January 20, 2012

I was planning on doing a companion piece to last week's column that looked at last year's busts you want to avoid this season. Instead, a wave of news hit the MLB wires this week, forcing me to change course. A big-time signing and a huge injury, both with the ability to affect the American League pennant race, happened within 24 hours. In addition, a flurry of smaller moves made this one of the busiest weeks since the Winter Meetings, and that's before we learned that Fausto Carmona had been pitching under an assumed identity.

Let's size up how the week of January 16 impacted the 2012 fantasy baseball season.

Victor Martinez tears ACL, out for season: This is a crushing blow to the Tigers, who I would have argued were the biggest lock to win their division of any team in the majors (although thanks to the weak AL Central, they still may be). In the fantasy game, Martinez' injury causes a shake-up at the catcher position.

Martinez was the third backstop on my draft board behind youngsters Carlos Santana and Buster Posey, who I believe will come back strong from his broken leg, especially since the Giants should give him time at first base. They were the only three catchers I would have considered with a top-50 pick, leaving just Santana and Posey as catchers worthy of going in the first four rounds of a 12-team league. That makes Brian McCann, Mike Napoli and Miguel Montero all the more valuable, as they're the only other catchers I'll consider before I go bottom feeding. Your league rules may force your hand, but in standard one-catcher leagues, the pool of desirable catchers just dipped by 16.7 percent.

Additionally, his absence adversely affects everyone on the Tigers, especially Miguel Cabrera. The spot in which Martinez hit and protected Cabrera will now be occupied by, just guessing, Delmon Young. As such, you can expect Cabrera's already high intentional walk totals to spike this year. I wouldn't downgrade him too far -- he's Miguel Cabrera after all -- but I would feel better about taking Albert Pujols ahead of him now.

Yu Darvish signs with Rangers: Most observers assumed the Rangers and Darvish's agents would be able to come to an agreement, but they pushed up right against the deadline to get a deal done, rightfully making Darvish the most-anticipated Japanese pitching import ever. Let's not conflate him with Daisuke Matsuzaka simply because they share the same heritage. Darvish is a drop-and-drive power pitcher with a repertoire similar to someone who grew up in America. The question now is where do you draft him?

I was having that conversation with a friend of mine the day Darvish signed, and he threw a few names at me for consideration. Let's first go ahead and assume (safely, I might add) that Darvish will likely be taken in the second or third tier of pitchers. That would have him grouped in with pitchers like Matt Cain, Mat Latos, Tommy Hanson, Ricky Romero, Daniel Hudson, C.J. Wilson, Michael Pineda and Josh Johnson.

The first thing that jumps out at me in this group is that Hudson and Romero are criminally underrated, but that's neither here nor there. Where does Darvish slot? Well, let's foolishly give into temptation, and compare him to Matsuzaka as a baseline. He's coming off a year in Japan in which he struck out 276 batters in 232 innings with a 1.44 ERA and 0.83 WHIP. He surrendered just five homers and 36 walks. Of course, Major League hitters are far superior to their Japanese counterparts, and parks in Japanese leagues generally favor pitchers. Darvish will also be playing his home games in one of the league's best parks for hitters. Still, everything he did in Japan compares favorably to Matsuzaka, who came to America when in his 26-year-old season, just one year older than Darvish. Here's a side-by-side comparison of their career numbers before coming to the majors.

Darvish: 76-28, 1.72 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 4.9 K/BB

Matsuzaka: 93-45, 2.95 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 2.96 K/BB

Across the board, Darvish's numbers are demonstrably better. Couple that with a repertoire that is better suited to succeed in the majors, and I think we can reasonably expect much better performance from Darvish.

So let's look at that group again. I'd take Hudson and Romero over Darvish. Cain has a track record that places him in the top 20 over the last three years, giving him an edge over Darvish. All the other pitchers that figure to come off the board around Darvish have question marks. Hanson, Johnson and Adam Wainwright are all coming back from injuries. Hanson is the riskiest of the bunch, but I like Darivsh better than all three. Ian Kennedy's price is inflated by his win total from last year. I'll let someone else pay for that, especially since they'll be betting on the Diamondbacks to win 94 games again.

James Shields was a revelation for the Rays last season, but he has taken us on roller-coaster rides in the past. I'll say Shields by a nose. Latos reminds me a lot of Darvish. They'll both be 25 this season, they both get a lot of strikeouts, and they both pitch in challenging home parks. I've long been a Latos supporter, so I give him the edge, but I wouldn't go to war with someone who preferred Darvish. Pineda, too, is similar to Darvish in skill set and environment. My head says Pineda since we've seen him do it in the majors before, but my heart says Darvish. Let's call it a wash.

Finally, we get to C.J. Wilson, the man Darvish essentially replaces in Texas. I want to say Darvish here, but Wilson is the smart play. He's a guy who had success each of the last two years in Texas. I can't imagine that would diminish going to a far superior pitcher's park in Anaheim. His strikeout numbers improved last year, while his walk numbers decreased, and he posted a 3.24 FIP while laboring in Arlington. That's a bankable stat line.

Where does that leave Darvish? I've got him behind Cain, Shields, Latos, Hudson, Romero and Wilson, making him the 22nd pitcher on my board. I wouldn't be surprised if he ended up as a top-15 option by the end of the season.

Darvish's signing in Texas also means that Prince Fielder likely lost one of the two desirable teams that can give him the years and dollars he wants. The Nationals are the only team that remains, but now they have all the leverage, and they know it. When Prince signs, it will have a massive impact on fantasy baseball, and the possibility of him signing a short-term deal with a surprise team, including the Brewers, just got a whole lot more realistic.

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