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Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Lowe solid; Kawakami a wild card


Quality starting pitching has long been a staple of the Atlanta Braves, and despite the recent departure of former Cy Young winner John Smoltz, the Braves made it clear on Tuesday that starting pitching will continue to be their modus operandi in 2009.

Most notably, they signed Derek Lowe to a four-year, $60-million contract, presumably to inherit the role of staff ace. In a lesser deal, they also added Japanese right-hander Kenshin Kawakami on a three-year contract for an undisclosed amount. Those two join Jair Jurrjens, a breakthrough 13-game winner for the 2008 Braves, and Javier Vazquez, acquired from the White Sox a month ago, in what is likely to be a vastly improved rotation.

Derek Lowe
Derek Lowe is coming off four straight seasons with a sub-4.00 ERA and two straight years with a career-best 147 strikeouts.
The numbers demonstrate the importance of the moves to a team that was a combined 16 games under .500 the past three seasons combined, after having appeared in 14 consecutive postseasons, a streak snapped in 2006. The following are the per-year averages of all Braves starting pitchers combined:

2005-08: 57 wins, 76 quality starts
2001-04: 69 wins, 91 quality starts (twice led the majors)
1997-2000: 78 wins (three times led majors), 103 quality starts (also three times led)

Not that Lowe or Kawakami is likely to recall memories of Smoltz, Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine in his prime, but they're surely an upgrade from Mike Hampton, Charlie Morton and Jo-Jo Reyes, who were called upon to start 50 games combined in 2008.

Lowe brings stability at the front of the rotation, even if he's not necessarily Cy Young material; he has made 32 starts or more in each of the past seven seasons since being converted from closer by the Red Sox. He also had a 3.88 ERA and 1.27 WHIP or better in each of his four seasons with the Dodgers, and despite early-offseason rumors he was destined for the Red Sox or Yankees, that Lowe will now remain in the more pitching-rich National League should make him a stronger bet in those ratio categories.

Lowe's 3.15 ERA and 1.13 WHIP at Dodger Stadium during his four-year run with the Dodgers (2005-08), compared to his 4.03/1.33 road rates during that time span, as well as the fact that Atlanta's Turner Field was the far more hitter-friendly of the two ballparks in 2008, might serve to trouble some of his prospective owners. But from 2005-07, be aware that Turner Field ranked consistently pitcher-friendly, and Dodger Stadium was actually hitter-friendly, statistically speaking, in 2006-07. Bottom line, these are two reasonably pitcher-favorable ballparks, making for a smooth transition. If there's any reason for concern, in fact, it should be that the Dodgers' bullpen (3.34 ERA, 1.26 WHIP) was far stronger than that of the Braves (4.25 and 1.38) in 2008. The Braves might not be able to protect Lowe's leads as effectively as the Dodgers did.

Kawakami, meanwhile, is more of an unknown. He's 33, was the Central League MVP in 2004, and had a 3.22 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 7.28 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in his career in Japan. Back troubles limited him to 16 starts and 117 1/3 innings in 2008, though, seemingly making him more risk/reward than Hiroki Kuroda, who managed at least 179 2/3 innings in each of his final three seasons and five of his last seven in Japan. Kuroda might be an apt comparable, though, as his ratios -- 2.36 walks, 6.65 strikeouts and 0.96 homers per nine -- are within range of Kawakami's -- 1.92, 7.28 and 0.93.

From a scouting perspective, according to our own Jason Grey, the consensus on Kawakami is he's a potential No. 4 starter. He throws strikes, has a good cut fastball and added a split-finger fastball this past year. Kawakami might be a bit homer-prone, though, and how well his command holds up will be key to his performance.

Kuroda was on average the 58th starting pitcher off the board in ESPN drafts in 2008, and he finished 51st among starters on the Player Rater. That seems about right for Kawakami, as with the greater chance of reward comes the greater risk, not to mention the extreme difficulty in forecasting Japanese pitchers making the transition to the States. (Kei Igawa, anyone?) That's a late-round pick, at least until we see how he looks in spring training.

As for Lowe, he ranked higher than Kuroda on the 2008 Player Rater, 14th among all starting pitchers, in fact. That's quite an improvement upon his average draft spot, 51st among starters. Lowe will probably regress a bit from his 2008 numbers, perhaps to an ERA around 3.75-4.00, and WHIP near 1.25. That's more a top-40 than top-25 candidate among starting pitchers, more of a middle-round pick than a staff-ace type.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.