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Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Will Cubs let Heilman start?


Aaron Heilman has made it pretty clear he'd rather be a starter than a relief pitcher. Just six weeks after the Mets dumped him on Seattle in the J.J. Putz heist, Heilman is on the move again. This time, he's joining forces with Lou Piniella and the Cubs for the similarly well-traveled Garrett Olson and Ronny Cedeno. But will this move really help Heilman's plight? And what will it mean for fantasy owners?

Heilman probably was better off as a Mariner for fantasy value because he figured to close games, but let's not assume that would've been his eventual role. I assume he can salvage a once-promising career that took a major detour in 2008, though. Heilman wasn't all to blame for the brutal Mets bullpen's second consecutive second-half collapse, but he sure didn't help matters, either. His inclusion in the Putz trade in December seemed like a fresh start for him. Now he'll have another, although he's headed right back to another pressure cooker.

The Cubs seem to have the back end of their bullpen in place, so Heilman wouldn't bring much value if he's a reliever. Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg likely will be the closers. (And yes, contrary to obvious public opinion, Gregg really could win this job despite throwing inferior stuff.) The Cubs might use Heilman as one of their sixth- and seventh-inning options, however, where he would compete with Chad Gaudin, Jeff Samardzija, Michael Wuertz and others. Wonderful.

Then again, it's more likely Heilman will get his real wish, a chance to start. Unless the Cubs get back into the Jake Peavy sweepstakes -- and who among us isn't tired of those rumors? -- the current candidates for the fifth-starter job don't seem consistent with a team thought to be the best in the National League. Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano and the underrated Ted Lilly are set, Rich Harden has ace potential when healthy, and the other options are Sean Marshall and Rich Hill. Marshall is a hittable lefty, while Hill couldn't stop walking opponents last season. Former Oriole Olson has a 6.87 ERA in 33 career starts. Heilman clearly has the stuff to win this job.

What does this trade tell me, other than that the Mariners probably didn't want Heilman in the first place but figured he had value and took him from the Mets anyway? You don't want to overdraft Harden this spring. I don't want him at all. I tend to be a bit more down on brittle pitchers, but even I can't deny how lights-out Harden can be. Still, I prefer my aces to average more than 15 starts per season, which is what Harden has done in four seasons. The recent reports from the Chicago Sun-Times that Harden has a slight tear of the rotator cuff should be taken more seriously. The Heilman trade could have been directly related to this news, and this absolutely would cause me to avoid drafting Harden.

Nobody is suggesting Heilman can't ably replace Harden's sub-3.00 ERA, but consider a few factors. Heilman's rubber arm has seldom been in question. He's been healthy and has a strong fastball-curveball combination. Knee pain likely played a role in his 2008 demise, but we also should consider he's been asking for a change of roles for years. The Mets didn't listen. Heilman last started games in 2005, and it didn't go well: His ERA was 4.71 in seven outings, but a far-more-valuable 2.18 when he relieved. In 25 career starts, Heilman's ERA as a starter is 5.93. In the bullpen, it's 3.52. I think the guy really needed a change -- maybe two! -- of scenery.

Of course, the heart wants what the heart wants, and it's presumptive to assume Heilman will fail as a starter just because of previous numbers. But this will be his big opportunity. I remember thinking Braden Looper, Todd Wellemeyer, Derek Lowe and Justin Duchscherer were big risks when they moved to the rotation, but all worked out better than expected. I would draft Heilman as a starting pitcher and figure he'll make 25 starts if/when he wins the job, and he'll keep his ERA in the respectable 4.00 range with a decent strikeout rate. There is upside here if you wait long enough in a draft to seek it out. I like this move for the Cubs.

Olson and Cedeno shouldn't be missed very much at Wrigley Field. Olson was picked up in the Felix Pie trade 10 days ago, so I doubt many Cubs fans were even aware of his presence. He's a former first-round draft pick who couldn't harness his command in the majors, but he has considerable upside. The Mariners definitely should see what they have in Olson as a starting pitcher rather than going the Carlos Silva or Jarrod Washburn route. If you're looking at potential upside, Heilman is 30, while Olson is younger and cheaper. The Mariners might not start him, but Olson is someone to keep an eye on in AL-only formats.

Cedeno, meanwhile, profiles more as a utility infielder, one the Cubs didn't seem to have room for. The Mariners, on the other hand, had a gaping hole after Willie Bloomquist left. No, I didn't have a straight face when I typed that. Anyway, Cedeno can hit left-handed pitching, but with Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt relatively established in the middle infield, Cedeno's best shot to play might be if third baseman Adrian Beltre and his expiring contract are sent packing. If given significant playing time, Cedeno, a career .252 hitter, probably wouldn't interest fantasy owners. He's no Bloomquist, but who is?

What should interest fantasy owners is the Mariners' bullpen. I theorized when Tyler Walker was signed in early January to a harmless one-year deal that he would fit immediately into the closer situation. I was kind of laughed at. However, Brandon Morrow has to be a starting pitcher. It would be a shame if the Mariners, coming off a 101-loss nightmare, were to move a potential ace to the bullpen. Who else is there? Mark Lowe, Roy Corcoran and recently acquired David Aardsma would seem to be the main competition, along with retread Miguel Batista. Walker has 34 career saves. This could happen! For now, I'd probably draft the closers -- and some set-up men -- for about 28 other teams before considering Walker, but keep him in mind late in your drafts.

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.