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04/18/2007 1:12 PM ET
Breaking up is hard to do
Some young arms are worth holding onto

 Ask Rotoman
 Peter Kreutzer


 Royals righty Zack Greinke has a 3.95 ERA and a 13/4 K/BB ratio in 13 2/3 innings over his first three starts. (AP)
Question 1: CHOOSE

Rotoman:

Should I consider dropping Zack Greinke or Adam Wainwright?

My alternatives are Tom Gorzelanny, Randy Wolf, Brett Tomko and Matt Belisle, and I play in a mixed roto league with 13 teams.

"Dump Young Starters?"

Hey DYS:

I went into this season very high on Greinke and Wainwright. Both are talented young pitchers who have scored high not only with scouts but also by the numbers. And when you watch them pitch, even when things aren't going well, it's hard not to notice their potential.

This week, things haven't gone well for the two of them.

In his third start of the year, Greinke gave up four earned runs and didn't last an inning against the Tigers, throwing 49 pitches while getting just two outs. Even so, the disaster raised his ERA on the season to just 3.95, a number most of us would be happy with for the whole year.

Wainwright lasted six innings in his third start, but he was batted around by the woeful Pirates (only four Major League teams have scored fewer runs than the Bucs). The good news is that even after the tough outing, his ERA is a splendid 3.20, but there is a warning sign: His WHIP is an alarming 1.52.

I'm saying right up front that I'm sticking with these two guys. I bought them early and cheap, but there are good reasons to like them anyway.

Greinke's fiasco came less than a week after his grandparents died on successive days, a period when his regular schedule was disturbed by the weather, too. His coach says he threw too many curves to the Tigers, while Greinke says he just didn't execute (he also gave credit to some good hitting). For a guy with past emotional issues and limited experience -- as well as the sort of not-dominating stuff that forces him to rely on sharpness and surprise to get over -- the occasional pasting shouldn't be a surprise.

There is a bigger hurdle to get over with Wainwright. As a top prospect the past few years, he never really shined as a starter in the Minor Leagues. He was markedly more successful last year in relief than he'd ever been in the rotation, walking fewer hitters while striking out more. There's no guarantee that success will translate to the rotation this year, as he's walking more and striking out fewer so far. In fact, one of the reasons I liked him this year is because of the chance he'd return to closing if Jason Isringhausen were no longer able to do the job. Wainwright is very unproven as a starter.

The bottom line here is that these are pitchers with a good chance to succeed, but there's a good chance this won't be the year for one or both of them, so it does make sense to look for an upgrade.

Of those you mention, Gorzelanny and Belisle are similar to Greinke and Wainwright in terms of inexperience. Belisle is a cut below talent-wise. Is there a reason to change to Gorzelanny? No, but he's similar enough that there's no reason not to change if you have a hunch (or a fear).

Brett Tomko's history suggests that he shouldn't be viewed as anything more than a mid-rotation innings guy you hope picks up some wins and doesn't hurt your ERA and WHIP.

Which brings us to Randy Wolf, who is coming back from Tommy John surgery and has moved to the Dodgers, whose ballpark is famous for helping pitchers better their stats. Wolf had a great season in 2002, followed by a fair one the next year. Since then, it's been a battle for him to stay healthy. So far, he's pitched effectively, though he's still suffering from the gopheritis he had last year, which is why his ERA is worse than Greinke's and Wainwright's.

Because of his experience and apparent health, Wolf is probably the safest choice at this point, the least likely to implode. I wouldn't dump either Greinke or Wainwright (or Gorzelanny) for him right now, but I would understand you doing it.

Choosily,
Rotoman

Question 2: EVALUATE

Hi:

Should I add Daniel Cabrera in my keeper league, and if so, who should I drop? My starters are Scott Olsen, Javier Vazquez, Barry Zito, Chuck James and Kevin Millwood.

"Donde Esta Mi Cabrera?"

Dear Donde:

Cabrera, like Greinke, Wainwright and Gorzelanny, is a young pitcher with a brief Major League history. A chorus of scouts at one time or another thought he had the potential to be "a good one." On your list, actually, Scott Olsen and Chuck James also qualify as members of this group.

The questions with these pitchers and their like are: Are they ready to perform at the Major League level? And will they be able to make the adjustments necessary after big-league hitters figure out what they're doing?

The problem for Cabrera since his Major League debut in 2004 has been his ability to throw strikes. He's a big guy (6-foot-7) and throws 100-plus mph, just not in the strike zone often enough. His walk rates from 2004-06 were 0.60, 0.54 and 0.70 per inning. Keep in mind that a rate of 0.50 is considered unacceptable, while 0.30 or better is good.

Big guys often have problems maintaining their mechanics, especially those who relied so much on their raw heat to get batters out while they were coming up. They've done things wrong for so long that they can be difficult to fix. No doubt, we've all heard the story about Randy Johnson and his Major League struggles, which he vanquished one day when Nolan Ryan suggested that he simply throw the ball a little less hard and for strikes. Thus, the Big Unit was born.

Given Cabrera's erratic Spring Training, I think it's a bit premature to think he's solved the problem. Three games isn't nearly enough to evaluate a pitcher's performance, especially when the weather is cold and schedules have been disrupted by the snow and rain. Olsen and James are more polished than Cabrera, and the veterans are too experienced to dump for this wild man.

Cabrera may one day be one of the most dominant pitchers in the game, and given his performances thus far, it's possible that one day will come this year, but I wouldn't count on it just yet.

Negatively,
Rotoman

Question 3: THE BIG ONE

Dear Rotoman:

I'm thinking of dropping A.J. Burnett because every year I think he might put it together but get burned by an injury or inconsistency, and I'm not prepared to deal with it much longer. The best available options on my free-agent list are Matt Belisle, Greg Maddux, Jason Jennings, Micah Owings and Joakim Soria if I go with relief. Do any of them sound good to pick up to replace Burnett, or should I just bite the bullet and hold onto him a little longer?

"No Confidence Man"

Dear No Man:

The problem at this time of year when it comes to evaluating players is that we know too much. We spend the winter poring through magazines and books, slicing and dicing in our spreadsheets, comparing each player to all those who have come before him, and we come to a conclusion about his value this year. And then we see three starts that don't confirm our expectations, and we're willing to throw all the work away.

I decided in the preseason that Burnett would be worth $14 of my $260 budget in an AL-only 4x4 league. In 5x5, he might be worth a buck more. If he could only stay healthy, he'd be worth a few bucks more, which is why I'd have liked to get him at $14. In LABR, he went for $17, and in Tout Wars, he went for $14. He was kept in the AL-only league I play in at $15.

So, I have to assume you paid something similar, scaled to your mixed-league values. In Tout Wars mixed, that would be $8. Not a lot, but a genuine commitment. And now, after three starts, he's got an ERA of 7.07, and you're thinking of swapping him for a journeyman, a youngster or a purported Royals closer.

Burnett's injury history is too extensive to trust him entirely, but the bottom line here is that you have to protect yourself early in the season against making unfounded conclusions based on very small amounts of information. At this point last year, the qualifying pitchers with an ERA of 6.00 or above included Andy Pettitte, Jeremy Bonderman, Brad Radke, Jeff Francis, Barry Zito, Freddy Garcia and Tim Hudson.

Equally important to consider is the list of guys with an ERA under 2.00: Roy Oswalt, Dontrelle Willis, Curt Schilling, Brad Penny, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Josh Beckett, Jose Contreras and John Thomson. How well they started didn't guarantee they'd finish the same way.

As for A.J. Burnett, who cost $14 in AL roto leagues last year, his first start came April 15, and it was followed six days later with another. Both were losses. A trip to the disabled list with elbow soreness kept him out for 73 days, and after his return he pitched very well.

I'd stick with him.

Until next time,
Rotoman

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