- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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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.
American League East
BALTIMORE ORIOLES: Ramon Hernandez owners will be without him until the weekend due to a strained rib-cage muscle he suffered swinging the bat in a spring-training game on Friday. In his absence, Paul Bako will start for the Orioles through their series in Minnesota, meaning those of you in leagues with daily transactions should reserve Hernandez for now. Bako, a .236 career hitter with a .629 OPS, shouldn't be considered as a stand-in despite the increased at-bats. ... Don't underestimate the improvements Daniel Cabrera appears to have made this exhibition season; he finished with a 2.63 ERA, 23 strikeouts and 10 walks in 24 innings, demonstrating far better command than he did in his first year working with pitching coach Leo Mazzone, when he walked 104 batters in 148 innings in 2006. Cabrera had LASIK surgery following last season, another step up from the corrective goggles he wore late in the year, when he walked only 29 batters in 62 1/3 innings the final two months. It's possible the fixes to his eyesight, as well as Mazzone's tutelage, will help him break out as one of the AL's most effective starters.
BOSTON RED SOX: Curt Schilling told the Boston Herald before his Monday start that he's unveiling a changeup this season, and he plans on "pitching to contact," instead of his old approach of aiming for the strikeout in most situations. Of course, in his regular-season debut, his pitch-to-contact style wasn't particularly effective; he surrendered five runs on eight hits in four innings in a loss to the Royals. One has to wonder why Schilling would want to change a pitching style that has helped him to more than 200 wins and 3,000 strikeouts, though at least he's getting creative at 40 years old, something a lot of veteran pitchers won't do. Take his first start as more of an experimentation outing, as a pitcher of Schilling's stature might only be tinkering right now and more likely should turn his season around in the coming weeks. A slow start, though, could put him in the buy-low trade category, so keep tabs on his performance in the season's early weeks. ... Daisuke Matsuzaka has been complaining of some arm fatigue of late, though he's on schedule to make his U.S. debut Thursday at Kansas City. Such a development isn't uncommon, but Dice-K needs close monitoring for as long as he's less than 100 percent, as there's always the chance his hefty workloads from his days in Japan could come back to haunt him.
NEW YORK YANKEES: Josh Phelps made the Yankees' Opening Day roster as the right-handed half of a first-base platoon with Doug Mientkiewicz, quite the power/defense combination. Phelps provides the power half of the duo, Mientkiewicz the defense half, meaning that when Phelps starts, he should be lifted late in games for Mientkiewicz (which is what happened in the regular-season opener). He's a career .292 hitter with an .857 OPS and one homer per 19.0 at-bats against left-handers, and should earn enough playing time to be a useful corner infielder in AL-only formats, but his defensive limitations should keep him somewhere in the 250 at-bat range. ... Johnny Damon left Monday's regular-season opener with cramps in both calves, though he said after the game he expects to be ready for Wednesday. It's nothing to get concerned about, from the sound of it, but it does help illustrate why Melky Cabrera is still an interesting AL-only fourth/fifth outfielder despite his fourth-outfield status on the Yankee roster. Damon, Bobby Abreu and Hideki Matsui are each at least 32 years old, meaning minor bumps and bruises should pop up for each, and the Yankees will need to give them occasional rest at times to keep them fresh.
TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS: Rocco Baldelli's late-spring hamstring injury limited him to designated hitter duties on Opening Day, though it's a promising sign that he stole a base in the game, suggesting he's not far off from returning to his traditional center field role. He'll be an injury risk all year based on his history, but a healthy Baldelli could be capable of 25-30 home runs and 20 stolen bases. ... The Devil Rays returned Jorge Cantu and Seth McClung to the minor leagues, a significant development for fantasy since each was considered a decent draft-day pick not too long ago. Cantu's demotion could signal the end for him in Tampa Bay, but it clears a possible everyday spot in the lineup for B.J. Upton, who went 2-for-4 with a stolen base on Monday. Upton's fantasy stock gets a big boost with the Cantu news, and he could be a .290-hitting, 40-steal candidate so long as he keeps getting regular at-bats. ... As for the closer role, McClung's demotion puts Al Reyes (1.80 spring ERA) at the head of a closer-by-committee, one that could have Brian Stokes and Shawn Camp in the mix. Owners in AL-only and larger mixed formats should pick up Reyes, who had a 2.15 ERA in his last healthy season in 2005.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS: Josh Towers' 2.45 ERA in six Grapefruit League starts earned him the No. 5 spot in the Toronto rotation, though that doesn't put him on the fantasy map. He had a 8.42 ERA in 15 games (12 starts) for the Blue Jays last season, and for his career, he has a 4.89 ERA and .300 batting average allowed, meaning he's a pretty hittable pitcher. The bigger development of Towers emerging in the role ahead of John Thomson, who began the season on the disabled list, is that it creates two sleeper candidates who landed spots in the bullpen: Casey Janssen, who had a 1.045 WHIP and 1.41 walks and 0.37 home runs allowed per nine innings ratios for his minor-league career, and Victor Zambrano, the man traded to the Mets for Scott Kazmir and one with a live arm but also questionable command. Either right-hander would be an adequate replacement for Towers should the latter struggle in April, which seems likely, so in AL-only leagues, keep tabs on which one's pitching better in the early weeks and therefore next in line to start.
American League Central
CHICAGO WHITE SOX: A note in last Saturday's Chicago Tribune noted that manager Ozzie Guillen might consider using Matt Thornton to close games if Chicago's opponent is stacked with left-handed hitters in the ninth inning. Bobby Jenks, Guillen's usual closer, has been somewhat inconsistent with his velocity this spring, though don't read too much in the comments. After all, it was only a year ago Guillen was talking about using Neal Cotts as his closer to begin the season, and Cotts managed only one save all year. Jenks is Chicago's closer, though with lingering concerns about his velocity and conditioning, it's a good idea for his owners to handcuff him to Mike MacDougal. ... Scott Podsednik sat out the opener against left-hander C.C. Sabathia, perhaps an indication the White Sox view him as a platoon candidate for 2007. A groin injury did limit Podsednik late in spring training, but it could also be his .216 batting average and .562 OPS against left-handers fueling Guillen's decision. Any limit to Podsednik's playing time would mean fewer stolen bases, his only true fantasy value, which is why he continued to slide down most rank lists in late-March drafts. He could be in for a disappointing year.
CLEVELAND INDIANS: C.C. Sabathia was hit on the left wrist by a comebacker last Wednesday, at the time putting his scheduled opening-day start in doubt, but he was healthy enough to pitch Monday, and was reasonably effective. The left-hander allowed three runs on eight hits in six innings at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field, an assignment that gave him much more trouble a year ago on Opening Day. Sabathia appears healthy enough to repeat 2006's performance, one that made him one of the better starters in the American League, so his owners can now breathe a sigh of relief that his injury wasn't more serious. ... Ryan Garko made the opening-day roster, though he's still expected to play only as a platoon first baseman against left-handers. It's a role perfectly suited to his skill set, though his fantasy owners won't be happy to know he might only earn 200-250 at-bats if it lasts all season. Fortunately, that Garko made the team is a promising sign that the Indians believe he can help them, perhaps in an expanded role, and a hot start could easily earn him more at-bats and perhaps the everyday first-base job. AL-only owners should keep him on reserve, and mixed-league owners should watch his performance closely in April.
DETROIT TIGERS: Kenny Rogers hit the disabled list last Thursday with what was deemed a "fatigued arm," but further tests revealed a blood clot in his shoulder, which required surgery a day later. He'll miss at least three months of the season, meaning his fantasy owners shouldn't expect much, if anything, from him this year. With Rogers sidelined, Chad Durbin takes over as Detroit's fifth starter, though his 17-30 record and 6.14 ERA in 337 1/3 career innings hardly qualifies as intriguing. In the best-case scenario, Durbin could be an AL-only matchups consideration, but more likely he's a placeholder until one of the team's better prospects proves ready for the majors. Andrew Miller, the team's first-round pick in 2006, is the most obvious choice, and AL-only owners with deep benches should stash him now in the event he's ready for the Detroit rotation by midseason. But if Miller starts slowly in the minors, Wilfredo Ledezma, Zach Miner or Jordan Tata could be next in line should Durbin struggle. Any of the four potential substitutes would be a more appealing fantasy choice than Durbin, so keep tabs on how each is pitching in the early weeks of the season, and be prepared to add them in AL-only formats.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS: Octavio Dotel was unavailable for Monday's regular-season opener due to a strained left oblique muscle he suffered last week, and there's a small chance he could require a trip to the disabled list. He'll be sidelined until at least Thursday, and as a result his owners should pick up David Riske, who is standing in as the Royals' closer in the meantime. Neither pitcher should be a top save-getter, but considering the limited number of saves available on the fantasy market, even the Royals' closer needs to be owned. ... Though John Buck got the start and went 2-for-4 with a home run on Opening Day, manager Buddy Bell said he would extend the battle for the catching job into the regular season. Neither Buck (.297 AVG, 1 HR in 37 spring at-bats) nor Jason LaRue (.289 AVG, 3 HR in 38 spring at-bats) stood out more than the other this spring, so expect limited playing time for each initially. Both Buck and LaRue are batting-average liabilities -- Buck has a career .242 mark, LaRue .239 -- so until one steps up as the clear starter, neither should be an appealing option, even as an AL-only No. 2 catcher.
MINNESOTA TWINS: The Twins announced their rotation to begin the season, and while Matt Garza didn't make the cut, at least Boof Bonser didn't get pushed back to the No. 5 hole, possibly getting him skipped when off days allow. Bonser will pitch second behind Johan Santana, then be followed by Ramon Ortiz and Carlos Silva, leaving Sidney Ponson to serve as the fifth starter. That could mean lengthy rest for Ponson on occasion, and it's an indication that he'd be the first in line to lose his rotation spot once Garza proves himself ready in Triple-A ball. Garza owners should keep him around; it's unlikely Ortiz, Silva and Ponson will all be successful for long enough to keep him in the minors. ... The stress reaction in Joe Mauer's leg is apparently no longer an issue, as he started on Opening Day and went 1-for-3 with one walk. He'll remain a risk to get hurt at some point this year, but keep in mind Mauer did say he'd have played through the problem had it been the regular season. He's among the best batting-average bets in fantasy baseball, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he boosts his power output to the 15-20 homer range.
American League West
LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM: With both Bartolo Colon (shoulder surgery) and Jered Weaver (biceps) beginning the season on the disabled list, Dustin Moseley will assume the fifth-starter role, pitching behind fellow stand-in and current No. 4 starter Joe Saunders. Neither pitcher should stick around beyond the healthy return of Colon, expected back around April 20, and Weaver, due back on April 16, though that could mean as many as three starts for either pitcher. Of course, those turns will come against the Athletics, Indians and Red Sox, not exactly the most favorable ones for fantasy, so keep your expectations low. Saunders in particular struggled against the league's better offenses in 2006, with terrible outings against the Rangers, Yankees, White Sox and Athletics. Moseley, meanwhile, had a 4.69 ERA and 1.437 WHIP in 26 starts for Triple-A Salt Lake in 2006, and 4.02/1.342 rates in 141 career minor-league starts, not the greatest of numbers. Saunders should warrant more appeal for those owners in AL-only formats.
OAKLAND ATHLETICS: Not four weeks after learning they'd be without Mark Kotsay (back surgery) for at least two months, the Athletics lost Dan Johnson for perhaps half the season after he was diagnosed with torn cartilage in his left hip. He was set to start at first base, keeping Nick Swisher in the outfield, but Johnson's absence cleared room for the Athletics to make two key additions to the roster: Rookie outfielder Travis Buck, and former Padre Todd Walker. Buck, the team's top-ranked prospect by Baseball America, should start in right field against right-handers after batting .339 (21-for-62) in the spring. He lacks much power, though, with only 10 homers in 125 career minor-league games, so while he's worth an AL-only add, Buck might not be big-league ready just yet. Walker, meanwhile, likely serves as insurance in the event Buck struggles initially. He'll back up both first and second base, and could emerge as a starter should Buck get demoted and Swisher return to the outfield. Walker has .280-15-60 ability in an everyday role, and since he qualifies at second base in most leagues, he's worth AL-only middle-infield consideration. ... Esteban Loaiza also landed on the disabled list to begin the season, with Chad Gaudin likely to take his rotation spot initially. Though Gaudin's minor-league numbers were solid -- 2.69 ERA, 1.138 WHIP -- and he was effective in a relief role in 2006, keep in mind he's a journeyman who has averaged more than a walk per two innings for his big-league career. His best potential is as an AL-only matchups option.
SEATTLE MARINERS: Rookie and 2006 first-rounder Brendan Morrow made the opening-day roster after posting a 1.08 ERA in six appearances this spring, putting him on the sleeper map in AL-only leagues. It's a bit of a curious move; Seattle had initially intended to try developing him as a starter, but he performed well enough as a reliever, the role many scouts felt was in his future anyway, that the team kept him around. Morrow isn't any imminent threat to J.J. Putz's job security, but with Putz's health not completely guaranteed, it's not unthinkable the rookie could be a factor in the saves race sometime this year. Chris Reitsma is second in line for that role, but a hot start by Morrow could push him into a more prominent role in the bullpen quickly. ... Adrian Beltre seems much more comfortable hitting out of the No. 2 hole than the heart of the order, and his .367 batting average (22-for-60) and five home runs in the spring indicate he could be a bit of a bargain for 2007. Remember, he batted .310 with 13 homers and a .941 OPS in 61 games out of the No. 2 hole in 2006, and his RBI rate (50) wasn't bad, either. Beltre could yet be a 30-homer hitter with decent rates in the other categories based on his strong spring.
TEXAS RANGERS: Sammy Sosa made the team -- not surprisingly -- thanks to his .408 batting average (20-for-49) and five home runs in 17 spring games, and he'll begin the season as the everyday designated hitter and No. 5 hitter. In short, he matters now for fantasy, though how much is really the question. Sosa's bat speed isn't what it was in his prime, in his 60-homer campaigns, but he's still a powerful hitter and his home ballpark is well suited to that type of player. A 25-homer campaign wouldn't be unheard of, but keep in mind he'll strike out a lot -- easily once every four at-bats -- and that will make him a liability in batting average. In short, among 2007 comeback candidates, think of Sosa as less what Frank Thomas was a year ago, but closer to what Phil Nevin or Tim Salmon might have offered you in limited stints early in 2006. ... Eric Gagne's ongoing recovery from back and elbow surgeries landed him on the disabled list to begin the year, instantly making Akinori Otsuka one of the better save candidates for the regular season's early weeks. Otsuka did a fine job closing games for the Rangers in 2006, with 32 saves and a 2.11 ERA, and it's not an outrageous thought that he might hold that job for all of 2007.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
Tristan H. Cockcroft examines news from each of the teams in the American League.