Cockcroft: Around the National League
Here's a quick-hitting look at the news and fantasy notes from the past week for each of the 16 National League teams:
Arizona Diamondbacks: SP Randy Johnson, recovering from Oct. 26 back surgery, has resumed throwing batting practice and is slated for another session before perhaps making his Cactus League debut. Once expected to sit out most (if not all) of April, Johnson might miss no more than two or three regular-season starts, and his return to the National League should offer encouragement regarding his ERA, WHIP and strikeout numbers. Still, there's a limit to what a 43-year-old should be expected to do, meaning he'll warrant close monitoring once he returns to the mound later this month. IF Alberto Callaspo is off to a hot start this spring, leading the team in hits (11) and batting average (.500). It's already been widely assumed he'd make the Opening Day roster as Arizona's primary infield reserve, but this could help him earn the occasional start, taking into account that he's right-handed and the team's third baseman (Chad Tracy) and shortstop (Stephen Drew) are both left-handed, while the second baseman (Orlando Hudson) is a better hitter from the left side. Callaspo's not a bad $1 NL-only gamble, and if you're a Tracy owner especially, remember his batting average would be helped by losing some of those outs he makes against lefties (.228 AVG, .631 OPS career).
Atlanta Braves: With the news breaking Thursday that SP Mike Hampton might be sidelined until at least mid-May, the Braves acted quickly, signing SP Mark Redman a day later. He's an innings eater who managed a respectable 14 wins and 3.59 ERA for the 2003 Marlins, though he's also now 33 and has seen his ERA increase in each of three seasons since. Redman's not guaranteed a rotation spot, entering the Lance Cormier-Kyle Davies mix for what is now a competition for two starting jobs, but his three-inning, three-hit, one-run Braves debut Saturday is a nice start. If he lands the fourth-starter job, a prospect that seems likely, there could be some NL-only matchups value in him. Speaking of Cormier and Davies, though, they're locked up in quite a race for the final spot, assuming Redman makes the team. Cormier has 10 strikeouts and a 2.00 ERA in nine innings, Davies three and a 2.25 ERA in eight. Davies has the greater fantasy upside, but his command is also a bit suspect; he'd need to maintain his current pace but cut down on the 5-to-3 walk-to-strikeout rate in order to be a safe NL-only sleeper.
Chicago Cubs: The left field battle is officially on with the spring debut on Monday of OF Cliff Floyd, who had October surgery on his left Achilles tendon. He hit a two-run double in his first Cactus League at-bat, while his primary competition, Matt Murton, a .304 hitter with two homers this spring, got the day off. Sadly for Murton, he's the right-handed hitter of the two, so a straight platoon, in terms of playing time, would clearly favor Floyd. But do any of us really believe Floyd will actually stay healthy? He has averaged 119 games played the past eight seasons, and was limited to 97 in 2006 with those Achilles' problems, meaning Murton's not a bad sleeper to target late in NL-only drafts. With a little luck (him, good; Floyd, bad), Murton could be a sneaky, .300-hitting, 400-at-bat player. SP Mark Prior's five walks in 3.1 spring innings demonstrate he has a long way to go recapturing the command of his pitches. Considering he's one of the arms most susceptible to injury in the game, Prior shouldn't be considered much more than mixed-league endgame or an NL-only $5 type of pick.
Cincinnati Reds: It's becoming abundantly clear that OF Josh Hamilton, that "feel-good" story of a Rule 5 pick, is probably going to make this team. He's the team leader this spring in batting average (.538), hits (14) and total bases (21), though the best-case scenario still has him in a 25th-man/fifth outfielder type of role. For fantasy, that's nothing more than an interesting NL-only $1/reserve pick, or perhaps simply a player to stick on your watch list for early-season pickups, but at least it's the proverbial "foot-in-the-door" for the kid. The former No. 1 overall pick of the 1999 amateur draft is a .293 hitter with 33 homers and 44 stolen bases in 266 career minor league games, but persistent off-the-field issues have limited him to only 15 games since 2002 (all came in 2006), and 23 at the Double-A level. In other words, it's a long, uphill climb for Hamilton; don't forget that. Sticking with the long shot-with-sleeper potential theme, RP Dustin Hermanson has made two spring appearances since signing with the Reds, and twice has tossed a scoreless frame. There's closer potential in him, as he did hold that role as recently as 2005 with the White Sox, but he'll need to add nearly 10 mph to his current high-80s fastball if he's to succeed once the games begin to count in the standings.
Colorado Rockies: Monday's release of C Javy Lopez shouldn't come as a surprise. He was really only in camp as an insurance policy in the event Yorvit Torrealba's shoulder wasn't healthy enough to allow him to serve as starter Chris Iannetta's backup. Now Lopez appears on the brink of retirement, barring either the Braves bringing him back on as Brian McCann's backup, or another team offering him a starting job, which is an unlikely prospect. Meanwhile, Torrealba, a seven-homer, 43-RBI performer in 2006, becomes a much more attractive NL-only No. 2 catcher, on the idea he'll be playing behind an untested rookie and calling Coors Field his home ballpark again. Though it appeared the second base job would be up for grabs this spring, the Rockies have already stated their intention to use Kazuo Matsui there, leaving IF Jamey Carroll to a utilityman role despite the fact he's batting .300 and fielding a National League-best .995 at the position in 2006. Perhaps they see what fantasy owners do, that Carroll's not quite the hitter he showed a year ago, and with a decreased role, he's only a fringe NL-only middle infielder at this point.
Florida Marlins: It's a bit strange to hear people call RP Taylor Tankersley a primary contender for the closer role in Florida, considering he has yet to make a Grapefruit League appearance due to tendinitis in his left shoulder. He played catch on flat ground Saturday, but that doesn't sound like he's set to step on a mound for some game competition tomorrow, does it? There's still time for Tankersley to get in enough innings before Opening Day to be on the roster, but for him to become the closer, it's a bit of a stretch, and an early-season set-up role could easily get him typecast for the year in a left-handed specialist role, like a Mike Myers, Scott Eyre or Alan Embree. Asking for saves from Tankersley seems like a bit of a stretch, and while RP Kevin Gregg and his 3.38 ERA in five spring games is who people are putting their money on today, don't overlook rising sleeper RP Matt Lindstrom, who logged two more scoreless frames Monday. He's now up to 5.1 innings with one run allowed, and he did seem to warm to closing while at Double-A Binghamton in 2006 (11 saves, 3.76 ERA, 35 games). That's not a bad $1/reserve gamble in an NL-only league.
Houston Astros: Now this is what we like to see; a real rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred competition for a starting job during spring training. That's how right field's shaping up, and amazingly, it's hot prospect OF Hunter Pence leading the way with a .636 batting average (14-for-22), two homers and seven RBI to date. Sadly, that's the kind of pace he'd need to maintain the next week-plus to be a serious threat to start on Opening Day, but one thing's for sure, this is a kid we will see up in Houston this year, and before Sept. 1. Can Pence win the right field role? Sure, though with both Luke Scott (.300 AVG, 1 HR, 20 AB) and Jason Lane (.357 AVG, 3 HR, 8 RBI) hitting, there's little need to rush the rookie. In fact, a Scott/Lane straight platoon might be the best solution, one that'd favor Scott for fantasy, taking into account that he was a .366 hitter with nine homers and a 1.130 OPS in 164 at-bats against right-handers in 2006. It's clear he can rake against righties, so while a platoon would limit his mixed-league appeal, it'd make him an attractive midrange NL-only outfielder.
Los Angeles Dodgers: It might seem a ludicrous thought that the Dodgers would consider shifting 1B Nomar Garciaparra back across the diamond to third base, but should 3B Wilson Betemit (.130 AVG, 6 K's, 23 AB) continue his spring slide while 1B James Loney (.483 AVG, .1.158 OPS) keeps up his torrid pace, the rumors are going to persist. Don't overlook rookie 3B Andy LaRoche either, though he's off to a so-so start himself (.250 AVG, 5 K's, 28 AB). Sure, Garciaparra would become a greater risk to get hurt at a more physically demanding position, but Loney's bat is clearly becoming too good to limit to a sub-200-plate appearance reserve role. The Dodgers should find creative ways to squeeze him into the lineup, and there's little doubt he could be a Lyle Overbay-like hitter right now if pressed into starting duty. SP Brad Penny, who finished up 2006 with a 6.25 ERA in 15 second-half starts, has been torched for 10 runs on 17 hits in seven spring innings to date. Though it's clear he's experimenting with his arsenal, he's going to need some encouraging outings very soon to convince prospective owners his second-half fade wasn't physically related.
Milwaukee Brewers: A sore elbow cost 3B Ryan Braun 10 days and led him to a streak-snapping 0-for-5 performance as the designated hitter in his return game Monday. He had been 6-for-11 with three home runs and eight RBIs in his first three Cactus League contests, but the time missed could be just enough to keep him beneath the opening-day cutoff. Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino could split time at third base initially until either Corey Koskie recovers from a concussion or, more likely, Braun proves himself ready with a strong start in Triple-A. 2B Rickie Weeks may be a tremendous athlete with future 30/30 fantasy potential, but to date this spring he hasn't impressed with the bat after recovering from persistent wrist trouble. He's hitting an empty .231 (.308 SLG), and has seven strikeouts in 26 at-bats. Weeks has been a batting-average liability for fantasy the past two seasons, and his defensive issues do warrant his inclusion in the high-risk, high-reward category. He's capable of a major breakout, but be forewarned that he has yet to hint at it during Cactus League competition.
New York Mets: All eyes are on the rotation, where little is decided behind veteran SPs Tom Glavine and, if healthy, Orlando Hernandez. John Maine is virtually guaranteed the No. 3 starter role, and his five scoreless frames in two starts do back that up. In fact, I'd call him one of the more underappreciated bargain candidates of the spring, as a guy capable of keeping his WHIP low, and, consequently, his ERA down. (In a way, think of his 2007 as something potentially like what David Bush offered you a year ago.) Maine was the No. 6 prospect for the Orioles in 2005, No. 2 the year before that, he had a 3.24 ERA and 1.158 WHIP for his minor league career and he's only 25. Behind Maine, though, the questions start. Oliver Perez has a 6.00 ERA in three starts and has generally looked awful when I've watched him pitch. Chan Ho Park was tagged for four runs and five hits in 3.1 innings by the Nationals on Monday. This team could use a trade for an experienced starter, and as things stand today, I'd call Glavine and Maine solid midrange mixed starters, with perhaps rookie Mike Pelfrey the next-most appealing option due to his upside.
Philadelphia Phillies: OF Pat Burrell has been experimenting with contact lenses during batting practice, though he has hardly been pleased with the results. He had yet to test them in game action through Sunday, and has a .263 batting average and six strikeouts in 19 at-bats. One has to wonder whether contacts could help Burrell, the major league leader in called third strikes in both 2005 (68) and 2006 (63), but until he tries them in game action and shows some sort of improvement, he can't be expected to bat much higher than .260 with 30 homers. There aren't any takers yet for SP Jon Lieber (6 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 5 K's), but as teams begin to make late-spring roster decisions, expect someone -- perhaps Houston, St. Louis or Toronto -- to make a pitch for the right-hander. Sure, he'd probably be a better long-term bet for the Phillies than Adam Eaton or Jamie Moyer, but a Lieber trade has been a long time coming, and the team could use bullpen or outfield help. If you're drafting him, think of him as a 25-start, four-ERA kind of pitcher, but one who'll certainly earn most, if not all, of that for another team.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Among the little tricks of evaluating spring training statistics is analyzing a pitcher's command ratios -- walks and strikeouts per nine innings -- compared to his previous regular-season numbers. In the case of SP Ian Snell, whose walks-per-nine sat at 3.58 in 2006, it's nice to see him throwing more strikes during Grapefruit League play, with a 9:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his eight innings of work. That's a lot closer to his 2.32 career minor-league walks-per-nine rate, which helps support his case as a breakthrough candidate for 2007 (though to a point, considering the Pirates aren't going to win that many games this year). CL Salomon Torres has surrendered six runs on five hits, three of them home runs, in four innings this spring, numbers that could scare off a fair share of owners looking at him as a low-cost closer. But fret not, as his job security isn't an issue of yet, and the most reliable fallback option, Matt Capps, has allowed four runs on five hits in three innings of his own. It's Torres' job to lose, though Dan Kolb (3 scoreless IP) could overtake Capps as the primary setup man. Don't be so hasty to handcuff Capps to Torres just yet.
St. Louis Cardinals: Somehow, this "convert all our relievers to starters" spring strategy of the Cardinals' has been a successful so far, as both Adam Wainwright (11.2 scoreless innings) and Braden Looper (0.82 ERA, 11 IP) have been among the team's most effective pitchers, while even Brad Thompson (6.1 scoreless IP) has shown enough to suggest he could make the move if needed. With RP Josh Kinney out for the year due to Tommy John surgery, though, Thompson probably becomes the primary setup man to CL Jason Isringhausen, assuming Looper continues his current march towards the fifth-starter role. Whether Looper can handle the workload of a 180-plus-inning starter is the question, and that he has never topped 86 innings while pitching exclusively out of the bullpen the past eight years doesn't help his cause. But Wainwright, who threw 184 innings as recently as 2005, should be much more capable of making the switch. There's value in each, especially with new Busch Stadium more neutral than its predecessor, which favored hitters, but Looper the starter, no matter how good his spring, shouldn't be more than a $2-$4 NL-only flier.
San Diego Padres: OF Paul McAnulty has certainly opened some eyes this spring -- general manager Kevin Towers was singing his praises addressing the fans before a game I caught in Peoria, Ariz., last week -- but he might be fighting a losing battle in his race for a roster spot. That's because OF Terrmel Sledge, a fellow left-handed hitter with a similar skill set, is his primary competition for the left field role, has batted .379 with four homers to outperform McAnulty (.385 AVG, 2 HR, 8 RBI) to date. Sledge, a .308-hitting, .401-on-base guy for his minor-league career, might not look like much on the surface, but as a leadoff man with that track record, he could be a .280-hitting, 90-run sleeper in San Diego. Don't read too much into SP Jake Peavy saying he had a dead arm in his poor start last Friday, or Greg Maddux missing his start on Monday with an abdominal strain. Maddux's injury was the kind he'd pitch through during the regular season, while Peavy's dead-arm issue is a common thing for pitchers in the spring. He remains a 200-K lock with Cy Young upside for 2007.
San Francisco Giants: Rumors continue to swirl around CL Armando Benitez, with the Red Sox now said to be interested in his services. Still, he's going to need several more quality outings to show suitors his knee is healthy enough for him to pitch at an elite level. Such a deal might only happen in late March, once a team like Boston determines whether it has a better in-house candidate, but a healthy Benitez would have 25-save potential. RP Brian Wilson is said to be the favorite to step in should a deal go down, though he'll need to improve his command (4 IP, 4 BB) to be a success in the role. OF Barry Bonds continues to bat in the No. 3 hole this spring, as manager Bruce Bochy opts for the strategy of assuring him a first-inning at-bat. That's disappointing news to prospective Rich Aurilia owners, as much of his fantasy appeal was based on the prospect that he'd be the No. 3 hitter ahead of Bonds. AT&T Park could sap much of Aurilia's power and there's competition for his first base job, so he might now shape up as one of the bigger busts of 2007.
Washington Nationals: Left field was originally expected to be an open competition this spring, but manager Manny Acta has already made it official; Ryan Church has won that job. Church hasn't even impressed this spring, hitting .190 (4-for-21), but perhaps Acta felt he had his hands full settling first base and the rotation? Regardless, Church becomes an interesting NL-only option, though count on him being on a short leash with top prospect Kory Casto nearly ready for Washington. Speaking of the rotation, Shawn Hill is the one man behind SP John Patterson to distinguish himself so far, with a 2.00 ERA in nine innings scattered over three starts. Hill is hardly an appealing fantasy option on such a bad team, but most any starter who calls RFK Stadium home could be useful in NL-only when the matchup is right. Beyond him, Billy Traber has already been removed from the starters' mix, while Colby Lewis (16.62 ERA) and Tim Redding (23.62 ERA) could be next to go. Former top Giants prospect Jerome Williams might be the next-most-exciting rotation candidate to watch these coming weeks, and even he has a 10.38 ERA.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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