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Workload worries

8/25/2010

By this point, any remotely experienced fantasy owner -- even one with only a year or two and a couple leagues under his or her belt -- is well aware of the follies of protecting young pitchers. People hail Mark Prior and Kerry Wood as the most recent examples of young, shining stars whose careers went bad simply because they were forced to throw so many pitches at such young ages.

We haven't the space to get into the minute details of the Priors, Woods and their predecessors; suffice to say that we could fill every space we currently do with fantasy baseball analysis on a weekly basis and still not cover everything there is to be said about pitching workloads. Pitch counts and innings caps are now a way of life, and no matter how much I believe that in this debate, the pendulum has swung back too far in the other direction, the fact of the matter is that I must digest and react to such information. It doesn't matter that, for example, my opinion is that it's ridiculous to set "innings caps" when pitches thrown should be the concern; what matters is that there is such a thing as an innings cap.

The bottom line: Some young pitchers are not going to help you down the stretch, during the most crucial weeks of your season.

This isn't the first season that statement will turn out to be true. Last season it was names like Joba Chamberlain, Mat Latos and pretty much the entire Toronto Blue Jays rotation who didn't take to the mound late in September. This season it's a slew of candidates, some names old (like Latos), some new.

We're nearing fantasy playoff time -- or the make-or-break weeks in Rotisserie scoring -- and the last thing you need is the surprise of learning one of your most trusted arms is about to have his season ended prematurely. So, today, let's examine the pitchers at greatest risk of bumping up against an innings cap. In order to do this, we'll borrow a time-tested indicator often referred to as the "Verducci Effect" -- named for reporter Tom Verducci (though he's not necessarily the first to have discovered it) -- which dictates that a pitcher who experiences an innings bump of 30 or greater from one season to the next tends to suffer diminished performance the following year. We'll also limit the study to pitchers who began the 2010 season aged 25 or younger; there's a prevailing opinion that older pitchers can handle heftier workloads, so teams tend not to sweat it with them.

Each pitcher is listed with his current 2010 innings pace, which takes his minor and major league innings total to date and projects it over remaining team games, and his resulting innings increase based upon that pace. A "worry level," ranging from low to moderate to high to extreme, is also included.

Ian Kennedy, Arizona Diamondbacks (194-inning pace, +170 1/3): If you add the 29 2/3 innings he threw in the Arizona Fall League last year, Kennedy's projected increase drops to "only" 140 2/3, but that would still give him the second-largest innings bump of anyone on the list. Manager Kirk Gibson has been aware of this for over a month, telling the Diamondbacks' official Web site in mid-July that there's "no way" he'd allow Kennedy to throw 200 innings. At the time, Gibson's plan was not to let Kennedy work deep into games, which might help explain Kennedy's 86.5 pitches per start in August. Still, at this pace, the right-hander might be shut down a few weeks before October. Worry level: High.

Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals (186-inning pace, +148 1/3): If there's anything working in Garcia's favor, it's that the Cardinals need his talented left arm to make up the 2½ games they trail in the National League Central race (one in the wild card). Having a pitcher only 23 months removed from Tommy John surgery throw this many frames -- plus possible postseason innings -- seems foolish, but if you're a Garcia owner, surely you're rooting for the Cardinals to remain in a tight battle for either playoff spot until the end. Any early clinching might mean an early seat on the bench for Garcia, the No. 27 starter for the season on our Player Rater. Worry level: Moderate.

Kevin Slowey, Minnesota Twins (176 2/3-inning pace, +86): A triceps strain that will cost him the next two-plus weeks will ensure that projected innings total comes down. You've probably already made alternate arrangements for your stretch run if you're a Slowey owner. Worry level: On the DL.

Phil Hughes, New York Yankees (181-inning pace, +75 2/3): Like Garcia, Hughes plays for a team with October baseball its goal -- playoff baseball, not just the three days on the regular-season schedule -- and with Andy Pettitte hurting and A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez struggling, Hughes is arguably the Yankees' second-most reliable starter. The insertion of Ivan Nova into their rotation on Monday might have been the Yankees' latest attempt to chip a little off Hughes' projected innings total, as the rumored cap for him is around 175. It's tough to justify shelving him or shifting him to the bullpen, however, at least not until the Yankees' postseason ticket is officially stamped. Worry level: Moderate.

Jesse Litsch, Toronto Blue Jays (finishes 2010 at +74 2/3): His season is finished due to surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip, and injury that requires four to six months' rehabilitation. Worry level: He's on the DL.

Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays (185-inning pace, +71): That the Rays demoted him to Class A ball to get in some relief work despite four quality starts to begin his big league career speaks volumes about the Rays' workload concerns with their prized right-handed prospect. They have the rotation depth to afford it, but is Wade Davis really the more talented pitcher at this point? Fantasy owners need to accept that Hellickson's role the remainder of the year might be as a reliever, set to fill the David Price role of the 2008 postseason. Worry level: Extreme.

Jonathon Niese, New York Mets (186 2/3-inning pace, +66 2/3): He's the youngster whose workload no one seems to discuss, but the Mets have to realize it's foolish to abuse one of their more promising pitchers in what's essentially a lost season. Here's my sleeper pick for the honor of "out-of-nowhere, mid-September shutdown announcement." Worry level: High.

Alex Sanabia, Florida Marlins (169-inning pace, +64 2/3): He's barely owned in any league, so no one might notice him being shut down, but if that Aug. 19 gem caught your eye, keep his workload in mind. Worry level: High.

Mat Latos, San Diego Padres (186 1/3-inning pace, +63 1/3): The most talked-about name of anyone on the list, Latos has already had his outings pushed back on multiple occasions, and the San Diego media had suggested in the preseason that the Padres might begin fretting his workload once he reached 150 frames, which is 7 1/3 innings away. Of course, those reporters had no idea the Padres would be this successful, or still in the race today, and like Garcia and Hughes, Latos is a pitcher the Padres need to keep using in order to remain competitive. In fact, he's not a great comparison to either Garcia or Hughes, because the Padres need him even more than the Cardinals or Yankees need the other two. Expect Latos to get bumped back as off days allow -- the Padres have two more, on Sept. 2 and 20 -- but his owners should be more worried about the potential impact of his workload on his 2011, not the rest of 2010. Worry level: Moderate.

Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians (188 1/3-inning pace, +59): The Indians are already hinting they'll bump him to the bullpen in early September, and the greater worry about that is not that he'll no longer be an AL-only matchups candidate, but rather he might never escape that role. Many scouts feel Masterson is better off in the bullpen. Worry level: Extreme.

Brad Mills, Toronto Blue Jays (150 2/3-inning pace, +58 2/3): With the number of injuries the Blue Jays have had and the volume of young arms in both the majors and minors who also bear watching, they might not be able to afford Mills much rest. Worry level: Low.

Ivan Nova, New York Yankees (197-inning pace, +57 2/3): He made his first big league start Monday and it was a good one, albeit a short one. If he figures into the mix, it'll probably be as a spot starter. Worry level: Moderate.

Luke French, Seattle Mariners (205 2/3-inning pace, +56 2/3): He's not quite the caliber prospect of some of the other names on the list, so the Mariners shouldn't sweat pushing 190 innings with him. Worry level: Low.

Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants (195-inning pace, +53 2/3): He recently surpassed his professional high for innings (141 2/3), and with that began the reports that manager Bruce Bochy will begin monitoring his rookie's usage. Bochy hasn't dropped any hints as to what Bumgarner's innings cap might be -- if he even has one -- but the Giants do have three consecutive Mondays off to conclude the regular season, so they could always just push him back to Saturday each of those weeks. Worry level: Moderate.

Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves (178-inning pace, +53 1/3): Manager Bobby Cox has already used off days to push Minor back in the rotation, and there are four more remaining on the Braves' schedule, including on each of the final three Thursdays of the regular season. You could almost predict his remaining schedule: Aug. 31, Sept. 5, Sept. 10, Sept. 15, Sept. 21, Sept. 28. Worry level: High.

Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays (178-inning pace, +53 1/3): The Blue Jays have been monitoring his innings total since the All-Star break, going with the infamous use-off-days-to-push-him-back strategy. There's a good chance that a young starter this talented is the one the Blue Jays will most aim to protect, so you can be sure he's not going to exceed that 178-inning pace, if he even gets close to it. Worry level: High.

Gio Gonzalez, Oakland Athletics (210 1/3-inning pace, +50 2/3): What'll be interesting to see is whether the Athletics feel that the 175 1/3 innings they allowed Brett Anderson to throw as a rookie in 2009 might have contributed to his elbow issues this season; if they do then Gonzalez might be capped somewhat shy of that pace. Worry level: High.

Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals (158 2/3-inning pace, +49 2/3): I'm not the first to say it, but I'll say it loudly: I think his season is done. He had a hard cap of 160 innings for the season and it'd be foolish for the Nationals to push their prized prospect following two DL stints. Worry level: Extreme.

Jeanmar Gomez, Cleveland Indians (192 1/3-inning pace, +45): The Indians are closely monitoring their youngsters, and have listed 175 innings as a suggested cap for Gomez. Worry level: High.

Jake Arrieta, Baltimore Orioles (195 1/3-inning pace, +44 2/3): No matter the look of his 2010 big league numbers, he's another prized prospect, and he resides in a rotation that has two workhorse veterans in Kevin Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie. The Orioles have no reason to push Arrieta, and will almost assuredly shut him down in mid-September. Worry level: High.

Brad Bergesen, Baltimore Orioles (177 1/3-inning pace, +43): If you're picking from among Orioles youngsters, Bergesen is the one you should expect to finish with the most frames from among the Arrieta-Bergesen-Brian Matusz trio. His upside isn't as great, but the Orioles will remain mindful of him. Worry level: Moderate.

Brett Cecil, Toronto Blue Jays (185-inning pace, +42 2/3): Morrow will be the Blue Jays' top priority among young starters they want to protect, but Cecil probably ranks ahead of Mills on their list. Worry level: Moderate.

Barry Enright, Arizona Diamondbacks (196 2/3-inning pace, +40 2/3): His pace isn't excessive, and the Diamondbacks are lacking in quality alternatives. Expect him to keep working deep into September. Worry level: Low.

Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado Rockies (169 1/3-inning pace, +40 2/3): Figure this one comes down to the Rockies' ability to contend the remainder of the year, because Chacin gives them a better chance to win than Aaron Cook, but if the Rockies are out of the race, it makes a heck of a lot more sense for them to let Cook give Chacin a rest in September. Worry level: High.

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers (211 1/3-inning pace, +40 1/3): The primary concern with Kershaw is his age (he's 22), but the Dodgers have done a good job ramping him up as a professional, going from 122 frames in 2007 to 169 to 171 last season. Perhaps they'll consider capping him at 200 once they're eliminated from playoff contention, as history shows 200-plus innings is a rarity for a pitcher 22 or younger. Since the strike, only seven pitchers have done it in a season pitched entirely before turning 23. Worry level: Moderate.

Other starters to monitor: David Price (+40), Travis Wood (+39 2/3), Mike Leake (+35 1/3), James McDonald (+34 1/3), Josh Tomlin (+33 1/3), Vin Mazzaro (+32 2/3), Max Scherzer (+30 2/3), Chris Volstad (+30).

Four up

TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS

Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.

Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners: If there's a perfect example of the follies of chasing wins, it's found in the plight of "King Felix." Among qualified big league pitchers, he's eighth in ERA (2.51), 12th in WHIP (1.13), second in strikeouts (183), yet he has a sub-.500 record for the season (9-10). It's not a matter of capitalizing upon cozy matchups, either; he has eight consecutive quality starts against the 10 teams that rank among the top 10 in baseball in runs per game. In those eight starts, he has a 1.41 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 8.20 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio. Hernandez, in fact, has won all three of his starts versus the Yankees, baseball's top team in terms of runs per game, limiting them to one run on 16 hits in 26 innings combined.

Daniel Hudson, Arizona Diamondbacks: Edwin Jackson has three consecutive quality starts since his trade to the Chicago White Sox, but how about the Diamondbacks' return in that deal? Hudson has five quality starts, a 1.72 ERA and 36 K's in 36 2/3 innings for his new team. And, as with Hernandez, it's not a matter of facing easy matchups. In his past three turns, during which he has 28 K's and a 2.14 ERA in 21 innings, he has faced the Nos. 2 (Milwaukee Brewers), 1 (Reds) and 6 (Rockies) National League offenses in terms of runs per game.

Roy Oswalt, Philadelphia Phillies: He's settling in nicely with his new team, one averaging nearly a run per game more than his old one (the Houston Astros), as he has a 2.43 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in five starts for the Phillies, including wins in each of his past three turns. Keep in mind he has a 2.78 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 47 career starts after Sept. 1, better than his 3.23/1.19 career numbers in those categories, and his Phillies are getting healthier on the offensive side, with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Shane Victorino all back in their everyday lineup. If Oswalt is one of the 10 best starters in fantasy the rest of the way, will you be at all surprised?

C.J. Wilson, Texas Rangers: It's fitting that we discuss Wilson in a column about workload increases, because while his 29 years of age excluded him from the above study, his projected 131-inning bump this season would have ranked him third on the list. So wouldn't you expect this to be about the time of year Wilson's stuff lost some of its luster? Not so. He's 5-0 with a 2.20 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in seven starts since the All-Star break, including two victories over the potent Boston Red Sox lineup and a solid outing Aug. 10 versus the Yankees.

Four down

Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers: One bad start shouldn't condemn a pitcher, especially not one ranked 36th among starters on the Player Rater, but when it comes from a pitcher who has a lifetime ERA after the All-Star break (4.35) nearly a run and a half higher than before it (2.86), it bears watching. Gallardo's 2009 declined steeply once July arrived, and from this date forward he had a 4.78 ERA and made just five more starts. He's no workload risk, being that he's still 43 frames shy of his entire last-season total (185 2/3), but might it be that he's a pitcher who tends to tire down the stretch? Five walks, two home runs allowed, an average fastball velocity of 91.4 mph (per Pitch Fx) and only two swinging strikes out of 76 pitches suggest Gallardo's stuff was severely lacking this past Friday versus the Padres. Again, it shouldn't condemn him, but it's troubling.

Josh Johnson, Florida Marlins: Remember when Johnson was in the midst of a streak of 19 consecutive quality starts, an unquestioned All-Star and arguably the No. 1 pitcher in all of fantasy? Where is that right-hander today? He has only two quality starts in five turns in August, and the most prominent problem is that his command has tumbled, to the point where he's averaging 5.93 K's and 2.97 walks per nine in the month. Compare those with his 9.32 and 1.71 ratios during his 19-game hot spell and it seems something's amiss. It's not necessarily diminished velocity or inability to miss bats; per Pitch Fx, his fastball has averaged 94.5 mph and he has generated swings and misses on 10.5 percent of all pitches thrown in August, but during that 19-start stretch those numbers were 94.8 and 11.6. That hints that this might merely be a cold spell, one bound to end soon enough.

Javier Vazquez, New York Yankees: He made the list last week and he's on it again this week, but that's the nature of his steep decline in fantasy value, this time spawned by his being skipped in the Yankees' rotation during their series at Chicago. It's not the first time they've skipped his turn, and the last time, he roared back with eight quality starts in 10 tries, a 2.78 ERA and 0.96 WHIP heading into the All-Star break. That's what manager Joe Girardi is hoping for by utilizing the strategy again, but one must wonder, how much longer can Vazquez hide the fact that he has lost the zip on his fastball? His days of high strikeout rates are in the past.

Barry Zito, San Francisco Giants: One of the reasons Zito was able to maintain an ERA under three into June was that, in the season's early stages, his command was sharper than it had been in a half-decade. Unfortunately, it seems as though he's regressing in that department lately, as in his past three turns, he has averaged 4.20 K's per nine and 1.75 K's per walk, significantly beneath his 6.57 and 2.02 year-to-date ratios. Challenging road matchups at Philadelphia and St. Louis have a lot to do with it, but this is also a pitcher who, while once a September standout, has a 4.66 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in the season's final month since 2004. He might be the weak link in the Giants' -- and his fantasy owners' -- rotation down the stretch.

Upgrade your roster

Add: Kyle Lohse, St. Louis Cardinals
Drop: Vicente Padilla, Los Angeles Dodgers

Two aging, low-upside, veteran right-handers who fit the classification of "matchups candidates" through and through, and that Padilla is currently on the disabled list while Lohse is fresh off it has a lot to do with this being an obvious swap.

Padilla can't be activated until at least Aug. 31, if that soon, and even in the best-case scenario, he's a start-at-home pitcher whose team plays just 14 of its final 30 games at home after that date. Five of those home games, incidentally, come between Aug. 31 and Sept. 5, meaning 16 of the Dodgers' final 25 are road contests, including trips to Arizona's Chase Field and Colorado's Coors Field.

Lohse and the Cardinals, meanwhile, play 17 of their final 38 games at home, though every one of those Busch Stadium games comes after Sept. 1. He's 15-11 with a 3.77 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 40 career starts there. In addition, the Cards play 14 of those contests against the Astros, Nationals and Pirates, the three weakest offenses in the NL, and in his career, Lohse is 14-8 with a 3.26 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 31 career games (27 starts) versus those three foes.

Don't expect Lohse to win you a fantasy title on his own, but if you can pick and choose well from his remaining matchups, he might yet be a difference-maker in NL-only or deep mixed formats.

Also consider adding …
Homer Bailey, Cincinnati Reds: He's back, and just as he did late in 2009, Bailey is looking as though he can be of service to fantasy owners down the stretch. He has back-to-back quality starts since his recall, limiting opponents to a .156 batting average and only one extra-base hit, a double, in them.
Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals: He might be the man tabbed to replace Strasburg in the Nationals' rotation, and in addition to this helping give us a window into his 2011 potential, Zimmermann's promotion might make him an attractive option in NL-only or deep mixed formats. He has a 1.59 ERA and 0.83 WHIP in 10 rehabilitation starts in the minors, but it's his command that's most impressive; he has walked only 1.36 batters per nine.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.