Big names injured or making debuts
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: Jay Payton returned from the disabled list on Friday and earned his first start of the season Sunday against Blue Jays left-hander Gustavo Chacin. It appears Payton, as planned in the preseason, will earn the bulk of his playing time against left-handers spotting in for Jay Gibbons, Aubrey Huff or Corey Patterson. That's not going to be enough for him to be a useful fantasy option outside AL-only leagues, though it's also a troublesome development for Patterson owners, taking into account his sluggish start (.255 AVG, .718 OPS through Sunday). He's a .176/.557 hitter against left-handers this season, portraying him as a perfect platoon mate, but every plate appearance he loses means one less opportunity to get on base and steal bases, one of his key traits for fantasy. Since 2006, Patterson has reached base safely via a hit, walk, hit batsman or error 36 times against left-handers, which could mean 5-10 steals lost if he slips into platoon status.
Boston Red Sox: Don't be too hasty to run out and sign Hideki Okajima, who earned his first save Friday against the Yankees, but it's something to note. Jonathan Papelbon remains Boston's closer, but he was unavailable for the game after pitching the previous two days. That Okajima got the call despite Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez coming up in the ninth and Joel Pineiro being ready in the bullpen is an indication the Red Sox think highly enough of the left-hander to use him when Papelbon is unavailable. Keep in mind that Papelbon is coming off a shoulder problem late last year, so AL-only owners looking for a useful ERA/WHIP helper with vulture-save potential shouldn't underrate Okajima. Jon Lester is making progress in his recovery from lymphoma, with a 2.08 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and .229 BAA in three rehabilitation starts for Class A Greenville. He'll make his final rehab appearance Wednesday for Triple-A Pawtucket, after which point he likely will be kept there until the Red Sox need him. Lester's swift recovery suggests he should be a fantasy factor by midseason, taking into account that Julian Tavarez is a shaky fifth starter, so feel free to keep him on hand in AL-only formats.
New York Yankees: Although the Yankees' injury issues were evident in their three straight losses in Boston this weekend, things are improving for the team on that front. Chien-Ming Wang is scheduled to return from a hamstring problem Tuesday against the Devil Rays after tossing five innings of three-run, five-hit ball in a rehabilitation start for Class A Tampa on Thursday. His low strikeout rate aside -- 3.31 per nine innings -- Wang does have a decent share of fantasy value, especially in AL-only formats. With his heavy sinker, he should be a reliable wins-ERA specialist, and his 16-5 record, 3.22 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 27 career home games (26 starts) do portray him as a must-start at Yankee Stadium, even in his first game back from the DL. Phil Hughes' long-awaited arrival is finally here, as he'll make his big league debut Thursday against the Blue Jays. It's a little sooner than expected, but the right-hander does have ace upside, though he was shaky in spring training (4 2/3 IP, 4 ER, 6 BB). He'll warrant AL-only consideration immediately and should be owned in mixed leagues, as well. Hideki Matsui, meanwhile, was scheduled to return from a hamstring issue of his own Monday night, pushing Melky Cabrera back to a bench role. Cabrera did impress as a fill-in for Matsui and Gary Sheffield last year while the two veterans were hurt, but he's a .197 hitter this season and a .230 hitter without a home run in 59 games dating back to Aug. 19. It's not unthinkable he could need a minor league stint to straighten himself out.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: The Devil Rays continue the hunt for their ideal No. 2 hitter, having tried four players and managed only .177/.468 rates through their first 18 games. Part of that is the midspring decision to install Ben Zobrist in that role, perhaps a result of his .434 career minor league on-base percentage, but his .240 big league mark through 65 games suggests he's better suited to hit at the bottom of the order, if he starts at all. Remember, in the preseason, Delmon Young was supposed to occupy the No. 2 hole, but his free-swinging ways -- he has three walks in 48 big league games -- make him more of a middle-of-the-order bat. One has to wonder why Akinori Iwamura, with his team-best 13 walks and .455 on-base percentage, hasn't gotten a shot yet. His value would get a boost if he batted between Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford, and it'd help the RBI potential of players such as Crawford and Ty Wigginton. Iwamura probably won't stay this hot, but his .293/.864 career rates in Japan do suggest he should remain useful long term.
Toronto Blue Jays: The losses of Troy Glaus and Reed Johnson to the DL has hurt the Blue Jays' offense, but Aaron Hill's performance has to be considered one of the more encouraging stories to date for the team. Always known for being a good contact hitter safe in the batting-average category, Hill is batting .303 (20-for-66) with three home runs and 12 RBIs in 18 games. More importantly, he has been hitting sixth in the order and driving the ball with more regularity, which increases his future RBI potential. Don't count on Hill lasting in the heart of the order beyond Glaus' return, but he's no throwaway No. 9 hitter, either. A .300 batting average with double-digit homers could be coming.
Chicago White Sox: One of the biggest stories of the past week was Mark Buehrle's no-hitter against the Rangers, a top-12 big league offense (4.72 runs per game). Now the questions come flying in: Is this the return of the Buehrle who ranked fifth in the AL Cy Young voting in 2005 or merely an aberration? It's good to see him throwing strikes again, averaging 5.19 strikeouts and 1.56 walks per nine innings through three starts, close to his 5.22/2.06 career rates, and he's inducing more ground balls, with a 1.50:1 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. Of course, Buehrle did start 2006 strong, as well, with a 2.57 ERA and 0.89 WHIP in five April starts, so don't be too hasty to call him back to form. His contract-year status should inspire him to come much closer to his 2005 rates than he did in 2006, but if you own him, be prepared for him to be a shaky option occasionally against elite offenses.
Cleveland Indians: Cliff Lee is nearing a return from the DL, as he's scheduled to throw a bullpen session Monday and might make his final rehabilitation start for Triple-A Buffalo on Thursday. Considering he threw two innings in his first minor league start and four in his second, Lee probably will need a couple of starts for the Indians before he regains the stamina and feel for his pitches to be a fantasy factor. Still, remember that he was 11-6 with a 3.91 ERA in 22 starts after June 1 last season, and 18-5 with a 3.79 ERA in 32 starts in 2005, so it's clear he has mixed-league matchups potential, at the very least. Fausto Carmona, in the midst of an 11-game losing streak and with a 6.97 ERA in two starts this year, should be bumped to the bullpen or to the minors once Lee returns. Andy Marte hit the DL on Monday with a strained left hamstring, creating a short-term opportunity for Ryan Garko to nail down the first-base role. Garko is a .288/.817 career hitter who warrants more playing time than merely starting against left-handers, so don't be surprised if he keeps that job even after Marte's return, with Casey Blake playing third.
Detroit Tigers: I'm one of the staunchest advocates that Gary Sheffield should bounce back with a big year, motivated by showing the Yankees their mistake in trading him this winter, but so far, he has ranked among the game's biggest disappointments, with .119/.494 rates through 17 games. Some of that could be his adjusting to his new full-time designated hitter role, one in which he's only a .273/.849 hitter for his career. Many hitters -- Jason Giambi and Frank Thomas, for example -- have taken time to get comfortable with the idea of not playing in the field. Sheffield's too good a hitter, even at his advanced age, to think he's due for a poor campaign, although it might be an idea for the Tigers to try rotating him and Magglio Ordonez in right field, if only to ease the DH transition for Sheffield. Besides, with Ordonez's injury history, some DH time could help preserve him.
Kansas City Royals: Brandon Duckworth is bullpen-bound, a curious move by the Royals considering his 1.59 ERA in two starts was the best of any member of the team's five-man rotation. That doesn't mean it's a bad move, though, because the right-hander does possess a 5.33 ERA and 1.52 WHIP for his big league career, and fantasy owners surely don't mind because they hardly trusted Duckworth, even as an AL-only matchups type. In his place, Brian Bannister, 2-0 with a 2.89 ERA in five starts for the Mets to open last season before straining his hamstring running the bases, will get the call beginning with Tuesday's game against the White Sox. He's not quite the talent he appeared in New York, nor is he in nearly as favorable situation for fantasy, but his 3.29 ERA and 1.20 WHIP for his minor league career do make him worth a pickup in AL-only formats.
Minnesota Twins: The Twins continue to play short in their infield, perhaps a product of the team's lack of quality replacements at the minor league level, and now leadoff hitter and starting second baseman Luis Castillo is the one on the sideline. He suffered a strained left quadriceps Wednesday and should be out a few more days, with a DL stint a distinct possibility. As a result, top prospect Alexi Casilla, perhaps Castillo's eventual replacement, continues to get at-bats in the leadoff spot. Casilla's .231 batting average isn't anything special, but he has three stolen bases and his .307 career minor league mark bodes well for his long-term potential. Expect him to continue to improve with experience, and in AL-only formats, he's not a bad player to have on hand thanks to his speed, as the Twins have made it clear they'll use him in a prime lineup spot when their starters are out.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: So much for Howie Kendrick contending for the No. 2 spot among fantasy second basemen this season. He'll miss at least one month after suffering a nondisplaced fracture to the middle finger of his left hand when he was hit by a pitch by the Athletics' Chad Gaudin last Tuesday. At the time, Kendrick was batting .327 (16-for-49) with two home runs in 14 games, and that, paired with his .348 spring batting average (23-for-66), indicates he should still be useful upon his return. More troubling, though, is the impact on the Angels' offense. The Angels already ranked dead last in the AL in runs per game (3.61) through Sunday, meaning owners of Vladimir Guerrero et al should be prepared for more limited runs scored and RBI totals. The healthy returns of Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar are nice for their fantasy owners; Colon tossed a quality start against the Mariners on Saturday, and Escobar is slated to return Tuesday against the Tigers. However, the one drawback is that it costs Joe Saunders his rotation spot. The left-hander is 9-3 with a 4.15 ERA in 16 starts dating back to July, a strong enough track record to make him worth keeping reserved in AL-only formats. With the injury risk in the Angels' rotation, Saunders could easily earn himself 15-20 starts this season.
Oakland Athletics: If you had April 24 in your pool for the first time Rich Harden would be officially scratched from a start because of injury, congratulations, you're a winner! Of course, Harden owners can't be happy to learn that the shoulder tightness that forced him from his April 15 start sent him to the DL on Monday, as his incredible spring numbers -- 1.53 ERA, 29 K's, 17 2/3 IP -- seemed to have everyone fooled that this was the year he'd make a full, healthy 30-plus-start season. Don't panic on Harden completely; in the best-case scenario, he could be ready to rejoin the rotation sometime next week, but it's a worry that a pitcher limited to only 12 starts combined the past two seasons, mainly because of elbow issues, is experiencing problems with his shoulder. That's Harden for you, one of the most notable risk/reward types in the game, and though he's an ace at his best, one has to wonder now whether he'll exceed the 25-start plateau. In Harden's place, meanwhile, the Athletics bypassed Brad Halsey -- much to his dismay -- and will give Dallas Braden his first big league start Tuesday. Braden, a command-specialist left-hander who missed much of 2006 with shoulder issues of his own, is a complete unknown to most fantasy owners. That he hasn't ranked among the team's top 30 prospects as judged by Baseball America since 2006 (19th) doesn't bode well for his chances, making him more worth tracking than picking up, even in AL-only formats.
Seattle Mariners: Felix Hernandez owners are none-too-thrilled, either, after the right-hander left his start Wednesday with tightness in his right elbow. That the Mariners were cautious with him in 2006, capping his innings and limiting his use of his slider, then raved about how strong he looked while posting a 3.96 ERA in six starts this spring, made him among the most popular breakout candidates for 2007. Unfortunately, King Felix has since been diagnosed with a flexor-pronator strain inside his elbow and forearm, an ailment that will sideline him for at least two or three starts. He's probably DL-bound, but the most distressing development from this is that Hernandez could be lost for a significant period if he suffers a setback. The timing is a real shame; in his previous start, he one-hit the Red Sox. If there's a "bright side" in the Hernandez injury, it's that a rotation spot is finally available for Cha Seung Baek, who finished 2006 with a 4-1 record and 3.67 ERA in six starts for the Mariners. He's hardly an elite fantasy starter, but should have some AL-only matchups potential if he sticks in the rotation. Baek's first start was scheduled for Monday night, and if he looks good in Hernandez's absence, it's possible he'll push either Horacio Ramirez or Jeff Weaver for their spots after the right-hander returns.
Texas Rangers: There's a reason Akinori Otsuka is a must-have handcuff for Eric Gagne owners, and on Sunday, Gagne showed why, leaving the game early with a strained hip. The Rangers put their closer on the DL on Monday, and taking into account that Gagne has pitched only 18 2/3 innings combined the past three years, he's quite the long-term risk. He has left games in the past with supposed "day-to-day" problems and instead missed considerable time, making Otsuka a prime addition in those 25.4 percent of ESPN leagues in which he's available. In fact, Texas actually might be better off with Otsuka closing, based on his 1.90 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in his Rangers career. If Gagne is out for long, don't be surprised if Otsuka retains the role even after Gagne's return.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.