- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Tick, tick, tick
The countdown to the trade deadline in ESPN standard leagues has reached a measure of hours; it arrives Friday at noon ET, or less than 72 hours from the publishing of this week's "60 Feet, 6 Inches." This is a hard deadline, unlike the waiver-trade funny business in the real game, with a Joe Blanton or Kurt Suzuki being moved post-"deadline." Get your trades in now, as there is no better way to address your team's needs than via trade!
To help get you started, this week's "60 Feet" -- and "Hit Parade" and "Relief Efforts" following it the next two days -- identifies players who appear especially attractive underpriced acquisitions, or overpriced comparative to projected remaining value. I stop a step short from calling them straight "buy-low, sell-high" candidates; these are name-brand players, almost all of them. They just happen to be players whom, today, I view worth the anticipated price tag (or more) on the "buy" side, or not quite their perceived value on the "sell" side.
Go get 'em
Tampa Bay Rays
Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays: The sky -- career-wise -- has always been the limit for Moore. He was Keith Law's No. 3 prospect overall this preseason. He was ESPN Fantasy's consensus No. 19 starting pitcher in our preseason rankings. He was the No. 20 starting pitcher selected, on average, in live drafts in the preseason. There was scarcely an individual out there who didn't have great expectations from Moore, even in 2012.
But, as rookies so often do, Moore struggled initially. Come the All-Star break, he was the owner of a 4.42 ERA, 1.45 WHIP and 41.2 percentage of quality starts (7-for-17). Moore only truly contributed in the strikeout column in the season's first half, whiffing 96. In four starts since then, however, he has shown improvement, winning three with a 1.46 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 22 K's. Yes, that included a win/quality start at the Los Angeles Angels, one of the game's most potent offenses since the beginning of June.
Considering Moore is now 23 starts into his big league career -- let's credit him his 2011 postseason start toward that measure of "experience" -- how unlikely is it that his disappointing first half was merely the dreaded adjustment period that all young pitchers face at this level? The truly best pitching prospects often make said adjustments quickly, 23 remains a tiny number, and let's not criticize Moore for his first half as if he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball during that time. He wasn't Tim Lincecum-bad, after all.
I buy Moore as a potential top-25 starter, right within range of preseason expectations, the remainder of the way. As you can see, he's ranked as such this week, and there's not a question in my mind that I'd trade any one of the pitchers ranked beneath him straight up for the rookie lefty. Moore's No. 28 is a rock-solid, non-fluid ranking; I'd even say it's on par with any of the top 60 ranked hitters you'll read in Wednesday's "Hit Parade."
Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies: Ten runs allowed combined in his past three starts or, for more novice fantasy baseball owners, his "pathetic" two-win season total, formulate your case for acquiring Lee on the cheap. Here's another, for Player Rater lovers: He's the No. 57 starting pitcher, that calculating year-to-date earnings.
Now, here's what matters: In his past six starts, all since July 1, he has four quality starts, a 3.07 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 35 strikeouts. He has a 1.02 walks-per-nine innings ratio during that span that ranks fifth among pitchers with at least five starts and a 7.00 K's per walk ratio that ranks fourth. And, for the season, he has an xFIP of 3.18, seventh-best among all qualified starters. With the exception of his late-April disabled-list stint and a four-start slump in June, Lee hasn't performed beneath a top-10 fantasy starter -- at least outside of the wins category. Granted, the Phillies' recent trades of Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino, coupled with the injury to Carlos Ruiz, diminishes the amount of run support Lee will receive. But if he's a 3.00-ERA, 1.00-WHIP, near-K-per-inning starter who wins, say, five of his final 10-12 starts, who's going to complain?
Looking at the rankings, there are only two starters ranked beneath Lee whom I might not trade for him straight up: Roy Halladay, for whom an argument can be made that his rest-of-2012 upside is equal to Lee's, and Stephen Strasburg, whose rest-of-year prognosis is discussed later in the column. And in either example, I'm more confident in Lee from a "safety" standpoint.
Josh Johnson, Miami Marlins: Josh Johnson has thrown his team's first pitch -- recorded, not ceremonial -- of a game 22 times this season, and on only three of those occasions did he do so while sporting an ERA beneath four. He also is a pitcher who ranked high on the "health risks" list entering 2012; shoulder problems limited him to nine starts in 2011 and cast doubts upon his bounce-back potential this season.
To be fair to Johnson, though, his year-to-date ERA was done in by three separate poor outings in his first six turns of the season, but in his 16 starts -- a more sizable sample -- since, he has looked every bit the part of the make-a-run-at-the-top-10 starter that he played a little over a calendar year ago. During that span, Johnson has a 3.00 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 8.12 K's-per-nine ratio and 68.8 percentage of quality starts (11-for-16), numbers that might look even more outstanding if not for a three-start "blip" from July 4-18 during which he allowed 14 runs total.
Johnson might possess nearly an equal amount of health risk today as he did in March, but it's at this stage of the season -- with less than one-third of the schedule left to play -- during which a roll of the dice is warranted. Play up the injury issues and his near-4.00 ERA for the season, and see if you can acquire him cheaper than a price worthy of the No. 16 starter the rest of the year. Frankly, I think I'm going to wind up having under-ranked him when August-September stats are in.
Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves: Talk about poor year-to-date ERAs: Minor's is 5.01. He also had only four quality starts in his first 15 turns of the season, had a 3.99 walks-per-nine ratio -- feel free to call that "four" in your trade discussions -- and wasn't even guaranteed his rotation spot coming out of the All-Star break. All of this is relevant data if you're trying to talk his owner down on Minor's price tag.
This is what counts: Minor has a 1.74 walks-per-nine ratio in his past five starts, four of which were quality starts. He struck out 24.1 percent of the hitters he faced during that span, nearly five percent more than the major league average. And that's ignoring the considerable contributions he has made in ERA and WHIP during that span; I am focusing entirely upon the command gains he has made.
It is those command improvements that have put Minor, Keith Law's No. 61 prospect overall in 2011, back into the "upside" class of fantasy starting pitchers, capable of sneaking into the top 40 at his position, a group that is nearly "must-start" every remaining turn. Minor might cost you little -- I'd bet you can get him straight up for a Tim Lincecum, James McDonald or Francisco Liriano, and from a hitters angle, perhaps a Josh Reddick -- but the payoff could be huge.
Tampa Bay Rays
James Shields, Tampa Bay Rays: Shields has driven his fantasy owners crazy, not only this season, but also during his inexplicably poor 2010, and he's the kind of pitcher fantasy analysts are talking about when they say, "His numbers are due some statistical correction." Perhaps there isn't a greater example from the past half-decade of a pitcher whose raw Rotisserie statistics waver at the whims of his peripheral/sabermetric measures; Shields always seems to be "regressing to the mean."
A guess: Shields' owner might part with him for anything that even feels "safer," meaning even a Jon Lester, a Ryan Vogelsong or Lance Lynn. I bet that Shields' owners feel anything but "safe." But here's the truth: Shields' FIP (3.65) ranks 36th out of 99 qualified starters and his xFIP (3.39) ranks 16th; his 4.24 ERA ranks 66th by comparison. He is coming off the best outing of his season, a three-hit shutout, 11-strikeout performance at Oakland, and he has three consecutive games of double-digit strikeouts.
Perhaps Shields' recent upturn might have his owners warming to him. Toss this at them: "Shields is going to face a lot of the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays the rest of the year." It's the truth: Twenty-two of their remaining 54 games are against those teams. I say there's no reason to sweat, and despite the challenging schedule, he might yet make a run at the top 25.
Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals: I love Stephen Strasburg, as both fan and fantasy owner.
I do not believe in the slightest that he will tally more than 170 innings in 2012.
Those are my two firm feelings about Strasburg, and "selling" him is a matter of the math. On a per-start basis, he's as valuable as any pitcher on my list. If you disagree with my assessment of his anticipated innings total, clinging to the hopes that the Nationals' contender status (World Series?) might cause them to throw the "innings cap" book out the window, by all means don't sell. Strasburg sans limitation is a commodity I would not trade for a single name on this list beneath Felix Hernandez. Yes, that is a top-five fantasy starter.
But the Nationals will cap Strasburg's innings. They want to win the war, not the 2012 battle, and their strategy was right there, in black and white, in Jordan Zimmermann's 2011 innings total, his first full season following Tommy John surgery. I rank Strasburg assuming 170 innings -- that's 42 2/3 more, or approximately seven more starts -- knowing full well even that might be generous, since Zimmermann threw 161 last season. That's where the "math" comes in: Strasburg's No. 18 ranking this week accounts for performance in only seven remaining starts, whereas the other pitchers slotted around him are on track for another 11-12 apiece. Considering the difference in quantity, a No. 18 ranking might seem somewhat surprising.
If you play in a league where losing Strasburg, completely and without much advanced warning at the most critical stage of your season, might crush your championship hopes, you've got three days to trade him. Do so. I could make the case, in this example, to trade him for anyone in my rankings down to Moore (28th).
St. Louis Cardinals
Lance Lynn, St. Louis Cardinals: Lynn's inclusion is less an innings-cap concern than it is a worry that the Cardinals might go in the opposite direction: They'll keep throwing Lynn.
Facts are facts: Lynn has a 5.16 ERA, 1.58 WHIP is 50.0 percent in quality starts (4-for-8) since mid-June, effectively contributing only in the strikeout department during that span, with 41 in 45 1/3 innings. Whether it's fair to attribute that slump to his increase in workload or not -- he threw 109 2/3 innings between the majors and minors in 2011, and he already has thrown 127 this year -- there's enough historical evidence that such innings spikes adversely affect a pitcher's stats. Some pitchers get hurt, some get their routines altered and struggle afterward, and some just keep pitching and stink in terms of fantasy value.
Lynn's No. 38 ranking shows that I don't see him becoming entirely useless the remainder of the year. It does, however, show that he's no automatic every-week starter. Digging beneath him on the list, I'd give serious thought to trading him straight up for Wandy Rodriguez, Ben Sheets or Minor.
New York Yankees
Phil Hughes, New York Yankees: He's like the anti-James Shields, a guy whose peripherals show that he has been somewhat lucky thus far. Hughes' FIP-ERA differential of -0.76 (3.96 ERA, 4.72 FIP) ranks ninth-most on the wrong side of the ledger.
Here's why that's a problem: Hughes, mostly because of his bandbox home ballpark, gives up far too many home runs to consistently walk the path of good fortune. He has a 1.77 home runs per nine innings ratio, second highest among qualified starters to Ervin Santana. Hughes also has a homers-per-nine ratio greater than 1.00 in each of the past three seasons, which is troubling considering the two biggest reasons for his 2012 rebound are his wins total (11) and his improved walk rate; if he gives back even a little of the 1.06 walks-per-nine differential between his 2011 (3.25) and 2012 (2.19) numbers, he's in trouble.
Yankees pitchers often catch a break on the fantasy trade market, due to the amount of coverage they receive. I say capitalize; he is barely a top-40 fantasy starting pitcher but probably the one I felt least comfortable putting in there. (That's mostly because of I hate giving a pitcher credit for win potential.) If you can get anyone ranked noticeably higher -- or a start-every-week hitter like Ben Revere -- I say you should do it.
New York Mets
Perhaps the temptation to do so a month ago, when Dickey was performing as well as any pitcher in baseball, might have been irresistible. But today, when Dickey is in a seven-game, six-start stretch during which is ERA is 4.69? This simply is not a prime time to experiment, especially not since his Mets have slipped in the standings to the point where their wild-card hopes aren't great anyway.
The other concern about Dickey is his decreased usage and effectiveness of his "hard knuckler" during that six-start cold spell. In that time, he has thrown his 80-plus-mph knuckleball 14 percent of the time, and opponents have batted .300 against it while missing on 20 percent of their swings. In the season's first three months, to compare, he threw it 17 percent of the time, and they batted .072 and missed 39 percent of the time. Whether that's a product of regression to the mean, the weather (increased humidity adversely impacts a knuckler) or fatigue is unclear, but some degree of each seems likely.
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.
Dickey is currently the No. 3 starting pitcher on our Player Rater. If you can get anything in the top 20 in these rankings, do it.
Among streaming starter -- something I define as single-start options in daily leagues among pitchers owned in 25 percent of ESPN leagues or fewer -- options for the upcoming week, here are my picks by day:
Tuesday, August 7: Ross Detwiler at Houston Astros
Wednesday, August 8: Clayton Richard versus Chicago Cubs
Thursday, August 9: Mike Leake at Chicago Cubs
Friday, August 10: Homer Bailey at Chicago Cubs
Saturday, August 11: Marco Estrada at Houston Astros
Sunday, August 12: Patrick Corbin versus Washington Nationals
Monday, August 13: Alex Cobb at Seattle Mariners
Tuesday, July 31: Kris Medlen -- W, 5 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K
Wednesday, August 1: Bronson Arroyo -- W, 6 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 1 K
Thursday, August 2: Barry Zito -- 4 1/3 IP, 6 H, 7 ER, 3 BB, 1 K
Friday, August 3: Clayton Richard -- W, QS, 7 IP, 8 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 2 K
Saturday, August 4: Mark Rogers -- 5 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 1 BB, 5 K
Sunday, August 5: Freddy Garcia -- W, 5 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 4 BB, 2 K
Monday, August 6: Chris Tillman -- W, QS, 7 1/3 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K
Week's total: 7 GS, 5 W (71.4%), 2 QS (28.6%), 39 2/3 IP, 42 H, 21 ER, 14 BB, 19 K, 4.76 ERA, 1.41 WHIP
Season total: 112 GS, 47 W (42.0%), 58 QS (51.8%), 673 1/3 IP, 653 H, 296 ER, 229 BB, 502 K, 3.96 ERA, 1.31 WHIP
A.J. Burnett, Pittsburgh Pirates: Let's put aside the remarkable stretch of performance in the wins category for a moment; Burnett's 13 wins in his past 15 starts warrants merely a mention. What he truly deserves credit for during his recent upswing, however, has been his command. During his past eight starts, he has averaged 3.62 K's per walk and 7.34 K's per nine innings. Six of his past eight turns have been quality starts, and if you have the luxury of picking and choosing his matchups -- heads up to those of you in innings/starts cap leagues -- he's 7-0 with a 2.00 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 10 starts at PNC Park this season.
Mike Fiers, Milwaukee Brewers: To think, a little over a month ago, Fiers was only deserving of the label "fill-in starter." No longer. He's on a streak of seven consecutive quality starts, and during that time he has 49 K's compared to 12 walks in 46 innings. In other words, Fiers has done for the Brewers precisely what he did in the minors: rack up a better-than-a-K-per-inning rate while keeping his walks in check. Whether the usual adjustment period for young pitchers caveat applies or not, Fiers' ERA/WHIP shouldn't entirely go in the tank, not with command numbers like this. In as little as a month, he has put himself into the discussion of every-start fantasy options.
Kris Medlen, Atlanta Braves: Initially regarded as a temporary rotation fill-in, Medlen's spot appears more secure, as despite the Paul Maholm acquisition, the Braves put the ineffective Jair Jurrjens on the disabled list to clear a space. It's the right move, as he has shown at times around his injuries between the majors and minors in 2009, 2010 and 2012 that he has the kind of stuff to make a sneaky run at top-50 status. Medlen has back-to-back outings of at least five innings pitched and no more than one run allowed, but it's the 14 K's he has in his past 13 1/3 innings that are eye-opening. After all, this is a pitcher who managed a 5.27 K's-per-nine ratio as a reliever the first half of the season. Medlen's stuff is more swing-and-miss worthy than that, and it's a plus to see him rebounding in the strikeout category.
Chris Capuano, Los Angeles Dodgers: He has proven a good signing for the Dodgers (thus far) after all and been one of the better fantasy values of 2012, but at some point Capuano's ERA/WHIP was bound to regress, and in recent weeks it indeed has. He has a 5.25 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in his past six starts, only three of them quality starts, and that's during a span in which he faced the San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies (at home) and ice-cold New York Mets. Capuano has now shown over a year and a half that he's no longer a significant health risk, but at this point he warrants careful matchup consideration the rest of the way.
Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers: On the podcast Tuesday morning, Matthew Berry and I entertained the idea of cutting Darvish in a standard mixed ESPN league of 10 teams. It's not a crazy thought; that the right-hander has averaged 6.03 walks per nine innings in five starts since the All-Star break is the trouble spot that stands out. Darvish has now made 21 starts and thrown 134 innings, and my concern about him in the preseason was that he might struggle late in the season, due to both the lengthier U.S. schedule and the scorching temperatures of Texas. There's every reason to think he might even be over-ranked at No. 45 this week.
Ricky Romero, Toronto Blue Jays: Speaking of cut candidates, Romero is a much more obvious one than Darvish (in ESPN standard, naturally). Though Romero managed a quality start at Oakland this past Saturday, let's not discount the strength of that matchup; O.com Coliseum remains a pitcher-friendly venue, and the Oakland Athletics, despite their walk-off heroics, aren't a top-shelf offensive team. Romero also has a 6.81 ERA and 1.83 WHIP in his past seven starts, numbers that would ruin a team in any scoring format. He's also a member of the American League East; that note above about Shields certainly applies.
Tristan H. Cockcroft looks at pitchers who are worth buying and worth selling in the final days before the fantasy trade deadline.