Around the NL: Phelps, Maroth switch leagues
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: Keep tabs on Chipper Jones the next few days, as he was visibly still troubled by his groin problem during the Braves' weekend series against the Tigers. He appeared in a bit of pain on a swing during Saturday's game before hitting a home run on the next pitch, in effect a perfect representation of his risk/reward upside. Owning Jones means being prepared for him to spend more time on the sidelines, but when healthy, he's among the better third basemen in fantasy baseball. ... The Braves acquired Wilfredo Ledezma from the Tigers last Wednesday, not a significant move but one to give NL-only owners a name to tuck away. The left-hander is still only 26 years old, with plenty of time to emerge in a starting role down the road, and he did manage a respectable 4.29 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in seven starts for the Tigers in 2006. Considering the Braves are counting on guys like Buddy Carlyle and Kyle Davies as fourth and fifth starters, it's not unthinkable that Ledezma could get a look in the rotation in the season's second half.
Florida Marlins: Anibal Sanchez, a rookie sensation in 2006, is done for the season after undergoing surgery last Thursday to repair a torn labrum. He won't resume throwing until September or October, putting the start of his 2008 in some question. Fortunately for Sanchez, that he's only 23 years old means he'll have plenty of time to get his career back on track, but keep in mind that shoulder problems, particularly ones severe enough to require surgery, often sidetrack a pitcher for awhile, often well beyond their return to the mound. In keeper leagues, while Sanchez still has some value, he's a lot riskier a bet for 2008. ... Dontrelle Willis had his most recent start pushed back from Sunday to Tuesday due to soreness in his forearm. He was forced from his start last Tuesday after one inning, though the injury isn't considered serious. Willis should be fine, though it's a bit of a worry accounting for the fact that he threw 817 1/3 career innings before his 25th birthday. It's not unthinkable that he could break down at some point from that kind of workload.
New York Mets: Oliver Perez's shakiness in his last three starts has to be viewed as at least a small concern for his fantasy owners, as in addition to a 1-2 record and 4.58 ERA, he has allowed 13 walks in 17 2/3 innings in those turns. That gets him a little closer to the 4.75 walks-per-nine ratio he has managed for his big-league career, and remember, for much of his career he has been a shaky pitcher with the ability to throw in the big game and the brief hot streak only sporadically. It's hardly enough of a cold spell for Perez owners to push the panic button, but they'd surely be much happier to see him managing closer to the 2.07 walks per nine he averaged in nine starts from April 21-June 3. He'll be a lot riskier, and more frustrating a pitcher to slot into your lineup, looking like the pitcher he has in June, or the one he did the past two seasons. If you're a Perez owner, it might be worth seeing what trade options might be out there for him.
Philadelphia Phillies: Jon Lieber suffered a ruptured tendon in his right foot during his last start last Wednesday, potentially costing him the remainder of the season. He landed on the DL on Saturday, though it's unclear who will step in for him. With the Phillies only three games out of the division race, and having also lost Freddy Garcia for an extended period, expect them to be buyers at the trade deadline, meaning they could be in the mix for a Mark Buehrle type. Rookie Kyle Kendrick has actually stepped in with back-to-back quality-start efforts to begin his MLB career, but like any young pitcher, he's a long-term risk. NL-only owners should add Kendrick, whose job security is much greater today, but don't get too excited about potential Lieber fill-ins J.A. Happ or Carlos Carrasco. Carrasco would only warrant sticking on an NL-only reserve list based on his prospect upside, though he'd likely be overmatched at this stage of his career. One interesting note: The Phillies continue to stress they have no plans to move Brett Myers back into the rotation once he returns from a shoulder injury, so keep it in mind if you're waiting on him.
Washington Nationals: Jason Bergmann was activated from the DL on Sunday, and was scheduled to mark his return to the Nationals rotation Monday against the Braves. That might not seem like a significant development, but remember that he did have a 2.76 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in eight starts before hitting the shelf with inflammation in his elbow. Bergmann, who entered Monday with a 4.30 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 15 career starts, could have a decent share of NL-only value barring a setback, so keep an eye on him in his first few turns back in the rotation. He'll likely need some time to work himself back to full speed, but with RFK Stadium's spacious dimensions helping his cause, there could be a handful of useful matchups for him to exploit in the season's second half.
Chicago Cubs: The Cubs traded Michael Barrett to the Padres last Wednesday, in effect shifting their focus behind the plate from hitting to defense. Barrett, beyond merely his squabbles with Carlos Zambrano in that early-June start, was one of the weaker defenders and a terrible catcher at throwing out opposing baserunners. Now, while the team has created another hole in its lineup, at least the pitching staff should benefit by working with quality backstops like Koyie Hill and Rob Bowen, picked up in the Barrett deal. Note that Cubs pitchers have allowed a combined 15 runs in five games since the Barrett trade, and Zambrano in particular has a 1.14 ERA and .125 BAA in four starts with either Hill or Bowen behind the plate. Rich Hill, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis and Sean Marshall should each benefit a bit from the change as well. ... Aramis Ramirez's return from the DL on Friday should help ease the loss of Barrett a bit, though. Ramirez served as the designated hitter and went 4-for-12 (.333) with a homer in the weekend series against the White Sox, but now that the Cubs are back playing NL games, expect a reduction in playing time for the middle-infield mix of Mark DeRosa, Mike Fontenot, Cesar Izturis and Ryan Theriot.
Cincinnati Reds: Ryan Freel began a rehabilitation assignment at Triple-A Louisville on Sunday, serving as the designated hitter and going 1-for-4 with a stolen base. He'll resume playing in the outfield this week, and might not be much more than a week away from a return to the Reds. That's good news for the team, as right-handed platoon outfielder Norris Hopper is in the midst of a 9-for-49 (.184) stretch in June. That'd be Freel's role once healthy, at the bare minimum, and it's highly likely his playing time would only increase in each week he's back in the lineup. Remember, outfielders Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr., as well as first baseman Scott Hatteberg, are on the trading block, so Freel should be able to find regular at-bats in the Cincinnati outfield in the season's second half, and certainly after Aug. 1, if healthy. Keep in mind Freel has 55 stolen bases after the All-Star break the past three seasons combined, so don't forget about him.
Houston Astros: The Astros placed Brad Lidge on the DL last Wednesday, retroactive to June 16, with a strained left oblique. That puts the closer role back in the hands of Dan Wheeler, not that Wheeler has done much to justify keeping it of late. He blew another save on Sunday, his fourth of the season, and now has a 14.34 ERA, .392 BAA and three blown saves in five chances in the month of June. Lidge, meanwhile, had a 1.00 ERA and .161 BAA in eight appearances this month before getting hurt. Wheeler owners should continue to rely on him only in NL-only formats, but don't get too cozy; at this rate Lidge might immediately reclaim the role once healthy. Another thought, though: With the Astros now 11 games out of the division race and 10 1/2 out of the wild card, Lidge could be an attractive trade chip before July 31. Don't be too surprised if he winds up on a team more likely to use him in a setup role in the second half.
Milwaukee Brewers: Yovani Gallardo managed quality-start efforts in each of his first two MLB starts in the past week, albeit against the Giants and Royals, not exactly the strongest of offenses. Nevertheless, he looks like a solid enough bet to pitch effectively at the big-league level the remainder of the season, raising questions about which Brewers starter's job might soon be in jeopardy. Chris Capuano should be back before month's end, meaning Dave Bush, Claudio Vargas or Gallardo will be bumped to the bullpen, or the minors in Gallardo's case. Bush has a 3.80 ERA in four starts in June, though, and back-to-back quality starts, so he's looking least likely today to suffer a demotion. Vargas might be at most risk, pending the result of his Tuesday start against the Astros. Still, if he pitches well, don't rule out Gallardo returning to Triple-A Nashville until the next time the team has a rotation opening. Keep him around even in that event, especially since Ben Sheets has been one of the most injury-prone pitchers in baseball the past couple seasons.
Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates claimed Josh Phelps off waivers from the Yankees last Friday, hardly a noteworthy move from a fantasy perspective except with regard to Ryan Doumit's role on the team. Phelps immediately takes over as mainly a pinch-hitter and occasional first baseman against left-handers, not nearly enough of a role to make a fantasy impact, even in NL-only formats. Still, that he brings the ability to serve as an emergency catcher should increase the Pirates' flexibility. Doumit, already the team's backup catcher, could pick up a few more starts at other positions, particularly in right field, now that the team has a third catcher-capable player on the roster. In short, expect Doumit to continue to nab his two or three starts per week behind the plate, but also two or three more in the outfield, enough to make him No. 2-catcher worthy in all formats. He's capable of hitting at least .290 with double-digit power from this point forward given the at-bats.
St. Louis Cardinals: Looking for veteran pitching help to fill their ailing rotation, the Cardinals acquired Mike Maroth from the Tigers last Friday. The price tag was fairly low, merely a player to be named later, though that shouldn't be viewed as a knock on Maroth's talent; he's an instant upgrade from Todd Wellemeyer, or even Kip Wells. Maroth was scheduled to make his Cardinals debut on Monday against the Mets, not a favorable matchup for him, but expect him to at least be a useful NL-only matchups option, perhaps attractive in larger mixed formats as well. After all, he had a 3.75 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in 18 career interleague starts, not horrible rates, which indicate that he could be able to offer decent outings against weaker offenses or in pitcher-friendly ballparks. Don't invest too much in him, but he's worth adding to NL-only rosters.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Though Chad Tracy hasn't been hitting like his old self since his return from the DL on June 10, batting .231 (9-for-39) in 13 games, it's an encouraging sign that he's hitting for power, with four home runs during that span. After all, before hitting the DL with a rib injury, he had only one homer in 103 at-bats, whereas he managed one homer per 23.4 at-bats from 2005-06. Most importantly, the Diamondbacks are using Tracy well since his return, starting him in each of their eight games against right-handers during that span, and only twice in five games against left-handers. Accounting for his .189/.459 numbers against lefties this year, .224/.616 for his career, Tracy should be a much better performer in batting average in more of a platoon role. Plus, Mark Reynolds retains a bit of NL-only value getting the occasional start at third against a lefty.
Colorado Rockies: Rodrigo Lopez picked up a second consecutive win last Thursday, most notable because of the team he beat, the Yankees. Though he fell one out short of a quality-start effort, it was another strong outing, and it brought him up to 4-0 with a 2.93 ERA in eight starts this season. That's a remarkable performance for a pitcher who managed a 5.90 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 2006, then was dumped off on the Rockies, landing him in hitter-friendly Coors Field. Lopez might not be a strong bet at all to maintain close to his current pace, but with his shift to the pitching-oriented NL, and with Coors no longer rating quite so extreme a hitters' park, he's not a bad matchup consideration looking forward. After all, he did manage two strong seasons in Baltimore, a 15-win, 3.57-ERA, 1.19-WHIP Rookie of the Year campaign in 2002, and 14/3.59/1.28 year in 2004. Lopez is a command specialist, with a 2.76 walks-per-nine ratio for his career, and when those types look as sharp as he has, they're not as bad picks as you'd think against poor offenses.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Jason Schmidt is out for the season following surgery last Wednesday to repair an inflamed bursa, a torn labrum and a frayed biceps tendon in his right shoulder, the latter two issues unexpected ones. He's expected to make a full recovery in time for 2008, though his keeper-league owners should prepare for the possibility that he'll never be the same pitcher again. The bright spot as a result of Schmidt's absence: It creates a permanent rotation spot for promising sophomore Chad Billingsley. Billingsley, who had a 3.09 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 23 relief appearances, demonstrating vastly improved command, warrants an immediate pickup in all but the most shallow yearly mixed formats. Still, it's best to keep him reserved for a couple turns through the rotation, as he'll need time to ease back into a starter's workload. Case in point: He lasted only 3 2/3 innings and 70 pitches in his first start of the season last Thursday. Billingsley could be a good source of a mid-threes ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning, though, so consider him a great second-half sleeper once he's up to full speed.
San Diego Padres: The Michael Barrett acquisition helps bolster the Padres' lineup, but it's hardly a positive sign for the team in the pitching department. He and Josh Bard have combined to nail only 15.2 percent of opposing baserunners (15 of 99), and neither is considered a strong defender. Fortunately, that the Padres play their home games in pitching-friendly Petco Park should minimize the impact of the team's poor defensive catchers more than a typical ballpark would, but it can't help but slightly hurt the team's pitchers in the ERA department over the course of the season. As for how the pair is sharing the playing time, Barrett started three of the Padres' five games since his trade, and should get around that ratio of starts the rest of the year. He's a better power source than Bard, and should remain a decent NL-only or No. 2 mixed-league catcher, while Bard's value appears likely to drop to only No. 2 NL-only status looking forward.
San Francisco Giants: Could there be a more hard-luck pitcher so far this season than Matt Cain? Despite his 3.46 ERA and 1.31 WHIP, numbers that were more respectable 3.15/1.26 rates before his mediocre outing against the Yankees last Friday, Cain is only 2-8 on the season. That's due to his receiving only 3.83 runs of support, and his Giants managing only 48 runs total in his 15 starts this season, 15 of those in one game alone. Interesting stat: The young right-hander has 10 quality starts for the year, while veteran Russ Ortiz has as many wins despite only one quality start all season. That's the kind of performance that has to correct itself with time, though Cain owners have to also be frustrated by his decline in strikeout rate, from 8.45 per nine in 2006 to 6.45 this season. He has the talent to get closer to a strikeout per inning with solid ERA/WHIP numbers the remainder of the year, even if he struggles to win much more than 10 games in 2007.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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