<
>

Sixty Feet, Six Inches: You don't mess with the Johan

So fickle, the fantasy guru. So treacherous. So disloyal. Have we forgotten the wonder of Johan Santana?

Apparently we have, because in our collective group rankings, we somehow elevated Brandon Webb above Santana. Webb finished with an average rating (among all major league players) of 14.7. Santana finished at 16.0. They're still one-two in our communal estimation. But I believe we placed them in the wrong order.

Has Webb been better than Santana so far in '08? Yes. Ten wins will do that, as will an ERA of 2.69, a WHIP of 1.05 and a 72/20 K/BB ratio in 83 2/3 innings. Santana, by contrast, stands at 7-3 with a 3.20 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP and a 71/20 K/BB ratio in 81 2/3 innings. Sure enough, Webb is (only slightly) better. But considering everything we know about Santana's typically slow starts, we should be throwing him a freaking parade for his first two months. Check this out:

When I ranked Santana sixth overall among all major league players, I actually felt guilty -- as if I were underrating him -- because I knew his best of '08 probably was yet to come. It turns out I put him higher than everyone else did. The notion that Santana's very good performance so far this year is a harbinger of non-Cy Young performance during the season's final four months is, according to the above chart, laughable.

Yes, I'm aware Santana faded down the stretch in '07, posting a 4.94 ERA in five (meaningless) September starts. But I'm sorry, I've watched this cat be too good for too many second halves in his Hall of Fame-worthy career to get freaked out by a few shaky April outings. He's still the best starting pitcher in fantasy baseball.

Other interesting differences between me and the rest of the herd:

• I currently have C.C. Sabathia sixth among starters; the group has him 11th. Take away his rancid first four starts, and the dude has a 2.00 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP to go with 60 K in 58 1/3 IP. To leave him outside the top 10 is folly.

• I like Dustin McGowan more than the crowd does. (I have him 26th; the group has him 34th.) I admit his 1.42 WHIP isn't exactly a thing of beauty, but according to Fangraphs.com, McGowan is the starting pitcher who throws hardest of any qualifying major leaguer. On average, his fastball is clocked at faster than 95 mph, and he owns the third-hardest slider in the majors. The league's balls-in-play average is .324 against McGowan, which means he's been unlucky. Plus, missed bats are good, and I think McGowan will miss more of them in the next four months.

• I realize Edinson Volquez leads the world in strikeouts, but I refuse to rank him as a reward for two good months. As I mentioned in this week's Big Rotowski, Volquez has an unsustainable 87 percent strand rate this year, and his BB/9 (4.76) is too high. He also typically allows fly balls at a higher rate than he's done this year (31.6 percent), and in Cincinnati, fly balls can be deadly. I rank Volquez 33rd; the gang likes him 21st-best.

• I don't think Hiroki Kuroda is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but to rate him 58th among starters, as the group has done, is to imply he's on the border of not being a fantasy contributor, and I think that's wrong. (I have him 39th.) Though he's not an elite strikeout pitcher, it doesn't mean he doesn't throw hard; Kuroda makes do with a low-90s sinking fastball and good movement on his slider and splitter. As such, he induces grounders on nearly 45 percent of batted balls. He'll struggle occasionally -- as he did on national TV against the Mets on Sunday -- when his control isn't on, and it's possible he'll fade late because of the longer American season. But there's no way I'd rate rotation-mate Clayton Kershaw ahead of him right now.

Rich Harden can be great, which is why I have him 52nd. But he's also about the worst bet in the bigs to stay healthy, which is why I think it's silly the group rated him 36th.

• Heck, if you'd rank Harden 36th, why would you put Bartolo Colon 85th? It seems to me that the primary problem with both guys is health. When he's on, Colon will throw hard, work both sides of the plate and be pretty effective. He showed that in '07 when he came off the DL; he dominated with the Angels for four of five starts until his arm started hurting again. But Colon's a bad bet to make it through the season, which is why I've ranked him below Harden, at 57th. But as long as he's doing well, I think he should be used in most fantasy leagues.

• Maybe he's just a case of "out of sight, out of mind," but Francisco Liriano fell to 79th in the June group rankings, while I have him 59th. After initially struggling at Triple-A Rochester, Liriano has been better in four of his past five outings. On Saturday he pitched 6 1/3 innings, fanned seven, walked one, gave up three hits and allowed just one run. Will he be his '06 self this season? Maybe not. But will he be with the big club by July? I believe so.

Comings and Goings

As you've no doubt heard, Pedro Martinez is back for the Mets, and he threw a borderline-insane 109 pitches Tuesday night against the Giants. Martinez threw hard, regularly touching 90 mph, and he injected some much-needed life into New York's rotation. But Willie Randolph really shouldn't have left him in there that long. Clearly, Martinez wanted to get through six innings, but will anyone be surprised if he winds up ineffective his next time out? Regardless, for the moment, Mike Pelfrey has kept his rotation spot, while the team has sent Claudio Vargas to the bullpen. … Jake Peavy threw a pain-free bullpen session of 30 pitches on Sunday. He's still expected to throw at least one simulated game before the Padres let him rejoin their rotation. … Josh Fogg's disastrous outing Saturday cinched it; the Reds decided there's no point in waiting any longer. The team has called up Homer Bailey to start against the Phillies. It's a tough matchup in a tough ballpark, but fantasy owners certainly will take note of a guy who is still one of the majors' elite prospects. … After Clayton Kershaw pitched relatively well (but lost) against the Rockies on Wednesday, the Dodgers announced they won't skip Kershaw's next start, but that he will be a candidate to be skipped when the team has off days so that the 20-year-old won't amass too many innings. … Jake Westbrook made it through only five innings after coming off the DL and he's right back on again, this time with a sore pitching elbow. Tom Mastny made an emergency start for the Indians on Tuesday, but Jeremy Sowers is expected to fill Westbrook's vacancy, beginning this Sunday. … Scott Baker is expected to come off the DL on Thursday and start against the Orioles; to make room in their rotation, the Twins have sent Boof Bonser to the bullpen. … Justin Masterson returned from the minors to start in place of Daisuke Matsuzaka on Tuesday and got his second big league win. Of his three major league outings, though, this one was probably his least effective. But he was good enough that Boston can feel safe letting Clay Buchholz work at Triple-A for now; Masterson should start at least one more time for the big club, taking Dice-K's spot this weekend. … Shawn Estes fell on the tunnel stairs outside the Padres' clubhouse this past weekend and broke the thumb on his pitching hand. He's expected to miss two months; Cha Seung Baek will take his place in the rotation for now. … The Royals sent Brett Tomko to their bullpen and called up Kyle Davies, who'd pitched well at Triple-A. Davies got a win against the disappointing Indians this week but still is a pretty bad bet to be a fantasy success this year. … Radhames Liz injected himself into the discussion in AL-only leagues Tuesday, pitching 5 1/3 innings against the Twins in his first start of the season (in place of an ineffective Steve Trachsel), and getting a win. Control is Liz's main bugaboo, but he only walked one in this game. I'm not quite ready to recommend him in fantasy leagues, but he's got potential. Keep an eye out. … Odalis Perez came out of his start Tuesday after three innings because of shoulder tendinitis. The Nationals expect him to miss at least one start, and Tyler Clippard looks like the choice to replace him. … Curt Schilling threw off a mound for the first time Wednesday in a 25-fastball session after which he pronounced himself pain-free. The Red Sox have no timetable for Schilling's return, but in a week when David Ortiz's injury cast a cloud over the organization, this qualifies as pretty good news. … Mark Prior wasn't anywhere close to contributing to fantasy teams anyway, but the Padres made it official that Prior will miss the rest of the season and have shoulder surgery to repair a tear inside his pitching shoulder. … Jason Jennings underwent surgery to repair his right flexor tendon and is out for the year. He won't be back with the Rangers in '09. Meanwhile A.J. Murray went on the DL. Vicente Padilla, who missed a start due to a family emergency, is ready to replace him in Texas' rotation.

On The Farm

Matt Clement began a rehab assignment in the Cardinals organization, throwing six stellar innings for Class A Palm Beach in which he allowed one hit and no walks and struck out five. He's still a long-shot fantasy bet even in NL-only leagues this year, but if Joel Pineiro can't get healthy and/or effective, there could be an opening in the St. Louis rotation. … Rays prospect David Price went seven scoreless innings for Class A Vero Beach on Monday and hasn't allowed a run in three starts at that level. A promotion seems imminent. … I mentioned Kris Benson's nice rehab start last week; unfortunately, the news isn't as good this week, as Benson had to be scratched from his most recent minor league start because of a sore biceps. The Phillies certainly won't be counting on him for '08. … Rich Hill came off the minor league DL and went three innings on Friday, allowing three runs, three hits and three walks while striking out five for Triple-A Iowa. He's not close to returning to the majors yet. … Lest we think the pitching prospect pipeline in Boston has finally emptied, Michael Bowden (who's still considered as good a prospect as Masterson) went 6 2/3 innings for Double-A Portland on Tuesday, striking out six, walking none and allowing three hits and one run, after being perfect for six innings. In his past eight starts for Portland, Bowden is 5-1 with a 1.09 ERA. Expect to see him at Triple-A Pawtucket soon.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports.

You can e-mail him here.