April 28, 2010

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).

I know I'm crazy, but I just added Livan Hernandez in my 12-team mixed league. Please tell me he has a chance to be an effective pitcher this season. Does he?-- Ryan, Queens, N.Y.

I'm not going to suggest a padded cell, but it might be time to lay off the hooch.

Livan is currently third in the NL in ERA (0.87), fourth in WHIP (0.87), and here is the kicker (if the first two didn't do it for you), he is third in the NL in batting average against with .176. If ever there was a time to sell high based on a small sample size, this is it. Oh, let me count the ways -- and yes, I'm actually going to count them.

(1) Over the past four seasons Livan never posted an ERA below 4.93.(2) Over the past four seasons Livan never posted a WHIP below 1.50.(3) Livan hasn't posted a league average K/9 rate since 2003 (its been under six each year).(4) Livan hasn't posted a league average K/BB mark since 2004 (its been under 1.80 each year).

And the hits just keep on coming if we focus in on his four starts with the Nationals:

• Livan has a 0.58 HR/9 mark. That mark is 1.03 for his career and has been at least 0.91 in each of the past seven years.

• Livan has a .180 BABIP. Livan owns a .310 career mark and each season since 2005 it has been at least .305.

• Livan has a 99.2 percent left on base rate. That mark hasn't reached his career level of 72.7 percent in three of the past four seasons.

I could go on, but what's the point? Livan will fall, and fall hard, in short order, so make sure you have your ripple on hand if you keep tempting fate by counting on him to lead your staff.

Alex Rios is slowing coming around, I think. I've been offered a deal of Chris Young for him. What do you think, should I accept the deal and swap outfielders?-- Adam, Sacramento

Ah, the seemingly perpetually underachieving Rios, a constant topic of discussion in fantasy leagues. Multi-talented, if you catch him on the right day you would swear he was one of the most gifted players in baseball. However, catch him on the wrong day and you probably wouldn't even remember that he suited up.

So far this season he has been about, well, the normal Rios. His slash line of .271/.329/.500 is similar to his career marks (.281/.330/.445), so he's pretty much on par with what you would expect there. On the plus side he has already swiped six bags, putting him on pace for a career best mark (for what "paces" are worth in April). Rios has swiped 24 and 32 bags the past two season, pretty strong totals for a guy who has also hit at least 15 homers with 71 or more RBI the past four seasons. And that's the deal with Rios. He may not really stand out in any one category, but the totality of his game, even with its warts and the ups and downs, is still pretty darn good. Over the past four years he is one of three men to have socked 15 homes with those 71 RBIs and at least 15 steals (Bobby Abreu and Brandon Phillips). If not for his massive struggles with the White Sox last year he might also be able to say he posted a .290 average in each of the past four years (he had hit that mark each year 2006-08 before sliding to .247 last season).

Chris Young also owns a rather impressive skill set in his own right. However, he comes with even more issues than Rios (if you can believe that). The most obvious difference between the two, amid many similarities (Young is also a power-speed threat of some repute having had one 25-25 season and three 15-10 seasons in his three years in the league), is that Young strikes out far too frequently, which has led to a career .237 batting average (remember, Rios' worst mark was .247 last year). Young has averaged 146 Ks the past three seasons, and again that is well south of anything Rios has ever done (Rios has never struck out more than 112 times, and his three year average is 107).

Though their performances thus far are fairly similar, there is no question in my mind that Rios is the better play. He is more consistent, owns a slightly better skill set, and has proved the past handful of seasons to have a flooring that is higher than that of Young, Here are the worst 5x5 numbers for each the past three years:

A. Rios: .247-15-71-63-17Young: .212-15-42-54-11

It's not that the outfielder from Arizona stinks, it's just that he comes with more questions than Rios.

I need speed badly, so I've offered Jeremy Guthrie for Brett Gardner. I'm deep in starting pitching so I won't really need Guthrie, but Gardner's owner is balking and says he wants more in a deal. Should I offer it?-- Luke, Virginia

Guthrie is off to a strong start despite being winless in four starts as he has posted a solid 3.46 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP. While that level of performance might hearken back to the Guthrie we witnessed in '07 (3.70 ERA, 1.21 WHIP) and '08 (3.63 ERA, 1.23 WHIP), there are plenty of reasons to believe that simply isn't the case.

First off, Guthrie's K-rate has vanished the past few years. He was never strong in this category anyway, but when a pitcher goes from 6.52 in '06 down to 4.85 this season, concern is warranted (if he maintains that level it would be a fourth straight season of decline). Second, Guthrie has long been a slightly homer prone hurler, allowing an average of 1.27 homers per nine innings. That mark hasn't been below 1.13 the past three seasons, so you have to think that his current mark of 0.69, well you know what I'm saying. You can blame a 5.9 percent HR/F rate, roughly half of his career 10.7 mark (he hasn't posted a mark below 10.5 in each of the past four seasons). About the only thing keeping him afloat right now is that he hasn't been walking anyone. His BB/9 mark has always been strong, no worst than 2.74 the past three years, but somehow he has cut that down to 1.73 per nine innings this season. How do you feel about him cutting a full batter off his career rate (2.76)? I'm nervous, too.

Gardner has been a wonder in the early season. He is tied with Juan Pierre for the AL lead with nine steals, and his .296 batting average and .387 OBP have brought the Yankees plenty of value, which is a great thing considering that the outfielder he appeared likely to battle for playing time with has really struggled (Randy Winn has one hit in 13 at-bats). That said, Gardner's value is pretty much tied to his playing time. Gardner showed solid growth last season in his contact rate (84 percent), and his BB/K rate double from his rookie season (0.27) to '09 (0.65). Gardner has continued to build on that success this season with a contact rate of 87 percent and a BB/K mark of 1.00. If he continues along those lines, he won't be coming out of the lineup any time soon. If he hits enough to play, the steals will come.

Guthrie is nothing more than a depth arm at best, and in fact there are plenty of reasons to doubt he will be worthy of starting in mixed leagues this season. Gardner may have his limitations, but if he continues to flash "the game" that he has early in the year, there is no doubt that his value will be infinitely greater than that of the hurler from Baltimore, so the other owner who wants more in exchange for Gardner certainly has a strong case.

After another debacle of an effort from J. Vazquez this Sunday, is it fair to say he's not an AL pitcher and cut him from my roster? With Pavano, R. Wolf, and Millwood available and putting up far better numbers I'm tempted but don't want to regret the decision if Vazquez somehow turns it around.-- Adam, Mankato, Minn.

Let me be clear. Javier Vazquez never had a chance to repeat his '09 effort pitching in New York in the American League. At the same time, the man has a ton of history on his side to say that his early season woes will turn around.

Vazquez may not challenge for the Cy Young award year after year, but you would be hard pressed to find a more consistent hurler. Javier is the only pitcher in baseball who has won at least 10 games, with 150 Ks and 195 innings pitched in each of the past 10 seasons (no one else has a current streak longer than five -- Dan Haren). Those numbers may not win you a fantasy league, but consistency like that is obviously something you should pay a premium for.

So why the struggles early in the year? It would be easy to say it's the AL or his home park, and while they are certainly factors I believe a few other things are going on here that speak more directly to his struggles.

Always a homer prone hurler, Vazquez is operating at a level that doubles his career HR/9, and that certainly won't continue (his current mark is 2.25 vs. a career 1.17 mark). In addition, he has lost the strike zone. A long time strike thrower, Vazquez currently sports a 4.95 BB/9 rate this year which is more than double his career mark of 2.36. Given that he hasn't walked three batters per nine since the last century (1999), you have to think this number will regress as we move forward. Basically we are talking about a guy who is walking twice as many as normal while allowing twice as many dingers as normal.

One last point: His BABIP is up .033 points, causing his BAA to go up some .053 points to .309. You really think that is going to continue for a guy with this track record? I will say that I'm concerned given that his average fastball speed is down 2.3 mph this season -- the biggest dip in baseball for a starting pitcher -- though I'm willing to chalk that up to something like a mechanical glitch (versus a health issue) since he still has a 8.10 K/9 rate despite all his struggles.

So would I dump Vazquez for any of those other hurlers? No way. Even if he struggles all year, Vazquez is a better K option than Pavano and Millwood, and almost certainly Wolf, as well. Pavano can't stay healthy, Wolf really can't either, and Millwood hasn't been a viable mixed league option in two of the past three seasons and he also pitches for one of the worst teams in baseball. All three of the hurlers you suggest as options in lieu of Vazquez have big time questions surrounding their potential performance, and if you went back a month to an auction draft I would bet you could get all three for the same price it would have cost you to roster Vazquez. Don't let a mere five starts change that opinion -- exercise some patience and you'll likely be rewarded.

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