The fantasy trade deadline is gone. So how's a fantasy owner supposed to improve his or her starting pitching this late in the year? (And no, I don't think Stephen Strasburg will pitch for the Washington Nationals in 2009.)
Well, first off, take a look at your waiver wire. In standard ESPN.com leagues, there are a bunch of pitchers who reside inside my top 80 who are still readily available: Randy Wolf (46 percent owned), Joel Pineiro (36 percent), Randy Wells (35 percent), Jorge De La Rosa (22 percent) and Joe Blanton (20 percent) to name five. But if you're in a somewhat deeper league, or if all the owners in your 10-teamer are on the ball, perhaps these usual suspects aren't available. Or perhaps you're simply looking to make a bigger splash.
Here, then, are five pitchers currently in the minors who could at least get a September call-up, and who could have a lightning-in-a-bottle-type of effect on your overall fantasy pitching numbers.
Madison Bumgarner, Giants. Of the five guys I list here, Bumgarner actually might be the least likely to see the majors this year; he just turned 20, and hasn't pitched above Double-A. But the Giants must be tempted, especially now that it appears Randy Johnson won't be returning to the rotation. Bumgarner has a 2.07 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP in 16 Double-A appearances, and wouldn't be the first guy to make that big jump in the middle of a successful season (see Clayton Kershaw). I'm not saying I'd automatically put Bumgarner or any of the other guys on this list in my top 80. But the upside would be immense.
Aaron Poreda, Padres. San Diego doesn't have any reason not to promote Poreda, whom they acquired from the White Sox in the Jake Peavy deal. He fanned 12 (but walked eight) in 11 relief innings with Chicago this year, has a really good fastball and would obviously benefit from this change in home parks. The only rub here is that Poreda has been lit up at Triple-A Portland as the Padres have been stretching him out as a starter. If that continues, he might not get a call.
Tim Hudson, Braves. Hudson has three minor league starts left on his rehab, at which time Atlanta likely will add him to the rotation. In his return from elbow surgery, Hudson's velocity is reportedly fine, as he was never really a huge fastball guy. But as we saw with John Smoltz, just because a pitcher has his same old velocity doesn't mean he's all the way back. Yet if Hudson could bottle some of what he showed in the first half of '08, he'd be an intriguing add.
Andy Sonnanstine, Rays. Remember him? One of the '09 season's earliest and biggest pitching busts, Sonnanstine has been laboring away at Triple-A Durham since his June 25 demotion. But David Price's lack of consistency is a contributing factor to the Rays' disappointing pitching staff in '09, and considering the big lefty is up over 100 innings between the majors and the minors, it's conceivable that Tampa will put him back in the bullpen, from whence he was so effective in August and September last year. That could eventually open up a spot for Sonnanstine.
Carlos Carrasco, Indians. If it seems like we've been hearing about Carrasco for about 10 years, that's only because he's been dealt back and forth among the Phillies, White Sox and Indians again and again. The young righty (he's still only 22) has seen scouts' opinions of him fall from "top-of-the-rotation" to "serviceable," but he's pitched very well in four starts for the Tribe's Triple-A affiliate in Columbus, having whiffed 27 and walked five in 27 2/3 innings. He doesn't have a blazing fastball, but it's good enough to offset his nasty change; his issue in the majors is likely to be how well he can consistently locate (as always seems to be the case).
• Scott Baker, Twins. Baker followed up a crummy outing a week ago Sunday with a complete-game gem over the Indians in which he fanned five and walked zero. For the season, that gives him 114 strikeouts and just 27 walks in 140 2/3 innings, so while his 4.54 ERA is frustrating, his 1.14 WHIP is as good as advertised. Since June 1, his ERA is 3.48. Baker is actually unowned in 13 percent of leagues, which is crazy.
• J.A. Happ, Phillies. Happ dodged a bullet when Pedro Martinez returned to the majors, with Jamie Moyer (and not Happ) going to the bullpen to make room. Since June 20, Happ has allowed more than two runs in a game twice, and more than three runs in a game once. Don't mistake him for an elite strikeout-style pitcher, plus his Batting Average on Balls In Play is .247 and his strand rate is 85.4 percent, so there's some luck involved here. But you can only chalk up 9-2 with a 2.75 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP to luck for so long. I'm skeptical about Happ's longer-term top-of-the-rotation prospects, but don't bet against this winning streak.
• Bronson Arroyo, Reds. Arroyo comes with a huge warning label, because you know his next two-inning, 11-run effort is always just a day away. But he has four consecutive quality starts and five in his past six, so despite an unhealthy 85-to-53 strikeout-to-walk ratio, Arroyo is looking like a fair speculative add for the pitching-needy, especially against the mediocre offenses of the Giants and Brewers his next two times out.
• Johan Santana, Mets. It's pretty safe to say Santana has seen his last preseason as fantasy's No. 1 starter. There were many folks who argued against Santana as the game's top starter this spring; I should have listened to them. The cold hard truth is that while Santana has had his moments, he has a 1.21 WHIP, his highest since 2002, and he's on pace to walk a career-high 65 batters while fanning fewer than 200 hitters for the first time since '03. Add this to the fact that the Mets have lost just about every meaningful bat they'd hoped to have in their lineup, and Santana has to get a downgrade.
• James Shields, Rays. Here's another guy who's been fine, but not nearly as good as I hoped. Shields looks very little like the low 1.10s WHIP pitcher from the past two seasons; he sits at 1.31 right now. That's no sin in the AL East, but those of us hyping Shields as a high-strikeout, high-control ace were mistaken, at least for 2009. When you watch him pitch, you still see that nasty change that made him a star, but batters just seem to stay away from it and wait for the harder stuff, then tattoo it.
• Ricky Romero, Blue Jays. This is a correction that's been due for a little while; Romero was flabbergastingly good in June but just mediocre in July and into August. He's gone five straight starts without fanning more than five hitters, after striking out six or more in five straight from June 11 to July 1. Since July 6, his ERA is 4.26 and his WHIP is 1.46, not terrible for an AL East starter, but no longer a no-brainer start against the league's best teams. Like Shields, Romero has featured a fine changeup this season. But the league is adjusting and laying off, and hitting his fastball much better of late.
Comings and goings
• Chad Billingsley, who was scratched from a start last week because of a hamstring he injured while batting, threw a couple of times this weekend but had to have his scheduled turn Monday pushed back again. However, according to the Dodgers' official Web site, the team expects to have Billingsley pitch for them Tuesday against the Cardinals.
• The Cubs got Ted Lilly back from the DL on Monday (he was recovering from knee and shoulder issues), and Lilly was good, hurling six shutout innings against the admittedly relatively hapless Padres. He allowed four hits and one walk, and fanned four. He should be active in all fantasy leagues.
• Hiroki Kuroda was drilled in the head by a Rusty Ryal liner Saturday, a scary sight that had many worried about a fracture or internal bleeding. But amazingly, it looks as though Kuroda might avoid a trip to the disabled list. He'll definitely miss at least one start, but he has been released from the hospital and was allowed to fly home with the Dodgers.
• Carlos Zambrano will throw a rehab start with Class-A Peoria on Thursday in an effort to test his sore back. He's eligible to return to the Cubs next Tuesday.
• Gil Meche wasn't particularly sharp, but he did return from the DL on Thursday, allowing four runs in five innings against the Twins.
• Erik Bedard had exploratory surgery last Friday, and doctors discovered a torn labrum. He's out four to six months, and is no lock to be himself when he returns. This is obviously terrible timing for Bedard, an impending free agent.
• Brett Cecil, who missed a start this weekend because of a sore knee, is expected to take the hill Thursday against the Red Sox.
• Johnny Cueto -- crushed again by an opposing offense to the tune of eight hits and seven runs in 2 2/3 innings Saturday against the Nationals -- will be skipped his next time through the rotation, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer. Cueto's ERA over his past eight starts is over 10, so this sounds like a pretty wise idea.
• Justin Duchscherer was supposed to return to the A's rotation Monday against the Yankees, but instead the "non-baseball related" issues that reportedly slowed down his rehab last month became an issue again, and Oakland scratched the Duke. The team hasn't established if or when Duchscherer will come back to the big club.
• Tim Wakefield will make at least one more rehab start for Triple-A Pawtucket after walking with a noticeable limp during his start Saturday. The Red Sox need their knuckleballer desperately, as they've had to turn to rookie Junichi Tazawa in his place.
• Freddy Garcia will return to the majors Tuesday for the White Sox and face the Royals. Garcia last appeared in the bigs for a disastrous stint with the Tigers last year, and isn't a good bet to stick in the Chicago rotation once Jake Peavy returns from the DL. Peavy should be back Aug. 28.
• According to The Baltimore Sun, when Brad Bergeson returns from the DL, the Orioles will go with a six-man rotation for the rest of the season, meaning Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz will both stay in the majors.
• The Twins placed Glen Perkins on the DL on Wednesday with shoulder tendinitis. That move kept both Nick Blackburn and Anthony Swarzak -- neither of whom should be used in fantasy leagues right now -- safe in Minnesota's rotation. Then the Twins added Francisco Liriano to the DL on Monday after an abysmal showing (seven hits and seven runs in two innings), which might put either Brian Duensing or call-up Phil Humber in the rotation. Despite awesome campaigns from Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, the white flag might be waving in Minny.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can find him at www.facebook.com/writerboy.