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: SP Hayden Penn probably fell too far behind in his race for the fifth-starter role after missing time nursing a sprained ankle, though his next appearance or two should be tracked closely. Though Penn has a 9.31 ERA and 2.034 WHIP in 14 career big-league starts, he's still 22 years old and has 3.56/1.225 rates in his minor-league career to date. He tossed three shutout frames on Saturday, lowering his spring ERA to 3.00, and with SP Steve Trachsel sporting a 8.18 mark in four starts, it's not unthinkable Penn could overtake the veteran, if not this month than early in the season. In AL-only formats, Penn's worth stashing on reserve for now. ... OF Corey Patterson hasn't impressed in Grapefruit League action, batting .161 (5-for-31) with only one extra-base hit (a double). Fortunately, it's an encouraging sign that he's making better contact -- he has only four strikeouts -- but it's looking increasingly like he could use a platoon partner to help him avoid left-handers, who have given him trouble throughout his career (.229 AVG, .629 OPS). And for a player whose fantasy value relies heavily on his counting numbers -- stolen bases particularly -- a loss of at-bats would limit his potential.
Boston Red Sox: Rumors continue to swirl that the Red Sox will trade for a more established closer -- Armando Benitez, Brad Lidge and Scott Linebrink are possibilities -- though RP Joel Pineiro is starting to look more like the best bet of the in-house candidates. He struggled in his first two spring appearances, but since then has tossed 6.1 shutout innings, striking out six batters. Pineiro probably will struggle at times if he lands the role, and combining that with the likelihood that a contender like Boston might deal for a better closer before long, he's not a great bet for fantasy. But as the leader in the race today, he's still worth a late-round mixed pick, or a $7-9 bid in AL-only formats. ... SP Daisuke Matsuzaka had his most recent spring-training start shortened by rain, allowing one run in two innings, numbers that would have brought his ERA to 4.00 through three starts. He's throwing well, with only one walk in nine frames, though it's clear watching him pitch that he's still making adjustments to the U.S. game. He has top-25 starter potential, but asking for him to crack the top 10 is a bit much.
Chicago White Sox: OF Darin Erstad's stock continues to rise, and it's now looking like he might be the team's starting center fielder ahead of Brian Anderson. Manager Ozzie Guillen told the Chicago Sun-Times that he expects Erstad to have "500 at-bats" at season's end, which is enough to cut significantly into the playing time of both Anderson and Scott Podsednik. In addition, Guillen plans to have Erstad in the No. 2 hole in the lineup against right-handers, which hurts the value of 2B Tadahito Iguchi, as he'll be batting lower in the order for most of the season. Erstad is hardly a great fantasy bet, having never topped a .295 batting average or .746 OPS since his career year of 2000, and missed 37 or more games in three of the past four seasons. But he does have .353/.905 career rates in 33 games at U.S. Cellular Field, and could offer a respectable batting average -- think .280s -- double-digit steals and perhaps as many as 85 runs hitting second. Mixed-league owners should wait and see on Erstad, but in AL-only formats, there are worse options for your fourth or fifth outfield spot.
Cleveland Indians: SP Adam Miller was returned to minor-league camp on Tuesday, ending his inspiring run at the fifth-starter role now open due to Cliff Lee's disabled-list status to begin the season. Miller managed 14 scoreless innings this spring, with only three walks and eight strikeouts, numbers that suggest the team's top prospect is ready to make an impact now. SP Fausto Carmona will begin the season as the No. 5 starter, though with his history of inconsistency, it wouldn't be at all a surprise if Miller gets an early regular-season recall. Keep him in mind as one of the better midseason breakthrough candidates for 2007. ... The lineup, which is cluttered by platoons, is beginning to take shape, as OF Trot Nixon appears the favorite to bat second against right-handers, boosting his stock. (Jason Michaels would bat there against lefties.) But OF Casey Blake landed an intriguing spot; he'll hit fifth regardless of opponent or his position. Batting behind DH Travis Hafner and C Victor Martinez will mean plenty of RBI chances for Blake, bumping his value up to useful fourth/fifth mixed-league outfielder, or $10-12 AL-only option.
Detroit Tigers: Manager Jim Leyland announced his regular-season rotation, and this year, it's Jeremy Bonderman, not Kenny Rogers who earns the opening-day start. Leyland's strategy is to split up the power right-handers -- No. 3 starter Justin Verlander is the other -- though it's also an indication of how strongly the team feels about Bonderman's potential. His ERA gains in each of the past three seasons indicate further growth for 2007, which is why he's making such a strong case for top-10 starter status. Nate Robertson and Mike Maroth round out Leyland's rotation; Robertson is the more appealing of the two for fantasy. He's hardly an ace, but if your league allows you to reserve him against stronger offenses, he's a valuable back-of-your-staff option. Verlander, meanwhile, might be the riskiest pick of the bunch. He'll cost a prime draft pick, and his 9.00 ERA in four spring games could be an indication he's suffering from some fatigue from his hefty 2006 workload. Verlander has only three strikeouts in nine innings, no better than the 6.00 per nine he averaged last year, so don't be surprised if he falls victim to a sophomore slump in 2007.
Kansas City Royals: SP Zack Greinke is coming off a trying 2006, and he's facing an uphill battle in his fight for a rotation spot, though he's certainly doing his best to prove he deserves one. In 14 spring innings, he has a 3.86 ERA, 14 strikeouts and one walk, numbers that demonstrate he still possesses top-of-the-rotation ability. Greinke, from a pure talent perspective, might already be one of Kansas City's best starters, with a 2.97 ERA and 1.057 WHIP for his minor-league career, but it's possible he'll have to begin the year in Triple-A ball. He's well worth grabbing in the final rounds of an AL-only league, as at age 23, he still has plenty of time to get his career back on track. ... CL Octavio Dotel is a bit of a risk as he continues his recovery from 2005 Tommy John surgery, though he has looked positively dominant in camp. He has six scoreless innings and 10 strikeouts, making him a safer bet for saves if Kansas City can get him chances. Remember, many Tommy John surgery returnees get back to top form in Year 2 after their recovery.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: 2B Howie Kendrick is tearing up the Cactus League, tying for the league lead in total bases (31), while batting .439 (18-for-41). More importantly, his two home runs and three stolen bases suggest he could be better in those two categories than initially expected, perhaps able to get into the teens in each. Kendrick, a .361 career minor-league hitter who batted .303 in his final 62 games for the Angels in 2006, could easily challenge a .300 mark and quickly rise in the batting order. He's among the more attractive breakout candidates headed into 2007. ... 1B Casey Kotchman is also enjoying a productive spring, batting .325 (13-for-40) with three home runs in 14 games. That's a vast improvement from a year ago, when he was battling mononucleosis, and it's a lot closer to the hitter he was for his minor-league career (.325 AVG, .900 OPS). Kotchman's upside could be limited by sitting occasionally against left-handers for Robb Quinlan, but he could be a cheap source of a .280-plus batting average and perhaps 15-to-20-homer power. That's not a bad AL-only sleeper.
Minnesota Twins: SP Matt Garza is now seemingly bound for Triple-A Rochester, severely hurting his chances at a breakout fantasy campaign. The Twins are committed to Carlos Silva, Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson as three-fifths of their rotation, and Boof Bonser has looked equally as impressive as Garza in a much larger role. Bump Garza down a buck or two on your draft sheets since he might spend all of April in the minors, but taking into account how unlikely Silva, Ortiz and Ponson are to be effective for 30-plus starts apiece all season, the rookie still is worth grabbing and stashing on your bench to begin the year. ... The designated-hitter role seems to be shaping up as a straight platoon between Jason Kubel and Jeff Cirillo, which isn't a bad arrangement at all. Kubel didn't really hit well against either side in 2006, but resting him against lefties could keep him fresher, while Cirillo's one of the game's better specialists hitting against left-handers (.413 AVG, .944 OPS in 2006 alone). As a $1 bid in AL-only formats, Cirillo isn't a bad option to plug in at your corner spot.
New York Yankees: SP Andy Pettitte appears awfully sharp in his three Grapefruit League starts, totaling 10 innings pitched with three walks compared to seven strikeouts. Though he battled elbow concerns in his days in Houston, the left-hander did manage a 3.38 ERA and 1.230 WHIP in his three years there, and his return to New York could rejuvenate him, particularly in the win column. Pettitte was a 21-game winner in his last year in pinstripes, in 2003, and don't overlook that Randy Johnson managed 17 wins despite a 5.00 ERA for last year's Yankees. Once the top arms are off the board, Pettitte is as strong a bet as anyone based on his favorable team situation. ... Talk that SP Kei Igawa might be minor-league bound to begin the season borders on ludicrous. He cost the Yankees nearly a $50-million investment, and while his 5.14 spring ERA and seven walks in seven innings are a mild concern, it should be expected he'll need a little time to adjust to the U.S. game. Igawa should have a bit of an advantage against hitters unfamiliar with him, though, enough to make him a nice $12-14 AL-only investment.
Oakland Athletics: Though he stands little chance at breaking camp with the team, OF Travis Buck is a name to keep tucked away for later in the year. He's a .406 hitter (13-for-32) with seven walks in 14 spring games, capitalizing on increased playing time in center field while Mark Kotsay recovers from back surgery. Buck will probably start the year in Triple-A ball while Milton Bradley mans center field, though it's possible that if OF Shannon Stewart or 1B Dan Johnson, both projected starters, struggle early on, Buck could be a factor by midseason. ... DH Erubiel Durazo continues to press Johnson for the first-base role, though his defensive limitations do put him at a distinct disadvantage in the race. He's batting an impressive .333 (11-for-33) with one homer in the spring, though with C Mike Piazza now in Oakland to assume the designated-hitter duties, Durazo is less of an ideal fit on the roster. If he finds his way to another American League team with a DH opening -- think Baltimore or L.A. -- only then would he be an interesting AL-only reserve pick.
Seattle Mariners: Keep an eye on RP Brandon Morrow, a deep sleeper to make the Mariners in a setup role. The 2006 first-round pick probably intrigues the team more as a starting pitcher long term, but with scouts calling for him to shift permanently to the bullpen, and the team using him in that role in camp, it's not unthinkable he could stick. He already has 6.1 shutout innings in which he has eight strikeouts, and with closer J.J. Putz ailing right now, it's not unthinkable he could begin the year as the team's best pure arm out of the bullpen. Morrow's not worth more than an AL-only reserve pick today, but he's an interesting guy to watch the next week. ... Speaking of Putz, he has been diagnosed with a mild elbow strain, something the team isn't concerned should be a long-term problem. He'll only need a game or two of action in the final week to be ready to assume the closer duties on opening day, but with him sidelined, it's worth looking at who might be next in line for saves in the worst-case scenario. RP Chris Reitsma should be that guy for now, so look at him as an AL-only handcuff.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: The lineup shuffling continues this spring in Tampa Bay, as manager Joe Maddon returned OF Carl Crawford to the leadoff role on Tuesday, while OF Delmon Young, once looked at as the No. 2 hitter, has slipped to the bottom third of the order. Fortunately for Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, who hit third on Tuesday, both should occupy two of the top three lineup spots, making them the safest fantasy picks in the offense. Baldelli hitting third as opposed to first should mean more RBI chances, and on a team like Tampa Bay, the offense isn't deep enough that he won't be allowed to run free on the basepaths, either. Young, meanwhile, should be under less pressure to perform hitting seventh in the order, though his counting numbers -- home runs, RBI, runs scored -- won't be so impressive due to a handful less at-bats. Take his demotion in the lineup as another reason not to overrate him; he also has yet to homer in 36 spring at-bats. Young has immense upside, but keep in mind he's inexperienced. Going past $15 in a mixed league for him will put your roster at considerable risk.
Texas Rangers: Here's a good lesson in why spring-training statistics shouldn't be taken too seriously: Three of the Rangers' most effective arms during the exhibition season have been the three pitchers still in contention for the fifth-starter role, Bruce Chen (0.77 ERA in 11.2 innings), Kameron Loe (three unearned runs in 13.2 innings) and Jamey Wright (2.16 ERA in three starts). That could convince some owners to go for the winner as an AL-only sleeper, but in a ballpark like Rangers Ballpark in Arlington -- its new name -- none is a particularly strong bet for fantasy. Chen's coming off a season in which he had a 6.93 ERA and 1.743 WHIP in 40 appearances, Loe had 5.86/1.621 rates in 15 starts for these Rangers in 2006, and Wright had 5.19/1.481 rates in 34 appearances for last year's Giants, who play in a far more pitching-oriented ballpark. Fantasy owners can get some underappreciated value out of top three Texas starters Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla and Brandon McCarthy, but leave the final two members of the rotation -- looking today like they'll be Robinson Tejada and Wright -- to the sidelines.
Toronto Blue Jays: SP John Thomson could be pitching himself out of a rotation spot, as his 7.27 ERA in three spring starts has the team rumored to be considering cutting or trading him. That'd seemingly leave the fifth-starter role in SP Josh Towers' hands, not the best move for the Blue Jays since he has been one of the more hittable pitchers in the league the past half-decade, with a career 4.89 ERA and 10.93 hits per nine innings ratio. But the more interesting development if Thomson departs is that it'd increase the chances of Casey Janssen or Shaun Marcum getting into the rotation. Each had nice minor-league numbers, and could be a useful matchups option in AL-only leagues given an opportunity. ... SS Royce Clayton continues to disappoint, batting .172 (5-for-29) with nine strikeouts thus far this spring. He stands little chance at losing his job regardless of his performance, but taking into account that he was one of the worst big-league regulars in 2006, he shouldn't offer much more than stopgap value for AL-only owners. Clayton's best avoided when possible.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.