Commentary

Time to cut some slow-starting arms?

Updated: April 19, 2011, 4:35 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

The New York Yankees had the right idea.

60 Feet 6 Inches

No, I'm not suggesting that, when assembling your pitching staff at the draft table, you sit back deciding that every elite, proven arm is "too expensive" and you should let him go, only to spend the remainder of the draft -- not to mention practically the whole regular season -- picking up every low-cost pitcher with a pulse. (And don't give me that poppycock about Freddy Garcia being a "smart" signing now that he looked great in his first start; it's a mirage.)

What I'm suggesting is that the Yankees took the smart approach with Phil Hughes: They're working on fixing what ails him, but most importantly, they're doing it without him as an active member of their rotation.

Fantasy owners should steal a page from that pinstriped handbook; there comes a point when it's time to get that struggling starter off your active roster, and a point after that when it's time to get him off your roster entirely.

Understandably, we grow attached to our fantasy players. Our investment of early-round draft picks or dozens of auction dollars often has us hesitant to give up on those slow starters. If you don't believe that, I ask you this: How many times have you ever described one of your own as "untouchable" when asked about him in trade? In reality, no player should ever be untouchable; there is a price for every player, even the best one in the game.

[+] EnlargeHughes
Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireAll of the warning flags surrounding Phil Hughes in spring training came to fruition in his first three starts of 2011.

But here's why the Yankees have it right: They want to win, and the way to win isn't simply accumulating the largest amount of quality statistics; it's also avoiding poor statistics at any cost. A team like the Yankees -- whose goal is a championship every single season -- cannot afford patience with Hughes, who has the worst ERA (13.94) and second-worst swinging-strike percentage (2.9) of any pitcher who has made at least three starts, and an average fastball velocity more than 3 mph lower in 2011 (89.3) than it was in 2010 (92.5).

You want to be the Yankees. To, as Alec Baldwin says, win … relentlessly.

You do that by making the bold decision, determining when patience is warranted and when it's time to give up, and sticking by that call, no matter what the future holds. (You're never going to have a perfect record doing this; the point is to be right many more times than you're wrong.) And in the case of Hughes, that decision is obvious, now that he's officially on the disabled list with a dead arm: It's time to let him go, at least in league formats comparable to ESPN's standard game.

Remember, you're afforded but three bench spots and one DL spot in our standard game, and as you'll see with the list below, there are many more pitchers -- who were all top-50 starting pitchers judging by preseason ADP (average draft position) -- off to sluggish starts whom you might fear keeping in your active lineup. By all means, if you think you can swing it, bench or DL -- and don't cut -- Hughes, but understand how precious each of those "reserve" spots is. Some might be needed to handcuff closers (Matt Capps and Joe Nathan), stash top prospects (Jerry Sands), or bench hitters whose teams don't play or elite starting pitchers on days they're not scheduled to pitch. DL spots are probably needed for more valuable players, like Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton or Evan Longoria.

In, say, a 12-team league with 10-man benches and three-man DLs -- the format of my longest-running keeper league, to pick a specific example -- of course Hughes warrants more patience. But even in that format, there are limits.

Let's return to the Hughes example: Besides his ominous statistics -- and throw in the doozy from ESPN Stats & Information that the right-hander has generated just two swinging strikes on the 60 fastballs he has thrown this season -- Hughes also experienced a 71-inning workload boost from the 2009 to 2010 seasons, has lacked velocity since the onset of spring training and has now been shut down and put on anti-inflammatories. That makes it sound like he has a lingering physical problem we don't yet know about, and that this isn't an overnight fix. Comparisons to Max Scherzer -- who rebounded with four strong months to conclude the 2010 season after a two-week stint in the minors -- seem a bit far-fetched.

What about the other sluggish starters? In order of ADP, here are some theories about what's wrong with, and what you should do with, five others:

Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins (ADP: 86.2): It's games like his on Monday -- 6 1/3 innings, five hits, two runs at Baltimore -- that keep us on the hook, but even in that outing, questions were warranted. He walked five batters, struck out two and threw just 54.3 percent of his pitches for strikes. Add them to the season tally and here are Liriano's concerns: 6.10 walks-per-nine ratio, 1.74 homers-per-nine, 10.6 swinging-strike percentage, 42.3 percent pitches in the strike zone -- every one of those representing a personal worst. His average fastball velocity is also just 91.7 mph, down from 93.7 in 2010, and entering Monday he had generated swings and misses with the pitch only 3.6 percent of the time, very Hughes-like. "Cut time" hasn't yet arrived with Liriano, but questions are warranted, especially since the reason I was so high on him was, naturally, his polished command in 2010 (9.44 K's-per-nine, 2.72 walks-per-nine, 12.4 swinging-strike percentage). Remember, he has yet be an elite fantasy pitcher for a full season in his six big league years.

Wandy Rodriguez, Houston Astros (ADP: 112.1): This might be nothing more than a matter of bad luck. A four-inning, nine-hit, seven-run nightmare in Philadelphia on April 2 didn't help Rodriguez's year-to-date stat line, but the two year-to-date stats that stand out are his .417 BABIP and 60.8 percent strand rate, the third- and 15th-worst numbers among qualified starters. Rodriguez's 3.67 strikeout-to-walk rate would represent a career best, and while his 6.19 K's-per-nine and 6.8 swinging-strike percentage are low by his standards, remember his numbers in those categories were down at this stage last year, too. And in his final 18 starts (from June 24 forward), he had eight wins, 17 quality starts, a 2.03 ERA and 9.48 K's-per-nine ratio. Be choosy with Rodriguez's matchups, but by no means cut him. In fact, you might have mere hours to buy low, as his Tuesday assignment at pitching-friendly Citi Field is possibly a springboard to an extended hot streak.

Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox (ADP: 119.7): His has been the perfect storm of poor location and a treacherous schedule, as he faced three offenses -- Texas Rangers, Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays -- with the lumber to exploit his mistakes. Look at that home run/fly ball percentage: 26.3. Other than a slight dip in his fastball velocity -- average of 92.2 mph, compared to 94.1 in 2010 -- Buchholz doesn't exhibit many significant warning signs. Check out his next four projected starts: @OAK, @BAL, SEA, MIN, those four teams ranking among the five worst in team OPS in baseball. Don't even bench the guy (yet).

Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants (ADP: 176.1): There are some Hughes parallels here, as Bumgarner experienced a comparable innings bump of 52 1/3 from 2009-10, and that's before including the 20 2/3 innings he threw during the 2010 postseason. The difference, however, is that he hasn't suffered the dip in velocity that Hughes has; Bumgarner's problem has been command. He's averaging 4.91 walks per nine and has thrown only 47.1 percent of his pitches in the strike zone, so it's a worry. Bench him for sure, and if he shows little to no improvement in his next couple of outings, consider cutting him in ESPN standard leagues. After all, it's not like you own him for the strikeouts.

John Lackey, Red Sox (213.9): For the second consecutive season, he's off to a disappointing start, and this year's slump is even more significant than last year's. His stat sheet is littered with troubling numbers: 1.25 K's-per-walk, 48.6 percent fly-ball rate, 3.12 homers-per-nine, 6.2 swinging strike percentage. Every one is a career worst for Lackey, and he's leaning on a waning fastball less often; his 50.3 percent usage of it is a career low and his 90.6 mph average velocity is almost 1 mph lower than it was in 2010 (91.5). Point out his 3.97 ERA and 1.22 WHIP after the All-Star break last season all you want; you could probably cut Lackey now and scoop him back up if a similar hot streak comes a few months from now.

Three up

Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado Rockies: He has picked up right where he left off in 2010, winning each of his first three starts, the most recent a shutout of the Chicago Cubs at Coors Field, while posting a 1.64 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. Chacin hasn't even gotten going in the strikeout category; he's averaging 5.73 K's per nine, down from 9.04 in 2010, but at least seven whiffs during his shutout was a step in the right direction. His breaking pitches -- slider and curveball specifically -- remain elite pitches, and are largely responsible for his 7-3 record, seven quality starts, 1.99 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 12 starts since his most recent installation into the Rockies' rotation, on Aug. 17. On skills alone, Chacin has top-25 fantasy starter potential. We'll see whether he can keep it up, but there's little reason to think he can't.

Chris Narveson, Milwaukee Brewers: That's three consecutive solid outings to begin his season, and it's more than enough reason to vault him up the rankings, easily into the top 100 this week. While Narveson is often overshadowed by the flashier names ahead of him in the Brewers' rotation, he's every bit as responsible for the team's 3.39 starters' ERA, sixth-best in baseball. He's a sneaky strikeout source thanks to a diverse, four-pitch arsenal (fastball, slider, curve, change), and it's that changeup that has helped him remain successful even against right-handed hitters, who have just .216/.281/.255 rates against him so far. Narveson's ceiling probably isn't that of a start-him-every-time pitcher, but as more of a weekly NL-only consideration who merely requires choosiness in mixed leagues. But that's a valuable commodity to have to round out your staff.

Bud Norris, Astros: If you're looking for a sneaky source of strikeouts, Norris is your man. That has always been his strength; he averaged 9.50 K's per nine during his minor league career, as a big leaguer has averaged 9.27 per nine and has generated swinging strikes 11.1 percent of the time. It's Norris' slider that's most unhittable, but in spite of that he has his downsides, namely walks (4.31 walks per nine) and untimely home runs (1.20 per nine). That's not to say he can't improve in those areas; he's still only 26 years old and off to a hot start. Norris at least is an NL-only asset, and a matchups candidate in mixed, but there's plenty of upside here.

Three down

R.A. Dickey, New York Mets: All the warnings you needed were right there in his profile. "Feelin' lucky? It's a fair question to ask with a knuckleballer, especially one with a 5.43 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in his first seven big-league seasons who, at age 35, put together one of the most unexpectedly stellar campaigns of the decade in 2010." While Citi Field alone might keep Dickey from ever being so risky as to regress to those bloated ratios from his past, asking him to repeat 2010's 2.84/1.19 is a stretch. His command hasn't been nearly as sharp through three starts (and one relief appearance), as he has 12 walks in 18 1/3 innings, and opposing hitters are being more patient against him this time around, evidenced by his 18.7 percent rate of swings at pitches outside the strike zone (29.4 in 2010). Dickey is the kind of pitcher who needs his stuff to be pinpoint to succeed at the levels he did a year ago; and as we all know, knuckleballers can be wholly unpredictable in that regard. Tread carefully.

Yovani Gallardo, Brewers: For all the scouts' raves about his future-ace talent, Gallardo has always fallen just shy of that status during his three-plus years in the majors. Consider that he has never pitched more than 188 innings in any season as a professional, has a 3.72 ERA and 1.32 WHIP so far in the big leagues and had an ERA north of 4.50 after the All-Star break in each of the past two seasons. Gallardo might have a history of hot starts -- he had a 3.22 first-half ERA in 2009, 2.58 in 2010 -- so understandably his lackluster numbers to date are frustrating to his owners. He's simply not missing bats; he has a 5.2 swinging-strike percentage. While he's more talented than this, why aren't more people willing to consider that he'll never develop into a fantasy ace and Cy Young candidate, instead settling as merely an annual top-25 option? (For more on Gallardo, check out Jason Grey's blog from Monday.)

Ivan Nova, Yankees: He might be the next Yankees starter on the chopping block -- referring merely to a demotion, not an outright release, that is -- as, through three starts, Nova hasn't shown any of the glimmers of hope he did during spring training. Stamina, and perhaps the depth of his arsenal, still seem to be a problem. Through 10 career starts, he has shown a disturbing trend of being able to tear through an opponent's lineup one time before melting down successive times. Look at the numbers: Opponents have .192/.300/.256 rates against him in their first plate appearances of his starts, .262/.300/.476 the second time and .421/.532/.526 the third time. That's a fixable problem, but the Yankees can ill afford to let Nova work through it much longer at this level. Crazy as it sounds, we might not be far off a Yankees rotation that includes Bartolo Colon, Garcia and Kevin Millwood.

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.

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