Commentary

Aces still worth believing in

Lackey, Oswalt, Liriano, Nolasco still rank high despite subpar numbers

Updated: June 10, 2009, 3:52 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

60 Feet 6 Inches
During my Monday morning chat this week, I was asked a question about the relative merits of Nelson Cruz and Vladimir Guerrero, and I answered that yes, at the moment, it would be mighty difficult to sit the power-surging Cruz in favor of the pectoral-challenged Vlad. That prompted the following response:

Steve (Philly): Come on Chris, you are just saying that about Cruz because you didn't back him this offseason. It is really tough for you experts to admit you were wrong ... take Andy Sonnanstine for example. He's been great, good call.

My response:

Christopher Harris: Hi, Steve. Actually, didn't I just admit Cruz is a better pick than Vlad right now? Not sure about your logic on that one. You don't know my immensely self-deprecating persona very well, bud. I'm as self-loathing as they come. Sonnanstine wasn't exactly in my top 30 to start the year -- it's not like I saw him as a fantasy ace. But absolutely, the fact that I ranked him at all was a mess. By your logic, though, I should never miss on any player? Tough crowd, tough crowd.

Fending off hate mail is, of course, an occupational hazard in this gig, but since Steve's perception is that I'm a blowhard who can't relent when he's wrong, I'll put it down in pixel dust right here: so far in this column this year, I've been wrong to varying degrees about (to name a few) Edwin Jackson, Zach Duke, Kevin Millwood, Chris Volstad, Randy Wolf, Jarrod Washburn, Manny Parra and Brett Myers. If you don't want to give me credit for guys like Kevin Slowey, Derek Lowe, Fausto Carmona, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jonathan Sanchez and the squadron of flash-in-the-pan Blue Jays starters (Brett Cecil, et al), c'est la vie. Trust me, I have no limits when it comes to admitting screwups.

But that doesn't really interest me today. No, instead, I'd like to explore a few starting pitchers behind whom I'm stubbornly sticking, despite the rattle and hum coming from ESPN Conversation. We're a full one-third of the way through the season, and transaction-wire trigger fingers are getting itchy. But I still say stick with these guys, which makes them my "All Chris-Harris-Is-An-Idiot Team":

John Lackey, Angels. How dare I rank Lackey 20th in this week's top 80? He's got a 5.13 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP! He has only one win! He's struck out only 16 batters in 26 1/3 innings, way off his career 7.2 K/9 rate! I happened to catch the middle innings of Lackey's start in Toronto on Thursday, though, and I saw the old John Lackey. His fastball velocity was just about back to normal (low 90s), his slider was working and he induced grounders at a high rate. I'm stubbornly hanging on and believing in a track record that has seen Lackey post an ERA below 4.00 and a WHIP below 1.30 for three straight seasons.

Roy Oswalt, Astros. Just when I thought it was safe to stop defending myself about Oswalt after he fanned eight Rockies and allowed just one run in seven innings on June 1, he gets shelled this past weekend by the Pirates. Gah. Overall, Oswalt is 2-3 in 13 starts with a 4.66 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP. He's allowed fly balls at an alarming rate this year (37 percent, highest in his career), which explains why he's given up 12 homers, putting him on a pace for a ridiculous 32. He's been struck in the hand by a liner. He's been the subject of trade rumors. I honestly don't see much in his peripherals indicating he's been terribly unlucky. In fact, his '09 season looks an awful like his '07, which wasn't great, but at least he won 14. He is still only 31 years old (turns 32 on Aug. 29), and he should get to 200 innings for the sixth straight season. That means more decisions should be forthcoming, which should mean more wins. Unless he is hurt, he has too much history not to get better.

Francisco Liriano
Jerry Lai/US PresswireFrancisco Liriano has not come anywhere close to being the potential ace many predicted him to be this season.
Francisco Liriano, Twins. Oh, this one really rankles the masses. I still have Liriano 26th despite his 6.12 ERA and 1.58 WHIP. He's 2-7, for heaven's sake! Fortunately, he was pretty good his last time out against the Mariners, allowing just one run and three hits in six innings. Unfortunately, he also needed 101 pitches to get that far in the game. Rumors have abounded that Liriano could be sent down once Glen Perkins comes off the DL (which could happen as soon as this weekend), so there'll be pressure on him in his next start. One thing that's noticeable after his past couple outings, though, is that it seems to me he's thrown more changeups and fewer sliders, which could be an indication that his elbow feels better and better. Liriano's change is nasty. If he really is throwing it more, all his stats should get better. If he isn't? Well, he'll be in the minors soon enough, and this discussion will be moot.

John Danks, White Sox. On the bright side, this nifty lefty has improved his K/9 from 7.34 ('08) to 8.10 ('09). Unfortunately, his walks are also up, though 13 of his 24 free passes have come in three of his 11 outings. Danks has been mediocre for five straight starts, and the natives think ranking him 31st is still too high. But he's still a good ground-ball guy (44.8 percent), and his batting average against on balls in play is .323, putting him in the top 25 in the big leagues. I also note that his HR/FB rate is up from 7.4 percent in '08 (considering his home park, that may have been a bit low) to a whopping 13.8 percent in '09. As with the first three men on this list, Danks will get you strikeouts, and I think he'll allow fewer hits and homers as the averages begin to level out.

Scott Baker, Twins. Do I get beaten up more for Liriano or for Baker? Well, after Baker fanned 10 Indians his last time out, probably Liriano. Still, Baker's top-line numbers look ugly: three wins and a 5.88 ERA. Baker has often pitched brilliantly this season, only to get himself into a jam or face a bad break and fall apart. He's not known as a head case, so I don't know exactly what to make of this trend, except that I think eventually the worm will turn. He's still an elite control artist, and he still fans over seven batters per nine innings. And if Danks' 13.8 percent HR/FB rate stands out, how about Baker's 15.6 percent? That's pretty unlucky, even in the Homer Dome. I'm still buying Baker this year.

Ricky Nolasco, Marlins. Make no mistake: Nolasco wasn't dominant in his return to the majors Sunday. He allowed 10 hits and three walks in seven innings, and suffered his sixth loss of the year. But giving up two runs -- and no homers -- was a step forward. I've written and said this ad nauseam this year, but Nolasco has been the majors' unluckiest pitcher in '09: his BABIP is a ludicrous .400, highest in baseball, and his strand rate is 53.8 percent, lowest in baseball. I grant you that the Marlins have a pretty shaky defense, which doesn't help. But Nolasco is due some much better luck.

Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals. What can I say? I like low-walk guys. Zimmermann has 14 walks compared to 54 strikeouts in 52 innings, numbers which belie his 5.71 ERA and 1.37 WHIP. His BABIP is .351, fourth-highest in the majors, and his strand rate is 63.9 percent, sixth-lowest in baseball. On the one hand, he's a rookie, so you can expect him to have the kind of bad innings in otherwise decent starts that can be fantasy killers. On the other hand, what business does a rookie have boasting a K/BB ratio of nearly four? Yes, the team he plays for is unfortunate. But as with all these guys, I'm still a believer.

Fortunes Rising

Top 80 Starters

Note: 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. Roy Halladay, TOR (4)
3. Tim Lincecum, SF (3)
4. CC Sabathia, NYY (2)
5. Chad Billingsley, LAD (5)
6. Dan Haren, ARI (8)
7. Josh Beckett, BOS (10)
8. Zack Greinke, KC (7)
9. Yovani Gallardo, MIL (9)
10. Justin Verlander, DET (11)
11. Jake Peavy, SD (6)
12. Felix Hernandez, SEA (12)
13. Cole Hamels, PHI (13)
14. Josh Johnson, FLA (15)
15. James Shields, TB (16)
16. Adam Wainwright, STL (14)
17. Javier Vazquez, ATL (17)
18. Erik Bedard, SEA (18)
19. Cliff Lee, CLE (19)
20. John Lackey, LAA (20)
21. Derek Lowe, ATL (21)
22. Kevin Slowey, MIN (22)
23. Joba Chamberlain, NYY (25)
24. Roy Oswalt, HOU (23)
25. Matt Cain, SF (24)
26. Francisco Liriano, MIN (26)
27. Ted Lilly, CHC (28)
28. A.J. Burnett, NYY (29)
29. Clayton Kershaw, LAD (30)
30. Jon Lester, BOS (36)
31. John Danks, CHW (27)
32. Jered Weaver, LAA (37)
33. Brandon Webb, ARI (31)
34. Johnny Cueto, CIN (33)
35. Matt Garza, TB (34)
36. Rich Harden, CHC (35)
37. Chris Carpenter, STL (44)
38. Scott Baker, MIN (39)
39. Wandy Rodriguez, HOU (32)
40. Chris Volstad, FLA (41)
41. Carlos Zambrano, CHC (43)
42. Ervin Santana, LAA (48)
43. Gil Meche, KC (40)
44. Aaron Harang, CIN (38)
45. Mark Buehrle, CHW (42)
46. Max Scherzer, ARI (45)
47. Randy Johnson, SF (46)
48. Hiroki Kuroda, LAD (54)
49. Edwin Jackson, DET (61)
50. Ryan Dempster, CHC (50)
51. Scott Kazmir, TB (51)
52. Jair Jurrjens, ATL (52)
53. David Price, TB (53)
54. Daisuke Matsuzaka, BOS (49)
55. Edinson Volquez, CIN (47)
56. Ricky Nolasco, FLA (75)
57. Jordan Zimmermann, WAS (64)
58. Chris Young, SD (56)
59. Kenshin Kawakami, ATL (60)
60. John Maine, NYM (55)
61. Andy Pettitte, NYY (57)
62. John Smoltz, BOS (65)
63. Carl Pavano, CLE (72)
64. Zach Duke, PIT (63)
65. Manny Parra, MIL (58)
66. Dave Bush, MIL (59)
67. Joe Saunders, LAA (62)
68. Paul Maholm, PIT (66)
69. Bronson Arroyo, CIN (69)
70. Kelvim Escobar, LAA (NR)
71. Nick Blackburn, MIN (73)
72. Kevin Millwood, TEX (77)
73. Ubaldo Jimenez, COL (NR)
74. Joe Blanton, PHI (79)
75. Randy Wolf, LAD (70)
76. Rick Porcello, DET (74)
77. Tommy Hanson, ATL (76)
78. Mike Pelfrey, NYM (71)
79. Jarrod Washburn, SEA (NR)
80. Josh Outman, OAK (NR)

Chris Carpenter, Cardinals (37). Here, wait, let me get it out of the way for you: "Harris' having Carpenter only 37th just shows what an idiot he is. Dude, you are so stupid. How do you keep this job, you moron?" Minus the inevitable spelling errors, I'm sure that'll be the lead in the ESPN Conversation companion to this piece, and I guess I understand. Carpenter's ERA (0.71) is in Greinke country and his WHIP is 0.63. Based purely on past performance, well, yeah, of course Carp wouldn't be 37th. But remind me again, how many starts has he been able to make so far in '09? What's that? Six? And how many innings has he thrown? All of 38? Yeah, if I'm not mistaken, that's like a good week for Roy Halladay. Listen, as long as Carpenter stays healthy, I'll gradually keep bumping him up. But that's not a sure thing.

Carl Pavano, Indians (63). What else can you say about Pavano's turnaround? After one terrible start to begin the season (one inning, nine earned runs), his ERA has been 3.55, his WHIP has been 1.16, and he has fanned 55 batters and walked only 12 in 71 innings. He hasn't been lucky, he's been good. Heck, if the Indians could get anything from starters 3-5, you'd have to imagine they wouldn't be nine games under .500. Pavano should be owned in all ESPN.com leagues, and right now he's owned in fewer than 20 percent. Did you know the shutout he threw last week against the White Sox was actually the fifth of his career? It's sometimes hard to remember that he used to be a pretty darned good pitcher in his Marlins days.

Ubaldo Jimenez, Rockies (73). Jimenez is another comeback kid. After a terrible April (7.58 ERA, 2.11 WHIP), he has cruised for eight consecutive outings, including an eight-inning, two-run, one-walk, nine-strikeout win Sunday against the Cardinals. His key has been improved control; he's gone from 4.67 BB/9 last year to 3.79 BB/9 in '09, and just 2.30 BB/9 since April. His ground-ball tendencies have always fit Coors to a tee, and if he's really going to walk about two batters per outing, his future is very bright, indeed.

Fortunes Falling

Wandy Rodriguez, Astros (39). Rodriguez was one of my primary sell-high guys a few weeks ago (so was Jered Weaver, so I'm not tooting my horn too loudly), and here's hoping you were able to get something amazing for him. Way-Rod has seen his ERA climb more than a full run over his past two starts, and three starts ago he was fortunate that all six of the runs he allowed were unearned. The strikeouts are still there (69 in 72 2/3 innings), but he has really been drilled in three consecutive outings. Amid worries that Rodriguez might've been tipping his pitches, he takes the mound Wednesday against the Cubs.

Edinson Volquez, Reds (55). Volquez came off the DL last week after struggling through a sore back, and he promptly lasted a single inning before having to come out of the game and go back on the list. This time, elbow tendinitis is to blame. He'll be eligible to return in about a week, but one imagines it'll be longer than that. The Reds haven't really set a timetable yet. In Volquez's absence, Cincinnati bypassed Homer Bailey and inserted Matt Maloney into their rotation.

Kyle Lohse, Cardinals (unranked). A week after Lohse was supposed to avoid the DL because of his strained forearm, he had to come out of last Wednesday's start in the third inning. Sure enough, he went directly to the shelf. Lohse's WHIP had already been on the rise; he'd given up more than two-tenths of a point in his most recent five starts. Brad Thompson gets Lohse's spot in the St. Louis rotation, and we wait to see if this will wind up being a longer-term problem for the Cardinals' righty.

Comings And Goings

Jake Peavy had to come out of his start last Tuesday after allowing four runs in just one inning, and the Padres subsequently revealed that their ace was dealing with an upper respiratory infection. The team subsequently held Peavy out of his scheduled start Sunday, but Peavy did start Monday night. He whiffed eight Diamondbacks while allowing two earned in seven innings, and got his sixth win, so it looks like he'll be fine going forward.

Surprise! More news on the Rich Harden injury front. Harden, already on the DL with a sore back, had his most recent rehab outing pushed back a day because of a stomach virus. The Cubs still hope to get Harden back Saturday, though.

The Braves finally called up Tommy Hanson this weekend, and he got torched Sunday against Milwaukee: six innings, six earned runs and six hits. Don't let that scare you off. The kid throws hard, showed decent control, and will have better days ahead. We're talking about a potential ace. No, he's not going to be your best fantasy pitcher this season, but he'll be worth starting more often than he's not.

The Yankees pulled Phil Hughes from their rotation in favor of Chien-Ming Wang, who allowed five runs and seven hits in 4 2/3 innings last week against the Rangers in his first start since returning from injury. It's not like Hughes has been consistently good (5.45 ERA, 1.50 WHIP), so at this point manager Joe Girardi is trying to pick the least-rotten apple. The hope would be that both of these guys could pitch well enough to be rotation members by August, whereupon Joba Chamberlain could become the eighth-inning specialist. There's a long way to go.

Mets starter John Maine told the New York Daily News that he's going through a "tired arm" period and that he "had nothing" in his most recent start. The numbers (four innings, six hits, seven runs) agree. The team hasn't announced whether they think Maine will have to skip his next outing.

The Angels activated Kelvim Escobar from the 60-day DL and started him Saturday against the Tigers. He threw pretty well: four hits, four walks, two runs and five strikeouts in five innings. Most importantly, Escobar's velocity appears to be all the way back. As all the Angels' formerly injured starters have shown us this year, there are likely to be bumps in the road, but I'd be adding Escobar in all leagues.

The A's called up Vin Mazzaro from Triple-A Sacramento early last week, in time for him to become one of the most talked-about pitchers in fantasy right now. In two outings, Mazzaro has two wins, a 0.68 WHIP and a 0.00 ERA. Hey, he's got a legit chance to be a No. 2 or No. 3 starter in the majors, but don't go crazy in mixed leagues. He's not likely to get you many strikeouts, and the offense for which he'll toil isn't exactly elite. In AL-only leagues, though, he's worth adding.

The Royals recalled Luke Hochevar from Triple-A Omaha on Saturday, and this time it went much better: Hochevar allowed four runs, two hits and two walks in 6 2/3 innings while beating the Blue Jays on the road. He's still probably not worth an add in any but the deepest leagues.

Cleveland optioned Fausto Carmona to their Rookie League team so he can try to figure out how to pitch again. He has a 7.42 ERA and 41 walks in 60 2/3 innings, meaning somehow he's actually been worse than he was during his execrable '08 season. Nobody needs to own him in a fantasy league right now.

The Indians have some good news in the form of Jake Westbrook's rehab from Tommy John surgery. Westbrook has been throwing simulated games without pain and with his normal velocity, and he should start pitching in actual minor league games soon. Without any setbacks, he could return to Cleveland after the All-Star break. He'd be worth a look in AL-only leagues.

After getting absolutely crushed in a Triple-A rehab start, Ryan Rowland-Smith's return date to the Mariners' big-league roster got less clear. He allowed 12 runs and 14 hits in just 4 2/3 innings. Yow. The original plan had been for RRS to take the ball this week against Oakland, but that may have changed.

When the Marlins activated Ricky Nolasco from Triple-A New Orleans, they put Anibal Sanchez back on the DL with continued soreness in his pitching shoulder. Don't expect to see Sanchez back in the majors soon.

The Tigers activated Jeremy Bonderman from the 60-day DL and he started in Monday's doubleheader. He lasted only four innings, giving up eight hits, three walks and six runs, fanning one and allowing three homers. Let's just say he's not ready to be owned in fantasy leagues just yet.

The Dodgers placed Eric Milton on the DL with tightness in his back. The next time L.A. needs a fifth starter, Eric Stults is expected to be ready to return from his injured thumb.

The White Sox recalled Jose Contreras from Triple-A Charlotte to pitch in the second game of Monday's doubleheader. Contreras dominated the Tigers, shutting them out for eight innings and allowing just one hit and one walk. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, there have been rumors that an effective Contreras could bump Bartolo Colon from the rotation. No matter who he replaces, it seems clear that Contreras will get another start after this boffo one.

The Dallas Morning News reports that Rangers starter Brandon McCarthy is headed to the DL because of a stress fracture in his shoulder. The injury is reportedly similar to one that sidelined McCarthy two years ago. He'll be on the shelf for a while.

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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