With three weeks in the books, we're getting to the point where thoughts of "Oh, it's just a slow start" turn to "Sweet Jesus, I drafted this year's Preston Wilson." Fear not avid readers, I'm here to sift through the fantasy dumpster to separate the treasure from the trash.
All statistics through April 25.
Garrett Atkins (1B/3B, COL): There is growing speculation that Atkins will be traded before the deadline, although it's hard to believe the Rockies will get much for him except a couple cases of Natty Light and an autographed picture of Alf. Since his monster 2006, Atkins' walk rate has dropped steadily from 11.6 percent to its current low of 5.9. More disconcerting for fantasy owners is that his failure to deliver with runners in scoring position has carried over from last season. In 2008, Atkins hit a disappointing .225 with RISP, but the ineptitude has reached a new low, with a .174 average in such situations this year. In his defense, his current Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is more than 100 points below his career average, but most of his other numbers aren't exactly trending in the right direction. Given Atkins' home/road splits, fantasy owners better hope those trade rumors are wrong if they want him to retain any semblance of value.
Mike Aviles (2B/SS, KAN): Right now, Aviles is striking out more than I did with sober girls in college. Seriously, the guy already has 14 Ks, compared to just one walk. He looked like a promising middle infielder in 102 games after a 2008 call-up, thanks in part to a crazy .359 BABIP. 2009 has been a different story, with just a .244 BABIP, but that isn't the only thing that's taken a turn for the worse. His ground ball-to-fly ball ratio is up to 2.36 after finishing at 1.39 last season, and that lack of fly balls has led to just two extra-base hits and no homers. Aviles' strikeout rate is also nearly double what he posted last year, and it's not at all in line with his minor league numbers. The good news is he's actually cut down on his swings at pitches out of the zone, which should pay dividends in the near future. His struggles may have gotten him dropped down to bottom third of the Kansas City order, but don't drop him onto the waiver wire yet.
Howie Kendrick (2B, LAA): I'm sick of the hype around Kendrick. Sure, he's a career .300 hitter, but outside of that he is about as useful to your fantasy squad as Al Davis on draft day. He's never logged 100 games in a season, doesn't hit for power, doesn't drive in many runs, and doesn't steal bases. In 2009, he has a .230 average to go with an abysmal walk-to-strikeout rate of 0.07 courtesy of 14 punchouts and just one free pass. His BABIP is over 70 points lower than his career mark, so that accounts for some of his struggles given that his swing and contact rates line up with his historical numbers. Pitchers are challenging him with more fastballs, and you can expect that to continue as long as Kendrick struggles to catch up. His career numbers would indicate he's due for a correction, but once he heats up, look to deal him before he gets hurt.
Dioner Navarro (C, TAM): Navarro was a pleasant surprise behind the plate in 2008, but like the Rays, he's off to a cold start so far this year. His 24.1 strikeout percentage is uncharacteristic of a player whose career worst was 15.3 percent entering this season. At the plate, his contact rate on pitches outside of the strike zone has dropped back in line with his career norms, which has contributed to an overall contact rate that's fallen about seven percent from 2008. When Navarro is making contact, he's hitting significantly more fly balls than usual which aren't exactly translating to home runs. Given the lack of quality backstops, those of you in two catcher leagues have to ride this out. However, those of you in single catcher leagues should look at John Baker (C, FLA) or Kurt Suzuki (C, OAK) as potential replacements.
Pablo Sandoval (C/1B/3B, SFO): After catching 11 games in 2008, many fantasy owners coveted Sandoval on draft day given his eligibility behind the dish and impressive showing late last year. Instead of rewarding them with solid play, Sandoval has delieverd the fantasy equivalent of sleeping with your wife while letting a rabid monkey baby-sit your kids. The biggest difference is his strikeout percentage, which is sitting at 19.7 right now compared to 9.7 a season ago. His contact rate on pitches in the zone is down 10 percent, and given that just 40.3 percent of the pitches he sees are strikes, you'd think he would have drawn more than two walks. Sandoval is 22 years old and is bound to go through his share of ups and downs, but I definitely can't see dropping him in leagues where he's eligible at catcher. In other leagues though, you may want to see if Chris Duncan (1B/OF, STL), Mark Teahen (1B/3B/OF, KAN), Scott Rolen (3B, TOR) or Mike Jacobs (1B, KAN) are available as a potential alternatives. Sandoval's average will get better, but he's unlikely to hit more than a dozen homers and won't drive in many runs for an offensively challenged Giants squad.
Kevin Gregg (RP, CHC): Not much has gone right for Gregg since being named the Cubs closer. Sure, he hasn't been found in Mark Chmura's hot tub with a high school dance squad, but still. The good news is that his 11.57 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) are the best of his career. The bad news is that his walks per nine (BB/9) is by far the worst of his career, which is related to the fact that he's throwing strikes just 41.9 percent of the time. Gregg is using a lot more sliders, which seem to be contributing to the strikeouts but hurting his overall control. Figuring out Lou Piniella is a crapshoot, but I don't see Gregg being completely shut out of the mix for saves. He isn't getting 30 saves this year, but I think 15 is a possibility.
Francisco Liriano (SP, MIN): Obviously the 0-4 record is a cause for concern, but are things really that bad for Liriano's owners? A closer look at his stats would tell you that he's not turning into Esteban Loaiza, but he's also no longer the second coming of Johan Santana (SP, NYM) that Twins fans were hoping for. Liriano's K/9 have decreased from 12.55 in 2006 to this season's 7.06 mark, and his strikeout-to-walk rate has gone from 4.71 to 1.89 over that same time frame. His ground ball rate has also dropped dramatically, and he has changed the mix of his pitches since undergoing Tommy John surgery. Today, Liriano uses his fastball over 60 percent of the time compared to just 43.6 in his career year of 2007, while his slider percentage has dropped 10 percent, likely the result of trying to put less strain on his arm. Liriano is also throwing strikes just 45.1 percent of the time, which is down about 10 percent from his career numbers. What does all that mean? Well, if you think he's going to be the dominant player from 2007, then my guess is you have a few empty bottles of Jack in your house. If you can find someone who does think that though, look to make a deal.
Ricky Nolasco (SP, FLA): Nolasco was arguably last season's biggest mound surprise, and there were questions whether he could repeat after last year's workload. If you look only at his 1-2 record and 6.86 ERA, things look about as promising as a road trip with Donte Stallworth. However, Nolasco's K/9 is right around his career numbers, and his homers allowed are down. So why are the other numbers so bad? For one, he has a .390 BABIP which is bound to come down. Also, Nolasco has stranded just 57.2 percent of baserunners allowed, compared to just over 75 percent last season. Expect those numbers to normalize which should lead to an improvement in his record and ERA. Nolasco is not a one-year wonder, but don't let that stop you from trying to convince his owner of that in trade negotiations.
Oliver Perez (SP, NYM): For the last few years, Ollie has been a popular late/cheap source of strikeouts. At this point though, it looks questionable as to whether those Ks are worth it at the expense of a WHIP and ERA on the level of R.A. Dickey (SP, MIN). Like countless other Mets starters, Perez is off to a poor start, which has manager Jerry Manuel threatening to overhaul the rotation. The question is whether Perez's owners should look to make a similar move. His current 7.20 BB/9 would say yes, as would the fact that he's inducing fewer ground balls. Given his control issues, batters are also chasing fewer pitches outside of the strike zone, which doesn't bode well for the punch-outs he was drafted for. Obviously his ERA won't hover close to 8.00 all year, but I would rather look at players owned in fewer leagues like Anibal Sanchez (SP, FLA) and Ian Snell (SP, PIT), who have more upside.