Cockcroft: Around the American League
Here's a quick-hitting look at the news and fantasy notes for each of the 14 American League teams from the past week:
Baltimore Orioles: There appears to be some hesitance on the Orioles' part to play Aubrey Huff in the outfield thus far, and as opening day approaches, it's looking increasingly likely he'll serve as the team's everyday first baseman. That leaves left field to either Jay Payton or Jay Gibbons, with the former the more experienced defender of the two. Gibbons might be forced to battle primarily for designated hitter at-bats with Kevin Millar, limiting his bounce-back appeal in fantasy leagues, though the news does make Huff a "safe" pick and Payton a more attractive AL-only outfielder, in the $6-8 range. ... SP Adam Loewen has a 2.25 ERA and nine strikeouts in four innings in two spring starts, after finishing 2006 with a 4.22 ERA and 1.313 WHIP in his final nine starts. That's a strikeout rate much closer to the 9.08 strikeouts per nine innings ratio of his minor-league career, and it's a sign of his breakout potential for 2007. Remember, he'll be working with one of the best pitching coaches in baseball in Leo Mazzone, making Loewen a decent mixed-league reserve pick or $5-7 AL-only option.
Boston Red Sox: With Mike Timlin battling a strained oblique, Joel Pineiro working on a new arm angle and Craig Hansen sporting a 15.00 spring ERA, several Boston news outlets are reporting that Julian Tavarez (3.52 spring ERA) is the current front-runner for the closer role. A closer for the final six weeks of the 2003 season in Pittsburgh, Tavarez has seen his ERA and WHIP rise dramatically in each of the past two seasons, making him an unlikely bet to hold the role for too long. This could yet wind up Pineiro's job, but if you're considering throwing a few bucks at any of these guys in AL-only formats, let the Chad Cordero trade rumors keep you from being coerced into overpaying. ... SP Jonathan Papelbon has five scoreless frames and threw well in a simulated game on Monday as he continues his transition from closer to starter. His shoulder hasn't been at all an issue, and that he threw 148.2 innings combined between the majors and minors in 2005 suggests Papelbon should be able to handle the increased workload. Even if he can't, the Red Sox could always return him to closing, which helps preserve his value as a mid-round mixed-league pick or a $15 AL-only investment.
Chicago White Sox: The team's top starters have been getting shelled so far this spring, as Mark Buehrle has followed up his poor 2006 with 11 runs and 15 hits, three of them home runs, in nine innings; Jon Garland has allowed 11 runs (10 earned) on 18 hits in eight innings; and Javier Vazquez has been torched for 12 runs on 15 hits in 6.1 frames. Veterans like this often don't look at spring training as anything more than a tune-up, so don't get too worried yet, though that Garland's shoulder has been acting up is a small concern. The team says it's the same kind of thing that caused him to start slowly in 2006, but it'd be nice to hear a more promising report on him before opening day. ... Fortunately, the fifth-starter race offers some promise, as top prospect John Danks has a 1.50 ERA in three appearances, offering a bit of competition to the Gavin Floyd-Charlie Haeger battle. Floyd is widely regarded as the favorite to open the year as Chicago's fifth starter, though it's a role likely to go to Danks in the long haul, probably by sometime midseason. Keep him in mind as a reserve pick.
Cleveland Indians: SP Cliff Lee will begin the season on the disabled list after being scratched from his most recent throwing session on Sunday. He's expected to miss two or three regular-season starts, opening up a competition between Fausto Carmona and rookie Adam Miller. Carmona's the leading candidate to stand in for Lee after tossing three scoreless innings against the Yankees on Monday, though that Miller has five shutout innings of his own this spring could make him a darkhorse candidate for the role. Miller should be ready for Cleveland by sometime midseason, so even if he doesn't break camp with the team, keep tabs on his progress at Triple-A Buffalo. ... OF Casey Blake earned starts at third base both on Saturday and Monday, a significant development in that he has oft been mentioned as a fall-back at the position should Andy Marte falter. That's a sign the Indians are preparing for the prospect Marte isn't ready to be a regular, which is good news for prospective Ryan Garko owners. He'd stand to inherit the first-base at-bats if Blake shifted permanently to third.
Detroit Tigers: Well, look who's tearing things up with the bat early in the year, yet again! That's right, it's 1B Chris Shelton, a .444 hitter (8-for-18) with one home run as he fights to earn a roster spot as a backup at first base and designated hitter. Remember, this is the same guy who batted .471 (24-for-51) with nine homers in his first 13 games of 2006 before essentially disappearing, and .327 with a .954 OPS for his minor-league career, so there's value in him as a $1 AL-only sleeper. A trade elsewhere could be Shelton's best route to finding fantasy value, but it's not unthinkable he could out-hit Sean Casey and be a factor later in the season. ... With news that both Andrew Miller and Jordan Tata were returned to minor-league camp on Monday, SP Mike Maroth's spot as the team's fifth starter is now guaranteed. He has a 3.00 ERA in his three starts this month, though his track record hardly excites many fantasy owners. Still, Maroth was 5-2 with a 3.56 ERA in his nine starts before getting hurt in 2006, and he has a 4.24 ERA in his last 58 starts, meaning there's at least some matchups potential in him.
Kansas City Royals: It doesn't appear that there will be any further clarity to the Royals' catching situation before opening day, as John Buck and Jason LaRue are now expected to share time to begin the season. That's hardly a good thing for fantasy, as the last thing you want from your catcher position is a part-timer who's a batting-average risk, which is how both Royals are apparently shaping up. Buck and LaRue combined to bat .228 (128-for-562) with 19 homers and 71 RBI in 2006, so while they'll need to be drafted as AL-only No. 2 catchers, it's something you should try to avoid. ... Keep an eye on Joakim Soria, one of the spring's more surprising performers to date. He has allowed one run on three hits in eight innings, and more importantly, has five strikeouts compared to no walks. Soria, a Rule 5 pick who tossed a perfect game in the Mexican Pacific League in 2006, probably doesn't stand much of a chance at winning a rotation spot this spring, but if he lands in a bullpen, there's sleeper potential in him. He has a live arm, and it's not unthinkable he could be a darkhorse candidate for saves.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Could the Angels seriously be considering suspending OF Gary Matthews Jr. for refusing to address allegations he ordered human growth hormone? Somehow, it's a move that seems unlikely to hold up against challenges from the players union, but the rumor alone does indicate the team's concern regarding Matthews' future. He's becoming a less attractive fantasy pick the closer we get to the season, settling in as more of a late-round mixed pick or a $15 AL-only option. Meanwhile, SS Erick Aybar has been getting work in center field, increasing the chances he could break camp with the team in a utility role. That he's blocked at shortstop by Orlando Cabrera makes Aybar not worth drafting, but if he can maintain his .357 spring batting average (10-for-28), he might not be a bad AL-only reserve pick. ... The Angels plan to keep Brandon Wood at third base, where he has been working out so far this spring. A former shortstop, Wood would see a cleaner path to L.A. at the hot corner, where he might be recalled from Triple-A sometime midseason.
Minnesota Twins: The rotation is drawing all the attention right now, and while the Twins continue to maintain they'll begin the year with Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson and Carlos Silva all in starting roles, the latter two have done nothing to date to prove themselves deserving. Ponson, whose start to spring training was delayed by visa problems, allowed four runs on seven hits in two innings in his Grapefruit League debut last Friday, while Silva has allowed nine runs (eight earned) on 13 hits in nine innings total. That's good news for rookie Matt Garza, who missed some time battling a neck injury; he tossed two shutout innings on Monday. It's an uphill climb for Garza, as the Twins have a history of not rushing young starting pitchers, but taking into account his and Ponson's talent, he's the one youngster in contention with a real shot at breaking camp in the rotation. Bank on Garza as a late-round mixed sleeper, or as much as an $8-10 AL-only investment. ... SP Boof Bonser has been a spring standout, and could easily establish himself as the Twins' second-most effective fantasy starter. That he has no walks to go along with his 3.38 ERA in eight spring innings is a great sign.
New York Yankees: Still no sign of OF Bobby Abreu (oblique) in spring games, though he has resumed hitting off a tee and was working out in the outfield Monday for the first time since getting hurt. He could return to action sometime within the next week, and there's little doubt he'll be ready for opening day. Batting third in the Yankee lineup between Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, Abreu is in one of the fantasy friendliest situations in baseball, meaning a big contract-year season should be in his future. ... SP Jeff Karstens has impressed so far this spring, with five scoreless innings, though he remains sixth on the depth chart as opening day approaches. He pitched well for the Yankees late in 2006, however, and taking into account Carl Pavano's injury history, Karstens isn't a bad AL-only reserve pick. ... SP Phil Hughes has a 7.73 ERA in three appearances, and he's slated to begin the year at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. We'll see him in New York this year, but don't let the hype get the best of you.
Oakland Athletics: The fifth-starter race has been anything but inspiring, as favorite Joe Kennedy has been hit hard for 13 runs on 21 hits in 7.1 innings. Fortunately for him, neither Brad Halsey (10.79 ERA, 3 spring starts) nor Jason Windsor (10.39 ERA, 3 spring appearances) has done much to step up as an alternative, leaving Kennedy a few more weeks to get himself straightened out. Whoever emerges could have some AL-only matchups value, but this is one of the weaker years for the Oakland rotation, so don't take it as automatic that the winner will enjoy a big season. ... SP Rich Harden has suffered no setbacks with his elbow, and through five spring innings, he has yet to allow a run while striking out nine batters. He's perhaps the best example of a high-risk, high-reward player in baseball for 2007, with Cy Young potential if he can dodge the injury issues that have limited him to 28 starts the past two years combined. And with Harden looking strong so far, keep rising him up your draft sheets, perhaps to the 10th round in mixed leagues, and $16-18 in AL-only formats.
Seattle Mariners: SP Felix Hernandez reported to camp 20 pounds lighter and in better shape than ever before, and he has backed it up through three spring starts, with a 2.00 ERA and 1.111 WHIP in nine innings. Considering he had a 3.92 ERA and 1.236 WHIP in his final 20 starts of 2006, King Felix should take a noticeable step forward this season, perhaps enough that he'll finish the year a top-10 fantasy starter. ... SP Horacio Ramirez has nine scoreless innings in which he has allowed only two hits all spring. He's hardly a strikeout type and there's little chance he'll maintain that kind of pace in the hitting-rich American League, but a healthy Ramirez does have the stuff to beat lesser offenses, meaning he could be a respectable matchups option whose final ERA could wind up in the 4.00-4.25 range. ... 2B Jose Vidro is settling in nicely as the No. 3 hitter, batting .346 (9-for-26) with five RBI in seven games. With Ichiro Suzuki and Adrian Beltre hitting ahead of him in the lineup and the DH role his to keep him fresh, Vidro could be a surprising low-priced second base option for fantasy in 2007.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Manager Joe Maddon won't hand the closer role to Seth McClung, especially not with the right-hander managing a 6.00 ERA and two walks in three innings this spring. Sure, McClung's the best bet of the bunch, but don't overlook that Chad Orvella was once considered the team's closer of the future, while Al Reyes was one of the best setup men in the National League in 2005 before missing last season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Both pitchers have looked better than McClung so far in March, and could easily wind up at the back end of the Tampa Bay bullpen with a strong finish. ... 3B B.J. Upton is going to need to perform much better than his current .208 batting average (5-for-24) if he wants to land the role as Tampa Bay's primary utilityman. He could be arguably the team's best on-base man if he makes the team, but his defensive questions could earn him a ticket back to the minors. Be careful expecting too much out of Upton, as he's no lock to make the Devil Rays.
Texas Rangers: The Rangers have already settled on Frank Catalanotto, Kenny Lofton and Brad Wilkerson for three of six roster spots that'll be used to fill the outfield/DH roles, and Nelson Cruz and Sammy Sosa are considered virtual locks to make the team as well. That leaves the sixth and final spot to a race between Jason Botts and Marlon Byrd, a battle that could be led by Byrd right now because he's the one more polished with the glove. Texas' outfield/DH picture looks like a perfect mix of platoon mates, so don't count on guys like Cruz, Sosa or Byrd starting more than a few times a week against left-handers, limiting their fantasy potential. Lofton might be the safest pick of the bunch, because he's the most natural leadoff man on the roster. He could easily bat .300, steal 20 bases and score 90 runs, enough to make him a mid-range AL-only outfielder. ... Sosa's addition might have seemed a longshot of a move during the winter, but his .440 batting average and two homers this spring have made him a factor after all. He's the most likely of the right-handed hitters to play regularly, though in mixed leagues, his recent track record still makes him a poor investment.
Toronto Blue Jays: OF Alex Rios won't bat second in the lineup after all; Toronto plans to hit him sixth, with 1B Lyle Overbay settling into the No. 2 hole. That's not a great decision for either player, even if it does mean a few extra at-bats for Overbay and RBI chances for Rios. Ultimately, Overbay's bat could better take advantage of hitting fifth behind 3B Troy Glaus and DH Frank Thomas, where he could be a low-priced 100-RBI man, but in the No. 2 hole he'll be a better bet for runs scored but probably no more than a 75-80 RBI man. Rios, meanwhile, could have challenged 100 runs in the No. 2 hole, but now he'll see that total slip due to having C Gregg Zaun and 2B Aaron Hill hitting behind him. It's possible the Blue Jays could give Rios the green light on the basepaths more now without worrying about having CF Vernon Wells and Glaus hitting behind him, but overall, returning to second in the order would make him a better breakout candidate. Either way, Rios does have 20/20 potential.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.