Save your Gagne panic for now

ON FANTASY SPORTS

April 11, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the "Breaking News" tag slide along the ESPN ticker.

I suspect this gives many sportswriters pause, because the news could be breaking on their turf. But in this case, it was something far worse than work.

As soon as I saw the name Eric Gagne, my heart sank. In my most important fantasy league, I had traded for Gagne in the offseason. Saves at a bargain $11 were a major plank in the "Childs Play" plan for league domination.

Then, I saw the ghastly phrase "nerve replacement surgery." This sent me scurrying to my computer in search of more news. Turned out Gagne had been hurting all spring but hadn't mentioned anything because he thought he could tough it out. Great! Just beautiful. He couldn't have mentioned this two weeks earlier?

Then, I really would've backed him up with his real life backup, Danys Baez. I know I should've done it anyway, but Eric, why didn't you tell me?

And that, my friends, is the anatomy of a first-week fantasy travesty. Play the game long enough and you'll have one, too.

So what to do? Gagne's surgeon, Dr. Frank Jobe, says he should be back in six to eight weeks, which in the scheme of things, isn't so bad. But my team is a contender so I'm considering trying to trade for saves using my reserve of solid starting pitching. On the other hand, I hate to make a swap this early, when the worth of all the pieces isn't clear.

I'll let you know how I handle it. But let's move on from my personal affliction to more general impressions of Week 1.

It sure seemed like a bad time to be a front-line pitcher. The list of starters who got abused ranges from the sublime Pedro Martinez, to the stalwart Bartolo Colon, to the precocious Jake Peavy.

I wouldn't worry about most of the veterans, but a few bad performances should inspire concern.

Tim Hudson's solid ERAs the past two seasons have masked poor strikeout rates. He also struggled with his control (relative to past seasons) and ability to keep the ball in the park after moving to Atlanta. All the trends pointed down coming into this season, so it's hard not to see Hudson's disastrous opening as another data point in his decline.

He hasn't been unlucky, either. He's shown poor control and an inability to get the ball past hitters. Hudson could rebound to post another passable ERA this season, but it seems his days as a top-notch starter may be past.

Many more owners are counting on Carlos Zambrano to be a top starter. He was fantastic last season, so his two poor starts in 2006 might be flukes. But I'd be a little worried about the nine walks in 10 2/3 innings. If you own him, keep an eye on the control and don't be afraid to trade him if it's not any better after seven or eight starts.

The guys you don't want to worry about are pitchers who've given up a bunch of hits - Colon, Peavy, Andy Pettitte. Hits are much more volatile than walks and strikeouts. Even the best starters have games in which batted balls fall against them. Actually, pitchers who are hit hard early can present buying opportunities.

I'd target the Cincinnati Reds' Aaron Harang as a waiver pickup or a throw-in to a bigger trade. Harang has allowed nearly a run an inning, but he's also struck out 13 and allowed only three walks in 11 2/3 innings. Those numbers suggest strong underlying skills and though Harang won't be an ace, he could be a very valuable pitcher.

Washington's John Patterson is another guy who struggled in his first start. But he struck out seven in four innings, so his stuff is fine. If his ERA stays high for a few more weeks, try to get him on the cheap.

A few pitchers have been just plain good. The Los Angeles Dodgers' Brad Penny was an uncertain buy coming off an injury-riddled 2005. But he's been magnificent with 14 strikeouts and only one walk in 12 innings.

Many owners were also reluctant to buy the Boston Sox's Curt Schilling after his ankle woes last year. But he's been excellent in two starts. Schilling wasn't overpowering against the Orioles on Saturday, but he showed superb control and was throwing in the mid-90s after more than 100 pitches. He pronounced himself strong and confident after the game, and he looked it.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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