Around the NL: Pie, Kemp get their shot
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: Chipper Jones could return from the DL as early as Tuesday after taking batting practice Sunday. He was scheduled to test his sore hands with another session Monday before the team left for an early-week series in Minnesota, and he appears set to return to action this week. That the Braves play all six of their games in American League ballparks, granting them a designated hitter, could help ease Jones back into the lineup, so look for him in the next few days. Remember, for all his health issues the past three years -- he has missed 127 games since 2005 -- Jones has been quite the slugger in that time, with a .309 batting average and .993 OPS. The main thing that keeps him from being called that elite fantasy stud is his brittleness, as Jones might not have seen his final trip to the DL, but he's a must-start when healthy. Given 75 of the Braves' final 98 games, he could manage at least a .300 batting average and 15 more homers.
Florida Marlins: It's looking likely Josh Johnson will mark his return from the DL early next week, as he's expected to make his final rehabilitation start for Double-A Carolina on Wednesday. He already has made two minor league starts, one at Class A Jupiter and the other at Carolina, and allowed two earned runs on 10 hits in 10 2/3 innings combined, holding opposing hitters to a .238 batting average (10-for-42). More importantly, Johnson's elbow hasn't been an issue since the start of his rehab assignment, an encouraging sign for a guy bothered by an irritated ulnar nerve since the start of spring training. With his health concerns, it's asking a lot for him to repeat last year's 3.10 ERA or six-plus innings averaged per start of 2006, but a high-3s ERA and mid-5s innings average seem reasonable. That'd make him NL-only worthy and a mixed league spot-start option.
New York Mets: The Mets dropped seven of nine games headed into their series at the Dodgers to begin the week, and much of the reason for their struggles could be attributed to the health problems in their outfield. Shawn Green was scheduled to return Monday, but before that, Carlos Beltran missed three games with a bruised knee, and a mix-and-match medley of Endy Chavez, Carlos Gomez, Ben Johnson, Ricky Ledee and David Newhan filled two (and sometimes three) of the spots. Green is well worth activating immediately in NL-only formats, as he will reclaim the everyday right-field role. Gomez also warrants NL-only consideration, especially given Chavez's DL status with a hamstring strain. Chavez could miss more than a month, so with Moises Alou's return to left field still unclear, Gomez should pick up a few more starts. Beyond that, though, neither Johnson nor Ledee should be trusted in any fantasy leagues.
Philadelphia Phillies: Apparently the concerns about Freddy Garcia's shoulder, dating back to his days with the White Sox, were indeed valid. After he attempted to pitch through the pain for much of this season, he finally succumbed to the DL on Saturday and will have the shoulder examined. Garcia had been throwing with diminished velocity for a while, and that he had only four quality starts in 11 appearances backed up the idea that he wasn't nearly his full self. It's possible his DL stint will be a long one, with surgery not out of the question, so don't expect too much from him the remainder of the year. In Garcia's absence, much of the focus might be on whether Brett Myers returns to the rotation, although there's no talk of that thus far. J.D. Durbin could be the short-term fill-in, although with his 5.13 ERA and .304 BAA in Triple-A, he's not likely to be a useful fantasy option.
Washington Nationals: Both Jason Bergmann (elbow) and John Patterson (elbow) are on the verge of beginning rehabilitation assignments, which is a good thing for a team relying on journeymen such as Jason Simontacchi and Levale Speigner to fill out its rotation. Bergmann threw 45 pitches in a bullpen session Saturday and didn't report any pain, and Patterson was scheduled to throw a simulated game at Class A Potomac on Sunday. Neither pitcher is likely to make a significant fantasy impact even after his return, but keep in mind that Bergmann had a 2.76 ERA and six quality starts in eight tries to begin the season and Patterson has a 3.83 ERA and 242 K's in 270 1/3 innings in his Nationals career. There should be a decent share of matchups potential in either, particularly in home games, during the season's second half, so keep tabs on them in NL-only formats.
Chicago Cubs: This time around, the Cubs apparently are committed to playing Felix Pie regularly. Since recalling him from Triple-A Iowa on June 3, the Cubs have granted Pie a start in eight consecutive games, during which time he's a .333 hitter (12-for-36) with eight RBIs, three stolen bases and nine runs scored. Compare that with the final eight games of his last stint, during which time he accrued only one start and 10 plate appearances. It's clear Pie finally is considered part of the Cubs' immediate plans, which could necessitate a trade of either Cliff Floyd or Jacque Jones before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Of course, Pie's playing time in the long haul -- at least this year -- depends on two things: his performance and the Cubs'. He likely will be a streaky type, a decent contributor in stolen bases and runs scored but one tough to deal with in his slumps, although the Cubs likely would be more patient with him if they remain as far out as they are in the playoff race. Don't be surprised if he's a regular the rest of the year.
Cincinnati Reds: Homer Bailey's MLB debut went about as well as could be expected, as he allowed only two runs on five hits in five innings Friday to win what was a tough matchup on paper against the potent Indians lineup. Still, two things should raise concerns: He allowed four walks in the process, too many for a young pitcher adapting to a new level of competition; and he was left out there for a whopping 114 pitches, an absurd number for a 21-year-old in his first career start. A workload like that on an every-so-often basis is one thing, but taking into account that the Reds also had the Nos. 1 and 3 pitchers in MLB in innings pitched in 2006, it's possible that manager Jerry Narron might be getting a little too abusive of his starters. Monitor Bailey's usage, and his command, in his next few starts, as he has the talent to be as good as any rookie pitcher if those two worries remain in check. Otherwise, he could wear down significantly late in the season.
Houston Astros: Although manager Phil Garner didn't officially yank Dan Wheeler from the closer's role coming off his dreadful blown-save outing Thursday, it's possible the right-hander might be one more poor effort away from losing his job to Brad Lidge. Garner already has begun discussing plans to ease Lidge back into his old role, in which he had 71 saves, a 2.07 ERA and 260 K's combined in 2004-05, a likely reward for Lidge's 0.71 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, .151 BAA and 36 strikeouts in his past 23 appearances. It's possible the two will split save chances for the next week or two, with the better reliever the one sticking in the long term, so Wheeler owners should handcuff him to Lidge and vice versa. Taking into account that Lidge has averaged only 2.13 walks per nine innings in that span, near his 2.89 rate from 2005-06, it seems he might be back to his former self. Another meltdown under the ninth-inning pressure is possible, but given the choice between the two from today forward, I'd pick Lidge to be the saves leader and the more effective reliever.
Milwaukee Brewers: Don't get too worried about closer Francisco Cordero, who blew saves on back-to-back nights at Texas this weekend. The first, on Saturday, was particularly troubling in that it came on four singles and a walk, all with two outs in the ninth inning, as he lost a 3-0 game, 4-3. The second, on Sunday, wasn't quite as bad as it came on a single, a stolen base and another single in a one-run game. Keep in mind that because both games came at Texas, where Cordero had pitched from 2000 to 2006, it's possible the Rangers merely had better scouting reports on the right-hander than the typical team. Coming into those contests, Cordero had a 0.36 ERA and .089 BAA in 26 appearances, so there's little reason to worry now. Still, in the unlikely event that he wears down, who might close in his absence? Derrick Turnbow is a possibility, although his 7.50 ERA in his past 14 appearances might mean Matt Wise (3.21 season ERA) is now a candidate.
Pittsburgh Pirates: After Shawn Chacon's back-to-back so-so outings in the past week, speculation once again centers on whether the Pirates' fifth-starter role might be in some question looking forward. He allowed 11 runs on 16 hits in 8 2/3 innings combined at Washington and at the Yankees, and has a 5.59 ERA and .286 BAA in four starts since moving into the rotation. More disturbingly, he has 12 walks in 19 1/3 innings during that span, throwing only 218 of his 375 pitches (58.1 percent) for strikes, not the best display of command, not by far. Who might be an alternative to Chacon, though? Unfortunately, former No. 1 overall pick Bryan Bullington left his Sunday start for Triple-A Indianapolis after only one inning because of shoulder soreness, and if he misses any time, that'd put John Van Benschoten next in line for a promotion. A former first-rounder himself, Van Benschoten has a 2.73 ERA, 1.35 WHIP and .244 BAA in 12 starts at Indianapolis, meaning he's well worth monitoring in the next couple of weeks in NL-only formats.
St. Louis Cardinals: Although he's hardly a fantasy-worthy pitcher right now, Troy Percival's signing with the Cardinals on Friday shouldn't be dismissed completely. Sure, at his age -- he's 37 -- it's unlikely he'll be anything more than a mop-up pitcher. Still, remember that many managers like "closer experience" when looking for save-getters. In the unlikely event Percival looks strong in his first several outings with the Cardinals, after a couple of weeks' worth of tune-up outings in the minors, it's not unthinkable he could wind up an NL-only handcuff to Jason Isringhausen in the second half. Anthony Reyes has pitched remarkably well in two starts since his demotion to Triple-A Memphis, with a 1.93 ERA and .222 BAA in back-to-back quality efforts. At this rate, it won't be long before he's back with the Cardinals, who absorbed a 5 1/3-inning, five-run (four earned) effort from Todd Wellemeyer on Sunday. I'd expect Reyes back with the big club by no later than the All-Star break, so keep him on hand except in shallow mixed formats.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Chad Tracy returned from the DL on Sunday with an 0-for-4, three-strikeout effort, and it's possible he'll need a few games to get back to full speed after missing nearly a month with sore ribs. That could mean some time as a designated hitter as the Diamondbacks play six games at AL parks this week, and after that, there's a good chance he might wind up in a straight platoon at third base once the team returns home next Monday. There's that word fantasy owners fear, platoon, although in this case, such an arrangement actually might be for the best for Tracy. Consider that he's a .228/.628 career hitter against left-handed pitchers, averaging one strikeout per 4.70 at-bats against them, compared with .312/.881/6.33 rates against right-handers. Sure, losing at-bats against lefties might cost Tracy a handful of homers and RBIs in the long haul, but it also could mean a safer shot at a .300-plus batting average. Plus, with Mark Reynolds, a .385/1.121 hitter against left-handers, on the roster, there's a perfect platoon mate for Tracy. Look for Reynolds to get most of the starts at third against lefties and to spot in occasionally at shortstop or the corner outfield spots other days.
Colorado Rockies: Kazuo Matsui's rebirth since his trade to the Rockies last June is remarkable, but what's most extraordinary is his performance since returning from the DL last month. Since recovering from back spasms, he has batted .303 (20-for-66) with 11 RBIs, six stolen bases and 14 runs scored in 17 games, making him quite the valuable fantasy option, even as a mixed league middle infielder. In his Rockies career, he's a .335 hitter (72-for-215) with 33 RBIs and 19 steals in 58 games, settling in nicely as a top-third-of-the-order type hitter. Matsui simply seems more comfortable now than he did in New York, where he was under increased pressure because of the spotlight and playing in a pitching-friendly ballpark, and it's not unreasonable to think he could bat at least .290 with a healthy number of steals and runs from today forward. He's NL-only worthy, at least, and should maintain a fair share of mixed league value, as well.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers recalled two of their more interesting young hitters from Triple-A Las Vegas this weekend, and the case can be made that both deserve to play. Outfielder Matt Kemp was promoted Friday, and taking into account that all three Dodgers outfield starters are left-handed, it's possible he'll get a good share of at-bats spotting in at either corner position against lefties. That won't be enough to make him fantasy-worthy, except in the largest NL-only leagues, but it's a start, and a chance for him to emerge in a more regular role. First baseman James Loney, meanwhile, was promoted Sunday, perhaps as a threat to struggling Nomar Garciaparra. Garciaparra has career worsts in batting average (.273) and slugging percentage (.333), so he could begin to lose at-bats to Loney against right-handers. Don't discount the other possibility: The Dodgers are showcasing both youngsters as possible trade chips, which is why adding either player in NL-only formats is a wise move.
San Diego Padres: The bullpen appears to be San Diego's specialty, as in 62 games, the team ranks first in MLB in relief ERA (2.21) and BAA (.206). That's not much of a surprise; the team calls one of the game's most pitching-friendly venues home, and it annually digs up that no-name reliever who instantly becomes one of the game's most effective pitchers. In short, for those of you in NL-only leagues looking for ERA/WHIP help, look no further than the Padres, who have six pitchers with 10-plus games and better than a 2.25 ERA and 1.25 WHIP: Heath Bell (1.22/0.86), Doug Brocail (2.03/0.90), Kevin Cameron (0.44/1.23), Justin Hampson (1.00/1.06), Trevor Hoffman (2.16/0.88) and Scott Linebrink (2.12/0.98). Bell in particular seems like this year's fantasy find among middle relievers. He has nine holds and 39 strikeouts in 37 innings, stepping in as the out-of-nowhere middle man the way Cla Meredith did a year ago.
San Francisco Giants: Dave Roberts returned from the DL on Saturday, conveniently stepping into the roster spot of Fred Lewis, placed on the DL with a strained oblique. That gives the Giants back their normal leadoff man, allowing Randy Winn to slide back to right field and the No. 2 lineup spot. Roberts might need some time for his elbow to heal fully, meaning he's not someone to activate right away, but he should be a decent source of stolen base help in NL-only leagues within a week or two. Count the name Jonathan Sanchez among the bigger sleepers for saves in the second half of the season, if not sooner. The left-hander has a 4.05 ERA and .229 BAA in his past 11 relief appearances with the Giants this season, and he tossed six shutout innings with a .105 BAA in three relief games for Triple-A Fresno. Sanchez is one of the Giants' better pure pitching arms among their current relievers, and with a hot spell in the next couple of weeks, he quickly could become the next-in-line man to Brad Hennessey for the closer role.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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