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Fantasy baseball mailbag

The season is a week away. On to those last-minute draft questions.

Are you seriously trying to tell people that James Shields is a better option this year than Matt Cain or Matt Garza?-- Jimmy, San Antonio

I certainly like to get in trouble at times don't I?

I'm sure this question comes from my recently published

top-100 list for starting pitchers in which I had James Shields at No. 24, Matt Cain at No. 27 and Matt Garza at No. 36. On the surface those rankings do look bonkers; after all Shields posted an ERA over five last year, but here is my reasoning.

With Cain, his arm hiccup in spring makes me a tad nervous (without it I would have had him ahead of Shields). From 2006-10 Cain was one of nine hurlers who tossed at least 190 innings each season. Have all the innings finally started to catch up with him? Provided they haven't, you know exactly what to expect from Cain as his performance has certainly been rock solid. At the same time, he's only had one season with more than 13 wins and has only one season of 180 Ks. If his new level of performance mirrors his work the last two years (3.02 ERA, 1.13 WHIP) then he will be the hurler to own out of this threesome if he can avoid injury, there is little doubt about that.

Garza is another one of those rock solid hurlers who's performance has remained remarkably stable the past three years; just look at his ERA (3.70, 3.95 and 3.91) and WHIP (1.24, 1.26 and 1.25) in that time. The immediate reaction is to think that those numbers will improve in '11 now that he is out of the AL East and pitching in the National League. Not so fast. A flyball hurler who has seen his FB-rate increase in each of the past four years (up to 45 percent last year), Garza gives up a too many fly balls for my comfort for a guy who will pitch half his games in Wrigley Field, the fifth-best park in the NL in terms of homers in '10 according to Park Indices (the last three years the park ranks fourth). Does the ballpark factor alone mean that the advantage he will gain moving to the NL could be wiped out by where he will pitch his home games?

Shields lost 15 games, had a 5.18 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP last season, all terrible numbers. So how in the world can I put him in the same breath as the others? Hear me out.

First, Shields was terribly unlucky last year. Despite a line drive rate that was only one percent above his career level, his BABIP rose by nearly .035 points. That doesn't make sense on the surface, and the contention that he was "unlucky" is buttressed by his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) mark of 4.24, nearly a full run below his actual ERA (5.18). In addition, though his GB/FB ratio was the same as always at 1.08 (career 1.15), he allowed a terribly high 1.50 homers per nine inning (career 1.22) thanks to a career worst HR/F rate of 13.8 percent. Have you ever heard of a "perfect storm?" Second, his K/9 rate last year was a career best (8.28), about a batter above his career level (7.38). Third, his K/BB ratio of 3.67 was only 0.03 off his career mark. It was also the 10th best mark in baseball. It might also surprise you that Shields led this trio in K/9 and K/BB. Shields also posted a better FIP (4.24) than Garza (4.42), and though his mark trailed Cain (3.65) it was nowhere near the two run difference in their actual ERA (5.18 to 3.14).

If Cain is healthy he's likely to be the top dog out of this trio, but that doesn't mean he will be the best investment. Based upon draft day cost Shields should easily be the most effective use of your resources given that he will come at a discount in most leagues because of his "down" 2010 performance.

I've been hearing a lot of good things about Todd Helton. I'm in a 13-team NL-only league and I was able to grab him for $5 on draft day. Was that a worthy investment on my part?-- Nick, Pittsburgh

So far this spring Helton has looked strong, hitting .355 with a .916 OPS in 31 at-bats. Of course, we're talking about 31 at-bats. Plus, Helton is 37-years old and coming off the worst season of his career (.256-8-37 with a .728 OPS in 398 at-bats), so anything positive would likely be an improvement at this point.

Jim Tracy came out earlier this week and said that the plan is for the Rockies to rest Helton liberally over the course of the season to keep him in shape (essentially to keep his back strong). The club also brought in Ty Wigginton this offseason to give them some depth at first in case Helton resembles the player who failed to hit .270 or reach 400 at-bats in two of the past three seasons. Still, Helton is just one year removed from a .325-15-86 line, and he can still get on base (his .362 OBP last year was a career worst and the first time his OBP had been under .390 since 1998).

Helton is no longer a threat to hit 20 homers or to win a batting title, but if used properly he can still be an effective offensive weapon given his ability to get on base. Does that translate into fantasy value in 5x5 leagues? Not really. Personally I have a soft spot for Helton, so I have no issue with a $5 bid. If he craps out you haven't wasted too much dough, and if everything breaks right he could double your investment, though the odds are against that actually happening.

Tell me why I shouldn't expect Starlin Castro to go 20/20 this season? I'm loving this kid.-- Jim, Fremont, Calif.

Sample size, people.

Castro has blown up this spring, hitting .383 with four homers and a .702 SLG in just 47 at-bats. Point No. 1 -- it's 47 at-bats. Point No. 2 -- it's Spring Training. Point No. No. 3 -- we are talking about four swings.

I don't doubt that Castro could evolve into a 20-homer hitter; after all the guy turns 21 Thursday, but expecting him to reach those heights this summer because of a good month of hitting seems foolish. Castro hit three homers last year in 463 at-bats with the Cubs, and since he turned pro he has gone deep 10 times in 1,237 at-bats. Do you trust 1,237 at-bats or 47 in terms of their predictive power? I'll tell you this. If Castro hits 51 percent of his balls on the ground this season, to match the mark he posted in '10, he will have no shot at 20 homers -- 15 will be hard to attain -- and the ceiling might be 10. Perhaps he's dialed in a more powerful stroke this spring, but I still find it hard to believe that he will be able to double the homer production he has offered in three years in professional baseball in half as many at-bats in 2011.

Ray Flowers can be heard daily on Sirius/XM Radio on The Fantasy Drive, 5-8 PM Eastern, on Sirius 211 and XM 147. Ray's baseball analysis can be found at BaseballGuys.com and his minute to minute musings can be located at the BaseballGuys' Twitter account.To e-mail Ray a question for next week's piece, drop him a line at fantasyfandom@yahoo.com.

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