Cockcroft: Around the American League
What's been going on around the American League in the past week? Tristan H. Cockcroft takes a quick-hitting look at the news and notes for each of the 14 AL teams:
BALTIMORE ORIOLES: OF Corey Patterson's role as an everyday player became more assured on Monday, after it was learned that Jay Payton will miss a few weeks due to a strained left hamstring. That helps clear up some of the clutter the team has in the outfield, at designated hitter and first base, as Patterson will now start in center field, Jay Gibbons will play in left field, Aubrey Huff will play first base and Kevin Millar will serve as the DH. Of course, Patterson's status playing against left-handers will hurt his batting average; he batted .207 with a .560 OPS against lefties in 2006. Still, he's a player whose fantasy value is closely tied to his stolen-base contributions, and considering he runs more often than anyone in baseball when on base, any increased at-bats can only help him in the category. Expect a hot start for him in stolen bases, perhaps putting him among the league leaders in the month of April.
BOSTON RED SOX: The buzz around Red Sox camp the past week has been the decision to shift Jonathan Papelbon back to the closer role, a move that renders the red-hot Joel Pineiro mostly worthless in fantasy leagues. Pineiro, who of late looked like the favorite to win the job, with 8 1/3 scoreless innings in his last seven appearances, now has to settle for a setup role, barring a late trade to another team in search of a closer (Cincinnati? Florida? Tampa Bay?). He's worthy of handcuff status in AL-only formats, but don't expect much, as he's hardly a reliable ERA/WHIP option. ... Papelbon's departure from the rotation clears the fifth-starter role, but it's neither Pineiro nor Jon Lester who will get the ball. Instead, Julian Tavarez, another former closer hopeful, returns to the same role in which he managed three wins, a 4.01 ERA and 1.485 WHIP in six starts last season. That WHIP, and his 1.602 career mark as a starter, indicate an inconsistent roster filler, meaning only limited matchups potential at best.
NEW YORK YANKEES: Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano. Which one doesn't belong? The first three have combined for 867 career wins and each of the Yankees' six opening-day starting assignments since 2001. But this year, Pavano, a career 61-64 pitcher, gets the nod, which illustrates how hard injuries have hit the Yankee rotation. Original opening-day starter Chien-Ming Wang (hamstring) is slated to begin the season on the disabled list, missing perhaps three weeks, while Andy Pettitte (back spasms) has been thrown off schedule for the assignment, and now needs a healthy spring start on Friday to be ready for opening week. Phil Hughes owners must be thrilled to see rotation openings keep popping up, but don't be so hasty; early-spring sensation Jeff Karstens was next in line, and now that he has an elbow problem that could send him to the DL, Darrell Rasner is being talked up as the short-term No. 5 starter. Hughes owners surely should keep him stashed on reserve, since all this news increases the chance he'll be promoted well before the All-Star break, but that the rookie was returned to minor-league camp so early (March 14) suggests he's not being looked at as a serious fill-in candidate initially. Think June for him. Pavano's stock shouldn't change much; he's a late-round flier for AL-only owners. Rasner, meanwhile, was once an interesting prospect, but only consider him AL-only reserve worthy due to his decent spring (1.50 ERA, 12 IP).
TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS: Seth McClung's miserable spring (11.05 ERA, 7 1/3 IP) makes it rather likely the Devil Rays will begin the season using a closer-by-committee, a nightmare strategy for fantasy, especially when used by a losing team. Manager Joe Maddon has said he'll "mix and match," though it's possible he's only trying to ease the pressure on Al Reyes, perhaps the best bet of the bunch and the team's most talented reliever on the roster. If your AL-only league has yet to draft, the closer pecking order in Tampa Bay appears to be Reyes (2.25 spring ERA), then Chad Orvella (1.08 spring ERA). McClung's not even shaping up as a draftable player the way he has looked so far in March. ... DH Jonny Gomes hasn't gotten much positive press this spring, though in the past week he finally appears to be heating up at the plate. He's 7-for-12 (.583 AVG) with two home runs and six RBI in his last four games, bringing him to a .271 average and four homers in 48 at-bats for the spring. Of course, he has struck out 18 times -- one per 2.7 at-bats -- a rate that'll make him a batting-average risk yet again in 2007. Gomes' shoulder doesn't seem to be an issue any longer, making him an interesting bargain candidate, but keep in mind Greg Norton is currently set to start at designated hitter, so Gomes needs to keep up this streak to earn more playing time.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS: CL B.J. Ryan (back) hasn't pitched in a Grapefruit League contest in two weeks, though the Blue Jays don't seem concerned he won't be ready for opening day. He tossed a bullpen session on Sunday, and should return to "A" game action next Saturday, with the one game apparently enough of a tune-up for him to be available for the regular season. Ryan is one of the five best fantasy closers, thanks to his strikeout potential, but in deep AL-only leagues, it's not a bad move to handcuff him in the early weeks. Of course, with RP Brandon League battling a partially torn rotator cuff that earned him a demotion to Triple-A Syracuse, Jason Frasor is now the next in line to close should Ryan be unavailable. Frasor's value might be short-lived, but those looking for deep sleepers should consider Jeremy Accardo, who has the potential to quickly emerge as the team's primary setup man.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX: C Toby Hall likely will miss the 2007 season after being diagnosed with a torn right labrum, suffered while he was diving for a ball while playing first base on Sunday. He was set to serve as A.J. Pierzynski's backup, but more importantly, he could have earned a decent share of at-bats against left-handers, after batting .292 with an .833 OPS against them in 2006. Now Pierzynski's role as the everyday catcher becomes more assured, making him worth bumping up a buck or two on your draft sheets. ... Rookie John Danks will begin the year as Chicago's fifth starter, making him an interesting late-round sleeper in AL-only formats. The team's top prospect will probably need time to adjust at the big-league level, especially calling a homer-friendly ballpark his home, though his 9.27 strikeouts per nine innings ratio for his minor-league career indicates he could be at least a useful matchups type initially.
CLEVELAND INDIANS: OF Grady Sizemore has struggled as much as any hitter this spring, batting .118 (6-for-51) with two home runs and 10 strikeouts in 15 games. Incredibly, his slump has done little to affect his draft price; and that's the way it should be. He's being picked 18th on average in ESPN live drafts, and with his 30-homer, 25-steal potential, Sizemore makes a strong case for early-second-round consideration. Don't worry too much about his Grapefruit League numbers, as many experienced players struggle to find their strokes in March. ... The demotion of IF Hector Luna on Saturday increases the chances the Indians will keep 1B Ryan Garko on the opening-day roster, even though the team only plans to use him against left-handers. He has batted .281 (16-for-57) with two homers in 17 games, and should be taken late in AL-only formats based on the chance a hot start could earn him additional playing time.
DETROIT TIGERS: He might not look at all the part, but C Ivan Rodriguez will serve as the Tigers' leadoff hitter, at least against left-handed pitchers. His .340 batting average and .891 OPS against lefties in 2006 do mark him as a decent choice, though he's hardly the high-walk type one ideal to lead off. Rodriguez should see an increase in runs scored thanks to perhaps as many as 200 plate appearances in that role, though his fantasy value shouldn't change too much. What the decision should do, however, is ensure the high-RBI potential of heart-of-the-order hitters Gary Sheffield and Magglio Ordonez, as Curtis Granderson and his .277 on-base percentage against left-handers will be hitting lower in the lineup on those days. Assuming full health, each slugger could breeze past 100 RBI. ... 1B Chris Shelton was demoted to Triple-A Toledo on Monday, ensuring that Sean Casey will be an everyday player to begin the season. Manager Jim Leyland planned all along to play Casey even against left-handers, leaving no room for Shelton, particularly with Marcus Thames adjusting nicely in his workouts at first base. Thames will serve as a backup at both corner outfield spots and first base, which could lead to another 400-plate appearance season and similar power totals to his 2006 line. He's an AL-only sleeper.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS: Friday's acquisition of Tony Pena Jr. marked the end of the Angel Berroa era in Kansas City, as the former Rookie of the Year was demoted to Triple-A Omaha the next day, with Pena being named the team's starting shortstop. Berroa had been a complete disappointment in three years since winning that award, never topping a .270 batting average or .693 OPS, but fantasy owners shouldn't race to the waiver wire to snatch up Pena, either. He had .253/.620 rates for his minor-league career, never topping .282/.671 numbers, and is more known for his defense. For AL-only formats, Pena might be a 12-to-15-steal type, but there's limited value in that. ... 3B Alex Gordon officially has won a starting job, thanks to his .391/1.130 line in 18 spring games. It appears he'll begin the year batting fifth in the lineup, making him a favorite for AL Rookie of the Year honors. He's easily a $10-12 mixed-league or $18-20 AL-only player. ... 2B Mark Grudzielanek (knee surgery) returned to action Monday night, and plans to be in the opening-day lineup on April 2. He remains a useful AL-only middle infielder, though Esteban German owners lose a bit of value now that he'll be returning to a lesser-used utility role. ... SP Zack Greinke (3.32 ERA, 21 K's, 19 IP this spring) will break camp in the Kansas City rotation after all; Luke Hudson (shoulder) is headed for the DL to begin the year. Don't forget that Greinke was once considered a future ace, and while he's on a team that's not going to provide him with much win potential, he could be an underrated source of ERA, WHIP and strikeouts.
MINNESOTA TWINS: C Joe Mauer was diagnosed with a stress reaction in his left fibula on Thursday, and he has yet to return to game action since. The Twins shut him down for a week, though he did participate in some light activity over the weekend. Mauer noted that he would have played through the issue during the regular season, but during the exhibition season the team chose to play it safe with the defending batting champion. Still, this development is concern enough to shave $2-4 off his auction price tag, especially taking into account that he missed a significant chunk of the 2004 season battling a knee problem. Catchers take a fair amount of wear and tear, putting Mauer at increased risk for more issues during the year. As for stand-ins, Mike Redmond would stand to earn the most at-bats if Mauer misses time, though that shouldn't boost his fantasy value much. He's a .292 career hitter but entirely lacks power or speed. ... SP Matt Garza remained in camp through Monday, a good sign that he's still in consideration for a rotation spot. He allowed one run in three innings of relief on Sunday, and now has a 1.50 ERA in 12 spring innings. Carlos Silva (11.02 ERA, 16 1/3 spring innings) would be most likely to be bumped for Garza at this point, though even if the Twins keep Silva in the rotation initially, it's unlikely he, Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson will all manage to retain their starting roles deep into the season.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM: 3B Chone Figgins will miss five to six weeks of the season after being diagnosed with two fractured fingers; he has a break on the tip of his right middle finger and another in his right index finger. He'll wear a splint for three weeks, making him a longshot to return before early May. In Figgins' absence, Maicer Izturis, a cheap source of stolen bases, should fill in at third base, while Erick Aybar could be kept around in Izturis' old reserve infielder role. Both Aybar and Izturis now warrant some AL-only attention based on their speed, though playing time should be short-lived for each. ... The Angels, already hurting on the pitching side with SPs Bartolo Colon and Jered Weaver DL-bound, might have a third starter shelved for the early portion of April, as Kelvim Escobar's back has been acting up. He's tentatively scheduled to start on April 3 after being cleared to resume pitching, but a final decision will be made after he throws 90-100 pitches in a camp game on Thursday. Joe Saunders will assume Colon's rotation spot in April, while Hector Carrasco and Dustin Moseley are the candidates for Weaver's spot, as well as Escobar's if needed. Saunders is the safest bet of the bunch for fantasy; he's worthy of fill-in consideration in AL-only formats when the matchups are right.
OAKLAND ATHLETICS: 1B Dan Johnson should wind up Oakland's starter, as he's batting .294 (15-for-51) with two home runs and a .397 on-base percentage in 20 games. Though he's coming off a terrible season, Johnson's one of the more skilled batsmen in the Oakland organization, capable of a .280-.290 batting average and 20-25-homer power. He'll begin the year batting eighth in the lineup, limiting his RBI potential, but as a corner infield option with upside, he's not a bad late-round selection. ... RP Justin Duchscherer (triceps strain) returned to action on Saturday and has pitched two scoreless innings in his first two appearances of the spring. He's no threat to CL Huston Street's job security, but is one of the league's more valuable setup men for fantasy, pitching enough innings to make an impact in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts. Duchscherer always finds a way to pick up a handful of wins and saves, so don't forget about him as one of the game's better middle relievers in the latter rounds of your draft.
SEATTLE MARINERS: CL J.J. Putz (elbow strain) threw a 25-pitch bullpen session on Sunday, and could be ready to pitch in a spring-training game as soon as Friday. He's back on track for Opening Day, barring a setback, though those who pick him should pair him up with RP Chris Reitsma to be safe. Rookie Brandon Morrow, who has 7 1/3 scoreless innings and eight strikeouts this spring, is also a deep sleeper for AL-only owners. ... 2B Jose Vidro has been adjusting nicely to the No. 3 hole, batting between 3B Adrian Beltre and OF Raul Ibanez, and hitting .353 (18-for-51) in 14 spring games. Injuries are always an issue with Vidro, keeping him in late-round consideration in mixed leagues, but that he qualifies at second base in most formats makes him an interesting bargain candidate. He could offer a .300 batting average and a decent RBI rate in games in which he's healthy.
TEXAS RANGERS: OF Sammy Sosa continues to tear up the Cactus League, as he's now batting .409 (18-for-44) with four home runs in 15 games. Of course, many of his numbers have been accrued against pitchers he won't face often during the regular season, so it's a mistake to read too much into his performance. What's clear, though, is that Sosa will make the team and play fairly regularly at designated hitter, giving him some AL-only value. Batting average should be a problem, though with enough playing time, he could be a 20-homer hitter. ... CL Eric Gagne has made two appearances in "A" spring-training games, most recently tossing a scoreless inning and striking out two batters in a start on Friday. He has allowed only a home run and two hits to date, though he'll need a few more respectable outings to be that trusted a fantasy pick. Gagne's highly unlikely to make it through the entire year at 100 percent health, though he's capable of being an elite saves option if he continues to improve at his current pace.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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