Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Fantasy Baseball [Print without images]

Saturday, December 27, 2008
Don't discount the Big Unit


Some might regard the Giants' signing of 45-year-old Randy Johnson as some publicity stunt to sell tickets, especially for the big day when the future Hall of Famer wins game No. 300. The thing is, it's hardly a stunt if you use a relatively late draft pick on the Big Unit in a fantasy league. The guy can still pitch.

After a lost 2007 in which he made 10 starts and became a fantasy afterthought to many, Johnson was stronger than most realize in 2008, making 30 starts and finishing with a 3.91 ERA, a strong 1.23 WHIP and 173 strikeouts. Fantasy afterthought? Johnson won only 11 games -- hardly his fault -- and still ranked No. 47 for pitchers on the Player Rater, 35th if you take out the closers. He ranked sixth in the NL in strikeouts per nine innings, and didn't tire down the stretch. Johnson did his best work after the All-Star break, posting a 2.41 ERA, and he hurled a complete game to finish the season.

Although a bit unlucky in the wins department, Johnson was actually very good, and moving to San Francisco's pitcher-friendly AT&T Park won't hurt. In seven appearances at that ballpark, albeit versus the Giants offense, Johnson is 3-2 with a 2.14 ERA. In 102 starts against NL West opponents, he is 50-27 with a 2.68 ERA.

Wins might be a problem for Johnson in 2009, as he's no longer the type who completes his own starts. The Diamondbacks didn't have a great bullpen in 2008, and quite a few of Johnson's fine six-inning outings ended in no-decisions. Still, to say Johnson won't be able to get the five wins he needs to reach 300 is being awfully pessimistic. To say he'll win more than 12 games, no matter how he pitches, might be too optimistic. Giants No. 2 starter Matt Cain has won a sad total of 15 games in the past two seasons in 66 starts, despite a cumulative ERA of 3.71 and 349 strikeouts. Johnson will likely pitch well for the Giants, joining Tim Lincecum, Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito in a lefty-heavy rotation, but don't expect many wins for anyone here except Lincecum, the defending Cy Young winner.

In terms of Johnson's health, notably a recent history of back problems, there's little reason for concern there, despite his age. Johnson's 30 starts this past season were a very good sign, and probably surprised many in the fantasy world, considering 58 starting pitchers were selected ahead of him in ESPN average live drafts. No, he's no longer an ace, but this isn't a publicity stunt, either. With his new ballpark and the motivation of winning 300 games, expect Johnson to perform as well as 2008, winning double-digit games with good peripherals. That should make him a top-40 starting pitcher, and a decent mid-round pick.

Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.