With less than a week of action in the books, the best strategy is to stick to the expectations you had before the season began.
As of this writing, the major league leader in home runs is the Blue Jays’ Vernon Wells, who has slugged four in Toronto’s first three games. If the season ended today, the National League batting title would go to the Giants’ Edgar Renteria, who is batting .727 after posting just a .250 average last season. And in his 2010 debut, the Mariners’ ace Felix Hernandez — who had a 217-to-71 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2009 — walked six batters in 6 2/3 innings.
You can safely bet your life savings that none of those three things will be true by the time the All-Star break rolls around. And they’ll probably return to normal much sooner than that.
But in many leagues, there is at least one owner who seems unfamiliar with the notions of “small sample size” and “regression to the mean.” The first few weeks of the season are the best time to take advantage of their ignorance, and improve your team.
With that in mind, this week’s column is based entirely on preseason predictions. In the “Three Up, Three Down” segment, you’ll find the players who have the best and worst chances of success during the coming week. The “Pickups” section will remind you of some of the sleepers who might have gone unnoticed in your draft, and identify players who have been impacted by the early decisions of their managers. Finally, you’ll also find my recommendations for owners who are streaming pitchers in “Down the Stream.”
Colby Rasmus, outfielder, Cardinals
Rasmus has gotten off to a terrific start in his second big league season, going 4-for-8 with a home run, double and five walks in his first three games. With the Astros and Mets — two teams with maligned pitching staffs — on the Cardinals’ schedule next week, there’s no reason to expect a slowdown anytime soon. The 23-year-old center fielder is a threat to hit 25 round-trippers this season and should be in just about every team’s lineup going forward.
Ryan Dempster, starting pitcher, Cubs
Few pitchers had sharper stuff in their first outing than Dempster, who tossed six innings against the Braves on Wednesday, and surrendered just one run on three hits and two walks, while striking out nine. Dempster’s two matchups next week are very attractive for fantasy purposes, so he merits strong consideration on all staffs. He’ll square off against the Brewers on Monday, after going 3-1 with a 3.67 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 28 strikeouts in four starts against Milwaukee in 2009. A weekend meeting with the Astros is similarly tempting, because new manager and former Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills now tinkers with a lineup that ranked in the bottom five of the league in runs scored last season.
Dustin Pedroia, second baseman, Red Sox
Pedroia is a career .424 hitter against the Royals and owns a .383 lifetime batting average versus the Twins. Those happen to be the next two teams on the Red Sox’ docket, so be sure to have the 2008 AL MVP in your lineup for each of the next six games. And after that, Boston kicks off a 10-game homestand, which is music to Pedroia’s ears because he’s a .332 career hitter at Fenway Park.
Scott Baker, starting pitcher, Twins
Considering that Baker had a solid spring, walking just three batters while fanning 22, perhaps his rough debut in Anaheim on Monday can be chalked up as a fluke. But the 28-year-old control artist had little idea of where his pitches were going in his first start of the season, giving up four runs on five hits (including a Jeff Mathis homer) and three walks in just 4 2/3 innings of work. It might be wise to keep Baker on your bench when he goes up against the White Sox on Saturday, since he’s been shelled to the tune of a 6.32 ERA in his 11 career starts against the South Siders, and has coughed up six homers in just 15 innings at U.S. Cellular Field.
Adam LaRoche, first baseman, Diamondbacks
LaRoche has a reputation for being a second-half player, having logged a mediocre .768 career OPS before the All-Star break and a .909 mark after it. He’s done nothing to shed that label so far, going 0-for-12 with six strikeouts to start the season. The Diamondbacks face the Pirates this weekend, and won’t see any premier arms, so it may give LaRoche a perfect opportunity to get off the schneid. But if he doesn’t have at least a couple of knocks by early next week, you might want to find a temporary replacement when Arizona hits the road to face the Dodgers and Padres.
Carlos Zambrano, starting pitcher, Cubs
If there was anything positive to take out of Zambrano’s effort against the Braves on Opening Day, it was that he didn’t obliterate the Gatorade cooler upon returning to the dugout. Apart from that, he was torched for eight runs, gave up two homers (including one to Braves rookie Jason Heyward in his first big league at-bat), walked a pair, and got only four outs. Big Z is only 28 years old, but with over 1,500 innings of mileage on his arm, he could be in store for an early and ugly decline. You shouldn’t trust him at Cincinnati on Saturday, and you might even have to ponder benching him against the Astros next weekend if he doesn’t turn things around.
Sometimes, valuable fantasy contributors are overlooked on draft day, because owners overzealously pursue their favorite sleepers. If any of the following three players are on your league’s waiver wire, they might be worth a gamble depending on your team’s needs.
Ian Stewart, third baseman, Rockies
Stewart hit 25 home runs last season and is a threat to go deep even more in 2010, with Coors Field and regular playing time on his side. If he can prove capable of hitting left-handed pitching, manager Jim Tracy will have no choice but to trot him out there daily.
Brett Gardner, outfielder, Yankees
Steals are often the hardest category to fill in fantasy baseball, so finding speedsters with guaranteed playing time on the waiver wire can put you one step ahead of the game. Gardner could notch 40 swipes as long as Joe Girardi is writing him into the lineup on a regular basis.
Franklin Morales, relief pitcher, Rockies
There is almost always significant turnover at the closer position, and you can use it to your advantage. Morales has temporarily supplanted Huston Street, who is out until at least early May with inflammation in his throwing shoulder, and the Rockies should give the left-hander plenty of save chances while he’s got the job.
If you are playing in a head-to-head league, a potentially useful — if controversial — strategy is streaming pitchers. The key is to get as many wins and strikeouts as possible during the week, without entirely conceding the ERA and WHIP categories. Below are pitchers that you’re likely to find on your league’s waiver wire who have optimal matchups for streaming on each day of the coming week.
Saturday, April 10: Kenshin Kawakami, Braves — at Giants
Sunday, April 11: Kevin Millwood, Rangers — vs. Blue Jays
Monday, April 12: Chris Young, Padres — vs. Braves
Tuesday, April 13: Aaron Cook, Rockies — vs. Mets
Wednesday, April 14: C.J. Wilson, Rangers — at Indians
Thursday, April 15: Hiroki Kuroda, Dodgers — vs. Diamondbacks
Friday, April 16: Mike Leake, Reds — at Pirates
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