- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
In many cases, fantasy baseball owners come to their drafts armed with little more than the previous season's statistics. They try to make sense of it all and construct a team. However, doing that with nearly a third of Monday's American League starting pitchers wouldn't get you real far. Of the 10 pitchers slated to start, three of them missed the entire 2009 season, which is unique, considering it's Opening Day. However, it seems to me that expectations in the fantasy baseball world are different for them.
First, let's put this situation in perspective: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there have been only three Opening Day starting pitchers over the past 50 years to miss the previous season: Carl Pavano, Scott Erickson and Alex Fernandez. That number should double today. I type should because something could befall Ben Sheets on the way to the ballpark.
I've tried to be optimistic about the Oakland Athletics right-hander, but I found it interesting that he was a 13th-round pick in one of my Sunday drafts -- yes, Sunday was a big day, as I drafted three teams -- while another one of those starters we haven't seen since 2008, Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Shaun Marcum, was sitting there for me to nab 10 rounds later, which I did. The third starter in this Monday class is Cleveland Indians ground-baller Jake Westbrook. He remains a free agent in that league.
We can't look at 2009 numbers for Sheets, Marcum and Westbrook, each slated to pitch Monday, because there are none. But here are a few of their numbers from 2008:
Sheets: 13-9, 3.09 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 7.2 K/9
Marcum: 9-7, 3.39 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 7.3 K/9
Westbrook: 1-2, 3.12 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 4.9 K/9
OK, in the case of Westbrook, the numbers are a bit misleading. He made only five starts in 2008. He also has never been a strikeout artist, nor someone we could count on for an excellent WHIP. From 2004-06, however, he did win 14, 15 and 15 games, respectively. I think he's safe to own in deeper formats, including AL-only leagues.
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My point in comparing Marcum to Sheets is that the former is underrated, while the popularity of the latter is, well, something I just fail to understand. We cannot overlook the terrible spring Sheets just had, one that included a start in which he allowed 10 runs and didn't retire any hitters. Even as recently as last week he was still giving up way too many hits. He's 31 and has never really been a fantasy ace; his career ERA is 3.72, and there is extensive mileage on his right arm. He missed the 2009 season with a torn flexor tendon in his wrist, hardly a typical injury. He's not a bad one-season risk -- really, it's a half-season if he pitches well! -- for the Athletics, and he is ownable for fantasy owners who understand there are no guarantees.
But what about Marcum? He has thrown fewer than 400 major league innings, and he's coming off Tommy John surgery, which is a mere speed bump for most pitchers. While he has less of a track record than Sheets, I think his upside is just as enticing. Upon being made a full-time starter, Marcum has blossomed, with a career WHIP in 64 starts of 1.24, and an ERA on the good side of 4.00. There doesn't seem to be much separating Marcum and Sheets statistically.
I realize I'm in the minority here, but if you offered me Sheets or Marcum in a trade, I would take Marcum. Judging by ESPN average live draft results, where Sheets is a 23rd-round pick and owned in 73.9 percent of leagues, while Marcum is owned in 12.4 percent of leagues, it appears a lot of people would rather have Sheets. But with Marcum, you get better quality at a lesser asking price.
Hey, I hope things work out for Sheets, that he pitches well this season and the Athletics move him to a contender in July. But I have higher hopes for Marcum, and I believe that after his outing today, others will as well.
Eric Karabell discusses three AL Opening Day pitchers who missed all of 2009, settling on the one he likes best.