Young names dominate the news
What's been going on around the American League in the past week? Tristan H. Cockcroft takes a quick look at the news and notes for each of the 14 AL teams:
Baltimore Orioles: Finally Ram on returned to the Orioles last Thursday, and while there were mild worries that his oblique injury might hamper him at the plate, he has seemingly answered those questions in his first four games. He's (.400 AVE), restoring his owners' faith in him as a No. 1 catcher. A healthy is capable of a batting average around .280 with 20 home runs, and taking into account that he should be the regular No. 6 hitter for most of the year, that should make him every bit the RBI contributor that he was in 2006. ... One start was all Jaret Wright was able to squeak in between stints on the DL, which he returned to on Monday due to continued right shoulder soreness. He might require surgery, which could cost him a significant chunk of the season. At this point, it's probably best for fantasy owners to give up on him. Unfortunately, the Orioles are now in a pinch to replace Wright, as ideal fill-in Hayden Penn is set for surgery of his own to remove a bone spur from his elbow, sidelining him for most of the year. Jim Johnson could be a factor before too long, but here's a name I'd keep tucked away for later, at least in AL-only formats: Garrett Olson. The team's No. 6 prospect as judged by Baseball America, Olson has a 5.04 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and .244 BAA in five starts at Triple-A Norfolk, which aren't bad rates. He should be big league ready by the All-Star break, so keep tabs on his progress the next few weeks.
Boston Red Sox: Speaking of "next-in-line" rotation candidates, Jon Lester is generating a fair share of buzz thanks to his quick recovery from lymphoma. He tossed five scoreless innings in his first start for Triple-A Pawtucket, and it shouldn't be long before he overtakes Julian Tavarez as the Red Sox's fifth starter. Consider this your last chance to snatch up Lester, as he could be in Boston before month's end. Taking into account that he was the team's top pitching prospect entering 2006 and a seven-game winner in 15 starts for the big club last year, Lester has immediate impact potential for fantasy. With the Boston's offense backing him, he could be a 10-12 game winner given 20 starts.
New York Yankees: Unpredictability was the word that best describes the Yankees' pitching staff in April, but things could be turning around in May. Veteran ace Mike Mussina is scheduled to return from the DL on Thursday, while Kei Igawa is coming off a solid relief effort to help the team snap its seven-game losing streak last Saturday. In a continuation of the Yankees' rotation bad luck, Phil Hughes left a no-hitter in the seventh inning on Tuesday night after feeling a "pop" in his hamstring. He'll miss four to six weeks. Mussina, meanwhile, has a 4.19 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 7.40 K/9 ratio since 2004, numbers he should be able to maintain and possibly exceed from today forward. Igawa is the biggest question mark of the three, though. With 13 walks in 26 2/3 innings to date, and a 2.86 BB/9 ratio in his career in Japan, the left-hander is a bit of a risk in the command department. That makes him a shaky option against stronger offenses, like that of the Red Sox, but if you can live with an increase in ERA/WHIP, he still has a chance at close to a strikeout per inning and a decent win total.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Did Akinori Iwamura's DL stint take anyone else by surprise? The day after he went 2-for-3 with three runs against the Yankees, news broke that he suffered a strained right oblique in the game, costing him four to six weeks. It's an untimely injury for the Japanese import, as Iwamura was rounding into form as a reliable corner-infield option. In his place, Ty Wigginton has six consecutive starts at third base, opening up first base to a straight platoon between Jorge Cantu and Carlos Pena. It's not at all a bad arrangement for Pena, a .254 hitter with a .840 OPS against right-handers since 2005, compared to .167/.578 against lefties, and enough to make him AL-only worthy. Cantu, meanwhile, isn't a great fit for his new role, but at least it'll allow him a chance to display his skills for a potential trade. He should be picked up in AL-only formats on the idea he might earn that trade elsewhere, but don't do it at the expense of dropping a more valuable reserve. ... Brendan Harris appears to have all but stolen the everyday shortstop role from Ben Zobrist, thanks to the latter's .205/.520 numbers through his first 68 big league games. Harris' previous major league stints in Montreal/Washington and Cincinnati weren't nearly enough to get a real evaluation of his ability, but his .295/.832 career minor league rates suggest he's capable of handling the role. He won't be special in homers or steals, but you could do worse than him as an AL-only middle infielder.
Toronto Blue Jays: Gustavo Chacin, who was limited to only 17 starts due to elbow issues in 2006, now finds himself back on the DL, this time due to soreness in his shoulder. That's a huge red flag for fantasy owners, as shoulder problems are often even more limiting than those with the elbow, which could mean a lengthy absence for the left-hander. His status won't be known for another few days, but combine that with Josh Towers' demotion from the rotation, and the Blue Jays suddenly find themselves with two openings. One of those goes to Victor Zambrano, who will start on Tuesday, and the other will go to Dustin McGowan, scheduled to pitch Thursday. Zambrano's career walk rate -- 5.07 per nine innings -- makes him a high-risk option, limiting him to only AL-only matchups status, but McGowan's upside makes him worth stashing on reserve in AL-only leagues in case this is the year he finally gets his career back on track. After all, he is only 25 years old and had a 1.64 ERA and .208 BAA in five starts for Triple-A Syracuse and, at one point, was considered the team's top pitching prospect.
Chicago White Sox: A strained rib cage muscle has landed Jim Thome on the disabled list, and what's most unfortunate about the DL stint is that because he attempted to play through it this past Friday, getting pulled during his first at-bat, he lost three days' worth of time the team could have made the move retroactive. In other words, he'll be out at least another 11 days, thinning out the White Sox's offense. With Scott Podsednik also on the DL, Rob Mackowiak and Ryan Sweeney should get the bulk of the at-bats between left field and designated hitter for now. Sweeney's not a bad prospect, and could warrant AL-only attention, but the main story here is the team again has overlooked top prospect Josh Fields, batting .220 at Triple-A Charlotte. It's a clear sign he's not in the Chicago's immediate plans, so don't get your hopes up we'll see him before midseason.
Cleveland Indians: The fact that Travis Hafner picked up a start at first base on Sunday is hardly big news, but nonetheless it is an important move to his fantasy owners. It's a sign that the team is serious about using him enough in the field to qualify him at the position in leagues with five- or 10-game eligibility requirements. Cleveland gets nine games in National League ballparks in June, so expect him to meet those requirements sometime within the next eight weeks. ... Cliff Lee's pending return from the DL on Thursday cost Fausto Carmona his roster spot, but don't overlook what the right-hander did in Lee's absence. He managed three quality starts in four tries, including each of his past three, assuring that he'll be next in line should another rotation spot open up. Paul Byrd's 3.50 ERA and 1.44 WHIP are good enough to keep him in the starting five, but he's the most likely to decline enough in performance to lose his spot. Don't rule out an injury clearing a spot for Carmona, either, meaning AL-only owners should closely monitor him in the minors the next few weeks.
Detroit Tigers: Shoulder tendinitis has plagued Carlos Guillen lately, though his numbers certainly haven't shown it; he's batting .300 (27-for-90) with 19 RBIs through 24 games. He continues to play through the problem, though his fantasy owners should monitor his situation closely. Though Guillen managed career highs in games (153) and plate appearances (622) in 2006, he has nonetheless been one of the more injury-prone players the past five years, averaging 124 games from 2002-06. It's good that he has performed at an All-Star level around his DL stints, including .320/.802 rates in his 87-game 2005, but it's tough to be without that caliber player for an extended period, if only because potential replacements aren't nearly as talented. Plus, it's distressing to know light-hitting Neifi Perez would be Guillen's likely stand-in in the event of a DL stint.
Kansas City Royals: Alex Gordon finally has some company. Top prospect Billy Butler -- at least tops among remaining Royals minor leaguers -- was recalled on Tuesday and immediately handed the everyday left-field role. His bat is clearly major league ready, as he was batting .337 with a 1.030 OPS for Triple-A Omaha, and coming into the year he had .344/.981 rates for his minor league career. Defense will be the obvious question, though that's hardly the fantasy owner's concern. Butler might need some time to get fully comfortable as a hitter, much like Gordon, though his potential makes him well worth adding. He could be to 2007 what Chris Duncan was to 2006, and make no mistake, Butler's upside is considered better than Duncan's. ... Of course, in promoting Butler, someone had to be bumped from the roster, and on Tuesday, that became Ryan Shealy, who landed on the DL with a strained left hamstring. The move could merely be designed to get him some minor league seasoning on a rehabilitation stint, but it's a real concern for his owners because he might have trouble breaking back in at the big league level if Butler gets off to a hot start. Ross Gload becomes the Royals' everyday first baseman in Shealy's absence, and warrants AL-only consideration.
Minnesota Twins: How much longer can the Twins realistically expect to keep Sidney Ponson in their rotation? Despite a strong start Tuesday, he had yet to manage a quality start in his previous four tries, recording an 8.04 ERA and 2.06 WHIP during that span, and dating back to 2005 he now has a 7.45 ERA and 1.74 WHIP in his last 46 games (43 starts). It's only a matter of time before he's replaced in the rotation, and now the real question becomes, who gets the call once that happens? Scott Baker, Matt Garza and Kevin Slowey have each pitched well enough to warrant a shot in Minnesota. Slowey is the new entrant of the bunch; he's 3-0 with a 1.05 ERA and .152 BAA in four starts at Triple-A Rochester, though what probably puts him behind the others in line is that he's not yet on the 40-man roster. Baker, meanwhile, has outpitched Garza in terms of ERA (1.57-2.84), WHIP (0.78-1.58) and BAA (.188-.263), enough to perhaps grant him the first shot. Garza remains the best long-term fantasy bet of the bunch, at least for 2007, and it's possible he could be up in the next couple of weeks. With his strikeout potential, he's worthy of AL-only reserve status right now.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Brandon Wood got a brief look with the Angels last week, though he certainly appeared raw, going 1-for-8 with four strikeouts in his two games. He'll be back later in the year, but with the number of holes he has in his swing, Wood might need most of the season getting time in Triple-A. He's more of a keeper-league prospect who might not be ready to make an impact until 2008, though there's huge power potential in him looking forward. ... Wood's demotion was a direct result of Chone Figgins' return from the DL, as he was activated on Monday. He reclaims the everyday third-base role, likely batting ninth as expected during the spring. That will limit his run-scoring potential and cost him a handful of at-bats per week, but with his speed, Figgins should still be able to bat around .275 with 40-plus steals.
Oakland Athletics: Nick Swisher's hamstring injury has created a huge hole in Oakland's offense; in the team's five games since he got hurt, the Athletics have scored a combined 18 runs, 12 of them in one game against the shaky Casey Fossum. Swisher should be back soon, but his absence does illustrate the lack of punch evident in Oakland's lineup. That hurts the Oakland hitters' RBI and run scoring potential, something to keep in mind if you were expecting big, 100-plus-RBI years from players like Eric Chavez and Mike Piazza. ... Swisher's absence pushed up the timetable for Dan Johnson's return from the DL, as he joined the lineup this past Wednesday, the first day Swisher was sidelined. Johnson might have ranked as one of 2006's biggest disappointments, but he's nevertheless capable of a .280 batting average and decent power, perhaps 20 homers.
Seattle Mariners: Phenom Felix appears to have enjoyed the best-case scenario in his recovery from an elbow injury, as he's tentatively scheduled to rejoin the Seattle rotation on Friday against the Yankees. That's a challenging assignment for him, though if he's truly back to full strength, he's more than capable of succeeding, as evidenced by his one-hit effort against the Red Sox on April 11. King Felix threw 35 pitches in a bullpen session Friday and reported no problems, meaning he might have only lost two to three starts from his potential breakout year. It'll be interesting to see whether the Mariners go back to their 2006 treatment of their prized right-hander, though, as a result of his injury. Last year, they capped his innings and limited his use of the slider.
Texas Rangers: After going 21 games without a home run to begin the season, Mark Teixeira finally seemed to get his season going over the weekend in Toronto, with home runs on back-to-back days. Before that series, he had been batting .213 with a .577 OPS, well below the .282/.885 rates of his "down" year in 2006. Teixeira seemed to struggle to see enough quality pitches to make an impact; consider that he has averaged one walk per 7.13 plate appearances, compared to 8.46 for his career. That might be a result of having Sammy Sosa struggling initially hitting behind him, which is why it's good that Sosa is 10-for-27 (.370 AVE) with three home runs in his last seven games. Whether Sosa is truly the long-term answer as Teixeira lineup protection -- I'm thinking he's not, and Ian Kinsler would be more suitable -- is still a big question, but at least it's good to see Teixeira heating up a little of late. He's the kind of player who can take off with a few successful games, so don't give up on him yet.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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