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Friday 22nd Sep 2017

Predicting the performance level of starting pitchers is tricky, which is why I tend to devalue the position on draft day. Although I've generally been successful identifying cheap hurlers who could net me a substantial profit, if I do miss on some of them, the penalty is minimal. Every year, whether due to injury woes or poorer than expected performance, there are a handful of expensive starters who punish their fantasy owners, and this season is no exception. But since I'm in a good mood today, let's take the positive angle and look at some of the disappointing pitchers from the first half who have turned things around since the All-Star break. For owners of these guys, the punishment lasted awhile, but perhaps it is over now.

Jake Arrieta - Arrieta ended his 2016 regular season on a down note, posting a 4.60 ERA over five September starts. Still, the market viewed him as a fantasy ace heading into drafts this spring, and he fetched a substantial $24 winning bid in Mixed Auction Tout Wars. Unfortunately for his owners, the former Cy Young award winner carried over last September's mediocrity into the first half of 2017, pitching to a 4.35 ERA over 18 outings. But, the Cubs righty boasts a 2.05 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP in four starts since the Midsummer Classic. While Arrieta is unlikely to finish the season as a $20 pitcher, he might be able to avoid the "bust" label.

Justin Verlander - Despite Verlander's Cy Young caliber season last year, I wasn't buying into the idea that he had regained fantasy ace status. But, did I expect a 4.73 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP in the first half? Not quite. The good news is that the veteran righty seems to be back on track, having allowed three runs or fewer in each of his last six starts. Especially encouraging are his most recent two starts, during which the right-hander has allowed a combined two runs over 13 innings with 16 strikeouts versus a pair of potent offenses in the Astros and Orioles.

Masahiro Tanaka - I've already officially given up on Tanaka multiple times this season yet he continues to sprinkle in enough quality outings to maintain mixed league relevance. And, he's been dominant so far in the second half, registering a 2.93 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP over four starts while whiffing 36 in 27.6 innings. Tanaka will not be a member of any of my fantasy teams for the foreseeable future, at least until he undergoes the inevitable Tommy John surgery. It's nice to know, however, that 2017 won't be remembered as a complete disaster.

Gerrit Cole - While Arrieta, Verlander and Tanaka all went for at least $20 in the Tout Wars Mixed Auction, Cole's price tag was only $13. Taking into account his ace upside, I actually considered the 26-year-old righty, who was coming off a disappointing and injury-marred 2016 campaign, to be a fine purchase at a discounted price. Cole pitched well in April and May but a rough month of June (6.17 ERA, 1.49 WHIP) halted what was shaping up to be a strong bounceback season. Fortunately for Cole owners, Gerrit's struggles did not last long. In five July starts, he posted a 3-0 record, a 2.25 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP with better than a strikeout per inning.

Kevin Gausman - While Gausman doesn't fit under the category of expensive starting pitcher, he carried a considerable amount of hype as he was fresh off an impressive finish to 2016. As for 2017, it has mostly been a nightmarish season for the Orioles righty. Not too long ago, Manager Buck Showalter was talking about sending his Opening Day starter to the Minors. But right around that time, something clicked. In five starts since the All-Star break, Gausman is 3-0 with a 2.93 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and 37 strikeouts over 30.6 into my active lineup? How about this coming week, when he hits the road to face an offensively challenged A's team in a pitcher-friendly park?

Tempting, but how can I trust a pitcher who has done so much damage to my ERA and WHIP? At least I have until 7:05 PM ET tomorrow to make the decision. Check in with me at around 7:00. Chances are I'll still be undecided.

You can follow me @ZachMLB.

For most of us, our fantasy league trade deadline comes at least a week or two after the MLB trade deadline, which makes the time period in between the two target dates important. Completing a fantasy swap today, for instance, could backfire, as a real life trade could significantly impact the values of the players directly or indirectly involved, especially with respect to playing time for hitters or bullpen role for relief pitchers. So, it's probably a better idea to wait until after 4 PM ET tomorrow to finalize a swap in order to make the most educated decision possible. The annoying thing about this year, however, is that rosters in weekly leagues will lock shortly after 12:30 PM ET thanks to an early afternoon game. If you plan on starting your newly acquired players this week, you will be hoping that nothing major transpires within that three-plus hour window.

Rather than focusing on what may or may not happen between now and tomorrow's deadline, let's take a look at some of the fantasy relevant trades that went down this week.

Mets trade Lucas Duda to Rays - As an impending free agent, Duda was rumored to be on his way out of Queens for quite some time, and he seemed like a great fit for the Yankees. Instead, Duda heads to division-rival Tampa Bay. Staying healthy has always been the biggest issue for Duda, and he spent roughly three weeks on the DL earlier this year with an elbow injury. That said, the power is legit, and shifting to a DH role lowers the injury risk. Duda owners should be pleased.

Marlins trade A.J. Ramos to Mets - This was a surprising one as it followed the Duda deal, which signaled that the Amazins would be sellers. But a closer look at the situation reveals that Ramos is signed through 2018. In other words, he should serve as a key piece of the Mets bullpen next season in addition to taking over ninth inning duties this year for as long as Jeurys Familia remains sidelined. This is bad news for Addison Reed owners, but they can't complain too much being that Reed was merely a waiver wire pickup. Despite a high walk rate (5.0 BB/9), Ramos has been mostly effective this season, and there's little reason to expect anything different now that he will be donning the orange and blue.  

Giants trade Eduardo Nunez to Red Sox - Although his ability to play multiple positions will keep Nunez in the lineup most of the time, he does figure to lose some at-bats now that he's in Beantown. On the other hand, he will be hitting in a superior lineup. The 30-year-old is unlikely to come anywhere close to matching last season's 16 homers, but between a strong batting average and a steady dose of swipes, Nunez has given his fantasy owners just about what they expected, aside from a stint on the DL due to a strained hamstring.

Padres trade Brandon Maurer to Royals - While the 20 saves were nice, owners of Maurer were forced to stomach a 5.72 ERA through his 42 appearances for the Padres this season. Now they will get the bloated ERA without the saves, which means that they will no longer be Maurer owners. And for the sake of their sanity, this is probably a good thing. Forget about the saves. Brad Hand has taken over closing duties for San Diego and should be considered a high-end stopper for as long as he's closing, which might not be for long, as Hand is likely to be dealt too. 

Braves trade Jaime Garcia to Twins - Well, that was a pretty solid Twins debut for Garcia, who limited the A's to three runs over 6 2/3 innings while striking out seven. Still, Oakland isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut, and I do worry about Garcia, a career-long NL hurler, adapting to the more hitter-friendly AL.

But if the rumors prove to be true, my worries might be all for naught, as Garcia could be wearing a different uniform by the time you read this.

Only time will tell.   

Some fantasy owners pay more attention to first half/second half split stats than others, and over the years, I've gradually become less of a believer in the significance of these splits. But, since they are easy to look up and since they make for good conversation, I don't ignore them entirely, especially at this exact time of the season.

While it is important to take a breather during the All-Star break, I cannot help but use the few days off to closely evaluate my rosters, one of the goals being to determine if my underachievers can bounce back. And, one source of optimism could be the previous season's second half stats. So, that's the motivation behind scanning the splits, but more often than not, other useful nuggets of information can be gleamed from this exercise.

On that note, let's take a look at some of last season's second half hitting leaders in the various roto categories, the common theme being players who ranked in the top-10 in at least two categories. Note that for batting average, the minimum at-bat requirement is 100.

Brian Dozier: 28 HR (1st), 56 RBI (5th)

Heading into Saturday, Dozier is on pace to finish 2017 with 25 homers and 82 RBI. Pretty good, right? Sure, but factoring in his draft day cost as a consensus top-40 player, his owners are far from satisfied with his solid yet not elite-level production. All will be forgiven, however, if Dozier can piece together a second half that is anything close to the 2016 version. Impossible? Perhaps, but before you dismiss the possibility, keep in mind that Dozier's first half splits from last season (.246 AVG, 14 HR, 43 RBI, 47 R, 7 SB) are fairly similar to this year's .242-13-41-39-10 first half stat line. Interesting.

Hanley Ramirez: 63 RBI (Tied for 1st), 22 HR (Tied for 4th)

Like Dozier, Ramirez has failed to meet expectations in 2017, wrapping up the first half with a .261 batting average, 13 homers and 34 RBI. There's no way that Hanley owners can get fair value for him in a trade right now, so their best course of action is to wait it out and hope that he can duplicate last season's second half. And, he's off to a promising start after going 2-for-4 with a homer and two RBI on Friday. 

Ender Inciarte: 59 R (Tied for 2nd), .341 AVG (8th)

One of the more underrated players in the game, Inciarte is putting together yet another stellar season, providing his fantasy owners with a strong batting average and some speed while ranking among the league leaders in runs scored. Count on more of the same in the second half, and because Inciarte isn't a trendy name, consider trading for the Braves outfielder, who will reward you with a positive return on investment. 

Miguel Cabrera: 20 HR (Tied for 6th), 55 RBI (Tied for 6th), .346 AVG (6th)

After batting a pedestrian .264 with 11 homers and 41 RBI in the first half this season, Miggy will need a second half like the one he enjoyed last year if he wants to silence the critics. On pace to finish with a .260-20-75-57 line, earning his preseason NFBC ADP of 17 is pretty much out of the question at this point. The biggest question right now is whether or not the former MVP will crack the top-100 in drafts next spring. Probably, but it will be close.

Jonathan Villar: 31 SB (3rd), 48 R (Tied for 10th)

Prior to landing on the DL in early-June, Villar was one of the leading candidates for "biggest fantasy disappointment" honors, and things haven't gotten much better since his return. There's still time for the 26-year old to prove that last season wasn't an aberration, and Villar is still swiping bags. The problem is that when you get on base at a .286 clip, your stolen base chances will be limited. Once Eric Sogard comes off the DL, everyday playing time is no guarantee for Villar. And this is bad news for me, as I recently traded for him in Mixed Auction Tout Wars.

Well, at least I can use last season's second half as inspiration. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

When it comes to closers, 2017 has not been a good year for most of my fantasy teams. In Tout Wars Mixed Auction, the demotion of Francisco Rodriguez was soon followed by Aroldis Chapman's injury, leaving me with no closers by mid-May. So, I made the uncomfortable decision to punt saves, waiting for Chapman to return from his one-month absence before swapping him for an offensive upgrade.

In another league, I had the good fortune of drafting Mark Melancon as my top stopper. But that's not all. My second closer is none other than David Robertson, who is now a closer no more after getting traded to the Yankees, one of the few teams that would not deploy him in the ninth inning thanks to the presence of that Chapman guy. And the depressing part is that Robertson was enjoying a strong season as the White Sox ninth inning man, having notched 13 saves in 14 chances while registering a 2.70 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP to go along with 47 strikeouts across 33 1/3 innings. 

Although Robertson was not considered an elite stopper heading into drafts, most owners would have been thrilled to land him as their #2 man in a 12-team mixed league. And, his consensus ranking towards the back-end of the top-15 reflected that view. Well, Robertson's performance has easily exceeded his draft day price tag, making it especially frustrating to lose such a profitable closer. At a position with so much in-season turnover, drafting closers who are able to hold onto their ninth inning gig from start to finish is key, especially when that closer did not require a hefty investment.

The list of non-elite relievers who opened the 2017 campaign as their team's clear-cut closer and have made it to this point without losing their job, either due to ineffectiveness or a trade, is a short one. Limiting my search to those ranked outside the top-12 in this year's "Fantasy Baseball Guide Professional Edition" who have not disappointed relative to draft cost, I came up with this group.  

Brandon Kintzler - Who saw this coming? Generally drafted as a #3 stopper in mixed leagues, Kintzler has been one of the most consistent closers in baseball. The 32-year old has registered an elite ERA and WHIP and is on pace to top the 40-save plateau. The one drawback is his low strikeout rate (5.4 K/9). 

Ken Giles - Giles' first full season as a closer has been an overwhelming success to the tune of 21 saves in 23 chances, a 3.28 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP with well over a strikeout per inning. He's on track to be drafted as a top-10 stopper next spring.

Edwin Diaz - Though not quite as dominant as last year, Diaz has proven that he can thrive in a full-time closer role. Do note that home runs have been an issue, as he's served up eight longballs in 40 2/3 innings this season after allowing only five homers across 51 2/3 frames in 2016.

Jim Johnson - Boring but effective is probably the best way to describe Johnson this season. That said, a 3.92 ERA is a bit high for a closer and 22-for-29 is not a great save conversion ratio. Plus, the Braves could trade the veteran righty before the end of the month to a contender, and he would almost certainly serve as a setup man for his new club.

Raisel Iglesias - Remember when Iglesias entered spring training in a battle with Drew Storen for Cincinnati's ninth inning job? Owners who took a chance on the Cuban import have been rewarded with a 1.55 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP to go along with an 11.3 K/9 rate and 16 saves in 17 chances.

Fernando Rodney - OK, Rodney's ERA (5.23) is ugly. But by now, we know what the deal is with this guy. You don't draft him for his ratios. You draft him for the saves, and he's already collected 22 of them with two-plus months still to play. And seriously, did you spend more than a late-round pick or a few bucks at the auction table for him?

Didn't think so. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB 

The state of starting pitching this season? Not good. In fact, Lawr discussed this in yesterday's Bed Goes Up, Bed Goes Down column, and the comment by Scott Pianowski that most owners would be happy with a 4.00 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP is just as depressing as it is true. Despite the bar being lowered this year, one overriding trend has remained, and it's the main reason why I don't like to spend heavily on starting pitching in drafts. With only a few exceptions, the performance level of starting pitchers tends to be extremely inconsistent from one season to the next. 

So, using the 2017 Mixed Auction Tout Wars draft as the example, here's a look at five pairs of starting pitchers whose price difference was no greater than three dollars. Let's just say that a lot can change in three months.

Chris Sale ($27) and Jake Arrieta ($24)

Remember I mentioned the "few exceptions"? Well, Sale certainly belongs in that group, as he's piecing together yet another Cy Young caliber season, boasting a 11-3 record to go along with a 2.61 ERA, a 0.90 WHIP and a league-leading 166 strikeouts through 17 starts. 

Meanwhile, Arrieta, a former Cy Young award winner, has looked more like the mediocre hurler who posted a 4.60 ERA last September than the fantasy ace of 2014-2015. Being that Arrieta has notched back-to-back quality starts on just one occasion since early-April, it's hard to be optimistic about his outlook going forward.

Corey Kluber ($26) and Justin Verlander ($24)

Kluber got off to a disappointing start to the season, but he's been outstanding since returning from a one-month stint on the DL, going 4-0 with a 1.26 ERA and a 0.67 WHIP in six starts. Simply put, he's an ace.

Owners who were relying on Verlander to repeat his ace-level 2016 campaign have been sorely disappointed, as the veteran righty enters July with an underwhelming 4.47 ERA and 1.45 WHIP. While the strikeout rate remains strong, Verlander is on pace to surpass the 90-walk mark for the first time in his career. Chances are the best part of his season is still to come, and he did register a 4.07 ERA in the first half last season before pitching to an exceptional 1.96 ERA following the All-Star break. But, the control issues are concerning, and he is a year older. I wouldn't bank on another dominant second half. 

Julio Teheran ($18) and Carlos Carrasco ($17)

Teheran's struggles this year are surprising being that he's coming off one of the best seasons of his career, a season that earned him borderline SP2 status in mixed leagues heading into 2017. Glancing at his stat line, there's really nothing positive to talk about, though his solid big league track record suggests that a turnaround is quite possible. 

Ignoring the health risk, Carrasco is a legitimate 20-plus dollar pitcher. But his injury history depressed his draft day cost to a very reasonable $17, and since he's remained healthy, the Indians righty has proven to be a big-time bargain. 

Danny Salazar ($13) and Zack Greinke ($12)

Speaking of injury-prone Indians pitchers, Salazar has been sidelined since early-June with a shoulder injury. And he wasn't particularly effective before then, recording a 5.40 ERA and a 1.58 WHIP in 12 appearances (10 starts). On the bright side, the 27-year-old righty certainly has not lost his ability to miss bats, with 77 whiffs across 55 innings so far this season. However, the long-awaited breakout campaign might have to wait until 2018, or later.

Those who wrote off Greinke following a rough inaugural season with the Diamondbacks could not have been more mistaken. The proven ace is officially back to his old self, boasting a 3.08 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP through 16 starts with well over a strikeout per inning. I'll go out on a limb and say that he will cost well over $12 in drafts next spring. 

Matt Moore ($5) and Robbie Ray ($4)

I was high on Moore coming into this season, figuring that he would thrive in his first full year with San Francisco, pitching in the NL and in a pitcher-friendly home ballpark. So it's not much of a surprise that I was the lucky one who forked over five bucks in exchange for Moore's services. I'm usually good at identifying underrated starting pitchers, but I was way off on this one. Instead of improving upon the gains he made last season in hit rate and home run rate, the Giants southpaw enters July with career-worst numbers in both of those categories. And that's not to mention his frequent bouts of wildness. Imagine if I had drafted Robbie Ray instead?

The sad part is that all I can do is imagine. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

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