Around the AL: Upton, Sweeney aim for returns
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 haven't had much luck with the health of their starters this season, and their bad luck continued on Saturday, as Steve Trachsel landed on the DL with a strained gluteus. It's not that much of a loss to his fantasy owners; though he started hot, the right-hander was only 1-3 with a 8.89 ERA in his last six starts. With Trachsel sidelined, though, all eyes turn to top prospect Garrett Olson, who could get a look in the Baltimore rotation soon -- if not in the next week, then not long after the All-Star break. The left-hander is coming off a stellar June for Triple-A Norfolk, with a 4-1 record, 1.80 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and .154 BAA in six starts. In AL-only leagues, Olson is well worth adding right now, though taking into account the deeper offenses of the AL East, be selective with how you use him in the season's second half.
Boston Red Sox: Alex Cora got the start at shortstop for the Red Sox in each of their weekend games against the Rangers, an arrangement manager Terry Francona says he might use for as long as Julio Lugo continues to struggle. It's actually a strategy similar to the one Francona used with Dustin Pedroia when the rookie got off to a cold start. Lugo is hitting only .106 (14-for-132) since mid-May, but perhaps some time off might help him get back on track. Remember, Pedroia rattled off quite a hot streak after sitting out some in late April and early May, so while Lugo should be benched for now, he could still be a useful rebound candidate for the season's second half. As for Cora, he's an AL-only middle-infield option for as long as he receives extra at-bats. ... The Red Sox also promoted Jacoby Ellsbury from Triple-A Pawtucket on Saturday, though the move is only intended to be temporary. Coco Crisp is out for three to five days with a sprained left thumb, meaning Ellsbury, considered the team's future center fielder, gets a brief chance to earn some big league experience. Scouts compare him to Johnny Damon, so while Ellsbury has only marginal AL-only value for the next few days, he's a useful keeper-league prospect.
New York Yankees: The Yankees continue to tinker with their lineup in the hopes of waking up the bats of struggling hitters like Bobby Abreu, Robinson Cano, Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui. Interestingly, all four of those hitters bat left-handed, which could help demonstrate some of the Yankees' woes at the plate; they've managed .267/.734 numbers as a team against left-handers, middling numbers in MLB. One of the Yankees' primary problems on offense is that they have a lefty-heavy lineup, so merely shuffling the order of their lefties won't necessarily wake them up. In their past five games, for instance, Abreu (once), Cano (once) and Matsui (three times) have each been slotted in at No. 3, seemingly a great spot in which to hit because it's ahead of Alex Rodriguez, but the team amassed nine runs as a team during that span. Fantasy owners with left-handed pitchers scheduled to face the Yankees shouldn't be so concerned these days, and if you're an Abreu, Cano, Damon or Matsui mixed-league owner, benching them isn't a bad idea in those events. It's hardly a trend that seems likely to reverse itself completely.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: B.J. Upton's return could be delayed until after the All-Star break, though it was originally thought he could return as early as Tuesday. Upton missed his scheduled second rehabilitation game for Class A Vero Beach on Friday with fatigue; he was 0-for-5 with a strikeout combined in two games for Vero Beach, and 1-for-3 with a home run for Triple-A Durham on Sunday. Once Upton shows the Devil Rays that his quadriceps strain has healed enough for him to return to action, he'll return to his everyday second base role, bumping Ty Wigginton, who has 16 starts at the position in the Devil Rays' last 22 games, back to first base/designated hitter duties. He'll presumably start at first against left-handers, which is Carlos Pena's weaker side, and get the rest of his games at DH, costing Greg Norton the most playing time. Jonny Gomes, who has 14 starts in right field in the Devil Rays' last 16 games, shouldn't be hurt by Upton's return.
Toronto Blue Jays: Apparently the Blue Jays were a bit too hasty in bringing back A.J. Burnett from his shoulder injury. The right-hander, who had missed 14 games due to soreness in his shoulder, allowed five runs on six hits in four innings against the Twins on Thursday, then returned to the DL on Sunday, again with shoulder problems. It's not the brightest bit of maintenance on the Blue Jays' part; they let him throw 372 pitches combined in three consecutive starts on May 27 and June 1 and 7, all of which led into his June 12 start in which his shoulder finally sidelined him. That Burnett, who has had Tommy John surgery, is now battling shoulder problems makes him an even greater risk looking forward, and at this point his owners should begin preparing as if he won't contribute much the remainder of the season. In Burnett's place, Jesse Litsch gets the call; Litsch went 2-1 with a 4.56 ERA in four starts for Double-A New Hampshire and 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA in two starts for Triple-A Syracuse since his last stint in Toronto. He's AL-only worthy but probably won't amount to much more than a matchups type looking forward.
Chicago White Sox: Though rumors in the past week indicated the White Sox were close to a contract extension with Mark Buehrle, a report in Monday's Chicago Sun-Times indicated those negotiations are dead, as the team has no interest in granting the left-hander a no-trade clause. The paper also speculates that Buehrle might be traded within the week, but at the very least, if he doesn't agree to an extension, he'll almost assuredly be dealt before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. The Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals appear the most logical destinations, and a shift to the National League can't do anything but help Buehrle's chances. For one thing, he'd be out of the hitter-friendly environment that is U.S. Cellular Field. For another, he's 7-2 with a 2.78 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 10 interleague starts since 2005, demonstrating his dominance over National League foes. Incidentally, AL-only owners speculating who might step in for the White Sox should Buehrle get traded might want to pick up Gavin Floyd, now 7-3 with a 3.10 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 15 starts for Triple-A Charlotte.
Cleveland Indians: A report on the Indians' official Web site last Tuesday indicated that the team might consider promoting top prospect Adam Miller from Triple-A Buffalo and using him out of the bullpen after the All-Star break. Though the right-hander's future is clearly as a starter, the Indians do need relief help, and Miller is working his way back from a finger injury as a reliever for Buffalo. Such speculation could be more of an effort by the Indians to try to reduce the price tags for their relief targets on the trade market, but don't be shocked if the team does break in its top prospect in a less-taxing relief role initially. Miller has a bright future and could be one of 2008's more promising young starters, but he could be a help in ERA and WHIP for AL-only owners in this year's second half. Keep tabs on his progress at Buffalo the next several days, as he might be promoted quickly if he adapts nicely to working out of the bullpen.
Detroit Tigers: Though there had been some concern that closer Todd Jones might be wearing down of late, he managed back-to-back 1-2-3 innings to pick up saves in each of his last two appearances. Before that, though, Jones had three losses, two blown saves in seven chances and a 12.71 ERA in 13 appearances, the kind of track record that might put a closer's role in jeopardy if there were a better-performing candidate pitching behind him. Fortunately for the right-hander, that Joel Zumaya has missed most of the season with a ruptured tendon in his finger, while Fernando Rodney returned to the DL last Tuesday with tendinitis in his forearm, helps bolster Jones' case to keep the role. He's hardly the best ERA/WHIP candidate among closers, but his contract and the thinned-out Detroit bullpen should keep him a safe bet for saves. An encouraging sign: He had 16 saves and a 1.69 ERA in 31 appearances after July 1 last season.
Kansas City Royals: It'll be interesting to see how the Royals handle their first base/designated hitter spots once Mike Sweeney returns from the DL, perhaps as early as Tuesday. Sweeney was scheduled to have his right knee, in which he had inflammation, re-examined on Monday, after which point the Royals should know more about his status. He's unlikely to be able to play first base once activated, though, which complicates matters. Billy Butler, 7-for-24 (.292) with a home run in his last six games, is too good a prospect not to play every day somewhere, meaning a demotion to Triple-A Omaha might be in order. He did get in 22 games at first base in his previous stint for Omaha, though, which might be enough to make him a candidate at that spot for the Royals. Based on Butler's upside, keep him on hand in AL-only and keeper formats, but be prepared for the possibility he'll see more minor-league time before the season ends.
Minnesota Twins: Finally Matt Garza got the call from the Twins, although his promotion was much less an endorsement of him in a permanent big-league role than it was a need for him to fill a spot start for the team in a doubleheader next Friday. He was recalled from Triple-A Rochester last Friday, and will be available out of the bullpen until that scheduled start against the White Sox. Of course, one start could be all Garza needs to demonstrate his need to remain with the Twins. Though he was only 4-6 with a 3.62 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 16 starts for Rochester, the right-hander is still widely regarded as every bit the prospect fellow Twins Boof Bonser and Kevin Slowey are, so don't be surprised if this is merely a test run for him to emerge in the rotation for the season's second half. If you have the bench room to stash Garza away, do it, as he could bump Carlos Silva, who has a 4.99 ERA in his last nine starts, to the bullpen with a standout Friday effort.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Expect Shea Hillenbrand to wind up on another MLB team -- perhaps the Yankees, who could use first-base help and additional right-handed pop -- sometime before the start of the season's second half. The Angels designated him for assignment on Friday, giving them 10 days to trade, release or assign him to the minors, with the first option the most likely. Hillenbrand had been quite disappointing in L.A., batting .254 with three home runs in 53 games, but perhaps a move to a more hitting-friendly environment would help make him fantasy-worthy in larger leagues once again. Among Angels players, Garret Anderson and Reggie Willits see the biggest boosts to their value as a result of Hillenbrand's departure. Anderson could return from the DL on Tuesday, stepping in as the everyday designated hitter, while Willits' role as a semi-regular left fielder becomes more assured with Anderson slated for the DH spot.
Oakland Athletics: In an interesting note regarding the Athletics' closer situation, manager Bob Geren told the team's official Web site last Thursday that he viewed Justin Duchscherer as his closer if the right-hander is healthy enough to return right after the All-Star break. However, on Monday night the team announced Duchscherer, who has missed nearly two months with a hip injury, will have surgery and his season is over. Alan Embree remains the closer, though the fact Duchscherer was slated to replace him is telling. ... The Athletics placed Travis Buck on the DL on Friday with a sprained right thumb. He has been one of the more promising rookies of 2007, but has had some real problems with injuries this year. With Buck sidelined, Shannon Stewart, 16-for-33 (.485) in a current seven-game hitting streak, should continue to earn everyday at-bats. Keep him active in AL-only formats.
Seattle Mariners: In one of the more surprising stories of the season, manager Mike Hargrove announced his resignation on Sunday, effective after the day's contest against the Blue Jays. The timing is most curious; his Mariners were in the midst of a seven-game win streak, which was extended to eight on Sunday, and they're now a game back of the Tigers for the wild card and four behind the Angels in the division. Hargrove noted no "dark, sinister reasons" were behind his decision, though it should come as no surprise that speculation will only persist for the next several days. Hopefully his departure is indeed for the reasons he stated, a loss of his passion for the game, but in the meantime, his bench coach, John McLaren, took over as manager beginning on Monday. McLaren's task won't be easy; such a managerial switch isn't the traditional type where the players might pick up the pace under a new skipper initially. In this case, such a change might be jarring enough to throw these Mariners off track, meaning the seven days before the All-Star break will prove an important evaluation period for this team heading into the season's second half.
Texas Rangers: Ian Kinsler landed on the DL on Monday after missing three consecutive games over the weekend with a sore foot. He had an MRI on Sunday, though results aren't yet known, and the Dallas Morning News reports that the Rangers are concerned he might have a stress fracture. Jerry Hairston Jr. picked up back-to-back starts at second base in Kinsler's absence over the weekend before missing Sunday's game with a bruised left knee; Hairston should get the bulk of the at-bats at the position assuming the injury doesn't linger. He's a better pickup in AL-only formats than Ramon Vazquez, the alternative at second. ... The Dallas Morning News also reported on Thursday that the most optimistic timetable for Mark Teixeira's return from a quadriceps injury has him kicking off the season's second half July 13 at the Angels. He's expected to resume swinging a bat this week but has yet to be cleared to resume running. Though Teixeira's health is a bit of a worry for the first time in his career, it's good to know that he's historically a second-half monster, with .298/.983 rates after the All-Star break last year and .289/.931 for his career.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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