Fantasy baseball mailbag

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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 e-mail address is listed at the bottom of the piece if you wish to drop me a line).

Is a .280 average, 20 homers, 90 RBI, 100 runs and 20 steals a realistic line for Johnny Damon?-- Todd, Honolulu

Let's spend a moment talking projections.

I'm going to break the "code" of fantasy sports (kind of like when a magician reveals how a trick is done -- they don't really saw people in half by the way). Here is the news flash -- projections are fairly useless. You can pull spread sheets out, send up a weather balloon, use every single bit of quantifiable knowledge in the known universe, and you are still going to "miss" on a whole host of your projections. The fact is that no one knows how many homers Albert Pujols is going to hit, or how many bases that Nyjer Morgan is going to steal. There are so many events that come into play that are unforeseeable that go into determining the final numbers that players produce that it is pretty much a straight up guess when anyone throws numbers out there. There are injuries, lineup changes, playing time changes, unexpected slumps/hot streaks etc. You just never know -- at least not to the point where you can say Player X will hit exactly .298 this season. Therefore I'm always reluctant to toss out actual numbers when people send me questions like this one.

At the same time, there are certain players who are so consistent that you can basically lay out a fairly accurate "guesstimate" as to what to expect from them. One of those guys is Johnny Damon. We certainly have to factor in that he is no longer with the Yankees and that he is slowing down at age 36, but his consistent track record is impressive. Since 1998 he has recorded at least 93 runs each season. He is the only player in baseball to have done that the last 12 seasons. From '98-2008 he stole at least 18 bases each season. He and Bobby Abreu are the only two members of that group. Since '98 Damon has failed to hit .280 four times, but his aggregate batting average since then in .291. The power is another story though as Damon has only gone deep 20 times on three occasions, and only once has he eclipsed 90 RBI.

So will Damon go .280-20-90-100-20? Though I hate projections, I think the totality of the evidence says that everything will have to break just right, and I mean perfectly, for Damon to reach all of those numbers. The average and run marks seem possible, while the HR and RBI levels, he has little shot of reaching. And the 20 steals? Rarely do players in their mid to late 30's turn back that clock, Damon attempted only 12 steals last year, so 20 steals might be asking too much from Mr. Damon.

I've been sitting on Ted Lilly awaiting his return. Can he match last year's efforts when he returns?-- Sam, Washington

The short answer is no. Lilly, who had offseason work done on his shoulder, is scheduled to make one more minor league appearance before being activated on the 24th or 25th of April. What can we expect at that point? It would obviously be wise to ease him into your starting lineup, but even when he is fully ready to go, last seasons efforts will likely be out of reach.

Lilly finished last season with the 11th best ERA in the NL (3.10) and the fifth best WHIP (1.06), both numbers a quantum leap over his career levels (4.25 and 1.29). In fact, last season was the first time he has produced an ERA below 3.83 and only the second time his WHIP was below 1.23 in a season of at least 160-innings. The biggest reason for that growth was the fact that he stopped walking batters. After walking more than four batters per nine innings from '04-06, Lilly has kept that number below three in each of the past three seasons, and last year, for the first time, that number was below two at 1.83. As a result, Lilly posted a spectacular 4.19 K/BB mark, more than a full point better than ever before (career 2.44). Lilly also had his best BABIP ever (.270), which when coupled with is lowest HR/F rate (8.7 percent) and his best left on base percentage (77.8) of his career helped him to produce those career best ratios. That's a whole lot of career bests for a guy in his 11th season.

Provided his wing is healthy, Lilly should provide a solid boost to any pitching staff. Just don't expect that boost to mirror what he did last season and you should be plenty satisfied with the results.

I was offered Nick Markakis for Chris Young. I really love Young's talent, but shouldn't I move him for Markakis and his consistency?-- Chris, Nashville

Markakis isn't likely to ever be the 20/20 threat some predicted he would be after he stole 18 bags in '07, and that .406 OBP he flashed in '08 now seems like an outlier as he has posted a mark between .347 and .362 in his other three seasons. He's also never really figured out how to hit left-handed pitching as well as righties with only 18 homers and a .276 batting average in 782 career at-bats against them. Despite those negatives, Markakis still has hit at least .293-18-87 with 94 runs in each of the past three seasons, and he is one of only three men to do that (the others are some guys who play for the Cardinals -- Matt Holliday and Pujols). There may not be much "upside" to mine here, but there is nothing at all wrong with more of the same.

Young burst on the scene in '07 and went on to have a spectacular rookie season of 32 homers, 27 steals and 85 runs scored. He wasn't quite as good in Year 2 with 22 homers, 14 steals and 85 runs scored as pitchers realized he would swing at anything in the air (he whiffed 165 times). Things fell completely apart last season as he spent some time in the minors, and overall he hit .212 for the D'backs with only 15 homers and 11 steals. Still, it's hard to forget that just three years ago he was three steals from going 30/30. Young has flown out of the gate this year, hitting .351 with three homers and 14 RBI in nine games, but the best news might be that he has only five strikeouts in nine games. At the same time he has walked just twice, has attempted only one steal, and his current BABIP of .333 far outpaces his career mark of .278.

I drafted Young late in a couple of leagues this year hoping for a fantasy relevant season. He has obviously started out that way, whereas Markakis has struggled (.212 with one RBI), but it's a long season. Still, you would be crazy not to accept the offer and take Markakis and his consistency over the swing and miss way of Chris Young. Even at his best Young figures to always struggle to produce in the batting average category, Markakis is a lock there, and Nick should score plenty of runs while knocking in a bushel as well to offset any benefit that Young would bring with his wheels.

My waiver-wire bids are due on Sunday. I'm eyeing Fernando Rodney and Juan Gutierrez. Who should I place the higher bid on?-- Doug, Houston

The old waiver-wire bingo to add a closer, eh? Given the vast turnover at the position in the early going, I actually proposed going with a different method of evaluating relievers beyond just counting saves, so I'd encourage you all to give Solds: My Solution for Your Problem a read. Perhaps we can help to make the craziness in the ninth inning less of a priority with the idea of SOLDS.

Rodney is taking over for Brian Fuentes, who strained his back. It doesn't sound like a serious injury, but given the struggles Fuentes had at times last season (4.81 ERA, 1.68 WHIP over his last 31 appearance), might the Angels continues to give the ball to Rodney even when Fuentes is healthy if Rodney does a good job in the ninth? Why wouldn't the Angels make the move since Rodney was the best closer in baseball last year? Think I've been huffing again? Rodney was the only hurler in baseball with more than 20 saves who blew only one chance as he went 37-for-38 in save chances, so that made him the best in baseball, right? Well, he also had the worst ERA (4.40) and WHIP (1.47) of any of the 14 hurlers with at least 35 saves last year, so maybe he was the worst "good" closer in baseball. You see the dilemma with Rodney, which is that he converted saves but he was the proverbial high-wire act given that he walked 4.88 batters per nine innings. When he is on he is exceedingly effective, but when he struggles to throw strikes and brings that career 1.84 K/BB mark to the table, it's time to reach for the bottle.

Some might look at this question and wonder why anyone would roster a middle reliever over a guy who appears in line to get some saves (don't forget about Kevin Jepsen in Anaheim, he might also get a look in the 9th). The reason is that you should roster skill over role when at all possible. A direct comparison between the two hurlers being discussed should help to make the point. Here are the career totals for each reliever.

Rodney: 8.51 K/9, 4.63 BB/9, 1.84 K/BB, 10.1 HR/FBGutierrez: 8.03 K/9, 3.46 BB/9, 2.32 K/BB, 4.4 HR/FB

Those numbers seem to slightly favor Gutierrez, right?

You still might be saying "why does it matter since Rodney is getting saves and Gutierrez isn't?" Well, that may not be the case for too much longer. Chad Qualls has really struggled so far, allowing 10 base runners in just 4.1 innings, and after he was outperformed by Gutierrez in spring as well, you can read more about that at D'backs Venom, there are whispers that Juan might take over the ninth before too long for the D'backs.

If you have no "closers" on your roster and you simply must have saves, I would go with Rodney. If you want to roster the pitcher with the better skill set who may or may not pick up any saves over the next few weeks, I'd say go Gutierrez. You like how I gave an answer but didn't really give an answer? I'm getting pretty good at that.