- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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For six years -- and arguably a seventh, depending on your opinion of Houston's Minute Maid Park -- Jason Jennings has called hitting-friendly environments his home. With a 5.39 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in 84 career home starts, one could easily make the case he's a pitcher whose numbers have been terribly hurt by his ballpark.
So what does Jennings, a free agent for the first time this winter, do? Naturally, he signs with yet another team that calls a hitters' heaven its home, the Rangers. He agreed to a one-year, $4 million deal with incentives on Thursday.
A quick glance at Jennings' 6.45 ERA, 1.55 WHIP and .301 BAA in 19 games (18 starts) for the Astros in 2007, in a year where so many fantasy owners were filled with excitement about him after he escaped Coors Field, might not inspire intrigue. Be aware, though, that elbow problems dogged the right-hander all year, and led to surgery in August to repair a torn flexor muscle. Jennings' 2007 rates, in a way, could be flat-out dismissed, with the exception of accounting for typical risk of a pitcher coming off surgery.
Jennings' prognosis has him nearing the latter stages of his rehabilitation during spring training, so at worst, he might miss only a few turns of the rotation to begin the season. He does have a shot at a 30-start, 180-inning season, so keep tabs on his progress once camps open. The ballpark won't help Jennings' cause in ERA/WHIP, nor will the shift to the American League, full of loaded offenses, but there's at the very least matchups potential in him. He's actually 10-5 with a 4.26 ERA albeit a 1.59 WHIP in 20 career starts against AL foes, so there's clearly no fear in the right-hander when facing such teams. Don't even think of using him against the Red Sox, Tigers or Yankees, but when Jennings draws the Athletics, Royals or Twins, especially on the road, he's got some upside (if healthy).
Cubs sign Lieber
Sticking with the theme of pitchers coming off surgery, Jon Lieber, coming off a July operation of his own to repair a torn tendon in his foot, returned Wednesday to the city where he became a star, signing a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Cubs.
A 20-game winner for the Cubs in 2001, Lieber is expected to serve as the team's fifth starter, assuming he's healthy enough to do so come spring training. All indications are that he'll be ready to pitch in March, though with him having averaged 20 starts the past six years, there's no guarantee he'll last an entire season.
When healthy, Lieber has been a somewhat effective NL-only or spot-start candidate for fantasy, though with him turning 38 on April 2, he's more likely to be locked into matchups consideration alone for 2008. Assuming full health on Opening Day, he might be more likely to help you than Jason Marquis or Ryan Dempster, back-end rotation considerations for the Cubs themselves. After all, Lieber did manage a combined 4.35 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in the aforementioned six injury-plagued seasons, and those are the numbers of a guy you'd trust against all but the strongest offenses or at bandbox ballparks if healthy.
An interesting note: With Dempster now looking less likely to crack the rotation, he might be back in the mix for the closer's duties. Keep an eye on his role once camps open next month, as the sleeper value of Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood would take a significant hit should Dempster be returned to the bullpen.
Marlins ink Hendrickson
Hey, someone has to fill starters' innings for the Marlins this season. With Dontrelle Willis gone and many of the team's younger arms coming off significant injuries, the team signed Mark Hendrickson to a one-year, $1.5 million deal on Wednesday. He'll help provide depth, and ease some of the strain on the team's kids.
For fantasy, though, there isn't a lot to like about Hendrickson. He's not a strikeout type, and in three of the past five years has had an ERA on the wrong side of five. Even with the shift to Dolphin Stadium, a pitching-friendly environment, Hendrickson at best becomes an NL-only spot-start candidate. There will be definite times you don't want him in your lineup, and if you browse his game logs since his shift to the National League in 2006, you'll see them littered with frustrating outings in what might have seemed quality matchups on the surface. Barring a miraculous turnaround from Hendrickson, his primary value will be as innings-eater for the Marlins, and that's not at all the kind of thing that has appeal for fantasy.
Rays acquire Aybar
The Rays have maintained all winter that they won't simply hand Evan Longoria the Opening Day third baseman role, so on Thursday, they picked up "competition" for him for the role, acquiring the troubled Willy Aybar, along with minor league infielder Chase Fontaine, from the Braves in exchange for left-handed reliever Jeff Ridgway.
Aybar, who battled substance-abuse issues in 2007, serves as an adequate fallback option for the Rays in the unlikely event Longoria struggles in the spring. Though he didn't appear in a professional game last season, Aybar batted .314 with 10 homers in 53 games at the Triple-A level in 2006, and .292 with an .803 OPS in parts of 2005-06 at the big league level. He'll turn 24 in March, so there's still a chance he could be a respectable regular or, at worst, a decent reserve, meaning AL-only owners can track him in the spring.
Make no mistake, though: All indications are that this is Longoria's job to lose. Barring the Rays bringing in a more accomplished third baseman -- a prospect that seems unlikely this late in the winter -- he'll be a virtual lock for at least 450 at-bats in 2007. Don't let Aybar's acquisition scare you off considering Longoria as a late-round sleeper.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
Tristan H. Cockcroft breaks down the signings of Jason Jennings, Jon Lieber and Mark Hendrickson and the Rays trading for Willy Aybar as Evan Longoria insurance.