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Beware the Fantasy Guru

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Beware the Fantasy Guru
(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Of the major fantasy sports out there, the fastest growing is fantasy baseball. It's nearly caught up with fantasy football in total participants and on some servers has become the most popular game.

As the number of players rises, so too rises the demand for fantasy advice. As the need for advice rises, the number of self-proclaimed experts or gurus goes up proportionally.

The major problem with this situation, of course, is that baseball is incredibly complex, making it a lot easier to seem wise, but dispense really bad advice.

One of the major factors is that the baseball season is really long—longer than almost any other season (European football's August-to-May is longer in months, but with about one-tenth the number of games).

Six bad games from the wide receiver you thought was your best in fantasy football is season-altering; six bad games from your fantasy ace can make an owner sweat, but shouldn't be an automatic drop.

I don't claim to be a fantasy guru. While I would have won all of my leagues last year if Carl Crawford and Orlando Hudson had been healthy, in the end, I didn't.

What I do claim to be is a baseball guy, which is ultimately what wins leagues. So, with that caveat in mind, here are some guys the "experts" are staying away from that may be good buy low candidates. 

 

Justin Verlander (SP, Tigers)

Verlander killed owners in 2008. CBS had him ranked as the sixth best starter, ahead of horses like Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, and Roy Oswalt. He went 11-17 with an ERA of 4.84 and a WHIP of 1.40, giving him nowhere near the value owners had hoped for.

With that hesitancy in mind, Verlander fell to 43rd among starters, near Ryan Dempster and rookie Max Scherzer.

Verlander hasn't started off terribly well, logging just 21 innings in four starts with an ERA of exactly 9.00. Still he has 25 strikeouts and shut down a very potent Texas lineup over five innings, which shows that he has some value left.

Fantasy man AJ Mass at ESPN told chatters he wouldn't touch Verlander with a 10-foot pole right now, to which I'd say "Great! More for me!"

According to Dave Cameron of USS Mariner, FanGraphs, and the Wall Street Journal, Verlander is back to 2006 form.

Hyperbole aside, Cameron notes that Verlander's fastball is back up to 2006 levels after having taken a two MPH drop off the last two seasons. His BABIP is unbelievably high, now sitting at .412, which won't last.

Now is probably the best possible time to find out who drafted Verlander and make them an offer. He's a solid bounceback candidate, and I expect he'll do it sooner rather than later.

One last reason I like Verlander is the offensive support he's likely to get. The Tigers have scored the sixth most runs in baseball so far this year, which means even if Verlander isn't on his game, he may still net you a win.

Chasing wins is generally a bad idea in fantasy, but if you're looking for that one reason to keep Justin around, a win here and there may not be a bad one.

 

Francisco Liriano (SP, Twins)

Unlike Verlander, Liriano has almost no shot of returning to his 2006 form; Tommy John surgery doesn't usually lead to a K-rate greater than 13, sadly.

Across the board, experts are selling Liriano for 25 cents on the dollar. On the surface, this isn't a bad play. Liriano is 0-4, with one more start this month, his FIP is nearly five, and he's offered up 1.25 HR/9—not exactly compelling stuff.

Liriano isn't as sure a bet as Verlander is in my mind, but given what he's been getting traded for in deep leagues, he's worth the gamble, and here's why: April has been Liriano's worst month every year he's been in the baseball. 

It is true that he hasn't spent many Aprils with the Twins, but this was also the case in the minors every year since 2005. He improved almost exponentially in May each season, which ought to give owners an incentive to hang on for at least a few more weeks.

Like Verlander, Liriano's velocity on his fastball is on the rise, now nearly 92 MPH and still increasing. His change is making hitters look bad, much like Johan Santana's, when he spots it right, and his slider is still quite good, though he uses it less than he used to.

While walks and the occasional home run may be the price for owning Liriano, his home run rate will come back to earth, and he will start racking up the strikeouts.

Additionally, more than perhaps any Twins pitcher, Liriano will benefit from having Joe Mauer back. Mauer knows how to call a better game than either of the Twins catchers currently and knows how to settle Liriano down if he isn't getting an inside strike called, as he didn't against the White Sox.

Liriano may always be plagued by the big inning, but if Mauer can keep that number to two or three, instead of the four he gave up in Chicago, Liriano will pitch a solid number of innings with good production. Perhaps not at ace level yet, but certainly an asset to any team.

 

Aaron Hill (2B, Blue Jays)

The Blue Jays are straight up killing the ball right now.

They boast the third highest team batting average, second most home runs, second in OPS, and numero uno for runs scored; is it any wonder they sit atop the AL East?

No one has pegged the Jays to keep their perch, and Aaron Hill is going to follow them down.

Hill leads the Jays in BA, HR, RBI, and OPS, which begs the question: Is this a fluke, or did he get drafted an average of 150 places too low?

While he may keep this up a bit longer, now is probably as good a time as any to sell high on Aaron Hill. Before the end of the year, expect an 80 to 90-point drop-off in BA, maybe 10 to 15 more home runs, but probably no more than that, and with the drop-off in power, OPS will fall as well.

Two reasons I see Hill falling off pretty precipitously: the Jays' upcoming schedule and Hill's teeny walk rate.

To the first point, the Jays have played pretty weak competition so far this season—no AL East opponents and just one team with a winning record (Detroit to open the season; the Tigers sit just one game over .500).

As pitchers like Josh Beckett, CC Sabathia, Scott Kazmir, and Zach Greinke get multiple chances to face off against this lineup, their record will even out a bit, and Hill's numbers will regress at least a bit. He platoons better against lefties, but the Jays will certainly see some of baseball's tougher right-handed pitchers between now and the All-Star Break.

The second reason Hill will slip is his incredibly tiny walk rate. He's striking out nearly three times as often as he walks, the same rate as notorious hack Michael Cuddyer. His OBP is almost totally based on average, which pitchers will exploit as that weakness gets around to advanced scouts.

Hill is swinging at nearly 25 percent of all pitches out of the strike zone, which is above average, and well above his career rate of 19.9 percent.

As pitchers begin to hit their groove, Hill's free swinging ways will become a liability pretty quickly, and while his career numbers say that the drop-off will come in August and September, I wouldn't wait that long to get his maximum trade value.

At this point, if you have other good options at second, dealing Hill to fill a need is probably a good idea. If you don't have other solid options, I wouldn't move him.

Hill's a nice player, due for a good season, but not this good. You probably won't regret having him, but he has just one game without a hit so far this season, and that isn't going to continue much longer. He faces the best part of the Royals' rotation this week before beginning AL East play on May 1.

Hill isn't getting much publicity, which makes now the best time to sell. Even if your mark target trade partner keeps an eye on Rotoworld and ESPN Fantasy, you can still move Hill before the alarm bells go off around the Internet that his stock is sinking.

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