Don't ignore these fantasy headlines
As so-called experts, we often preach patience at this point in the season and recommend not overreacting a few small sample of at-bats and pitching performances. You hear "It's a marathon, not a sprint" being espoused as our mantra and early season performances are often caveated with " ... but it's early." At the same time, we also should not ignore what happens during the season's first week, as it may be an early predictor of things to come. Let's look at a few players who made headlines on Opening Day:
Ryan Ludwick (OF-CIN) - After injuring his shoulder on Opening Day, Ludwick received the news Tuesday that he would need surgery that would knock him out for perhaps the next three months. If you're like me, the first thing you think upon hearing the news is "It's Billy Hamilton time!" No so fast. It appears that after Hamilton hit just .192 this spring, the Reds would prefer he open in the minors and let his play force the issue. He has just 175 at-bats above Class-A, so this is probably the right move. Chris Heisey and Xavier Paul will fill in for Ludwick, with Heisey getting the majority of at-bats. Heisey has a bit of pop and will make a nice deep-league fill-in. Hamilton could start hot in Triple-A and force the issue, of course, but the Reds for now are resisting the urge to rush him.
Justin Maxwell (OF-HOU) - Maxwell started strong Sunday, going 2-for-3 with a pair of triples, a walk and a couple solid plays in center field. Maxwell is a career .220/.313/.436 hitter in 537 cumulative at-bats, but he also has 27 homers and 20 steals to his credit. Maxwell is already 29 and has fanned in 32 percent of his career at-bats, but he has some athleticism, making him an intriguing target in deeper formats.
Chase Utley (2B-PHI) - Utley posted a .354 OBP with five homers this spring amidst reports that he was fully recovered from a recent set of injuries (knee). Opening Day? 3-for-5 with a triple (so he can run), homer (power is still there) and three RBI. The key is obviously health, but if Utley can avoid another lengthy DL stint, it's pretty clear he's far from washed up.
Desmond Jennings (OF-TB) - Jennings has the natural ability to be one of baseball's better leadoff men, but 120 strikeouts and a .314 OBP last year indicated that he wasn't quite ready to reach that sort of label. Although it was admittedly spring training, Jennings did seem to make a concerted effort to be more patient this spring, drawing nine walks to eight strikeouts to finish at .344/.437/.410 with a 7-for-7 stolen bases mark. Jennings on Monday got his regular season off to a fine start, going 2-for-4 with a double, stolen base and two runs scored. Even with just a slight improvement in last year's .246/.314/.388 slash line, Jennings is still going to steal 30-35 bases, but if there's a larger step forward this year, we could be looking at 15 homers and 40-45 steals. That's the sort of upside we should target as fantasy owners.
Bryce Harper (OF-WAS) - Two homers in his first two at-bats of the season, so he's off to a nice start. Might be time to revise those HR projections into the 35 range, but then again, it's just one game.
Collin Cowgill (OF-NYM) - Before there was Adam Eaton, there was Colin Cowgill. Like Eaton, Cowgill played in my town for Triple-A Reno, so I saw plenty of his at-bats in 2011, a year in which he batted .354/.430/.554. Cowgill failed to establish himself last year in Oakland after being involved in the Trevor Cahill trade. At that point, Cowgill appeared headed for fourth outfield status before landing in OF-deprived New York where he was named the Mets' starting center fielder to open this year. Cowgill is leading off for the Mets, and after opening this year with a double and grand slam in five at-bats, he isn't hurting his chances at sticking around for a good portion of the year. The Mets may have a late (he's 26) bloomer on their hands.
Travis Snider (OF-PIT) - I was a bit surprised at Snider's absence from the starting lineup Monday, particularly given the Pirates were facing a right-hander. The team elected to go with Gaby Sanchez at first base and Garrett Jones in right field, resulting in Snider being relegated to bench status. Sanchez hit .302 with four homers this spring while Snider failed to go deep, hitting .255. On that, I suppose the decision is justifiable, but I really wanted to see Snider get a chance, and figured the Pirates were one of a handful of teams willing to give him a shot. He's a former top prospect in the Blue Jays organization with minor league OPS totals of .979, .902, .838 and 1.094 among others. He was also the 14th overall pick in 2006 out of high school, so there's a enticing pedigree. Sanchez and Jones did combine to go 0-for-7 Monday, so perhaps Snider gets a shot at some point.
Matt Harrison (SP-TEX) - Yu Darvish is clearly the Rangers starter to own, but Harrison got the Opening Day start. He proceeded to allow five runs on nine hits with three walks in 5.2 innings to the lowly Astros, resulting in a loss for Harrison. Harrison did strike out nine, so we'll give him a pass on this one. Harrison is not your prototypical lefty soft-tosser, averaging north of 92 mph with his fastball the last couple seasons. So, given his sub-3.0 BB/9 rates the last couple years, Harrison should be a solid No. 2 starter for the Rangers. Just consider this a blip on Harrison's radar.
Erik Bedard (SP-HOU) - After Sunday night's opener, your major league saves leader was none other than Bedard. He tossed 3.1 scoreless innings, allowing just one base runner with a pair of strikeouts. Bedard has failed to make 30 starts in a season since 2006, but he's maintained at least an 8.0 K/9 in each of those seasons. Bedard is still slated to be the team's fifth starter, and if he can somehow stay healthy, the Astros might have a decent trade chip. He's lost a couple mph off his fastball the last couple years, but the Astros hope lightning strikes.
Edinson Volquez (SP-SD) - I nominated Volquez in an NL-only auction Saturday, and, after I dropped out of the bidding early, Volquez would up going for what seemed a reasonable (at the time) $6. Facing the Mets on the road on Opening Day, however, Volquez allowed six runs on six hits with three walks over just three innings. Only 40 of his 79 pitches went for strikeouts, so it looks like more of the same lack of control for Volquez this year. Volquez did have a 2.95 home ERA last year versus 5.60 on the road, so if you're using him away from Petco Park, good luck. He's probably in the early lead for the race to be the first Opening Day starter to be demoted to the bullpen or Triple-A.
Stephen Strasburg (SP-WAS) - It was far from surprising to see Strasburg open the season with seven scoreless innings and a win. It was a bit surprising to see him pulled after throwing just 80 pitches and recording a mere three strikeouts. Strasburg still probably gets to 200 innings, but instead of the 250 strikeouts I was hoping for, it's very possible we'll see closer to 200, particularly if he keeps pitching to contact as he did Monday. Keep a close eye on his K totals.
Felix Hernandez (SP-SEA) - The elbow scare may have pushed down his fantasy value slightly, but he started well Monday, holding the A's to just three hits over 7.2 scoreless innings. Felix struck out eight and walked just one, with his fastball consistently in the 91-92 mph range. Hernandez has lost a couple mph off his fastball the last two years, and it wouldn't be a big surprise to see him lose another small tick this year, but so far at least, we can't argue with the results. Keep in mind, though, Felix did deal with a sore elbow, so expecting his peak 2013 velocity this early in the season is probably wishful thinking. Looking at least year's game logs, Felix didn't average 92 mph in any game prior to June 1, ultimately landing in the 93 range by season's end. I don't see any reason why he won't be a top three or four fantasy starter this year.
CC Sabathia (SP-NYY) - Speaking of velocity, Sabathia didn't have his Monday. Sabathia sat mainly in the 88-90 mph range in allowing four runs on eight hits with four walks in a loss to the Red Sox. Sabathia, of course, is recovering from offseason elbow surgery, so this could simply be a case of this really still being his spring training. Sabathia averaged 92.1 mph in last year's opener versus a full-season rate of 92.3 mph, so we can't say he has a history of being a slow starter. Give him a pass on this one, but when Sabathia takes the mound Sunday against the Tigers and likely, Justin Verlander, watch that velocity closely.
Jeff Samardzija (SP-CHC) - Samardzija holding the Pirates to just two hits over eight shutout innings with nine strikeouts isn't a huge surprise, but it does reinforce the fact that his 2012 was far from a fluke. The 28 year-old was actually better as a starter last year than in relief in 2011 (3.55 FIP vs. 3.66), lowering his BB/9 from 5.1 to 2.9 and actually increasing his K/9 from 8.0 to 9.3. In most cases, a pitcher is going to post a lower strikeout rate as a starter than out of the bullpen, but Samardzija actually didn't lose velocity or the ability to miss bats in his new role. This year, should Samardzija improve his consistency from start to start, another step forward is likely. I think he gets a few Cy Young votes.
Phil Coke (RP-DET) - Coke picked up his first save of the season Monday, and appears to be the team's top choice in the ninth inning these days. Coke was brought in with one out in the ninth with the Tigers up 4-2 and the left-handed hitting Justin Morneau at the plate. This is pretty clearly a committee at this point, with Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel all worth owning in deeper formats. If you have to pick one now, go with Coke.
Kyuji Fujikawa (RP-CHC) - Fujikawa is a must-add in all formats after recording his first save of the season Monday. Carlos Marmol started the ninth in a save situation, recorded one out, but then hit a batter, walked one and allowed a single. Jeff Russell came on to retire the left-handed Neil Walker before Fujikawa entered to throw just two pitches to notch the save. Marmol hasn't lost his job just yet (we think), but he may very well be the first closer to get demoted.
Jim Henderson (RP-MIL) - John Axford blew the save Monday, allowing a game-tying HR to Dexter Fowler. He did manage to strike out the side, so he'll probably get a little rope. Henderson came in the game in the 10th inning, retiring the side in order and winding up with the victory. I wouldn't advise grabbing Henderson in shallow leagues, but in deeper mixed and NL-only formats, he's a nice speculative pickup should Axford's struggles continue.
Stephen Pryor (RP-SEA) - Pryor set up Tom Wilhemsen's save Monday, and given the latter's lack of a track record as an established closer, Pryor should be monitored given that he is the apparent Plan B. Remember, Pryor posted a 10.6 K/9 last year in 23 big league innings. That's missing bats.
Regan is a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner.
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