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Returning aces: Value of injured SPs

7/10/2013

We've officially hit the dog days of summer with the start of July, as the next two months -- both 31 days long -- typically drag longer than most, especially for all you fellow parents with school-aged children. But instead of dreading these days until September brings us pennant races and a new football season, consider that there's a lot to look forward to in July and August in addition to beaches, barbequing and blockbuster movies. I prefer to focus on my favorite "B" -- baseball -- and specifically all the "coming attractions" of great starting pitchers due to return in the next eight weeks after long stints on the disabled list.

Each of the 15 featured pitchers below -- nine are former All-Stars -- receives a star rating (1 to 5) based on how much each player can help your fantasy team in the second half of the season based on his past success, present injury and future outlook. Like all summer movies, some will gross millions, some will be delayed, and some will surely flop despite all the money invested in them.

Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox

ESPN fantasy league ownership: 100 percent
Last pitched: June 8
Injury: Inflammation in shoulder
Expected return: Mid-July

The lone five-star rating among these pitchers goes to Buchholz, who still leads the majors with a 1.71 ERA and a perfect 9-0 record. He did undergo a minor setback at the start of last week, but an MRI showed only minor inflammation, so he's back on track with his throwing program and could return in time to make his second All-Star team. The 28-year-old has really turned a corner in his career this season, increasing his strikeout rate from 6.1 in 2012 to 8.6 this season, while holding opponents to a .195 average and .270 slugging percentage. And unlike some Red Sox teammates who have had miserable Septembers in recent years, Buchholz carries a 2.62 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 6.8 K/9 in September for his career. The fact that he's still owned in 100 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues shows that he is truly the summer blockbuster of returning starting pitchers.
Rating: 5 Stars

Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox

ESPN fantasy league ownership: 48.3 percent
Last pitched: June 4
Injury: Fractured rib cage
Expected return: Late July

Peavy has progressed to throwing bullpen sessions and should be back on the mound for the White Sox -- or a contender willing to pay for pitching help -- shortly after the All-Star break. Although Peavy is a 12-year MLB veteran, the right-hander is only 32 years old, so he should have plenty of life left in that golden arm. And because his injury isn't related to that arm, there's no reason to expect him to struggle. He also has shown the ability to pitch at an extremely high level late in the season in his career. In exactly 100 starts after Aug. 1, Peavy is 47-30 (.610) with a 3.00 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 8.9 K/9. If you're in one of the 51.7 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues in which Peavy is unowned, pick him up now.
Rating: 4 Stars

Brandon Beachy, Atlanta Braves

ESPN fantasy league ownership: 16.1 percent
Last pitched: June 16, 2012
Injury: Reconstructive elbow surgery (Tommy John)
Expected return: Late July

Beachy has reportedly looked strong in recent bullpen sessions and should be starting a rehab assignment shortly. That puts him on track to return just more than 12 months since his Tommy John surgery. Despite his low ESPN fantasy ownership, this is a guy you'll want to scoop off the waiver wire quickly. The 26-year-old has been a strikeout machine in his three major league seasons, with 252 K's in 237 2/3 innings, and has not been fazed by pitching in opposing ballparks, as evidenced by his 2.98 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 9.2 K/9 rate over 21 career road starts. Granted, his career numbers have been considerably worse in the second half of the season (3.93 ERA, 1.35 WHIP) than in the first half (2.55 ERA, 1.02 WHIP), but that's more a product of a young pitcher tiring down the stretch. Considering the other four NL East teams occupy the bottom 12 spots in runs in the majors, with the Mets, Nationals and Marlins having the three worst on-base percentages in baseball, Beachy should have plenty of favorable matchups once he returns.
Rating: 4 Stars

Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers

ESPN fantasy league ownership: 45.5 percent
Last pitched: June 5
Injury: Inflammation in right shoulder
Expected return: Late July

Ogando is slowly regaining the strength in his pitching shoulder and is expected to make his first rehab start Saturday with Triple-A Round Rock. He should return to the Rangers rotation not long after that. There's a reason so many fantasy owners have held on to the 29-year-old: When he's healthy, he can be absolutely dominant. There are, however, a couple of concerns regarding Ogando's long-term fantasy worth. Although his numbers in 40 career starts are quite good overall -- 3.36 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 17-10 record -- his 6.8 K/9 rate as a starter pales in comparison to the 8.9 K/9 rate he posted as a reliever. Also consider that the right-hander's career stats after the All-Star break (3.92 ERA, 1.30 WHIP) have been much worse than his pre-break performance (2.61 ERA, 1.02 WHIP) over the course of his career. Ogando still warrants "must-start" status in all fantasy leagues, but temper your expectations a bit moving forward.
Rating: 3.5 Stars

Michael Pineda, New York Yankees

ESPN fantasy league ownership: 6.3 percent
Last pitched: Sept. 21, 2011
Injury: Torn labrum in right shoulder
Expected return: Mid-July

This 24-year-old flamethrower hasn't pitched in the majors in nearly two years, but he's getting close to making his Yankees debut. He has made four rehab starts between high Class A and Double-A, going 1-0 with a 2.60 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 15 K's and eight walks over 17 1/3 innings. While his control isn't there yet, he reportedly is hitting 95 mph on the radar gun, and his shoulder has held up nicely. As for how he'll do once he joins the Yankees rotation, that is, of course, a mystery, considering he has pitched just one year in the big leagues, and it was two years ago (and prior to his injury). One troubling trend from that All-Star rookie season, however, was Pineda's post-break struggles; he was 1-4 with a 5.12 ERA in the second half, including a 6.06 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in seven starts away from pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. He also has never pitched in homer-friendly Yankee Stadium, which has been known to intimidate young starters. That said, Pineda is an elite talent who likely will rack up more strikeouts than innings pitched, and as New York's star hitters return to the lineup, he'll be in line for a lot more run support than the team's rotation is currently enjoying.
Rating: 3.5 Stars

Colby Lewis, Texas Rangers

ESPN fantasy league ownership: 0.2 percent
Last pitched: July 18, 2012
Injury: Elbow surgery, triceps tendinitis
Expected return: Late July

Nearly all ESPN standard-league owners have cut ties with the big right-hander, but Lewis is aiming to return shortly after the All-Star break. He has been an underappreciated fantasy pitcher since returning to Texas in 2010; in two-plus years with the team, he won 32 games with a solid 3.93 ERA and 1.18 WHIP, and a robust 8.1 K/9 rate. He also has gone 6-3 in his past two (healthy) Septembers, propelling him to two fine postseasons (2.34 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 7.9 K/9 rate in eight starts). He might not be a pitcher who is a no-brainer start in all fantasy formats, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a fantasy owner who can't use the stats he'll likely put up the rest of the way.
Rating: 3 Stars

Chris Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals

ESPN fantasy league ownership: 3.8 percent
Last pitched: Oct. 21, 2012
Injury: Nerve irritation in neck and shoulder
Expected return: Late July

Carpenter's season debut is expected to come some time after the All-Star break, but there's no definitive timetable. Either way, he has an interesting recent injury history that includes him having three or fewer regular-season starts in four of the past seven seasons. Now age 38, it's nearly impossible to gauge how effective he'll be, but if he's healthy in September, fantasy owners must take the chance that Carpenter has something left in his tank. He always has been a money pitcher down the stretch, going 24-12 with a 3.30 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 7.0 K/9 after Sept. 1, and per usual, his Cardinals will be in the thick of a pennant race.
Rating: 3 Stars

Wandy Rodriguez, Pittsburgh Pirates

ESPN fantasy league ownership: 16.3 percent
Last pitched: June 5
Injury: Forearm tightness
Expected return: Late July

Just this week, the left-hander received a PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injection for his pitching arm, so his return might be pushed back until August. Rodriguez was having a productive season before his forearm woes, posting a career-best 1.12 WHIP. He is finally enjoying the fruits of PNC Park, going 4-2 with a 2.04 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 7.5 K/9 and an opponents' slash line of .184/.232/.319 in six home starts this season. Rodriguez also has been a slightly better second-half pitcher (3.92 ERA, 1.29 WHIP) than before the All-Star break (4.07 ERA, 1.35 WHIP) in his career. However, the uncertainty of his injury tempers the star rating here.
Rating: 2.5 Stars

Brandon McCarthy, Arizona Diamondbacks

ESPN fantasy league ownership: 12.1 percent
Last pitched: May 30
Injury: Inflammation in shoulder
Expected return: Late July

This guy has been an injury-riddled mess over the past two seasons, including shoulder injuries surrounding his lengthy DL stint after a line drive to the skull forced him to undergo emergency brain surgery. To say this guy is courageous is quite an understatement, and considering he turns 30 on July 7, the potential to recapture past greatness certainly exists. He will throw a bullpen session this week, and if all goes well, a rehab assignment will follow, with the intent of him returning at some point in July. It's interesting to note that August and September have been the most successful two months of his career; in 238 1/3 innings in this 61-date span, McCarthy has a 3.59 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 6.5 K/9. And if the Diamondbacks are going to win the tightly contested NL West, they'll be counting on McCarthy to make some big starts for them.
Rating: 2.5 Stars

Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays

ESPN fantasy league ownership: 23.9 percent
Last pitched: May 28
Injury: Strained right forearm
Expected return: Mid-August

Morrow was expected to be back with the Blue Jays by now, but he had a setback during a Class A rehab start June 18. Although an MRI showed only inflammation, the team is being cautious and not giving him a timetable just yet. The oft-injured Morrow has not been healthy enough to throw more than 180 innings in a season, and since arriving in Toronto in 2010, he has missed games with injuries to his shoulder, arm, shin, oblique, back and now forearm. That said, he shouldn't be ignored by fantasy owners, especially considering what he did last season after returning from a two-month oblique injury. After returning Aug. 25, Morrow finished the 2012 campaign with three wins, a 2.87 ERA and 41 K's in 47 innings over his final eight starts.
Rating: 2 Stars

Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies

ESPN fantasy league ownership: 17.2 percent
Last pitched: May 5
Injury: Torn rotator cuff
Expected return: Late August

Fantasy owners wished Halladay went on the DL earlier than he did, as he saddled his owners with 17 runs and 19 baserunners in six innings (two starts) before having shoulder surgery. The 36-year-old reportedly has had a good recovery process thus far, and was even granted permission to increase his throwing program last week. Having made at least 25 starts in each of his past seven seasons, the usually durable Halladay is no doubt itching to get back out on the hill and start trimming that ugly 8.65 season ERA. Halladay's lowest monthly career ERA is in September (2.75), and his career record after Sept. 1 is an eye-popping 35-13 (.729). But if the Phillies continue to fade from the pennant race, there will be no use in rushing him back for the final month of the season, other than for selling tickets.
Rating: 2 Stars

Brett Anderson, Oakland Athletics

ESPN fantasy league ownership: 17.5 percent
Last pitched: April 29
Injury: Stress fracture in right foot
Expected return: Mid-August

Anderson will be in a walking boot for likely two more weeks, making a mid-August return a little optimistic. However, the Oakland A's could use him, especially considering how well he has pitched down the stretch in his career. Anderson is 15-11 with a 3.12 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 7.2 K/9 in 33 starts after the All-Star break in his career, including a 10-4 record and 2.51 ERA after Sept. 1. But given all the injuries that have forced him to miss games since his big league debut in 2009 -- finger, biceps, elbow, oblique, foot -- you can't justifiably count on Anderson to make a big fantasy splash in the second half of the season.
Rating: 1.5 Stars

Ryan Vogelsong, San Francisco Giants

ESPN fantasy league ownership: 12.2 percent
Last pitched: May 20
Injury: Fractured right hand
Expected return: Early August

Vogelsong, who broke his hand while swinging at an inside pitch, was able to throw for five minutes from about 75 feet Monday. He could return before July is over, but is more likely that he rejoins the Giants' rotation in early August. He was in the midst of a dreadful season, sporting a 7.19 ERA and 1.73 WHIP in his first nine starts of 2013. Vogelsong also got knocked around after Aug. 1 last season, compiling a 5.85 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in his final dozen starts. The soon-to-be 36-year-old is not a pitcher you can trust at this time, and should be left for the ultra-deep fantasy formats upon his return.
Rating: 1 Star

Matt Harrison, Texas Rangers

ESPN fantasy league ownership: 13.1 percent
Last pitched: April 6
Injury: Lower back surgery to repair herniated disk
Expected return: Late August

Harrison still has a long road back to the Rangers, but he has been throwing on flat ground and hasn't had any setbacks since his surgery. Ignore his poor stats in two outings this season (8.44 ERA, 1.97 WHIP) and focus on what the left-hander did last season, winning 18 games with a 3.29 ERA and finishing eighth in the AL Cy Young Award voting. The 27-year-old is still firmly in his prime and has a stellar 11-2 career record in September despite a pedestrian 4.17 ERA and 1.38 WHIP. This shows that Harrison knows how to battle and keep his team in games, even when the balls are flying in the warm weather. With the possibility of getting 8-10 starts this season, Harrison is certainly worth stashing in fantasy leagues that have DL spots available.
Rating: 2.5 Stars

Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers

ESPN fantasy league ownership: 0.0 percent
Last pitched: May 18, 2012
Injury: Reconstructive elbow surgery (Tommy John)
Expected return: Mid-August

The 25-year-old Feliz still can't throw breaking balls, but he has thrown fastballs and changeups from a mound. The Rangers aren't guaranteed to put him back in the starting rotation, where he's 3-1 with a 3.02 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 7.8 K/9 in seven career starts. If he does return as a setup man, his fantasy value is obviously diminished, but his career numbers after Aug. 1 are just phenomenal. In 78 2/3 such innings, he's 5-2 with 24 saves, a 1.60 ERA, 10.2 K/9 and miniscule 0.76 WHIP, allowing a meager 37 hits and 23 walks over this span. The problem is, he might not log enough innings to make a significant dent in fantasy owners' qualitative numbers.
Rating: 1.5 Stars