April 2010

Brewing up trouble

Well, that was quick.  You didn’t have to be a profit to see Trevor Hoffman’s demise coming this season after his surprising success in 2009, but even the most cynical forecaster would have given until mid-May before he’d be going down in flames.  Yet after two crushing blown saves in less than 18 hours to the lowly Pirates, the future Hall-of-Famer has likely served up his last ninth-inning stomach punch for a while.

trevor-hoffman1.jpg

After a 17-3 drubbing by the Brewers on April 26th, the Pirates had been outscored 72-12 over a seven-game losing streak.  However, demoralized they were not, as they just needed a little Trevor in their lives to spark two heroic comebacks.  Hoffman couldn’t preserve a one-run lead Tuesday, allowing a game-tying bomb to none other than Ronny Cedeno, then made sure  his team was completely out of contention by serving up a grand slam to Ryan Doumit – who hadn’t had an RBI in 12 games.  On Wednesday, Hoffman made another one-run lead vanish as he was bested again by a Doumit long ball, and Milwaukee later lost in 14 innings.   

The 42-year-old’s ERA actually went down with Wednesday’s outing to a comical 13.00, accompanied by an even 2.00 WHIP.  It was his fourth blown save , and the sixth of nine appearances in which he allowed an earned run.  While we had all become accustomed to Hoffman coughing up leads in crucial September and postseason games, looking lost against the Pirates in April may finally be a sign for the all-time saves leader to hang up his cleats.  The Brew Crew can’t afford to cough away any more games, so they’re all but certain go with someone new in the next closing opportunity.  While Milwaukee is brewing overtime to drown out the sorrows from the last two games, here are two closing candidates who you should keep your eyes on.

LaTroy Hawkins pitched a perfect eighth inning on Wednesday while striking out two, so he might seem like the logical choice to fill Hoffman’s shoes.  However he is LaTroy Hawkins, and there’s no way manager Ken Macha would feel good about having a 37-year-old who’s been on eight teams in the last eight years coming in to close out tight games for his team on a nightly basis. 

latroy_hawkins.jpg

Before Wednesday the right-hander had not pitched in a big spot in almost two weeks, since he surrendered four earned runs to the Cubs and three to the Nationals in consecutive eighth-inning appearances that directly resulted Milwaukee losses.  Those two disasters along with a 7.71 ERA don’t exactly inspire confidence in the late innings. 

Yes, Hawkins miraculously revived his career by pitching to a 2.13 ERA in 63 1/3 innings last season with the Astros, and was 11-for-15 in save opportunities while filling in for an injured Jose Valverde.  But that’s about all he has going for him.  This is a guy with a career 4.54 ERA and 1.44 WHIP, and 47 blown saves over the past seven seasons (with two already in 2010).  That’s a lot of disappointing nights.  If there was a career blown saves leaderboard somewhere – and yes I tried to find one – he’d have to be near the very top.  In conclusion, if he’s named the closer, I don’t see him keeping that title for long.

villa.jpg

Now it’s easy to sound like a negative person when discussing LaTroy Hawkins and a washed up Trevor Hoffman, so let’s take a positive turn and see Carlos Villanueva.  Ahhhhhhh.  Macha must feel this type of refreshment when thinking of the young right-hander and his stellar statistics.  After striking out one in a perfect sixth-inning Wednesday, the 26-year-old has not allowed a run in 12 innings this season and owns a paper-thin 0.75 WHIP.  He’s got a dominant 11.25 K/9 rate and has held opponents to a stunning .135 batting average.  Sounds very closery to me. 

The biggest thing he’s got going against him is that while Hoffman was working his way back from an injury in early 2009, Villanueva struggled to fill the void with three blown saves.  He did, however, convert three saves during that stretch, and now he is a year wiser and pitching much better.  Something tells me that even if Hawkins is given the initial chance to close games, youth will eventually be served.  Villanueva is the guy I’d consider grabbing for now.    

Wade-ing for love

How big a sample of stellar starting pitching does it take for a guy to prove he belongs in a Major League rotation?  Would nine starts in ’09 with a 3.69 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and a .210 opponents’ batting average suffice?  Or how about six September-October outings (just in time to be a fantasy playoff MVP) at a 3-0, 2.00 and 0.97 clip?  You would think with starting pitching at a premium, a performance like that would be enough to for a guy to land a big-league gig the following year. Nope. Not for Wade LeBlanc.

wade.jpg

Despite continued brilliance in Spring Training – a 4-0 record, 1.96 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP in 23 innings – the 25-year-old southpaw was curiously the odd man out of San Diego’s rotation to open 2010, and the Padres sent him to Triple-A Portland.  He was beaten out by Clayton Richard’s 4.41 ERA from 2009, as well as the still-raw stuff of 22-year-old phenom Matt Latos. Why? Maybe the Friars couldn’t get passed LeBlanc’s sub-90 mph fastball, or his lack of a flashy arsenal, or his low strikeout rate.  Not sure.

Well you couldn’t blame Wade for being angered by the disrespect, and he made sure that no one really likes him when he’s angry.  Early this month in Portland, the guy with a 6.18 career K/9 rate seemed to concentrate more on making guys whiff than pitching effectively.  LeBlanc fanned an impressive 15 batters in 10 Triple-A innings, but uncharacteristically allowed four earned runs in both his starts and compiled a bloated 7.20 ERA.  Think he was trying to make a point? Hey look! I can strike out over a batter per inning! Am I as interesting as Latos yet?

Thankfully, everyone was spared soon, as a spot in the Padres rotation opened up after Chris Young went on the DL with a shoulder injury. LeBlanc got the call and has pitched like a man determined to stick around.  He continued the unusual streak of Ks in his first start, making seven Diamondbacks whiff while allowing just one earned run over five innings.  Next, LeBlanc masterfully LeBlanked the Reds over six innings, scattering just three hits in a vintage victory on April 24th.  A fastball-slider-changeup pitcher, the southpaw consistently kept the Reds hitters off-balance with Tom Glavine-ish proficiency.

While he still may not have proven his value to San Diego, LeBlanc has proven to me over the last eight months that he’s a fine fantasy starter when granted the privilege of taking the mound in a Major League game.  He’ll get at least one more chance to plead his case before Young returns.  If he comes through again on April 28th when the Brewers come to town, the Padres brass will really have to think twice before yanking him from the rotation – especially considering the struggles of Latos.  If they finally come to their senses, snatch up Wade “The White” LeBlanc while you can.

Old names, new values

When surfing through the waiver wire, people tend to skip over stale, unappealing names despite good numbers accompanying them or recent upticks in value due to injuries or trades.  Guys like Magglio Ordonez, Vernon Wells, Jose Guillen and Scott
Podsednik
are names that possessed similar unattractiveness heading into 2010, but now have fantasy teams riding high.  While it may feel unpleasant, there’s a few oldies but goodies still out there who can help you out. 

carlos guillen.jpg

Carlos Guillen
of the Tigers now has a five-game hitting streak after going 2-for-4
with a run scored Tuesday night, bringing his average up to .291. While
his one homer, five RBIs and eight runs scored won’t exactly jump out
at you, it’s time to start keeping an eye on the once-prolific
offensive threat.  The 34-year-old outfielder/designated
hitter was a forgotten man heading into 2010 after struggling through
two straight injury-plagued seasons.  He did, however,
quietly stroke 11 dingers while driving home 34 in just 52 games from
July-September last season, showing there’s still a little pop left in
his bat.  Guillen is currently batting fifth in the Tigers
lineup with four guys hitting a combined .326 ahead of him, so he
should have ample RBI opportunities.  At the very least, Guillen is currently worth a flier in AL-only leagues.

After going 2-for-4 with a solo homer yesterday, Andruw Jones is now batting .323 with four homers and seven RBIs in 31 at-bats with the White Sox.  Attempting to revive his career after compiling a mindboggling .190 average in 490 at-bats over the past two seasons, the 33-year-old is looking good so far.  He showed some life in 2009 when he socked 17 long balls in 82 games with the Rangers, but a .214 average rendered him somewhat of an afterthought in the offseason, and he quietly settled with a DH role in Chicago.  The one thing holding him back is a crowded outfield and manager Ozzie Gullien’s soft spot for Omar Vizquel, all of which take away starts from Jones.  With Vizquel hitting .125, and fellow outfielders Juan Pierre and Carlos Quentin hitting a combined .192, it’ll be hard for Gullien to keep Jones out of a struggling lineup going forward, as he currently holds the team lead in average by 54 points.

christian-guzman-is-fat.jpg

This one is painful to even write about, but you can’t really ignore Cristian Guzman much longer.  A 4-for-5 performance Tuesday night put him at a .362 clip with nine runs scored and six RBis in just 10 starts.   After rendering Guzman a backup to Ian Desmond and Adam Kennedy, Nats manager Jim Riggleman came to his senses and has started Guzman for nine straight games around the keystone.  Guzman’s responded with six multi-hit games, and has eight hits and four runs scored over his last three.  The 32-year-old (how is he possibly only 32???) batted .301 from 2008-2009 with solid run totals, and his value is boosted by eligibility at second base and shortstop.  If you need some help at the thin middle-infield positions, give the underappreciated Guzman a chance. 

mike-napoli-_44.jpg

With the news coming down Tuesday that Angels catcher Jeff Mathis will be out at least 6-8 weeks with a fractured right wrist, it appears Mike Napoli will finally, FINALLY get his chance to be the everyday backstop for an extended period of time.  After two years of frustrating the fantasy world with tantalizingly strong power numbers, but exasperatingly sporadic playing time, Napoli had seemed to hit rock bottom in 2010.  Mathis had started 10 of the team’s 14 games, hit safely in all of them, and sported a .324 average which all but buried Napoli and his 3-for-19 clip to begin the year.  Napoli was dropped like a bad habit in fantasy leagues everywhere. However after Mathis’ injury, manager Mike Scioscia will have no choice but to play the guy who crushed 40 homers with 105 RBIs and 99 runs scored in just 609 at-bats from 2008-2009.  Now Napoli will get two months to show what he’s capable of, and you can bet he goes deep around 10 times over that span.  If you’re stuck with a guy like Ryan Doumit or Geovanny Soto as your fantasy backstop, now’s the time to pick up Big Naps. 

Keeping the faith

Right about now is the time of year that truly tests the patience of impetuous owners with players who have stumbled badly out of the gate.  It’s hard not to take it personally when someone you showed faith in early in the draft single-handedly ruins your team’s ERA or batting average.  While the temptation may be there to deal or dump these guys, there are certain players who you’d be wise to grant an extra-long leash.  And if you can sense intolerance amongst other owners of these players, a nice opportunity presents itself to buy low. 

s-JON-LESTER-large.jpg

After getting shellacked for seven runs in six innings by the Rays on Sunday, Jon Lester is now 0-2 with an 8.44 ERA and 1.88 WHIP through three starts.   This has to have owners pulling their hair out after they probably drafted the 26-year-old southpaw somewhere in the top four or five rounds. 

What you may not know, however, is that Lester is a consistently bad early-season performer.  Last year Lester gave up 11 earned runs over his first two starts, compiled a 5.40 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in April, and a 5.86 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in May.   In 2008, he gave up four earned runs in four of his first six outings to the tune of a 5.40 ERA and 1.77 WHIP.  He eventually worked things out and went on to post elite fantasy starting numbers in both seasons.  Unfortunately, Lester is such a slow beginner that he could experience a few more ugly starts before really turning it on.  Be patient if you own him, and if you don’t, see if you can fleece someone before he starts mowing ’em down.

White Sox starter Gavin Floyd destroyed the weekly ERAs and WHIPs for a lot of owners Sunday, after the Indians put a seven spot on him before he could retire a batter in the second inning.  This came on the heels of a shaky outing against the Blue Jays, making Floyd 0-2 and the proud owner of a 9.00 ERA and 2.23 WHIP.  Owners may be feeling resentful of the right-hander after Sunday, but maintain control of your mouse.  The 27-year-old has managed 14 Ks through 13 innings, and his velocity has been reaching the 92-93 mph range per usual.

A dissection of Floyd’s 2009 season shows there’s truly no reason to fret.  After eight starts last year, he had an astoundingly bad 7.71 ERA and 1.87 WHIP, allowing at least six runs in five separate appearances.  After being banished to the waiver wire in almost every league, Floyd promptly went 4-1 with a 1.39 ERA and 0.90 WHIP over his next eight outings.  While another incredible stretch like that isn’t very likely, expect him to turn things around soon.

carlos-lee1.jpgCarlos Lee’s .104 average through 12 games is flat out scary.  He is without an extra-base hit or an RBI, with 11 strikeouts and just one walk.  Whispers are starting to fly that the 33-year-old is on the decline, but you won’t want to believe them just yet.  Lee has a lifetime .259 batting average and .795 OPS in April, which are 31 points and 51 points below his respective career numbers.  In 2009 he was hitting .189 with one long ball through 10 games, and then went on to a .300-26-102 season.

El Caballo has been just as the nickname suggests throughout his career, posting seven straight seasons of at least 26 homers and 99 RBIs, while hitting .300 or better in each of the last four.  Guys that consistent don’t just fall off a cliff.  It’s very likely that Lee is pressing with fellow basher Lance Berkman out, stuck in an otherwise anemic Astros lineup.  With Berkman likely returning this week, it’s safe to expect Lee to once again begin performing with equinity. 


Sifting through the gems

There are always starters who surprise everyone with like ace-like performances in the first week of the season. Deciphering who is for real and who got lucky is a tricky process. 

Last season, owners who capitalized on the early gems of Wandy Rodriguez, Edwin Jackson and Randy Wolf felt like geniuses all season. Those who pounced on Kyle Davies and Armando Galarraga were only rewarded with aggravation.

Here are a few intriguing under-the-radar guys to watch closely after their first outings opened a few eyes (I’m not including Bronson Arroyo because it’s a crime if he’s not owned in all leagues).

Hochevar275_040910.jpgLuke Hochevar: 7 2/3 IP, ND, 0 ER, 5 H, 1 BB, 2 Ks vs. Tigers
Up until this year, that sound you heard from the Kauffman Stadium stands when Hochevar was pitching wasn’t “LUUUUUUKE” — the fans were actually booing. The first overall Draft choice from 2006 has yet to live up to the billing, compiling a 13-26 record with a 5.88 ERA in 284 2/3 career innings. However the 26-year-old right-hander put it all together Wednesday, throwing 96 mph gas consistently and harnessing his offspeed stuff to keep the Tigers off-balance all night.  It’s tough not to bite when a recent first overall pick shows flashes like this, so if he pitches well next Monday in Detroit, I’d take a flier on him.

Ricky Romero: 7 IP, ND, 1 ER, 5 H, 2 BB, 4 Ks at Rangers
Romero was a hot April pickup last year, when he racked up a 1.71 ERA through three starts before getting injured. After missing a month, the 25-year-old southpaw returned with a great June but struggled the rest of the way.  The sixth overall Draft pick in ’05, Romero looks primed for a solid season after a stellar debut on the road against a strong Rangers lineup. 

Brad Penny: 7 IP, ND, 1 ER, 6 H, 2 BB, 4 Ks at Reds

After looking like a lost cause in 2008 and for most of ’09 with the Red Sox, Penny quietly went 4-1 with a 2.59 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP in six starts after a trade to the Giants.  Now with the Cardinals and pitching coach Dave Duncan, who has a history of rejuvenating veteran starters (Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Joel Pineiro), the 31-year-old Penny appears to have his career back on track.  Even after Thursday night’s gem, Penny is owned in just 14 percent of Yahoo! leagues, so act quick.

Dallas Braden: 7 IP, ND, 1 ER, 4 H, 1 BB, 10 Ks vs. Mariners
In 2009, plenty of owners flirted with Braden and his sub-4.00 ERA before he was lost for the final 53 games with a foot injury. Probably the biggest reason he is currently owned in only 23 percent of Yahoo! Leagues is last year’s modest 81 Ks in 136 2/3 innings. So his 10-strikeout outing Tuesday was quite the revelation, as he mowed down one Mariner after another in a masterful performance.  Maintaining a solid K rate would make him a nice back-of-your-rotation starter, as he’s a good bet for an ERA in the mid- to high 3.00s and a decent WHIP.

Honorable Mentions:
 
C.J. Wilson: 7 IP, ND, 0 ER, 5 H, 2 BB, 9 Ks vs Blue Jays

Carl Pavano: 7 IP, W, 1 ER, 6 H, 0 BB, 6 Ks @ Angels

Justin Masterson: 5 IP, ND, 1 ER, 4 H, 2 BB, 5 Ks @ White Sox

Ian Kennedy: 5 IP, ND, 3 ER, 6 H, 0 BB, 8 Ks vs Padres

Gio Gonzalez: 6 IP, W, 2ER, 6 H, 1 BB, 6 Ks @ Angels

Surprise! Padres making early waves

Getting in the spirit of overreacting to the first couple games of the year, there are already some guys who have warranted sleeper consideration on the team that won the Fewest Names in Preseason Draft Guides Award. 

Tuesday night’s 6-3 victory over the Diamondbacks summed up why the Padres may be one of the biggest surprises of 2010, and fantasy owners should be paying attention.

There’s a good chance you already know about 6-foot-6, 270-pound future beast Kyle Blanks, and 21-year-old potential ace Matt Latos.  However, Tuesday night’s box-score standout was diminutive shortstop Everth Cabrera, who, as The Rundown highlighted, fell a homer short of the cycle while knocking in four runs and adding a steal. 


Everth_275_041710.jpgThe 23-year-old speed demon swiped 25 bags in 103 games last season, and should be a stud in that department in 2010.  He’s shown the ability to draw walks and hit for a decent average, so once the Padres move him up from the eighth spot in the order, he could end up with similar numbers to far more hyped shortstop prospects Alcides Escobar and Elvis Andrus.

A guy who made less of a bang Tuesday was third baseman Chase Headley, who matched his first game’s performance with two base knocks.  Building on a strong spring in which he hit .319, slugged .536 and knocked in 23 runs, the 25-year-old former top prospect may finally be figuring out big league pitching.  In a very thin year for third baseman, Headley is a guy to watch closely; he’s also eligible in the outfield in most leagues.

Getting a little deeper, 26-year-old outfielder Will Venable jacked a solo shot Tuesday, picking up from a monster spring in which he hit .345 with four homers and a 1.130 OPS.  Venable, who quietly slugged 12 homers over the last three months of ’09, is a guy to consider in NL-only leagues for sure. 

Starting pitcher Chris Young was a forgotten man heading into 2010, but reminded everyone what he’s capable of with six scoreless innings of one-hit ball and five strikeouts.  This gem was reminiscent of the outings regularly delivered by a pitcher who compiled a 3.30 ERA, a 1.12 WHIP and 331 Ks in 352 1/3 innings from 2006-07.  If Tuesday’s start was an indication he’s back to form, Young is the biggest Padres sleeper of them all.  

Mining the pens

One pitcher’s demise leads
to another one’s opportunity.  Last season, 13 relievers who didn’t
begin the year as their team’s “official” closer finished with
at least 10 saves.  Guys like Andrew Bailey, David Aardsma and
Ryan Franklin were on absolutely no one’s preseason radar but turned
out to be among the best closers in the game.   Each year
since 2000, no less than 45 pitchers have finished the season with at
least five saves.
 

The point of all this is that
the waiver wire is an always abundant source of saves, so don’t stress
over how many closers you have to start the year.  New closers
become available virtually every week due to injury, trades or the poor
performance of their predecessors.
 Gutierrez.jpg

Arizona’s Juan Gutierrez stepped
in when Chad Qualls went down last September and went 8-for-8 in save
opportunities. He displayed the mid-90s fastball and sharp slider that
better fits the job description than Qualls, and is a good bet to become
the closer at some point this year. 


It’s confusing why a team would
sign a 37-year-old as a contingency plan for a 42-year-old, but Milwaukee
did just that by signing LaTroy Hawkins to be their setup man. 
LaTroy is likely to rack up some saves in place of Trevor Hoffman, after
shutting the door 11 times last season as a part-time fill-in for Jose
Valverde and pitching to a 2.13 ERA. 

118px-Mike_Adams.jpgEasily the best reliever no
one knew about in 2009 was San Diego’s 31-year-old Mike Adams, who churned
out a 0.73 ERA, a 0.59 WHIP and a 45/8 K/BB ratio in 37 innings. 
With Heath Bell a good candidate to get traded at some point, you could
end up striking gold with Adams if he can come anywhere close to those
numbers.
 

The Rangers have the hyped-up
version of Adams in 21-year-old Natali Feliz, who will be breathing
down the neck of a shaky and injury prone Frankie Francisco.  In
31 innings last year, Feliz had a 1.74 ERA, a 0.68 WHIP, 39 strikeouts
and an unbelievable .124 BAA.  Sorry Frankie.

Always be closing?

In 2009, there were 10 relievers
penciled in as Opening Day closers who were out of those roles by August,
due to poor performance, trades or injuries.  Guys like Brandon
Morrow, Brad Ziegler and Joel Hanrahan became hot names around draft
time but were setup men by June. 
 

The closer role becomes a merry-go-round
for lots of teams once the season starts, and a fantasy player you’re
most likely to get burned by is one you’re relying on for saves.  
Heading into 2010, you can already pinpoint a few guys who are destined
to lose their jobs at some point, so if you unfortunately drafted one,
it’s time to start thinking of him as trade bait.
 


Qualls.jpg

Arizona’s Chad Qualls managed
to barely get by in 09, but you just get the feeling he isn’t a true
closer.  He missed the last month after knee surgery, and he’s
pitched to a 7.45 ERA this spring with opponents hitting .300 off him.
 


Not having to pitch in a single
game with any meaning, Trevor Hoffman turned back the clock last season
and put up incredible numbers.  It was really somewhat of a miracle,
and there is almost no chance the 42-year-old will be able to stay healthy
enough to do it again.  His .450 opponents’ average this spring
agrees. 


Frankie Francisco went on the
DL three separate times last season and posted a 5.82 ERA after the
All-Star break.  He also has a spring BAA of over .300, as there
seems to be a pattern developing here.

Frankie.jpg

Leo Nunez has been getting
some preseason hype but his 4.40 post-All-Star break ERA (6.10 in September)
creates some skepticism.  Just get the feeling he isn’t closer
material, especially with a career K/BB ratio barely above 2/1. Going
along with the crowd, his spring ERA is an ugly 5.59.
 

Dump these guys for some value
if you can, and quick.