Cockcroft: Nice Meeting You, Part 2
Perhaps there's no better example of new faces in high places than this year's World Series. No, I'm not talking about the Red Sox, champions only three short years ago. I'm referring to the Rockies, in the Fall Classic for the first time in their 15-year existence.
For instance, of the eight games the Rockies have played this postseason, only one was started by a pitcher age 27 or older. Four of those games, in fact, were started by rookie pitchers with 24 regular-season starts combined (Ubaldo Jimenez, 16; Franklin Morales, eight). Only four Rockies had any postseason experience to speak of, and only one plays close to a significant role on the team: catcher, Yorvit Torrealba, a backup for the 2003 Giants. Two others are relievers (LaTroy Hawkins and Matt Herges), and the other isn't on the World Series roster (Mark Redman).
Could there be any better example how a bunch of nobodies (or once-nobodies, at least) can actually matter in the world of baseball?
It's that theme -- new faces in high places (for fantasy, of course) -- that carries us into Part 2 of "Nice Meeting You!" which started last week with a look at the National League's nobodies who became significant fantasy forces this season. This week, it's a look back/peek forward discussing the American League:
Jeremy Accardo, RP, Blue Jays: This former Giants farmhand -- and Class A closer in 2004 -- rose from nowhere after closer B.J. Ryan hit the shelf due to Tommy John surgery, notching his first save on May 12, after Jason Frasor had blown 2 of 4 save chances in his previous 10 appearances. From that date through Sept. 1, Accardo used his high-90s heat, splitter and cutter to convert 27 of 31 save chances with a 3.27 ERA, though that took a toll on his arm; he appeared in only eight of the Blue Jays' final 27 games. Still, it was probably enough to earn him the role next Opening Day. Ryan might be healthy enough to recapture the role by the All-Star break, but Accardo's power arm makes him a strong bet for an ERA around or below three, and given a half-season's worth of closing behind an underrated rotation, that could mean 20 or more saves in 2008.
Fausto Carmona, SP, Indians: Could his 2007 and Chien-Ming Wang's 2006 look any more similar? Both had 19 wins, both had ground ball-fly ball ratios of greater than 3-1 (Carmona 3.28, Wang 3.06), both had ERAs in the threes (Carmona 3.06, Wang 3.63), so what was the main difference? About 2-3 mph on Carmona's fastball, and when you're talking low to mid-90s heat, that's a significant difference. It's why Carmona averaged 5.73 strikeouts per nine innings in his breakout 2007, compared to Wang's paltry 3.14 in 2006, though, to be fair, Wang did boost that rate to 4.70 this season as he became a bit more aggressive with opposing hitters. Still, Carmona, a bust of a closer candidate in mid-2006, is now a somewhat more powerful version of Wang. He's effectively the American League's version of Brandon Webb: a sinker-balling, ground ball-inducing flamethrower who should be among the more consistent pitchers looking forward, even if he's not necessarily a Cy Young favorite because he might never contend for a strikeout crown. Will opponents approach Carmona with a better scouting report in 2008? Absolutely, and Wang's "decline" in performance this season is a good example of that effect. Still, Wang is a great parallel for that "drop off," and a sign that this kind of pitcher is absolutely elite.
Jack Cust, DH, Athletics: There are a few stat-heads and numbers junkies who will look at Cust's season and say, "Told you so." They would seem to have every right to do that based on how remarkable a campaign he had, that came seemingly out of nowhere. Still, to be fair, the naysayers -- and I call myself one not because I doubted Cust's ability, but because I doubted his opportunities -- recognized that a lot of big league teams looked at his one strikeout per 3.07 at-bat career minor league rate, or his dreadful .217 batting average and 57 K's in 138 at-bats (one per 2.42!) in brief stints with the Rockies and Orioles in 2002-03 and thought he had nothing to offer. Cust is what he is: He's the best example of the "three true outcomes" player, those three being a home run, walk or strikeout, for those unfamiliar. Oh, maybe you'll say Adam Dunn fits the bill better -- and I do think of Cust as "Dunn-lite" -- but look at Cust's 2007, and 58.2 percent of his plate appearances ended in one of those three. Dunn, by comparison, was at 48.4 percent. A .408 on-base percentage, .504 slugging percentage and 26-homer player has value in today's game, even if he's incredibly frustrating because of his streaky, unpredictable nature. That's Cust in a nutshell, though; owning him means being patient, and surrounding him with batting-average specialists to offset how bad he is in the category. One good thing: He won't be so doubted headed into 2008.
Shaun Marcum, SP, Blue Jays: Here's how underappreciated he is: In his first start of the 2007 season, he tossed six innings of no-hit baseball. He wouldn't lose a single one of his next nine starts. For the season, he'd notch 11 wins, a 3.91 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 15 quality starts in 25 starts, yet at the season's conclusion, he was still so seemingly forgettable to some because he lacked the stats or the makeup of the three pitchers ahead of him in the Toronto rotation, one of them on this very list. Still, Marcum warrants more attention than he's gotten, because he brings pretty decent command (2.71 walks per nine innings as a starter) and an ability to change speeds. He's no ace, not by a long shot, but as a No. 3/4 starter, a team could do a lot worse. It'd simply be nice to see Marcum improve on his home run rate -- 1.53 allowed per nine -- and get some favorable reports on his knee (he underwent surgery in September) once spring camps open. A healthy Marcum is probably a little better than a matchups pitcher, but not yet a fantasy must-start.
Dustin McGowan, SP, Blue Jays: I remember a point in McGowan's career, before his Tommy John surgery in May 2004, when he was routinely hailed as the "next Roy Halladay." Tall order, wasn't it? Nevertheless, McGowan persevered, putting in the needed rehabilitation to revive what was seemingly an injury-marred career, and now he's back on the track to stardom. Perhaps that won't mean "next Roy Halladay" status, but if all McGowan does is offer a few years that look much like A.J. Burnett's 2007 -- think expanding it to a full 30-33-start workload, naturally -- should we really complain? Beginning with a near no-hitter against the Rockies on June 24, McGowan began a remarkable run in which 13 of his 18 starts were quality starts, amounting to a 3.40 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 7.71 K/9 ratio. Improved command of his pitches was the reason; he averaged 2.95 walks per nine during that span, compared to 4.67 in his big league career up to that point. Now, the only real question with McGowan is long-term durability. There's little doubt that a pitcher with his stuff -- he throws in the mid-90s and has three other effective pitches -- can challenge for elite fantasy status, so the main thing here is to hope he doesn't develop into the type of health risk Burnett has become.
Carlos Pena, 1B, Devil Rays: Like Cust, Pena is a stat junkie's friend, though even with that in mind, could anyone have foreseen the kind of bounce-back year he had in 2007? He finished second in the American League in home runs (46) and third in OPS (1.037), despite not even making the team out of spring training; he only squeaked onto the Opening Day roster because Greg Norton got hurt the day after Pena was cut. Even more incredible: Each of the past two American League champions (2006 Tigers, 2007 Red Sox) let him go before beginning their remarkable campaigns, and let's not forget that the Yankees had him for four months in 2006 in Triple-A ball, and this season they went with a lot of Doug Mientkiewicz, who hit 41 fewer homers and had .248 fewer points of OPS, at first base. In what I'd call "relative obscurity" in Tampa, Pena broke out in a big way, though very much in the "three true outcomes" fashion of the aforementioned Adam Dunn. Pena was a lot less streaky, though. Looking forward, expect the streakiness to return, though looking back to my Cust/Dunn comparison, as far as 2008 is concerned, perhaps I should call Pena "Dunn-lite" and Cust "Pena-lite," and say none of the three should really finish with dramatically different numbers from one another.
James Shields, SP, Devil Rays: For a guy who got lambasted for 10 runs in 3 1/3 innings of a start at New York on July 22, then mostly forgotten in the fantasy world, Shields actually finished his breakout 2007 campaign pretty strong. Of his final 10 starts, eight were quality starts, and he had a 2.61 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. Take out that one disastrous outing, in fact, and he'd have had 3.49/1.06 ratios, remarkable for a Devil Rays pitcher. Shields gets it done with pinpoint command -- he averaged 1.51 walks per nine, fourth-best in MLB -- and a great ability to change speeds. In a way, he sounds a lot like the latter-day Greg Maddux, doesn't he? Really, the only reason Shields doesn't get hailed as one of the safer bets for a top-20 fantasy season from a starting pitcher in 2008 is that he's a Devil Ray but that's an improving, developing offense, so there's a chance he could take another step forward next season, too, and really surprise you.
Joakim Soria, RP, Royals: Very few people knew this guy's name as the calendar year began, and understandably so. That's because Soria, a former Dodgers farmhand, bounced around the Mexican Pacific League for a bit, before being discovered by the Padres last season. The Royals eventually picked him in the Rule 5 Draft last winter, after he had dominated the MPL, even throwing a perfect game, and slotted him in the back end of their bullpen, providing a perfect bridge to new closer Octavio Dotel. Of course, we all know how that ended up: Dotel got hurt and Soria performed well enough in his absence that once the trade deadline arrived, it was easy for the Royals to dish Dotel off to the Braves. Now, there were the occasional blips in Soria's rookie season, mostly command issues, but from June on, he managed a 1.94 ERA and 1.55 walks per nine ratio in 41 games, ranking as one of the game's most effective relievers. Granted, his opponents will have better scouting reports on him heading into 2008, but Soria is going to be tough to handle in short stints regardless. This closer role has to be his.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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