Sliders: Marcum has the makings of an ace

You thought I had abandoned it.

I'll admit I hadn't thrown it in a while. I hadn't needed to. From one frame to the next, I was flawless, perfect, brilliant.

So I got cocky and limited my arsenal, throwing slider after slider like I was Brad Lidge or something.

And just like Lidge, it eventually caught up to me.

This week, the change-up is back in my repertoire.

Sliders ... These players are more than just hot or cold. Their recent play indicates a long-term change in value.

Shaun Marcum , SP, Blue Jays

Usually when a pitcher returns from Tommy John surgery, he meets a horde of Fantasy owners ready to give them the benefit of the doubt.

But not Marcum. No, you barely saw him drafted.

It wasn't so much a slight against him as a case of bad timing. Marcum wasn't a top prospect. He was never an All-Star. He had just begun to emerge as a trustworthy Fantasy option, separating himself from the other suspicious overachievers who Fantasy owners choose to ignore until they can't anymore, when his elbow ligament met its demise.

Now, nearly two years later, Marcum has finally confirmed his usefulness. In some ways, he has even exceeded expectations, walking a career-low 2.0 batters per nine innings, which is especially impressive considering control is one of the last things to return following surgery. He still has the same respectable strikeout rate. He still has the same cut fastball that keeps hitters from making solid contact. Over his last 35 starts dating back to his semi-breakout 2008 campaign, he has a 3.22 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP, which is the stuff of Cy Young contenders.

If you own Marcum in Fantasy, he's no longer waiver fodder vulnerable to getting cut with his next bad start. He's a staple of your starting rotation and deserves an appropriately long leash even when he does struggle.

Ian Stewart , 3B, Rockies

When Stewart hit .421 with two home runs over his first five games, we were all pretty quick to jump on the bandwagon. Long teased as one of the best hitting prospects in baseball, he looked like he had finally lived up to his potential as a perennial All-Star.

But since then, we haven't heard much from him. We also haven't heard much about him, which is what I intend to change.

I don't like what I'm seeing here. Since that five-game stretch that got far more credit than it deserved, Stewart is batting .252. He has struck out 35 times in 127 at-bats, giving him a worse contact rate than he had last year, when he hit only .228. In short, he's the exact same player. Yet his ownership rate has dropped only 3 percent from that fateful first week, and his starting rate only recently dipped below 80 percent.

What has he done to deserve a long leash?

Consider me the voice of reason amid a chorus of unwarranted praise. It's not that Stewart can't hit 30 homers. It's not that he doesn't have anything to offer in Fantasy. It's just that he's not a must-start option. He lacks the polish at age 25, and polish doesn't come with a timetable.

Instead of waiting it out with Stewart, I'd rather take my chances on an Alberto Callaspo or a Martin Prado .

James Shields , SP, Rays

So much for all that preseason downer talk.

I admit I'm guilty of it. Shields' walk rate had risen over the last couple years, albeit slightly. His strikeout rate had fallen, albeit slightly. When he suddenly became more hittable last year, that was it in my eyes. The scouts had gotten the last laugh. Shields, a non-prospect who had reached heights never expected of him, had finally experienced his long overdue regression to the mean, a victim of setting the bar too high.

And in thinking that, I became a victim of my own stupidity.

Or at least of forcing an explanation. The truth is Shields' peripherals didn't change that much. They changed some, and for the worse, but nothing that wouldn't fit within an expected margin for error. His diverse arsenal of pitches still gives him the potential to dominate, as he has shown with his 2.48 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over his last five starts, which includes three with 10 strikeouts or more. Combine those numbers with one of the best walk rates in all of baseball, and Shields is as dominant now as he ever has been, which makes him clearly a must-start in Fantasy.

And with the Rays also as dominant as they ever have been, he has a good chance of cracking the 15-win plateau for the first time, which was the one thing that kept him from achieving ace status even in his best years.

Raul Ibanez , OF, Phillies

Ibanez hit .309 with a 1.015 OPS in the first half last year and .232 with a .774 OPS in the second half, which might lead you to believe his numbers now -- a .245 batting average and a .752 OPS -- are just a continuation of his usual streakiness. But I have a different explanation.

He's 38 years old.

Sure, he's streaky, and for that reason, I wouldn't be surprised to see him have a big second half. But when you consider he's pushing 40, you have to at least entertain the possibility that he's reached his physical limit. Over his last 442 at-bats beginning in June of last year, he's batting .233 with 18 home runs, which could be his baseline going forward. It's a dramatic decline, but hey, most players would have begun to slow down two or three years earlier.

Does that mean I'd cut him? Not necessary. But I wouldn't be afraid to cut him knowing that keeping him is a calculated gamble.

Mat Latos , SP, Padres

The Padres have a pitching staff full of overachievers. Jon Garland boasts an ERA nearly two runs lower than his career mark, and Clayton Richard , while talented, doesn't project as the frontline starter he has been so far.

Then, there's Latos, the 22-year-old flamethrower whose pedigree suggests his numbers are exactly where they belong.

He surged up the prospect rankings with his performance in the minors last year, prompting a promotion to the majors at age 21, and though he didn't become a rookie sensation, he posted impressive numbers considering his limited experience. And now this: Over his last four starts, he has a 0.93 ERA, a 0.56 WHIP and a strikeout rate of 7.8 per nine innings.

He throws a hard fastball and has begun to rely on his slider -- itself a pitch that approaches 90 -- as a putout pitch, throwing it 26.0 percent of the time as opposed to 4.1 percent last year, according to He works in a pitcher's park and so far has half as many walks as he did in 4 2/3 more innings last year. If that's not enough to convince you he's an ace in the making, I don't know what is.

If he remains unowned in your league, put in a claim for him before you even finish reading this column.

Hanging Sliders ... These guys look like Sliders, but alas, they really are just streaking.

Pablo Sandoval , 3B, Giants

Sandoval entered play Tuesday batting .282 with three home runs and a .760 OPS. A little disappointing, isn't it?

This is a guy who ranked 12th among full-timers with a .943 OPS last year, who only had room to improve at age 23, and who you no doubt used an early-round pick to get.

But what makes you think anything has changed from one year to the next?

If he wasn't putting up any sort of fight, flailing and missing at everything thrown his way, you could point to a flaw in his mechanics or a lack of discipline as reason for his demise, but the low strikeout rate that contributed to his .330 batting average last year has only improved. He's striking out once every 8.1 at-bats this year compared to once every 6.9 at-bats last year.

So why the decline? Hey, 170 at-bats does not a season make. Keep in mind Sandoval was batting .304 with three home runs and an .814 OPS through this time last year. Maybe he's just one of those players who needs a month or two to warm up, like Prince Fielder or Mark Teixeira . Considering he's in only his second full season, we really don't know if he falls into any such category.

But we do know he's still making consistent contact, and we do know he still has plenty of mass backing up that swing. If you see someone getting impatient with Sandoval, don't be afraid to buy low.

Change-Up ... Whoops! I recently wrote something I regret and want to take it back.

Edwin Jackson , SP, Diamondbacks

Haven't had one of these in a while, which I guess is a sign of progress.

But it's also kind of boring. I mean, without the Change-Up, you might not even realize this column is a play on words, leading you to wonder why I didn't call it Risers or Fallers or Stockwatch Central or something else slightly more logical. Quite simply, Sliders needs the Change-Up. It doesn't have the same bite without it.

So I'm happy to have it back, even if it means misdirecting the world for the better part of three weeks. The good news is Jackson remains unowned in 32 percent of leagues, so if you already cut him, you have a good chance of getting him back.

I'm not saying he's back to being an ace or even a must-start -- he did just allow five earned runs in his last start -- but he's not the waiver fodder I made him out to be a few short weeks ago. His mid-90s fastball and 21-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his last 15 2/3 innings show he's healthy and effective, and his ERA will reflect it in the weeks to come. Even if I didn't want him starting for me, I'd want him stashed on my roster for the day he puts it all together.

Not like he hasn't done it before.

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