Time to sell high on Cain, Cueto, Weaver
Last week in this column, I tried to find starting pitchers with poor early-season stats whom I expected to get much better. I picked seven guys, and six of them made me look pretty smart this past week: Cole Hamels, John Danks, Kevin Slowey, Max Scherzer, Gil Meche and Jordan Zimmermann all submitted excellent or solid outings, making them well worth the investment. (Of course, Meche proceeded to get lit up Monday afternoon. Gah.)
But being the masochistic fellow I am, I'll go back to the one on whom I've apparently badly missed: Ricky Nolasco. Alas, Nolasco won't have a chance to work out his problems in the majors, as the fading-fast Marlins sent him to Triple-A New Orleans after another disastrous outing Friday night. It's crazy, because he won 15 games and posted a 3.52 ERA in 2008, and he hasn't lost velocity or control. He's just getting hit. The Marlins announced that Nolasco will make at least two minor league starts before they consider bringing him back to the bigs, and even then, there will be no guarantee he'll return. But Nolasco still owns the unluckiest batting average on balls in play (.402) and strand rate (49.4 percent) in the majors. I know this sounds pretty hollow right now, but I'm still a believer. If you have bench space, add him from your free-agent pool. I still think he'll help the Marlins after the All-Star break.
Now to this week's topic, which is just the opposite of last week's: I'm not seeking buy-low candidates but rather starters on whom I'd sell high. That's not to say I truly dislike each of the seven pitchers I list below. Rather, I don't think they'll perform as well from June 1 onward as they have to this point, and you may be able to get more for them in a trade than I believe they're worth. (I was tempted to put guys like Zach Duke and Kevin Millwood on this list, but they're still not owned in even three-quarters of ESPN.com leagues, and I tried to stick to players who are owned in most leagues.)
Matt Cain, Giants. After two full seasons of teasing fantasy owners, Cain is finally winning games (five wins) and boasting a 2.40 ERA, and now I'll rain on his parade by proclaiming him overrated? I will. Cain's WHIP is a less-than-stellar 1.32, and he's not blowing the world away with a 6.15 K/9 or a 3.75 BB/9. That lack of strikeout domination and potential control trouble sends up warning flares, but what's worse is that Cain's strand rate is 89.2 percent, highest in the majors. Add in a BABIP of .272, and you've got a lucky pitcher. I like the idea of trying to deal him here, at the peak of his value, considering he just threw a complete game this weekend against the Mariners.
Jered Weaver, Angels. Weaver hasn't piled on the wins yet, but his 2.52 ERA is tied with Roy Halladay's for second in the American League, and his 1.07 WHIP is third in the AL. So why pick on him? He has nearly as scary a strand rate as Cain -- 85.4 percent -- and a far lower BABIP, at .250, ninth-lowest in the majors. He's as much a fly-ball pitcher as ever (50.6 percent of batted balls against him are fly balls), and his latest outing against the Dodgers featured Weaver's old bugaboo: inefficient pitch counts that get him out of games early. There's no question that Weaver has been a good story and very much worth the low price you paid for him in March. But the smart money says watch out.
Johnny Cueto, Reds. Like many of the other folks on this list, Cueto has a frightening strand rate (83.1 percent) and BABIP (.253). What's always scared me about him is the fact that he gives up a lot of fly balls (41.3 percent this year) in a terrible home park. Last season, Cueto's HR/FB ratio was 13.9 percent, but so far in '09 it's 7.0 percent. If that mark trends back upward, we'll be looking at a different pitcher, one as prone to the big inning as he was last year. It also seems as if Cueto has given up something on the strikeout side (he's down from 8.17 K/9 in '08 to 6.97 in '09) to get his walks down (from 3.52 BB/9 to 2.37) in his second full season. Good for real life, less good for fantasy. Hey, I like Cueto a lot, and I'm not giving him away. But so far this year he has performed like a $20-plus pitcher, and I'm not convinced he's that.
Jair Jurrjens, Braves. Fun name to say, fun guy to own so far in '09: Jurrjens features a 2.07 ERA (fourth-best in baseball) and a smooth 1.18 WHIP. The thing is that his peripherals continue to indicate that his 2008 performance is his ceiling, so I'm expecting a regression. Yes, his ground-ball rate is actually down this season (from 51.5 percent in '08 to 39.3 in '09), which I expect to level off because of his heavy sinking stuff. But I don't think he'll see his strand rate tool along at 84.1 percent all season, or his BABIP come in as low as .255. Once hits start falling, last year's 1.37 WHIP is a much more likely target, and Jurrjens will never be mistaken for a strikeout guy.
Matt Garza, Rays. What's this? Heresy! ESPN Conversation posters bristle regularly at my lack of Garza awe, so I hesitate to invoke their wrath. But what the heck? Most of Garza's peripheral stats look pretty much like his stats from last season, with one exception: The league is hitting an unsustainable .201 against him, backed by a .243 BABIP. That explains how he has trimmed one-tenth of a point off his WHIP and three-tenths off his ERA. And we've actually started to see slightly worse control out of Garza in his past two outings, as he walked four against both the Indians and A's. Hey, I like the guy. I just don't love him. I still think he gets flustered and down on himself when calls don't go his way, and I still think a more reasonable expectation for him is an ERA around 4.00 and a WHIP around 1.25. That's more than respectable, especially in the AL, but it's not elite.
Wandy Rodriguez, Astros. I own Rodriguez in more than one league, and I can tell you that it would hurt mightily to deal him after stealing him on draft day. But I may have to do just that. After all, that's the essence of fantasy success: When perceived value doesn't match actual value, it's time to make a move. Rodriguez has shaken off the notion that he's only a home pitcher (3.24 road ERA, 1.14 road WHIP), and looks to be about a month away from his first All-Star Game. What scares me (as so many of these guys do) is the high strand rate (80.5 percent) and the relatively low BABIP (.270). Listen, Rodriguez has given up three earned runs or fewer in every single start this year, so it'd be pretty tough to tell you he stinks, despite Monday's erratic outing. He doesn't. But will he pitch like a Cy Young contender the rest of the year? I have my doubts.
Zack Greinke, Royals. Speaking of Cy Young contenders, Greinke is fantasy baseball's pitcher of the year through two months, with a ridiculous 0.82 ERA and 0.91 WHIP. There aren't many nits to pick here, except maybe a high strand rate (88.5 percent). But riddle me this: If someone wanted to trade you Johan Santana for Greinke straight up, would you do it? How about Albert Pujols for Greinke? Personally, I think you'd have to. I know this kid's looked like the best pitcher on the planet for two months, but if I could consolidate my winnings and lock in more value than even he has? That's arbitrage, and again, it's the essence of winning fantasy strategy.
Top 80 StartersNote: Christopher Harris' top 80 starters are ranked for their expected performance from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued.
1. Johan Santana, NYM (1)
2. CC Sabathia, NYY (2)
3. Tim Lincecum, SF (3)
4. Roy Halladay, TOR (4)
5. Chad Billingsley, LAD (5)
6. Jake Peavy, SD (7)
7. Zack Greinke, KC (8)
8. Dan Haren, ARI (6)
9. Yovani Gallardo, MIL (10)
10. Josh Beckett, BOS (11)
11. Cole Hamels, PHI (9)
12. Felix Hernandez, SEA (12)
13. Josh Johnson, FLA (14)
14. Adam Wainwright, STL (18)
15. Justin Verlander, DET (24)
16. James Shields, TB (13)
17. Javier Vazquez, ATL (16)
18. John Lackey, LAA (17)
19. Cliff Lee, CLE (20)
20. Erik Bedard, SEA (19)
21. Francisco Liriano, MIN (15)
22. Derek Lowe, ATL (26)
23. Kevin Slowey, MIN (27)
24. Brandon Webb, ARI (21)
25. Roy Oswalt, HOU (22)
26. Joba Chamberlain, NYY (25)
27. John Danks, CHW (29)
28. Matt Cain, SF (30)
29. Ted Lilly, CHC (28)
30. A.J. Burnett, NYY (31)
31. Aaron Harang, CIN (34)
32. Wandy Rodriguez, HOU (35)
33. Clayton Kershaw, LAD (36)
34. Brett Myers, PHI (33)
35. Rich Harden, CHC (23)
36. Ervin Santana, LAA (32)
37. Johnny Cueto, CIN (37)
38. Scott Baker, MIN (40)
39. Matt Garza, TB (42)
40. Jon Lester, BOS (43)
41. Daisuke Matsuzaka, BOS (44)
42. Gil Meche, KC (39)
43. Jered Weaver, LAA (46)
44. Max Scherzer, ARI (48)
45. Mark Buehrle, CHW (47)
46. Edinson Volquez, CIN (45)
47. Carlos Zambrano, CHC (53)
48. Chris Volstad, FLA (50)
49. Ryan Dempster, CHC (49)
50. Scott Kazmir, TB (38)
51. Jair Jurrjens, ATL (52)
52. Chris Carpenter, STL (59)
53. Randy Johnson, SF (51)
54. Chris Young, SD (56)
55. Hiroki Kuroda, LAD (57)
56. Andy Pettitte, NYY (58)
57. Dave Bush, MIL (55)
58. Manny Parra, MIL (54)
59. Kenshin Kawakami, ATL (61)
60. Andy Sonnanstine, TB (63)
61. Jordan Zimmermann, WAS (64)
62. David Price, TB (67)
63. John Maine, NYM (60)
64. Joe Saunders, LAA (68)
65. Paul Maholm, PIT (62)
66. John Smoltz, BOS (66)
67. Edwin Jackson, DET (72)
68. Kyle Lohse, STL (74)
69. Justin Duchscherer, OAK (65)
70. Zach Duke, PIT (79)
71. Ricky Nolasco, FLA (41)
72. Jeremy Guthrie, BAL (69)
73. Koji Uehara, BAL (70)
74. Tommy Hanson, ATL (71)
75. Kevin Millwood, TEX (73)
76. Tim Wakefield, BOS (77)
77. Bronson Arroyo, CIN (NR)
78. Randy Wolf, LAD (78)
79. Scott Richmond, TOR (80)
80. Mike Pelfrey, NYM (NR)
• Justin Verlander, Tigers (ranked No. 15): Can you make the argument that my weekly starting pitcher rankings are a little like an NCAA coaches' poll, and entities that were disrespected to begin the year have to fight tooth and nail to climb past inferior opponents who benefited from a higher preseason ranking? You can, and Verlander would be Exhibit A. Dude is smoking, and really has been his past six starts. He's struck out at least eight batters in every one of those games while never walking more than three. Only the memory of three bad starts out of four to begin the year keeps him out of my top 10, but another couple of weeks like this will take care of that.
• Chris Carpenter, Cardinals (52): Carp took a perfect game into the seventh Monday afternoon against the Brewers, and all told allowed two hits and zero runs in eight innings. That means in 23 innings this season, he has allowed ... zero runs. Methinks that won't last, but we know he has the chops to be dominant any time he steps onto the mound. What limits him here is the continued risk of injury. But clearly, he shouldn't be unowned in any leagues. Heads up to the 8 percent of ESPN.com leagues in which he's still available.
• Zach Duke, Pirates (79): This is me giving in. I still don't believe in Duke. He's due to allow more hits and more homers some time soon; it's his modus operandi. Still, at some point, leaving him off the list is just willfulness. I mean, the guy does have a 2.77 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, and he has provided top-10 value among fantasy baseball starting pitchers this year. But as you can tell by where I ranked him, I don't think this will last. His BABIP is more than 30 percentage points lower than in any other big league season. I will be truly, truly shocked if Duke's final 2009 ERA is on the happy side of 4.00.
• Francisco Liriano, Twins (21): Liriano's control is worse in '09 than it has ever been, he's striking out fewer batters than any time during his big league career, and his peripheral numbers actually indicate that he's lucky the overall results haven't been worse. He also has allowed eight homers, which seems to indicate he's picked up some of Scott Baker's poor habits. I believe things will turn around for the young lefty, so I keep ranking him based on that potential. But it'd be nice if it would start to appear soon.
• Rich Harden, Cubs (36): The Cubs put Harden on the disabled list Friday because of a strained back, which begs the question: Did you have "strained back" in your Rich Harden Injury Pool? Harden is eligible to return June 2 and claims that the injury is no big deal. But that's what he always claims. You can't drop him, because the ceiling is so high. But does anyone believe this is the last Harden injury news we'll hear this year?
• Scott Kazmir, Rays (50): The Rays placed Kazmir on the DL on Friday with what they're calling a right quadriceps strain, but this may simply be a plan to give the ineffective Kazmir a couple of weeks to get his head together so that he can work on improving his hellacious 7.69 ERA and 1.95 WHIP. In his place, Tampa recalled David Price from Triple-A, presumably because enough of the season has passed that the team is sure Price won't accrue enough big league service time to become a Super 2 player and earn arbitration a year early. In Monday night's game, Price threw 100 pitches but got through only 3 1/3 innings, fanning six but walking five and allowing four hits.
Comings and goings
• The Reds put Edinson Volquez on the DL retroactive to May 17 because of back spasms. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, the team doesn't believe the injury is serious, and they expect Volquez to return the first week in June. To take Volquez's spot in the rotation, the Reds called up onetime top prospect Homer Bailey, who once again got lit up in the majors on Saturday: six runs, six walks and three hits in 4 1/3 innings. He was sent back to the minors on Sunday.
• Joba Chamberlain, who was drilled by an Adam Jones grounder on Thursday, was able to throw a successful bullpen session this past weekend and should start Tuesday night against the Rangers. Speculation was that if Chamberlain couldn't go, Chien-Ming Wang would take his place. As it is, Wang probably will have to wait to return as a starter.
• Carlos Zambrano returned from the DL on Friday and allowed three runs, three hits and four walks in 4 1/3 innings against the Padres. He struck out seven.
• Daisuke Matsuzaka also returned from the DL on Friday. He allowed four runs, five hits and two walks in five innings while throwing 80 pitches. He'll face Minnesota on Wednesday in the Homer Dome.
• Hiroki Kuroda pitched without injury or incident for Class A Inland Empire Friday night and will make another rehab appearance Wednesday. Kuroda is attempting to return from an oblique injury that sidelined him in early April. He could return to the Dodgers' rotation next week.
• Koji Uehara came out of his Saturday start after three innings because of a hamstring injury. Uehara had thrown three scoreless innings against the Nationals, making the turn of events all the more frustrating. The Baltimore Sun reports that if Uehara can pitch a side session Tuesday without pain, he'll make his next start Thursday against the Tigers.
• Eric Stults missed a start last week because of a jammed thumb but was able to throw Monday afternoon against the Rockies, allowing three hits and seven walks in 4 1/3 innings in a no-decision.
• A week after announcing to the world that they would allow their young starters to flourish as long as they pitched well, the Blue Jays demoted Robert Ray and Brett Cecil to Triple-A Las Vegas and called up Ricky Romero and Casey Janssen to take their places in the rotation. Janssen pitched Saturday against the Angels and allowed three runs eight hits and a walk in six innings. Romero is scheduled to pitch Tuesday night against the Orioles. Neither is recommended in a mixed league.
• The Rangers put Vicente Padilla on the DL on Friday because of a sore shoulder, though he's already throwing off flat ground and may throw a bullpen session Tuesday. Padilla is eligible to be activated June 1.
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• If you were skeptical about the latest Luke Hochevar call-up, you may have even more to thumb your nose at in the next couple of weeks. The Royals sent down the former No. 1 overall pick after he got racked in three big league starts (10.80 ERA, 2.06 WHIP) but have said that when they need a fifth starter again in early June, Hochevar probably will be their guy.
• The Indians placed Anthony Reyes on the 15-day DL because of elbow inflammation. Reyes had to come out of his start Friday after three innings (and six walks). David Huff should stay in Cleveland's rotation for at least this week, while Jeremy Sowers may need a rest after pitching five shutout innings in the Indians' comeback victory on Monday.
• The Braves put Jo-Jo Reyes on the DL with a strained hamstring and called up rookie Kris Medlen to make his big league debut this past Wednesday. Medlen allowed five runs, three hits and five walks in three innings at home against the Rockies in a 9-0 loss. He pitches against the Giants on Tuesday night.
• The Orioles will call up Jason Berken to make his major league debut starting against the Blue Jays on Tuesday. Berken fanned 24 and walked 12 in 33 2/3 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A this season, and Baltimore is likely trying to catch lightning in a bottle here. Berken isn't an elite prospect, though, and probably isn't worth adding in any leagues. It'll be much bigger news if Chris Tillman gets called up. (Unfortunately, Tillman suffered a groin strain pitching for Triple-A Norfolk this past weekend.)
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.
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