Blanton Now or Nieve?

Two of the biggest surprises of the last month have come out of the NL East. The Phillies’ Joe Blanton and the Mets’ Fernando Nieve have been two of the top pitchers throughout June, but is either one for real?

In three starts for New York, Nieve is 3-0 with a 1.45 ERA and 11 strikeouts. He allowed only two runs in Yankee Stadium, and that’s been his worst start. In 18 2/3 innings he’s given up 10 hits, but more troubling are his nine walks. He’s also had a lot of luck, stranding 91 percent of runners and has a BABIP of .181. Still, Nieve appears to be developing into a quality pitcher.

Blanton has been a bright spot as the Phillies have spiraled into the ground over the last few weeks. He’s 2-1 with a 2.75 ERA in his last six starts. In 39 1/3 innings, Blanton has struck out 40 and opponents are hitting .242 off him. He has been bitten by the long ball, allowing eight home runs in that stretch, including two in spacious Petco Park.

Both pitchers are a gamble, but for different reasons. Fantasy players should always be skeptical of pitchers in Philadelphia because of the bandbox they call a home field. This year, Blanton’s ERA is a full two runs lower on the road and he has allowed five fewer home runs in nearly the same number of innings.

Nieve, however, gets to pitch in the gigantic Citi Field. But he is largely an unproven talent and baseball history is littered by players who come up and take the league by storm, never to be heard from again. The Mets recently experienced this with star prospect Jorge Sosa, who flamed out in 2007. Manager Jerry Manuel told the New York Times that Nieve’s stuff is better than Sosa’s, but eventually hitters will adjust to him and he will have to counter with one of his own.

You won’t see either pitcher on my fantasy teams any time soon, but for those who need pitching help, Blanton may be worth breaking my no Phillies’ starters rule. He has a track record of at least being a decent starting pitcher in the majors. But keep tabs on Nieve, maybe opponents won’t figure him out this year.

Cliff notes:
It isn’t a Cy Young season for Indians’ ace Cliff Lee, but his is putting together another solid year. One of the most unsupported starters in baseball, Lee is 4-6 with a 2.92 ERA. His 16 starts are the most in the AL, and he should be on track for his second All-Star appearance. He starts this week against the White Sox at home Tuesday. The left-hander defeated Chicago on May 13 this year, going seven innings without allowing a run. He’s a must start anyway for fantasy owners, but they shouldn’t be worried this week.

As for the rumors surrounding a trade involving last year’s Cy Young award winner, don’t believe anything until Cleveland General Manager Mark Shapiro holds a press conference. Lee won’t be moved until this year unless a team is willing to give up a Tommy Hanson or Clay Buchholz type pitcher, which won’t happen. Lee will continue to not produce wins for your team, even as his ERA stays under three.

Kaz’s return:
Sidelined for a month with a strained right quad, Tampa Bay left-hander Scott Kazmir made his return Saturday night. Kazmir threw 92 pitches in five innings, allowing two runs on four hits. That outing isn’t what the Rays need out of their former ace going forward, but it was enough to allow the team to win.

Kazmir has had control problems, but that didn’t seem to be an issue against Florida. He walked one batter and threw 61 of his pitches for strikes. It will still be a journey back for Kazmir, but he has the talent to return to dominance. He’s just 25 years old, and this is really the first time he’s struggled on the mound in his life. Keep an eye out for him in the second half if he can continue to improve.

Pitcher pickup of the week: Nick Blackburn, Twins
Blackburn will make two starts this week, at Kansas City on Monday and Sunday in Minnesota against Detroit. The right-hander has flown under the radar all season, but is a key part of the terrific Minnesota rotation. He’s on a tear right now, going 4-1 with a 2.02 ERA in his last nine starts. In that stretch, opponents are hitting. 240 off him and he has pitched at least six innings in each outing. Blackburn’s last rough start did come against the Tigers, but this time he will get to pitch in the Metrodome, where he is undefeated with a 2.61 ERA this season.