It's Player Rater week here at ESPN Fantasy, so let's use the Rater to identify the five biggest surprises and the five biggest busts among starting pitchers so far this season.
I've been leery about Volquez since the beginning, but let's face it: My advice to dump him high is looking pretty bad after two-plus months. He's still yet to allow more than three earned runs in a game (he just allowed three for the first time on Monday), he still leads the majors in strikeouts and his BABIP indicates he hasn't even been lucky. He's allowed four walks or more in five of his 14 starts, but really, that's nitpicking. I do think his fly ball rate is artificially low and likely to rise to as high as 40 percent by season's end, which could get him in homer trouble. Also, his strand rate continues to be an unsustainably high 87 percent. But for now, I'd look like an idiot not to admit my mistake. I wouldn't trade for him, and if I could get the moon for him, I'd trade him away. But I also understand the temptation to just hold him.
I feel less silly about Cliff Lee, the bulk of whose value currently derives from his 10 wins. I still view Lee as a good sell-high candidate. This is a guy who allowed 1.30 and 1.59 HR/9 in the past two seasons, and is currently at 0.44. Throughout his career, he's always had a GB/FB ratio around 0.70 and 0.75, and this year he's at 1.28. I just can't help but think that eventually the magic will wear off -- and he'll start allowing bombs again.
Ervin Santana is someone by whom I was intrigued to start the year, but I'd never have believed he'd be rolling along with a 3.01 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. Santana was something of a bounce-back candidate, as his monstrously high .333 BABIP from 2007 attested. He's back down at .272 this season. The biggest difference, though, has been walks. After never allowing fewer than three per nine innings in his career, Santana is at 1.91 in '08. He's focusing more on getting ahead with his 95-mph fastball, mixing in an 83-mph slider and that's pretty much it. Will the league get hip to this two-pitch repertoire? And if he keeps hitting his spots, will it matter?
At least I was on the leading edge with Shaun Marcum. I've been pimping Marcum all year and continue to do so; a legit five-pitch pitcher, Marcum has the AL baffled right now, to the tune of an AL-best 2.43 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP. Now, those numbers are eventually going north. Marcum slowed down in the second half last year because he wasn't used to a full major league season as a starter, and it's likely to happen again to some extent in '08. Also, Marcum's BABIP is .227, which means he's been pretty darned lucky. But this is not a total mirage. If someone wants to trade you Josh Beckett for him, sure, you take Beckett and run. But Marcum isn't a complete fluke.
Speaking of complete flukes, hello Ryan Dempster! All right, that's not fair. Dempster is having a shockingly good year for the red-hot Cubs: 2.81 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 75 K in 89 2/3 IP. But Dempster's BABIP is .226, and his standard BAA is .192. Most importantly, in my opinion, is that he hasn't thrown more than 115 2/3 innings in a season since 2002. He's worked relatively deep into games (he's averaging 6 2/3 innings per start and has gotten into the seventh on five occasions, including a complete game Wednesday night) for a guy who was closing last year. I know he used to be a starter, and is a veteran guy, but it's still possible his arm isn't ready for the 200-plus innings he's currently on pace for.
Tom Gorzelanny was once considered a good lefty prospect, but the bloom is off his rose at the moment. It's not like I expected him to be a fantasy ace, especially not pitching for the Pirates, but I also didn't expect him to be the worst full-time starter in baseball so far this year. I mean, the guy has 43 walks and just 29 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings a year after striking out 135. He had a decent outing against the Diamondbacks on Saturday and gets the Nationals Thursday. But he's such a mechanical mess right now, you can't think about using him.
How are the Pirates just two games under .500? Ian Snell has also been a disaster, and unlike Gorzelanny, Snell was being relied upon in most fantasy leagues, even shallow mixed ones. His strikeout rate is down a little, but what's really dogged him has been his newfound propensity for walks: He had 2.94 BB/9 in '07 and stands at 4.83 so far in '08. That said, Snell's BABIP is a ML-worst .374, and while he's never had a season below .300, that's a really unlucky number so far in '08, even for him. I do think he'll turn it around (and it may have begun Wednesday night, with a six-inning win against the Nationals in which he struck out six), and he should be owned, but not started, in fantasy leagues right now.
Like Snell, Hill was one of my faves this spring, but he walked 18 in 19 innings to start the year and was such a mechanical mess the Cubs decided they couldn't let him work things out in the bigs. I had my doubts about Hill's demotion at the time, but now, considering he's fought a back injury and more rancid control at Triple-A Iowa, the move down is looking sage. Hill will return at some point in the second half, and probably be good. If you've got a deep fantasy bench, I'd roster him and just wait. But if you don't have a deep bench, dropping him is probably the right thing to do.
Unbelievably, Clay Buchholz might not be the most valuable Buchholz in fantasy baseball this year, as Taylor Buchholz (no relation) is pitching well in the Rockies' bullpen. Meanwhile, Clay fanned 43 in 42 1/3 innings to start the year, which is good, but walked 20 and posted a 5.53 ERA. The Red Sox sent him to the minors with a bogus fingernail injury and are now having him work on his fastball location at Triple-A Pawtucket, but this Buchholz is too good not to be back in the bigs in the second half. The Sox are smart, hoping to limit innings for most of their starters by giving them breaks so they can be fresh in October. Plus, Buchholz had an unlucky .376 BABIP in his eight starts. He'll be fantasy-relevant again this year.
Finally, I've never been a fan of Brad Penny and, in fact, he was my "bust" pick among all starting pitchers to start the season. But this season has been curious. Usually, Penny is a fast starter who fades after the break, but right now he sits with a 5.38 ERA and a 1.56 WHIP. Penny has had an unlucky strand rate (65.7 percent), an unlucky BABIP (.321) and hasn't lost his groundball-pitching ways. I do think he'll eventually bounce back, but as I mentioned, I'm not a big fan overall.
Comings and Goings
Jake Peavy is scheduled to come off the DL Thursday afternoon and face the Dodgers. Note that it's a 3:35 p.m. ET start, so if you need to get Peavy off your fantasy bench, do it early. Brandon Webb left his start Wednesday night after five innings and 58 pitches. Webb had just been struck in the side by a Carlos Delgado line drive, and according to the Arizona Republic, was suffering through a "dead arm," and the Diamondbacks didn't want to take any chances. Webb said his velocity has been down for a few starts, but that he doesn't feel pain when he throws. For now, the team says Webb will get an extra day of rest, and make his normal turn Tuesday against Oakland. Jair Jurrjens missed his start last night after twisting his ankle while walking down the dugout stairs earlier in the week. It's unclear whether he'll have to go on the DL. Despite Jeremy Bonderman being out for the season after surgery to remove a blood clot from his arm, the Tigers sent Dontrelle Willis to Class A Lakeland to try to work through the control problems that have caused him to walk 21 batters in 11 1/3 big league innings so far this year. I'm assuming by this point, you weren't banking on Willis to be much of a fantasy option, but this should pretty much clinch it. Meanwhile, Armando Galarraga is safe in the Tigers' rotation. The Cardinals placed Adam Wainwright on the DL with a sprained middle finger, an injury which currently isn't considered serious. The team hopes its ace won't miss more than the minimum 15 days. The Cardinals are also scheduled to get both Joel Pineiro and Todd Wellemeyer back in their rotation this week. Pineiro is slated to come off the DL and pitch Thursday against the Reds, while Wellemeyer (who was scratched from his Tuesday start because of a sore elbow) is expected to avoid the DL and throw Saturday against the Phillies. Note that Wellemeyer's previous career high for big-league innings in a season is 63 2/3, and he's already at 80 this season. More health troubles are a possibility. Eric Hurley, who is probably the top arm in the Rangers' farm system, is scheduled to get a call-up Thursday to start against the Royals. Hurley is a Kevin Millwood clone who struck out 72 and walked 29 in 74 2/3 innings at Triple-A Oklahoma this year, so it's not like he's got that much more to prove in the minors. Still, Hurley isn't really an elite prospect any longer, so don't use your top waiver spot on him just now. The New York Daily News reports that Phil Hughes is unlikely to return to the Yankees rotation until August. The team expects Hughes to need as long as six weeks of minor league rehab once his broken rib is declared healthy, which hasn't happened yet. The Braves placed Tom Glavine on the DL for the second time this year (and his career) because of a sore pitching elbow. The Miami Herald reported that Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and Sergio Mitre are all doing well in their various rehabs, and that each could be back as a rotation option for the Marlins in the season's second half. Johnson is trying to come back fast from Tommy John surgery, so he'd probably be someone to stay away from at first. Ryan Tucker is already up from the minors and in Florida's rotation (and is worth a look in NL-only leagues), and Chris Volstad may not be far behind, so it's unclear whether all this rehab talk is wishful thinking. The Orioles designated Steve Trachsel for assignment.
Comings and Goings
Here comes your weekly Francisco Liriano update: Liriano was stellar for the second time in three starts Tuesday for Triple-A Rochester, giving up one run in six innings, striking out seven and allowing six hits and just one walk. The fact that Liriano has walked exactly one batter in five of his past six starts has to give the Twins a good feeling. It doesn't seem like it'll be much longer before he's back in Minnesota, though the team hasn't commented lately. Jason Hirsh continues his minor-league rehabilitation from his strained rotator cuff at Triple-A Colorado Springs, and on Tuesday threw five scoreless innings, in which he allowed two hits and four walks. The 6-foot-8 righty could rejoin the Rockies before the end of June. James Simmons returned to the mound at Double-A Midland on Sunday, pitching 2 1/3 innings. Simmons, a 2007 first-rounder, hadn't started since May 14 because of a tired arm. It's still possible Simmons could get a cup of coffee in Oakland this year.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner.
You can e-mail him here.