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: OF Scott Hairston is out of options, which helps explain why all indications are that he'll break camp with the team as one of its final reserves. That he's batting .382 (13-for-34) with three home runs through 16 spring games certainly helps his cause, and his disappointing previous stints in Arizona despite scant playing time do put him in the more under-the-radar class. Hairston did bat .323 with a .998 OPS in 98 games at Triple-A Tucson in 2006, and had .311/.992 numbers in 58 games there the year before, and at age 26, he's still young enough to make an impact. Defense is a problem, meaning a trade to an American League team might be his best shot at a mini-breakthrough, but with his talent, Hairston's not a bad $1 NL-only gamble. ... After an 0-for-3 performance Monday, OF Chris B. Young is hitting .205 (8-for-39) in Cactus League play, with only two extra-base hits. More disturbing was that he batted ninth, as it's looking increasingly likely he'll begin the year in the bottom third of the lineup. Young brings 20/20 fantasy potential, but if you pick him, be prepared for streakiness.
Atlanta Braves: SP Tim Hudson is coming off a mediocre 2006, and the way he has looked in two years in Atlanta, one has to wonder whether he's capable of bouncing back to his 2000-01 form, when he won 38 games combined. Still, although he was awfully hittable last season and his walk rate (3.26 per nine) was his worst in six years, Hudson has shown signs of promise this spring, with a 1.80 ERA in four starts. Most importantly, he has walked only one batter in 15 innings, which might indicate an ability to bring his ERA back to the mid-3s and his WHIP near 1.300. ... 1B Scott Thorman's 2-for-4, one-homer performance Monday helped bring his spring batting average up to .265 (13-for-49), helping bolster his case to start exclusively against right-handers to begin the season. 1B Craig Wilson (.306 AVG, 2 HR, 13 G) might have the greater offensive upside, but he appears set to start only against left-handers, also filling in at the corner outfield spots when needed. Each should settle in as a $3-5 NL-only corner man, if only because Thorman's advantage in playing time and Wilson's advantage in hitting ability should balance their values out somewhat.
Chicago Cubs: SP Mark Prior, who had been working in minor league games recently, is slated to earn a start in an "A" game Thursday, a sign he remains in the mix for the fifth-starter role. His velocity remains mainly in the high 80s, though, so Prior owners shouldn't get their hopes up. He's a poor bet to dodge the disabled list, and unless you can nab him for only a couple of bucks in NL-only formats, he probably won't be worth the headache. ... With Prior looking like more of a long shot to break camp with the team, and Angel Guzman officially headed for the bullpen to begin the season, Wade Miller is the current front-runner for the No. 5 spot in the Chicago rotation. That's hardly great news for fantasy, though; Miller's 30, and his checkered injury history limited him to five starts all of last year and 36 combined the past three seasons. And though he was once a 15-win, mid-3s ERA performer in his Houston days, it's asking a lot for him to get close to that in 2007. Miller's spring ERA is 5.11 in four starts, and he has allowed three homers, meaning he might be better left to the sideline even in NL-only formats.
Cincinnati Reds: OF Ken Griffey Jr. has yet to appear in a spring game, but manager Jerry Narron confirmed Monday that once he does, it'll be in right field, not center, his position for 18 seasons and more than 1,200 games. At 37 years old, Griffey did seem destined for a corner outfield spot, where the defensive chores should be less demanding on his body. Will such a shift matter for fantasy? Beyond the fact that position shifts often create mild distractions for players that manifest themselves in their batting numbers, the move could help make Griffey a little safer bet to get well past the century mark in terms of games played. He's capable of 25-homer, 75-RBI power given good health, though he's hardly a "safe" choice today because of his recovery from a broken hand. ... SP Homer Bailey is widely considered one of the more prominent rookie breakout candidates, with the potential in 2007 to offer owners a year like the ones Jered Weaver or Anibal Sanchez had in 2006, but like those two, he'll need to begin his season in the minors. Bailey was hit hard this spring -- eight runs in 3.2 innings -- and if you pick him, be prepared for the possibility he won't be promoted until May or June.
Colorado Rockies: In news that shouldn't surprise anyone, Troy Tulowitzki has officially beaten out Clint Barmes for the shortstop job, putting the latter's chances at an opening day roster spot in serious jeopardy. Several rumors have Barmes a candidate to be traded, though that'd hardly encourage fantasy owners, as he'd lose the Coors Field factor helping him. Really, defense is his best asset, as since his return from a broken collarbone in late 2005, he's a .219 hitter with nine homers in 158 games. As for Tulowitzki, although he's a player with future All-Star potential, and a Rockies hitter, don't overlook that he's still only 22 years old. It'll take time for the power to come, so although he's a useful NL-only shortstop or mixed middle infielder, be realistic with your expectations. ... OF Cory Sullivan, hitting .333 (10-for-30) in the spring, might also need a trade to see any reasonable amount of playing time. Colorado seems committed to keeping veteran OF Steve Finley on the roster, limiting the NL-only appeal of Sullivan, a player capable of a .280-plus batting average and 15-20 steals, given the playing time.
Florida Marlins: The closer battle wages on, as early-spring favorite Kevin Gregg tossed a perfect inning Monday and has five scoreless frames in his past four games, dropping his spring ERA to 2.16. Experience is certainly in his favor, though rookies Matt Lindstrom and Henry Owens have been at least as effective in Grapefruit League action, and either could emerge as the go-to guy by Opening Day. Lindstrom's problem is that he relies mostly on velocity and an arrow-straight fastball; Owens, meanwhile, has great minor league numbers but isn't considered an elite prospect. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has said in the past that he'd prefer to pick one closer, so for those owners still left to draft, consider Gregg the favorite, in the $5-7 range, but also look at Lindstrom or Owens as a $1-2 late bid based on the rookies' strong springs. ... OF Jeremy Hermida continues to struggle, hitting .057 (2-for-35) with 11 strikeouts, a real worry because he averaged 1 strikeout per 4.39 at-bats as a rookie. He has a reputation as a hitter with better strike zone judgment, but to keep him a breakout candidate, it'd be nice to see him string together a few nice games in the next week or so. As is, Hermida is only late-round mixed-league material.
Houston Astros: Although much of the attention this spring has gone to rookie OF Hunter Pence and his .571 spring batting average, OF Jason Lane has been nearly as impressive to date, hitting .286 (12-for-42) with team highs in homers (5) and RBIs (12). He's easily outplaying veteran OF Richard Hidalgo for the role as Luke Scott's platoon partner in right field, a role suitable enough for him to make him perhaps a reserve or $1 NL-only pick. Although Lane did bat a disappointing .201 in 2006, he has averaged 1 homer per 17.0 at-bats against left-handers for his career (21.3 vs. right-handers), meaning a platoon role might use his talents better. ... CL Brad Lidge, meanwhile, continues to struggle in Grapefruit League action, with nine runs and two home runs allowed in six innings. Phil Garner remains committed to Lidge as his closer, though coming off a 5.28-ERA, 1.400-WHIP disappointment in 2006, the right-hander's not going to have too much job security this time around. With RP Dan Wheeler posting a 2.52 ERA and 1.150 WHIP last year and a 4.15 ERA so far this spring, he's looking like a mandatory handcuff for Lidge owners.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Leave it to Grady Little to make the most curious of decisions regarding starting pitching; his Dodgers have decided sophomore Chad Billingsley will begin the year in the bullpen despite his 6-2 record and 2.44 ERA in an 11-start span from July 13 to Sept. 21 last season. Of course, the right-hander was rather wild, averaging 5.19 walks per nine innings during that span, and 3.41 in 2005-06 in the minors, something he'll need to correct to fully realize his ace potential. Working out of the bullpen might not be the best way for Billingsley to do that, but barring a disastrous adjustment to his new role, he'll be next in line to start. That's enough to keep him mixed-reserve or $3-5 NL-only worthy. ... With Billingsley out of the mix (for now), the fifth-starter race should boil down to Mark Hendrickson, Brett Tomko or Hong-Chih Kuo, perhaps shaping up in that order. The winner should at least have some matchups/$1-3 NL-only potential, though Hendrickson's 1.458 career WHIP marks him as the least preferred for fantasy. Tomko's career 9-4 record and 2.71 ERA in 33 games (20 starts) at Dodger Stadium could make him the best bet of the bunch for our purposes.
Milwaukee Brewers: The projected left-field platoon of Geoff Jenkins (vs. right-handers) and Kevin Mench (vs. left-handers) has been thriving in Cactus League play, continuing to make the Milwaukee outfield one of the more interesting ones headed into 2007. That might seem to detract from each hitter's fantasy numbers -- the counting statistics (HR, RBI, R) always worry people -- but it does maximize each player's potential in batting average. Jenkins, a .469 hitter (15-for-32) this spring, is a lifetime .291 hitter with an .892 OPS against right-handers; Mench, a .393 spring hitter (11-for-28), has lifetime .303/.930 rates against left-handers. As the lefty in the platoon, Jenkins is the better bet for NL-only owners, although a Mench trade could always be in the works. Don't overlook these platoon mates, as they're both skilled enough with the bat to make an impact. ... RP Derrick Turnbow also has looked rather sharp, and through six appearances, he has yet to allow a run. It's easy to forget the former closer had 23 saves and a 3.28 ERA through June en route to an All-Star appearance in 2006, so if you're looking to invest in CL Francisco Cordero, Turnbow's looking like quite the smart handcuff.
New York Mets: With C Paul Lo Duca struggling -- he's hitting .133 (4-for-30) in 10 spring games -- talk has begun circulating that the Mets will drop him from the No. 2 hole. He batted .318 and scored 79 runs in 118 games hitting in that spot, although a soon-to-be 35-year-old who averages 1 walk per 16.0 plate appearances is hardly a great bet to sustain that level of performance. Lo Duca could easily revert to the form that made him one of the game's worst second-half performers the first half of the decade, so beware pushing him to top-10 catcher status. As for who might replace him, 3B David Wright is the rumor du jour, chatter that can't please his fantasy owners. Sure, hitting between SS Jose Reyes and CF Carlos Beltran is a nice place to be, but Wright's going to lose some RBI chances if he moves to the No. 2 hole, and he might not get the green light to run as much with Beltran and 1B Carlos Delgado coming up. In 2006, incidentally, a team's No. 2 slot drove in 77 runs and scored 105 on average, while No. 5 hitters -- Wright's primary slot last year -- had 103 RBIs and 89 runs scored.
Philadelphia Phillies: Opening Day is 13 days off, yet the Phillies' rotation still remains six men deep, with no trade in sight for SP Jon Lieber. Remember the early-spring rumors that SP Brett Myers might be tried as a closer? So far, that hasn't come to fruition, nor should it, but it's interesting that he's being kept on schedule to pitch the April 2 regular-season opener yet no formal announcement has been made on his status for that game. If it's not Myers who's bullpen-bound -- and his fantasy owners are hoping he's not -- then Lieber or Adam Eaton seems likely to be bumped. Eaton probably is leading that race, merely because of his three-year, $24.5 million contract, although Lieber's 1.50 ERA in two spring starts shows he still has some value. Really, a trade out of Philadelphia's bandbox ballpark would help his cause, as he has a better road ERA (4.28) and WHIP (1.226) than home (4.76/1.280) in two years with the Phillies. Eaton owners should have mild concerns that he's willing to accept a shift to the bullpen and his spring ERA (4.63) is higher than that of Lieber (1.50) or Jamie Moyer (2.51), although no more so than the fact that he had a 5.12 ERA last year in a bandbox ballpark.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Like last year, the Pirates have effectively handed OF Chris Duffy the starting center-field and leadoff roles, despite his .182 batting average (6-for-33) and no walks in 11 Grapefruit League contests. He's speedy enough to swipe 30-35 bases, making him one of the cheaper steals sources, but Duffy's hardly an automatic to offer up a season like Dave Roberts' or Willy Taveras' 2006. It's nice for Duffy owners to know he'll get a long time to break his slump in the regular season, but be prepared for some struggles along the way. ... SP Tom Gorzelanny had been shaping up as an appealing late-round sleeper, particularly in NL-only formats, thanks to his 2.91 ERA and 1.119 WHIP for his minor league career. But through 10.1 spring innings, he has a 10.45 ERA, and his six walks in that time have put his status in the opening day rotation in a bit of doubt. Gorzelanny did a fine job for the Pirates late last season, managing a 3.79 ERA in 11 starts, but it's possible he'll be due for an adjustment period in his sophomore season. Pittsburgh's not going to provide him too much run support, and if he's a risky ERA/WHIP bet, he won't be worth owning at all.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals could be without two starting outfielders on Opening Day, as center fielder Jim Edmonds (shoulder) and right fielder Juan Encarnacion (wrist surgery) have yet to appear in a Grapefruit League contest. Edmonds has resumed running, and there's a chance he could be ready to play the regular-season opener, but Encarnacion still has pain in his wrist when taking batting practice and might begin the year on the disabled list. OF Preston Wilson could pick up a few more starts in Encarnacion's absence, although 3B/OF Scott Spiezio would be the better bet for fantasy. As a $1-2 NL-only pick capable of being shuffled around your lineup, he's not a bad stand-in. ... RP Jason Isringhausen hasn't had any setbacks after his first two spring appearances, both starts to allow him to face big league hitters early in games. He has two shutout innings and should be able to begin the year as St. Louis' closer. Still, Isringhausen owners should protect their investments by nabbing RP Brad Thompson (0.96 spring ERA) as his handcuff. After all, there's no guarantee Isringhausen's hip will allow him to hold up for the entire season.
San Diego Padres: 3B Kevin Kouzmanoff has spent most of his career as the under-the-radar prospect type, but he has hit wherever he has played, with a .332 batting average and .951 OPS for his minor league career. That's why it's no shock he's tearing up the Cactus League of late, with a .364 average (12-for-33) and two homers in 12 games. Meanwhile, his competition, 3B Russell Branyan, has a .208 mark (5-for-24) with 10 strikeouts. Petco Park might rein in Kouzmanoff's power, capping him at 15-18 homers, but with his hitting skills, he could easily offer close to a .300 mark with plenty of RBIs, especially as, in a San Diego lineup that lacks superstar-caliber bats, he could quickly rise into a prime lineup spot. ... 1B Adrian Gonzalez continues to flash underrated power this spring, with a .342 batting average (13-for-38) and a .632 slugging percentage. He'll begin the year hitting in the heart of the order, and considering he'll turn 25 in May, he's only approaching his power prime. Gonzalez's so-so minor league power rates, and his status as a Petco Park hitter, seem to keep him beneath the radar among first basemen, but he has the talent to challenge top-10 status at the position in 2007.
San Francisco Giants: SP Noah Lowry might have been a popular breakout candidate a year ago, but coming off a second half of 2006 in which he had a 5.34 ERA and 1.387 WHIP, the left-hander isn't garnering nearly the appeal this season. He also has been battling control problems in the spring, as his 10 walks in 13.1 frames has helped lead to a 6.08 ERA in his four starts. Lowry's impressive career home numbers -- 3.30 ERA, 1.193 WHIP -- mark him as a useful matchups option, even in mixed formats, but it's looking as if he won't be a consistent type at all in 2007. ... Meanwhile, SP Matt Cain, one of this year's most popular breakout candidates, hasn't looked at all the part in four spring starts, in which he has a 9.24 ERA. Still, he has admitted he's experimenting during the Cactus League season, a common practice among pitchers in March, and that he had a 7.99 ERA last spring and a 5.12 first-half regular-season mark could indicate he's merely a slow starter. Cain possesses ace-caliber talent, keeping him among the better candidates to crack the top 25 starting pitchers, and this could provide a brief chance at a draft discount on him.
Washington Nationals: The demotion of 1B Larry Broadway should come as a bit of a surprise; he was a sleeper choice to stand in for Nick Johnson to begin the season after batting .333 (7-for-21) in 11 spring games. But his departure, coinciding with the addition of DH Dmitri Young to major league camp, could signal the latter's emergence as the favorite for that role on Opening Day. He's a powerful type, one who averaged 1 homer per 20.9 at-bats from 2003 to '05, although he's poor defensively and was plagued by off-the-field trouble last year. Young's .258-23-78 stat line in his last 150 big league contests suggests there's value in him as a $1 NL-only gamble, but don't forget, Washington's a weak team that plays in a cavernous home ballpark. ... Behind ace John Patterson, the rest of the rotation seems to be shaping up as Shawn Hill, Jason Simontacchi, Matt Chico and Jerome Williams. Putting aside Patterson, a pitcher capable of reverting to his 2005 form with some luck in the health department, Hill and his 3.12 ERA/1.200 WHIP for his minor league career is the next-most interesting starter. Still, taking into account Washington's weak offense, Patterson's really the only one draftable outside of deep NL-only formats.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.