Fantasy Baseball: Drafting Injury Risks, Pitchers Edition

Collin HagerSenior Writer IMarch 12, 2010

PHOENIX - APRIL 06:  Starting pitcher Brandon Webb #17 of the Arizona Diamondbacks pitches against the Colorado Rockies during the MLB openning day game at Chase Field on April 6, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Diamondbacks defeated the Rockies 9-8.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Certain players seem to both attract and then disgust fantasy owners.

Each season there are several pitchers that we as managers cannot help but select for our teams.

Two months later, that same pitcher is done for the season, our league-mates are making fun of us because they knew it was going to happen, and finding a replacement for a player of that caliber becomes an impossibility.

Injury risks are a part of baseball, but there are some that can be avoided entirely through the draft. Others are worth the pain they may cause based on the value where they were selected.

Here are five pitchers that have a history of issues and some reasons when and when not to pick them up in your league.

Rich Harden, SP, Rangers

It is always more fun to begin with those that cause the most trouble. Harden has had all the potential in the world for what has seemed like the better part of a decade. When he took the mound for Oakland, he was considered the next great link to the trio of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito. Unfortunately, promise is all he has had to show for it.

Trusting a pitcher that has only surpassed 30 starts in a season once since 2004 is not exactly an easy decision. In one sense, his arm is fresh, and Harden has thrown near 150 innings in each of the last two years. The other side of the fence is drafting him and watching Harden toil away on the bench as more problems erupt.

Playing in Texas, though, is another red flag. Just as Oakland will help Sheets, Texas could hurt Harden. Pitchers there have done much better on the road than at home because of the offensive surges seen in Arlington.

This is a case where owners should expect nothing and be thrilled when they get a return. At pick 218, where Harden is going, the risk is minimal so long as you are not looking to use him as a top-three starter.

With that as a backdrop, expecting him to perform as a fifth starter seems reasonable. He has warning signs everywhere, and that will force many owners away from him early. If he were to fall to Round 18 in a 12-team league, the gamble makes sense.

Johan Santana, SP, Mets

To say that this is probably the most intriguing name on the list is an understatement. Santana was considered by some to be a borderline First Round selection in 2009. Now, we are seeing him selected near pick 45.

The question remains as to if this is still good value for a pitcher that has some serious continued risk. Santana's elbow issues were enough of a concern just a few years ago to push teams away from trading for him. That came to a head last season when he spent the final third of the season or so away from the mound.

The wear and tear on his arm would also raise an eyebrow. With the exception of the injury-shortened campaign last year, Santana had thrown more than 219 innings in five straight seasons.

A horse, yes, but it is worth noting that batters have improved their average by 55 points since 2004 when facing him. The number has climbed each season, as has his BABIP. At the same time, his WHIP has climbed from sub-1.00 to 1.21.

Are any of these numbers poor? No. They still show a pitcher that is near the top of his game. They do, though, show a pitcher that hitters may be figuring out more and that may not be as sharp or dominant as some think.

Near the 45th pick, an owner may still be spending a Fourth or Fifth Round selection to draft Santana. Given that pitchers such as Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee, and Felix Hernandez are all being selected in the same general area, there would appear to be less reason to go with a more risky option.

Given the choice, at a pick this high, he would not be on a draft sheet for my team until he fell out of Round Seven.

Francisco Liriano, SP, Twins

Talk about a guy that is fast becoming a draft darling again based on his Winter League performances. Liriano has shown flashes of the velocity that he had just a few short years ago that made him the hot pickup of the season.

Injuries have derailed him, and the question now becomes whether or not he is worth selecting. Where he is going near pick 234 in current drafts, the reward outweighs the risk.

Liriano's historical performance may not necessarily be out of reach for him. He posted a 3-1 record with a 0.49 ERA in seven starts for Escogido this winter through the playoffs. Even his first spring outing against Boston was positive.

While he threw a fair number of sliders early in the first inning, his fastball location was much improved over last season. Liriano feels that he is much healthier, and the dead-arm syndrome from the end of last season is past.

With the only competition for the final rotation spot being Glen Perkins and his own health, Liriano should feel confident in his ability to make an impact on the mound as a starter.

In a 12-team format, an owner would likely be looking to use a pick somewhere around the 17th-20th Rounds. At that level, he is certainly worth the gamble, and he could be justified as early as Round 15 based on his spring progression.

Even if he falters, an owner will be able to make up the stats with a waiver-wire selection.

Ben Sheets, SP, A's

Once a highly touted prospect with an unlimited ceiling, the career of Sheets has fallen on hard times. He missed all of last season after requiring surgery on his throwing arm and seems to miss starts each season with various ailments. Still, there is little denying that he has talent and the ability to pitch very well.

The decision to throw in Oakland should only help his value this season. This park is a pitcher's paradise. The big outfield and large amounts of foul territory will help him record outs while using fewer pitches. In the same way it killed Matt Holliday's value as a hitter last season, it will boost Sheets' in 2010. It is a factor that should not go overlooked.

Add to that how Sheets' career has taken a similar path to another oft-injured pitcher, Chris Carpenter. With Carpenter, we started to hear buzz over the course of spring training that the Cardinals thought he was throwing the ball well and he would be better than advertised. Listen for the same type of words coming out of Oakland. With a solid spring, he would be a steal in the final rounds of your draft.

With an ADP hovering near 220, Sheets is worth the gamble at his current going rate. Yes, injury risk is there, but there are mitigating factors in this case that yield a greater chance for upside. He is another pitcher that should be looked at in the final third of a draft to round out a rotation.

Brandon Webb, SP, Diamondbacks

Oh how the mighty have fallen! The 2009 version of Webb was case in point why owners should not draft pitching early. Between Webb and Jake Peavy, nothing about the early starters went very well. Now, Webb is being selected in the 12th Round of 12-team leagues and 14th round of 10-team formats at pick 136.

His rehab has gone...okay. Webb reported feeling stagnant after his last session and is hoping to get in to face live hitters that will help up his intensity. The Diamondbacks are doing what they can to keep him reeled in so there is no recurrence of the injury.

There are plenty of land mines to step on when considering drafting Webb, and this is just one of them. Arizona has yet to set a timetable for his spring training debut, as they still hope to get him to throw live batting practice.

While the target for his first start is still April 7, the team's third game, GM Josh Byrnes is not ruling out that he could still begin the season on the DL. He has not pitched in a year and is certainly working off rust.

Arizona is usually conservative with injured players in the spring, often willing to hold pitchers off to make sure they get it right, as were the cases with Max Scherzer and Randy Johnson in the past.

Owners looking at Webb need to scale expectations back from him getting 30 starts. Even if healthy, Arizona likely will look to give him extra days off where possible to keep him healthy over the full season.

Webb's selection makes him a No. 2 or 3 starter in a fantasy rotation. Some teams may be looking at him as the first pitcher they take. With 20 to 25 starts likely, he should be viewed skeptically.

If he falls into your lap as a No. 3 or 4 starter perhaps two to three rounds later, his selection is worth the gamble. Taking him at his current ADP means you should have full confidence in his getting a complete season. Until we know more about Arizona's plans, that just is not in the cards. That is not the time to swing and miss in your draft.

Collin Hager is a featured Fantasy Baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. He regularly contributes to and maintains The Elmhurst Pub fantasy baseball blog. You can follow Collin on Twitter @CWHager.


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