As we all hold our breath to see whether the Washington Nationals will sign Stephen Strasburg (they have until Monday to strike a deal), let's reconcile ourselves to the notion that Strasburg is not riding in on a white horse to save your 2009 fantasy team. Instead, it might be time to make a trade.
This coming Friday is the trade deadline for standard ESPN.com fantasy baseball leagues, so you're approaching the final moments when you can make a big splash in your league. Since starting pitching is always a need at trade deadline time, and since I haven't stuck my neck way out in this column lately, I'm going to try a neat trick. I'm going to give you two names, and two names only. No throwing a bunch of darts hoping one hits. Just one starting pitcher who's owned in most standard leagues who I think is undervalued right now, and one guy who's owned in most standard leagues who I think is overvalued right now. I'm calling my shot, and it might be wrong, but at least I can give you my reasons.
My pitcher to acquire is Aaron Harang. Now, granted, I only rank Harang No. 46 on the list below, so it's not like I'm trying to say he's the best pitcher in baseball from now through the end of the season. But I think his upside is substantially higher than No. 46; that ranking has quite a lot of risk factored in, because Harang has gotten terrible run support this season (his 5.28 runs of support per nine innings is 10th-lowest in baseball) and because, well, his top-line numbers kind of stink: 4.43 ERA and 1.43 WHIP.
But there's a chance Harang can turn it around, and he's shown signs the past couple of times out. On Aug. 3 against the Cubs, he whiffed 10 batters and allowed eight baserunners in 7 1/3 innings. On Monday against the Giants, he fanned seven while allowing nine baserunners in seven innings, and also won his first game since May 25. For me, most importantly, I see the kind of overall strikeout-to-walk ratio that should be resulting in a far stronger season from Harang: he's got 132 strikeouts and just 38 walks in 148 1/3 innings. That's borderline elite.
Meanwhile, for the season, Harang's batting average on balls in play is .347, second highest among all qualifiers. And in the past 30 days, his BABIP is .369, ninth highest among qualifiers, while his strand rate is 65.2 percent, 14th lowest in that span. I grant you he plays in a pitching-unfriendly home park, but there's even a chance that could change, as Harang has reportedly cleared waivers, so it's not impossible he could get dealt somewhere where wins are more plentiful. In sum, I think there's a good chance Harang winds up being way more valuable than the Harang owner in your league thinks he'll be by October.
My pitcher to trade away is Joba Chamberlain, not because I think he's bad, but because I think he's at the peak of his value. (Actually, the utter peak of his value would've been before his start Thursday against the Red Sox.) For three starts from July 19 to July 29, Chamberlain was every bit the ace the Yankees hoped he'd be: two earned runs in 21 2/3 innings, 19 strikeouts, eight hits, eight walks and three wins. He rose precipitously in my Sixty Feet, Six Inches ranks, and the debate about whether he should be a set-up man for Mariano Rivera abated.
But a peek inside this streak shows us that over the past month, Joba's BABIP is .177, second-lowest in the majors, and his strand rate is 93.3 percent, third-highest. Now, the strikeouts are always going to be there for Chamberlain (he has 102 in 115 2/3 innings), and it's also a dangerous business to use a very small sample size of starts to proclaim that a pitcher has been lucky. But I think Joba's been a little lucky. For my tastes, even when he's going well, he just walks too many batters (he has 57 walks this year), and when that strand rate comes down, runs will start scoring.
My friend and colleague Tristan Cockcroft points out that talk over a Joba innings cap is overhyped, because the Yankees have limited his pitch totals so effectively in 2009, and the fact that Phil Hughes is doing a fine job in relief puts less pressure on Chamberlain to move to the 'pen. But if that's true, it likely means a continued skein of six-inning outings, which often don't lend themselves to high strikeout totals or wins. Again, I have the guy ranked No. 32, so it's not like I hate him. In fact, other things being equal, I probably wouldn't trade Chamberlain for Harang straight up. But one thing I know is this: You might be able to get a heck of a lot in a trade for Chamberlain, much more than you'd be able to get for the 6-13 Harang.
So there you have it: I've called my shot. We'll see in a couple of months whether it was a shot worth calling.
• Gil Meche, Royals: Meche is tentatively scheduled to come off the DL on Thursday to face the Twins. He's made two starts at Triple-A Omaha the past week, and has reportedly looked fine while racking up a 3.21 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP in 8 2/3 innings. Of course, he also walked seven, but let's just chalk that up to shaking off the rust, shall we? Meche is available in 35 percent of ESPN.com leagues; if his bad back holds up, he could be a fantasy contributor down the stretch in all leagues.
• Carl Pavano, Twins: The Twins traded for Pavano, giving up a player to be named later and assuming the half-million dollars Pavano is owed for the rest of this season. Pavano proceeded to pitch seven scoreless innings for Minnesota against the Tigers this weekend, and still makes an interesting Hail Mary play in fantasy leagues (as I've been asserting for about two months now). It's unclear whom the Twins were thinking about bouncing from their rotation to fit in Pavano, but for the moment, it appears that Glen Perkins, who's dealing with a sore shoulder, is the odd man out. At least he won't be making a start this week.
• Mat Latos, Padres: Latos is battling a sore wrist and will have his next start pushed back a day to Friday, when the Padres will face the Cardinals. But otherwise, he's been tremendous so far: five starts, four wins, 29 2/3 innings, eight runs allowed, 23 strikeouts and nine walks. The league is hitting .190 against him. For the next few weeks, Latos deserves to be owned in all leagues. Of course, he probably only has three or four starts left before San Diego shuts him down for the season due to innings concerns.
• Dan Haren, Diamondbacks: Give credit where it's due: Matthew Berry was "alone on an island" at the All-Star break, ranking Haren much lower than the rest of us had him based on his history of poor second halves. Well, I'm still not convinced that whole "first-half/second-half" thing means anything, but in Haren's case, it seems like Matt was dead on. Haren hasn't fanned more than five batters in his past four starts after whiffing six or more in 15 of his prior 19 outings. He's also allowed five earned runs in each of his past two outings, something he did only once in his first 22 starts in 2009. The Diamondbacks say he's not hurt, but he may simply be tired. Regardless, he doesn't look like the same guy: his velocity is down a bit.
• Jarrod Washburn, Tigers: A trade to a true contender was all Washburn needed for that last little push to fantasy glory, right? Right? Well, two starts in, Washburn's Tigers career has been a bust: 11 runs in 11 1/3 innings with 16 hits allowed, including four homers. And that was against the Orioles and Twins, not exactly the iron of the American League. It's too soon to say this was a bad move by Detroit, but right about now Washburn's fantasy owners are wishing things had just stayed the same for the lefty until the end of '09.
• Carlos Zambrano, Cubs: The Cubs placed Zambrano on the 15-day DL because of muscle spasms in his back that caused him to miss his scheduled start Friday. The team hopes that Zambrano will be able to return in less than a week, but as Tim Wakefield owners know, injured backs can be tricky things. You can't give up on Zambrano in fantasy leagues, but you're allowed to be a little jittery. It appears that Jeff Samardzija will get his first big league start Wednesday against the Phillies in Big Z's place.
Comings and goings
• On Friday, Chad Billingsley came out of his second consecutive start with a hamstring problem. He tried to throw a bullpen session Monday, but evidently the Dodgers didn't like what they saw, because Billingsley has been scratched from his scheduled start on Wednesday. It's unclear how much more time Billingsley will miss.
• The Astros expect to have Roy Oswalt pitch in Tuesday's game at Florida. It'll be his first start in two weeks, and he told the Houston Chronicle he's a bit concerned about his control, but at least his injured back isn't bothering him at the moment. It'd be pretty tough for fantasy owners to sit him for this start.
• Erik Bedard will have his sore shoulder examined by Dr. Lewis Yocum on Wednesday; Yocum is perhaps the second-to-last name you want to hear invoked in relation to your fantasy pitcher (there is still, after all, Dr. James Andrews). An MRI revealed fraying in Bedard's shoulder. After the Mariners were painting a rosy picture about his prospects for returning at this time last week, all has gone to pot. It seems very unlikely that Bedard will ever pitch in a Seattle uniform again (he's a free agent at the end of the season).
• Pedro Martinez will return to the majors Wednesday to face the Cubs. The Phillies are moving Jamie Moyer to the bullpen and Rodrigo Lopez to Triple-A, while also activating reliever Chad Durbin from the DL. Martinez famously fanned 11 hitters for Double-A Reading last week, which was apparently all Philadelphia needed to see. He shouldn't be used in 10-team mixed leagues, but in NL-only or deeper mixed leagues, he's worth a try.
• Jordan Zimmermann's return from a sore elbow hit a major snag, as the Nationals had to cancel a Friday bullpen session when Zimmermann reported that the pain had revisited him. The team took an MRI of their rookie hurler's arm and had it examined by (you guessed it) Dr. James Andrews. According to the Washington Post, the good doctor believes that Zimmermann needs Tommy John surgery, which is absolutely devastating news for the Nats and for Zimmermann's high fantasy prospects. He could very well miss all of 2010.
• Johnny Cueto had to come out of his Monday night start after straining his hip during an at-bat in the third inning. Considering how poorly he's pitched lately, it won't be a surprise if the Reds decide to put Cueto on the DL, or at least have him miss his next scheduled start.
• Brett Cecil came out of his start this weekend after 4 1/3 innings because of pain in his knee, which turned out to be "two small tears" in his MCL, according to the Toronto Sun. Cecil is expected to at least miss his next scheduled start.
• The Angels placed Joe Saunders on the DL with a sore shoulder this weekend, but the Los Angeles Times reports that the team expects to have Saunders back in two weeks, and that the issue is mostly "just tightness." Rookie Trevor Bell will get a call-up and start for the Angels on Wednesday against the Rays. It's worth noting that the team is choosing to use Bell instead of Matt Palmer, who got 12 starts earlier this season. In other Angels news, Sean O'Sullivan looks like he'll be a member of the team's rotation for the foreseeable future, though he did get lit up by the Rays on Monday night.
• The Red Sox designated John Smoltz for assignment after his disastrous outing Thursday night at Yankee Stadium. Despite maintaining pretty decent velocity throughout his stint with Boston, Smoltz could never get control of his fastball, a pitch that got hammered again and again throughout his tenure in Beantown. It's unclear whether this is the end of the line for Smoltz. In the meantime, the Red Sox signed Paul Byrd to a minor league contract, and the Boston Globe expects Byrd to join the big club around Sept. 1.
• The A's put Dallas Braden on the 15-day DL because of a rash on his foot. He hasn't pitched since July 31. Clayton Mortensen came up from the minors to take Braden's place in the Oakland rotation Saturday, but Mortensen was shellacked by the Royals to the tune of eight runs in four innings. He was sent right back down to the minors after the game.
• The Cardinals planned on reinserting Todd Wellemeyer into their rotation for Tuesday's game against the Reds, but Wellemeyer felt elbow pain playing catch this weekend, which means Mitchell Boggs will get the start instead. St. Louis is having a really tough time finding a fifth starter.
• Jonathon Niese of the Mets tore a hamstring tendon off the bone in a game last week and was placed on the team's 60-day DL. In a season plagued by injuries, this was a big one for the Mets, who still have very high hopes for Niese's career prospects.
• The Yankees traded a player to be named later to San Diego in exchange for Chad Gaudin. Despite a few high-strikeout starts at the end of June, Gaudin was struggling for the Padres, and doesn't figure to be a great upgrade as New York's fifth starter, over Sergio Mitre, if in fact that's how the Yankees eventually plan on using him.
• The Padres announced this weekend that injured starter Chris Young won't return this season. Young hasn't pitched since mid-June, and while the team still maintains that he'll avoid surgery, his shoulder is still too sore to throw. For a guy who now qualifies as San Diego's ace (with Jake Peavy gone), that doesn't bode all that well for 2010.
• Oft-injured Mike Hampton left his start Saturday after just two innings and was diagnosed with a torn the meniscus in his knee. The Astros are calling him day-to-day, but it sounds like there's a good chance he could miss a start while he deals with soreness.
• The Rangers designated Vicente Padilla for assignment after he was pounded by the A's on Wednesday night. Padilla had returned from a bout with swine flu, but 42 walks in 108 innings just wasn't getting it done.
• The Dodgers placed Jason Schmidt on the 15-day DL because of continued problems with his surgically repaired shoulder. Eric Stults took Schmidt's most recent turn in the L.A. rotation and he allowed three runs in five innings against the Braves this weekend.