Keep eye on Halladay, Verlander

Plus notes on how to handle rookies Tony Cingrani, Jose Fernandez

Updated: August 20, 2013, 3:45 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Ah, the challenges of a writer: Too many topics to discuss and not enough space to tackle them all. Or is there?

It's a busy time in the fantasy baseball world, and when there are many things to be said, I can suggest but one solution.

60 Feet 6 Inches

Make alphabet soup.

It's pretty self-explanatory: One topic for each of the 26 letters, each a quick-hitting spin. This way, we'll come close to discussing the most relevant names recently in the news. Let's get started, shall we?

A is for Astros closers. Leave it to the Houston Astros, because just when they find us an interesting saves candidate, that in the person of Chia-Jen Lo, they go and divvy up the duties. "I'll fluctuate between [Lo and Josh Fields] based on the workload previously leading up to that game," manager Bo Porter told the Houston Chronicle on Saturday. "But it's a good option to have both of those guys pitching well." Porter has a curious interpretation of "pitching well"; Fields has an 8.22 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in eight appearances in August and Lo has 6 1/3 shutout innings of a 0.95 WHIP in six games in the month. Lo is also the one with a bit harder fastball and a more effective curveball. Fantasy owners might be intrigued should Lo earn a full-time nod in the role, but in a split of the duties, this is the problem: The Astros have won just eight of 30 games since the All-Star break, meaning an already minimal number of chances are diluted further.

B is for Beachy. How many times can I reiterate my interest in Brandon Beachy the remainder of this year? The Atlanta Braves' schedule was discussed in detail in last week's edition, and Beachy now has three consecutive quality starts. He's still available in 13.8 percent of ESPN leagues.

[+] EnlargeTony Cingrani
AP Photo/Morry GashThe Reds may have no choice but to keep Tony Cingrani in the rotation for the stretch run.

C is for Cingrani. Perhaps you haven't noticed, but in his past four starts, Tony Cingrani has a 1.54 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 12.34 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio, and during that time he faced the National League's No. 1 (St. Louis Cardinals) and 4 lineups (Los Angeles Dodgers) in terms of wOBA (weighted on-base average). Perhaps more important, Cingrani continues to flash just enough of his breaking pitches to offer encouragement that any adjustment period is in the rearview: His curve and slider combined have limited opponents to a .032 batting average with 15 K's in 32 plate appearances that ended with one. If that continues and Cingrani feels more comfortable leaning on them to diversify his arsenal in coming weeks, that'd ease worries that he's too reliant upon fastball velocity and deception. Perhaps the best news yet: Johnny Cueto has been slow to recover from a strained right lat and is running out of time on the minor league calendar for an obvious rehabilitation assignment place; Cueto might have to settle for a relief role in September as he works back to full strength.

D is for Delgado. He might not have eye-popping numbers or the stuff to mount a serious run at top-40 status, but Randall Delgado warrants more attention for his recent performance than he has received. Since joining the Arizona Diamondbacks' rotation June 18 -- that originally ticketed a mere one-and-done spot start -- he has seven quality starts, a 3.69 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. The critical improvement Delgado has made is this: He has walked 1.90 batters per nine during that span, down substantially from the 3.95 he averaged in the majors from 2011-12 or 3.56 he averaged during his minor league career.

E is for Estrada. Though his team (Milwaukee Brewers) no longer garners much attention, having sunk to last place in the National League Central, Marco Estrada has quietly restored much of his fantasy appeal since his return from a hamstring strain. He has a 2.65 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in three starts since being activated, but here's the most encouraging part: He has 12 K's and just one walk. That's the kind of control he flashed during his breakout 2012 campaign (4.93 K's per walk), and he's available in nearly 90 percent of ESPN leagues.

F is for Farquhar. Anyone care to guess the top four pure closers on our Player Rater the past 30 days? Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen are the easy ones, and Greg Holland might not be a difficult one to guess. Here's the one you might have missed: Danny Farquhar of the Seattle Mariners. The reinvented right-hander -- he was formerly a sidearmer who now works more over the top -- has seven saves in eight tries with a 1.46 ERA in his past 10 appearances, whiffing 19 batters and walking one. Though he's unlikely to maintain such a torrid pace, he's a pitcher whose skills improvement makes him an excellent bet to both stick in the closer role as well as have a chance at top-15 closer value going forward.

G is for Gerrit. Gerrit Cole might have a mere 3.86 ERA since the All-Star break, but has anyone noticed that he has 27 K's in 30 1/3 innings during that span? How about that he has thrown his slider -- a filthy one at that -- 23.7 percent of the time, up considerably from the 8.2 percent he did in his first seven games? Cole seems to be developing as a prospect, and while the Pittsburgh Pirates have discussed the idea of shifting him to the bullpen to keep his innings in check, he's looking more and more attractive a keeper-league prospect. There's a legitimate chance he might make a run at top-30 status come 2014.

[+] EnlargeRoy Halladay
AP Photo/Michael PerezWil the Roy Halladay of old show up in the final weeks of the season after a lengthy DL stint?

H is for Halladay. Who'd have guessed that one of 2013's most intriguing late-season sleepers could be … 2012's No. 1 starting pitcher in terms of ADP, Roy Halladay? Yes, Halladay's 18.0 ESPN ownership percentage in puts him in that category -- in our standard game at least -- as he tossed a rehabilitation quality start for the Philadelphia Phillies' Gulf Coast League affiliate Aug. 15, will make another Tuesday for Class A Lakewood and could soon be ready to join the big club. Halladay's fastball did reside in the 86-88 mph range Aug. 15, meaning it's no greater than it was before surgery to repair his labrum and rotator cuff, but that's still a "first-start-back" measure. Might it increase in Turn 2 on Tuesday? The next 24 hours could tell us quite a bit about his rest-of-2013 prospects.

I is for innings cap. Miami Marlins rookie standout Jose Fernandez is approaching his, the six innings he threw Monday bringing his season total to 145 2/3. All indications are that the team will afford him a maximum of 170 frames; the team's official website theorized Monday, while noting that no firm shutdown date has been set, that Fernandez should approach 170 around Sept. 4. That means three lost weeks from the right-hander, who is the No. 10 starting pitcher on our Player Rater, and a lot of panicky owners in head-to-head leagues. The question has been frequently asked, and here's the answer: Don't cut Fernandez. Anything he'll give you between now and Labor Day grants you greater value comparative to replacement than the value differential between the fill-ins available today and in September. In short, it'd be smarter to run the risk of riding Fernandez to playoff qualification, then streaming starters in his absence, than cutting him today for the slim prospect that his replacement is an every-start September option. Playoff matchups can be won by only streaming; it's merely more work.

J is for Jim Johnson. Specifically, it's for Jim Johnson's recent struggles. Johnson has blown three consecutive save chances and allowed a run in four straight appearances, sending out scads of warning signs to panicky fantasy owners. Their concerns are understandable, considering he has had difficulty locating his sinker -- he has afforded two home runs on sinkers that failed to sink since the All-Star break -- and he had a similar rough spell the middle of last year (11.70 ERA in 12 games in July). That said, Johnson still possesses a 3.27 ERA and 1.55 WHIP with six successful saves since the break, so he hasn't been completely awful. Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter hasn't given any indication that a change is imminent, but it's not a bad idea for owners with deep benches to insure their Orioles saves investment. Based upon recent usage patterns, Tommy Hunter, he of the 2.67 ERA and 0.94 WHIP, seems like the guy to get.

K is for K's, or Kevin Gregg's inability to record them of late. In 13 appearances since the All-Star break, the Chicago Cubs closer is 8-for-10 in save chances with a 2.57 ERA, but also only six K's compared to 10 walks. Ten walks in 14 innings! Gregg lacks the raw swing-and-miss stuff that's typical of a closer, and with the Cubs playing for the future, it's possible they might test younger choices in the role, whether they sneak the veteran through waivers or not. After all, consider that both Blake Parker (2.41 ERA, 1.29 WHIP) and Pedro Strop (2.41 and 0.80) have outpitched him since July 1.

[+] EnlargeLocke
Frank Victores/USA TODAY SportsIt was probably a matter of time before Jeff Locke got a reality check.

L is for Locke. Some regression was inevitable with Jeff Locke, but a 5.58 ERA and 2.02 WHIP in six starts since the All-Star break represents an extreme degree of it, too much so for fantasy owners to keep him in their lineups. During that time he has 21 walks in 30 2/3 innings; remember that this is a pitcher who averaged 2.47 walks per nine innings during his minor league career. Could Locke be tiring? Perhaps, considering that his pace of 182 2/3 innings would set a new professional high. His FIP tells the true tale: His 3.86 shows that his true, rest-of-year value might be, at best, that of a matchups type.

M is for Mujica. The No. 4 pure relief pitcher on our Player Rater, Edward Mujica indeed has been one of 2013's biggest fantasy surprises. But word this past weekend that he was suffering from fatigue might trouble his owners, so he makes the list as cause for encouragement. Mujica returned to action Monday to convert his 32nd save in 34 chances. It's odd that fatigue would be mentioned; the right-hander is on pace for 71 2/3 innings, a slightly high total for a modern closer, yet still shy of his innings totals of 2011 (76) or 2009 (93 2/3). Besides, there isn't an obvious fill-in, as next-in-line reliever Trevor Rosenthal is actually on a greater innings pace (76 1/3) and might be equally fatigued.

N is for Nova. Ivan Nova is riding a streak of seven consecutive quality starts, and in nine games since rejoining the New York Yankees' rotation he has a 2.23 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 4.07 K-to-walk ratio. With Nova it's always about spotting his breaking pitches; his 53 percent miss rate on curves and sliders is second best among pitchers with at least 10 starts. He's available in 31.6 percent of ESPN leagues and is well worth a look, even if this is mere streak-chasing.

O is for Oberholtzer. Though Houston Astros left-hander Brett Oberholtzer is on an incredible run -- he has four consecutive quality starts facing the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels -- he remains more of a mirage than a true pickup. Take a look at his FIP/xFIP stats: He has a 3.42 FIP, which is good, but his 4.47 xFIP is much more troubling for such an extreme fly-baller (his rate is 50.9 percent). Consider the matchups if you wish, but success in his case against such elite lineups was much more the product of luck than skill.

P is for Pirates closers. Jason Grilli, initially ticketed to miss 4-8 weeks when he was diagnosed with a strained flexor muscle in his forearm in late July, might soon make the Pittsburgh Pirates' ninth-inning picture interesting. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Grilli might resume throwing from the mound later in the week, and it's possible he'll be ready to reclaim his old role when rosters expand Sept. 1. So who might close for the team in September? Mark Melancon is 6-for-7 in save chances with a 0.82 ERA in Grilli's absence, but there's little doubt that this team's bullpen ranked among the game's best with Melancon in the eighth and Grilli the ninth. Perhaps Grilli will be worked back in as a setup man initially upon activation, but I'd bet it'll be his role the final three weeks.

[+] EnlargeDerek Holland
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsDerek Holland has quietly risen to the ranks of the most dependable starting pitchers.

Q is for quality starts. Many have discussed Travis Wood's quality-start dominance this season, but were you aware that, since July 1, Derek Holland's eight quality starts rank second in the league? Holland actually has nine quality starts in his past 10 tries, and a 2.28 ERA, 1.15 WHIP during that span. What's more, he has increased his K-to-walk ratio for the third consecutive season, further evidence that he's growing as a pitcher. A pitcher with a 3.23 ERA after Sept. 1 from 2010-12, Holland might be the sneakiest top-30 candidate out there the rest of this year.

R is for Ross. Who is Tyson Ross? It has been a popular question during the past week, after the San Diego Padres right-hander strung together five consecutive quality starts (1.32 ERA, 0.79 WHIP) since joining their rotation following the All-Star break. Picked up in a beneath-the-radar November trade with the Oakland Athletics, Ross was a similar spark plug fill-in for his former team in 2011, posting a 2.61 ERA in six starts before succumbing to an oblique injury that May. As a ground-baller who possesses a good slider and calls Petco Park his home, Ross might yet have some short-term fantasy appeal, perhaps even through season's end. Be forewarned, though, that he has a checkered injury history and his command can waver at times. This is short-term speculating, but at least fantasy owners in need of that can find him available in 64.2 percent of ESPN leagues.

S is for September standout… Homer Bailey. Bailey is owned in every ESPN league and currently ranks the No. 30 starting pitcher on our Player Rater. His September track record borders on absurd. Consider that in 28 career regular-season starts from Sept. 1 forward, Bailey has a 2.88 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 9.12 K's-per-nine ratio, plus a no-hitter (Sept. 28, 2012), by far his best numbers in any single month. It can be fairly argued that he'll be the de facto ace of a surging team -- 11 wins in their past 15 games -- that still has its sights on the National League Central title, and one that faces nothing but below-average offenses the final three weeks of the season.

T is for "The Thing," which, per the Tampa Bay Times, is what Jeremy Hellickson calls the splitter-changeup that has transformed Alex Cobb into one of the game's breakout players of 2013. After missing two months recovering from a concussion, Cobb tossed five innings of one-run, three-hit baseball in his return to the rotation Aug. 15, showing every bit as polished a skill set as he possessed before getting hurt: plenty of ground balls, plenty of swings and misses. As for that "Thing," check out its performance this season: .209/.265/.301 triple-slash rates allowed, 28 percent miss rate, 43 of his 82 K's.

U is for under-owned starting pitcher: Jarrod Parker (79.5 percent owned). It still amazes me that Parker isn't claimed in every ESPN league, and the only logical explanation is that his season stats, which were dragged down by a poor first five starts, continue to mask his true talent. So let's shave off those five: He has 17 quality starts (second most during that span), nine wins (14th), a 2.93 ERA (18th among qualifiers) and 1.04 WHIP (seventh) since April 30. The Oakland Athletics also continue to do a brilliant job keeping his workload in check; he's on pace for 203 1/3 innings and hasn't thrown more than 108 pitches in a game.

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
Duane Burleson/Getty ImagesJustin Verlander still hasn't been close to the dominant ace he has been in the past.

V is for Verlander. Perhaps this 2013 version of Justin Verlander is the new, permanent version. His "struggles" have now extended 19 starts; he has eight wins, 11 quality starts, a 4.26 ERA and 1.43 WHIP during that span. At what point can a sample no longer be classified small? Verlander's fastball, for the season, has averaged 93.1 mph, marking the fourth consecutive year in which it has declined. He has thrown 224 1/3, 271 1/3, 266 2/3 and 166 2/3 (pace of 217 2/3), postseason included, during those seasons, so a small decline in performance shouldn't come as a complete shock. I once said "95 percent of Verlander is still a top-10 starter;" if he's, say, 85-90 percent of what he once was, isn't his current ranking more correct?

W is for Wilson. "The Beard," Brian Wilson, is back, activated by the Los Angeles Dodgers Monday to serve in a setup capacity. But should fantasy owners really care? Wilson, who succumbed to Tommy John surgery in April 2012, was hitting 91 mph with his fastball during his rehabilitation assignment, still a few ticks below where he was during his San Francisco Giants heyday. He's more name than true value, but based upon reputation at least warrants monitoring, if you're a Kenley Jansen owner in a deep-mixed or NL-only league.

X is for X (OK, "ex") closer with his eye set on future saves. So I stretched the rules on this one, so what. The point is to get Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander J.J. Putz, their closer to begin the season, into this space. Since returning from the DL in June, he has one save and six holds in eight chances, a 1.15 ERA and 1.09 WHIP, statistics that should be plenty to get him another opportunity to close … if the Diamondbacks need him. No, Brad Ziegler hasn't had any issues as closer or given the team any reason to change their roles, but he does still lack that dominating pitch to use against left-handed hitters (their OPS against him is 162 points higher than that of righties). With even the briefest cold spell, the Diamondbacks might entertain a change with Putz pitching this well.

Y is for Yankees "ace" CC Sabathia. Judging by Sabathia's recent returns, perhaps the label of "ace" should be applied to Hiroki Kuroda instead? Sabathia has just three wins, four quality starts, a 6.16 ERA and 1.58 WHIP in his past 10 starts, serving up an alarming 11 home runs during that span. While his average fastball velocity has picked up in recent turns -- he has averaged 92.0 mph with it since the All-Star break -- it remains shy of the numbers of his heyday -- he averaged 93.7 mph with it in 2011 as a whole. Sabathia's stuff is no longer as electric, opponents are squaring up his pitches more effectively, evidenced by his 25.8 percent line-drive rate since the break, and his New York Yankees face one of the worst schedules for pitchers the rest of the way.

Z is for Zimmermann and his so-so K rate. Jordan Zimmermann has been a frustrating pitcher to own of late, two of his six outings since the All-Star break poor, and the result overall a 6.75 ERA and 1.73 WHIP. Unfortunately, it's such rough patches that depress his fantasy appeal, and it's all because of his K's: His 121 are second fewest of any of the top-20 pure starting pitchers on our Player Rater. In Zimmermann's defense, his FIP/xFIP (3.59/3.52) remain right in line with his numbers of 2011-12, evidence that this might be a mere rough spell rather than declining skills. Still, his owners need be picky with his remaining matchups.

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