- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
I suppose to some fantasy baseball owners it doesn't really matter which team right-hander Roy Oswalt ends up with. There was a SportsNation poll on ESPN.com on Monday that listed the top options as being the St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers. Any or all of those teams could be postseason-bound, possessing strong offenses, so run support wouldn't be an issue. Perhaps another team will enter the fray. Regardless, Oswalt is an established veteran and, assuming some degree of health, seems to be a nice sleeper for the 2012 season.
Of course, that didn't matter at the recent ESPN Fantasy Baseball Summit meetings, when I felt alone on an island reminding the crew that Oswalt was the No. 20 starting pitcher in ESPN average live drafts a year ago. Let's just say he won't be in nearly as much demand this season, if he's chosen at all. Oswalt isn't likely to make our top 50 starting pitchers. A year ago, he was 33, coming off a season with a 2.76 ERA, 1.025 WHIP and 193 strikeouts in 211 2/3 innings, an ace among aces in that Philly rotation. Now he's 34 and coming off a season with numbers considerably worse and a back problem, and potentially still looking for a job in February. Ah, how soon they forget.
I can't tell you Oswalt definitively will make 30 starts for whatever team he settles on for what figures to be a short-term contract. I can't tell you his ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate will bounce back to pre-2011 rates. However, I think he's certainly worth the risk in real life on a one-year deal as a No. 3 or 4 starter, and, for fantasy leaguers in standard (10-team) formats, I'd draft him among the top 50 starting pitchers. Then again, I might draft just one starting pitcher in the first 10 or 12 rounds, so he'd be the type of guy I'd be looking for in the second half of a draft. To me, Oswalt represents a good risk; from top 20 starting pitcher on draft day to potentially undrafted seems a bit crazy, even for a guy with a back injury. The skills are still there, and he's a proven commodity, and, unless something odd occurs, he'll be with a good team, which only helps his value.
Oswalt should sign soon, but my angle on his pending deal for his own purposes isn't likely to need adjustment. To me, it's the Lance Berkman argument from a year ago; Oswalt isn't too old to matter -- and matter quite a bit. Don't project wins, but look for good innings. Oswalt finished tied with Clayton Kershaw for 14th in FanGraphs WAR among starting pitchers in 2010. I don't give up on players this soon unless their situations drastically change. Oswalt could be healthy, you know.
I think what's more interesting is the team that makes the move for Oswalt because it's going to push someone on the fantasy radar out the door. Consider the Rangers, for example. Now that Yu Darvish is aboard, the team would have six viable starters in Oswalt,
former closer Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, Darvish and Matt Harrison. Although the team seems to be committed to giving Feliz a chance as a starter, there's always the possibility he could be sent back to the bullpen, where former awesome Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan is the new guy and Mike Adams is the wise handcuff. Well, that would affect fantasy! More than likely, the team would put Harrison in the bullpen, stunting a good young starter's growth.
The Cardinals would push Jake Westbrook or perhaps Kyle Lohse to the bullpen. Lohse is no star, but he led the World Series champions in wins and ERA in 2011. That's right, it wasn't Chris Carpenter or Jaime Garcia. There's value there. The Tigers likely would demote top prospect Jacob Turner, a 6-foot-5 fireballer I like more than Rick Porcello statistically, to make room for Oswalt. Dynasty leaguers wouldn't be pleased.
And then there are the Red Sox, a team seemingly desperate for Oswalt or Edwin Jackson. I mean, after Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, I don't see many guarantees. Is Beckett even a guarantee? A year ago, the Boston rotation would have been viewed as a strength for perhaps the best team in baseball. For five months, the Red Sox were riding high, then everything fell apart in September. Consider how fantasy owners view this rotation these days; Lester will come at a discount in relation to 2011 drafts, likely out of the top 10 among starting pitchers. Beckett bounced back with a big season, posting a 2.89 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and major strikeout rate, but naysayers will point to his September slide (5.48 ERA, 1.348 WHIP) and how similar it looks to his 2010 season (5.78 ERA). Beckett isn't likely to be among the top 25 starting pitchers in your draft. Had he simply missed September, I would argue that he might have made it. He's only 31 years old, after all.
In 2010, right-hander Clay Buchholz won 17 of his 28 starts -- love that Boston offense! -- and posted a 2.33 ERA, but everyone and his/her mailman labeled him likely to regress some because of low hit and home run rates and a .265 BABIP. We didn't know a back injury would hold him to 14 starts. Back problems are scary. Sure, Oswalt has them, as well, and I'd take Buchholz over Oswalt in a draft, but will either of these fellows make 30 starts? One would think the Red Sox, with one or two sure things plus Buchholz and relievers Alfredo Aceves and Daniel Bard rounding out the current rotation, would be desperate for depth. Tim Wakefield isn't even on the team! I'm not trusting lefty Andrew Miller or prospect Stolmy Pimentel, either.
For now, I wouldn't consider Aceves or Bard a worthy selection in a 10- or 12-team draft. I think both should end up in the bullpen. Bard last started a game in 2007, while in Class A ball. Lester falls in the 10-12 range for me -- I think he will bounce back strong -- and Beckett around No. 30, and, when it comes to Buchholz, I find myself thinking he's better off being some other team's problem. Of course, if I can get him in the 20th round or so, I'd go that route. Don't be surprised if 60 other starting pitchers go before him in your drafts. The point is, think about how much changed in the past season with Buchholz and Oswalt. I'm guessing many fantasy owners want to trust 27-year-old Buchholz again and will forget about Oswalt. That would be a bad move.