Archive July 2008

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Ron Artest to the Rockets

It has been reported that the Rockets have acquired Ron Artest from the Kings in exchange for Bobby Jackson, a #1 pick, and a player-to-be-named-later (speculation is rookie Donte Greene). This would send the True Warrior to Houston to play next to Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, and Shane Battier. Wow. So let's break this down.

This is clearly a signal that the Rockets are going all-in for a chance at a title, while the Kings have formally sent in their "rebuilding" paperwork. In Houston, Artest could give the Rockets a much needed edge and toughness that was lacking from nice-guys Yao, McGrady and Battier. Artest and Battier are both combo forwards, which means that they could see a lot of court action together next to Yao Ming. This could be a defensive nightmare for opposing frontcourts, and since Artest can also generate points he could make life a lot easier for McGrady and Yao on the offensive end if everything goes right.

That last line is the key, though, as with Artest it is always a question of "will everything go right"? I'm going to go ahead and say that it is worth the risk for the Rockets, though, as they weren't going to contend with the roster that they had and by adding Artest, they now have championship upside. Another 1st round playoff exit wouldn't have helped them anyway, so they may as well swing for the fences.

The Kings will start one of the youngest line-ups in the league, with Kevin Martin as the clear focal point at the ripe old age of 25 surrounded by other 20-somethings like Beno Udrih, Francisco Garcia and John Salmons. I have to believe that youngsters like Greene, Spencer Hawes and Shelden Williams are going to get more run this year at the expense of 30-somethings like Brad Miller, Mikki Moore, or Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

Overall, an interesting move. I'd give a fantasy boost to Martin and anyone on Sacramento under the age of 27, and a fantasy decrement to anyone on that team over 30. For the Rockets, Yao, Artest and McGrady could all see slightly fewer shots, but on the other hand Artest's presence may take enough pressure off of Yao and T-Mac to help them stay healthy through the year. For now, call the Rockets' fantasy status stable but their chances for postseason success volatile yet upgraded.

MLB Notes

Watching the New York/Florida game Monday, the Mets announcers were comparing Jose Reyes to Hanley Ramirez. Both concluded they’d “easily” take Reyes over Ramirez. There’s homerism, and then there’s downright delusional. Sure, Ramirez may eventually need to switch positions, but it’s not like Reyes is some gold glover at shortstop. Ramirez both gets on base more and hits for more power. His career OPS is 126 points higher. And this isn’t even factoring in Reyes’ attitude problems.

A.J. Burnett’s contract makes him difficult to trade for: if he pitches well over the rest of the season, he can opt out and become a free agent. If he suffers a major injury, then he won’t opt out, and the team would be on the hook for $12 million. However, he has the type of arm that can be a true difference maker for a contending team come October. His 4.50 ERA is obviously disappointing, but his FIP is 3.50, which is one of the bigger discrepancies among all pitchers in baseball. His groundball (1.44 G/F) and strikeout (9.18 K/9 IP) rates are fantastic, and his current BABIP (.338) is 52 points higher than his career mark.

If you haven’t watched “Mad Men,” I suggest you rent the season one DVDs. Season two started Sunday, and it’s not too late to catch up. Great show.

Hiroki Kuroda might be the most inconsistent pitcher in baseball. After going all of May allowing three runs or fewer in every start, he’s since allowed zero runs during three outings and five runs or more in five of his six other starts. Lately, the trend has been going the wrong way.

For someone batting .253 with just one homer and 21 RBI, Willy Taveras has been an awfully valuable fantasy outfielder. With Scott Podsednik shelved, he’ll now see even more playing time, and his 92 percent success rate on steals is nothing short of fantastic. He’s on pace to swipe 70 bases this season.

Daisuke Matsuzaka’s 11-2 record and 3.04 ERA sure do look nice, but this is one inefficient (and lucky) pitcher. He’s walked multiple batters in 16 of his 18 starts this year, leaving him with a horrendous 86:62 K:BB ratio. He’s not easy to hit, but his 3.40 ERA and 1.38 WHIP are mutually exclusive, so expect some regression moving forward.

I mean, “The Dark Knight” was made well and all, but I’m starting to be over all these superhero type films. Heath Ledger was terrific (did you hear he died?), but the movie dragged on a bit. Maybe I let all the hype get to me too much.

I liked the Mark Teixeira trade for both teams. The Angels are a legit contender, but their offense was missing a big bat, and they are one of the teams that can possibly sign Teixeira long-term after the season. Both are plus defenders at first base, and the Braves are now obviously in rebuild mode. Casey Kotchman hasn’t exactly lived up to his potential, but he’s a 25-year-old with developing power and amazing plate discipline, although more walks would certainly be nice. Speaking of the Braves, has there been a team more snake bit this season? They’ve had to endure serious injuries to John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Rafael Soriano, Tom Glavine, while Jeff Francoeur is doing his best Andruw Jones impression.

MLB Notes

Facing a Rockies team batting .245 on the road this year (third worst in baseball), Homer Bailey allowed a ludicrous 15 hits over 4.2 innings Saturday. He now sports a 39:41 K:BB ratio over 74.1 big league innings. Depending on format, of course, Bailey might be worth cutting bait even in keeper leagues at this point.

Carl Crawford has been one of the bigger disappointments in 2008. A .692 OPS? And if that’s not bad enough, he’s stopped running as well, having not recorded a single steal over his last 15 games. He’s not exactly an ideal No. 3 hitter for a team fighting for the playoffs, which is where Tampa Bay is currently batting him.

We’ll give Fausto Carmona a break since Saturday’s shelling came during his first start since May 23, but what happened to the pitcher he was last season? He’s struck out more batters than he’s walked in just two of his 11 starts this year, leaving him with an ugly 24:41 K:BB ratio. Things certainly haven’t gone as planned in Cleveland this season, but I do applaud them acquiring Anthony Reyes for peanuts.

Troy Tulowitzki has been downright awful this year, but he could be a difference maker from here on out. Still available in some shallow leagues, it’s easy to forget just how good Tulowitzki was last season, and he still has Coors Field to his advantage. Over the six games since coming off his most recent trip on the DL, Tulowitzki is 13-for-26, so a move up in the lineup should follow.

Robinson Cano is officially a second half player. Like clockwork, as soon as the All-Star beak ended, Cano is batting .514 (18-for-35) and has multiple hits in seven of eight games. He also has two homers with 10 RBI. This after he hit .365 during the second half of 2006 and .343 post All-Star break in 2007. Maybe there’s nothing to this sample size, and it’s never advisable to time the market, but Cano is certainly someone I’d want on my team from here on out.

As if the B.J. Ryan fiasco wasn’t bad enough, now there’s word Dustin McGowan has been pitching with an undisclosed damaged shoulder all season long. At least it gives reason for McGowan’s disappointing 2008, but this is the latest example of how some underlying cause can contribute to struggles. That and the Blue Jays cannot be trusted. Ever.

The Dodgers’ latest trade is another example of them just not getting it. Casey Blake isn’t horrible or anything, but I doubt he’s a big upgrade over Andy LaRoche, and he’ll be a liability on defense, also having to learn a whole new set of pitchers. Jonathan Meloan has had a poor 2008, but he’s been transitioned to starter in a tough environment for pitchers and entered 2008 as one of the league’s best relief prospects. If he can cut down the walks, he’s a future closer. Carlos Santana is a 22-year-old catcher currently sporting a .994 OPS in High-A. Plus, he’s not bad on the guitar. Bring back Paul DePodesta.

Although Jose Tabata has a bunch of potential, I don’t have a problem with the Yankees’ recent trade, especially since Tabata has been such a discontent. Marte’s proven he can pitch in the AL before, and despite its terrific success, New York’s pen did need a lefty. Xavier Nady isn’t a difference maker, but he’ll be an upgrade over Brett Gardner, so this deal did fill two needs without giving up a major piece. The Pirates certainly came down from their original asking price.

All this talk about Francisco Rodriguez being the AL’s Cy Young is an absolute joke. What does opportunity have to do with performance? Forget the fact Cliff Lee has been way more valuable, since he’s thrown 95.1 innings more and all, but even looking at relievers in the American League, Mariano Rivera, Joakim Soria, Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon have all outpitched Rodriguez this season, and it’s really not all that close.

MLB Notes

Howie Kendrick spits in the face of logic, as he currently sports a .347 batting average despite a 37:5 K:BB ratio. Of course, his .405 BABIP is the highest in baseball, but he’s got a career mark of .358 in that department, so this isn’t out of nowhere. His 22.4 LD% certainly doesn’t hurt.

Mike Mussina has to be considered one of the biggest surprises during the 2008 season. Despite a fastball that no longer reaches 90 mph, Mussina’s 5.06:1 K:BB ratio ranks third in baseball. His 1.19 BB/9 IP ranks No. 1. And it’s not like he’s even been lucky with balls in play either. Over his last four starts, he’s posted a 23:1 K:BB ratio. At age 39, Mussina has completely transformed himself as a pitcher, and the result may very well be the first 20-win season of his career.

On the opposite spectrum, Chris Young (Ari) has been a massive disappointment. Wednesday’s big game finally got his OPS over .700, and he has just seven stolen bases all year. He hasn’t taken advantage of Chase Field, as all those strikeouts have resulted in a career .236 batting average, with a .219/.277/.420 line against righties. There’s still plenty of time for development, but his lack of running is disconcerting.

Clay Buchholz hasn’t been any good this year, but 58 strikeouts over 57.1 innings suggest a very bright future is still in store. He’s been remarkably unlucky (.378 BABIP, .66 strand rate), and he needs improved command, but that K rate combined with a 1.20 G/F ratio means big things are to come. It might even happen during August and September.

I’d currently treat Jonathan Broxton as a top-3 NL closer. The Dodgers rank toward the bottom of the league in save opportunities, but that figures to change, and it’s not like Broxton has been overworked either. Two real ugly outings (9 ER, .2 innings) have marred an otherwise stellar campaign. He’s struck out 11.3 batters per nine innings during his career, and Takashi Saito’s prospects look rather glum.

My claim of CC Sabathia being the No. 1 fantasy pitcher after the trade to Milwaukee was met with some trepidation, but he’s certainly made me look good so far. Three straight complete games, are you kidding me? Plus, he can rake. It’s crazy to think just how brutal he was to begin the year. Too bad I own him in zero leagues.

It looks like Freddy Sanchez’s shoulder is starting to finally feel better, as he’s recorded multiple hits during each of his last four starts, including two homers and three doubles. The former batting champ isn’t a big fantasy asset due to his lack of speed/power, and he’s striking out more than ever this season, but he might return to usefulness in some formats from here on out. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, about teammate Ian Snell. Put a fork in him for 2008, he’s done.

The Randy Wolf trade by Houston was so ridiculous, I won’t even go over the absurdity, but I also question Washington’s dealing of Jon Rauch. Clearly Rauch was a property who made sense to shop around, but sometimes I get the feeling GMs make trades like that because they feel like they have to. If there aren’t any offers worth biting on, might as well stand pat, no?

Madison Bumgarner, who is still 18 years old, currently has a 110:18 K:BB ratio with a 1.93 ERA in Single-A Augusta. In 3-4 years, the Giants could theoretically have four members of their pitching staff all vying for the MLB strikeout crown. Of course, it’s highly unlikely all stay healthy, and the lineup will still be a joke, especially since Angel Villalona has been a disappointment.

An update on fun stats: Christian Guzman is third in MLB with 130 hits. Brian Roberts has the most doubles (38). Adam Dunn leads baseball in walks (76) and homers (29), and yet, is still largely viewed as a bum. No one has been caught stealing more than B.J. Upton (13), and Derrek Lee has grounded into the most double plays (21). Albert Pujols has been intentionally walked 23 times. The second most has 13. Ubaldo Jimenez has both walked the most batters (65) and thrown the most wild pitches (14). Livan Hernandez has allowed 20 more hits than any other pitcher in baseball, yet Francisco Liriano continues to rot in Triple-A. Joe Saunders has allowed the fewest line drives (13.5%) of any pitcher in the league.

MLB Notes

I didn’t aggressively pursue Chad Billingsley in drafts this year because I felt his command left him still a ways off from dominance, but after another 3.5 months of seasoning, it’s time to start treating him as an elite starter. His control still comes and goes, but Billingsley’s 9.81 K/9 IP mark is the best in baseball. Over his last five starts, he has a 2.45 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP with a 38:11 K:BB ratio. He’s going to win a Cy Young someday.

Ian Stewart isn’t a bad pickup in medium-deeper sized leagues. He’s currently hitting toward the bottom of the Rockies’ lineup, but he should see significant playing time with Todd Helton sidelined, and it sounds like that could be for a while. Still just 23 years old, Stewart had 19 homers and slugged .607 in Triple-A this season, and he obviously has the benefit of Coors Field on his side. He’s even eligible at second base in some leagues (Yahoo).

Josh Johnson is going to be inconsistent during his first season back from Tommy John surgery, but he’s a must-add in most leagues anyway. Showing terrific promise before getting injured during his rookie season, Johnson is now reaching 96-97 mph on the radar gun. It’s not that the actual Tommy John procedure adds to your fastball, it’s just that pitchers returning from it are finally throwing at 100 percent, and even though he wasn’t considered injured during the first part of that 2006 season, like all pitchers, his arm had some wear and tear. Now, it’s back to being fresh. The added velocity makes Johnson someone to watch moving forward.

Speaking of injured arms, I’m curious to see if the time off did Ian Snell any good. His numbers haven’t shown any improvement during three starts since coming off the DL, but he claims he’s feeling the best he has all season. His .367 BABIP is the second highest mark in all of baseball, so maybe some correction is due. However, his 5.20 BB/9 IP mark is the very worst in baseball, so he’ll need to also drastically improve his command for it to happen. Snell’s probably more hurt than he’s letting on.

Free Dallas McPherson! The guy leads professional baseball with 32 homers, and he’s also chipped in 12 steals as well. He has a career .972 OPS in 2,139 minor league at-bats. Jorge Cantu obviously deserves to stay in Florida’s lineup, but the Marlins should be selling Mike Jacobs, or some other team should be after McPherson. Of course, the Giants could have had him for free before the season started but instead elected for Jose Castillo, whose defense might actually be worse than his career .300 OBP.

Speaking of the Giants and ineptitude, Bruce Bochy’s recent handling of Tim Lincecum was beyond deplorable. Making his first start after being hospitalized, Bochy brought Lincecum back out for the seventh inning Sunday even though he was approaching 110 pitches already and left him in to rack up a total of 121 – the second most of his career. This wouldn’t even make sense in a pennant race, but given the fact SF is rebuilding, this decision was as insane as Scientology.

Last Giants rant – I promise. Over 157 at-bats this season, Omar Vizquel has four extra-base hits. Four! His .191 slugging percentage is dead last in major league baseball by a mile.

How good is Scott Baker? Over his last four starts, he’s posted a 24:3 K:BB ratio and nearly hurled a perfect game. His 5.07:1 K:BB ratio is the third best mark in the game.

Imagine how bad Homer Bailey would be if he wasn’t so lucky. He has a 6.29 ERA yet a .260 BABIP in the bigs this season. Since he’s also struggled in the minors all year, it’s long past time to start seriously worrying about his future. The loss in velocity is a big deal, evidenced by his 3.33 K/9 IP mark. He’s also done his first name proud, serving up 2.96 HR/9 IP.

It’s too late (or improbable) to sell Todd Wellemeyer in most leagues, but he might cease being useful even in NL-only versions soon enough. One of baseball’s best surprises over the first two months, Wellemeyer simply wore down, as he had never thrown even 90 innings in a season before this year. He hasn’t struck out more than three batters in any of his past six outings and is throwing less and less in between starts, as his arm gets increasingly sore. Soon, he’s not going to throw any side sessions at all. He’s not lasting the season.

Despite a career 2.86 ERA, Huston Street has converted 78 percent of his save opportunities. To put that in perspective, Brian Wilson currently sports a 4.93 ERA but has successfully converted 93 percent of his save chances. Closers are a weird beast.

What Happens in Vegas...

...gets talked about in blogs! OK, so that's not exactly how the Vegas marketing statement goes, but it works better in this space. I made my yearly sojourn to Vegas this week to check out some basketball Summer League games, and help me get a jump start on evaluating what rookies might be fantasy relevant this season. This year I plan to do individual capsule blogs on the various rookies, so I'll put my on-court impressions there in the upcoming weeks. In the meantime, let me give you a taste of why in Vegas it can be more fun to pay attention to what is going on off the court.

The Summer Leagues are an interesting mix of young studs with guaranteed contracts, young players trying to hustle themselves onto an NBA roster, and vets that never made it and are just trying to get work. Likewise, the stands are full of an interesting mix as well. There are the coaches and GMs evaluating talent, there are journalists and bloggers looking for angles, there are agents and entourages looking to attach themselves to new talent, and there are groupies that are on a different kind of hunt. And just by being in the arena, an average fan can be right in the middle of the action since the players themselves walk around the arena and sit in the stands.

I was scouting the games with Dalton Del Don, and when we first got to the gym we spotted a group of extremely attractive young ladies walk in. We immediately pegged them as either player girlfriends, or “players” that wanted to be girlfriends. Sure enough, before the afternoon was over I saw one of the group trying to talk to Renaldo Balkman at the concession stand.

As I walked down a hallway I saw J.R. Smith talking with a group of older guys, laughing with them about how silly it was that Smith “of all people” played some point guard for the Nuggets last season when it is well known how much he likes to shoot and hates to pass.

But the best behind-the-scenes action happened while I was taking notes during the Grizzlies/Spurs game. I was sitting in the last seat of an aisle, and a few rows up from me across the aisle were a few of the Suns players and a group of females. At one point one of the players came out to the aisle and was talking to someone a few steps up from me. One of the young ladies he was sitting with approached him and started fussing him out for paying too much attention to the other girls. They walked down a couple of steps to get further away from their group…which put them directly on the step next to my right shoulder. They were so close that even with their voices lowered I couldn’t help but hear every word so clearly that I almost felt like I should join in. Here is a paraphrased transcript of their conversation, with cuss words removed…

Girl: “I can’t believe you were talking so much to that other … (girl) all up in my face.”

Player: (monotone) “You’re overreacting.”

Girl: (voice raising)“Overreacting, nothing. You can’t be disrespecting me like that.”

Player: (monotone) “You’re overreacting.”

Girl: (voice an angry hiss) “I’m getting sick of you! This is going to be all over California now…they’re gonna be saying I can’t even handle my man.”

Player: (monotone) “You’re overreacting.” (As he walks away from her and leaves her in place fuming).

Ah, Las Vegas. Ah, Summer League. Only here would the action off the court be so much more interesting than the action on it.

On the Road with the Tour

Don't know if anyone's out there watching the Tour de France, but I'll give you the quick recap in case you get stuck talking to a cycling fan at a cocktail party this weekend. And what a party that must be where cycling fans are invited. You know those parties where the illegal stuff is going on behind a closed bedroom door? Invite a cycling fan inside and you get some serious chemicals going on.

After 12 stages, the pre-race favorite, Cadel Evans of Australia and Silence Lotto is wearing yellow. He survived a Stage 9 crash to ride well in the Pyrenees, overtaking leader Kim Kirchen (Luxembourg, Team Columbia) on the slopes of the Col du Tourmalet and Hautacam in Stage 10. He's been in yellow for two days and is expected to keep the lead until the Tour moves to the Alps for Stages 14 through 17 on Saturday. He could keep the maillot jaune through the Alps, but there will be a lot of attacks and several HC (hors category) climbs, including l'Alpe D'Huez. That's like the most revered climb in the sport, though it's not quite the toughest. Still, it will be the third climb on a long day. The last major hurdle will be an individual time trial next week. These are stages where the most time can be made up.

If you haven't been watching the Tour on Versus, they've been pimping American cycling since Stage 1 in Brest. There are two teams based in the States, and they have some good riders, but the overkill is ridiculous. Even the announcers, the wonderful Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin, have to hype Team Columbia and Garmin Chipotle. Phil and Paul are fun to listen to. It helps that they have British accents. They're very earnest and knowledgeable about the sport and it shows. They each have favorite phrases and trot them out endlessly to describe the action, which doesn't change for hours. You'd repeat yourself, too, if you had to commentate.

Chirstian Valdevelde of Garmin Chipotle is the highest-ranking American in third place, 38 seconds behind Evans and 37 seconds behind Frank Schlek of Luxembourg and Team CSC Saxo Bank.

It was another day for the sprinters on Friday. These are the flat stages that typically end with the fastest guys on wheels in an all out sprint to the finish line. There have been four pure flat stages so far and all have been won by Brit Mark Cavendish of Team Columbia. He's become the pre-eminent sprinter in the sport today, overtaking Robbie McEwan of Australia (Silence Lott) and Thor Hushovd of Norway (Credit Agricole). Sprinters are only good on these flat stages. Put them in the mountains and they melt. They all fall back into a group and just try to survive a mountain stage. As a matter of fact, there's a name for the group that goes into cruise control and just survives a stage. The French call it the "l'autobus."

Oh yeah, for those of you counting: three riders have been disqualified for the illegal blood-booster EPO. The most recent was Wednesday when Ricardo Ricco of Italy and Saunier Duval was booted. The team immediately withdrew from the race after its leader was arrested. This guy won two stages, was the leader of the polka-dot jersey (for best climber) and the white jersey (best young rider under 25). Yup, it was another black day on the Tour.

But I'll continue to watch. I'm just naive enough to think some of these accomplishments are untainted.

Alex Smith Will Be a Top-10 QB in 2008

Okay, I don't really think that, but one of our editors, Derek VanRiper tipped me off to an interesting article in the Press Democrat. In it, there's a quote from Smith's coach at Utah, Urban Meyer, right after Smith was drafted in 2005. Meyer said:

"Alex is an extremely quick learner. However, he's a guy that, until he understands it, he is nonfunctional. He is a guy that -- I keep hearing how Brett Favre kind of makes something out of nothing and is a person that runs around to make a play -- Alex Smith is not that kind of player. Alex Smith is a person that, once he is taught, has to learn it all. He might struggle early, but once he gets it, he gets it."

The paper goes on to write:

One point Smith made this offseason when talking about the new system is that Mike Martz leaves nothing to chance. Smith said that Martz gives the quarterbacks all the answers. If this and this and this happens, then the quarterback has been taught exactly what to do.

That seems to be exactly the kind of system in which Smith can thrive. .

Many quarterbacks have struggled out of the gate, and the article cites Steve Young's terrible first two years in Tampa, too. Again, the odds are always against a breakout, but this guy was the No. 1 overall pick. And if you said Derek Anderson was going to be a top-10 QB last year at this time, it would have been just as ridiculous.

Free Brett Favre

I'm as sick as anyone of the obsequious ass-kissing that Favre's received over the past 10 years by all manner of media, but in this case, what's Packers' GM Ted Thompson thinking?

You can understand why the Packers would want to move on, having relied on Favre's word that he was retiring and spending the spring getting Aaron Rodgers first-team work and drafting Brian Brohm. But having moved on, and hearing, understandably that Favre has changed his mind and wants to play, why not just release him and let him do it?

Who is Ted Thompson to prevent Brett Favre from playing another NFL season? The three-time MVP averaged 7.8 yards per attempt last year and lost in overtime in the NFC title game. If he wants to play, he deserves a shot to land a job somewhere.

Now one could argue that Thompson doesn't want to improve the competition, and perhaps he's particularly worried that Favre would push the Vikings over the top, but so what? If Favre's really that great, then maybe the Packers should consider letting him start another year. If they think Rodgers is the better option for a playoff-caliber team, then what's there to worry about? No one's shaking in their boots about facing Rodgers. So if he's a better option than Favre in Thompson's mind, let the Vikings stall Tarvaris Jackson's development if they're interested. Or let some other team have him.

But it's ridiculous for Thompson to try to prevent a legend from playing for several teams that would no doubt love to have him.

At the very least, they should be trying to trade Favre, and let it be known they'll take whatever the highest bid is. If it's a fourth-rounder, so be it.

MLB Notes

How frustrating is David Bush? First his impressive component numbers never matched his ERA. Then he was just plain bad last year. And now he’s posted a ridiculous 20:0 K:BB ratio over his last two starts. It looks like he’s reverted back to his helpful WHIP/hurtful ERA ways, which can be useful in NL-only leagues, but expect more disappointment shortly. And it’s a shame too, because there’s clearly potential here.

I’m not going to nitpick the All-Star selections, but it’s unconscionable Jason Varitek is on the team and Johan Santana isn’t.

Mariano Rivera is simply amazing. At 36 years old, he’s currently having the best season his already storied career. How about a 1.06 ERA, 0.64 WHIP and a decent 50:4 K:BB ratio. A reliever really shouldn’t be in Cy Young conversations, but he’d finish in my top-5 right now.

Mike Pelfrey has allowed one run or fewer in three of his last four starts and five out of his last seven. Still, he was pounded in the other two outings and walked multiple batters in six of those seven starts. He’s finally showing signs of improvement, but I’d concentrate more on his ugly 59:43 K:BB ratio than his 3.93 ERA.

How about Mark Mulder’s comeback? Who had the 16th pitch in the pool?

Over the last five games, Miguel Cabrera is 11-for-23 with five homers and eight RBI. The time to buy-low has officially come and gone.

Midseason awards:

NL MVP: Lance Berkman – Chipper Jones and Albert Pujols are worthy candidates playing on superior teams, but Berkman has the better numbers and has played in at least 10 more games than each of them. Berkman leads major league baseball (and by a wide margin) with a .661 slugging percentage. He also paces the NL in total bases, extra-base hits, runs created and times on base. He’s also gone 14-for-16 on the base paths. His 1.107 OPS ranks first in baseball.

AL MVP: Milton Bradley – He’s missed 15 games on the year, and the Rangers are in third place. Still, Texas is a surprising 48-44 and remains in the playoff picture, and Bradley currently leads the AL in OBP (.441), slugging (.596) and adjusted OPS+. He’s homered every 15.3 at-bats and has been intentionally walked more than anyone in the league. Teammate Josh Hamilton deserves consideration, but Bradley has a 126-point OPS advantage on him.

NL Cy Young: Dan Haren – Most will pick either Edinson Volquez or Tim Lincecum, both of whom have had terrific seasons. But quietly, Haren has been the NL’s best pitcher through the first half of the season. He doesn’t have the gaudy K rate, but he leads the league with a 5.15:1 K:BB ratio, and it’s not even close, thanks in no small part to an NL-best 1.53 BB/9 IP mark. Pitching in possibly the best hitter’s park in the National League, Haren’s league-leading 0.977 WHIP is truly remarkable.

AL Cy Young: Cliff Lee - Justin Duchscherer has been the AL’s most dominant starter, but because he missed almost all of April, this one comes down to Lee and Roy Halladay. Although Halladay has pitched nearly 20 more innings, the difference in ERAs more than makes up for it on Lee’s side. Both have equally impressive component stats. With a 1.037 WHIP and 5.21:1 K:BB ratio, Lee gets the nod.

Elton Brand to the Sixers

Last week I wrote about Baron Davis joining the Clippers, and mused about whether that brought the Clippers up to the level of teams like the Hornets or Jazz. One little problem...I was assuming that Elton Brand was going to stay with the team to play with him. As we found out last night, that was a bad assumption as apparently Brand is heading to Philly to join Andre Iguodala on the Sixers. So, what does that mean?

On a real-life basketball front, it means that the Clippers' dreams of joining the NBA elite have dimmed while the Sixers are a legitimate threat in the East. Last season Philadelphia was a bit of a gimmick playoff team, using superior athleticism and fast break basketball to finish the season strong and give Detroit something to think about in the playoffs. The biggest weakness on the team was a legitimate scorer/rebounder at power forward, and they just filled that need with a top-5 PF in the league. While the Sixers are still unlikely to challenge the Celtics or possibly Pistons for the Eastern crown, adding Brand puts them right in the midst of Cleveland and Orlando as a threat to grab home-court advantage and possibly make some postseason noise.

On a fantasy basketball front this is great news for Chris Kaman and Al Thornton, each of whom would have lost touches with Brand in LA. As it stands now, Kaman could build on his breakout from last season and possibly be a 20/10 guy while Thornton should also score in the mid-teens barring a sophomore slump. Even if the Clippers are able to later sign an impact PF like Josh Smith or Emeka Okafor, neither of them are the offensive presence that Brand was which means that the rest of the Clippers frontline should see more shots.

On the Philadelphia side, Brand should help them add a more efficient half-court offense to supplement what should still be a strong fast-break game. Brand should remain his 20/10 self, while Iguodala may score fewer points but with higher shooting percentages (and maybe fewer turnovers). I would also expect Thaddeus young to move to small forward this year and likely start, making him a fantasy sleeper.

On the whole, this was a very interesting turn of events. Side question: does Brand leaving the Clippers after they brought in Davis to fill his demand that the team improve compare to Carlos Boozer leaving the Cavs high and dry to sign with Utah? Brand is certainly not the favorite of Clipper nation right now...does this move tarnish him in your eyes?

MLB Notes

It doesn’t get much more impressive than Hiroki Kuroda’s performance Monday night. Facing just 28 batters, Kuroda needed only 91 pitches in the gem. And it’s always more satisfying when that first hit is legit, which Mark Teixeira’s certainly was. Kuroda was facing a Braves team that had flown across the country after waiting through a 1-hour, 50-minute rain delay in a 17-inning victory over Houston on Sunday, but nothing should be taken away from Kuroda, who has two complete game shutouts (17:0 K:BB ratio) in two of his last four starts.

Jacoby Ellsbury has really slowed down, stealing just one base over the past 18 games and having been caught on each of his past three attempts. He’s going to be an extremely valuable fantasy commodity for years to come, but he’s also not exactly a superstar in real baseball. Outside of hitter-friendly Fenway Park, his line sits at .243/.302/.324 on the year.

Speaking of speedy outfielders playing for big markets, Brett Gardner is a must add (and it’s probably too late) for any team looking for help in the stolen base department. With Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui sidelined, there should be plenty of opportunity for the rookie who had racked up 34 SBs in 282 Triple-A at-bats this season. As a 22-year-old, he swiped 58 bases and has a career success rate of 83 percent in the minors. As someone who can take a walk, Gardner could even outplay the disappointing Melky Cabrera.

I’m not sure who looks more pathetic at the plate right now, Wily Mo Pena or Andruw Jones, but either way, it’s ugly.

Not that this is a new fad, but was there a rule passed without my knowledge disallowing the words “Brett” or “Favre” ever to be uttered separately? Speaking of whom, has anyone heard anything about what he’s been up to these days during his retirement?

Since 2003, no major league outfielder has more RBI than Carlos Lee.

After watching Miguel Cabrera this year and J.D. Drew over the last two, I’m more convinced than ever that the impact on hitters switching leagues cannot be underestimated. It’s a definite issue in the short-term.

J.R. Towles needs to be reconsidered now back with Houston. His ceiling won’t be too high if he continues to bat eighth in the lineup, but he did post a .954 OPS with five homers and three steals in 61 at-bats after getting sent down to Triple-A. Sure, his first stint in Houston was dreadful, but since he plays catcher, the pickings are thin, and Towles offers unique HR/SB potential.

Making sense of the Rich Harden deal: I trust Billy Beane fully, but I’m surprised he couldn’t get a bigger prospect in return, instead going with the quantity over quality route. Not to say there’s no quality in return, as the three major properties in the deal have all failed to live up to expectations in no small part because the Cubs have mishandled them. Matt Murton had a .977 OPS in Triple-A last year and possesses very good plate discipline. However, the power has disappeared this year, and it’s unclear how the A’s will use him. One thing’s for sure, it will be an improvement on how Chicago did. Eric Patterson has good speed with some pop, and his .875 OPS in Triple-A this season could translate into an adequate regular, especially if moved to the infield. Sean Gallagher is young enough to develop into the key of this deal, and he also might be the most fantasy relevant right away. As for Harden, his value gets an obvious boost with the move to the NL and to a team with a loaded lineup and excellent bullpen. But after looking at the return the A’s got, my guess is Beane thinks Harden’s arm is about to fall off.

An easy schedule has certainly helped, but watching him pitch (a sometimes dangerous way to evaluate), Ricky Nolasco looks simply fantastic. Where did this stuff come from? I recently wrote about him, so I won’t repeat myself, but would it be crazy to currently treat him like a top-25 starter? Or is that a perfectly sane food to eat?

MLB Notes

At worst, Grady Sizemore is a top-10 fantasy player and probably top-5. Since April ended, he has 19 home runs. While he’s not a big asset in batting average, he can take a walk, and his stolen base success rate has been fantastic (87 percent). Few leadoff/speed guys offer his kind of RBI potential, although poor campaigns from Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez will hurt his otherwise fine runs scored total. Sizemore is going to be baseball’s next 40/40 member.

Johnny Cueto has allowed three runs or fewer in nine of his last 10 starts, but because he still lacks command, he rarely pitches deep into games and hasn’t been a big help in WHIP. However, there’s reason for optimism, since he’s allowed just one homer over his last four outings. Cueto’s K rate remains elite, and his LIPS ERA suggests he’s pitching much better than his cosmetic stats indicate. There’s some concern Cueto could be shut down early with the Reds out of contention, but he’s the type of player to gamble on who could help win your league for you over the second half of the season.

I cringed when the Angels gave Torii Hunter a $90 million contract this offseason, and the first year of the deal has only solidified that sentiment. Hunter will turn 33 years old in two weeks, and he sports a career OBP of .324 – and that’s not even factoring in his subpar SB rate. His past production was solid for a Gold Glove centerfielder, but this is a player in decline, both in the field and at the plate. Over the last month, he’s taken one walk.

Grant Balfour was a terrific prospect back in the day for Minnesota before he was ravaged by injuries, so his 2007 has to be looked at as more real than mirage. He still walks far too many batters, but it doesn’t get much better than just six hits allowed over 17.2 innings. Few pitchers can match his velocity, evidenced by his remarkable 14.1 K/9 IP mark.

Manny Ramirez is clearly playing hurt right now. He’s seen his slugging percentage drop from .564 on June 10 all the way down to .495 currently. He has just three extra base hits in what nearly amounts to a month.

I wouldn’t exactly be selling my farm system to acquire Matt Holliday if I’m a contending MLB team right now. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a fine player and might have even deserved the MVP award last season, but the fact he calls Coors Field home cannot be underestimated. He has a career .790 OPS on the road with just 38 homers over 1,173 at-bats. His slugging drops from .660 to .450. Holliday has improved his hitting away from home over the past couple of years, and his current .873 OPS on the road is a career-high, but it hardly screams elite player either. Additionally, he’s going to command a huge contract in 2010.

They don’t call him Da Meat Hook for nothing. Check out Dmitri Young’s listed weight.

I’m picking up Sean Marshall if available. It looks like he has a chance at sticking in the Cubs’ rotation, was excellent during his start Sunday and has a 12:2 K:BB ratio over his last two outings. He posted a 4.2:1 K:BB ratio in Triple-A this season with a 1.01 WHIP. Moreover, he gets the Giants next time out.

How good was the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal Wimbledon final? I’m not typically a big tennis watcher, but that match was nothing short of fantastic and one of the best I’ve ever seen.

After a solid April but a down May, Nick Markakis has really turned it on. He hit .339 in June with more walks than Ks and also has 15 RBI and 17 runs over the past two weeks. Remember, this is someone who hit .325/.389/.550 with 14 HR/61 RBI after the break last season, and he’s improved his OPS by 175 points against lefties this year. Markakis has big potential moving forward. And what’s going on with teammate Aubrey Huff? He’s having one of the bigger surprise seasons of anyone in baseball in 2008.

Help a bald brother out. And stop cancer.

My thoughts on the C.C. Sabathia to Brewers trade? I’m conflicted you see, as it certainly helps my preseason bet I placed on Milwaukee to win the World Series this year (25/1 odds), but also, I blew all my FAAB in NL-LABR, so some team is about to get a whole lot better. Oh, you meant from a fantasy perspective and not selfishly? Sabathia gets a nice bump moving to the NL and there isn’t a pitcher I’d rather own. Also, pick up Matt LaPorta even in mixed medium sized leagues.

Great article on “The Freak,” AKA Tim Lincecum. I especially liked the part where Lincecum’s dad throws Mark Prior under the bus. And apparently Dice-K and Jake Peavy are next. And how is Rick Peterson unemployed right now? But someone needs to tell Tom Verducci (and the general media) win/loss records mean nothing in regards to pitching performance. My favorite part was Lincecum’s reasoning for not icing his arm after games: “Never. Like my dad says, ‘Ice is made for two things: injuries and my drinks.’ ”

Wimbledon Final Exciting, But Slightly Overrated

Don't get me wrong - it was an exciting match, and both players showed a ton of heart and made great shots. But for a match to be considered one of the all-time greats (John McEnroe called it the greatest tennis match he'd ever witnessed), both players have to be playing at the absolute top of their games. Nadal was close to his, but Federer made way too many unforced errors, and his focus came and went at times.

I was rooting for Nadal, but the entire time, I felt as though Federer could have won the match if he just got it together mentally and focused. Most of the points on Nadal's serve had the players on even footing after the return, while Federer's had far more service winners, aces and winners on weak returns.

It was still a thrilling match for the highest stakes imaginable - Wimbledon Final which could have been Federer's sixth straight (never been done except 100 years ago when it was totally different) or Nadal's back to back wins in the French and Wimbledon - something not done since Bjorn Borg in 1980.

But Federer wasn't at the top of his game, and not all of it had to do with Nadal.

Baron Davis to Clippers

Reports surfaced Tuesday night that Baron Davis has decided to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, potentially teaming up with Elton Brand to try to lead the Clippers back to respectability. On paper, Davis and Brand would form a point guard/power forward combination to rival any of the other outstanding such duos in the West: Chris Paul/David West, Deron Williams/Carlos Boozer, Tony Parker/Tim Duncan, Steve Nash/Amare Stoudemire, and Jason Kidd/Dirk Nowitzki. So, how would this move translate to actual team success? And more importantly, how would it affect the fantasy fortunes of all involved?

If the parts mesh together, the Clippers could field a team to compete with the Hornets and Jazz as up-and-comers attempting to break into the Lakers/Spurs power structure. Brand is an underrated defender, and he should team with Chris Kaman protect the paint on defense. On offense, the question is whether a team with five scoring threats (Davis/Cuttino Mobley/Al Thornton/Brand/Kaman) can find a way to share the ball in an efficient way. Having a strong point guard helps that process, and despite being known as a scoring threat Davis has traditionally been a good playmaker as well when he wants to be. If he can facilitate the team offense to get both Brand and Kaman their touches, this team is dangerous.

That segues well into the fantasy fortunes. Kaman showed last season that he could potentially be a 20/10 guy himself with Brand out, but with Brand back his offense may suffer a bit. And with Davis in the fold as well, shots could be even harder to come by. I expect Brand and Davis to both average near 20 points, while Kaman is likely closer to 15. Thornton and promising rookie Eric Gordon should also be in the low-double figures. On the plus side, the presence of so many offensive threats should minimize the opposing defense's ability to focus on any one of them, leading to better shooting percentages and fewer turnovers.

Ultimately, Brand and Davis should not have their fantasy value affected much by this trade, with each worthy of a top-3 round pick. Kaman is more of a risk, but he shouldn't fall outside of the top-5 rounds. Thornton and Gordon make nice mid/late round upside picks, while Mobley becomes nothing more than a roto role player. All in all, the Clippers now appear to be one of the more relevant roto teams in the league.

NFL Notes

There’s a consensus top-5 that’s already been formed this year, with only the exact order up for debate. Personally, I’d actually welcome the sixth or seventh pick, as I don’t see as big of a drop off from the big five to Marion Barber and Frank Gore as most. It doesn’t get quite as easy after that, however.

With a deep quarterback class and no clear-cut No. 1 TE in a group that’s also rich with sleepers late, taking only running backs and wide receivers over the first five rounds makes more sense than ever this year. The top-15 RBs and top-15 WRs are both extremely strong groups compared to year’s past.

The NFC West looks like one of the weakest divisions in years. This isn’t a race to see who’s the fastest, but rather, who’s the least slowest.

Don’t get me wrong, Julius Jones was nothing short of terrible last season and has a limited ceiling (doesn’t catch passes), but I see him as a very serviceable RB3 who might be a bit undervalued in 2008. Dallas was a potent offense, but run blocking wasn’t one of its strengths, so although Seattle’s offensive line is a unit in decline, that move is lateral at worst. The Seahawks gave him a contract fit for a starter, and although T.J. Duckett is also in town, Mike Holmgren hates using players in specified roles (at the goal line). For all his faults (no vision, can’t break tackles), Jones is OK in short-yardage work, so he could emerge as Seattle’s primary ballcarrier, including at the goal line. Playing in a defensively challenged division with an emerging defense and a lacking WR corps behind him, Jones is in a pretty good position in 2008.

If there’s one team most likely to disappoint this year, it’s the Browns. Playing with expectations for the first time in a long time, and often in front of the national spotlight, Cleveland still doesn’t have a defense. The team also has a pretty rough looking schedule, at least on paper. Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow and the O-line are all legit, but Derek Anderson’s huge second half slide last year better not carryover into this season.

Free Pierre Thomas! We’ve already seen what Reggie Bush can do as an every down back, and it isn’t pretty. Bush isn’t a completely worthless NFL player, but he’s clearly best suited in a situational role, as the next properly read hole he hits hard will be his first. Since Deuce McAllister is coming off two more knee surgeries (one of them microfracture), he’s unlikely the answer, so why not Thomas, who showed more during one Week 17 game last year than Bush has during his entire career? Overrating one game would be foolish, but Thomas impressed every time he stepped on the field last year, albeit in an extremely small sample size. Playing in a high-octane offense that has no chance to succeed unless they run the ball far more than they did last season, there’s big time upside here.

I see no reason why Matt Forte isn’t a top 20-25 fantasy back. There’s little to no competition in Chicago, the coaching staff loves him, and he’s a three-down back who’s a highly capable receiver and blocker. The Bears offense shouldn’t be all that good, but the defense could bounce back, and the team added Chris Williams in the draft to improve the offensive line. Did I mention Forte put up 2,403 yards with 23 TDs on a Tulane team that had defenses 100 percent focused on stopping him last year?

Can someone, anyone, please emerge from Houston’s backfield? The passing game should be tremendous, and Gary Kubiak’s system wasn’t too shabby for the ground game when he was in Denver. Unfortunately, no one currently stands out on its roster. Ahman Green’s carcass isn’t the answer. Chris Brown will probably have 1-2 big games before breaking a bone or ligament. Steve Slaton projects better as a change-of-pace type. My deep sleeper is Chris Taylor, but he’ll have to avoid getting cut first.

How the carries will be divvied out between Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams should be one of the bigger stories heading into the season. On one hand, Brown was fantasy football’s best back before getting injured last year, and Williams is 31 years old and has played in just one game since 2005. On the other hand, Brown is coming off a serious knee injury, and Williams’ career mileage isn’t overly excessive because of his love for yoga and the devil’s lettuce. Bill Parcells is also a big believer in committees. Although Brown may not truly be 100 percent until 2009, he’s clearly the better back at this point, so it’s just a matter of how many touches Williams steals.

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