First pitch in Fantasy already upon us


Even though there are still several days of exhibition games left, Fantasy owners and baseball fans in general are about to get treated to some actual major league baseball games that count. A week before the Cardinals and Marlins kick off the rest of the regular season schedule on April 4, the Mariners and Athletics will meet up in Tokyo for a two-game set. Not only do both contests count toward the teams' regular season records, but in many of our Fantasy leagues -- including all of the free ones using Rotisserie formats with drafts prior to Wednesday -- the stats will count as well.

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Scott White has already covered the Fantasy implications of these games for hitters in Fantasy Week 1 (March 28-April 8), but this early series will have an impact on Fantasy pitching staffs, too. Most importantly, these games will take what would otherwise be a five-day Fantasy scoring period and stretch it into 12 days. Instead of there not being any two-start pitchers in Week 1, there could be as many as four.

Here's an overview of who will toe the slab in Tokyo, who won't and how it will matter in Week 1 and beyond.


Starting pitchers

1. Felix Hernandez: King Felix will get the opening day nod Wednesday, and after a nine-day hiatus he will start the Mariners' first game back in the U.S., also against the A's. Though he failed to match the success of his 2010 Cy Young season last year, Hernandez is still a solid No. 1 starter for all formats. He would be a must-start anyway, but as a two-start option in Week 1, there is absoultely no reason to sit him in any league.
2. Jason Vargas: Vargas will get the start this Thursday, but he has not been penciled in for his second start of the year just yet. If he performs well in Japan, he could follow Hernandez again for the rotation's next cycle, which would put him on the mound against Oakland on April 7. That would make Vargas one of four two-start pitchers in Week 1. While he isn't always a viable start in standard mixed leagues, with the possibility of two starts he is worth a shot as a back-of-the-rotation option.

Rest of the rotation

3. Blake Beavan: The Mariners seem to have a thing for contact pitchers with good control and Beavan is practically the prototype. Though he will not start, Beavan will be on the active roster for the Japan series. He is merely an AL-only option but because he stands to pitch some innings out of the bullpen or maybe even get a start at Oakland instead of Vargas, owners in those formats should consider making Beavan active this week.
4. Kevin Millwood: Owners in all formats can bench Millwood in Week 1, as he will not be on Seattle's active roster for the Japan series and is unlikely to start in Oakland. Millwood had a nice comeback late last season with the Rockies, but he may just be keeping the seat warm until either Danny Hultzen or James Paxton is ready to make the leap from the minors later this year. For now, he is a low-end option for AL-only owners.
5. Hector Noesi: While Jesus Montero has received far more attention, Noesi was also an important piece received from the Yankees in exchange for Michael Pineda and minor-league pitcher Jose Campos. He fits the low-strikeout, low-walk mold that Beavan and Vargas typify, though he has a little more strikeout potential than either of them. In future weeks, Noesi could have some appeal in mixed leagues with the right matchups, but he will be inactive in Japan and is unlikely to start in Week 1.


Brandon League: League will reprise the closer's role that he took on last season. The sinkerballer relies more on ground balls than strikeouts to keep his ERA and WHIP low, but ultimately, he has the goods to be an effective closer. While his low K-rate makes him a borderline choice in standard mixed leagues, he is worth a start in Week 1. With four games against a light-hitting Oakland squad, League has a decent chance of notching multiple saves.

Key set-up and middle relief options

Shawn Kelley: Recovered from elbow surgery that limited him to 10 appearances in 2011, Kelley will fill a set-up role to start the season. He can help with strikeouts and holds, so Kelley is worth owning in deep leagues that use non-closers. He could also have some longer-term value should the Mariners deal League at some point this season. The team may have an incentive to do so, as League will become a free agent after the 2012 season.
Tom Wilhelmsen: After seven years away from affiliated ball, Wilhelmsen was one of last season's feel-good stories. He fared so well in his first major season that he is in a position to vie with Kelley for set-up duties in 2012. Wilhelmsen profiles as a future closer, but for now, he is merely an option in deep AL-only leagues.
Hisashi Iwakuma: The 30-year-old competed for a spot in the M's rotation this spring, but for now his future is in the bullpen. Opposing hitters batted .358 against Iwakuma this spring, so his first exposure to hitters since arriving from the Japanese Pacific League was not a pleasant one. He could have some value down the line if he becomes a starter, but Iwakuma could face a long road to get to that point. He also will not be on the active roster for the series in Tokyo.
Erasmo Ramirez: Ramirez didn't come to spring training with the profile or pedigree of prospects like Hultzen, Paxton or Taijuan Walker, but unlike the members of that trio, Ramirez walked away from camp with a big league roster spot. A starter by trade, Ramirez will move into the bullpen to start the season. If all goes well there, it could be Ramirez, and not Hultzen or Paxton, serving as the team's sixth starter and filling a rotation spot when a need arises.


Starting pitchers

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1. Brandon McCarthy: Like Hernandez, McCarthy will start his team's first game in Japan as well as in the U.S. He didn't have a great spring (4.63 ERA), but given his overall performance last year, McCarthy should be trusted in standard mixed leagues this season. He certainly had the Mariners' number in 2011, posting a 1.99 ERA and 0.70 WHIP in four starts. With two starts against Seattle in Week 1, McCarthy is a must-start to begin the year.
2. Bartolo Colon: As quickly as Fantasy owners warmed up to Colon after his initial success last season, they grew distrustful of him as he struggled through a difficult second half. Many of Colon's problems last year were tied to his tendency to allow homers, but he gave up a disproportionate number of those at Yankee Stadium. Having moved out of that venue and out of the AL East, Colon should see fewer balls leave the park this season. He could be worth trying in standard mixed leagues again, and if nothing else, he is worth using as a two-start pitcher in Week 1.

Rest of the rotation

3. Tommy Milone: Milone may be a soft-tossing southpaw, but the higher up he rose in the minors, the more his strikeout rate grew. That won't necessarily hold in his first full major league season, but he has succeeded at every level due to sharp command. His penchant for inducing pop-ups ought to play very well at Coliseum, known for its spacious foul territory. He should be a solid contributor in AL-only leagues and could be an option in deeper mixed leagues, especially during home stands. Forget about Milone for Week 1, though, as he will not be on the active roster in Tokyo and is unlikely to pitch at all.
4. Tyson Ross: With the A's stockpiling young arms this offseason, Ross slipped under the radar of many Fantasy owners early on in spring training, but he emerged quickly as a strong rotation candidate. In fact, he has surfaced as the team's No. 4 starter. Ross' time in the majors was cut short last year by shoulder and oblique injuries, but he was impressive over the 36 innings he pitched, curbing his tendency to issue too many walks. Owners can bench Ross for Week 1, but he should remain active in AL-only formats beginning with Week 2.
5. Graham Godfrey: The A's won't need a fifth starter until April 17, but for now, it appears Godfrey has won the job. That would put him in line to make his first start in Week 3, but the A's could decide to replace him with Jarrod Parker or Brad Peacock before then. Keep an eye on Godfrey's status, as he could be useful as a low-end option in AL-only leagues.


Grant Balfour: A's manager Bob Melvin took his time naming a closer this spring, but Balfour came away as the squad's ninth-inning man. Balfour has only 10 saves in his career, but he has done everything possible as a middle reliever to earn a shot at closing. The A's may not score many runs, but they may not allow many either, and the potential for frequent close contests could make Balfour a surprisingly popular reliever in standard mixed leagues.

Key set-up and middle relief options

Brian Fuentes: If experience alone qualified a pitcher to close, Fuentes would have won the job running away. Given his plunging swinging strike rate in recent years, it's not all that surprising that Melvin opted to go with Balfour instead. Fuentes should be able to pick up some holds, but unless he can start whiffing more batters again he won't be especially useful even in deeper leagues.
Fautino De Los Santos: The hard-throwing De Los Santos was in the closer's hunt for awhile, but he will go back to a middle relief role. If your team needs strikeouts and can afford to take a hit in the WHIP category, De Los Santos is your guy. However, he can be very wild, so even in deeper leagues that use middle relievers, explore all of your options before using him.

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