May 29, 2009

Each week I'll answer a handful of the most pertinent questions I've received during the week in my attempt, weak as it might be, to bring insightful fantasy analysis to the fore (my email address is listed at the bottom of the piece if you wish to drop me a line).

When I took Jon Lester I thought I had quite a steal at the draft table. However, this season has pretty much been misery all the way though with this guy. Do I hang on with the hopes he heats up once warm weather finally arrives in the northeast?-- Jake, Saratoga Springs, NY

I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- I'm still buying Lester. Why would I say that when his ERA is 6.07 and his WHIP is 1.60?

(1) Lester has been a strikeout machine this season. Lester entered the year with a K/9 mark of 6.65. This year that number has taken a massive step up to 9.40. Moreover, the speed of his pitches is also up, his fastball by a mph up to 93, and his slider is also coming in about half a mile an hour faster as well. Perhaps all those innings last season really didn't take anything out of that left arm of his.

(2) With the huge increase in punchouts we have only witnessed an incremental up-tick in his walk rate from last season as his 2.82 rate of '08 has increased to 3.19 in '09. Still, after being over 4.40 walks per nine innings in each of his first two seasons we'll happily take a number in the low three's, especially with the massive increase in punchouts.

(3) His line drive rate allowed last season and this year is virtually identical (roughly 21% both years), though he has seen a slight rise in his fly ball rate to 35.6% (it was 32% last year). Still, his current fly ball level is about "normal" and by no means something to be overly concerned with, that is until you see that batters have converted 17.5% of those fly balls into home runs. That number is bound to regress as we move forward given his barely 9% mark in his career which is spot on the major league average.

(4) And here is the big one -- dude has been extremely unlucky. With a BABIP of .314 in his brief career, including a two straight years under .300, it's an utter shock to see his current mark at .374, the worst mark amongst pitchers who have thrown 50-innings this season. Given his growth this season, and his often dominating peripherals, there just doesn't seem to be any rational explanation for this number being that high other than pure luck.

Add it all up and I'm still firmly in the Lester corner. If his current owner is fed up jump all over the lefty from Boston, and if you own him, continue to bide your time, things should turn around soon.

With Brett Myers future cloudy at best, I need pitching help. I've been offered Bronson Arroyo and Joel Pineiro for Brad Hawpe (I have a ton of outfield depth). Should I accept the offer to help out my ailing staff?-- Rick, Mission Hills, CA

The first thing to mention here is that no deal is ever a 2-for-1 transaction. The person trading two players will almost certainly have to acquire someone else off waivers to fill a vacated roster spot (unless someone is being activated from the DL). In addition, the person who is acquiring two players will have to drop someone else on their roster since they only moved one player in the deal. So remember to keep an eye on who that extra player will be in the deal.

It is uncertain how much time Myers will miss, but with each passing hour it seems more and more likely that he will be required to go under the knife to fix his injured hip. Therefore, you are rightly concerned about your pitching staff. Are the two options in play here guys you want to depend on?

Arroyo is up to 7-3 on the year, and those wins can be a powerful draw. However, wins are transitory and nearly impossible to predict, so you will be much better off targeting skill moving forward. I actually touched on Arroyo in a recent piece entitled By The Numbers -- Pitchers, and I would encourage everyone to give that treatment a review. In addition to that information it should also be pointed out that after 3-straight years of 6.66 or more strikeouts per nine innings that his K-rate has dipped to an awful 4.43 this season which has caused his previously solid K/BB mark to dip to a dangerous level at 1.45. The wins are nice, but there isn't much in his current pitching line that would seem to signal a turnaround in his ERA (5.12), and in fact there are more than a few reasons to be concerned with his ability to keep his WHIP below 1.40 (it's currently sitting at 1.37).

As for Pineiro, he is another hurler who appears to be operating at a better level than he really is because of his solid ratios (3.52 ERA, 1.21 WHIP). A few facts. First, Joel hasn't posted an ERA below 4.33 since 2004. Second, his WHIP has been 1.39 or above in each of the past four seasons. Third, his current K/9 rate is simply pathetic at 3.23, and almost two and a half batters below his career long rate. Anytime a starting pitcher is below about six per nine we get a bit nervous, so being under three and a half means it's time to put the paramedics on standby. Fourth, his walk rate of 1.03 per nine is stupendous, but it's roughly 40% of his career mark of 2.73. The rate has been below 2.50 the past two seasons for Joel, but over the last 25 years there have only been 17 seasons of 162 IP with a walk rate below 1.05 and four of those were by Greg Maddux, and no, I don't think Pineiro could even hold Greg's jock, so history is against Pineiro continuing along at this rate.

As for what you would give up, it's hard to comment specifically without knowing who else is in your outfield. Regardless, I would say that Hawpe is certainly a nice piece. Over the past three seasons there have only been two right fielders in baseball who have hit at least .283 with 22 home runs, 84 RBI and an OPS of .879 each year, and they are Vlad Guerrero and Brad Hawpe. Hawpe has also been on fire to start the year hitting .333 with 36 RBI in just 40 games played in no small part because he has finally shown himself to be a capable hitter against left-handed pitching posting a .293/.354/.610 line against southpaws, a line that far outpaces his career work against them (.247/.318/.444). If Hawpe can sustain that growth he clearly should be able to record a fourth straight 20-home run effort and have a real shot at his second 100-RBI campaign. As for his batting average, Hawpe has controlled the strike zone much better this season due to a decrease in his K-rate (it's 17.4% this season compared to 25.5% in his career), and that bodes well for a shot to produce his first .300 season.

Would I trade a potential .300 hitting, 100 RBI threat for Arroyo and Pineiro? Not unless I was completely desperate, so I wouldn't recommend accepting this offer.

I'm very leery of hanging on to Nick Johnson even though he has been a great return on my 25th round selection on draft day. Are you buying into his hot start, or is it time to jump ship?-- Adam, Oklahoma

Grab that life vest and jump Adam. What's the saying -- fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me? Johnson is a solid major league hitter though he spends more time in the infirmary than a nurse. Only twice in the past eight seasons has he appeared in 130 games, and only three times has he even been on the field 100 times. Injuries are certainly a bit luck induced, but when someone sports a track record of injury like this guy the label "injury prone" certainly appears to be an apropos moniker.

As for his work on the field, no one can complain when a guy is hitting .337 with 26 RBI and 28 runs in 45 games, especially when you invested so little on draft day. In addition, in points leagues or those that lean on OBP, Johnson is an even stronger play given his current .440 OBP and strong .399 career mark.

However, there are still some cracks in the armor despite the hot start. To begin with, Johnson isn't likely to return to double-digits in the steals category after missing so much time with that broken leg of his, and he has just one steal so far. That means he is at best a four category performer. Secondly, though his numbers are sparkling, it should be pointed out that per 162 games in his career his numbers are barely passable for a first baseman at .274-20-81-87. Third, though he has hit .289 and .290 in his last two full seasons, there is little reason to expect him to continue to hold on to his current .337 mark. In addition to a completely unsustainable line drive rate of 31% (his career mark is a solid 23%), Johnson also has a BABIP of .394 that is more than .080 points above his career long mark. Face it, he has been both lucky and exceedingly hot, and those are two trends that it's hard to predict carrying on into the late summer.

If I owned Johnson, and let's face I would never willingly draft a guy with his injury history, I would certainly sell high before the bottom falls out. He will almost certainly end up on the DL at some point, there is too much history to suggest that he won't, and his performance on the field also seems doomed for a regression. Sell high my friend.

Jorge Cantu has really slumped of late, and his current owner is willing to move him. He presented me an offer of Cantu for Casey Blake. Should I accept?-- Ryan, Pasadena, CA

Cantu was everyone's darling in April when he hit .365 with seven home runs and 22 RBI, but that bandwagon is pretty empty at this point after a rather vacuous month of May (.210-1-13). What gives? Simply put, Cantu wasn't that good and he isn't that this bad. Overall, his line this season of .270/.333/.466 is almost exactly what he has done in his career, and I mean exactly, as he has produced a .274/.318/.461 line since becoming a big leaguer. Cantu has also averaged a home run every 20.4 ABs this season despite the recent slowdown, and that is still a better rate than he has flashed in his career (one per 25.5 ABs). Cantu's walk rate is also slightly better than it was last year at 7.4% while his K-rate of 16.0% is also below his performance from last season (17.7%). Moreover, while his current BABIP of .279 is not only below his .302 career mark it would also be a career worst mark given that he has never finished a year below .289. In total, Cantu hasn't produced consistently, but overall he is right about where he should be.

As for Blake, the man just keeps on producing solid if unspectacular numbers. Blake has hit at least 17 home runs in each of the past six seasons while scoring at least 63 runs, and he has plated at least 67 runs in five of those campaigns. Still, Blake is hitting .301 on the year, a number he has no shot at maintaining. The man owns a career .266 mark, has never hit above .282, and is operating with a BABIP mark that is .042 points above his career mark at .349 despite a line drive rate that is two points below his career level of 20%. Further, he is operating with a HR/F mark of 16%, far surpassing his career 13% rate and trailing only his 17% mark from 2006. Blake is therefore going deep too often (nine times) due to the fact he is also currently hitting more fly balls than even before at 47%, a substantial increase over his 40% career mark. If his HR/F rate recedes as seems likely, the extra fly balls he is hitting is yet another reason to expect his batting average to decline.

Ultimately both players have value with their eligibility at first and third base, and both players do possess similar skills sets. However, given the stage of their careers, Blake is 36 while Cantu is 27, and the fact that Blake is performer a bit over his head right now, I would fall on the side of wanting to have the Marlins' infielder on my squad over the man who plays his games in Southern California.

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