Draft-Day Dilemma: Young guns

Draft-Day Dilemma: Young guns
By Mike Harmon
February 21, 2005

Mike Harmon
Yahoo Sports
More Draft-Day Dilemmas:
Who's No. 1? | Need for speed | Close at first | Top backstop

For the past two weeks, I've been tooling around the draft board, putting myself in the hot seat in a series of Draft-Day Dilemmas. I've made my case for the No. 1 overall selection, picked out a top-tier catcher and reviewed the need for speed in the early rounds. This week I'm going to work on the young stars that are setting the draft board on fire. As always, the talent levels are remarkably similar and force fantasy owners to make tough decisions.

This time I'm pitting Oakland's Rich Harden against Florida's Josh Beckett. Both are hard-throwing right-handers on the verge of fantasy greatness. But who gets there first? My colleague, Brandon Funston, assumed 12 personalities and played out a one-man mock draft, where Beckett, Oliver Perez and Harden came off the board in rapid succession. I wonder what made the fifth manager in Brandon's mind take Beckett ahead of Harden?

Two-year average:

  • Harden: (started 13 games in 2003 after call-up) 22 GS, 132 IP, 8 Wins, 117 Ks, 4.12 ERA, 1.38 WHIP
  • Beckett: 25 GS, 149.1 IP, 9 Wins, 152 Ks, 3.44 ERA, 1.27 WHIP

Heading into 2005, the A's and Marlins have thrust youngsters Harden (23) and Beckett (24) into key starting roles. Both have big strikeout potential, pitch in advantageous parks and should be four-category contributors.

With that in mind, I, too, am running with Beckett ahead of Harden.

With Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder traded away to the Braves and Cardinals, respectively, Harden will team with lone holdover Barry Zito to anchor the re-tooled A's staff. Zito scuffled to an 11-11 mark with a career-high 4.48 ERA. Harden holds one edge on the veteran southpaw, in that he can get the big strikeout. Through 46 career appearances, Harden averages just under eight strikeouts per nine innings. He struck out seven or more hitters in 11 outings last season.

After the All-Star break in 2004, Harden turned it on. He went 8-2 down the stretch with an ERA more than a full run lower than his first-half totals (3.49 against 4.52). His strikeout total suffered somewhat, but he truly developed into a major-league pitcher. Harden pitched 6.1 more innings after the All-Star break than before it and walked 15 fewer hitters. As a result, his WHIP dropped from 1.49 to 1.17.

At home in Network Associates Coliseum, Harden owns a record of 9-4, with a solid 3.25 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. His efforts on the road pale by comparison, as his ERA stands a shade under 5.00 with a ballooned WHIP of 1.50. Additionally, his composite batting average against is 45 points higher away from home.

The A's will win their share of games (five straight seasons of 90 or more wins), but Harden's struggles away from home force him behind Beckett on my list.

Last season, the Marlins ranked 23rd in runs scored at 4.43 per game. The offense shut down miserably when Beckett hit the hill and averaged a feeble 1.77 runs per game in his nine losses. It's no wonder that RBI machine Carlos Delgado was added to the mix this offseason.

Health concerns continue to dog Beckett entering 2005. The 2003 World Series MVP was forced to the disabled list three times last season. Beckett pitched just 10.2 innings in June and July, posting an 0-2 record in three starts. He did finish strong, averaging seven innings in his last six outings.

In addition to the upgrade on offense with Delgado, the Marlins brought back Al Leiter, who was re-acquired to aid the development of the young staff, which lost 18-game winner Carl Pavano to the Yankees. No doubt, Leiter's 22-9 career mark at Pro Player Stadium with an ERA of 2.77 likely played into the decision as well.

Beckett has been more effective after the All-Star break in his three seasons in Florida. His career ERA in 43 second-half appearances is a full two-thirds of a run lower than his first-half outings. Beckett also averages 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings. Additionally, Beckett posts consistent efforts at both Pro Player Stadium and on the road.

That consistency, combined with a strong finish to 04 after missing time due to injury and the addition of Delgado nudges Beckett ahead of Harden on my draft list.

Let's end with a couple messages out of the mailbox.

Obviously your placing Victor Martinez on top in the catching category is correct considering how young he is and his potential to improve. But what about Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer? He was limited to only 35 games last year, but he hit .308 with 6 HRs in only 107 at-bats. And besides, he's only 21-years-old right now, and full of potential. – Trey in Columbus

Trey –
The sky is the limit for Mauer, who adapted quickly to major-league pitching last season. He appears in the third tier of catchers on my draft board right now. The .308 average he posted in those 35 games was no surprise, but his 15 extra-base hits were a welcome addition. In fact, his six home runs for the Twins in 2004 marked a professional high for a full season.

My only reservation of moving Mauer up the list is the knee injury sustained last season. Though he is only 21 and the injury didn't require surgery, it was enough to shut him down after the All-Star break. Martinez, Javy Lopez and Ivan Rodriguez will be off the board in the fourth or fifth round and it's likely that another two owners with quickly snag Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek. Mauer will be a great value pick in the eighth or ninth round and represents one of the players both Brandon Funston and I push as a player to reach for in 05.

I don't have a huge problem with Mike Piazza's exclusion from your ranking of the top three catchers. But I don't understand why you didn't even mention him, let alone why you listed Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek as being next in line after the top three. Piazza averages over 32 HRs and 98 RBIs every season that he's played at least 100 games, a mark he's failed to reach only three times (excluding his rookie year). All that to go along with his career .315 batting average. – Matt in Yakima

Matt –
Piazza is one of the most intriguing players on the draft board this season. I've got him ranked alongside Mauer. The addition of Carlos Beltran to the Mets lineup will no doubt provide Piazza with additional RBI opportunities, but his health concerns and drop-off in average in the past three seasons leave me hesitant to push him too high. Posada plays everyday and though his average doesn't match up to Piazza's, his HRs, RBIs and runs scored will be comparable. Varitek stepped up his game in 2004, adding 10 steals to his solid contributions in the other four standard rotisserie categories.

If he stays sound, a 30-homer, 100-RBI season is not out of the realm of possibility for Piazza, but the jury is still out on the rest of the lineup behind him (except David Wright, who is a superstar in the making). Piazza is a classic risk-reward player this season, and I'm not a huge fan of risk too early in the draft. But I would be foolish to ignore the possible reward if Piazza slips too far.

Updated on Monday, Feb 21, 2005 6:52 pm, EST

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