- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Every now and then, a trade pops up on the wire, across the news crawl or on the transactions page that elicits one, specific reaction: Good trade for their major league teams. For fantasy? Eh.
We all know what Lidge is all about. Those of us who had him in 2004 or 2005 probably love him. Those of us who had him the past two years, well, we probably feel a little differently. Perhaps it's safe to say he was the most maddening, frustrating closer to own in all of fantasy the past two seasons. The guy has boatloads of talent, a right arm so talented (he has averaged 12.59 strikeouts per nine innings for his career) the Houston Astros couldn't help but keep giving him chances to close games. Unfortunately, despite chance after chance, all he gave us was 51 saves in 65 chances (a pedestrian 78.5-percent conversion rate) and a 4.37 ERA in 144 appearances in 2006-07.
Maybe there was something to the idea that Albert Pujols' game-winning three-run homer in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS, Scott Podsednik's walk-off homer in Game 2 of the 2005 World Series or the two losses Lidge absorbed in that Fall Classic did something to shatter his confidence.
That was unlikely to be the problem. Still, there's a lot to be said for the notion of a change of scenery. Lidge, who was 14-for-19 in save chances with a 5.68 ERA in 25 appearances after the trade of closer combatant Dan Wheeler on July 28, gets a fresh outlook on a team that should be better on paper in 2008 than the Astros. Perhaps that helps get him back on track, perhaps not.
And that, my friends, is the reason that, for fantasy, Lidge's arrival in Philly is hardly what I'd call overwhelming. With his strikeout rate, his high-90s heat and biting slider, Lidge has all the tools to return to form as an elite, top-caliber closer. The problem, though, is that he has a spotty recent track record, he gives up way too many home runs (1.20 per nine the past two seasons), which isn't a great thing now that he'll be pitching half his games at the bandbox known as Citizens Bank Park, and the Philly "phaithful" are hardly patient with volatile closers (do I dare mention the name Mitch Williams?).
Add all that up and you're talking high-risk, high-reward closer, the kind of guy who should cost you second-tier closer money at the draft table but could be anything from one of the game's best to a complete bust. We won't even know which one it is until we get a look at him in the spring, if that soon. I'm thinking he's a little closer to top-10 worthy in the end, but those who pick Lidge need to ask themselves, "Am I a gambler?"
Don't get me wrong, though. I don't think the Lidge move is a bad one for the Phillies from a real-life perspective. Anything that gets Brett Myers back into the rotation is a smart move. He has much more upside -- in reality or fantasy -- as a starter than a closer, and in essence it's like the Phillies add Myers to their rotation at Lidge's salary, and that frees up the money needed to either bring back Aaron Rowand or sign a suitable replacement (Torii Hunter?). This team is a lot better than people give it credit for, and I see little reason the results are much different for the Phillies in 2008 (dismissing the fact that a five-game postseason series can often be a crapshoot). The team should be better off for the deal, even if I don't think an awful lot changes for fantasy.
An interesting little fact to consider: The Phillies have now acquired Billy Wagner and Lidge from the Astros almost two years apart to the day (Wagner came over on Nov. 3, 2005, Lidge on Nov. 7, 2007). If, on Nov. 11, 2009, the Phillies trade for Chad Qualls, I won't be at all surprised.
Qualls, by the way, becomes the de facto closer for Houston, and I don't say that as a knock on the guy, but more a note that the Astros could always dip into the free-agent market for someone more experienced (Francisco Cordero?). I consider the Astros a little closer to the rebuilding than retooling-for-another-run stage, so Qualls should get first shot after posting a 3.39 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in three-plus years of middle/setup relief. Unfortunately, like Lidge, Qualls is a bit too homer-prone -- he allowed 1.05 homers per nine the past two seasons -- so really, he might not be all that different a closer than Lidge was.
Eric Bruntlett is headed to Philadelphia alongside Lidge, with Geoff Geary and minor leaguer Mike Costanzo headed to Houston in the deal as well. But the sleeper name in the deal was Michael Bourn, the speedster who presumably was the key to the trade for the Astros. Bourn probably will take over as the team's starting center fielder and leadoff hitter immediately, allowing Hunter Pence to shift to right field, a less taxing position for him.
Bourn, once compared to Juan Pierre while he was rising the Phillies minor league ranks, might actually be a bit closer to a left-handed version of former Astros center fielder Willy Taveras. Bourn is indeed speedy, averaging 53 steals between the majors and minors the past three seasons, but he also slugged only .378 for the Phillies in that bandbox last year and .392 for his minor league career. Plus, he was anemic against left-handers as a rookie -- 4-for-26 (.154) -- and that might necessitate a platoon role. That Bourn should get regular at-bats will make him sleeper-worthy, much in the fashion Taveras was in 2005-06, but don't get too creative with your expectations. For every Pierre-like success story, there's two Joey Gathrights.
Besides, it's really a shame that if Pence indeed shifts to right, Luke Scott becomes a fantasy afterthought. Scott, who has slugged .534 against right-handers for his career, is at least platoon-worthy and actually showed me enough against his "bad" side (against lefties) that he'd be sleeper-worthy if given a chance to play regularly. Unfortunately, now he needs a trade of his own.
Marty of Houlton, Maine, writes: Your readers are starving for a keeper list for next year. It is all fantasy football right now, but some of us still have baseball rosters on which we're considering keepers for next year!
That's not a question, Marty, but all in due time! I've made such promises in past years, and I will now: I'll get you some preliminary rankings for 2008 in the not-too-distant future.
Goose writes: I think fantasy baseball 365 days a year and get bored easily by football once my lineup is set. To that end, I am in a deep dynasty league and need some help deciding which of the following youngsters to keep, not only for 2008 production, but beyond. I have two open spots, any thoughts? Reggie Willits, J.R. Towles, Dan Meyer, James Simmons (A's pitcher), James McDonald (Dodgers pitcher), Chris Perez (Cardinals pitcher), Delwyn Young and Brent Lillibridge (Braves shortstop). Obviously things will change before Opening Day, but just curious.
That's digging deep, Goose. I'd hope your top keepers are more likely to help you in 2008 because I don't see too much of significance here for 2008. Willits seems like a no-brainer to me as a speedster who should get a decent share of at-bats, and for the other, since I generally recommend building around bats, pick Lillibridge. He's a top prospect for the Braves, a top-of-the-lineup type who could crack double-digits in homers while stealing 20-plus bases, and he's not far from being big-league-ready. If Yunel Escobar isn't up to the challenge, I wouldn't be at all shocked to see Lillibridge get a chance to play for the Braves, though be prepared for streakiness since he's a tad too strikeout-prone.
Dan of Lawrence, Kan., writes: Please help me with a keeper question. There are 11 teams in this Roto league with standard 5x5 categories. I get to keep Hanley Ramirez, Matt Holliday, Miguel Cabrera, Grady Sizemore and one of the following: Travis Hafner, Nick Markakis, Shane Victorino, Adrian Gonzalez, Ian Kinsler, Troy Glaus, Jason Bay or Billy Butler. I'm at a loss, but I've ordered them the way I currently have them ranked. Is Pronk the right choice?
Colin of Asheville, N.C. writes: I actually took your advice on James Shields last year in my dynasty league, and it played out nicely. I was able to turn him as part of a multi-player trade halfway through the season for Alfonso Soriano. So thanks for that. I wound up winning my league despite having Rafael Furcal as my starting shortstop. I think Furcal will be better next year -- walk year and healthier ankle – but to help solidify my team, I'm looking for serious prospects at shortstop whom I can pick up in the draft next year. Not the usual suspects who are already clearly going to be owned (like Troy Tulowitzki), but guys who might not have played much, or played well (à la Stephen Drew) this year who you think might make an impact next year.
Shortstop is actually seemingly a bit thin on back-end sleeper talents, from a quick scan of the rosters today, but two who stick out in my mind are the aforementioned Escobar and the Mariners' Yuniesky Betancourt, coincidentally both Cubans. Escobar batted .326 with a .385 on-base percentage and should hit high in the lineup as the Braves' new everyday shortstop, while Betancourt had a .311 batting average and .481 slugging percentage the second half of 2007, which bodes well for his development. I don't expect an All-Star, Tulowitzki-like breakout for either player, but considering both are entering their prime -- Escobar is 25, Betancourt 26 -- it's not an outrageous thought.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.