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Sheets a sleeper in Oakland, but he's also risky

Just last Friday, I blogged that from a fantasy baseball aspect, Ben Sheets potentially joining the Texas Rangers wouldn't be such a great thing, and that I would prefer he choose a larger, safer home ballpark, like where the New York Mets play. On Tuesday, Sheets and the Oakland Athletics agreed to a one-year deal. Hmm, that's kind of interesting, isn't it?

For fantasy purposes, sometimes it really does come down to where the team plays its home games, at least to me. Pitchers have a much smaller margin for error at Rangers Ballpark than they do at Oakland Coliseum, and when discussing a pitcher who last pitched in 2008, one recovering from a major elbow surgery, that detail matters. Oakland's stadium is a rather large place that certainly has favored pitchers over the years.

Sheets missed all of 2009 recovering from elbow surgery, and while I wouldn't go crazy with expectations here, the fact is when the right-hander has pitched, he has generally pitched fairly well. His career ERA is 3.72, and the last time we saw him (in 2008), it was 3.09. However, it has rarely been "performance" that has scared me about Sheets, but rather his durability. I've heard some people compare Sheets to Rich Harden, another brittle right-hander who did end up with the Rangers, and certainly there are similarities. Sheets made 31 starts in 2008, but before that averaged 21 starts in a three-year period. I doubt he still possesses major strikeout potential, which Harden does have, but Sheets remains interesting in fantasy, to say the least.

Another difference between Sheets and Harden is the injuries they have suffered. While Harden's health issues have been all over the map, Sheets is coming back from flexor tendon surgery in his pitching elbow. Previous pitchers who had this surgery didn't exactly bounce back to stardom, though Jason Jennings, Mike Hampton and Rodrigo Lopez aren't really fair comparisons to Sheets anyway. The point is, it took those guys awhile to regain command. And with Sheets, command is key. He ranks third among active pitchers in strikeout-to-walk ratio, and no longer can be asked to overpower hitters like he did in his early years.

What I like about Sheets' potential as an Athletic is focused around one fantasy category, and one alone: WHIP. Sheets ranked seventh in the NL in WHIP in 2008, and his career WHIP of 1.201 ranks 10th among active pitchers. Don't underestimate the value of WHIP in fantasy baseball. I know a lot of people who downplay its value on draft day, but that's a mistake. It's no less important than ERA, and one should never draft for wins anyway.

Other than what should be a solid WHIP in the 1.25 range (let's not get too greedy here), I'm not sure I see another category in which Sheets will really help mixed-league owners. I could see an ERA in the 3.50 range, better than his career mark but still nothing special. Asking for 200 innings, which he last achieved in 2004, is a pipe dream, but I could see 25 starts, maybe 150 innings. Based on previous strikeout rates that would get him over the 100-strikeout plateau, but wouldn't make much impact on a fantasy team. The Athletics don't figure to score a lot of runs, which certainly curbs wins; last season their big winner was rookie Brett Anderson, with just 11 wins.

When I first heard about the Sheets-to-Oakland deal, I thought he'd be a nice sleeper thanks to the favorable ballpark, but I still can't rank him in my top 40 among starting pitchers. There's just way too much injury risk. I'd imagine others in my leagues would reach for the potential before I would. Among the starting pitchers I'd still choose over Sheets are Tim Hudson, John Danks, Clay Buchholz and Rick Porcello, just to name a few who didn't make my top 40. After that, however, once you have four or five starting pitchers on your team, sure, take a chance. After all, he does have the right home ballpark.