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Wednesday, July 7, 2010
DL pitchers worth waiting for

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

This was supposed to be a big week for recovering starters.

Jorge De La Rosa
Jorge De La Rosa, expected back from the DL this week, hasn't pitched since April 25.

Sure, we'll get Jorge De La Rosa, who has missed more than a month's time, back Friday. But in a week where we were anticipating the 2010 debuts of Erik Bedard and Edinson Volquez, setbacks during each of their rehabilitation assignments can't be taken as anything less than disappointments.

Ah, the life of the injured pitcher. So unpredictable it is.

You know what they say: Every pitcher is an injury risk. It's why you'll hear agents constantly spout the phrase "Every pitcher has some sort of wear and tear on his arm" during the winter when defending his free-agent pitcher whose physical for his prospective new team turned up some minor ailment. Yes, every pitcher is susceptible to an untimely injury, but our job as fantasy owners is clear: Make a best guess as to the degree of risk and determine how close that pitcher is to performing at his peak level.

That's where today's column comes in, following closely on the heels of Tuesday's Hit Parade of a similar topic: Pitchers currently residing on the disabled list. Perhaps nowhere else might you find pitchers with greater health risk, but perhaps in few other places might you find pitchers so potentially undervalued. People tend to flee in terror from pitchers on the DL; there's always the fear that even the slightest setback means Tommy John surgery and a year-plus absence.

To help weigh the risk and reward of these injured, yet fantasy-relevant, starting pitchers, the list below ranks pitchers that are currently on major league DLs in terms of their anticipated fantasy value the remainder of the season. As in Hit Parade, I play for upside; I'll take a chance on an ace-caliber arm who might make only seven more starts all year, but all will be quality starts, over the so-so hurler who could offer you 14 with an ERA in the mid-fours.

In addition to helping those of you in standard ESPN leagues, who have only one DL spot with which to play, this list should help owners in any format when deciding whether to roster or trade for any of these pitchers.

Yovani Gallardo
Yovani Gallardo was selected to the All-Star Game, but an oblique injury will keep him from participating in the game.

1. Yovani Gallardo (oblique): Don't sweat his placement on the DL on Tuesday; that it happened so close to the All-Star break should cut down the number of starts he might miss. Gallardo could require three weeks' rest, but what this DL stint will do is ensure he doesn't reach his current pace of 217 innings -- 31 1/3 more than he had last season. More likely, he'll finish somewhere close to last year's 185 2/3, eliminating most of his workload concerns. Considering Gallardo struggled late last season -- he had a 4.56 ERA and 1.45 WHIP after the All-Star break -- while posting a career-high number of innings, the time off might be a good thing. It's a frustrating loss, but it shouldn't drop him much in the rankings.

2. Clay Buchholz (hamstring): The Boston Red Sox said when they placed him on the DL that it was mostly a precautionary move, as he experienced discomfort in his hamstring while running Monday. The upcoming All-Star break means he'll miss fewer games than a typical DL stint. Buchholz might be ready to start the Red Sox's fifth game out of the break. If that's true, it means you'll only have to make do without him this week as well as the short week after the break. He has long been profiled as an ace-caliber prospect, he was a clear All-Star before getting hurt and he has a 7-1 record, 1.59 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in his past nine starts. There's no way you can cut a pitcher with this potential.

3. Jorge De La Rosa (finger): Everything seemed to be going well with his rehabilitation, at least until he was hammered in his final minor league appearance Saturday, allowing eight runs (seven earned) on 10 hits in 4 2/3 innings. De La Rosa will return to the Colorado Rockies' bullpen Friday nevertheless, and his history of strong second-half performances offers encouragement that he'll still be of use. It'd be smarter to keep him reserved for a few turns to evaluate his progress, but even on that timetable he might have two months' worth of useful stats to offer.

4. Josh Beckett (back): He's now deep into his rehabilitation, taking it to Triple-A Pawtucket starting on Sunday. But he hasn't pitched in a major-league game since May 18, has experienced back problems in the past and wasn't especially effective before landing on the DL, Beckett can't be termed a sure thing. In the best-case scenario, he'll be back a week or two after the All-Star break. The worst-case? He wouldn't be of any help the remainder of the year. In his defense, he has a 2.95 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in his career in the month of September and has stated in the past that DL stints often keep him rested and refreshed for the stretch run. It's a chance you probably should still take.

5. Shaun Marcum (elbow): There's no reason to cut him -- unless you also own a higher-ranked pitcher or one of the 10 ranked hitters in Hit Parade and need the DL spot -- as his absence might be short. Marcum could miss only one turn of the rotation, and before getting hurt, he had only two poor starts in 17 tries, about the best a fantasy owner could ask from a Tommy John-surgery returnee. In fact, if there's any reason to doubt him looking forward, it's not this specific injury but the fact that he'll always be at risk for another. After all, Marcum has never made more than 25 starts in a big-league season, and his career second-half numbers include a 4.54 ERA and 1.42 WHIP.

6. Edinson Volquez (Tommy John surgery): All the reports on his rehabilitation are glowing, and if he doesn't make an appearance before the All-Star break -- which at this stage looks unlikely -- he might be in the Cincinnati Reds' rotation immediately afterward. So what should we expect? Volquez is as risk/reward as anyone on the list, for two reasons: One, speaking of his talent, his 2008 demonstrates his upside, while his 2005 to 2007 demonstrates his downside. Two, the history of pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery is checkered; for every Tim Hudson and Shaun Marcum -- pitchers who made immediate impacts -- there's a Francisco Liriano, who took more than a year. Volquez has had command problems throughout his career, and if it's true that a pitcher's velocity returns well before his command following this surgery, he's as good a bet to have zero value as be a top-40 starter from today forward. But that's still worth the gamble.

Brett Anderson
Brett Anderson has a 2.35 ERA in six starts this season but is in the midst of his second stint on the disabled list.

7. Brett Anderson (elbow): One of the most popular breakout candidates of the preseason, Anderson has missed all but four weeks of 2010 with elbow problems and suffered a setback the last time he attempted a return. As a result, expect the Oakland Athletics to take a conservative approach. After a month-long absence, he'll begin a rehabilitation assignment Friday. Anderson is probably the greatest setback risk of the bunch, but his ceiling (when healthy) is higher than most any of these pitchers except Gallardo, Buchholz, Beckett, Brandon Webb and Bedard. If he can make even 10 starts in the second half, Anderson could make a run at top-40 starter status from today forward.

8. Erik Bedard (shoulder): Now we're getting into the high-risk portion of the rankings; if you're shedding any of these final three starters, you shouldn't be terribly upset to do so. Though Bedard was initially expected to make his 2010 debut Tuesday, a stiff shoulder pushed that back. Now his return date is unclear. His rehabilitation stint hadn't created any concerns -- he had a 1.64 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and .233 batting average allowed in three minor league starts -- so maybe he'll be ready to return shortly after the All-Star break. However, considering he missed significant time due to injury in both 2008 and 2009, he might make a start at the major league level all year. It's a high-risk, but only medium-reward proposition, unfortunately.

9. Brandon Webb (shoulder): Talk about high-risk pitchers. There might be a bit of a buzz surrounding Webb after he shared his goal of making six to eight starts with the Arizona Republic over the weekend, but take that for what it's worth; it's six to eight starts from a pitcher who has made one appearance in the past year and a half. We all remember what Webb the Cy Young candidate can do. After all, he won the award in 2006 and was the runner-up in both 2007 and 2008. But he has yet to begin a rehabilitation assignment, and we can't even tell whether his post-surgery stuff can still generate ground balls at the rate he did before going under the knife. This is a chance only worth taking if you lack anyone better.

10. Brad Penny (lat/triceps): The triceps injury is on top of the strained lat that has already cost him six weeks, which was on the lengthier end of his projected timetable. It might push him off the list in a matter of days or, if only a minor setback, could mean he returns in the next couple weeks. Not that there's a lot to like about Penny, but the alternatives below are even weaker. He did have a 1.70 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in his first seven starts and looked like Dave Duncan's newest masterpiece. He's a lottery ticket, period.

Might as well keep 'em, in the absence of better alternatives: Rich Harden and Derek Holland (though they might ultimately be fighting for one rotation spot between them), Dallas Braden, Chris Young (I'm not a fan at all; this is all about the Petco factor), Aaron Harang

It's time to let go: Justin Duchscherer (still owned in 2.7 percent of ESPN leagues despite being highly unlikely to pitch again in 2010), John Maine, Oliver Perez, Felipe Paulino (probably easy to reclaim him when he's healthy), Homer Bailey, Kyle Lohse, Jason Marquis, Kevin Millwood (his injury, unfortunately, almost assures he'll remain in Baltimore beyond the trade deadline).

Four up

Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants: Diminished K rate in the high minors, schminished K rate in … OK, you get the idea. Bumgarner succeeded everywhere he pitched during his 63 career minor league appearances -- he was 34-6 with a 2.00 ERA -- and he has certainly been successful in his first three big-league starts. With Tuesday's win, an eight-shutout-inning gem, he has a 2.86 ERA and 1.00 WHIP, not to mention a 3-1 K-to-walk ratio. Considering those three turns came versus the Boston Red Sox (tops in baseball in team OPS), at Colorado's Coors Field (top hitter-friendly ballpark on the Player Rater in terms of runs scored) and at the Milwaukee Brewers (sixth in team OPS), Bumgarner's hot start looks even more impressive. Perhaps it's "beginner's luck" of sorts -- a young pitcher with dazzling stuff capitalizing upon opponents not entirely familiar with him -- and a noticeable adjustment period will be forthcoming. But it doesn't appear imminent; enjoy the solid stats.

Gavin Floyd, Chicago White Sox: Make that six consecutive quality starts, as your buy-low (or pickup, in the 21.1 percent of ESPN leagues in which he remains available) window has just about closed. Even better: Floyd has wins in each of the past two, so perhaps that means the White Sox will continue scoring him some runs. After averaging 3.4 runs in his first 15 starts, the White Sox totaled 13 in his past two. Floyd's strikeout rate has been especially encouraging during his streak; he has averaged 7.8 K's per nine, a noticeable bump up from his 6.84 career rate. It looks like it'll be mostly smooth sailing from here for the right-hander.

Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners: So much for any workload concerns during his youthful years. Hernandez, who tossed a career-high 238 2/3 innings in 2009, is on pace for 250 this season, not to mention he has been kept out there to throw 110-plus pitches in nine of his past 11 starts, two of those complete games. To be fair to Mariners management, only once during that span did he throw 120 or more -- 128 pitches at San Diego on June 13. Hernandez has fit the part of the workhorse during the 11-start stretch. Though he has but four wins to show for it, 10 were quality starts and he has a 2.34 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, .206 BAA and 8.82 K-per-nine ratio during that time. The King again reigns supreme.

Wandy Rodriguez, Houston Astros: This has been a trying year for Way-Rod, and therefore his fantasy owners as well. But in his past three starts, he has looked much more the part of his 2008 and 2009 dominant self than the one who registered a 6.09 ERA in his first 14 turns this season. He has wins in each of his past three outings and a 0.90 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 19 K's in 20 innings in them. Perhaps most importantly, his curveball finally showed some life during his most recent outing Tuesday. ESPN Stats & Information points out that Rodriguez held opponents to a 3-for-14 (.214 BAA) performance versus his curveball, a significant improvement for a pitcher who, coming into the game, had allowed a .321 mark with the pitch. He also induced season highs of 11 swinging strikes and a 59-percent chase rate. We'll need to see continued dominance with his curveball before declaring Rodriguez a top-25 starter candidate again, but he's on the right track.

Four down

Chris Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals: His inclusion on this list shouldn't be a sign it's time to push the panic button, but take it as a suggestion to track Carpenter's health closely in the next few days. He's coming off by far his worst outing of the year, having served up eight runs (seven earned) on nine hits in three innings versus the Brewers, after taking a line drive off his right forearm in his previous outing. Was the performance linked to a possible injury? Manager Tony La Russa told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch no, but any unexpected stinker from a pitcher of Carpenter's caliber raises eyebrows.

Jeff Francis, Colorado Rockies: Rockies pitchers, at least right now, have slim margins for error, with the aforementioned De La Rosa on the mend and Jhoulys Chacin lurking in the bullpen as a future rotation replacement. That's why Francis' recent funk -- back-to-back poor outings in which he allowed 13 runs on 13 hits in seven innings combined -- could put him in jeopardy of getting the bump, at least if it keeps up another couple turns. Francis' worst came at San Diego's Petco Park versus a weak San Diego Padres offense (3 IP, 7 H, 8 ER) June 30, and it snapped a streak of four consecutive quality starts at the time. If you own him in an NL-only or deep mixed league, you need to have him reserved for now.

Scott Kazmir, Los Angeles Angels: Doesn't it feel simultaneously amazing that he's only 26 years old and shocking that he's already 26 years old? It sure seems like Kazmir has been around forever. To a degree he has, as this is his seventh big-league season; it feels almost as if he should be 30. At the same time, to this point in his career he has performed like a pitcher who has yet to truly harness his stuff, meaning your instincts might be to assume he's only 23 or 24. Maybe it's time to just assume that this is as good as it gets with Kazmir, and that his inability to be efficient with his pitches means he'll never last deep into starts and will always be streaky? Kazmir has been pounded his past three outings, so he's in another one of his typical cold spells, which have historically been painful; he has a 10.43 ERA, .305 BAA and has served up four homers in those outings. This is a ride-the-streaks guy, plain and simple. If you're just sitting and waiting for him to develop, you might be waiting a while, mainly because you've already been waiting for him for a while.

Mike Pelfrey, New York Mets: For all the improvements he has made, the addition of a splitter to his arsenal and his hot start, the bottom line is that Pelfrey still, at his basest level, lacks the sheer dominance fantasy owners want from an elite starter. His career K's-per-nine ratio is 5.23 and K-per-walk is 3.37; this season his numbers are 5.53 and 3.22. Unfortunately, when a pitcher's stats reside at those levels, he is heavily reliant upon defense and is susceptible to streakiness, such as in his past four turns, when he has posted a 7.25 ERA, 1.88 WHIP and .362 BAA. Pelfrey's need to be sharp in the command department couldn't be any more evident than in his most recent turn Monday; after a few calls didn't go his way, the Cincinnati Reds capitalized with a six-run, five-hit fifth inning against the right-hander, handing him an ugly 4 2/3-inning, nine-hit, seven-run line for the night. Mets announcers were all over him for losing focus. Whether their assessment was right or not, there's no denying the results. Maybe Pelfrey needs only a slight adjustment to get back on track, but that 5.67 second-half ERA he had last year has to be at least a mild concern for his owners.

Upgrade your roster

Add: Travis Wood, Cincinnati Reds
Drop: Doug Fister, Seattle Mariners

Wood started against the aforementioned Pelfrey start Monday. Sure, it was a concern that immediately after tripling off the Mets right-hander in that meltdown inning by the latter, the rookie southpaw struggled through a four-run, two-hit, one-walk fifth inning, getting hooked after only two outs. Let's choose to focus only on the good here, OK? After all, what the Reds were requesting of him that night was a lot, and perhaps too much, as in only his second big-league start he was asked to pitch on three days' rest in a road game against a potent Mets offense (.769 OPS at home, 12th in the majors).

Take out Wood's poor fifth inning, when he might have been out of gas, and he tossed four innings where he allowed just one run on four hits and one walk, which, when tacked onto his seven innings of two-run, two-hit baseball in his big-league debut July 1, looks good. The Reds had to be happy he even gave them four useful innings in his follow-up outing. Perhaps he'll stick in their rotation even after Volquez, mentioned above, gets activated. Certainly a pitcher like Wood, who looks the part of a command specialist, has a place in a big-league rotation, even if his future is more of a No. 3/4 starter than a true ace.

Wood definitely warrants a proverbial dice roll over a pitcher like Fister, who, in spite of his white-hot start to the season, hasn't looked close to the part of the breakout stud since his return from the disabled list. Fister has surrendered nine runs on 11 hits in his first two starts back, but more importantly, he has allowed 15 fly balls and eight line drives to just 17 grounders, meaning he's not even playing the part of the ground-ball specialist he did in the season's early stages.

Also consider adding …
Chris Tillman, Baltimore Orioles: He has had a lot of trouble adapting to big-league competition in 16 career starts to date, but his career Triple-A numbers -- 2.71 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 31 starts -- suggest there might yet be something here. Tillman, unfortunately, suffers from unfair comparisons to fellow Orioles prospects Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta, both of whom simply have higher ceilings, but why can't Tillman still be a useful No. 3/4 starter in time?

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.