- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 27, 2005

The NCAA tournament is in full swing, a poker craze has swept the nation. … What better time to discuss fantasy baseball pitching?

There is no truer form of gambling than choosing your fantasy pitching staff. It is the most unpredictable part of the game. Even the surest thing can fail you … or sometimes the biggest failures can surprise you.

Look no further than the Washington Nationals’ own Esteban Loaiza. He pitched for three teams during eight undistinguished seasons leading up to 2003, when he took a $5.5million pay cut to sign with the Chicago White Sox at age 31. At that point, Loaiza was a 69-73 career pitcher. But if you took a flier on Loaiza in 2003, you landed an ace. Loaiza nearly won the Cy Young award that season while leading the American League in strikeouts, posting a 2.90 ERA, going 21-9 and starting the All-Star Game.

But if you relied on that new image of Loaiza and drafted him high going into the 2004 season, you were sorely disappointed. After a strong start his season derailed, the White Sox traded him to the Yankees, and Loaiza imploded; he finished the year 10-7 with a 5.70 ERA and 90 fewer strikeouts than in 2003. His WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched, a standard fantasy baseball category) had ballooned from an impressive 1.11 in 2003 to 1.57 a year later.

A roll of the dice, indeed.

With that theme in mind, the Fool will take you on a trip to the fantasy mound to discuss some names you know and a few more you should know.

Aces

Johan Santana brought a smile to the Fool’s face as a middle reliever in 2003 and more than maintained his value when he finally worked his way into the rotation (you’ll find Minnesota players have to work harder than most to earn a full-time gig). I waited just long enough to get a maximum value for Santana going into last season — and waited through some early-season bumps — and ended up with the Cy Young Award winner, as Santana won 20 games for the Twins while striking out 265 batters. He also had a 2.61 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP; there was no pitcher more valuable in the game. And while duplicating those numbers would prove difficult for anyone, there’s little reason to suspect the lefty, still just 26 years old, to struggle. He should go in the first round of any draft.

The same goes for Randy Johnson, though he’s 15 years older than Santana and leaving the quiet desert for the bright lights of Yankee Stadium. It feels strange to so strongly recommend a pitcher who will be 42 by the time the season ends, but Johnson finds ways to beat the odds each season. Last year, coming off an injury-marred 2003 campaign, he mowed down a major league-leading 290 batters and won 16 games for the pathetic Diamondbacks. His new teammates won’t struggle to score runs like the Snakes, making Johnson more likely to win 20 games for the first time in three years.

The Houston Astros, meanwhile, have two of the surest things in baseball taking the mound at Minute Maid in Roger Clemens, another ageless wonder, and considerably younger Roy Oswalt. Clemens will be 43 at the end of the season, but he’s coming off of one of the better seasons of his Hall of Fame career. He tacked another 18 wins on to his impressive career total while posting his lowest ERA since 1998, 2.98. And with Clemens, the strikeouts are almost a given; he had 218, four more than his number of innings pitched.

Injuries slowed Oswalt in 2003, but he rebounded last season to win 20 games for the first time while striking out 206 batters. His ERA was the highest in his four-year major league career, but still more than respectable at 3.49.

Roll of the dice

Those Chicago Cubs aces look great when they’re not injured. But once again, things don’t look good for Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Taking either of them this year will certainly induce an ulcer. Wood has seemingly always had the specter of injuries hanging over his head, since missing the 1999 season because of elbow surgery. The 1998 National League Rookie of the Year has topped 30 starts and 200 innings twice, in 2002 and 2003. But his other seasons have been nerve-wracking for his owners, and last year Wood failed to turn in a winning record for the first time.

Prior, meanwhile, looked like the surest of sure things after a dominating performance in 2003, but injuries caught up to the prodigy last season and have set him back this spring. He is dealing with elbow pain, while Wood’s ailment is back pain. Neither hurler is a definite for Opening Day and, while they at times prove electric, they can also make your life hectic. Unless they slip to late in the draft, take a pass.

If Barry Zito were injured, it would explain his sketchy performance of late. The two-time All Star won the Cy Young in 2002 and has been merely mediocre since, compiling a 25-23 mark over the last two seasons with a rising ERA and a slipping strikeout ratio — things you don’t look for in a staff ace. Fantasy players will find a better bet in A’s teammate Rich Harden, who went 8-2 after the All-Star break last year with a 3.49 ERA. Harden is still learning and getting better; Zito appears lost.

Another young hurler with lingering questions is the potential Devil Rays ace, Scott Kazmir. He’s a baby, all of 21 years old, with seven major league starts, but he’s a bona-fide strikeout machine and one of baseball’s top prospects. His biggest problems will be playing for one of baseball’s worst teams against the beasts of the AL East: the Red Sox, Yankees and Orioles, three teams that should be among baseball’s highest-scoring squads. The unbalanced schedule means the Devil Rays will take on those top offensive clubs 53 out of 162 games. But, if you own Kazmir you can use the schedule as a guide; avoid starting him in April and September, when the bulk (29) of those games take place. May (five games) and June (four games, all against the Yankees) work out a little better.

Up your sleeve

Kazmir isn’t the only youngster taking on the big bats this year — he’s just one of the few assured a full-time gig to start the season.

Seattle will certainly call up Felix Hernandez, the top pitching prospect in baseball, at some point this season. He is only 18 (though he turns 19 in April), and the Mariners will almost certainly start him at Class AAA this year. But he has gotten better during the spring, throwing scoreless outings in three of four appearances. Hernandez has rocketed through the system, going 21-6 in 34 starts at four levels over the last two years. The Venezuelan has a 97 mph fastball to go with a polished curveball and changeup. It may be a bumpy ride, but this rookie could be electric and make an immediate impact.

Huston Street will probably start the season with the Oakland Athletics, barely a year after getting drafted in the supplemental first round. He throws a 95 mph fastball and will be looked at as a setup guy — until something goes wrong with closer Octavio Dotel. At that point, the future becomes now for Street, and you could be the recipient of some cheap and easy saves (as well as solid strikeout numbers) if you think fast.

Brandon McCarthy is another minor league flamethrower who has had an excellent spring; his chance at playing depends on injuries to the White Sox rotation. It appeared a week ago that he could end up with Mark Buehrle’s spot, but Buerhle insists he’ll be ready to start the season despite his foot injury. But take a chance on McCarthy, anyway. The 6-foot-7 righty has gone 3-0 with a 0.59 ERA this spring, and has been a strikeout machine in the minors; in 351 innings, he has 406 K’s and an excellent WHIP. If you’re in a keeper league, take a long look at McCarthy because he’ll be around for a long time.

Meanwhile, you probably already know about Gavin Floyd from Severna Park, Md. The Phillies prospect, a first-round pick in 2001, should break camp with the big league club, depending on the injury status or effectiveness of the guys holding spaces in the rotation. If not, he’ll be up soon, and he’ll have his solid fastball and even better curveball with him.

Last card

Brad Lidge is the best you can do among the closers. He makes batters look silly, and he kept it up after he became the Astros’ full-time closer last season. He struck out 157 batters in 942/3 innings and picked up 29 saves. The only guy who comes close to those numbers is the Angels’ Francisco Rodriguez, another fellow coming into his first full year as a closer. Only 23, K-Rod struck out 123 batters in 84 innings last year and collected 12 saves while filling in for now-departed Troy Percival. Each of those closers has WHIPs of 1.00 or less and ERAs under 2.00, and should be among the first closers selected.

If you don’t get one of those guys, don’t panic — there are plenty of dependable closers who will drop in your draft, such as Danny Kolb or Jose Mesa. Don’t laugh — Kolb saved 39 games for a bad Brewers club last year, and now he’s in Atlanta. Meanwhile, in six of the last 10 years, Mesa has saved at least 30 games. It’s not always pretty, but he does get you plenty of those important saves.

If you have a comment, question or idea for the Fantasy Fool, e-mail him at [email protected]

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