Around the AL: Ortiz hurt, Hafner signs, Rangers on the block
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: Melvin Mora's sprained left foot landed him on the disabled list on Saturday, and he'll most likely miss the remainder of the month. He has a Grade 1 sprain, the least severe, though the pain was significant enough that the Orioles felt he wouldn't contribute much the next two weeks. That leaves the team without either member of the left side of their infield -- shortstop Miguel Tejada is also on the DL -- and particularly thin in the heart of their batting order. Chris Gomez and Aubrey Huff should share time at third base in Mora's absence, while Gomez also sneaks in some games at shortstop along with Brandon Fahey. Huff, meanwhile, should continue to serve as the designated hitter whenever Gomez plays third, which means Jay Gibbons and Gomez are the biggest benefactors, while Huff could pick up position eligibility at third base for 2008 with enough games there. Gomez isn't a bad AL-only stopgap; he's a .314 hitter (81-for-258) since the start of last season even if he's nothing special in the other categories.
Boston Red Sox: In one of the more troubling developments of the season's second half thus far, David Ortiz admitted after Thursday's game that he has been playing with a torn meniscus in his right knee since the middle of the 2006 season. He said the injury might have occurred during a June 6-8 series at Yankee Stadium. Incredibly, since that time, Ortiz has batted .312 (204-for-653) with 52 homers and 143 RBIs in 179 games, though his owners can certainly attest that he hasn't been quite himself so far this season. Most telling: He hasn't homered after the eighth inning once all year, and is a .205 hitter (8-for-39) without a homer in "late and close" situations. In 2006, by comparison, Ortiz hit six homers after the eighth, and was a .280 hitter (37-for-132) with 14 homers in late-and-close instances. Nevertheless, while Ortiz might struggle to hit many more than 30 homers in 2007, he's productive enough to be a solid mixed-league option and a top-50 player overall at the bare minimum. Don't panic and sell him off at much of a discount.
New York Yankees: Each year has its share of players who come off the three-day rest at the All-Star break completely refreshed, and Bobby Abreu could be one of 2007's best examples of that at his current pace. He went 6-for-16 (.375) with two doubles, two home runs and eight RBIs in a four-game series at Tampa Bay to kick off the season's second half. But, more importantly, he hit the ball with authority even when he wasn't getting on base. Of course, one strong series against the Devil Rays doesn't serve as an indicator that a player is back to his old self, but in Abreu's case, anything would serve as encouragement. He's no longer the premier power source he was in his days with the Phillies, but if he can stick in the No. 3 spot in the lineup, where he batted on Saturday and Sunday, he should be solid in runs scored and RBIs and perhaps bat in the .280s. Plus, he could earn double-digit steals from today forward.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Al Reyes' DL stint appears short-lived, as the Devil Rays expect to have their usual closer back as early as Wednesday. He threw 27 pitches to Devil Rays hitters Jorge Cantu, Dustan Mohr, Dioner Navarro and Josh Wilson on Saturday with no problems, and he will make a rehabilitation appearance at Class A Vero Beach on Monday before returning. Reyes' strained rotator cuff hasn't been an issue in his multiple throwing sessions in the past week, so he should be safe to get back into fantasy lineups sometime in the next few days. He'll reclaim the closer's role from Gary Glover immediately, though his quick return might actually harm him long term more than it helps. If Reyes returns as expected on Wednesday, for instance, it'd give the Devil Rays 13 days to trade him before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, and any deal likely would land him on a team where he'd be more apt to serve in a setup role. Keep close tabs on the right-hander the next few days, since he's one of the riskier closers to be dealt.
Toronto Blue Jays: Lyle Overbay returned from the DL on Thursday, and he finished the team's weekend series at the Red Sox with a 3-for-3 performance on Sunday. He hit safely in each of the four games, going 6-for-14 (.429), enough to support the notion that he could get his full-season batting average close to his .290 career number. Overbay batted sixth in his first four games back in the lineup, and he should remain at No. 6; with Reed Johnson also back from the DL, the Blue Jays have enough depth in the top third of the lineup to keep the first baseman in a run-producing lineup spot. On Sunday, Johnson returned to the leadoff spot, where he batted .322 and had a .391 on-base percentage in 2006, an arrangement that might stick for the long haul. He could manage a .280-.290 batting average, and with an on-base percentage in the .350-.360 range, he could be a productive run scorer moving forward. Alex Rios batted second and Vernon Wells third, which is probably the team's best long-term alignment.
Chicago White Sox: Scott Podsednik is expected to begin a rehabilitation assignment at Triple-A Charlotte in the next few days, and he could be back as the White Sox's starting left fielder and leadoff hitter within the next week. He's no longer as exciting a fantasy player as he was in his early days in Milwaukee, but he still has appeal as a base stealer. Podsednik has batted only .262 (155-for-591) in 158 games since the start of last season, but he has 44 steals in that time, one of the better totals in the category during that span. In addition, his current DL stint was a result of a rib-cage strain, not a leg problem, which means it shouldn't impact his performance on the base paths. Given 50-55 games, Podsednik could earn his owners 15-20 steals and 25-30 runs scored, which should make him a useful AL-only or deeper mixed-league option.
Cleveland Indians: Travis Hafner inked a four-year, $52-million contract extension through the 2012 season on Thursday, hardly a significant development for fantasy purposes but one relevant nonetheless. He had disappointed during the season's first half, with a .262 batting average, 14 home runs and an .849 OPS, down from .322-25-1.111 numbers the first half of 2006. It's possible that Hafner's contract talks might have served as a bit of a distraction, and with that now out of the way, he can focus on improving his performance the second half of the season. Keep in mind that since June 1, 2005, he's a .300 hitter who ranks seventh in home runs (85), eighth in RBIs (265) and third in OPS (1.027), and that's despite his more ordinary numbers in 2007. Hafner remains a buy-low candidate based on his past history and the strength of the Indians' lineup.
Detroit Tigers: One can only wonder what Marcus Thames might do for his fantasy owners given enough playing time; lately, it seems he's getting enough at-bats to make an impact. He has 15 starts in the Tigers' last 22 games -- seven at first base, five in left field, two at designated hitter and one in right field -- and has batted .315 (17-for-54) with seven homers and 17 RBIs during that span. Since the start of the 2006 season, he has 548 plate appearances, nearly a full-time player's workload, and has batted .256 (127-for-496) with 37 homers and 92 RBIs. That's a pretty productive player, and considering he's a .317/.916 hitter against left-handers this year, Thames should at least start every game against a southpaw in the season's second half, picking up a couple starts per week against right-handers as well. He'd also experience an immediate boost in fantasy value if anything happens to first baseman Sean Casey, corner outfielders Craig Monroe or Magglio Ordonez, or DH Gary Sheffield. That makes Thames an interesting AL-only player and a useful option in leagues that allow daily transactions.
Kansas City Royals: The Royals activated Reggie Sanders from the 60-day DL on Monday, though that shouldn't trouble Billy Butler's owners too much. With a .356 batting average (21-for-59), three homers and 13 RBIs in his last 18 games, Butler appears locked into the everyday designated hitter role. That leaves Sanders to compete for at-bats in the outfield, probably in left field, where Emil Brown has batted .150 (6-for-40) with two homers and 10 RBIs while starting only nine of the Royals' last 18 games. Sanders should assume the at-bats vacated when Joey Gathright was demoted to Triple-A Omaha on Monday; remember, Sanders was batting .367 (18-for-49) with two homers in 16 games before tearing his hamstring. He could have a little AL-only value if he starts off hot enough to steal the bulk of the left-field at-bats from Brown.
Minnesota Twins: The Twins recalled Garrett Jones, a big, left-handed slugger, from Triple-A Rochester last Wednesday, in the hopes his power potential would serve as a boost to their lineup. He started two of the team's first four games of the season's second half, going 2-for-7 (.286), and might get a handful of at-bats at designated hitter in the next couple weeks. Jones was batting .295 (94-for-319) with 11 homers and 58 RBIs in 83 games for Rochester, though you shouldn't let the batting average fool you; he's actually a .251 career minor league hitter. Jones' weakness is a lack of plate discipline; he has averaged one strikeout per 3.91 at-bats and one walk per 14.90 plate appearances for his career. He's worth a flier in larger AL-only leagues, but if the Twins are really planning to contend, expect them to add a more accomplished bat in the next two weeks.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Howie Kendrick hasn't had the best luck in the health department this season; he landed on the DL on Saturday with a broken bone in his left index finger. It's the second time he has hit the DL this year, each time due to broken bones in his left hand; the first came when he suffered a break on the back of his hand when he was hit by a pitch on April 17. This time, Kendrick's injury was caused from swinging a bat in a July 3 contest. He'll rest for another week before having another MRI exam, though the Angels maintain that he'll return sometime around the end of the month. Kendrick batted .288 (42-for-146) with 26 runs scored in 37 games between DL stints, though that increases to .353 (36-for-102) and 23 runs in his last 25 contests. This setback decreases his chances for a breakout second-half performance, but it's not out of the question that Kendrick could bat close to .300 with a good share of runs in the season's final two months. More likely, the overall breakout doesn't come for him until 2008.
Oakland Athletics: The Athletics have scrapped their plans to use Mike Piazza as a part-time catcher; instead, they'll use him as they did before he hit the DL, as a designated hitter. He began a rehabilitation assignment at Triple-A Sacramento on Friday and is 7-for-17 (.412) in three games there, so a return is within reason sometime in the next week. With current DH Jack Cust again in a slump -- he's batting .118 (4-for-34) with one homer and 19 strikeouts in his last 11 games -- Piazza could reclaim the full-time DH role once he's activated. Fortunately, he's still catcher-eligible in most formats, and with his power he should remain a solid No. 2 option in mixed leagues. Still, Cust could steal an occasional start against a right-hander, and Piazza's checkered injury history makes him a mild risk. Don't expect standout numbers from him, but he should be useful. ... Huston Street has shown progress in his recovery from an elbow injury and should begin a minor league rehabilitation assignment this week. He might not be much more than a week away from a return to the Athletics, but expect him to need a couple games' work in a lower-pressure role before he reclaims the closer role from Alan Embree.
Seattle Mariners: Incredibly, the Mariners, a contending team that is two games out in the wild-card race and three out in the AL West race, seem to be making a statement that experience is better than raw ability and potential with regard to their rotation strategy. The signing of Tomo Ohka, 2-5 with a 5.79 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in 10 starts for the Blue Jays earlier this year, lends itself to that assumption, as does the immediate insertion of Horacio Ramirez into the rotation coming off his recent DL stint. Ramirez was scheduled to start Monday's game against the Orioles after sitting out since May 24 with a shoulder injury, not that he's an appealing fantasy option for that game (or many more looking forward). He had a 6.47 ERA and 1.88 WHIP, so his soft-tossing ways did not translate well to the more hitting-rich American League; he also had more walks (18) than strikeouts (14) in eight starts before getting hurt. For his career, most of it in the National League, he had a 1.44 WHIP and averaged 4.20 strikeouts per nine innings, hardly inspiring numbers.
Texas Rangers: The Rangers plan to be sellers as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches, and among their more notable names on the block are veteran outfielders Kenny Lofton and Sammy Sosa. A deal involving either player might rob him of most of his fantasy value, because neither profiles as better than a fourth/fifth outfielder on a team with a stronger starting three; plus, a departure from Rangers Ballpark could hurt their hitting numbers. Lofton could be useful to a team in need of a speedy platoon outfielder against right-handers; think the Astros, Braves or Twins. He's a .326 hitter against righties and has 20 steals in 24 chances. Sosa, meanwhile, might appeal to a team in need of power against left-handers; he has .344/1.028 rates against lefties this year. The Yankees are an obvious team in need of that type of player, though in a platoon role Sosa would be useful only in daily fantasy leagues, where you could sit him out against right-handers. Expect the Rangers to move one or both in the next two weeks in an attempt to give prospect Jason Botts another chance at the big league level. Botts, 26, is hitting .324 with 13 homers and 74 RBIs in 93 games for Triple-A Oklahoma, including .415 (17-for-41) with five homers in 12 games in July. He should get a long look as the designated hitter in the season's final two months, making him an interesting AL-only sleeper.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.