What I Learned This Week, Fantasy Edition (6/1)

So who out there remembers a fellow by the name of Nick Esasky?

Something almost as rare as a Bigfoot sighting -- Esasky in a Braves uniform

Something almost as rare as a Bigfoot sighting -- Esasky in a Braves uniform

For those of you who don’t, Esasky was a pretty good hitting first baseman (and sometimes third baseman and outfielder as well) who started his career in the 1980’s with the Cincinnati Reds.  The right-handed slugger put up six pretty good seasons with the Reds before he was traded to Boston for the start of the 1989 season, one in which he would put up the best  numbers of his career, hitting career-highs with a .277 average, 30 home runs, and 108 runs batted in.  That fall, Esasky would sign a lucrative three-year free-agent contract with the Atlanta Braves — and his future as one of the mainstays of that team’s lineup looked set.

That is, until an ear infection turned into something far worse — vertigo — and Esasky’s career was completely derailed.  The effects of his illness were something Esasky could never overcome, and he would end up playing only 9 games for the Braves before being forced to retire from baseball entirely.

I remember at the time thinking that Esasky’s case was a sad one, as no one likes to see a young talented player taken away from any sport for any reason before their time.  Recently, the curious case of Reds first baseman Joey Votto has gotten me thinking more about Esasky — and hoping that we’re not watching a case of history repeating itself.

Readers of this site already should know about my love for Votto coming into this year, as I made him one of my breakout stars to watch for 2009.  And until just a few weeks ago, my optimism in the young left-handed slugger seemed to be well-founded;  Votto’s numbers as we speak look like they’ve been taken from a video game: a .357 average and 8 home runs in only 126 at-bats, and an obscenely good 1.091 OPS.

But something has gone off of the tracks for the youngster.  It started innocently enough, with a flu virus knocking him out of the lineup (alongside his teammate Brandon Phillips).  But where Phillips returned quickly with seemingly no ill effects, Votto found himself struggling with spells of dizziness and light-headedness.  The first baseman was forced out of games in progress on more than one occasion before being sent back to medical personnel for additional tests, which eventually revealed an inner ear infection.  Problem solved, right?  The thought was that with the proper medication, Votto would be back in the lineup full-time and ready to resume his place as one of the game’s brightest young hitters — a assumption that looked to be justified when Votto made a return to Cincinnati’s starting lineup with 2 home runs on May 23.

But Votto would again end up forced from the game just a few days later — and now, he’s made a trip to the DL.  Unfortunately, there’s something else going on with him, as Reds manager Dusty Baker referenced  “personal issues” as being part of the cause, telling reporters that Votto “needed some time away from baseball” at the moment.

Quickly, the Votto saga is starting to turn into a sad one — for the player himself and for baseball in general.  My own first thoughts are that, whatever’s ailing Votto, he gets it turned around as soon as possible — for his own sake.  I don’t want to speculate on what exactly his “stress-related” issues are — I can only relate from my own personal experience (having had my own battles with dizzy spells in the past) that I was told by doctors that a build-up in anxiety over the condition can actually feed the problem, to the point where worry over getting light-headed can actually make you susceptible to it happening.

Is that what’s going on with Votto?  Maybe — or maybe not;  again, I’m not him or his doctor, so any guess on my part is obviously just that and nothing more.  Whatever the case may be, I’m hoping that Votto can put this episode behind him and get back on the field to play the game he so obviously loves to play — and the game that it’s obvious to anyone who’s watched him that he’s exceptionally good at.  Hollywood has made a killing mining the franchise concept in movies, but a sequel to The Nick Esasky Story is something none of us who love the game wants to see.

edwin jackson detroit— Sometimes it’s easy to write a player off too soon, especially when said player makes it to the majors at an incredibly young age and doesn’t produce at a high level right away.  As fantasy baseball participants, we’re always looking for the next Alex Rodriguez  — an MVP candidate at the tender age of only 20 — while forgetting that most players don’t reach their prime years of production until they’re closer to age 27 or 28.  It’s particularly the case with many starting pitchers, who sometimes don’t get to reach their greatest levels of success until they’ve been around for several years, actually learning how to pitch along the way.

Which brings us to the case of Edwin Jackson, starting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers.  Jackson has been much maligned throughout his career, and I’ve seen him get a complete lack of respect in the leagues I’ve been in the last several seasons.  In my main league, which goes fairly deep so far as the number of players on rosters, Jackson went undrafted in 2008 (ending up on my team as a free-agent/waiver acquisition partly through the season), and on 2009, he warranted only a reserve round pick, which was met by those in the draft room (myself included), with little more than a yawn.

However, Jackson has been one of the AL’s pleasant surprises so far, posting a sparkling 2.30 ERA and 1.036 WHIP over 11 starts en route to a 5-3 mark with his new team (he was a member of the Rays AL Champions squad in 2008).  Still, despite the gaudy numbers, I still sense that the general consensus about Jackson’s start is that it’s nothing more than a fluke, and that Jackson is still nothing more than a mediocre fantasy option at best.

But the people saying that aren’t looking at his numbers if that’s the conclusion they’re coming to.  Jackson has so far shown all the characteristics of a pitcher who can maintain his success this year;  his K/9 rate (6.9), his K/BB rate (3.17), and his HR/9 rate (0.6) have all been exceptional, and all right in line with the type of fantastic start he’s registered.

Jackson has always possessed the physical tools to success; the stuff has always been there, but he’s never really shown the consistency to master it — until now.  One of the reasons people have written Jackson off as a fluke is probably the fact that it feels like he’s been around forever (he made his major league debut in 2003), but the fact is that his first taste of the big leagues came all the way back when he was just 19 years old.  He’s only 25 years old now, and there’s a lot of reason to think that he’s finally matured enough to know how to harness his talent in the best way.

When you add in the other positive factors — the move to a great pitcher’s park in Detroit, a move in divisions out of the tougher AL East and to the weaker AL Central — there’s a lot to like about Jackson in 2009.  While he won’t maintain that microscopic ERA all season — if he did, he’s a Cy Young candidate, and as much as I like him, I’m not sure he’s that polished a pitcher — he should remain a solid contributor to many a fantasy squad this year — while hopefully, most of your leaguemates keep on dismissing him.

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