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ON FANTASY SPORTS

Time right to fix holes, pick up undervalued talent

Improving your baseball team

May 21, 2008|By CHILDS WALKER

It's officially too late to say, "It's just early."

I usually spend the first month of every baseball season preaching patience to fantasy owners because we tend to freak out and reach for sweeping conclusions based on a few weeks' work.

The Cleveland Indians' C.C. Sabathia starts 0-3 with a 13.50 ERA? Dump him for 50 cents on the dollar!

Mark Reynolds of the Arizona Diamondbacks has five homers in the first seven games? He's going to hit 40!

As much as we tell ourselves not to be impulsive based on small sample sizes, it's hard. So patience is the gospel in April. That said, you can wait too long to fix flaws in your team. Now's the time to think about changes.

There are still plenty of players who will turn around their seasons. We'll talk about them in a minute. But if your fantasy team is last in the league in homers, stolen bases or strikeouts, it's probably not a fluke (rate statistics such as batting average and ERA are more fluid, so the holes aren't as deep in those areas). If you need to do better in a given category, seek a fix right now. The longer you wait, the harder it will get.

You won't maximize the value of a trade if you wait until July or August to make it.

With that warning in mind, here are my shopping lists.

I know I cautioned you against the Philadelphia Phillies' Ryan Howard before the season because he's a batting-average risk. But I didn't think I'd be this right. Howard's .183 average is so atrocious he's become a solid buying opportunity for teams seeking power. Even if he strikes out 230 times, the average will rise. He has batted .226 on balls in play, about 100 points lower than last season. However, he still has 10 home runs. Buy him now and you could easily get a .280 hitter with 35 to 40 homers the rest of the way.

David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox is in the same boat, though he has already started to row to shore. If you have a league mate who is still worried about Big Papi's knee, propose a deal. His .242 average on balls in play is the main difference from last year. His luck will improve, and his average and RBI totals will climb.

I would also look to buy the Chicago White Sox's Paul Konerko for the same reasons.

If you have the Florida Marlins' Dan Uggla, now's a great time to move him, especially if you have plenty of homers. He's an excellent power threat at second, but his .323 average is artificially propped up by good luck (.359 on balls in play). He's really more of a .260 hitter, and he will drag your average down at some point.

Speaking of guys playing over their heads, the Pittsburgh Pirates' Nate McLouth is on pace to hit 45 home runs. That would be 32 more than he's hit in any season. If you liked him coming into the season, pat yourself on the back and then trade him as quickly as possible.

It's actually fun to shop for pitching this time of year because there are so many ERAs that don't line up with the underlying data. The basic rules are simple. If a guy can't strike out six batters a game and twice as many as he walks, he's probably not going to have long-term success. Conversely, if he's carrying a 5.00 ERA but is striking out a batter per inning and three times as many as he walks, brighter days are probably ahead.

There probably aren't too many owners looking to dump the Boston Red Sox's Josh Beckett. But they might be willing to trade him for less than he would've drawn in April. If that's the case, ignore his 4.67 ERA and pounce, because his core numbers are just as good as they were last season. He has allowed a few too many homers, but I wouldn't worry about it.

Ted Lilly, Brett Myers and Bronson Arroyo aren't as glamorous as Beckett. But they've pitched well in past seasons and carry ghastly ERAs at the moment.

Lilly's ERAs have never been as good as his strikeout and walk numbers, but the Chicago Cub generally has been well below his current 5.14. He's an especially good target in leagues that count strikeouts because he's durable.

Myers of the Phillies is giving up a ton of homers and has always struggled in that area, but his hit rate is out of line with past seasons, which suggests bad luck. He's still racking up strikeouts, and his control is acceptable, so he's a good risk.

A lot of owners are probably ready to give up on the Cincinnati Reds' Arroyo after a disappointing 2007 and a brutal start to this year. But he's been unlucky on balls in play, and his strikeout rate is still good, so I think he's at least a solid bet to get back to his 4.23 ERA from last season. If you can get a throw-in who might reach 150 strikeouts with a 4.00 ERA, that's pretty good.

I'd also hang with his rookie teammate, Johnny Cueto, who started great but now has a 5.75 ERA. Cueto's 53 strikeouts compared with 13 walks in 51 2/3 innings impress me, as do his scouting reports.

On the sell side of the ledger, I'd look to move Jon Lester of the Red Sox while the glow from his no-hitter is fresh. His control remains iffy, and for a supposed power pitcher, he doesn't have an impressive strikeout rate.

Flip Joe Saunders of the Los Angeles Angels ASAP. He's striking out fewer than four batters per nine innings. Soft tossers like him rarely keep their ERAs below 4.00, much less at 2.48.

I hate to speak ill of a local guy, but I'd be looking to move the Chicago White Sox's Gavin Floyd (Mount St. Joseph) as well. He has been very fortunate on balls in play and has actually walked more hitters than he has struck out. Say farewell to his 2.92 ERA if that keeps up.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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