After three seasons of not being very relevant in fantasy baseball, is Kevin Millwood ready to make an impact once again in deeper leagues?
Actually, forget about the deeper leagues. Millwood's ownership in ESPN.com standard leagues has jumped almost 35 percent this week, as he's now owned in 55 percent of them. When you start off with a 1.17 ERA and 0.78 WHIP in your first three outings of the season, that's likely to happen.
However, it's hard to see his beginning to the season as anything other than a statistical anomaly that likely will correct itself very soon.
When I see a pitcher who has taken a big leap over his recent numbers, the first thing I examine is what, if anything, is different about the way he's pitching. The answer with Millwood is nothing.
Judging from both spring training and his early starts, Millwood's repertoire is almost the same this season, throwing primarily a fastball-slider-curve mix with the occasional changeup thrown in as a "show me" pitch to lefties. The movement on his pitches is roughly the same, and his velocity is roughly the same. There's nothing from a scouting perspective to indicate a marked improvement in performance. Millwood has battled hamstring injuries during the past two seasons, so we can give him a little credit for being healthy, but even when he wasn't battling hammy woes, his numbers weren't great.
Furthering the "statistical anomaly" theory is that although we're talking about an extremely small sample size, the fact that Millwood has a .204 batting average on balls in play thus far indicates a lot of luck in his first three starts. That luck will correct itself very hard in the other direction eventually. Millwood's career mark is a fairly standard .307, and he has had only one season better than the .280 mark (way back in 1999). Granting that his ERAs that were worse than 5.00 the past couple of seasons were partially due to some poor luck, I expect him to finish with an ERA in the high 4s, and trying to ride early April hot streaks is a dicey proposition.
Another knock against Millwood is that his strikeout rate thus far is at a career low of less than 5.5 batters per nine innings, so it's not as if more dominant pitching is driving his good outings.
The bottom line is that this performance is not a return to the Millwood of 2005, when he posted a 2.86 ERA in 30 starts for the Indians. I realize the numbers for his first three starts of the season are exciting, but there's no way he should be owned in 55 percent of ESPN.com leagues, and I'm not even sure I trust him to start for me in deep AL-only leagues. He's a bit too flammable for me, and I'd rather have a solid strikeout-per-inning middle reliever than start Millwood. He's fantasy fool's gold, and I think ultimately he'll do more harm than good.
Scanning through the free-agent lists of multiple AL- and NL-only leagues, here are some of the names available this week:
Derek Holland, P, Rangers: When I wrote about Holland as part of my top 100 fantasy prospects at the beginning of spring, I said the following: "If it seems as though the lefty Holland came out of nowhere as a top pitching prospect, well, it's because he kind of has. Holland barely hit 90 mph on the gun when he was drafted in 2006. His fastball now sits in the mid-90s and reaches up to 97 at times. Holland also has an above-average changeup to complement the fastball and give right-handers fits. His command is advanced enough that even though teammate Neftali Feliz has the higher long-term ceiling, Holland could make a more immediate impact in 2009 if given a shot in the Rangers' rotation. The back end of the Rangers' starting staff could be a train wreck again this season, so given the pitchers ahead of him, that shot could come sooner rather than later."
Indeed, the shot has come sooner, as Holland was called up this weekend to help out a beleaguered bullpen. For now, we won't see Holland in the rotation, but that also will happen sometime in the short term. The team is choosing to break him in to the big leagues in relief and get his feet wet before asking him to take the ball every fifth day. For that reason, he's not a consideration in mixed leagues just yet unless you have a spot on your reserve list to stash him away. However, his upside demands a healthy free-agent bid or use of a high-waiver spot in AL-only formats.
Brian Tallet, SP, Blue Jays: Most deep AL-only leagues are dealing with a shortage of available starting pitching at the moment. (Even Aaron Laffey, a prime pickup candidate, is already gone in all of the leagues I have looked at.) That's generally always the case, but it seems more so than usual this season, which makes players like Tallet viable pickup options. Tallet can hold his own and likely will stick in the rotation for a bit. Although he's not likely to pitch too deep into games, he's less likely to get lit up than some of the other pitchers on the waiver wire.
Chris Jakubauskas, SP, Mariners: A position player in college, Jakubauskas converted to pitching in independent ball after he went undrafted and spent four years there before being discovered by the Mariners. He posted a 1.88 ERA in 19 games across three levels last year and was arguably the most impressive pitcher in spring training. He can dial a fastball up to 93 mph when he needs to, though he gets good movement in the low-90s, his curve has good depth, and he showed an improved changeup this spring. He's worth a look in deep AL-only formats.
Shane Loux, SP, Angels: Remember what I said in the Tallet comment about how he's unlikely to get lit up? Unfortunately, that likely will happen to Loux, whose raw stuff just isn't quite good enough for sustained success as a big league starter. He won't miss enough bats to stay reasonably effective.
Rob Johnson, C, Mariners: Now the starting catcher because Kenji Johjima is out with an injury, Johnson, 25, started to hit upper-level breaking balls better last season, though he still profiles as more of a defensive catcher. His line-drive swing should be able to produce a serviceable batting average, which is really all you can hope for out of your No. 2 catcher in single-league formats sometimes.
Nick Green, SS, Red Sox: Julio Lugo is already playing in games at extended spring training and isn't far from returning, so if you're considering picking up Green, realize that his stint as the starting shortstop may last only another week.
Justin Maxwell, OF, Nationals: Maxwell has a ton of athletic ability and the ability to hit for power and steal bases, but he has had problems staying healthy. Last year, a wrist injury cost him most of the season. He'll back up Elijah Dukes in center field and likely won't play much, and there are questions as to whether he can make enough contact at the big league level, but he'll present modest upside potential if he gets some at-bats. You could do worse in filling an empty roster slot.
P.J. Walters, SP, Cardinals: A 2006 draft pick, Walters' off-speed pitch and deception will help him get strikeouts -- he has fanned almost a batter per inning in the minors and struck out seven in his major league debut. Given that base of skills, if he can show improved command as he settles into the big leagues, he could be a sleeper.
Joe Thurston, UT, Cardinals: Thurston is eligible at second, third and the outfield in many leagues, is getting a start every few days, and has shown the ability to at least hit for average in the minors. His versatility might be useful in very deep NL-only leagues, if you're short position players.
Wellemeyer or Millwood
In contrast to Millwood, a pitcher I think has been overlooked a bit (and quite frankly, not without reason), has been the Cardinals' Todd Wellemeyer, owned in less than 5 percent of ESPN leagues as of this writing. That's somewhat surprising considering he posted a 3.71 ERA and 1.25 WHIP last season, winning 13 games.