Players' surprise beginnings cover both ends of spectrum



April 12, 2007|By CHILDS WALKER

Among the annual rites of fantasy baseball are sparkling early performances by guys who weren't even near our draft radar three weeks ago.

Sometimes, these performances foreshadow unexpected breakouts.

But more often, they're brief spasms of success that can be achieved by any player good enough to earn a stint in the majors. Remember Chris Shelton's 10 homers last April? Well, he hit six the rest of the year, and this April he's toiling in the minors.

Despite the long odds against sustained success, it's always fun to sort through the April wonders. So here are a few surprising performers from the first 10 days of the season (even though that's too small a sample size to mean much).

I had about written off St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Kip Wells. He tantalized owners with two good years in Pittsburgh, then punished them over three poor, injury-riddled campaigns. But Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan specializes in veteran reclamation projects, and you have to love Wells' 14 strikeouts against five walks in 13 innings this year.

Given past spurts of success and the team situation, I'm ready to say he will be a useful starter. He could be better than that, so if he's hanging around on your mixed-league waiver wire, consider adding him to your reserves.

As baseball evaluators, we're used to diagnosing blown elbows and strained hamstrings, but anxiety disorders present murkier ground. All praise to the Kansas City Royals for giving Zack Greinke the time and space he needed to battle his. And all hail Greinke's pitching line (seven strikeouts and one earned run in seven innings) from a week ago, when he was the forgotten man in a duel with the debuting Daisuke Matsuzaka.

As a prospect, Greinke had a special feel for pitching, mixing pinpoint control, baffling off-speed stuff and a fastball that could be revved to 95 mph. The physical talent never left, so here's hoping his 2007 opening reflects a real rebirth. I like his chances.

I'm a little less excited about Texas Rangers pitcher Robinson Tejeda, who also tormented Boston with seven shutout innings last week. Tejeda posted only one strikeout, and his career numbers suggest a pitcher without enough power to make up for his suspect control. He's not a bad guy to have at the back end of an American League-only staff, but I don't see stardom calling.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays third baseman Akinori Iwamura didn't enter the majors to as much acclaim as some previous Japanese stars. He was thought to be an excellent glove man whose power might not translate fully. The jury's still out on that, but he's thriving with a .458 average through seven games. Two things impress me: Iwamura has shown an excellent batting eye and he's stolen two bases. Third base is deep in fantasy, but it doesn't feature many guys who run, so if Iwamura can hit 15 homers and steal 15 bases, he becomes a valuable commodity.

A lot of owners expected some fall-off this year from former Oriole Eric Byrnes. Byrnes' wild style always excited fans, but his 26 homers and 25 steals last year came a bit out of nowhere. Well, he's busted out of the gate with two homers and four steals in nine games. I still think Byrnes' lack of plate discipline will undermine him some, but if he has this kind of green light to steal, he'll continue to be an excellent value.

The Florida Marlins' Mike Jacobs is another solid value among National League bats. He disappointed last year after a brilliant stint for the New York Mets in 2005. But he's off to a hot start, and I wouldn't be shocked if he hits 30 homers this season.

Now, let's switch gears and look at a few highly touted players who've shown early cracks in the armor.

I pushed Florida's Scott Olsen as a potential breakout entering the season, but nine walks in 10 1/3 innings is Daniel Cabrera territory. I still like the left-hander's stuff and he is 2-0, but he scares me enough that I won't be trying to acquire him until he posts a few more reasonable starts.

His control problems are similar to those shown by the Chicago Cubs' Carlos Zambrano. Zambrano has succeeded despite high walk totals in the past. But his control slid further last season, and his ERA rose commensurately. Zambrano is still good but if you can unload him on a fellow owner who believes he's a top-of-the-line ace, think about it. His perceived worth may diminish greatly in the weeks to come.

It's hard to pick on the Washington Nationals' John Patterson because he's surrounded by so many shabby pitchers. But he was supposed to be the one good one, and four strikeouts against seven walks in 8 2/3 innings isn't cutting it. Given Patterson's history of fragility, you always have to worry that he's hiding an injury.

Oh, and if you're wondering about a guy named Alex Rodriguez, here's the skinny: He's good.

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