Zack Duke: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
By David Sabino
Things have been so bad in Pittsburgh in recent seasons that you're not alone if the first thing that pops in to your mind when someone mentions Pirates is a raft full of teenagers with AK-47s off the coast of Somalia. But if you haven't noticed yet, the team in black and gold has been on a roll, following a sweep of the first-place Marlins, to pull itself within one game of the NL Central lead, along with division powerhouses, the Cubs and Cardinals.
The main reason for Pittsburgh's early season renaissance has been outstanding starting pitching, much of which is likely still sitting on your waiver wire. Four of the five starters began the season with sub-4.00 ERAs, and the staff as a whole is pitching to a 3.07 ERA -- by far the best in the majors. While staff ace Paul Maholm (3-0, 2.02 ERA, 1.09 WHIP) was likely drafted, chances are high that Zach Duke (2-1, 2.95 ERA, 1.17 WHIP) had surely scared off suitors coming off a five-win, 14-loss, 4.82-ERA season; Ross Ohlendorf (1-2, 3.00 ERA, 1.11 ERA) was overlooked even after lights out spring; and Jeff Karstens (1-0, 3.60 ERA, 1.40 WHIP), who barely won the fifth starter job; are all available in your mixed league and might even be unowned in some NL-only leagues, as well. With well-respected pitching coach Joe Kerrigan steering the ship, it's more likely that this new-found success is more a trend than fluke. (One caveat: The Pirates are last in the majors, striking out 5.25 batters per nine innings, but will help in each of the other fantasy categories).
You know they'll be better than this, but here are 10 infielders who missed their wake up calls for '09:
Adrian Beltre, Mariners:
Not only is he hitting .172, but also shares the major league lead with four GIDPs
Orlando Cabrera, Athletics:
Has fewer RBIs (three) than the man he replaced at short, Bobby Crosby (four).
Chris Davis, Rangers:
Believe it or not, his .191 average is a dramatic improvement over 10 days ago when he was at .045.
Edwin Encarnacion, Reds:
Why is he being pitched around so much (11 walks) when he's slugging just .250?
Prince Fielder, Brewers:
His numbers (.170 avg, 1 HR) are what you'd expect from a pauper.
Rafael Furcal, Braves:
One steal this deep into the season makes you question why he's on your squad.
J.J. Hardy, Brewers:
Has shown some power (3 HR) but has only four singles and a double in his 48 other at bats.
Brandon Phillips, Reds:
He's been dropped from the clean-up spot because clean-up hitters usually have driven in more than five runs by now.
Alexei Ramirez, White Sox:
Last year's top-rookie runner-up is slugging his weight (.170)
Jimmy Rollins, Phillies:
J-Roll's '09 has had way too many bumps (.179 avg, 0 SB) for owners who invested MVP-type resources.
Derek Holland, LHP, Rangers:
One of the Rangers' top pitching prospects made his major league debut Wednesday, coming into a game with the bases loaded with two outs in the sixth inning and his team already trailing by three. Although he allowed an infield single to red-hot Adam Lind, he induced a pop-out from Scott Rolen to escape the jam, and went on to post a decent debut line of 2 1/3 innings, three hits and two strikeouts. Holland's three above-average pitches -- a mid-90s fastball, along with a slider and changeup -- helped him shoot up through three levels of the minors last season as a 21-year-old. Despite the relief appearance, his repertoire pegs him as a top-of-the-rotation starter in Arlington. It may take a little time for him to reach the starting staff this year, making him a reach in non-keeper and mixed leagues, but he's a certain grab for AL-only owners.
Derek Jeter: AP
1. With the wind tunnel effect in Yankee Stadium in his power alley, Derek Jeter will set a career-high in home runs, besting the 24 he hit in 1999.
2. Upon his return to the Red Sox lineup, Julio Lugo will provide a spark and be very useful for fantasy teams.
3. There's no way that Cito Gaston will be able to stick with B.J. Ryan as his closer for the whole year. Look for Jason Frasor to get a chance at the job in the near future.
4. Despite entering the season without a regular spot in the Rays' lineup, Ben Zobrist will get more at-bats this year than he had in this three previous seasons combined (478).
5. With the staff formulated as it is now, the Orioles relievers will challenge the starters in the number of innings pitched. Stay away.