Dice-K Impresses, Snow in Cleveland
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: The Orioles finally placed Ramon Hernandez on the disabled list on Sunday with a strained oblique, and fortunately, because he hadn't appeared in a regular-season contest before getting hurt, they were able to backdate the move to March 31. That means he might miss only one more week, during which time veterans Paul Bako and Alberto Castillo will continue to share time behind the plate. Neither warrants fantasy attention, though, except in desperate circumstances. Bako is a lifetime .236 hitter with a .629 OPS, while Castillo has career .222/.590 rates; both of them are better known for their defense than their bats. Expect the two to continue their straight platoon for now. As for Hernandez, barring a setback, he should still be able to get in enough games this season to challenge the 20-homer, 80-RBI plateaus, both numbers he easily surpassed in 2006.
Boston Red Sox: Daisuke Matsuzaka might have entered the regular season surrounded by mild "dead arm" concerns, but if his first start was any indication, he's back to being at elite form. He allowed only one run in seven innings while striking out 10 batters, defeating the Royals for his first U.S. win. Sure, a win over Kansas City isn't a great indication of a pitcher's long-term potential, but add in his 2.91 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings in five spring starts and Dice-K's looking every bit worth the hype. It's a small worry that his hefty workloads from his days in Japan could make him a breakdown candidate later in the year, but Matsuzaka today looks capable of approaching 20 wins with a sub-3.00 ERA and as many as 200 strikeouts. In short, he's a Cy Young candidate.
New York Yankees: Though the Yankees' All-Star outfield of Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu played together on Opening Day, the three have been split up in five games since, and it's anyone's guess how long it'll be before they start together again. Damon, who suffered a right calf strain in the opener, returned to action on Monday with a 2-for-4 performance, after going 2-for-2 coming on late in Sunday's game. He's fine to get back into your fantasy lineup, though Matsui landed on the disabled list on Monday with a strained left hamstring he suffered on Saturday. DL stints are a new thing for Matsui; before breaking his wrist last May, he played in 1,768 consecutive games between Japan and the U.S. He'll probably miss most of April, clearing an everyday role for Melky Cabrera, a 2006 surprise off to a sluggish start, at 2-for-21 overall (.091 AVG). It's Cabrera's first chance of 2007 to show owners what he can do as an everyday player, though he'll need to act quickly. Kevin Thompson, recalled when Matsui hit the DL, could earn some starts if Cabrera continues to struggle at the plate.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Jorge Cantu, demoted to Triple-A Durham at the conclusion of spring training, has requested a trade, though he decided to report to the team after initially saying he wouldn't. He's 5-for-18 (.278 AVG) in five games for Durham, though the fact he's now in the minor leagues, while current Tampa Bay second baseman B.J. Upton is off to a hot start, means he's now a long way from being a fantasy factor once more. Cantu might not get another chance to make an impact with the Devil Rays this season, so don't bother keeping him around except in larger AL-only formats. Al Reyes converted his first save chance for the Devil Rays, and he has tossed a shutout inning in each of his two appearances to date. Considering he was one of the team's most effective relievers in the spring -- 1.80 ERA in eight games -- Reyes should be able to retain the closer's role in Tampa Bay for as long as he remains healthy. Remember, Danys Baez, a similar talent, once saved 41 games for the last-place Devil Rays (2005), so there should be enough chances for Reyes to be one of the more underrated save getters of 2007.
Toronto Blue Jays: Casey Janssen picked up a two-inning save on Sunday, but don't let that convince you he's next in line to close should anything happen to B.J. Ryan. The command-specialist former starter was kept in the game for a second inning of a three-run contest, perhaps because he was so effective in his first inning, perhaps because the team wanted to keep Ryan rested coming off a spring in which he battled some back problems. Still, Janssen's efforts to date shouldn't be dismissed, either; he has appeared in three games and totaled 5 2/3 scoreless frames while allowing only one hit. Josh Towers is currently serving as Toronto's fifth starter, but if he doesn't last, Janssen could easily be next in line for that role, and if he gets it, he should be a reliable enough innings eater to keep his team in the game, meaning he could have some AL-only matchups value.
Chicago White Sox: Though initial reports had Toby Hall going in for season-ending surgery to repair a torn right labrum, he opted instead to rehabilitate it, and now his progress suggests he might be able to return to action in mid-May. That decreases the White Sox's need for a reliable backup catcher, something that helps bolster A.J. Pierzynski's value until Hall's return. Pierzynski should receive virtually all of the playing time for the short term, and after Hall returns, he could earn enough starts against left-handers to be a useful No. 2 AL-only catcher. Bobby Jenks' first four regular-season appearances have been much more effective than his spring (6.75 ERA, 8 BB, 9 1/3 IP); he has four shutout innings in which he has five strikeouts compared to one hit and one walk allowed. Jenks consistently worries his owners with his conditioning and inconsistent performance, but it appears once more that he's capable of being a top-15 fantasy closer. Just don't get too comfortable with him, as he does come with a bit of risk.
Cleveland Indians: A weekend storm dumped nearly 10 inches of snow on the Cleveland area, forcing the postponement of the Indians' entire four-game series with the Mariners and shifting the team's three-game series April 10-12 against the Angels to Milwaukee's Miller Park. It's unknown when the Indians and Mariners will be able to make up their four games, though fitting them in an already-tight schedule could tax both teams' pitching staffs when makeup dates are officially announced. Cleveland will restart its rotation beginning on Tuesday, with C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Jeremy Sowers scheduled to start, meaning Paul Byrd and Fausto Carmona are the big losers due to their turns in the rotation being pushed back. Weather also delayed Cliff Lee's rehabilitation program; he was set to make a rehab start for Double-A Akron on Monday, but the game was canceled. It shouldn't be much of a setback for him, but he'll make three rehab starts or so before rejoining the Cleveland rotation sometime around the end of the month.
Detroit Tigers: Fifth starter Chad Durbin was hit hard in his first regular-season start, allowing six runs in 4 2/3 innings on Monday. It shouldn't be long before he needs to be replaced in the rotation, though those expecting Andrew Miller to be next in line should be a bit more patient. Long reliever Wilfredo Ledezma, who had a 4.29 ERA and 1.374 WHIP in seven starts in 2006, could be asked to make a few starts to bridge the gap for Miller, currently working in warm weather at Class A Lakeland. Miller tossed five scoreless innings there in a game that was shortened due to weather last Thursday, and he might make another start or two before reporting to Triple-A Toledo. He might be big league ready after about five starts for Toledo, meaning Miller probably won't arrive in Detroit before Memorial Day. He's worth keeping on AL-only reserve lists, though.
Kansas City Royals: Closer Octavio Dotel landed on the disabled list last Wednesday due to a left oblique strain, and he'll probably miss another week. Such injuries often take a little time for a pitcher to return to full strength, meaning stand-in David Riske should have a decent amount of value for a few more days. He's 1-for-2 in save chances so far, losing his most recent appearance against the Tigers on Sunday, but in AL-only formats, Riske is a good enough reliever to be worth the roster spot. After all, he has a 3.63 ERA and 1.263 WHIP for his big league career, and he did manage seven saves in as many opportunities in a six-week stint as Cleveland's closer in 2003.
Minnesota Twins: As if the Twins' bench wasn't already somewhat weak, it thinned out even more on Monday when Jeff Cirillo (sore left knee) and Rondell White (strained right calf) landed on the disabled list. Cirillo will miss about one month while recovering from surgery, while White's status is a little more uncertain. That leaves the left-field and designated hitter roles to a mix of Jason Kubel, Josh Rabe and Jason Tyner, with backup catcher Mike Redmond also filling in at DH. Kubel's the biggest beneficiary; he was platooning with Cirillo at DH, but now he'll likely score a start or two against a left-hander, and start every game against a right-hander. Remember, he was a .320 hitter with an .884 OPS for his minor league career, and the more experience Kubel gets, the better he should become. He should be owned in AL-only formats, and stashed on reserve in larger mixed leagues, too. Tyner's not a bad AL-only addition, either, as he should bat respectably enough against right-handers and steal a handful of bases. Infield prospect Alexi Casilla was recalled as well on Monday, but it's a bit early to be expecting him to make a fantasy impact. He'll back up both middle-infield spots, making him AL-only worthy taking into account his speed, but for the most part his value is confined to keeper leagues.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Did Francisco Rodriguez have an illegal substance on the bill of his cap in Monday's regular-season opener? Perhaps we'll never know, as Major League Baseball cleared him of any potential wrongdoing after rumor suggested he might be penalized. The buzz wasn't unlike the one that surrounded Tigers starter Kenny Rogers during the 2006 World Series, and it's not the first time an Angels reliever has been called out for potential cheating; former Angel Brendan Donnelly was suspended for having pine tar on his glove in 2005. Incidentally, K-Rod has allowed a run in each of his three appearances since, the first time that has happened since May 2003. He's still one of the best closers in fantasy baseball, though, capable of 40-plus saves, 100 strikeouts, an ERA around 2.00 and a WHIP in the 1.000 range.
Oakland Athletics: Back spasms hindered Bobby Crosby this past weekend, and while he only missed one start as a result, it's a development that bears watching. He has battled his share of injury issues throughout his big league career, as back problems limited him to 96 games in 2006, while broken ribs and a broken left ankle limited him to 84 contests in 2005. Crosby has long excited fantasy owners as a potential breakout candidate, but he's among the most prominent high-risk, high-reward players around already, at the age of 27. Be prepared for him to miss a fair share of time in 2007. Esteban Loaiza has been diagnosed with a bulging disk in his neck, and he won't throw again until sometime later this week. He remains on the disabled list and might not return to the Oakland rotation in April. Though Loaiza's not one of the better fantasy starters around, his status as a member of the Athletics, with their quality bullpen and pitching-friendly ballpark, should make him a useful AL-only matchups option when healthy. Chad Gaudin will continue to start in Loaiza's place, which might mean two or three starts in the next couple of weeks.
Seattle Mariners: The weather in Cleveland cost the Mariners four games out of their schedule, and most likely will mean Horacio Ramirez gets skipped this time through the rotation. He'll be pushed back to Saturday's game against Texas, with Jeff Weaver, Felix Hernandez and Jarrod Washburn pitching Seattle's three games at Boston, the Mariners' first since last Wednesday. That'll put Ramirez on track to presumably make his next five turns against the Rangers, Angels, Athletics, White Sox and Yankees, a brutal schedule for a pitcher with as low a strikeout total as his. In fact, since the Mariners play only eight of their next 37 games against teams that had sub-.500 records in 2006, one could make the case that Washburn, Weaver and Miguel Batista also should have limited fantasy appeal the next several weeks. Don't count on many useful matchups for the Seattle starters.
Texas Rangers: The Sammy Sosa experiment certainly looks different since the start of the regular season, doesn't it? After he concluded spring training with a .408 batting average (20-for-49) and five home runs, Sosa has batted only .167 (4-for-24) with one homer and six strikeouts in his first six regular-season contests. He's a prime example of why fantasy owners shouldn't trust exhibition-season statistics, as the level of competition today is greater than it was in March, and most pitchers are closer to midseason form than they were then, too. Sosa's struggles, combined with Brad Wilkerson's .188 mark (3-for-16) and six K's, could open the door for Nelson Cruz to step up and grab the everyday right-field job before long. Cruz is 6-for-17 (.353 AVG) to date, and while a platoon role might be best for him initially, he should be capable enough against right-handers to manage respectable numbers in Texas' hitter-friendly ballpark. Grab him now if he's available.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.