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Oswalt a popular add, but should he be?

5/30/2012

Perhaps it's just me, but when I look at right-hander Roy Oswalt, who agreed to terms with the Texas Rangers on Tuesday, I don't see a fantasy (or real-life ) savior. I see an experienced starting pitcher who can provide some decent innings, but at 34 and coming off back problems, he's no lock to return to any semblance of his prior greatness. For those of you planning to rush to the free-agent wire in ESPN standard leagues (or who already have), I think some perspective is needed. Let's just say you shouldn't count on Oswalt to effectively replace current injured right-handers Jered Weaver or Roy Halladay.

Oswalt made 23 starts for the Philadelphia Phillies last season, and while they were certainly competent ones, this is no longer a fantasy ace or even a top-40 starting pitcher. It's one thing for Oswalt to be worth a midseason addition for the postseason-bound Rangers, though of all the teams reportedly in the market for him, they probably needed him the least. But in fantasy, is Oswalt even an upgrade on younger right-hander Neftali Feliz? We'll find out in about three weeks after Oswalt has pitched for Triple-A Round Rock a few times and then gets the call by the Rangers.

The point is this: Fantasy owners should not jettison a decent starting pitcher just because a newly signed guy with good career achievements has become available.

Feliz, the closer-turned-starter, is on the disabled list because of an elbow injury that appears to be a short-term issue. He now seems ticketed for long relief. That's fine for a playoff team that needs all the depth it can get, but Feliz had posted a 3.16 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, .187 batting average against and a strong strikeout rate of 7.8 whiffs per nine innings over 42 2/3 impressive innings. Oswalt didn't pitch nearly to that level in 2011, as he dealt with a back injury. Perhaps it's all healed now, but regarding Oswalt as a must-add for 10- or even 12-team fantasy leagues seems premature.

Feliz has now lost much of his value and can be safely dumped in shallow leagues, though it's worth pointing out that he could return to the rotation if someone gets hurt or is ineffective. For now, no such path exists. Feliz is owned in 65.9 percent of ESPN standard leagues, down from 85.4 percent a week ago. I agree this move by the Rangers is enough to send a signal to Feliz owners, and I feel other Texas hurlers Yu Darvish, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and even Matt Harrison, who has won consecutive starts, are safe.

Oswalt finished 85th among starting pitchers on the 2011 Player Rater. One might say that was accomplished despite injury and over a shortened campaign, to which I'd reply there's no guarantee of anything different this summer. There's just no way I'd cut a younger, more reliable but struggling starter such as Ian Kennedy, Mat Latos or Ervin Santana, or a talented youngster like Matt Moore, to acquire him. Those fellows still bring strikeout upside, have shown varying degrees of success in May, and were counted on in March drafts for a reason. None are owned in 100 percent of standard leagues.

The earliest we'll see Oswalt is likely mid-June. That gives him a bit more than half a season, perhaps as many as 18-20 starts, in theory. But he has had no spring training, so assuming a quick start from him is folly. Oswalt also has never pitched for an American League team. The Rangers clearly have depth, so at the first sign of trouble, Feliz, Scott Feldman (who is about to lose his rotation spot) or Alexi Ogando (who pitched well in the Rangers' rotation last season) could be summoned. The leash for the Angels' Santana, for example, is far greater. And while the other Rangers pitchers are thriving this season, with an AL-best 3.32 ERA (and that mark is even lower in their home games), that hardly means Oswalt will pitch like they have. He was on a staff of aces in 2011 and was ordinary, with his lowest strikeout rate, worst batting average against and highest WHIP of his career. Also, in eight starts at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Oswalt boasts a 4.78 ERA and 1.44 WHIP, though it's worth noting that it's still a relatively small sample size (52 2/3 innings) and he was facing Rangers hitters. Now he'll face Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics hitters.

One can't fault the Rangers for signing Oswalt; it's added depth for them, and the cost is merely financial. We'll find out in October if it was worth it. Plus, the Rangers kept him away from other contenders. It's worth noting, however, that last October Oswalt was handed a lead in Game 4 of the Phillies' first-round playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals and allowed five runs. His career postseason ERA is 3.73, his WHIP 1.34. Simply put, this is a guy trending the wrong way, His velocity was down last year, he didn't induce as many swinging strikes as normal, he might have gotten a bit lucky on his home run-to-fly ball rate, and he has gone to the wrong league and ballpark to mask his deficiencies. Sure, he's skilled and can probably fake it on some nights, but don't buy the name or career numbers.

Oswalt does not crack my top-60 starting pitchers. Among those starters owned in fewer than 75 percent of standard leagues, I'd still prefer to rely on Ryan Vogelsong, Ervin Santana, Andy Pettitte (yes, I know how old he is and how he did Tuesday night), Edwin Jackson, Gavin Floyd, Carlos Zambrano, Brandon McCarthy, Mark Buehrle and Matt Harrison. Oswalt is about to appear on ESPN's most-added list -- as of this writing, he's up 8.4 percent in standard-league ownership over the past week, to 16.9 percent overall -- but I'm not sure he should be.

He's owned in more leagues than Homer Bailey, A.J. Burnett, Jonathon Niese, Trevor Cahill, Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker. I certainly would consider dropping anyone from that group for Oswalt, but the fact that it's even a decision is notable, and I wouldn't do it today. For now I'm hoping Oswalt can make 18 starts, win half of them, keep his ERA around 3.75 and strike out seven hitters per nine innings. I just don't assume that's going to happen.