- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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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:
National League East
Atlanta Braves: Mike Hampton will miss the 2007 season, his second in a row, after being diagnosed with a torn flexor tendon in his elbow. He'll require surgery that will cost him at least six months, allowing him to be ready for spring training 2008. That leaves the fifth starter role in Atlanta more permanently in the hands of either Lance Cormier or Kyle Davies, each of whom could have some appeal in NL-only formats. Cormier, currently on the disabled list with a shoulder injury, had a 4.31 ERA in nine starts for the Braves and a 3.95 ERA in nine starts for Triple-A Richmond, and a 3.68 career minor league mark, putting him in the class of matchups considerations. Meanwhile, current stand-in Davies, who had a 2.84 ERA in five spring starts, held the potent Mets offense to two runs on four hits while striking out eight batters on Sunday. He's 23 and has the higher upside of the two, despite his awful 8.38 ERA in 14 starts for Atlanta in 2007, and is worth stashing on reserve in NL-only formats in the event this is the season he puts it all together.
Florida Marlins: Ricky Nolasco landed on the 15-day disabled list on Monday due to elbow inflammation, and he'll be sidelined for at least three weeks. It's a significant setback for one of the team's more promising young starters, one who posted a 3.52 ERA in 15 1/3 spring innings. Rick Vanden Hurk was promoted from Double-A Carolina to assume Nolasco's fifth starter role, beginning with Tuesday's game against the Brewers. Vanden Hurk, signed out of the Netherlands in 2002, is a promising prospect with a 3.47 career minor league ERA, but consider that he has made only 38 starts in four professional seasons, having missed time in 2005-06 due to Tommy John surgery. He could be a useful fantasy prospect in the future, but at age 21, he'll be hard-pressed to contribute now. Had the Marlins not traded Yusmeiro Petit to acquire closer Jorge Julio, they might not have had to promote Vanden Hurk, and now they might be regretting the deal on both ends. Julio has a 23.62 ERA in four appearances, blowing one save chance and being removed early in his second one on Sunday. Lee Gardner got the save in that one, though more likely, Henry Owens or Kevin Gregg would be next in line should Julio continue to struggle. Julio owners should go for his handcuff options in that order in NL-only formats.
New York Mets: With all the talk this preseason about which Met might bat second, who got the start in that spot when Paul Lo Duca, who played the first five regular-season games there, finally received a day off on Sunday? Jose Valentin, he of the .321 career on-base percentage, got the call, though he went 0-for-4 to drop his season batting average to .130 (3-for-23). Though Valentin had a nice 2006, he's now 37 and two years removed from a year in which he batted .170 with a .591 OPS, and his .205/.583 career rates from the right side of the plate suggest he's better-suited to platoon with Damion Easley these days. Expect the Mets to continue experimenting with their No. 2 hole on Lo Duca's off days, and Valentin owners shouldn't merely assume he'll turn his year around soon.
Philadelphia Phillies: Jon Lieber (oblique) returned to action Monday, allowing two runs in two-thirds of an inning in the Phillies' seven-run, eighth-inning meltdown. He'll continue to be used in middle relief, a role in which he might need time to adjust. In other words, Lieber's primary fantasy appeal is as a reserve, waiting for him to be traded to a team that will use him as a starter. He's probably not enough an ERA/WHIP option to be helpful, even in NL-only formats. Meanwhile, Freddy Garcia (biceps) is scheduled to make a rehabilitation start for Class A Clearwater on Tuesday, putting him on track to return to the Philadelphia rotation Sunday against the Astros. He could need a start or two to return to useable fantasy form, but considering Houston's offense has struggled to date, Garcia is worth getting back into NL-only lineups right away. The Phillies acquired Francisco Rosario from the Blue Jays Thursday, and have added him to their bullpen. He's not necessarily ready to help NL-only owners in ERA/WHIP, but has the upside to be a useful bullpen arm before too long. Rosario's someone to watch in the coming weeks.
Washington Nationals: So much for Cristian Guzman lasting as the Nationals' everyday shortstop; a left hamstring strain landed him on the disabled list after only one game. That returned Felipe Lopez to his traditional shortstop role, where he has appeared in each of the team's last five contests. Lopez's fantasy owners can't be thrilled with the news, as second base eligibility might have made him more appealing. Guzman's expected to miss at least two weeks and could be out for all of April, so don't count on Lopez qualifying at second base for at least a few more weeks. Meanwhile, Nook Logan also hit the DL April 3 with a left foot strain, clearing a roster spot for rookie Kory Casto. Casto has started five of Washington's past six games in left field, batting .174 (4-for-23) with seven strikeouts, though his .276 batting average and .829 OPS for his minor league career suggests better times should be ahead. He's unlikely to be successful enough or play enough to make a mixed-league impact, but isn't a bad NL-only add.
National League Central
Chicago Cubs: Wade Miller allowed six runs on nine hits -- two of them home runs -- in four innings of his first regular-season start, a loss Sunday at Milwaukee. That extended his streak of big league appearances without a quality start to eight, and now the Cubs plan to push him back in the rotation as off days allow until April 18. Miller, whose career has been derailed due to injuries in recent years, probably won't be able to develop any sort of rhythm bouncing between the bullpen and rotation, increasing the chances the fifth-starter role will ultimately wind up in the hands of either Angel Guzman or Mark Prior before long. Don't expect much from Miller this year, and if you're a Guzman or Prior owner in an NL-only league, keep them on hand for now.
Cincinnati Reds: Through one week, it's looking like David Weathers is the leading man in Cincinnati's "closer-by-committee." He has received each of the team's two save chances, converting both, and has three scoreless innings in his three appearances. Weathers might not be the most exciting big league closer, but through two-plus years of this stint in Cincinnati, he has a 3.67 ERA and 1.270 WHIP in 143 appearances, which aren't bad rates. In addition, he has 29 saves in 40 chances, not a bad performance for a pitcher whose bullpen role has constantly changed during that time. If Weathers can retain the role all year, which now seems fairly likely, he could be a cheap source of 25 saves and a mid-threes ERA, which isn't a bad third mixed or second NL-only closer.
Houston Astros: Well, that was quick. We've got our first performance-related closer change of the season, and predictably, Brad Lidge is the man losing his job, after posting an 11.00 ERA in nine spring appearances and a 16.20 mark in his first two regular-season games, blowing his only save chance. His critics point back to Albert Pujols' game-winning three-run home run in the 2005 National League Championship Series as Lidge's "meltdown point," and the numbers back it up; he has eight losses, eight blown saves in 40 chances, a 5.75 ERA and 1.475 WHIP in 84 appearances (2005 postseason included) dating back to that outing, making him one of the most hittable prominent relievers in baseball during that span. Meanwhile, Dan Wheeler, his likely replacement, has a 2.95 ERA and 1.192 WHIP in 81 appearances in the same time period, and he managed nine saves standing in for Lidge at times in 2006. In other words, Wheeler's a more than adequate replacement, and an underrated reliever, which is why he made such an essential handcuff for Lidge owners in the preseason. Expect Lidge to work through his problems in middle relief, and it wouldn't be shocking if Wheeler keeps this role the rest of the year.
Milwaukee Brewers: The left field "platoon" of Geoff Jenkins and Kevin Mench is off to a hot start, perhaps leading to expanded roles for each if Corey Hart continues on his current .176-hitting (3-for-17) mini-slump. Jenkins has homered in three consecutive games, each of them against a right-hander, and he's batting .400 (6-for-15) against righties to date after managing a .306 mark with an .871 OPS against them in 2006. Mench, meanwhile, is hitting .353 (6-for-17) with one homer, but more importantly he's 4-for-10 (.400 AVG) against right-handers, his weaker side. He's a lifetime .303/.932 hitter against left-handers, and really isn't any less a 25-homer, 70-RBI candidate than he was in Texas in 2004-05. Hart owners should hope he hits a hot streak in the near future, because he could be due for a decline in playing time before long if Jenkins and Mench keep this up.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Freddy Sanchez (sprained knee) returned to action on Sunday and went 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI against the Reds, reclaiming his second base role from Jose Castillo. Feel free to activate Sanchez, a .300-caliber hitter, though he's nothing special in either the power or speed departments; runs scored is easily his second-best category. Castillo lost his starting role after going 1-for-14 with four strikeouts in the season's first week, though it appeared late in spring training he might bump third baseman Jose Bautista to the bench. Bautista, though, went 8-for-24 (.333 AVG) without a strikeout in his first six games to hold off Castillo, and he's the better pure power bat of the two. He's too risky to trust in mixed formats, but has NL-only corner infield appeal. Through one week, who's the major league leader in saves? That's right, it's the Pirates' Salomon Torres (4), demonstrating how volatile the saves market can be. Torres isn't a bad pitcher by any means; he has a 2.92 ERA and 1.253 WHIP in 285 relief appearances for the Pirates since 2003. He won't maintain this pace on a team unlikely to be a big winner, but considering his skill set, Torres could be one of the game's more surprising 30-save candidates.
St. Louis Cardinals: Perhaps the traditional "dead-arm" period wasn't the cause of Chris Carpenter's poor performance on Opening Day; two days after he allowed five runs on nine hits in six innings in a loss to the Mets, it was revealed he's battling some soreness in his right elbow. He missed his scheduled start this past Sunday, then had a rescheduled start for Tuesday canceled when his elbow swelled following a weekend throwing session. He's headed for the disabled list, a painful blow to fantasy teams that picked him as the No. 2 overall starting pitcher in the preseason. Fortunately, that Carpenter missed only two starts due to a DL stint for a back problem last May is an encouraging sign that he might be a quick healer, but such an elbow problem could be a more serious, and long-term issue. Be prepared to be without him for an extended period. In Carpenter's place, Randy Keisler will get the start on Tuesday, but don't bother with him in fantasy. He has a 6.82 career ERA in 51 appearances, and a 6.19 mark in the 17 of those that were starts, and he's 31, meaning he doesn't have much room for growth. There's a good chance we'll see Blake Hawksworth, the team's most advanced pitching prospect, before too long, if Carpenter's out awhile.
National League West
Arizona Diamondbacks: Randy Johnson (back) should be ready to rejoin the Arizona rotation in a little over a week, after he tossed six strong innings in a rehabilitation start for Class A Visalia on Sunday. He'll likely make one more rehab start in order to get his velocity back where he wants it, then perhaps return during the team's April 18-22 road trip to San Diego or San Francisco. At his age -- he's 43 -- Johnson might need a couple of starts to get back to full form, but before long he should be effective enough to be one of the game's better fantasy starters. The real question is, which starter goes when Johnson returns? Fourth starter Edgar Gonzalez won his regular-season debut, going five strong innings and striking out five Thursday, then fifth starter Micah Owings one-upped him in his big league debut, tossing five scoreless innings of one-hit ball in a win on Friday. One might assume Owings, with the greater potential, is the better bet to stick around, but he'll probably need another strong effort Wednesday against the Reds to do it.
Colorado Rockies: No word yet on the timing of Jeff Francis' five-game suspension for throwing at a batter during a spring training contest, though it'll be shame to lose one of his starts once he eventually does. The left-hander, considered a breakout candidate by many despite his status as a Rockies pitcher, has a 2.84 ERA in his first two regular-season starts, after managing a respectable 4.23 ERA and 1.265 WHIP in his six spring training starts. Francis is coming off a 2006 in which he had 4.16/1.286 rates in 32 starts, and 4.30/1.278 numbers in 15 turns at Coors Field, and keep in mind Baseball America tabbed him its No. 23 prospect overall in his 2005 rookie season. He'll have a handful of so-so outings, and Coors will probably hinder any chance of him winning an ERA crown, but a sub-3.00 mark with 15 wins could be within his grasp.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Jason Schmidt left his Monday start in the fifth inning due to a right hamstring injury, though the severity isn't known. If he's forced to miss much time, Mark Hendrickson would presumably move into his rotation spot, and the left-hander could be a useful NL-only matchups type in that event. Rafael Furcal (sprained ankle) has been taking batting practice left-handed and running the bases without incident, and could be activated from the disabled list on Friday. Once he returns, the Dodgers will probably release Wilson Valdez. Furcal might need some time to get back to peak form, though he's a talented enough player to be worthy of immediate activation upon his return. Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp have apparently slipped into platoon status, a development that hurts their fantasy value in shallow formats. It's particularly troubling for Ethier owners; he was a .351 hitter with an .846 OPS in 82 plate appearances against lefties in 2006. He should be playing regularly, with Kemp perhaps in Triple-A ball earning everyday at-bats, though in a limited role he can still be a fourth/fifth NL-only outfielder. Kemp, meanwhile, isn't an ideal platoon specialist, so don't expect too much from him in this role.
San Diego Padres: Clay Hensley was limited to only 4 2/3 innings in his first start of 2007 Thursday due to a blister on his middle finger, though he's determined to take his next turn in the rotation Tuesday. He initially suffered the blister in his final spring training start, meaning it's enough of a problem to monitor in the next couple of weeks. Blisters can make a pitcher a constant risk for short or inconsistent outings; just ask Josh Beckett, who constantly battled them in his Florida Marlins days. Hensley, an 11-game winner with a 3.56 ERA in his 29 starts in 2006, is capable of at least matching those numbers if healthy this year, so keep close watch on his status this week.
San Francisco Giants: Barry Zito's first two starts as a member of the Giants were less than stellar, as he's 0-2 with an 8.18 ERA, with each of those turns coming at the pitcher-friendly confines of AT&T Park. Such slow starts are nothing new for him, though. Zito was 3-9 with a 6.46 ERA and 1.471 WHIP in 15 April starts from 2004-06; he was 38-25 with a 3.69 ERA and 1.309 WHIP in 88 starts the rest of the year. Be patient with him, as a league switch often takes time for a pitcher to make adjustments. Zito's no longer the Cy Young candidate he was in 2002, but he's capable of 15 wins and solid ratios.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
Tristan examines news from each of the teams in the National League.