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Reality Check: Take it to the limit

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Know your limits.

If Fantasy Baseball had PSAs, that one would be a Saturday morning staple.

Oh, it's relevant to kids, all right -- more to them than anyone, actually. When a young buck comes up and starts lighting up the radar gun inning after inning, before you know it ... limit!

Wait ... before you know it?

That's what I'm trying to prevent here. If you know it before it happens, it won't happen before you know it. And then you can guard against it.

So as your league's trade deadline approaches and teams begin retooling themselves for a playoff run, be forewarned: The limits are coming. They're coming, gosh darn it.

You can ignore them if you want and remain blissfully unaware that your season is about to come crashing down on you. Something like ... Jose Fernandez had 13 strikeouts. Tra-la-la. Tra-la-la. He's mine until the end. Tra-la-la. Tra-la-la.

Of course, those who owned Stephen Strasburg last year would advise against it. They tried to will the limit away through a series of hypotheticals. But what if ...? And then if ...? How could they if ...? But then September came, and that was it. Their ace was gone at the time of year they needed him most.

And that was with the Nationals disclosing from the outset of the season exactly what they planned to do with him: He'll keep pitching until he reaches X number of innings, and then he'll stop, regardless of any postseason ramifications.

I'm paraphrasing, of course, but they couldn't have made it any more black and white. And yet Strasburg owners somehow deluded themselves into thinking the Nationals wouldn't follow through with it, riding that sinking ship until the end. The moral is clear: Teams take the preservation of their young arms seriously. So many jobs, resources and, most importantly, dollars ride on the realization of their investment that if they specify a limit, you can take it to the bank.

And even if they don't, you can usually sniff one out. The rule of thumb for a fledgling arm is about 30-40 innings more than the previous year. The steady buildup from a high school or college workload usually continues into the majors. Pitchers don't come up ready to throw 220 innings. The way starting rotations work these days, it's not even possible outside of a 162-game schedule.

In other words, any pitcher in his rookie or sophomore season is susceptible to an innings limit, whether stated or implied, which means if you own one, you should take a lesson from your Strasburg-hoarding brethren and cash in before it's too late.

The two most obvious pitchers to put on the market right now are Fernandez and Shelby Miller. Both are targeting a specific number of innings -- 170 for Fernandez and 180 for Miller -- and both should fetch an adequate return.

Fernandez especially should open some eyes on the trade market. Not only is he coming off the best start of his young career -- an eight-inning, 13-strikeout effort against the Pirates Sunday -- but since the Marlins ended their annoying habit of pulling him after 85 pitches or so and turned him loose around the beginning of June, he has a 1.87 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings in 10 starts, going seven innings or more in six of them. He'll reach the limit sooner that way, perhaps even before the end of August, but I'm guessing his Fantasy owners aren't complaining right now.

Miller, on the other hand, is about on pace for his expected 180 innings thanks to a series of early hooks over his last 13 starts, eight of which ended before he completed six innings. Granted, those don't exactly help his trade value, but most Fantasy owners probably assume the early hooks are directly tied to his underwhelming numbers -- specifically, a 3.57 ERA and 1.26 WHIP -- during that stretch. Regardless of how he performs the rest of the way, though, they figure to continue just so he can last the whole season.

Of course, not every team takes the same straightforward approach that the Nationals did with Strasburg last year. With Matt Harvey on pace to exceed his limit of 210 innings by 20 or so, the Mets, who have no desire to shut down their ace early, will implement a six-man rotation rather than pull him after five innings every time out.

But while fewer starts with more innings is preferable to more starts with fewer innings -- what's the point in having an ace-caliber pitcher if he's never allowed to deliver ace-caliber numbers? -- the six-man rotation still limits Harvey's value by dramatically reducing his chances for a two-start week. And the same goes for the rest of the Mets starting rotation, which isn't such a good deal.

Want more? Gerrit Cole is already at 123 2/3 innings, just 8 1/3 away from last year's total, so about mid-August, you'll begin to hear about how the Pirates intend to limit his workload or perhaps even replace him. Jarred Cosart is two-thirds of an inning away from last year, so he may have only four or five starts to go.

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Of course, not every young pitcher is susceptible to the midseason shutdown. Rays rookie Chris Archer, who has become one of the hottest pickups off the waiver wire with his two shutouts in his last three starts, threw 157 1/3 innings between the majors and minors last year. With 117 1/3 so far this season, he has about 70 to go, which makes him a pretty safe bet to close out the season, provided he doesn't throw a shutout every other start. Likewise, Tony Cingrani, thanks in part to his bullpen stint earlier this season, isn't really in jeopardy of exceeding his presumed limit of 180 innings. Dan Straily pitched an impressive 191 1/3 innings between the majors and minors last year, so he should be fine. Zack Wheeler still has about 70 innings before he enters the danger zone. No real worries there.

While innings limits are normally reserved for up-and-comers, they can also come into play for veterans working their way back from injury. For Tommy John surgery especially, teams sometimes opt for the better-safe-than-sorry approach, though more often than not, if the pitcher has thrown 180 innings at some point in his career, he gets his usual workload. Fear not, John Lackey owners. Adam Wainwright threw 198 2/3 innings in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. Tim Hudson threw 228 2/3.

What about Kris Medlen? He's an interesting case because he has a different background, having shifted between the starting rotation and bullpen throughout his career. Considering his 151 1/3 innings in his first season back from Tommy John surgery last year were a career high, you have to wonder if that persistent rumor of him moving back to the bullpen to finish out this season has anything to do with an innings limit.

Of course, thanks to that pesky rumor, you're probably stuck with Medlen if you haven't traded him already, so in addition to Fernandez and Miller, about the only other limit-inspired sell-high candidates are Cole and, in deeper leagues, Cosart.

What makes now the right time to sell them? Well, in leagues that model their trade deadline after the real-life one, it's the only time. Trade them now or go down with the ship. But even if your league's deadline is still weeks away, we've reached that perfect point in the season where, even after having enjoyed so much of what your young hurler has to offer, you can still get a full return for him.

And that's the key: You want a full return. If you have to trade him at a discount, you might as well just hold on to him and get whatever more you can out of him. But in most cases, working out a deal shouldn't be too difficult. Not everyone has caught on to the concept of innings limits, particularly the ones that go unstated. The idea isn't to announce, with a wave of the white flag, that you're looking to unload your young hurlers "before it's too late," but to casually, confidently slip them into offers to various opponents with a need at starting pitcher.

"Yo, man, I hate to give up on Fernandez with the way he's coming along, but I could really use some help at second base right now. Ben Zobrist ... what do you say?"

"I say that's a winner of a deal, sonny! Break out the champagne! We're celebrating this one to the max!"

Someone doesn't know his limits.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott White at @CBSScottWhite .

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