Some '06 underperformers have right signs for 2007


The Kickoff

March 08, 2007|By CHILDS WALKER

How often in life do we willingly buy something that is as likely to break as not and that depends on eight other functioning entities for its success? Does this sound like a good bet?

Well, as fantasy baseball owners, we don't have much choice, because the rules say we must carry nine pitchers. But, boy, are they maddening. Just when you develop an unhealthy affection for Mark Prior or Francisco Liriano, arm surgery comes a calling. Or just when C.C. Sabathia seems to be peaking, poor defense and run support conspire to hand him a 12-11 record last season.

But opportunity lies in the refuse left by frustration. (Oh dear, I sound like a fortune cookie.) Anyway, here are some rebound and breakout targets for 2007.

The San Diego Padres' Jake Peavy disappointed many owners last season. He had seemingly mounted the summit of acedom only to turn in a losing record and a 4.09 ERA in 2006. Whispers of arm trouble swirled throughout the summer. But look at the underlying numbers. He practically struck out as many and walked only a few more than he did in his banner 2005 season. He suffered from poor luck on balls in play and terrible run support. So he looks like the same pitcher to me. If you can get this ace at a less-than-ace price, do it.

Josh Beckett's ERA seemed likely to rise no matter how well he pitched in 2006 for the Boston Red Sox. The move from Florida to Fenway will do that. But, man, I didn't expect a 5.01 ERA and a doubling of his home run rate. It seems the blister problem might always bedevil Beckett. Either he pitches with pain or he wears a Band-Aid that keeps him from sharpening his curveball between starts. That said, he remains an intriguing blend of power and command backed by a stellar offense. I don't expect a full rebound, but something like 18 wins, a 4.30 ERA and 180 strikeouts isn't out of the question. And he won't be priced for that sort of production.

Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants was among the most hyped rookie pitchers coming into 2006. But a rough start put him behind compatriots such as Liriano, Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver. Here's the thing: Cain was better than any of them down the stretch. He's a power guy in a great pitchers' park, and it's hard not to love that combination. His control isn't good enough for him to be your ace this season, but I expect a sub-4.00 ERA and 200 strikeouts. I'd value him above Verlander and Weaver for 2007.

The Florida Marlins' Scott Olsen is another sophomore pitcher who screams "Buy!" to me. He was overshadowed by teammate Josh Johnson last year, but Olsen has better strikeout numbers and gets bonus points for being left-handed and healthy. Even if he merely repeats last year's performance, he's undervalued. And I think he's capable of a good bit more, maybe 15 wins, a 3.70 ERA and 180 strikeouts.

Brett Myers of the Philadelphia Phillies left a stain on his personal record when he was charged with assaulting his wife in Boston last year. But I'm not sure many owners realize how close he is to being an elite performer on the field. He combines high strikeout totals with reasonable control, and if he can cut back a tad on home runs, he could be a true No. 1.

After his playoff troubles in 2005 and a 5.28 ERA last year, Houston Astros closer Brad Lidge lives on a shorter leash than he used to. The 104 strikeouts in 75 innings say he's still dominant. But the rising walk and home run rates say caution might be in order. I frankly find him as confusing as any player in this year's pool. I wouldn't target him as my primary closer, but if he were just sitting there at a bargain price, I'd take the saves and strikeouts and try to land teammate Dan Wheeler for backup.

The Chicago White Sox's Javier Vazquez also puzzles statistics-loving owners. He gives you the strikeout and control numbers of an ace. He even kept the ball in the park last year. And yet, he went 11-12 with a 4.84 ERA. In these cases, I think it's prudent to keep betting on what the underlying numbers tell you, especially as the guy's price tag sinks. Vazquez was unlucky on balls in play and could easily add five wins and have his ERA fall to the 4.3s. That would be great from a guy who can be had for $10 in many leagues.

John Patterson will always be a health risk. But the Washington Nationals' de facto No. 1 delivers pretty strikeout and walk numbers when he plays. I wouldn't pay the $15 fantasy tag some magazines are assigning to Patterson. But if you can get him for $10 or less, he's a good buy. I prefer healthier pitchers with less upside.

San Diego's Clay Hensley is an example. He doesn't overpower anyone but keeps the ball down and toils in a great environment for pitchers. Hensley's best wouldn't touch Patterson's, but if he works 200 innings and Patterson works 120, guess who will have better gross numbers. A staff of Hensleys isn't sexy, but it can put you in the middle of every pitching category.

I'll end on a down note because after all, these are pitchers we're talking about. I don't expect strong bounce-backs from these guys: Dontrelle Willis, Mark Buehrle, Brandon McCarthy, Joe Blanton and Jose Contreras.

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