson Arroyo has put up good fantasy numbers so far (three wins, 3.69 ERA, 1.231 WHIP) but his strikeout rate has cratered compared to 2004 (7.15 K/9 last year, 4.26 K/9 this year), a huge warning sign that something could very well be amiss.

    Watch Out For: Statistically, Keith Foulke is a mess right now (6/5 K/BB in 11 innings, 13 hits allowed including three home runs.) He’s either the biggest “sell high” or “buy low” candidate on the team, but your guess is as good as mine which it will be. I’m leaning buy low, though.

New York Yankees

  • Buy Low: Of all the struggling Yankees, the one most likely to rebound would seem to be Jorge Posada. His plate discipline is still good (14/10 K/BB in 88 PAs) and he hasn’t yet hit the danger zones for catchers in either age or games caught. Statistically, power seems to be the first thing to go when a catcher is done, so Posada’s paltry .333 SLG and .089 ISO bear watching, but the odds are he has at least one more productive season left in him.
  • Sell High: Mike Mussina suffered through a bad start last year and rebounded, so why wouldn’t he do it again this year? Well, for one thing, there’s the fact that he has done it two years in a row; sooner or later those April swoons will be the indicator and not the outlier. For another, there’s the fact that more than a few of his PECOTA comparables hit career walls at 36, Jim Bunning‘s downturn being a notable example. Mussina is still considered a star pitcher, but with each shellacking the odds get longer that he’ll return fantasy value equal to his name value.
  • Watch Out For: If you’re looking for pitching on the cheap, you might want to consider making an offer on Kevin Brown. His current owner will probably be happy to take what he can get for him, and while Brown certainly looks washed up, his 12/4 K/BB in 19 innings indicates he may have a bit of something left… Bernie Williams is another Yankee whose age and career trend don’t offer much hope for a turnaround.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Buy Low: Casey Fossum has a 4.38 ERA, a 1.622 WHIP and an ill-defined role on the pitching staff, but he also has a 14/6 K/BB ratio in 12 1/3 innings. If you’re looking for cheap pitching with some upside, he could be your guy.
  • Sell High: Last year he made do without much plate discipline, but this season Jorge Cantu is trying to get away with having none at all, walking just once in 97 plate appearances. He is striking out less too (14 Ks, versus 44 in 185 PAs in 2004), but that might not help him much when the Slump Fairy pays him a visit. Cantu’s long-term future is cloudy as it is, with B.J. Upton in Triple-A, so a bad couple of weeks might cost him his job entirely.

  • Watch Out For: Jonny Gomes hasn’t slowed down at all since being called up (.305/.377/.678 at Triple-A, .300/.391/.650 in 20 at-bats in the majors.) Logic says the D-Rays need his power in the lineup too much to not give him a long look as a starter, but “logic” and “D-Rays” are two nouns not used to being in a sentence together. He’s worth grabbing if he’s available, but don’t expect too much playing time from him.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Buy Low: With all the Blue Jays who are off to flying starts at the plate, Vernon Wells‘ .194 April (19-for-98) seems very out of place. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for the poor start other than bad luck though, so try to get him now and hope the rest of the team is still getting on base in front of him once he heats up.
  • Sell High: You know it’s been a weird month when Miguel Batista emerges as one of the AL’s more reliable closers. Batista posted a solid 2.70 ERA in April to go along with his six saves, but don’t be fooled. His 1.600 WHIP and 3/3 K/BB ratio in 10 innings are more indicative of his likelihood of remaining a top closer. It should be a sellers’ market for “safe” closers right now, so take advantage.

  • Watch Out For: We’ve seen this act from Shea Hillenbrand before–a hot start, (most likely) followed by a slow fade. With a hacktastic 11/1 K/BB ratio in his first 100 at-bats, he’s still far more likely to finish the year hitting below .300 than he is to come within spitting distance of .400… Josh Towers will never be more than staff filler as long as he stays homer-prone (five in 27 1/3 innings so far, right around his career rate of 1.63 HR/9 heading into the season), but if you need strikeouts he could be a cheap partial solution (23 whiffs so far)… Eric Hinske might seem to be playing over his head (.289/.366/.482 in 83 at-bats), but his current performance is more or less what was expected of him in 2003 on the heels of his rookie season. If he’s fixed whatever the problem has been the last two years, he could easily keep it up.

Atlanta Braves

  • Buy Low: A .323/.389/.477 line for April doesn’t leave much cause for complaint, especially from a middle infielder. But Marcus Giles owners aren’t looking at those numbers. They’re staring at his lone home run, and his miserable three RBI, and wondering where all that production they paid for has gone. There’s still five months left for Giles to make good on his power potential. Ideally, of course, he’ll make good as part of your roster.
  • Sell High: In his more successful years, even in Atlanta, Mike Hampton hurt your WHIP while posting average ERAs. He’s the kind of guy who’d net you some wins without punishing you too much in other categories. His current 1.67 ERA and 1.088 WHIP will get worse. The question is, how much worse? Don’t wait around to find out.

  • Watch Out For: This year’s winner of the Leo Mazzone Magic Bullpen Pixie Dust Sweepstakes appears to be Adam Bernero, who has posted stats (2.08 ERA, 0.923 WHIP, 12/2 K/BB ratio in 13 IP) so far out of line with his previous stops in Detroit and Colorado that the standard “alien inhabiting his body” theory can’t cover it. Even Chris Hammond‘s resurgence wasn’t this shocking. At this point I think the real Bernero is on a beach somewhere, while the Braves use his name, uniform and Social Security Number as cover for their cloning lab. (Of course, the process hasn’t been perfected yet, since all they can produce is middle relievers. Perhaps the clones break down too quickly when given a regular assignment…) At any rate, Bernero should be a solid pick-up, with the normal post-Braves shelf life of Mazzone’s other reclamation jobs.

Florida Marlins

  • Buy Low: Mike Lowell is another slugger who staggered through the season’s first month, posting an ugly .198/.233/.346 line with just two home runs and eight RBI. As a late bloomer (Lowell didn’t get a regular major-league job until he was 26) there’s always a chance that he’s simply faded more quickly than anyone anticipated. His walk rate is significantly lower than his recent career (4.65 BB/100 PA, after three straight years hovering around the 10.0 mark) but the odds are still in your favor if you pick him up hoping for a rebound.
  • Sell High: There is no worse feeling as a fantasy owner than spending big money on a speedster to cement your spot in the stolen base standings, only to watch that speedster come up lame. When a player goes on the DL, you can at least make moves to compensate, but when the player in question still takes the field every day, not doing what you paid him to do…it’s like a knife in the gut. Juan Pierre (2-for-5 in stolen base attempts in April) owners have that feeling right now. If you can trade him for a lesser, but more reliable, source of steals you may want to do it. Pierre could wake up and steal 40 bases the rest of the way, but you’re probably better off cashing him in now, before his perceived value catches up to his game.

  • Watch Out For: Juan Encarnacion is another player who has recently discovered the joys of plate discipline (10 walks in 88 PA, about double his career rate heading into 2005), with the production to match (four home runs and 23 RBI). As a player superficially similar to early-career Sammy Sosa, it’s very easy to imagine a sudden burst of Hall of Fame-level production from Encarnacion, but keep your expectations low for now. If you can get him fairly cheap he’s worth taking a flyer on, but don’t trade an underachieving superstar for him… With Guillermo Mota (and Antonio Alfonseca) on the shelf Todd Jones will get first crack at the closer’s job, but his numbers (7/7 K/BB ratio in 10 2/3 IP) don’t inspire confidence despite his 1.69 ERA. You may want to pick up Jim Mecir (7/2 K/BB in 7 1/3 IP) as insurance… Keep this scenario in mind, if Lowell’s struggles continue–Miguel Cabrera shifts to third base, and Jeremy Hermida (.286/.439/.675, eight home runs in 77 at bats, and BP’s #35 prospect) gets called up from Double-A to man the outfield.

New York Mets

  • Buy Low: Once upon a time the Mets had a polished college pitching prospect named Aaron Heilman. Heilman stunk up the joint every time the team gave him a chance, and eventually everyone wrote him off as a bust. Like a couple of other young starters in this division though, injuries have given Heilman another shot and he’s run with it (18/5 K/BB ratio in 25 innings). His 4.68 ERA masks how effective he’s been so far, and while he still has to keep the ball in the park (three home runs allowed so far) it shouldn’t cost you much to find out if he’s finally got things turned around.
  • Sell High: Cliff Floyd is off to a fantastic start, hitting .366/.432/.634 with six home runs and 21 RBI. He’s also way overdue for his thousand inning check-up, having avoided the DL for almost a year (although he has missed plenty of games in that stretch). The clock is ticking.
  • Watch Out For: Carlos Beltran is another player who disappointed his owners in April, notching only three home runs and a single stolen base. It can’t hurt to ask his current owner if he’s available.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Buy Low: You are the manager of a big-league club. Thanks to some defensive flexibility, you have the choice of putting two of these three players in your lineup every day: Player C (.292/.340/.500), Player D (.205/.258/.313) and Player P (.271/.358/.305). If you chose C and P, well, you’re not Charlie Manuel, who has left C (Chase Utley) on the bench as often as not, while letting D (David Bell) and P (Placido Polanco) get more than their share of at-bats. In theory Manuel is putting his best defensive alignment on the field, but Utley isn’t a liability at second base (nor is Polanco at third base), so the lost offense doesn’t seem worth it. With the Phillies spinning their wheels at the bottom of the NL East, a shakeup seems in order, and Utley is the most obvious possible beneficiary.
  • Sell High: For the record, Billy Wagner has not fallen victim to 2005’s blown-save epidemic. He’s been rock-solid, allowing only six hits and a walk in 9 1/3 innings, with 10 strikeouts, and collecting five saves. With so many of your fellow owners scrambling to replace injured or seemingly useless closers, though, the market for Wagner’s services will be through the roof, especially given the always-present possibility of another injury for the 33-year-old. Swap Wagner for one of those underachieving closers, and pick up a hefty amount of change in the bargain.

  • Watch Out For: Brett Myers is the NL East’s second emerging young starter after Heilman, coming off two poor seasons to post a 34/9 K/BB ratio in 33 1/3 April innings along with a 1.35 ERA. Given their respective depths, the Phillies need Myers more than the Mets need Heilman, so if you have to choose one, go with Myers… Ryan Madson is no Johan Santana, but he’s stuck in the same career limbo the Twins ace was in a few seasons ago. Madson has proven he has the skill set for a glamour job in the rotation, but the Phillies seem content to leave him in anonymous middle relief. These situations have a way of working themselves out though, as they did in Santana’s case. If you’re in a keeper league, Madson’s 4.91 April ERA, despite good peripherals (11/2 K/BB in 11 IP) make him another attractive buy low candidate.

Washington Nationals

  • Buy Low: Most people wrote off Esteban Loaiza‘s 2003 as a fluke almost as soon as it happened, but so far in 2005 Loaiza is doing it again. He’s posted a respectable 4.13 ERA and 1.255 WHIP, and a more than respectable 29/11 K/BB ratio, in 32 2/3 innings. Loaiza hasn’t won a game yet though, which means he could still be flying under the radar in your league. With the Nationals offense performing better than the sum of its parts, the wins should come. Even if they don’t, Loaiza should be solid staff filler.
  • Sell High: On the flip side, Livan Hernandez also had a breakout 2003, but after seeming to consolidate his gains last season he’s fallen back to his old level this April, with a 4.50 ERA, 1.425 WHIP and just 21 strikeouts (against 15 walks) in 40 innings. Hernandez’s workhorse status is a negative here. If he continues to run up that ERA and WHIP (and the peripherals certainly don’t hint at a coming improvement) the extra innings he logs will be that much more painful to you. Capitalize on his “ace” reputation before he loses it.

  • Watch Out For: Raise your hands if you think Vinny Castilla will continue to hit .347/.395/.613 at sea level. I didn’t think so… The third young gun in the NL East this April was John Patterson, who finally started to fulfill his promise. He’s been fantastic so far, and while his 0.98 ERA will only last as long as he keeps surrendering zero home runs, his 27/11 K/BB ratio in 33 2/3 innings indicate he’ll continue to be very, very good. While Zach Day and Tomo Ohka can be decent rotation fillers, if Patterson and Jon Rauch (recently called up after an 18/1 K/BB ratio in three Triple-A starts) can push them aside the Nationals will be a much better team.

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

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