De Aza starting, Owings a starter and more
What's been going on around the National League in the past week? Tristan H. Cockcroft takes a quick-hitting look at the news and notes for each of the 16 NL teams:
ATLANTA BRAVES: Look for the Braves to use a straight platoon in left field to begin the season, as Ryan Langerhans (.360 AVG, 1.031 OPS) outperformed Matt Diaz (.290/.673), last year's more productive of the two, during spring training. Interestingly enough, though, each of the two is a good hitter against his traditional "weaker" side; lefty hitter Langerhans has .304/.775 career rates against left-handers, righty hitter Diaz has .303/.773 rates against right-handers. In short, that could mean a continual battle between the two for the everyday role, with Diaz (.315/.853 career minor-league rates) perhaps the better bet than Langerhans (.265/.789 career minor-league rates). But it does require fantasy owners keeping tabs on their progress in the early weeks. ... A healthy Lance Cormier would begin the year as the fifth starter, pitching on Sunday, and don't be too dismissive of him in NL-only formats. He was effective enough in the minors, with a 3.68 career ERA, and respectable command ratios (2.42 walks, 0.47 home runs allowed per nine), making him a possible matchups type. Cormier's shoulder could put his first regular-start -- currently set for April 8 -- in question, but he's another guy to watch in these early weeks.
FLORIDA MARLINS: Who is Alejandro De Aza, anyway? Considered the "long shot" candidate for the Marlins' center field role entering spring training, the 22-year-old emerged as the victor after batting .354 (17-for-48) with four stolen bases in 27 spring games. He's a speedy, no-power type whom the Marlins nabbed out of the Dodgers organization in the Rule 5 draft following the 2004 season; the Dodgers didn't want him after he failed to bat better than .255 in three professional seasons. For his career, De Aza was a .266 hitter, slugging .365, an indication he's no more powerful than former Marlins center fielder Juan Pierre. But he can run; he has 64 steals in two years in the Florida organization, though he's also been caught 30 times (31.9 percent). That has value in NL-only formats, but De Aza could also be another great example why not to trust spring-training statistics. Baseball America didn't rank him among the Marlins' top 30 prospects for 2007, meaning his upside is limited, so know to keep your expectations low.
NEW YORK METS: So much for David Wright batting second this season; in Sunday's season opener, Paul Lo Duca was back in that spot, while Wright hit fifth. The combination did work, as it did all of 2006, so Wright owners can rest easy knowing he'll remain a good candidate for RBI. ... The big news for the Mets was Lastings Milledge making the opening-day roster, a decision that doesn't bode well for current right fielder Shawn Green. Green batted .149 (11-for-74) with 16 strikeouts in the spring, and his steep decline in production over the past five years suggests Milledge (.367 spring batting average) easily could overtake him with a hot start. Expect Milledge to get his at-bats initially against left-handers, but in NL-only leagues, he's worth stashing away now based on his future 20/20 potential and the chance he could emerge as a starter. ... Don't read too much into Mike Pelfrey's demotion to Class A ball; such moves are only made to get fifth starters some needed work in the minors until their first turns. Off days allow the Mets to skip the fifth starter until April 13, but after that point, Pelfrey will be promoted, after which point he should be an interesting NL-only sleeper.
PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES: Biceps tendinitis forced Freddy Garcia to the disabled list to begin the season, increasing the concerns many fantasy owners have had regarding his health the past few years. He'll be unavailable in Week 1, but should throw 45 pitches in a minor-league rehabilitation start on Thursday. After that point he'll make a second rehab start on April 10, perhaps returning to the Phillies around April 15. Garcia looked terrible during spring training, with a 11.42 ERA and six walks in 8 2/3 innings, but it's tough to overlook his dominant career performance against National League foes. He's 19-6 with a 2.34 ERA in 31 interleague starts, and don't overlook that the last time a pitcher with that strong a track record came to the NL, it was Bartolo Colon in 2002, and he managed a 10-4 record and 3.31 ERA in 17 starts for the Montreal Expos. Garcia might not be Colon, and he's looking more a health risk today than three weeks ago, but there's still third/fourth-starter potential in him for 2007, especially in NL-only formats.
WASHINGTON NATIONALS: Though it appeared Kory Casto might break camp with the team due to Nook Logan's groin injury, Logan's quick recovery earned Casto a trip back to Triple-A ball. (Of course, Logan's collision with the outfield wall in Monday's opener, presumably hurting his leg, could change that.) We'll see Casto back with the Nationals before too long, taking into account the team's lack of top-quality options at first base and in left field, and as an everyday player he still has .275-hitting, 20-homer ability, making him a player to watch as a possible midseason pickup once he's promoted. ... Brian Schneider began the season as Washington's No. 6 hitter, a decision that hurts Ryan Church's value somewhat. Church batted seventh on Monday, ahead of Logan, putting him further away from the team's better hitters, decreasing his RBI potential. With Cristian Guzman batting second, the brittle Dmitri Young hitting fifth and Logan eight, the Nationals boast one of the game's weakest offenses, something that should continually make it an attractive matchup for opposing pitchers, particularly in games at RFK Stadium.
CHICAGO CUBS: Shocking news, but neither Mark Prior nor Kerry Wood began the season on the Cubs' active roster! Prior kicks off the year at Triple-A Iowa, building arm strength, while Wood landed on the disabled list with right shoulder stiffness. Wood's health is the bigger concern here, as the shift to the bullpen was partially designed to decrease the burden on his right arm, and that he's already battling shoulder problems in March/April doesn't bode well for his full-year outlook. A recent report in the Chicago Sun-Times, for instance, noted that he hasn't been able to go as many as three consecutive weeks of pitching without an issue since his 2005 shoulder surgery, news that greatly decreases his appeal as a handcuff to closer Ryan Dempster. Bob Howry's suddenly looking much more stable in that role. Prior, meanwhile, hasn't reported any specific injury problems, though his velocity and command aren't at peak form yet. It's not unthinkable that he could get up to full speed in the minors by May 1 and then be a decent fantasy starter, but that's a lot of time to allow him to get hurt again, and in the meantime, he's incapable of helping your fantasy team. Keep your expectations low for both right-handers.
CINCINNATI REDS: Perhaps the most surprising development of the past week was the Reds' release of Dustin Hermanson, who the past week-plus was seemingly shaping up as the favorite for saves. Unfortunately, his spring numbers -- 7.36 ERA in eight games -- didn't back up the hype, as the right-hander lacked the velocity he displayed in the past, such as in 2005 when he saved 34 games for the White Sox. Hermanson might find work elsewhere, perhaps on a minor-league deal, but this setback makes him rather unlikely to emerge as a saves option in the near future, if at all this season. Feel free to cut him. ... With Hermanson gone, manager Jerry Narron said he'd go with a closer-by-committee approach to begin the season, with Todd Coffey, Kirk Saarloos and Mike Stanton expected to chip in to help David Weathers, the safest of the bunch for fantasy owners. Really, Weathers has done nothing to warrant losing the role the past two seasons, with a combined 3.75 ERA and 1.289 WHIP, and a 20-save season could be in his future. But Coffey's not a bad handcuff/NL-only option now, as he's perhaps the best pure arm in the team's bullpen.
HOUSTON ASTROS: Though such a role seemed a perfect fit for him, Luke Scott won't be used in a straight platoon, according to manager Phil Garner. That's an interesting development, and perhaps a decision Garner made looking at Scott's .337 batting average and 1.101 OPS in 104 at-bats against lefties at Triple-A Round Rock in 2006. Scott wasn't so fortunate at the big-league level, with .240/.777 rates in 50 at-bats for the Astros, but it appears he's not awful against left-handers, either. For fantasy, letting him play regularly isn't a bad idea, one that could help make him one of this year's more surprising breakout candidates. Sadly, such news makes Jason Lane less appealing in NL-only formats, as he'll be relegated to fourth-outfielder status. ... Fernando Nieve (3.60 spring ERA) might have been one of the team's most effective pitchers the past month, but nevertheless was returned to Triple-A to begin the year, with Chris Sampson winning the fifth-starter role. Sampson's not a bad NL-only matchups option, as a command specialist with a 1.122 WHIP, 1.34 walks per nine and 0.57 home runs allowed per nine ratio for his minor-league career, but he lacks Nieve's upside. One has to wonder whether a hot start for Nieve in the minors could put him in contention for Wandy Rodriguez's rotation spot before long, so keep tabs on how the right-hander fares initially in the minors.
MILWAUKEE BREWERS: Though Rickie Weeks entered spring training with some lingering concerns coming off wrist surgery, his exhibition-season statistics didn't indicate any issues with his hitting. He finished March with a .306 batting average (19-for-62), two home runs and four stolen bases, greatly increasing his appeal on draft day. Weeks has long been considered a future 25/25 performer, and perhaps even better than that, but injuries are the one thing holding him back. If he can get in 150-plus games in 2007, a breakout year is indeed possible, and he's off to a good start in that quest. ... Expect the Brewers to find creative ways to get Kevin Mench into the lineup this season after he finished the Cactus League season with a .380 batting average (19-for-50). He could be used to give Corey Hart an occasional off day, while also serving in a straight platoon with Geoff Jenkins. The Jenkins/Mench platoon should be one of baseball's better ones in 2007, and it's looking more likely Mench will earn the at-bats he'll need to make an NL-only impact. He could be an interesting fourth/fifth outfielder with upside.
PITTSBURGH PIRATES: Though Jose Bautista was officially named the Pirates' starting third baseman late in the spring, his performance of late hasn't warranted starting status. He finished the exhibition season with a .182 batting average (12-for-66) and no home runs, while second baseman Jose Castillo easily outplayed him with a .328 mark (20-for-61). Both will start for at least the first half of Week 1, with Freddy Sanchez (sprained knee) on the disabled list, though Bautista will need a hot start to retain his starting job. Sanchez could easily be back by the weekend, at which point one of the two will be sent back to the bench. ... Former top prospect Brad Eldred made the opening-day roster, though the presence of Adam LaRoche limits his usefulness. Eldred's quite the power hitter, with at least 38 homers between the majors and minors in each 2004 and 2005, though he's got holes in his swing, averaging one strikeout per 3.16 at-bats as a pro. He'll probably be first to go once Sanchez returns, meaning he shouldn't be picked up, and it's looking likely he'll need a trade elsewhere soon to have any chance at a significant big-league career.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS: Few pitchers looked as impressive during spring training as Adam Wainwright, one of the names most surrounded by uncertainty entering camp due to his shift from a relief back to a starter's role. He finished the exhibition season with a 1.10 ERA, 17 strikeouts and nine walks in 32 2/3 innings, which bodes well for his transformation back to starting, his role throughout his minor-league career. St. Louis' offense should provide enough run support to make Wainwright a consistent winner, and the team's ballpark is neutral enough that a low-threes ERA and perhaps 175 K's. Just be prepared for a mild late-season swoon, as it's tough for any pitcher to go from a 75-inning campaign to around 200 the next. ... Kip Wells also had a dominant spring, with a 1.16 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings of his own. He hasn't generated much appeal for fantasy, perhaps a result of his 57-74 record and 4.46 ERA for his career, but don't forget that in 2002-03, he managed back-to-back sub-four ERAs, and this Cardinals team is much more well rounded than those Pirares squads. Wells could maintain an ERA in the four range, which might be enough to net him 13-15 wins in 2007.
ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS: With Randy Johnson beginning the season on the disabled list, rookie Micah Owings broke camp as Arizona's fifth starter, an indication that he might be given a long look in a starting role even after Johnson's return later this month. Owings had a 3.50 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 18 spring innings, and he was 10-0 with a 3.70 ERA in 15 starts for Triple-A Tucson in 2006, meaning there's a fair share of upside in him. It's too early to trust him in mixed formats, but NL-only owners should consider adding him, and he's well worth tracking in his first few turns in shallow formats. ... Arizona's opening day lineup sheds some light on the team's catcher strategy, as the fact that Chris Snyder drew the start against right-hander Aaron Cook suggests the team doesn't plan a straight platoon between Snyder and lefty-hitting Miguel Montero. Montero did bat a robust .350 (14-for-40) in the spring, and his .291 batting average and .828 OPS for his minor-league career suggest he's the more exciting option of the two. But he'll have to earn his playing time with a hot start, meaning for now, he's really only NL-only worthy.
COLORADO ROCKIES: A sprained left ankle slowed Brad Hawpe late in the spring, but all indications were he'd play in Monday's opener. He paced the team with five home runs, batting .315 (17-for-54), a quality enough performance to keep him the favorite for the bulk of the at-bats in right field. Hawpe's career .227 batting average and .709 OPS against left-handers suggest he'll sit on occasion against them in favor of Jeff Baker, but that'll only help bolster his batting average. A .300 batting average and 25-plus homer power should be in Hawpe's future, especially if he makes better use of Coors Field this year than he did in 2006 (.282/.823 rates). ... Jeff Francis' owners shouldn't fret about his five-game suspension just yet, as he intends to make his first two scheduled starts, April 3 against the Diamondbacks and April 9 at the Dodgers. Be prepared to be without him for one turn through the rotation, but his 4.23 ERA and 17 strikeouts compared to three walks in six spring starts suggest there's breakout potential in him overall.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS: Rafael Furcal (sprained ankle) began the season on the disabled list, though the move was backdated to allow him to be eligible to return to action as early as Saturday. He has yet to resume running, though, making a return that early unlikely. Still, Furcal shouldn't miss too much time, which is good news considering initial worries when he got hurt. Ramon Martinez and Wilson Valdez should share the shortstop duties while Furcal is out, though neither should warrant fantasy consideration, not even in NL-only formats. ... The Dodgers' most curious move at spring's end was the demotion of James Loney, the team's leading hitter at .414 (29-for-70), while the team kept outfield prospect Matt Kemp on the roster. Kemp shouldn't see many at-bats in the early weeks, as the team doesn't plan platoons at either corner outfield spot, while Loney could have served in a backup capacity at first base or either of the outfield corners. Loney's fantasy value appears entirely tied to Nomar Garciaparra's health at this point, and while he has a bright future ahead, the rookie's main use is as Garciaparra insurance.
SAN DIEGO PADRES: Adrian Gonzalez signed a four-year, $9.5-million contract with the Padres, with an option year to take him into his free-agency season. It's a smart deal for San Diego; most don't talk him up as one of the game's up-and-coming hitters, but after his mini-breakthrough in 2006, Gonzalez could have better things ahead. He batted .367 (22-for-60) with five home runs and 16 RBIs in 20 spring games, and as a soon-to-be 25-year-old, he could see a boost in the power department in the near future. Gonzalez, the No. 1 pick overall in the 2000 draft, should be an easy bet for a .300 batting average and 25-plus homers, making him one of the more interesting lower-priced first basemen. ... Speaking of standout spring-training batting averages, Khalil Greene finished the exhibition season with a .424 mark (25-for-59), best on the team. He's young enough -- he's only 27 -- to realize the potential that had scouts calling him a future All-Star, and based on how he looked in camp, he's not a bad option to plug in at your middle-infield spot.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS: If you're looking for a handcuff to Armando Benitez, Brian Wilson is no longer your prime choice. Talked up all winter as the next in line to close should Benitez be traded, Wilson posted a 7.71 ERA and seven walks in 11 2/3 innings this spring, earning himself a ticket back to Triple-A. He struggled with his command last year, too, with 21 walks in 30 innings, though the Giants do view him as their closer of the future. For now, though, Benitez has looked strong enough to be a decent second- or third-tier fantasy closer, and Vinnie Chulk or Jonathan Sanchez should step in if the veteran gets hurt. ... Yet another example why not to trust spring stats: Russ Ortiz, named the Giants' fifth starter. His 3.00 ERA, but more his 13 strikeouts compared to five walks in 18 innings, this spring might lead some to believe he has a bit of NL-only value. He could have a matchup or two of appeal throughout the year, but keep in mind Ortiz has had WHIPs on the wrong side of 1.500 in each of the past two seasons.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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