The Big Rotowski: Comebacks or come-ons?
Don't call it a comeback
I been here for years
Rockin' my peers and puttin' suckas in fear
Makin' the tears rain down like a monsoon
Listen to the bass go boom
Oh, LL Cool J. Have you ever written lyrics that didn't apply to fantasy baseball? Granted, my knowledge of J's beats ends with the album "Mr. Smith" (1995), but the man who wrote "Mama Said Knock You Out," "I Need Love" and "Cheesy Rat Blues" clearly has owned Miguel Olivo.
In this week's Rotowski, let's look at four hitters and four pitchers who would like to call it a comeback. In each case, we'll evaluate a player who put absolutely no suckas in fear in 2007, but who've started off makin' the tears rain down like a monsoon in 2008. Should you believe? Or should you view some of these guys as good sell-high candidates?
Jason Bay, OF, Pirates: Last year, Bay hit .247 with a .746 OPS, following up consecutive seasons of 32 and 35 homers with just 21 in '07. Here in '08, it's not like Bay has suddenly gone Xavier Nady on the fantasy world, but he's been better: .267 average, .421 on-base percentage, three homers, five RBIs and two steals. Bay is a very difficult guy to project. On the one hand, his bad batting average from '07 was certainly at least partly due to bad luck; his BABIP was .295 compared to his career .336. But on the other hand, Bay has hit a downward trend, losing performance in multiple categories every year since his amazing 2005 (32 HRs, 101 RBIs, 110 runs, 21 SBs, .306 average). Knee tendonitis bothered him throughout last season and he had knee surgery this winter, yet the shoulder problems that have dogged him still appear to be in play, as evidenced by his pitifully bad outfield arm. I like the hint of a rebound here, but if I could deal Bay for someone better, I'd do it. I worry physical woes have taken too much of a toll on him, even though he's only 29. Call it a comeback? No.
Vernon Wells, OF, Blue Jays: He was just awful in '07 -- .245 average, 16 HRs, 80 RBIs, 10 SBs -- and like Bay, Wells suffers from shoulder issues. He had surgery for a torn labrum in his left shoulder this winter, and is off to a fine start: .295 average, .824 OPS, 3 HRs, 15 RBIs, 1 SB. Considering Wells hit 28 and 32 homers in '05 and '06, respectively, and stole 17 bases in '06, we know there's a fantasy god lurking in there somewhere. Like the groundhog, will Wells poke his head into the cold spring air only to scurry back into his oh-fer lair? I don't think so. To my eyes, Wells' career path is still arced upward, and was marred by injury for just one year. With Frank Thomas gone in Toronto, Wells will get every chance to keep the cleanup hitter's role, never a bad fantasy factor, and having seen video of his swing last season and this season side-by-side, I think he really is closer to pain-free. Call it a comeback? Yes.
J.D. Drew, OF, Red Sox: What a tease J.D. Drew is. His lone season in Atlanta (in 2004) is his gold standard: 31 HRs, 93 RBIs, 118 runs, 12 SBs, .305 average. Since then, he signed with the Dodgers for a couple of years and underwhelmed while injured, and then stunk it up with Boston in '07 until September (and October). Drew was roundly mocked in fantasy circles all spring, and on average went in the 25th round in mixed-league drafts. Now he's hitting .316 with 3 HRs, 13 RBIs and a .912 OPS. So has Drew adjusted to the American League? Is he once again a fantasy darling? I don't think so. As is the case with Bay, Drew is fighting a multiple-year downward trend, and those can be tough to buck. His batting eye doesn't appear that much better in '08 -- he's struck out 17 times in 59 at-bats -- and he has just two extra-base hits (both doubles) beyond his three dingers. And I'm most suspicious of Drew's .400 average so far against southpaws. In the last three seasons, he's been at .235, .244 and .224 against lefties. Call it a comeback? No.
Joe Crede, 3B, White Sox: In 2006, Crede hit .280 with 30 HRs and 94 RBIs. But limited by a bad back early in '07, he sat at just .216 with 4 HRs and 22 RBIs in 167 at-bats when he left for good in June, finally undergoing surgery this winter. Now that he's apparently healthy, Crede has been a fearful power hitter through three weeks of the '08 regular season, having clocked five homers with 18 RBIs. Is this for real? Does Crede deserve to be started in a 12-team mixed league? I don't think so. Oh, sure, you can feel free to ride him while he's hot, but I'd considering selling high because his fly-ball rate is at an unsustainably lofty level (53.7 percent compared to his lifetime number of 47.6) and his homers-per-fly-ball is ridiculous (17.2 percent compared to a lifetime number of 11.3). This is exactly the kind of start the White Sox hoped Crede would have, so they could drum up interest and trade him to a team needing a third baseman (Dodgers, anyone?), and then use Josh Fields. If you've benefited from Crede's hot start, I wouldn't blame you for cashing in the same way Chicago might. Call it a comeback? Not quite.
Jake Westbrook, SP, Indians: Westbrook was never exactly Cy Young, but he won 15 games in 2005 and 2006, struck out twice as many batters as he walked and got grounders on more than 60 percent of balls in play against him. By those measures, Westbrook's '07 was horrible, up to and including the fact that he averaged an additional walk per nine innings. When you're a control and ground-ball pitcher, that hurts. I liked Westbrook as a sneaky pick this spring because I believed some of his '07 struggles were related to an oblique injury, and because I thought the Indians would be quite good. While he's only got one win so far in '08, Westbrook boasts a 2.73 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP. Strikeout snobs won't ever love Westy; his best K/9 in a full season is 5.51. Also, his BIPA (the pitcher's version of BABIP) so far in '08 is an unsustainably low .247. Still, Westbrook is a good bet to return to his 4.00 ERA, 1.30 WHIP ways, which isn't bad. Call it a comeback? For what it's worth, yes.
Livan Hernandez, SP, Twins: When I mentioned that I wanted to include Hernandez in this article, my editor said, "Can it be called a comeback if the player was never there in the first place?" The thing is, we forget that ol' Livan was pretty darned good for the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals back in the day, routinely twirling 230-plus innings, twice posting WHIPs below 1.25, and striking out nearly seven men per nine. Yes, he was awful for Arizona last year. But now four starts into his Twins career, Hernandez's ownership has shot up to more than 26 percent in ESPN.com leagues. Should you join the plunge? No, no and no. Warning signs abound here. In 27 innings, Hernandez has struck out just eight, which means he needs no walks and tons of grounders every time out to be effective. When that doesn't happen, you get outings like April 16, when Hernandez allowed three homers and three walks in six innings. His ground-ball rate currently sits at 50 percent; it hasn't been above 40 since 2004. This isn't going to end well. Call it a comeback? No.
Eric Gagne, RP, Brewers: Gagne looked good in three consecutive outings last Thursday, Friday and Saturday, registering three saves and allowing two hits and one walk in 2 2/3 innings. Then on Sunday, his fourth straight day of use, he allowed two homers and three runs without recording an out. What can we take from this, other than that Ned Yost might not be the manager you most want running your pitching staff? Probably not a lot. Even in his awful tenure in Boston last season, Gagne struck batters out -- for the year, he had 51 K's in 52 innings -- so we probably can't use the excuse that his surgically repaired elbow was bad. The problem with Gagne in Boston last year mostly seemed to be that he didn't like pitching the eighth inning and didn't like playoff-style pressure situations. The former issue shouldn't be a problem in Milwaukee, at least for a while, and the latter is still up in the air. The Brewers have decided to give their closer a lot of rope, and once again he's up to 10 K's in just 7 2/3 innings, so he'll miss a lot of bats in a lot of save situations over the next couple months. He'll blow some, too, but that shouldn't stop you from owning him. Call it a comeback? Yes, but I don't think I'd trade for him.
Cliff Lee, SP, Indians: Lee was an 18-game winner in 2005 and the world looked to be his oyster. In '06, he struck out slightly fewer batters and walked slightly more, but basically his peripheral numbers were the same -- but he was a touch less lucky, winning just 14. Then came '07 and an awful campaign: 6.29 ERA, 1.52 WHIP and 17 HRs in just 97 1/3 big league innings. Lee was limited early by a badly strained abdominal muscle, and might never have been right all year, but he's been a stud so far in '08: just one earned run in 22 2/3 innings, with 20 strikeouts and two walks. Lee's trends have been away from strikeouts and toward fly balls since his breakout '05 season, which doesn't bode well. In particular, note that his HR/9 went from 0.98 in '05 to 1.30 in '06 to 1.57 in '07. I do think the Lee is worth owning in fantasy leagues, in that he'll produce positive value for a starting pitcher. But there's no way he's this good, and he'll have several outings over the course of this season when he gets lit up by a few long balls, and crushes your weekly ERA. For now, ride it out with him. But if a fellow owner approaches with a deal that treats Lee like a fantasy ace? Jump on it. Call it a comeback? Sure, but a mini one.
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.
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