Yankee injuries, Alex Gordon struggles
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: He's no exciting fantasy pitcher, but Jaret Wright did have a little AL-only matchup value, if only by virtue of the fact that pitching thins out considerably when you cut out half the player pool. He landed on the disabled list last Thursday due to a sore right shoulder, this is another in a long line of injuries that have been detrimental to his career. He has topped 30 starts only twice in his career (32 apiece in 1998 and 2004). Some might have hoped Wright being reunited with pitching guru Leo Mazzone in Baltimore might help the right-hander return to his career-year form (15 wins, 3.28 ERA in 2004), but with his shoulder a concern this early in the season, one has to wonder how much value he'll offer even after his activation. Problem is that with Wright out, prospect Hayden Penn might have been an appealing AL-only addition as the top candidate to step into Baltimore's rotation, but a stiff right forearm sent Penn to the Triple-A disabled list this past Saturday, knocking him out of the mix. Penn, whose 2.26 ERA in 14 starts at Ottawa in 2006 offer encouragement for the future, could be a factor in Baltimore later in 2007, but for now, Jeremy Guthrie will step in as the team's fifth starter. He has limited fantasy appeal.
Boston Red Sox: Don't count on Julian Tavarez staying in the Red Sox's rotation too long, the right-hander simply lacks the track record to suggest he is a capable long-term solution. He allowed four runs, six hits and walked five in four innings in his first start of the season on April 7, and his 1.60 career WHIP in 86 starts entering the year doesn't inspire confidence. In addition, both candidates to replace him, Devern Hansack and Jon Lester, are off to strong enough starts in the minors to warrant AL-only attention. Lester, who's recovering from lymphoma, has tossed eight scoreless innings and allowed a .179 BAA as he builds stamina at Class A Greenville, and most fantasy owners regard him as the next in line for a rotation spot. Hansack, though, could actually be closer to making an impact, with an 0.84 ERA and .158 BAA in two starts for Triple-A Pawtucket. He has a combined 3.08 ERA, 1.167 WHIP and .238 BAA in the Red Sox minor league system from 2006-07, and could be promoted soon. Backed by the Red Sox offense, he could be quite the AL-only sleeper.
New York Yankees: Could there be a rotation more in shambles right now than that of the Yankees? Chien-Ming Wang began the season on the DL with a hamstring strain, then his probable replacement, Jeff Karstens, hit the DL with an elbow problem days later. Now the Yankees find themselves without the services of Mike Mussina, who landed on the DL on Sunday with a strained hamstring, and opening-day starter Carl Pavano, who joined Mussina on the DL with forearm tightness. That thrusts rookie left-hander Chase Wright into the rotation for a scheduled Tuesday start against the Indians, not that he's a safe fantasy commodity by any means. He had a 1.88 ERA at Class A Tampa in 2006, but consider he was 23 at the time, old for that level, and his career 3.85 ERA and 1.49 WHIP in the minors aren't great rates. None of the injured starters (Karstens, Mussina, Pavano and Wang) are expected to be out for an extended period, but that the Yankees in their most desperate of situations pitching wise didn't turn to top prospect Phil Hughes demonstrates that they're going to be patient with the young right-hander. Hughes has a 6.30 ERA in two starts for Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, and he might need 10-15 starts there before he proves himself ready for a chance in New York. Be patient with him.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Al Reyes continues to thrive as the Devil Rays' closer, and like David Weathers in Cincinnati, the right-hander appears to have emerged as the go-to guy in the team's supposed closer-by-committee picture. Really, there shouldn't have been any doubt who was closing; Reyes' 2.15 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in 2005, his last full season, plus his 1.80 ERA in eight spring appearances, make him stand out as the team's most effective reliever. Remember, he's a successful former minor league closer, saving 33 games between the Devil Rays' and Cardinals' Triple-A affiliates in 2004, and if he can remain healthy, there's no reason he can't be to the team what Danys Baez was from 2004-05. ... Rookie Elijah Dukes, who homered in each of his first two major league games, is 1-for-19 (.053 AVG) with nine strikeouts in his past five contests. He has been working with hitting coach Steve Henderson on correcting a mechanical flaw in his swing, though, so expect the Devil Rays to remain patient with him. Owning Dukes means tolerating his high-risk, high-reward potential, as he's a tremendous athlete who will likely endure his share of dreadful slumps as he continues to mature and adjust to big league competition.
Toronto Blue Jays: Injuries have hit the Blue Jays hard this past week, most notably at closer, where B.J. Ryan landed on the DL on Sunday with a strained ligament in his left elbow. He's out four-to-six weeks and could be a candidate for Tommy John surgery if his injury doesn't improve in that time, making Jason Frasor one of the most popular free agent pickups of the week. The closer role is now Frasor's to lose, and keep in mind he had 17 saves in 18 chances with a 3.73 ERA in a four-month stint as Toronto's closer in 2004, a level of performance he could easily repeat now. ... Troy Glaus is also headed for the DL with a sore left heel, a significant loss for a team that lacks depth at third base. John McDonald and Jason Smith should fill in for him, but don't be fooled by their combined .419 batting average; neither is likely to be a significant fantasy contributor. ... Finally, Reed Johnson is set for surgery on a herniated disc in his back, costing him at least half the season. That clears the left-field role for top prospect Adam Lind, a prime pickup even in mixed leagues; he's a .319/.891 career minor league hitter. He might bat second against right-handers, with Alex Rios leading off on an everyday basis, lineup spots that could help bolster each outfielder's fantasy value.
Chicago White Sox: The White Sox aren't getting adequate production out of Darin Erstad, their everyday center fielder and No. 2 hitter, not that that's a huge surprise. Since 2000, his career-year, he has managed .272/.697 rates from 2001-06, and now he's off to merely a .189/.532 start through 11 games in 2007. At this stage of his career he's more suited to a platoon role, with his .235/.628 numbers against left-handers the past three seasons, but then potential platoon-mate Brian Anderson probably shouldn't be limited only to playing against lefties, either. Anderson is only 25, which makes him more a part of the team's future than Erstad, so don't get too cozy if you're an Erstad owner. The White Sox could easily return the job to Anderson before long, or the team could consider a deal for a better center fielder before the deadline (Torii Hunter or Aaron Rowand?).
Cleveland Indians: Victor Martinez has missed six consecutive games with a strained left quadriceps, though the Indians expect him to return to action on Tuesday. The iffy weather in Cleveland this past weekend kept the team from taking chances with its usual cleanup man, but the fact that the team has waited 10 days without putting Martinez on the DL suggests he's likely to be available for the series in New York. ... Take note of Ryan Garko's four starts in the Indians' past five games, as the player once considered only a platoon first baseman against left-handers has actually earned two of those starts against righties. One came at the expense of Casey Blake, the other Andy Marte (Blake started at third base), both of whom have slumped so far. Garko, meanwhile, is now a lifetime .277/.773 hitter against righties, good enough numbers to make him corner-infield worthy if the Indians continue to work him into the lineup regularly.
Detroit Tigers: Wilfredo Ledezma is looking like a smarter AL-only addition by the day. Chad Durbin has been tagged for 12 runs on 17 hits in 8 2/3 innings in two starts, and he might receive only one more chance before the Tigers consider a switch at the back end of their rotation. The problem, however, is that neither Jordan Tata or Andrew Miller, each of whom once looked like a strong bet to claim that spot from Durbin, appear ready to take over. Tata has a shoulder problem that will sideline him for the next month, while Miller is coming off a four-run, 5 2/3-inning effort at Class A Lakeland. AL-only owners should keep Miller on hand, as he'll be a factor before long, but Ledezma's 4.29 ERA in seven starts in 2006, and his 3.34 ERA overall since the start of last season, make him a decent bet, even if it's only as a matchups option. If you have the bench spots in an AL-only league, stash him away now, as he's more likely than Jason Grilli to get the next chance to start.
Kansas City Royals: Though popular Rookie of the Year pick Alex Gordon has gotten off to a dreadful start -- .111 AVG, 1 HR, 14 K's, 36 AB -- the Royals maintain that they have no intention of demoting him to Triple-A. It's good to see they're willing to be patient with one of the best talents in the organization, and fantasy owners should exercise similar patience with him, even if it's with him resting comfortably on your bench for now. Gordon is 23 years old and coming off only one year of professional experience in Double-A, during which he averaged one strikeout per 4.30 at-bats, so it's only natural that it's taking him some time to get comfortable at the big league level. Gordon probably won't be able to finish with better than a .275 batting average or 25 homers taking into account his inexperience, but there's a big payoff for those owners willing to wait. ... The Royals have handed the closer role over to Joakim Soria, a Rule 5 pick who starred in Mexico in the past. Though it's hard to see him retaining the role the rest of the year, with Octavio Dotel due back at some point in the next month, his 3.12 ERA and 9.35 K/9 ratio this spring, and six scoreless regular-season innings indicate sleeper potential. He could have a fair share of short-term fantasy value.
Minnesota Twins: Jason Bartlett, a .309 hitter last season after a mid-June call-up, is off to a troubling start, batting .214 (6-for-28) and more disturbingly, committing four errors in 10 games. It's not enough of a sample size to warrant great concern just yet, but if his struggles endure, particularly on defense, the Twins might consider replacing him, as they did in 2005 when he batted only .242 through his first 26 games. Fortunately, the fact that fellow infielder Nick Punto is battling an ankle injury helps thin out the infield depth enough that Bartlett should be given plenty of time to work out his problems, but the Twins do have a promising prospect in Alexi Casilla currently on the roster, partly to fill in for Punto. Casilla, ranked seventh in the organization by Baseball America entering the season, is a career .305 minor league hitter who has stolen 99 bases combined the past two years, numbers that could make him a cheap source of steals in AL-only formats if he sticks around long-term. It's not unthinkable that Casilla could stick around and steal time from Bartlett after Punto's return if the latter struggles, so keep an eye on both this week.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Rain pushed him back by one day, but Jered Weaver (biceps) is scheduled to make his 2007 debut Tuesday against the Athletics, after he managed a 0.82 ERA and .132 BAA in two rehabilitation starts for Class A Rancho Cucamonga. Based on the matchup, he's worth activating in all but the shallowest of leagues, but those who look at Weaver's astonishing rookie numbers -- 2.56 ERA, 11 wins, 19 starts -- might be fooled into expecting too much from him in his sophomore campaign. Even the best pitchers seem to hit some sort of adjustment period, and with Weaver's health not completely assured all year, he'll be worth shopping him around if he gets off to a hot start. ... Meanwhile, Kelvim Escobar is once again on the DL after being diagnosed with a sore right shoulder. It's his fifth DL stint since he signed with the Angels in 2004, though each of the previous four incidents was elbow-related. Perhaps the Angels are being truthful when they say they're merely being cautious with Escobar, but a pitcher with his injury history has to be a worry based on this news. One bright spot: Joe Saunders should receive another couple starts in Escobar's rotation spot, keeping him useful in AL-only formats.
Oakland Athletics: Finally the Athletics appear fed up with Jason Kendall at the top of their order, dropping him from the leadoff spot to eighth this past Wednesday, an arrangement that has held steady in each of their past four games. Kendall's .204 on-base percentage to date might have had a lot to do with the decision, but it could also be that he has two home runs in 386 games since June 28, 2004, during which time his OPS is a mere .698. Of course, Shannon Stewart, who hit leadoff in three of Oakland's past four games, isn't much better an option, with his .192 on-base percentage, but at least the lineup change put Nick Swisher in a more favorable situation. He has batted second in each of the past four games, during which time he's 5-for-16 (.313 AVG) with a home run. RBIs will be a problem for Swisher due to Stewart and bottom-of-the-order hitters Todd Walker, Kendall and Mark Ellis/Marco Scutaro batting ahead of him, but the No. 2 spot could lead to an increase in runs scored and more at-bats for the slugger.
Seattle Mariners: Felix Hernandez's one-hit shutout at Fenway this past Wednesday represents his best career effort to date, and incredibly, he actually improved upon his first start of the season, in which he tossed eight scoreless frames, allowing three hits while striking out 12 batters. King Felix's masterpiece came against Boston's "A" lineup, and it could be the first of what should be many stellar outings in a potential breakout year for him. His 3.92 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in his final 20 starts of 2006, and 3.96/1.24 numbers in six spring starts indicate he wasn't far off top-10 fantasy starter status before the year, so don't be too hasty to think he's a sell-high candidate. Hernandez might not challenge for the wins lead backed by Seattle's so-so offense, but he could maintain an ERA close to 3.00 with 200-plus strikeouts, numbers that would make him a fringe Cy Young candidate.
Texas Rangers: Manager Ron Washington is apparently a man of his word, as he said Eric Gagne would immediately reclaim his closer role upon his return from the DL, and this past Friday, Gagne notched a save mere hours after being activated. Some had wondered whether the right-hander might be better served building up stamina in a set-up role, but for now, it appears he's close enough to be the go-to guy in Texas. Akinori Otsuka, who notched a save of his own and two scoreless innings in three appearances as the Rangers' closer, returns to a set-up role for the first time since the beginning of last season, not that he should be immediately dropped in fantasy leagues. Gagne's injury history makes Otsuka one of the most essential handcuffs in fantasy baseball, as does Otsuka's 2.01 ERA and 1.09 WHIP as a member of the Rangers since the start of last season, remarkable numbers for a pitcher in that hitter-friendly ballpark. Don't consider Otsuka a waste of a roster spot, even in shallow leagues; there's a good chance we haven't seen Gagne's final DL stint.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.