- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
SweetSpot editor/writer David Schoenfield and I taped a video the other day about players off to slow starts, and we discussed our level of concern for Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum, Vernon Wells and Kevin Youkilis, among others. It just so happens that in those cases, we didn't seem particularly worried about any of these veterans. For now, they seem healthy, and perhaps we just need to lower expectations some. The sample size is awfully small on their struggles. But certainly even one week into the season I can say there are some players fantasy owners should be watching closer than others.
Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, for example, is clearly not right. I watched him play in Philadelphia this week, and the lingering soreness in his left knee not only played the largest role in him sitting out Monday's game but seems to be affecting him at the plate, where he has one extra-base hit so far, and in the field, where he should be an above-average defender but dropped a fly ball Thursday. Stanton is hitting .240 with no walks; he seems jumpy at the plate, unable to drive the ball when he makes contact and certainly is less patient than normal. Last year Stanton earned 70 walks. However, if pitchers know he's hurting, they'll challenge him more. So far Stanton is seeing 3.2 pitches per plate appearance; last year he saw 3.96. It's not enough time to proclaim him as wild as Vladimir Guerrero, but still.
Stanton was a third-round pick on average in ESPN live drafts, so the news in Thursday's Palm Beach Post that there's apparently no end in sight to the knee pain is discouraging. "It's something that's obviously not going to get much better by playing every day," he said. "It's something that you have to kind of deal with, gauge the pain and deal with what you've got." Stanton missed much of spring training with the knee problem, which remains undiagnosed by doctors.
Well, that's all just awesome. Back in February I predicted Stanton would lead the National League in home runs. The ESPN Fantasy projection has him at 37 home runs, 101 RBIs and a .269 batting average. I'm not ready to abandon lofty expectations before tax day, but I have to admit if someone offered me Andrew McCutchen, whom I ranked about a half-round worse, I'd take it. I'd accept Texas Rangers infielders Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre, too. I wouldn't trade Stanton for Austin Jackson, though, or for David Freese and Barry Zito. Let's not get carried away. Another 30-home run season, even with never-ending knee pain, is reasonable, but be prepared for missed games, a lower-than-expected batting average and perhaps a DL stint.
Also from Thursday, I was able to see San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson struggle to his first save. It certainly wasn't of the attractive variety, as the bearded one -- at some point the facial hair has to be an impediment, no? -- loaded the bases at Coors Field on three hits (only one of them hit hard); induced a screaming line drive out by Todd Helton; walked the feared Tyler Colvin to force in a run; but retired Marco Scutaro to escape disaster. Wilson threw 32 pitches and after allowing a run Wednesday as well, I'd expect him to be deemed unavailable Friday and perhaps Saturday.
In addition, Wilson seemed to turn his ankle during the Colvin at-bat, necessitating a visit from manager Bruce Bochy and a follow-up warm-up pitch as well. Wilson's fastball velocity, in decline for years, fell under 90 mph after that. So, we've got the elbow, the ankle and velocity as concern here. Wilson's average fastball velocity was 96.5 in 2009, 95.7 in 2010, 94 last season and so far this season he's at 92.4. Similarly, the once-elite strikeout rate was merely very good in 2011. Relief pitchers have notoriously short shelf lives, and Wilson is 30 years old. I'd be concerned about him ever having a year like 2010 again. I think he can still compete and save plenty of games with numbers like last season, but I'd try to deal him now for a seemingly lesser closer (Javy Guerra, perhaps?) and a bat while name value is high.
There was interesting debate on Twitter immediately after Wilson saved Thursday's game about who would close if he were to miss time. Last season, six other Giants had saves; Santiago Casilla led the way with six, and I'd again call him next in line. Yes, Sergio Romo had better numbers, fanning 70 hitters against only five walks. As colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft noted Thursday in "Relief Efforts," I agree Casilla would be the proper handcuff.
Put simply, it is reasonable to expect Stanton and Wilson, among many others hurting, to remain productive for fantasy owners, but in a game that's often about value, reacting before a small problem becomes larger is often wise. Just when it looked like Michael Morse was a day away from returning to the Washington Nationals' lineup, his situation changed and it will be 4-6 weeks. Others with big names who I'll be watching closely over the next few weeks to see if perhaps expectations are just a bit too generous include Alex Rodriguez, Lance Berkman and Josh Beckett. But hey, it's early!
Have a great weekend, everyone!