OpinionJuly 6, 2007

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Steal Low: Chris Carpenter

By Matthew St-Germain

This Tuesday was Chris Carpenter’s first real game appearance since he underwent surgery in early May to correct a bone spur problem in his pitching elbow. The results on paper were disastrous as he gave up five runs (three earned) on five hits in 1.1 innings for the Palm Beach Cardinals. This couldn’t be better news for the savvy fantasy owner looking to not only win his or her league, but to completely embarrass their opponents in the process. Carpenter reported no ill-effects after the start and sounded downright chipper to keep rolling. Barring reports that he tears his arm off in the coming days or smokes everyone in site during Sunday’s start, you now have a small window to exploit this start and attempt to steal Carpenter on the cheap.

Why the optimism after such an abysmal outing? First, Carpenter is back much earlier than originally expected and is already starting. Despite the small setback from his bullpen session last week, he’s progressing on his recovery well ahead of expectations. This is a great sign that he’s past the bone spurs. He’ll likely pitch another two games before joining the major league rotation which puts his ETA in St. Louis nearly one and a half months ahead of schedule. Please keep in mind what he did the past few seasons. That skill set is still very much alive and lying dormant. It is the same skill set that won him the NL Cy Young in 2005 and led the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series last season, and made him likely the second or third pitcher drafted in your league. Just for a nail in the head, he had 184 K’s in 221.2 innings with an ERA of 3.09 and a WHIP of 1.07 last year. That WHIP is especially valuable at 221.2 innings. He’s a veritable gold mine in leagues with a post-season, and the news that he could be back by mid to late July should make those in roto-leagues stuff their “too little, too late” arguments where the sun don’t shine.

Secondly is the nature of the injury and surgery performed. This isn’t ligament, muscle, or tendon damage and then surgical repair followed by rehabilitation. Bone spurs are the issue. A bone spur is in essence extra bone build-up along the regular bone which is putting pressure on other areas causing pain. It’s not so much an ‘injury’ but more of a ‘condition’, meaning there isn’t really any damage and thus long rehabilitation with the fear of set-backs. The surgery performed on Carpenter scoped some off the extra bone off of his elbow alleviating the pressure and pain he was experiencing. Doctors ruled the surgery a success and no damage was found. What holds true in the NBA (think Richard Jefferson down the stretch last season) also holds true in MLB. This type of injury is much easier to come back from (batters can come back in two to four weeks) and in fact, it portends a breakout to pre-’injury’ numbers, whenever that occurred. That he could conceivably come back stronger from this injury should give you pause when considering his skill set (elite).

Thirdly, and most importantly for when he will come back in the season, is less wear and tear due to not working a full year of starts. This has been a issue for him as evidenced by his past two Septembers where after pitching nearly 210 innings, he simply sagged, and became much more hittable. To call Carpenter anything short of a workhorse over the last two seasons would be a disservice. Put simply, he’ll have tons of gas when he gets back and will have lots to prove, as the Cardinals are the defending World Series champions, are 8.5 games behind the NL leading Brewers, and look desperately in need of their ace back. Little things like this are sometimes all that struggling teams need to start firing at all cylinders, let alone defending World Series champions. Even if St. Louis falls out of the race, it’s not likely he’d be shut down just because of the team’s record. Something physically disastrous would have to occur to Carpenter in order for the team to shut him down as they wouldn’t want to mess with his already diminished workload for the year. Due to the nature of his injury and his current pace of recovery, this is highly unlikely.

Lastly would be the positives in the actual game itself. First, let’s attempt to negate the bad numbers. Both innings started off with a fielding error by shortstop Dan Nelson, and he looked to be giving up lots of singles on line drives, due to what I can only assume as him not being allowed to throw all his pitches and batters laying off anything low (i.e. – they had a good idea of what was coming, lots of low fastballs). He struck out two batters in the 1.1 innings and of the two outs he got, both were on the ground. So his ground stuff was working, but it was evident they were waiting on any fastballs left up as four of the five hits were line drives, all coming in the second inning. My guess? His sinking fastball was likely working, and he was attempting to work the lower part of the zone. However, he was limited in the types of pitches he could throw, most likely limiting his strike-out stuff. To compensate he probably tried to get guys with low fastballs and because the batters could eliminate certain pitches to look for, it was easier for them to rap singles out. The fact of the matter is that he kept the ball down with likely limited strikeout/deception stuff. While this is all based on conjecture, look at it as possibly a good sign rather than a setback.

Also consider that his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .500 for the two innings he pitched, despite the very small sample size. It was .000 in the first inning, and .666 in the second. Most pitchers have a BABIP around .290. This is beyond being simply unlucky and into the realm of foreknowledge of pitcher limitations by the other team. The batters had caught onto something, and that most likely was a limited amount of pitches to use. Despite the level, these are still excellent hitters with great coaching staffs, and like in the wild, you go after the weakest link. Single-A baseball isn’t any different than the big show. Chalk this one up to feasting on a limited pitcher just back from injury, rather than signs of disaster.

Those two strikeouts in the first inning can’t be ignored if we are to assume he was limited in what he could use. Focus on them instead of the hits or the runs. Limiting a recovering pitcher’s pitches is a regular occurrence, and these types of starts are common on the road to rehabilitation, especially in first starts. The ‘bottom line’ here really doesn’t apply, so to use it as a sign that Carpenter is in jeopardy is foolhardy. Instead, it is a great sign of a Cy Young pitcher on the mend and flashing previous signs of dominance earlier than anyone expected.

If he’s available in your league, get him immediately, he could be starting for you two weeks from now. If he is owned, now is the time to play up the opposite of everything you’ve read to his current owner. “He was absolutely shelled, five runs in 1.1 innings, against Single-A hitters. St. Louis will probably shut him down anyway, as his skill set is in decline, he’s not very good come September, and they stand no chance of making the playoffs.” The best part is that this recommendation applies to those in all leagues. He can have that type of impact that quickly.

After you have exhausted your absurd offers (even if they don’t counter, continue to send them offers), try floating a currently hot player with no proven track record in the majors like Mike Fontenot and Jeremy Guthrie. Why these two? It has to do with something I like to call Peak Value Disorientation. When a player is playing a peak level, usually never before seen, but there is a pedigree there, people are absolutely intoxicated that their potential could exponentially expand to the point that someone just found Alfonso Soriano on the waiver wire. They don’t think straight. They make decisions they otherwise would never ever make. I like to trade those type of players immediately after an amazing start for someone with a proven track record who is uncharacteristically slumping or simply out of the lineup due to injury. When you attempt to straight up rob someone, you have to have pieces that you can extrapolate about. Mike Fontenot and Jeremy Guthrie are two such players, to a “T”.

Mike Fontenot is not the future in Chicago at second base, that distinction goes to Eric Patterson down at Iowa once he gets his glove in order. He’s also too old for a rookie middle infielder in most keeper leagues, and his BABIP is about 75 points higher than his career numbers, suggesting a severe correction in terms of a batting average drop, along with peripherals. I mean, his isolated power is 110 points higher than his career average for the love of Pete. All signs point to pitchers figuring him out the second time through the league. Even if you don’t want to swallow that bitter pill, consider that while he has value on your team right now, he does not project to be any better than this, meaning if you sell him right now, you will get his absolute highest value. Wait a week and he could be worth bupkiss. Absolute bupkiss.

Jeremy Guthrie has pitched wonderfully this year, but note that he has never pitched over 160 innings in a season, and he’s way more of a candidate to be shut down than Carpenter come September. He also plays his games for the Baltimore Orioles, a poor team who won’t even sniff the playoffs. Why would Baltimore risk hurting their off-season steal when throwing him out there every five days down the stretch isn’t going to bring a playoff appearance or increased attendance? They’re going to handle him with kid gloves despite his age, and will not overwork him in what is a lost season. Definitely think Jeremy Sowers from last year. If that doesn’t convince you, consider that Felix Hernandez has had zero value to your team come September over the last two seasons because of the same thing. And not to derail this whole Guthrie love-train, but the guy has a BABIP of .235, while he’s sat at well over .300 (and the majority of that time is not Major League!) for most of his career, suggesting he’s been getting his fair share of luck. Expect that to even out. And when things even out in the AL East for pitchers without track records, it gets bad. Real bad.

For those in redraft leagues, these choices couldn’t be better. In keepers, the deal is the surprisingly similar. Either way, you’re attempting to trade older free-agent pickups with no proven track records on hot-streaks for a consensus third to fourth round fantasy pick and arguably the number two pitcher in rankings behind Johan Santana at the seasons start. The fact that Fontenot and Guthrie were both former first-round draft picks will only help to solidify your argument that they are of fair value individually for the ‘damaged’ Carpenter. Attempt this only after you have exhausted your cheap-as-all-heck offers in order to make these two seem like a slice of rainbow pie. If they end up not working, continue to slide your offers up (point being, do what you have to to get Carpenter), perhaps attempting a two for one swap. Now get to stealing!

Matthew St-Germain is an aspiring Japanese cook, and well, also a variety of other fares, as well he runs a record label and promotes live music shows for music you'll never want your children to hear. Oh, and he LOVES HIMSELF some fantasy sports. You can digest all he has to offer under the alias bloodface.
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