Around the AL: Lester, Street return to action
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: Steve Trachsel returned to the Orioles' rotation on Saturday with a so-so, 5 2/3-inning, four-run, nine-hit outing against the Athletics. He'll make one and possibly two more starts before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, meaning scouts surely will have their eyes on his start against the Devil Rays on Wednesday. Even if Trachsel remains with the Orioles past Aug. 1, though, don't take it as a knock on Garrett Olson's future with the team. The left-hander tossed six shutout innings of four-hit, eight-strikeout baseball on Saturday in his first start since being returned to Triple-A Norfolk, and should be back soon, either after Trachsel is dealt or once the team tires of Brian Burres as its No. 5 starter. AL-only owners with the bench room to spare should keep Olson on hand, as he could be a useful matchups option in the season's final two months.
Boston Red Sox: Jon Lester owners, your wait is finally over. The left-hander, who has made a remarkable recovery from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, looked good in his triumphant return to the bigs Monday against the Indians. The only two runs Lester allowed in his six innings of work came on a home run by Grady Sizemore. Lester went 4-5 with a 3.89 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and .250 BAA in 14 starts for Triple-A Pawtucket. Those might not be eye-popping numbers, but Lester's owners from 2006 are well aware the potential he provides. With a permanent rotation spot, he'd be an AL-only or mixed-league-matchups option, one a bit risky overall in ERA/WHIP, but strong enough in wins and strikeouts. For now Lester will battle Kason Gabbard, he of the 3-0 record and 1.93 ERA in his last four starts, to see which rookie will remain in the rotation once Curt Schilling returns. Schilling's next rehabilitation start comes Thursday for Triple-A Pawtucket, then he should return to the Red Sox rotation, meaning Gabbard's Thursday start at Cleveland and Lester's Saturday start at Tampa Bay should be closely monitored. Though Schilling is currently on schedule to pitch in the rotation spot Gabbard currently occupies, Gabbard has to be considered the slight leader in the race right now.
New York Yankees: Jose Molina was acquired from the Angels on Saturday in exchange for Double-A reliever Jeff Kennard, while Wil Nieves was designated for assignment to clear a roster spot for the veteran. Such upgrades of backup catchers aren't too inspiring for fantasy, but Molina's acquisition has to please Jorge Posada owners. Consider that since June 1, Posada had started 40 of the Yankees' 47 games and come on to finish four others, a grueling workload for a catcher. Molina, a capable defenseman despite his ordinary .237/.614 career rates, should be a better occasional stand-in than Nieves, a .164/.420 hitter this year, was, and should help keep Posada fresher in the season's final two-plus months. Posada had been batting only .296 with two homers and 11 RBIs in his last 33 games, perhaps a result of fatigue, so expect the upgrade to preserve his second-half value a bit better. & Not since Shane Spencer's .373-10-27 performance in 1998 had the Yankees seen as out-of-nowhere an effort from a rookie than Shelley Duncan's the past week. He belted two home runs on Sunday and three in the team's four-game weekend series against the Devil Rays, going 4-for-12 (.333) with seven RBIs total. He had the minor league numbers to back it up -- .295 AVG, 25 HR, 79 RBIs in 91 games for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre -- but with his long swing, Duncan will be hard-pressed to hit at those levels in New York. AL-only owners can take a chance on him, but only in the sense that Spencer once surprised from nowhere, while brother Chris Duncan of the Cardinals similarly wasn't expected to do much upon his promotion in 2006.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: The Devil Rays continued to tweak their starting rotation on Monday, demoting the ineffective J.P. Howell, 1-4 with a 7.36 ERA in eight starts, to Triple-A Durham and replacing him with Jason Hammel, who tossed four innings of two-run baseball against the Yankees on Saturday. He's the third member of Durham's impressive rotation to get a chance to start in Tampa Bay; Howell and Andy Sonnanstine have each received opportunities this year. Hammel managed a 3.42 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and .216 BAA in 13 starts for Durham, and before the 2006 season, he actually was considered a better prospect by Baseball America (No. 3 among Devil Rays). AL-only owners can consider stashing him on the bench for now, with the hopes that he makes a quick transition and earns matchups status. If Hammel doesn't pan out, though, it might be time for the Devil Rays to give the fourth member of that Durham rotation a chance. Jeff Niemann, considered the team's top pitching prospect, is 10-5 with a 4.03 ERA and 1.48 WHIP in 20 starts. He's not a bad pitcher to keep stashed in AL-only formats, either.
Toronto Blue Jays: The Blue Jays promoted catcher Curtis Thigpen from Triple-A Syracuse on Friday, and in his second stint with the team this season, he could be a bit more appealing to AL-only owners than he was the last time around. He's clearly the team's future at the position, after batting .285 with three homers and 20 RBIs in 50 games for Syracuse, and managing a respectable .370 career minor league on-base percentage. Thigpen might not be enough with the bat to be more than a No. 2 AL-only catcher, but he should get on base at a decent rate, hit for a passable batting average and score a handful of runs. With a season or two of experience, he could develop the power needed to be a reliable starter in all formats. Of course, it's no guarantee Thigpen will claim the full-time role this season, but with Gregg Zaun batting only .255 (25-for-98) with three homers in 33 games since his return from the DL and the Blue Jays already looking towards 2008, it makes sense for the team to determine what it has in the rookie.
Chicago White Sox: Jerry Owens is a .267 hitter (12-for-45) with five stolen bases and nine runs scored in 11 games since the All-Star break, starting nine of the White Sox's 11 contests during that span. Unfortunately, he could be the victim of a roster crunch, as both Darin Erstad and Scott Podsednik could return from the DL on Tuesday. Erstad seems likely to reclaim his everyday center field role and No. 2 lineup spot, Podsednik the left field and leadoff roles, limiting Owens to part-time status. Of course, with both veterans back in action with more than a week to go before the July 31 trade deadline, expect the White Sox to feverishly shop both players. Even if neither is dealt, Owens should see an increase in playing time in the season's final two months, and with his speed, it's not hard to imagine him being close to what Podsednik has been to the White Sox the past year-plus. Consider him a cheap source of steals in AL-only formats.
Cleveland Indians: Though a terrible outing on June 27 troubled his fantasy owners, Fausto Carmona has bounced back nicely in four starts since. He has registered a quality start in three of those four outings, winning all four with a 2.05 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and .235 BAA. In fact, if you take out that one disastrous start against the Athletics, and his mediocre performance in his first start of the season on April 13, Carmona would be 12-2 with a 2.61 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and .256 BAA in 17 starts, exceptional numbers indeed. The right-hander continues to minimize his risk by inducing an unreal amount of ground balls; he now has a 3.14:1 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio for the season. Only the Marlins' Sergio Mitre (3.66:1), Dodgers' Derek Lowe (3.42:1) and Diamondbacks' Brandon Webb (3.41:1) have higher rates, and we all know about Lowe's and Webb's success the past several seasons. Carmona should be able to keep his ERA in the low threes and his WHIP in the 1.25 range the rest of the year, and on that Indians team, he should be a consistent winner. In a way, he might be to this year what Chien-Ming Wang was to 2006.
Detroit Tigers: Just when it seemed like he was emerging as an everyday player, Marcus Thames suffered a setback last Wednesday, straining his left hamstring in a game. He landed on the DL a day later, thrusting Craig Monroe back into the lineup as the Tigers' everyday left fielder. It's unfortunate timing for Thames; he was batting .295 (18-for-61) with seven homers and 17 RBIs in his last 19 games. He started 17 of the Tigers' 24 games during that span, enough to make an impact in AL-only and larger mixed leagues. Besides Monroe, Sean Casey also benefits as a result of Thames' absence. He should start more often against left-handers, occasionally resting in favor of Mike Hessman, recalled from Triple-A Toledo on Monday. Casey has batted .326 (31-for-95) with 17 RBIs in his last 30 games, though his primary appeal is as an AL-only corner infielder.
Kansas City Royals: With Octavio Dotel trade rumors only heating up, it's time to begin speculating on who might step in for him as Royals closer should he depart for greener pastures. Joakim Soria becomes the instant favorite; he held the role earlier in the year and has been the team's most effective setup reliever this season. Consider that the two runs the right-hander allowed on Saturday were the first ones he allowed since his return from the DL on June 8; he has a 0.92 ERA, 0.72 WHIP and .145 BAA in 17 appearances during that span. Former starter Zack Greinke is the other option. He has a 3.40 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and .239 BAA in 26 appearances since his shift to the bullpen, including 1.88/0.92/.195 numbers in his past 14 games. He's probably the better long-term closer candidate, making him worth stashing in deep AL-only leagues, but for those looking for the better bet for saves this year, pick up Soria first.
Minnesota Twins: Michael Cuddyer suffered a sprained right thumb sliding into second base during last Wednesday's contest, coincidentally on the same play on which Torii Hunter tweaked his hamstring, costing him one game. Cuddyer's injury was the more severe one, landing him on the DL on Friday. It's a pretty devastating loss for the Twins; they're thin in the outfield and he was one of the team's few threatening right-handed hitters. For now, expect the team to mix and match between Lew Ford, Darnell McDonald and Jason Tyner, none of whom warrants an AL-only pickup. Jason Kubel owners, though, should benefit the most from Cuddyer's absence. He'll play regularly in left field, where he has started 21 times in the Twins' last 30 games. Kubel is a .289 hitter (22-for-76) with three homers and 18 RBIs in his last 25 games, showing that he's improving at the bat, so take a look at him if he's available in AL-only or larger mixed leagues.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Finally the Angels tired of Ervin Santana's antics in road games, demoting him to Triple-A Salt Lake last Wednesday. With a capable fill-in in Joe Saunders, who had been awaiting a rotation opening, it's a move that makes some sense. Santana was 1-9 with an 8.79 ERA in 11 road starts this year, and 0-4 with a 10.04 ERA in his last five turns overall (two of them at home), seemingly regressing in performance with time. Saunders, meanwhile, is already 4-0 with a 2.89 ERA in six spot starts for the Angels this season, even if his WHIP (1.34) or minor league numbers (4-7, 5.11 ERA in 14 starts for Triple-A Salt Lake) aren't anything special. The left-hander should be productive enough to be AL-only or mixed-league-matchups useful the remainder of the year. As for Santana, don't write him off career-wise, though it's more likely he gets himself straightened out for the 2008 season than this year. & Mike Napoli has made only one start since his return from the DL last Wednesday, though the departure of Jose Molina should boost his fantasy stock. He's a respectable .254/.803 batsman averaging one homer per 23.1 at-bats this season, which makes him a fringe No. 2 mixed-league option. With his high strikeout rate -- one per 3.21 at-bats for his career -- Napoli will be a batting-average risk prone to slumps, but he's a good guy to use during his hot spells.
Oakland Athletics: The July 16 trade of Jason Kendall is great news for Kurt Suzuki, who has started five of the team's six games since. The rookie is merely a .200/.636 hitter through 16 contests, rather Kendall-like numbers, though it's a smart, cost-cutting move for the Athletics, and one good for Suzuki's long-term development. He's probably not a future All-Star, and shouldn't be expected to be more than a No. 2 AL-only catcher this year, but several seasons of a .270 batting average and 15 homers could be in his future. With a strong finish, Suzuki could be a 2008 sleeper. & Huston Street was activated from the DL on Monday and allowed a run on two hits in working the sixth inning against the Angels. He was expected to make one or two appearances in middle relief before reclaiming his closer's role. He hasn't had any problems with his elbow the past couple weeks, though keep an eye on his performance the next several days. He could be a solid second-tier saves option in the season's final two months, bumping Alan Embree back to his former setup role.
Seattle Mariners: How much longer can the Mariners keep Adam Jones toiling away in Triple-A ball? He's hitting .315 with 23 homers and 79 RBIs in 90 games for Tacoma this season, and .323 (84-for-260) with 22 homers and 67 RBIs in 61 games since May 10. Jones hasn't been rumored available in any of the Mariners' trade talks with the July 31 deadline approaching, and more likely, he'd take over in either center or right field on Opening Day 2008, depending on which spot Ichiro Suzuki fills. Still, he's ready to play regularly now, perhaps in place of Jose Vidro, who is hitting .299 with an uninspiring .727 OPS. Jose Guillen could then shift from right field to Vidro's designated hitter role, helping preserve his injury-prone body. AL-only owners with the bench room should stash Jones now based on his gaudy minor league numbers, as there's a good chance he'll get another look with the big club shortly after Aug. 1.
Texas Rangers: Akinori Otsuka landed on the DL last Thursday with inflammation in his right forearm, though it shouldn't be that troubling to his owners. Since the move was made retroactively to July 9, he's eligible to return to action on Tuesday. An MRI taken last Thursday didn't find any more serious issues, so expect Otsuka to be back in his setup role in the near future. In fact, his DL assignment actually might be a boon to his fantasy owners; it decreases the chances he'll be dealt before the July 31 deadline. Since closer Eric Gagne remains on the market, Otsuka is a decent bet to be elevated to the closer role after the deadline. & Hank Blalock will fall short of his goal of an Aug. 1 return from thoracic outlet syndrome, as he was only able to throw halfway to first base comfortably during fielding drills last Thursday. He'll need more time to build arm strength, making a late-August return more realistic. Blalock might also need some time to get comfortable at the plate, so don't count on him contributing much to a fantasy team the remainder of the year.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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