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Dodgers' Lilly an underappreciated asset

4/24/2013

It seems to me there has been quite a bit of inevitability with the Los Angeles Dodgers starting rotation this season. For example, it was inevitable that lefty Clayton Kershaw would pitch well and that right-hander Josh Beckett, I'm sorry to say, would not. It was inevitable that right-hander Chad Billingsley and his balky elbow wouldn't last long, and on Tuesday, it was announced he'll need Tommy John surgery. It was, of course, inevitable the team would think it had too much depth back in March and dump capable right-hander Aaron Harang, whom they now need. It was inevitable that stud Zack Greinke would be injured in a bench-clearing ... well, perhaps not that one.

And the final inevitability, the way I see it, is that many a fantasy owner would overlook one of the most underrated strikeout and WHIP helpers of the past half-decade in lefty Ted Lilly, scheduled to come off the disabled list and oppose awesome New York Mets right-hander Matt Harvey on ESPN on Wednesday night. Sure, Harvey is the obvious headliner here, as he leads all pitchers on the Player Rater, coming off an outing in which he outdueled Stephen Strasburg. Lilly's last outing was for High-A Rancho Cucamonga, and he gave up four runs (three earned) in five innings.

However, now that yet another Dodgers starter has been injured in lefty Chris Capuano (strained calf) -- I wouldn't call that inevitable, either -- the team really needs Lilly to step up, and I see opportunity for fantasy owners in deep leagues as well. He isn't a top-60 starting pitcher yet, so standard mixed league owners can pass for now, but Lilly has certainly been an option in those leagues in the recent past. Over the past three seasons Lilly boasts a 3.72 ERA and stellar 1.12 WHIP. Since 2007, when he moved from the American League to the easier NL, Lilly sports a 3.80 ERA and 1.14 WHIP, and that's in more than 1,000 innings. I think it's a strong baseline.

Even last season, when Lilly eventually succumbed to shoulder woes after eight outings, those were good outings with a 3.14 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. The strikeout rate was down, but Lilly persevered until he had to be shut down. The point is -- and obviously health is a factor for him and we can't know for sure if he can stay in the rotation the next five months -- Lilly hasn't been bad in a really long time. In 2011 he made 33 starts and won 12, and while the ERA (3.97) was league average and nothing special, the WHIP (1.15) was. Lilly just missed the top 20 in all of baseball for qualifiers in WHIP and he fanned 158 hitters in 192 2/3 innings.

OK, enough about the past. I expect Lilly to continue doing what he has been doing for years, which is to remain under the proverbial radar, but contribute usable statistics without fanfare. And wow, do the Dodgers need that. Lilly is readily available and, frankly, not the worst spot starter against the Mets, too. If Lilly can make 26 starts the rest of the season, I see an ERA on the good side of 4 and WHIP better than 1.20, with enough strikeouts to matter.

So who's left in the L.A. rotation? Well, Greinke's tale has been well chronicled (and by the way, fight perpetrator Carlos Quentin of the San Diego Padres came off his suspension Tuesday night), but he's still probably six weeks away from returning from the broken collarbone. Kershaw remains awesome, joining Justin Verlander as the top pitchers in fantasy. Sorry, Harvey isn't there yet. Bulky Korean lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu has delivered quality starts in three of four outings, with plenty of strikeouts but also hits allowed. I see an ERA around 3.75 and 175 strikeouts if he throws 200 innings, top-50 among starters. Beckett's stuff is just nowhere near what it used to be, and pitching at Dodger Stadium can't mask it. Only one of his four outings has brought good stats. He's owned in half of ESPN's leagues, but that's generous. Expect an ERA around 4.50 this year. Right-hander Stephen Fife started in place of Billingsley on Sunday, but it did not go well. That's hardly a surprise. Fife is not a good prospect, doesn't throw hard and his minor league numbers weren't promising.

As a result, fantasy owners in deep leagues should keep an eye on the team's top pitching prospects, right-handers Zach Lee and Matt Magill. Lee is only 21, and his name was bandied about last July at trade deadline time, but the team wisely held onto him. He's at Double-A Chattanooga and off to a good start, with a 1.17 ERA in 23 innings (four starts), but as colleague Keith Law noted Tuesday, he's a bit of an unfinished product. Magill is getting many strikeouts but also piling on the walks at Triple-A Albuquerque, but hurling at pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium would be a lot different from the Pacific Coast League. Magill likely gets the call sooner.

I'd think about adding Magill and Lee in NL-only formats soon, because for an organization spending like it should win this season, I see promotions for them. It doesn't mean they'll thrive, but you'll want to find out. Also, Capuano shouldn't be out more than a month, and he was underrated last season, with 162 strikeouts and a solid 1.20 WHIP in 33 outings. He actually finished as fantasy's No. 38 starting pitcher, so he's worth stashing. The team has shockingly little else that is big league ready at Albuquerque; former closer Javy Guerra is starting there, and has totaled 10 2/3 innings over three starts. Former Seattle Mariners setup man Sean White is also in the rotation, walking everyone. Put simply, the Dodgers might have to make a trade. Hmmm, wonder if Harang is available?