After a couple of weeks of intense fantasy football writing (for both ESPN.com and our magazine preview issue, which -- insert shameless plug here -- will be out in mid-June) and a subsequent week off to recover, my main focus is back on starting pitching. Many thanks to my compatriots James Quintong and Pierre Becquey for keeping the Sixty Feet Six Inches ship afloat, but now it's time for me to jump back in with both feet and reassess what I've learned in six weeks of baseball. This means the top-80 list below changes a bit more this week than it usually does. It also means I've momentarily got a bit of distance between what I thought on April 1, compared to what I think now.
Boy, I was pretty stupid back then, huh?
Take the Toronto Blue Jays. I was tasked with writing their player previews before spring training, and I was actually surprisingly (to some) bullish on their offense. I proclaimed Adam Lind a draftable fantasy outfielder. I gave Aaron Hill an endorsement if he could finally get over his concussion. And while I had doubts about Travis Snider's ability to make a splash right away, I did number him among my favorite rookies.
It was the pitching I dissed. Roy Halladay was going to be great. But after that, it would be a thorough disaster. Jesse Litsch had to prove he was healthy. Dustin McGowan would be out for a bigger chunk of the year than the Jays claimed. And what was left -- the Scott Richmonds and David Purceys of the world -- underwhelmed.
Now, I'm not here to tell you that any of those guys will be major fantasy forces for the rest of 2009. But if you jumped early, for instance, onto the Richmond bandwagon, how happy are you right now? Richmond is ensconced at No. 78 on my list below, which is about 78 spots higher than I ever could've imagined him. Ricky Romero may be on the DL with an oblique injury, but his first three big league starts were promising. Brett Cecil just threw eight shutout innings against the A's. Heck, the league is hitting .210 against Brian freakin' Tallet.
Let's take a look at some of my other big surprises thus far:
" Erik Bedard and Josh Johnson are up 36 and 33 spots since my first list at the beginning of April. Bedard wasn't great on Sunday, but he's healthy and pitching for a contract, while Johnson features a sparkling 2.34 ERA and 1.02 WHIP, and has six stellar games in seven outings. And Johnson's Florida teammate, Chris Volstad, went unrated in my first go-round and now sits at No. 51. He's given up three runs or fewer in all of his seven starts, and has a K/9 of 7 that I didn't see coming.
" Joe Saunders of the Angels, Kyle Lohse of the Cardinals and Kevin Millwood of the Rangers were all left off my initial list, but each at least deserves mixed-league consideration now. I'm not saying they don't also each require a roll of antacid tablets every time they start; none of those three guys can be considered strikeout pitchers, and each has a steaming pile of ugly stats in his not-so-distant past. Lohse has pretty well been lit up in consecutive outings, Saunders fanned a minuscule seven hitters in his first 31 2/3 innings this year, and Millwood's WHIPs the past two full seasons were 1.62 and 1.59. But if you're in search of starter help, they might still be risks worth taking.
" Brandon Webb, Chien-Ming Wang and Litsch fell from their early (relative) heights because of injuries. Meanwhile, Oliver Perez just stunk. Old 'Liver is on the DL now with what some have described as a phantom patellar tendon problem (isn't that the injury Manny Ramirez made up with the Red Sox?), but the real reason he's out of the Mets' rotation is that 9.97 ERA. Or is it that 2.26 WHIP?
" The Twins' Big Three has taken it on the chin. Francisco Liriano was never as high on my list as he was on others', and he's shown enough strikeout stuff lately to still justify a speculative ranking in the teens. But Scott Baker started the year injured and, before his seven shutout innings against the Mariners on Friday, was looking like an all-world bust. And my faith in Kevin Slowey continues to be tested (I've dropped him 12 spots since the season's outset). Slowey does still have a batting average against on balls in play of .380, meaning he's been very unlucky, and his 25-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio says better times are ahead. Still, I'm not as confident as I was.
" Zack Greinke, Matt Garza, Yovani Gallardo, Jair Jurrjens and Jordan Zimmermann are up. Ricky Nolasco, Ryan Dempster, Brett Myers and (sigh) Manny Parra are down. But the season is still young. There's plenty of time for my stupidity to be proved again and again, as my pals on ESPN Conversation will no doubt assert.
" John Danks, White Sox (27): How bad do the Rangers look for the trade that netted them Brandon McCarthy for Danks and Nick Masset? Even when McCarthy is healthy (which is never), he's a fly-ball pitcher ill-suited for Arlington. Meanwhile, Danks fanned 10 against his old club Saturday, and now has 31 K's and 10 walks in 34 1/3 innings. Not to make Texas GM Jon Daniels hate me more, but the Danks trade wasn't even his worst. Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young to the Padres for Akinori Otsuka and Adam Eaton? Oh, good lord.
" Matt Garza, Rays (43): I know, I know. He should be higher! He should be 10th! There's a lot of love for Garza on this column's Conversation page. It's just too bad he can't face the Red Sox every time out. After dominating them in the ALCS last year, Garza has given up four runs in 21 2/3 innings against Boston so far in 2009, giving him a 1.66 ERA against them and a 5.13 ERA against everyone else. (His non-Boston WHIP is a respectable 1.22, though not quite as good as his versus-Boston 0.83.) Alas, the Rays don't play their AL East rivals again until August.
" Chris Carpenter, Cardinals (62): Carpenter didn't have to throw a pitch to jump seven spots on the list. Why? The St. Louis Post-Dispatch believes he may return from his oblique injury in about two weeks. Considering the Cardinals were talking about an early-June return, this is just fine. Include John Lackey and Ervin Santana in the "injury good news" category, too; each Angel hurler sounds like he'll return in the next week to 10 days.
" Gil Meche, Royals (35): It's probably not fair to get all over Meche for allowing an inside-the-park homer to Howie Kendrick on Friday, which is the play that got him beat against the Angels. The truth is, though, that since a terrific start April 23 against the Indians, Meche has been mediocre: 12 K's, 10 walks and an 8.16 ERA in three outings. I'm not saying, "Dump him." I'm just saying, "Market correction."
" Sean Marshall, Cubs (75): I don't really think any less of Marshall's stuff, but apparently Lou Piniella does. Sweet Lou just likes 26-year-old rookie Randy Wells. Hey, maybe Piniella will wind up looking smart making Wells his fifth starter over Marshall, but I don't think so. It's true, though, that Marshall hasn't made the most of his (modest) chances, and when Carlos Zambrano comes off the DL, there's a growing feeling that Marshall will hit the bullpen again. If that really does happen, he pretty much belongs off the top-80 list, which is a shame.
" Armando Galarraga, Tigers (79): See? See!?! Vindication! Those two brilliant starts Galarraga submitted to begin April had me worried about my prediction that he'd be one of baseball's most disappointing starters in 2009, but since then, he's given up 15 runs in 22 innings, has fanned 16 and walked 13. This guy's stuff isn't nearly dominant enough to weather poor control, and poor control is what he's shown for four consecutive outings. Plus, when he gets hit, he gets bombed.
Comings And Goings
" Daisuke Matsuzaka threw 58 pitches in a rehab start for Double-A Portland Sunday. He's expected to make one more minor league start late this week, at which time we should see the Red Sox activate him. Presumably Justin Masterson will head back to the Boston bullpen.
" Carlos Zambrano, who's on the DL with an injured hamstring, will throw a bullpen session in the next couple of days, which should determine how much longer he'll be out. Big Z is eligible to return from the list on May 19.
" Hiroki Kuroda threw a successful bullpen session Sunday, according to the LA Times, and told reporters he was ready to pitch in the majors right away. However, he threw only 25 pitches, and it's likely that the Dodgers will want to see Kuroda pitch in the minors before they're ready to proclaim his injured oblique completely healthy.
" Chien-Ming Wang will make a rehab start Tuesday night for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, according to the New York Daily News. The Yankees evidently don't expect Wang to be ready to return to the majors after just one minor-league outing, but they do have him stretched out and expect him to throw 100 pitches Tuesday. If he's good, he could be back this weekend.
" Justin Duchscherer told the San Francisco Chronicle that his surgically repaired elbow feels great, and that he's playing long toss already. The A's hope to have their ace back by the first or second week of June, but that would require Duchscherer to have no setbacks.
" The Royals recalled Luke Hochevar from Triple-A Omaha. He'll replace Sidney Ponson in Kansas City's rotation, while Ponson heads to the bullpen. Hochevar had a 0.90 ERA, 30 strikeouts and 10 walks in the minors this season, which has the fantasy world buzzing. While the former No. 1 overall pick is easily an add in AL-only or deeper mixed leagues, standard ESPN leaguers may want to wait a couple starts. After all, Hochevar got rocked last year.
" The Marlins placed Anibal Sanchez on the DL with a right shoulder sprain that's expected to keep him out a minimum of two months. So much for his comeback; he can be dropped in all leagues. Florida recalled John Koronka to take Sanchez's place in the rotation. You don't want any part of him.
" The Astros will replace Russ Ortiz with Felipe Paulino in their rotation, according to the Houston Chronicle. Paulino has been inconsistent in his big league work this year, though his best efforts have come as a starter. Ortiz has merely been consistently horrible.
" Tom Glavine will throw a simulated game Wednesday, and if his sore shoulder feels sound, will start a minor league game early next week. The Braves are still hoping to have the veteran lefty back before the end of May. Glavine isn't fantasy-relevant, but the fact that Atlanta is sticking by him means you can pretty much forget Tommy Hanson coming to the majors before June.
" Before the season, we were told to believe that Bartolo Colon and Jose Contreras were wise and legitimate options to hold down rotation spots for the White Sox. Colon has had three good starts and three awful ones, while Contreras sports an 8.19 ERA and now has accepted a demotion to the minors. Clayton Richard replaces him in Chicago's rotation.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.