Saturday, April 26, 2008

Breakout Watch

By: Ben Distler

I’m sure we’ve all dumped a girlfriend way too early and seen her blossom into a beautiful young woman, slapping ourselves for letting her go. I know how this feels. Not because I dumped a girl though. No, I’m speaking of the time I dropped Jim Thome in 2002 after the first few weeks. I was a young rapscallion back then, always looking for the next best thing, and his .192 average just wasn’t cutting it. I was new to the game of love… er, I mean, fantasy baseball, and certainly learned my lesson when he hit 52 home runs that season. In some ways, I’ll never quite get over that. Hopefully I can impart some of my experience to help you from making this heartbreaking mistake.

Speaking of Thome, let’s first discuss the man who pushed him out of Philly, Ryan Howard. A slugging lefty just like Thome, he also shares his propensity for slow starts. As of April 20th, Howard has an anemic .182 average to go with his 9 R/4 HR/9 RBI line. For someone hitting in a home park roughly the size of my backyard, I can see where this would be cause for concern. There are a few other factors going into this lackluster performance, however. Howard got off to a similar slow start last year, and went on to hit 47 home runs. In fact, Howard is only a career .241 hitter in April. Last year’s MVP, Jimmy Rollins, has been in and out of the lineup with various tweaks and pulls, which means Howard sees much fewer good pitches to hit. Once Rollins gets back in the lineup for good, and the weather starts to heat up, these struggles will seem like a distant memory and you can fully enjoy the 3/4, 2 HR nights. Expect 40 homers and 120 RBI as a minimum, with a .275 average when it’s all said and done.

Slow Aprils are nothing new to Ichico Suzuki either. April is by far his worst month over this career, barely mustering up a .296 average. While that may sound pretty good, he has no other month over the course of his career where he bats less than .319. This alone should keep him in your good graces. As an added bonus, though, I expect Ichiro to eclipse his total of 37 stolen bases in 2007. Last year, Ichiro had a caught stealing streak going, and was too conscious of trying to extend it. I expect him to break 40 again this year, further boosting his value with the .330 average you just know is right around the corner.

I’m typically pretty high on San Diego Padres pitchers. My fantasy rosters have more Peavys than your local garage band (musician joke… moving along), and I’ve heard rumors that some outfielders get lost and never return in the vast wilderness that is Petco Park. Then why is the 6’10’’ beast that is Chris Young sitting on a 4.57 ERA and 1.62 WHIP? The answer is because it is almost the exact same way he started out last season. Last year, he gave up 3 HRs in the first month of the season, and this year he’s given up the same amount. The real important part is that over the next three months of the 2007 season, he gave up exactly one home run. That’s right, one. So even if he does three times as bad as last year over the coming months, he’ll still have only given up 1 home run per month. I believe those are number I can live with. His strikeout numbers are healthy (7.06 K/9) and close enough to his career numbers (8.05 K/9) to suggest that if he can overcome what looks like some minor elbow issues, he’ll start to put up his monster midsummer roto numbers again.

I’m sure it’s hard for anyone to get excited about an 0-3 pitcher with a 6.14 ERA, but Chad Billingsley may just be the most exciting pitcher with those numbers of all time. Sure, he’s young but he comes loaded with more talent than “Mind of Mencia” is loaded with unfunny jokes. And believe you me, in both cases, that is a shocking amount. He already has 20 Ks in just 14 1/3rd innings. He plays in a park that is pretty conducive to pitching. He has a lineup around him that, while struggling at the moment, should be able to give him appropriate run support. He plays in a division with gigantic Petco Park, and the so-bad-its-funny San Francisco Giants. Even the up and coming Diamondbacks have a tendency to strike out a ton (Mark Reynolds anybody?). So while right now Billingsley is getting knocked around, he has the potential to become an ace. Not just in future years, but this year too. Feel free to bench him until he get his BBs under control (11 so far this year), but once he does, he’s going to be absolutely dealing, mowing down hitter after hitter in an iffy NL West.

But of course, there are times when dumping a player based on his April stats might be warranted. Much has been made about the struggles of C.C. Sabathia, not only on the mound, but at his weekly Weight Watchers meetings as well. Try as he might, he just can’t resist that cookie dough blizzard at Dairy Queen. All jokes aside, this guy has to be pushing 3 bills, and that’s just not terribly acceptable for a professional athlete. The last pitcher I can remember being truly successful at that weight would be David Wells, and we know what a train wreck he was at some point in his career. In addition to his lackluster conditioning, Sabathia dealt out 256 1/3rd innings last year, counting the playoffs. That’s enough to wear out even the most fit pitchers in the game, much less our plump and portly friend from Cleveland. Since his K/9 numbers don’t really blow you away (7.31 K/9), and his WHIP is becoming more bloated than him after a night at the sizzler (1.28 career), he can really eat you alive in a roto league with an innings limit. I would advise benching him until he strings together a few quality starts, and dealing him away for what you can get. Can you imagine how dead his arm might be in the 100 degree summers, having pitched roughly 380 innings in the last season and this one combined? And also, with him knowing full well that the sooner he is pulled from the game, he can make a McDonalds run? I for one don’t want to be a part of that.

So remember to practice a little bit of patience when it comes to your slow starting stars. It’s just like any relationship you have – you got to take the good with the bad. Fantasy baseball is a marathon, not a sprint, and giving up too early one someone could have you looking back on 52 Jim Thome bombs wondering, “what if?”

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