Smoltz a huge risk/reward option

January, 8, 2009
01/08/09
9:00
PM ET

Thursday was a very good day for 41-year-old pitchers. We already know all about Trevor Hoffman's signing with Milwaukee, but in the other big news for veterans, long-time Brave John Smoltz joined the Red Sox on a one-year deal.

Thing is, while the two share the same birth year -- 1967 -- what they do not share is the same fantasy outlook for 2009. I'm in agreement with colleague Eric Karabell that you know what you get with Hoffman: around 30 saves, shaky ratios and second-tier (I'll say low-second-tier) closer potential. Smoltz, by contrast, is the ultimate risk/reward pitcher, with the ability to far outperform Hoffman statistically.

That difference isn't all based on Smoltz's being a starting pitcher and Hoffman's being a closer. Smoltz is coming off major shoulder surgery but has been a consistently dominant pitcher throughout his career, avoiding a Hoffman-like career decline. (Or, to pick an example closer to home, he's not steeply declining like former teammate Tom Glavine, who claimed Thursday he's still looking for a place to play in 2009. Bleagh.)

Look at the numbers: In only two of 20 seasons has Smoltz registered an ERA north of 4, or a WHIP higher than 1.30. Not once since 1994, in fact, has he turned in an ERA worse than 3.49 or WHIP worse than 1.24. In his past 13 seasons combined, Smoltz's ERA is 3.04, his WHIP 1.12. Those aren't exactly ballpark-generated numbers, either; from 1995 to 2008 Smoltz's road ERA and WHIP were 3.08 and 1.13, close to the 3.01 and 1.12 he managed in his home games.

Another key stat: Since his return to the rotation in 2005, Smoltz's ERA is 3.20, his WHIP 1.17. Does that sound like a pitcher fading into the sunset?

The shift to the American League East, which features potent Yankees and Rays lineups, will probably bring Smoltz's ratios up, perhaps closer to 4.00 and 1.25. His wins should rise accordingly, though; remember that Tim Wakefield won 17 games despite a 4.76 ERA for the 2007 Red Sox, and Bartolo Colon won four of seven starts despite a 3.92 ERA for the 2008 Sox. Smoltz's strikeout rate should also remain in the ballpark of the 7.93 per nine innings he averaged from 2005 to '08 … assuming his shoulder stays healthy.

And what of that shoulder? That, obviously, represents the greatest risk with Smoltz.

The right-hander resumed throwing off a mound Dec. 5, his first such session since June 10 surgery to repair a damaged labrum, with promising results. Braves officials were reportedly impressed, and chances are the Red Sox wouldn't have inked Smoltz if his outlook were grim. Some sources suggest he might not be ready to pitch before May 1, but when spring training opens a little more than a month from now, we'll get a more definitive estimate on his potential return date.

Until then, Smoltz is an extremely risky draft selection at anywhere near the price tag he commanded in seasons past. The best-case scenario might have him in the top 25 starting pitchers, while his downside -- which includes the great risk a 41-year-old has at a reoccurrence -- makes him a smarter choice in the later rounds, after you have two or three more reliable arms on your staff. One thing is certain: Smoltz will be one of the most important pitchers to monitor come spring training.

Baldelli joins Red Sox

Smoltz wasn't the only pickup for the Red Sox on Thursday; they also added former Ray Rocco Baldelli as a part-time outfielder and designated hitter. Note the "part-time" designation: All indications are that Baldelli is incapable of handling the duties of an everyday player. That'd be fine with the Red Sox, though; their outfield and DH spots are already clogged by Jason Bay, Jacoby Ellsbury, J.D. Drew and David Ortiz.

That said, that's three left-handed hitters, and Baldelli has clubbed left-handed pitchers to the tune of a .296 batting average and .841 OPS in his career, including .292/.882 numbers in 2008. He'll give the latter three much-needed rest against tough lefties, be on hand should someone -- Drew -- get injured, serve as a pinch-hitter and perhaps get a spot start a week against a weaker right-handed pitcher.

Baldelli won't exactly be draft-worthy in that kind of role, but those owners in AL-only or leagues with daily transactions can pick and choose his matchups. Drew probably takes the biggest hit of the Red Sox incumbents; he has a sub-.800 OPS in his career against lefties, plays Baldelli's most natural outfield position and is the most injury-prone of the group. Expect a loss of perhaps 75-100 plate appearances.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.

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