<
>

Underrated winners at trade deadline

8/2/2011

The July 31 trade deadline -- at least the deadline for deals that don't require waivers -- has come and gone, and with it, only a handful of starting pitchers were actually traded. But while it's the prominent name, Ubaldo Jimenez, who has generated the most headlines, it's actually a pitcher who wasn't dealt who might have benefited most from July 31's developments.

He's a veteran pitcher who wasn't even rumored on the block, a pitcher who garnered zero respect in the preseason and still seems to get zero respect in more than 50 percent of ESPN leagues (owned in a mere 41.1 percent), a true "nobody" who has quietly emerged as a top-50 starting pitcher.

He's New York Yankees right-hander Freddy Garcia.

Whatever the reason, the Yankees' decision not to trade for Jimenez, or Wandy Rodriguez, or even Hiroki Kuroda, results in a vote of confidence for Garcia, who like fellow rotation-mate Bartolo Colon, was brought in on a minor league deal in January as a "lottery ticket" type move following the team's missing out on a major free agent. Barring an August waiver deal -- which, outside of a Rodriguez acquisition, appears unlikely -- Colon and Garcia are now mainstays in the Yankees' rotation.

In Colon's case, fantasy owners appear to appreciate his value more. He's owned in 48.0 percent of ESPN leagues and is ranked 46th among starting pitchers on the Player Rater. But here are the cold, hard facts: Garcia has more wins (10) and quality starts (14) and a lower ERA (3.22) than Colon, and he actually ranks 17th, 30th and 32nd in the majors in those three categories.

Two things stand out as significant improvements by Garcia: more pitches down in the zone -- 41.0 percent of his total pitches thrown, up from 37.0 in 2010. Granted, that improvement represents just four pitches per 100 thrown, but that's still effectively four fewer pitches for hitters to drive per start. The other is the effectiveness of his secondary pitches. Garcia's fastball has never been stellar -- he has averaged 87.0 mph with it this season -- but his slider (thrown 22.0 percent of the time), splitter (17.4), curveball (11.6) and changeup (11.3) have combined to limit opponents to .230/.266/.363 rates, down from .267/.297/.439 a year ago. His splitter, in particular, has generated misses on 41.6 percent of swings, and limited foes to .198/.243/.317 rates in 107 plate appearances that ended with one.

Here's the best part about Garcia's 2011: His bad outings have been completely predictable, his four worst in terms of game score coming against the Boston Red Sox (2) and Toronto Blue Jays (2). Those two offenses rank in the top six in baseball in runs per game, home runs and OPS; the Red Sox actually pace the majors in runs per game (5.53) and OPS (.814).

The Yankees do face the Red Sox nine more times and the Blue Jays six, and if Garcia starts every fifth game the remainder of the year, he'll indeed face one of those teams in four of his final 11 starts. (His current schedule, in that arrangement: @BOS 8/5, LAA 8/11, @KC 8/16, @MIN 8/21, @BAL 8/27, @BOS 9/1, BAL 9/6, @SEA 9/12, @TOR 9/18, BOS 9/23, @TB 9/28.) If he's so obvious a matchups play, though, does that not mean seven more useful matchups to exploit?

It's pitchers like these, the "nobodies," which require the most careful day-to-day management. They also, however, can be the most helpful back-of-your-staff resources. Don't underestimate Garcia, because there's a lot to be said for the matchups candidate who pitches for one of the game's best teams.

Garcia isn't the only "nobody" whose stock rose on July 31. In descending order of ownership in ESPN leagues, here are six others:

Aaron Harang, San Diego Padres (21.7 percent): Like Garcia, Harang's stock improved with news that he wasn't traded, and while there's always a chance he might sneak through in an August waiver deal, the fact that he has an affordable $4 million salary in 2011 plus a $5 million mutual option for 2012 might make him a prime candidate to be claimed (thereby blocking a deal) if he's floated on the wire. I don't think Harang is going anywhere, in which case he can continue to thrive at Petco Park, where he has a 3.45 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and eight quality starts in 11 games. While the San Diego Padres play 28 of their final 52 games on the road, five of those are at San Francisco's AT&T Park, four at New York's Citi Field and three apiece at Pittsburgh's PNC Park and Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium. Harang also is lined up to miss the three-game series at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park from Aug. 12-14, so that's one more "bad" matchup he'll avoid.

Doug Fister, Detroit Tigers (4.2 percent): Many have called his the "sneaky" pickup of the trade deadline, and I agree with that assessment. It's as simple as this: The Seattle Mariners have averaged 3.31 runs per game this season, and the Detroit Tigers have averaged 4.48; that's nearly a run and a quarter more. Unsurprisingly, Fister ranks dead last among qualified starters in run support (3.02 per nine), and he has only three wins to show for his 12 quality starts. Losing Safeco Field, where he has a 3.42 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in his career, might hurt, but probably not as much as you'd think. Fister, whose 5.19 lifetime K's-per-nine ratio cements his matchup status, should remain as useful, if not more so, in Detroit as in Seattle. But I'll throw out the one oddity, just so nobody gets too carried away with the move: Fister has never won a game in an American League Central ballpark, and he's winless at any venue in his career against the Tigers' four AL Central foes.

Juan Nicasio, Colorado Rockies (3.0 percent): While it's Esmil Rogers who will immediately slide into Jimenez's old rotation spot, it's actually Nicasio who probably benefits most, because now that he's the Rockies' No. 4 starter, his role becomes a bit firmer for the remainder of the year. He's typically a strikeout pitcher; he averaged 8.92 K's per nine during his minor league career, and among pitchers with 1,000 or more pitches thrown this season, he ranks 53rd out of 154 (65th percentile) in miss rate (21.9 percent), and among pitchers with 70-plus innings, he ranks 56th out of 143 (60th percentile) in K's per nine (7.26). In case you haven't guessed, strikeouts is an obviously successful strategy at Coors; the five best single-season K's-per-nine rates in franchise history also resulted in the 21st-, 14th-, first- (that one was Jimenez's 2010), third- and second-best single-season WARs (wins above replacement) in franchise history. Nicasio does have that disconcerting road ERA (7.04), but if you're choosy, you might yet get a lot more out of him.

Charlie Furbush, Seattle Mariners (0.1 percent): There's a reason his ownership is this low, and it's because he lacks the stuff to be a true front-of-the-rotation starter, be it now or several years from now. But what's to like about Furbush is the venue: He takes his deceptive delivery to Safeco Field, where his fly-ball tendencies (0.80 ground out/air out ratio in the minors, 0.91 in the majors, this season) shouldn't hurt him so much. It also helps that his command is sharp; he has averaged 3.98 K's per walk during his minor league career. The Mariners will stretch Furbush out in middle relief, then install him in their rotation for an extended late-season audition. Considering they play 28 of their final 54 games at Safeco, six more at Los Angeles' Angel Stadium, five at Cleveland's Progressive Field and three apiece at Minnesota's Target Field and Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, there could be a decent number of useful Furbush matchups for AL-only and deep-mixed owners.

Brad Peacock and Tom Milone, Washington Nationals (0.0 percent): The immediate sub for Jason Marquis in the Nationals' rotation is Tom Gorzelanny, but with the team having already turned the page to 2012, there's a chance that either Peacock or Milone, or both, might get an audition in the coming weeks. The Washington Post recently reported that Jordan Zimmermann has only four more starts; there will be a slew of openings for the team down the stretch. Peacock has a 2.35 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 11.27 K's-per-nine ratio between Double- and Triple-A this season, while Milone has 3.62/1.03/9.23 rates plus a 12.00 K's-per-walk ratio for Triple-A Syracuse. NL-only owners should keep both names in mind, either stashing them now if you have the bench space, or grabbing them immediately when promoted.

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.

The Wandy problem

That Wandy Rodriguez -- and to a lesser degree, Brett Myers -- wasn't moved at the deadline was a major negative for his fantasy value, being that the Houston Astros did trade their top two offensive assets in terms of WAR, Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence. Using that category alone, the Astros' team leader, Carlos Lee (2.2), has the lowest number of any individual team's leader, and this Astros team that averaged 3.89 runs per game before the All-Star break has averaged 3.24 since. This might be a team challenged to average more than three runs per contest, and remember, the Mariners rank dead last in the category with 3.31.

Rodriguez ranks 79th out of 110 qualified starters (26th percentile) in terms of run support (5.24 per nine), while Myers ranks 75th (5.33) and Bud Norris 85th (5.00). If every one of them loses a run of support per game or more, wins are going to be a problem no matter how effectively each pitches. Look at Fister's record in Seattle; that's not out of the realm of possibility for this trio.

It's no wonder Rodriguez's owners are rooting for him to sneak through on a waiver deal; but it's that possibility alone that should keep you from selling low.

Stephen Strasburg in September?

Wednesday marks the 11-month anniversary of Stephen Strasburg's Tommy John surgery, and he has progressed enough in his recovery that he might make his first minor league rehabilitation start next week, and maybe even make some major league starts for the Nationals by season's end. According to the Washington Post, Strasburg has thrown batting practice as well as simulated games for a few weeks now, and has hit 95 mph with his fastball, practically every report on his health positive. Considering the impact he made as a rookie in 2010, expect the hype to build in the coming weeks, with the expectation that he might make a noticeable impact down the stretch.

A few concerns: Even the slightest setback could lead to the Nationals' shutting down Strasburg's season, and even if he progresses as well as he has, he'll likely have his workload closely managed and anything he contributes will be with an eye on setting him up for 2012. This is fantastic news for Strasburg's keeper-league owners, who can carry him over with greater confidence. For those speculating in redraft leagues, however, let Jordan Zimmermann's return from his own Tommy John surgery a year ago set the bar in terms of Strasburg's usefulness. Zimmermann made seven starts late in 2010, never threw more than 86 pitches or six innings, and averaged 79.4 and 4.43 per outing in those two categories.

Three up

Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds: And with that shutout he threw this past Sunday, Cueto officially has enough innings to qualify his major league leading 1.72 ERA (and fifth-ranked 0.98 WHIP) … well, at least until his Reds play their scheduled Tuesday game and drop him beneath the qualification requirement again. But Cueto's inclusion in "Three up" isn't all about qualification; after all, he's on pace for 162 2/3 innings, or above the full-season cutoff, not to mention Friday's start could permanently put him ahead of the minimum. It's more about the consistently dominant performances he has provided start after start, the only things standing in his way of a 16-quality-start streak being his having fallen one frame short in both his July 26 (two starts ago) and May 19 (14 starts ago) outings. What's remarkable about Cueto's breakthrough is that he has done it despite a 5.50 K's-per-nine ratio that actually ranks 83rd out of 109 qualified starters; but it is a 54.4 percent ground-ball rate that has helped make up for some of that. Both his fastball and slider are far sharper this year than ever before; his fastball has averaged a career-high 93.0 mph and limited foes to a .619 OPS (ranking seventh in baseball) in 395 plate appearances that ended with one, and his slider has limited opponents to a .348 OPS (ranking second) in 279 PAs. While some regression is possible, Cueto clearly has what it takes to remain a top-25 starter.

Derek Holland, Texas Rangers: What we saw of Holland in July scrapes the surface of his massive long-term potential; he threw three shutouts in the month. Three. To put that into historical perspective, since 2000, only four pitchers have had as many as three shutouts in a single month: Mark Mulder (July 2001), Brandon Webb (August 2007), Roy Halladay (September 2009) and Cliff Lee (June 2011). The first three generated a slew of Cy Young votes in those seasons and Lee could as well this year. No, I am not saying that Holland is now a factor in the Cy Young race. But when a pitcher throws back-to-back shutouts against the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners, perhaps we merely perk up our ears yet don't act. When he then throws another, three starts later, on the road against the majors' fifth-ranked offense (Blue Jays, 4.72 runs per game), we must pounce. Perhaps Holland is finally approaching "trustworthy" status?

Ervin Santana, Los Angeles Angels: This isn't all about his no-hitter Wednesday, because if no-hitters alone drove the rankings, I'd have been all over Francisco Liriano in early May (and I so was not). Rather, this is about Santana's string of six consecutive quality starts, during which time his ratios have been stellar: 1.77 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 5.14 K's-per-walk. Sure, the competition during that time has been light (WAS, LAD, SEA, @OAK, @BAL, @CLE), but outside of 10 more games against the Rangers, seven against the Blue Jays and six against the Yankees, the Angels' remaining schedule -- 30 other contests -- is entirely populated by cupcakes. Thirty of the Angels' final 53 games will be played at home, where Santana's career ERA is more than a run lower (3.79) than on the road (4.83), and the team is in the thick of a pennant race. Santana boasts a lower career September ERA (3.65) than in any other month, so the chances look good that he'll be able to extend this hot streak right into October.

Three down

Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles: I'll let the numbers do the talking here. In Britton's two most recent major league starts, he has faced 20 batters total and retired exactly three of them. That's right, he has totaled one inning in those outings, and allowed 17 runs (13 earned), 13 hits and three walks. In between, he made three starts for Double-A Bowie, and allowed 11 runs (seven earned) on 14 hits in 11 2/3 innings, never once throwing more than 4 2/3 innings in a single outing. The Orioles have clearly altered their plans with Britton in order to keep him under an innings cap, and the left-hander couldn't be much more disappointing than he has been the past four weeks. At this point, it's fair to wonder how much more he has to offer outside of keeper leagues, even to AL-only owners.

Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta Braves: It has been mentioned many times in this space that Jurrjens was a regression candidate, albeit a slight one, and sure enough, what was a sparkling 1.87 ERA on July 6 has risen to 2.63 since, due to a recent slump during which time he had only one quality start in his past four tries. Let's not all make a mad dash off the Jurrjens bandwagon, however. After all, a No. 36 ranking remains generous, his Braves should continue to support him with the injection of Bourn atop their lineup and he's an absolute beast at home, where he's 7-1 with a 2.39 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 10 starts. You merely need to be more careful with Jurrjens if your roster affords you the luxury of avoiding his most treacherous matchups -- that July 22 one at Cincinnati (6 IP, 4 H, 4 ER, though 9 K's) was a good example -- and adjust your expectations to something more along the lines of a low-3s ERA moving forward. That's much more realistic.

Jason Vargas, Seattle Mariners: Let's not all come down too hard on Vargas for his recent funk, because he's in the midst of the most treacherous portion of his 2011 schedule, but the fact remains that he hasn't been reliable in four starts since the All-Star break. During that time, he has an 8.84 ERA and 2.29 WHIP, and opposing hitters have batted .386 and hit five home runs against him. Matchups against the Rangers, Blue Jays, Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays have contributed, but even accounting for that, these are downright scary numbers (all from those four outings): 14.4 percent miss rate on his swings, .273 well-hit average, 21.5 percent line drive rate. Opponents are crushing everything Vargas has been throwing, and we can't help but approach him with more caution moving forward.

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.