The Big Rotowski: Young versus old
Heading into the weekend, Oliver Perez and Johnny Cueto were two of the hottest pitchers in baseball. Perez hadn't given up a run in 11 2/3 innings, had fanned 10 and had walked only four. Cueto had taken the fantasy world by storm, striking out 18 in just 13 1/3 innings, walking no one, and allowing just six hits and three runs. Alas, each man got tagged pretty well Sunday. The Brewers got to Perez for eight hits, three walks and six runs in 4 1/3 innings, while the Pirates knocked around Cueto to the tune of five hits, a walk and five runs in six innings.
So now I ask you: Whom would you rather have on your fantasy team for 2008 only, Perez or Cueto?
It's a familiar riddle this time of the fantasy baseball season. Would you rather have the veteran whose ceiling is decent but well-defined, or the rookie who could be Cy Young or Matt Young?
Clearly, there's no definitive answer for all youngsters; in some cases, a player even at the beginning of his career arc is worth the risk, and in other cases, you'd be better off not falling in love with a player's Hall of Fame potential in his first season, because he's going to struggle at first. In retrospect, Tim Lincecum circa 2007 fits the former category, while Alex Gordon circa 2007 fits the latter. If you bought the hype when Lincecum was called up in early May last season, you were rewarded with 150 strikeouts in 146 1/3 innings and a 4.00 ERA. If you bought the hype in Gordon's rookie year, you were saddled with a .247 average and a .725 OPS.
Our challenge, then, is to decide who fits into which category. You pretty much know what Perez is: roughly a strikeout-per-inning pitcher with bouts of wildness on a good team, a potential WHIP-killer who nevertheless would be a net positive on your fantasy team. But what's Cueto? Is he Lincecum version 2.0? Or is he Homer Bailey in his rookie year?
As you'll see below, I often take the young player in such a comparison, but in this particular matchup, I'm going to surprise you a little (I think) and say I'm fairly agnostic between the two hurlers. (And, it should be noted, I am no Perez lover.) Yes, Perez's walks can be evil, but his walk rate actually has gone down in each of the past three seasons, as has his homers per nine innings, while his strikeouts have gone up. The larger issue with Perez, of course, is that you don't know what you'll get on a start-by-start basis, and when he's bad, he's terrible. He's definitely flawed, but he deserves to be owned in all leagues (and is).
Looking at the 22-year-old Cueto three starts into his big league career, I don't see definitive evidence that he won't be up and down, too, and it's dangerous to start treating him like a potential 2008 Cy Young winner. He's got the pedigree to be great, but not the stadium or the team, and way too many rookies have started with guns blazing, only to flame out as the long summer rolls on. This isn't to say I hate Cueto, this isn't to say I love Perez and this certainly isn't to say Cueto's eventual career doesn't look scads brighter. It's simply to say we have a tendency to lionize players two weeks into their big league careers. If I could trade Cueto and get Perez (or a comparable veteran hurler) and a very good hitter? I would have to consider doing it.
Let's take a look at some more old-versus-young comparisons, which will help us understand whether the current expectations surrounding youngsters make them candidates for acquisition:
Evan Longoria versus Hank Blalock
Go crazy, folks! Go crazy! He's here! After the maligned move to delay Longoria's free agency by a season, the Rays used Willy Aybar's injured hamstring as an occasion to recall their most heralded prospect. And ESPN.com's fantasy players are rejoicing, because Longoria is owned in 97.2 percent of leagues. If he hits, I have little doubt he'll start for the Rays all year, but is he ready to be Ryan Braun? I'm not so sure. He clearly doesn't have much stolen-base potential, and the scouting report likely says to throw him hard stuff out of the strike zone, because much like Gordon did last year, Longoria will chase bad sliders. I love Longoria's career potential, and it's hard not to be impressed with his .400 OBP in the minors last season. But am I sure enough about him to recommend him over someone like Blalock, who's owned in fewer than 60 percent of leagues? Honestly, no. In Blalock, I'm getting the cleanup hitter in what I still think will be a terrific lineup, in what, come the summertime, will be an easy park to hit in. Trade Longoria today, while the hype is insurmountable, get a No. 2 starter and pick Blalock off your waiver wire.
Justin Upton versus Corey Patterson
Time to give one of the kids some love. Each of these guys is a speed threat who can hurt your batting average, although it's unlikely Upton will run as much or as successfully as Patterson this season. But while I'm not ready to call Upton's ridiculous run of five homers and 11 RBI's by April 13 entirely genuine, and nor do I think he's got any shot at hitting anywhere near .300, I'd still take him over a stolen-base-centric player like Patterson. Both guys will strike out a lot, and Patterson probably will score more runs, but the upside of Upton's power gives him a real shot at 20-20 as soon as this year. Call Upton's average .270, call Patterson's .255, and watch the gap between them in the power categories overcome the gap between them in stolen bases. Even in single-season leagues, this Upton's a keeper.
Joey Votto versus Casey Blake
Blake is an interesting comparison for Votto because he's everything Votto isn't: completely steady and unsexy and a full-time player. Each man also is owned in fewer than 20 percent of ESPN.com leagues (Votto is owned in 19.4 percent, Blake in 16.1 percent). So if you need a corner infielder, are you better off going with the platooning rookie or the steady veteran? I'm going to cast my lot with Blake. I know that, eventually, Votto projects as a 25-homer guy, but while he's in a platoon with Scott Hatteberg, that ain't happening. I know that just because you're in a platoon in April doesn't mean you'll be in a platoon in September, and I know that Hatteberg is just 4-of-21 on the season (while Votto is 8-of-25). But Blake has given you steady, .280-20-70, regular-as-rain production the past few seasons, which, to be honest, isn't that far from Votto's upside. Votto is not the Mark Teixeira-style thunder-bopper some have made him out to be.
Billy Butler versus Bill Hall
Butler is owned in 62.7 percent of leagues, and Hall is owned in 99.2 percent. Because of position eligibility, there isn't a direct comparison between them: Hall can play at third or in the outfield, while Butler is stuck at DH. But positional slotting being equal, I'd rather have Butler, even this season. Sure, he's just 21, and while his current .386 average isn't going to hold up, I fully expect him to eclipse the .300 mark with 15 homers and 90 RBIs, especially since, on Sunday, Trey Hillman moved Butler to the cleanup role in place of the struggling Jose Guillen. By contrast, Hall is an average-killer waiting to happen; even during his scorching five-homer beginning to '08, he's hitting just .220. Again, I understand you probably can't drop Hall and pick up Butler because of their positions. But I absolutely think this is a great time to deal Hall away, before he stops hitting three homers a week and becomes the .240-.250 hitter he's likely to be all year. Butler is going to be one of those guys you wish you'd bitten on come July.
Adam Jones versus Milton Bradley
Each is owned in about a quarter of ESPN.com leagues, and each is off to a crummy start. Jones is hitting .211 with two RBIs, one steal and 10 strikeouts, while Bradley is hitting .286 with no homers and three RBIs and can't play the field yet because of his surgically repaired knee. It's worth noting that just before Opening Day, Jones was owned in 60.8 percent of leagues, so clearly his star has fallen, but my faith isn't shaken just yet. This is an extremely close comparison, because I like Bradley to get hot when the Texas weather heats up. I'm also going to be willing to revisit the 22-year-old Jones in about a month to see if he's still having contact problems. But this still is a kid who hit .314 with 25 homers, 84 RBIs and eight steals last season at Triple-A Tacoma, and playing time isn't an issue for him like it is for Votto. I'm giving Jones the nod over similarly owned wily vets, at least until the end of May.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.