These guys are ON FIRE…will they stay hot?

Ben Zobrist – He has been a sort of “super-sub” who’s managed to get a full season’s worth of at-bats over the past couple of seasons. His usefulness has been derived mostly from his flexibility, as he currently qualifies at 1B, 2B, and OF. 2009 and 2010 were both positive years for him, but for quite different reasons. In 2009, Zobrist provided a surprising burst of power, smashing 27 homers to add extra value to his 17 stolen bases. Then in 2010, he continued his base stealing proficiency with 24 swipes, but his power spike faded, as he hit only 10 homers. His batting average throughout his career has been quite erratic, but for the most part, he’s settled into the .250-.260 region. A .326 BABIP in 2010 aided his .297 batting average that year, but, in the end, Zobrist has been a player who supplies a decent amount of power, nice steals, and most importantly, positional flexibility.

Analysis: Now with 7 HR’s already, the power seems to have suddenly returned. The most eye-popping statistic in his line though are those 25 RBI’s, which currently paces the entire American League. Obviously, Zobrist is on a roll right now, and may continue to be so for some time; May and June are historically Zobrist’s best months, as he has posted a .963 and .900 OPS in those months, respectively. His current BABIP is only .264, so we can’t just chalk this production up to good luck, but both his BB and K rates are about 3% worse than his career averages. The latter stats may not be too significant, as it could just be that, without Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford, and with Evan Longoria injured much of the season, Zobrist has been called upon to be a larger run producer and thus is pressing to, well, produce. It’s also important to remember back to 2008 when Zobrist was called up from Triple-A for the final time. He had only 227 plate appearances in 2008, but did manage 12 HR’s, so the power wasn’t only seen in 2009. With Zobrist currently 29 years old, he’s the perfect age to post a career year — this could be it.

Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: .255, 23 HR, 85 RBI, 80 R, 22 SB

Grady Sizemore – Wow, who saw this coming? After a down year in 2009 and an injury-shortened season in 2010, expectations for Grady Sizemore’s 2011 campaign were not positive. While ZiPs had originally projected a dash line of merely .249/.348/.445, and Bill James a more optimistic .265/.355/.455, most analysts were extremely skeptical of Sizemore ever being able to return to his previous elite level of production. Sizemore has obviously started with an absolute bang, hitting like it’s 2006 all over again.

Analysis: Despite Sizemore’s wonderful start, he hasn’t solicited an enormous amount of faith from ZiPs, as their updated projected dash line is .274/.362/.514, they are pegging him for only 399 plate appearances, an ode to Sizemore’s frailty over the past few years. Still, it’s a good time to be an Indians fan and Sizemore owner. Although his walk rate is currently slightly lower than his career average, Sizemore’s K-rate is his typical 22%. It’s impossible to predict health, so assuming he stays around the whole season, I think it’s safe to say his power and run production will be good. But with a completely unsustainable .419 BABIP, that sweet batting average is sure to fall. Finally, with 0 SB and just 1 attempt over his first 11 games, it seems Sizemore is playing it safe with his knees, trying to avoid injury. His days of stealing 30-40 bases may be over, but a decent amount should still be anticipated.

Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: .275, 25 HR, 88 RBI, 81 R, 15 SB

Carlos Gomez – His breakout has been anticipated eagerly ever since he was a key component in the blockbuster trade by the New York Mets to acquire Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins. The trade hasn’t worked out well for the Twins (although Phil Humber, now a member of the White Sox organization, looked pretty darn good the other night against the Yankees, carrying a no-hitter into the 6th inning). After several disappointing years, Gomez was traded to Brewers after the 2009 season. His  untapped talent is so tantalizing that he has been named the Opening Day starter each year from 2008-2010, but hasn’t yet been able to put it all together, and thus is close to acquiring the much dreaded “bust” label. Acquiring Nyjer Morgan before the season, the Brewers declared the CF spot open for contest this year,  but injuries to Morgan have allowed Gomez to amass 111 plate appearances thus far. Although his batting average hasn’t been great, Gomez’s 8 steals have obviously supplied owners with plenty of value, while his 2 homers have been a welcome surprise.

Analysis: Gomez’s ratios aren’t very different from his career averages, as he’s still only walking at a 5.4% rate. His K-rate is down slightly to 21%, but his dash line (.240/.278/.320) is simply awful, and actually lower than career averages. The keys for Gomez remaining the starter all season is going to be whether or not he is able to get his OBP above .300 and if his sudden pop is for real. If he can do this, and if he does continue to hit the occasional homer, he’ll pile on the steals and likely fight off Nyjer Morgan’s press for playing time. But with his ratio’s the way they are, I just don’t see how Gomez can continue to be a positive influence in the Brewers’ lineup. He’s a great defensive player, and knows how to steal bases, but he simply is NOT a good hitter. Still, Morgan isn’t really either, so I have a feeling Gomez will get a fair number, but not a full season’s worth of at-bats.

Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: .245, 8 HR, 45 RBI, 60 R, 30 SB

Michael Pineda –  Named the game’s #16 overall prospect by Baseball America entering the 2011 season, Pineda’s talent is well known. Still, the decision by the Mariners to have the 22-year-old flame-thrower start the season in the rotation was a bit unexpected. But an amazing showing in Spring Training (2.12 with 15 K’s in 17 IP) made it obvious that Pineda was ready for The Show. With now 5 starts at the Major League level, Pineda has seemingly gotten better with each start.

Analysis:  Armed with electrifying stuff, Pineda has put up a 8.62 K/9 rate while managing a respectable (especially for his age and pitching style) 3.45 BB/9 IP. Although his opposing BABIP of .262 is a little bit low and his 76.5% LOB may decrease as the season progresses, he’s emerging as a legitimate front-line starter. So while he may encounter a bump or two in the road, especially as he faces lineups for the 2nd time around, Pineda is a guy to keep around, and not dump when those bumps do come. An intelligent pitcher as well, he’ll make adjustments and likely end the year with strong numbers. Much like the San Francisco Giants with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, the Seattle Mariners are now blessed with a ridiculous 1-2 punch who could each contend for Cy Young awards over the next decade. For fantasy purposes in 2011, however, monitor his usage late in the year. In order to protect their young prized arm, the Mariners are likely to shut him down early if not in playoff contention.

Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: 12 W, 3.35 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 170 IP, 165 K

Randy Wolf – Noted as fairly dependable mid-rotation starter, Randy Wolf has exceeded 200 IP in both 2009 and 2010, compiled 117 victories over his career, and managed a 4.10 ERA throughout his career (not shabby considering much of it was during the steroid era). But with a steadily declining K-rate from 2007 (8.24) through 2010 (5.93), Wolf hasn’t been viewed as a major fantasy contributor. But Wolf has been a stalwart front-liner the entire year, especially the past 2 weeks, as he’s managed a 0.68 ERA over his past 21 innings pitched.

Analysis: At first glance, Wolf’s peripherals look great. He’s gotten his K/9 rate back up to 7.88 (his highest since 2007), and his walk rate is all the way down to 2.39 per 9 IP (his lowest of his entire career). But deeper digging shows a different story. On April 14th against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Wolf had an amazing day, striking out 10 batters over 6.2 innings. Taking this day out of Wolf’s game log (he’s only managed 4 or 5 K’s in each of his other 5 starts), his K-rate goes all the way down to 6.67, making that one game an obvious anomaly. Additionally, his opposing BABIP is a mere .255, 29 points lower than his career average. Still, while it’s obvious Wolf has benefited from some good luck and that weak, K-prone Pirates lineup, there are some positive signs, too. His LOB%, HR/FB, and GB% numbers are all close enough to his career numbers to feel confident that 2011 is going to be a good season for Wolf. But there’s no reason to mistaken him for an ace. He’ll be durable, pretty dependable, and win a good number of games playing for the Brewers, who are likely to be in playoff contention all year long.

Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: 13 W, 4.05 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 200 IP, 143 K

Wow, it’s chilly in here…will the ice thaw?

Gordon Beckham – Remember when this guy was the “next big thing?” Coming up in 2009 after less than 300 minor league plate appearances, Beckham had a phenomenal rookie campaign, hitting .270/.347/.460 with 14 HR’s and 63 RBI’s. That’s great for any rookie, but even better considering Beckham plays 2B, a position not noted for its depth in offensive stalwarts. Things haven’t gone as well as analysts, White Sox fans, and Gordon Beckham owners have hoped, however. A horrible 2010 diminished his value significantly, and trade rumors even began to surface. Still, both Bill James and ZiPs showed confidence, projecting Beckham to hit around .270 with 15 HR and 75 RBI in 2011. Thus far, Beckham hasn’t made them look good. Although he has hit 2 homers and managed decent run production, his batting average has been awful, absolutely plummeting over the past 2 weeks. Now, questions whether he will ever build on his promising rookie year are abundant.

Analysis: I’ve always been a fan of Beckham.  Mostly because it’s not easy to find good offensive second basemen. While there’s no disputing his poor production, especially as of late, his batting average is artificially low due to a .221 BABIP (career, .286). The 2 HR’s give hope that his moderate power is still there, and the White Sox deep lineup promises plenty of opportunities for good run production. So I definitely think Beckham could deliver on preseason projections. But in order to make the leap from a somewhat above-average hitter to a dangerous threat, he’ll need to substantially improve his abhorrently low walk rate of 3.8%. He needs to be more patient and trust in his ability to make contact. Only then will he deliver on his ultimate potential.

Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: .261, 16 HR, 77 RBI, 70 R, 7 SB

Raul Ibanez – While he has a big name and makes $12 million a year, Ibanez has really only had 2 star-quality years (2006 and 2009). Otherwise, he’s been a pretty dependable but very boring .285, 20 HR, 85 RBI, 80 R player…and that’s not a bad thing; it just means he’s not necessarily deserving of his salary (but what player really is?). As for 2011, projections called for more or less a repeat of 2010 season, when he finished as the 140th most productive player in Yahoo! Public Roto Leagues. Even with these fairly moderate expectations, though, Ibanez has disappointed. He started the season with a burst, and after the first week boasted an OPS of .886 with 1 HR and 6 RBI’s. But things have been downhill from there, and he is currently mired in an 0-for-31 slide.

Analysis: Ibanez is a professional hitter. He isn’t a superstar, but he’s intelligent, and has been a steady guy year-in, year-out, with the occasional All-Star type season thrown in here and there. But turning 39 years old this coming June, he’s clearly approaching the end of his good career. His current, almost season-long slump is due largely in part to a .217 BABIP. Considering his walk rate is right around his career average tells me he still has a good eye, but I’m concerned by his K-rate of 29.9% (career average, 17.5%). He’s obviously pressing at the plate, practically begging for a hit. Physically, he looks slow, and although I think he’ll have somewhat a rebound, I think his years of being a decent #3 fantasy outfielder are definitely over. As stud prospect Domonic Brown recovers from a recent injury, and as Ben Francisco continues to hit well enough to remain in the lineup, Ibanez may have to fight for at-bats as the season progresses.

Fantasy Baseball Kings Bold Prediction: .258, 15 HR, 73 RBI, 61 R, 2 SB

Edwin Jackson –  Jackson, once a big-time prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays (at that time, Devil Rays) organization, didn’t truly break out until 2009 with the Detroit Tigers. That year he was phenomenal, winning 13 games while striking out 6.77 batters per 9 IP over 214 innings. A big key to his success that year was his walk rate, which he lowered to a still career-low 2.94/9 IP. Traded in 2010 in the much talked about deal that made Daniel Hudson a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Jackson is now pitching for the White Sox. He started the season with bang, allowing only 3 ER and 9 hits over his first 14 innings pitched, while striking out 20. Analysts were excited about his velocity and, yours truly began touting 2011 as his “career year.” I noted his increased K-rate and good composure on the mound. Since those first two games, however, things haven’t gone quite as I had anticipated they would. He’s been abysmal for 4 straight starts now, allowing 34 hits, 12 walks, and 20 earned runs over his past 21.2 IP, while striking out only 12 batters

Analysis: Jacksons’ career has had its share of ups and downs, so much so that ZiPs was not as optimistic as I was entering the season, projecting him for  10 wins, a 7.26 K-rate, and a very pedestrian 4.53 ERA. But although the peaks and valleys make the back of his baseball card a bit confusing to analyze, he’s made slow but substantial improvements since first arriving as a rookie in Tampa Bay. His first full season of work resulted in a BB/9 rate over 5, and although he was striking out around 7 batters per 9 IP, he appeared flustered and nervous when batters got on base. All this together resulted in ERA”s of 5.45, 5.76, and 4.42 from 2006 through 2008. But along that time, he made subtle improvements, lower his walk rate each year from 2006 to 2009, and despite striking less batters out, became a true pitcher, as opposed to a “thrower.” But he’s returned to being a thrower over the past few starts, as his numbers indicate, and ZiPs’ updated projections are even worse than their preseason ones (they currently have him pegged for 4.75 year-end ERA). However, I still like Jackson this year, and believe it could very well end of being the best of his career.   His biggest problems have been walks (4.33 BB/9), luck (suffering from an opposing BABIP of .357), and some defensive woes on his own team’s side (his LOB% is currently a career-low 62.7%). Watch him over his next several starts and see if can lower his walk total again. Lady Luck will eventually return, so if he does harness his control, he should be able to limit the damage, continue striking batters out at a good rate, and ultimately regain form. As an owner, just realize his sporadic nature and be prepared to sit him for a string of starts if he struggles again.

Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction:  12 W, 3.58 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 205 IP, 181 K

Yovani Gallardo – Yikes, this wasn’t expected! Gallardo, seen almost unanimously as an up-and-coming ace, has now struck out close to 10 batters per 9 innings pitched over the past 2 seasons (9.89 and 9.73) while winning 13 and 14 games for the playoff-contending Brewers. Although he’s been a bit injury-prone during his short career, the expectations for a major breakout were rampant. Several analysts even had him on their short-lists for Cy Young contenders. But obviously, Gallardo’s season has been a major disappointment thus far. After a decent first start, his 2nd start of the season was a brilliant, complete game performance: 9.0 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 2BB, 2 K. Since then, however, he’s imploded, giving up 21 earned runs over his next 21.1 innings pitched, while allowing 35 hits, and 10 walks. For fantasy owners, many of whom were probably counting on him to be one of the top 2 anchors in their rotations, it’s been an unanticipated disaster.

Analysis: The strangest part of Gallardo’s season thus far has been his strikeout rate, which has been practically split in half (career 9.11, current 5.70). Otherwise, several other metrics (BB/9, HR/9, and HR/FB) are all right around his career averages. He hasn’t been hurt, and by all accounts his velocity is at normal speeds. He had a spectacular spring, posting a 1.96 ERA and striking out 23 batters over 18.1 innings pitched. So then, one naturally wonders…what’s wrong with Yovani Gallardo? Apparently, he recently met with Brewer higher-ups to discuss his performance, and they mutually agreed his pacing on the mound was “off.” Going forward, Gallardo stated he intends to work at a faster pace, explaining, “I’m just trying to get into a better rhythm…I’m trying to speed up a little. And I”m working on commanding the ball on both sides of the plate.” I wouldn’t be worried here. Considering everything in his peripherals is normal, and the only thing “off” right now is his K-rate, I have full faith in Gallardo turning it around fairly quickly. Now may be a good time to grab him from a competitor at a discounted price. Don’t wait.

Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: 14 W, 3.41 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 190 IP, 192 K

Francisco Liriano – When we left off two weeks ago, I ended my Francisco Liriano analysis by stating “My advice is to sit him until he gets going. Maybe he just can’t pitch in the cold. I don’t know. But what I DO know is that he is still a bonafide stud, and will prove that come the warmer months of the season. Keep with him; you’ll be happy you did.” I also predicted, based on his career monthly splits, that he was a natural slow starter (much like his predecessor Johan Santana), and would get better and better as the weather got warmer. Well, he hasn’t gotten better and better; in fact, he’s completely imploded. As a result, I felt it was my responsibility to include him for a second straight column. During his most recent start (worst to date), one could have sworn that Oliver Perez had stolen Liriano’s uniform: 3.0 IP, 6 H, 7 ER, 4 BB, and 4 K. Rumors of injury and trade now fill the Minnesota air.

Analysis: I’m split on this one, because I really, really do believe in Liriano’s ability to be a true front-line starter. But with recent reports that his velocity is down, and in light of the incoming news that, should he not turn it around over his next several starts, he’ll lose his rotation spot, I can’t give Liriano owners the green light here. What I would NOT do is drop him (unless, of course, further news develops). If you NEED starting pitching and are in desperate shape, go ahead and get value for him. But my gut tells me this is one of those situations in which Liriano is going to come back to surprise us. Losing his rotation spot would obviously be a huge and painful event for Liriano owners, but if he does, I think the Twins’ plan/hope would be that he regains confidence in the bullpen, pitches his way back into the rotation, and resumes his expected dominance. I’m staying positive, but with nervous owners out there, I obviously have to retract my “Go get him…NOW!” proclamation from 2 weeks ago. Instead, I would advise owners to sit tight, pay attention to each of his starts carefully, and read the local news reports. If he loses his spot and you can carry him while he figures it out, great. If not, then that’s the time to drop him.

Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: 11 W, 3.79 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 165 IP, 156 K (low innings pitched due to losing his rotation spot for a few weeks)