Around the NL: Struggles for A.Jones, Fuentes
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: Andruw Jones saw his batting average dip beneath .200 on June 22, and it has remained there for nine consecutive games heading into July. That's a result of a dreadful 12-for-94 (.128) slump, during which time he has only four extra-base hits, all home runs, and 24 strikeouts, one per 3.92 at-bats. Jones now finds himself on pace for 26 homers, his worst total since 1999 (also 26), 93 RBIs and 160 strikeouts, the latter representing a potential career high. With all his struggles, one has to wonder whether Jones is still limited by the back problems that had plagued him in mid-May. He's in a contract year, meaning motivation isn't an issue for him, and that his number in isolated power is only .185, his worst since 1997 (also .185), demonstrates that he's not driving the ball with much authority. One has to think Jones only can improve from here, but for a player of his stature to struggle for so long, one only can wonder whether he's at less than 100 percent. He's no guarantee to be a smart buy-low candidate right now.
Florida Marlins: Josh Johnson hasn't seemed quite himself since his return from the DL on June 18, losing three consecutive starts with a 10.97 ERA, 3.19 WHIP and .449 BAA. Most troublesome is that none of those came against elite offenses (White Sox, Twins, Braves). Though Johnson hasn't complained of any problems with his elbow, which cost him more than two months' time, it's still taking longer than expected for him to work himself back to full strength. Assuming he's not battling any unreported health issues, he still has the talent to be a second-half sleeper. Remember, any pitcher needs a few games to get back to full strength after so much missed time, and Johnson did manage a 3.10 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 31 games (24 starts) in 2006. He might not wind up more than a matchups option, but that's not a bad thing to have on an NL-only roster.
New York Mets: Though the Mets picked up three wins in their four-game series at Philadelphia over the weekend, their rotation might have paid the price with two pitchers potentially hitting the shelf. Jorge Sosa, who started on Saturday, strained his left hamstring while running out a sacrifice bunt attempt, landing on the DL a day later. That cleared room on the roster for Sunday's spot starter, Mike Pelfrey, who was needed to step in after that day's scheduled starter, Oliver Perez, was scratched due to a sore lower back. Perez was pushed back to Tuesday, but that assignment was also scratched, making the left-hander a candidate for the DL himself. Fortunately for the Mets, the All-Star break should eat up some of Sosa's DL time, as he'd miss only one scheduled turn before being eligible to start on June 16 at San Diego, the Mets' fifth game of the season's second half. Perez, meanwhile, could pitch in the team's four-game series against the Reds to kick off the second half even if he lands on the DL, meaning he'd miss only two starts. Jason Vargas, 6-4 with a 4.35 ERA in 13 starts for Triple-A New Orleans, will step in for Perez on Tuesday and wouldn't be a bad NL-only pickup if he stood a better chance at a long-term rotation spot. He has upside, but probably needs a trade elsewhere to be of value.
Philadelphia Phillies: If only it seemed likely the Phillies could move him before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, Pat Burrell's career in Philadelphia might be fair to be termed just about over. He has picked up only five starts in the Phillies' last 14 games, two of those as the designated hitter in American League parks, and is batting a career-worst .201 with a .733 OPS, his second-lowest career rate (2003, .713). In fact, if not for his 56 walks helping him to a .369 on-base percentage, Burrell wouldn't be of any value to a MLB team, let alone the fact that he hasn't had much fantasy value at all this year. Michael Bourn, a speedster now 13-for-13 in stolen-base attempts this season, has earned starts in six of the Phillies' last eight games, and might continue to steal starts away from Burrell against right-handers. NL-only owners should take note, as Bourn has 177 steals in 483 games as a professional. ... The Phillies hope to get Brett Myers back from the DL on July 13, in their first game after the All-Star break. He has only been throwing bullpen sessions, though, so that's far from a guarantee. Myers owners should be happy to get anything useful from him in July, as there's a good chance he'll need a minor league rehabilitation stint or a few games in middle relief before being returned to his closer's role.
Washington Nationals: Cristian Guzman's miracle season came to a close on June 25, as he underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb. He'll finish the year with a career-best .329 batting average, albeit in only 43 games played, and at the pace he was on, had he played 150 games he'd have scored 108 runs. It was a remarkable turnaround for a player who batted only .219 in his first year in Washington in 2005, and one with only a .302 career on-base percentage who only once in his career had better than a .311 mark in the category (2001, .337). In other words, Guzman hardly should be expected to do this again, assuming full health in 2008, nor is he particularly healthy a player, having also missed all of 2006 due to shoulder surgery. In his absence, Felipe Lopez has started each of the Nationals' six games since Guzman hit the DL, clearing second base for Ronnie Belliard. Belliard, a .295 hitter in 68 games, isn't a bad NL-only middle infielder now that he'll get regular at-bats. He's actually a .318 hitter at home this year.
Chicago Cubs: A rumored Jacque Jones-to-the Marlins trade fell through last Tuesday, reportedly a result of the Cubs' unwillingness to eat enough of a portion of the approximately $7 million he's still owed through 2008. He would have stood to take over the bulk of the at-bats in center field for the Marlins, helping fill that weak area for the team the past year and a half. Now the Cubs are left seeking other deals for the veteran, annually one of the more overrated fantasy players due to terrible plate discipline; he has averaged one strikeout per 4.78 at-bats but only one walk per 16.27 plate appearances for his career. Jones could be an adequate corner outfielder for an MLB team, and a .275-hitting, 10-homer second-half player for a fantasy team in the right situation, but it's looking decreasingly likely the Cubs will find one of those for him in the next month. Don't count on him making much of an impact the rest of the year, barring a sudden turn of events.
Cincinnati Reds: The Reds fired manager Jerry Narron following Sunday's 11-7 loss, their 12th in their last 17 games, replacing him with Pete Mackanin on an interim basis. Narron's poor bullpen management was one of the primary reasons for the decision, though that his team had slumped to MLB's worst record at 31-51 has quite a bit to do with it, too. Now Mackanin, who managed the 2005 Pirates for 26 games on an interleague basis after 13 years as a minor league manager, gets a chance to prove himself as a permanent solution in the role. Unfortunately, with the Reds looking like sellers the next several weeks, with sluggers Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. rumored headed elsewhere, Mackanin's job won't get any easier after the All-Star break. As is the case most times a managerial change takes place, a short-term boost for the team could be coming, especially since some of the Reds' veterans might help increase trade appeal with hot performances in July. Most important to fantasy owners will be how Mackanin handles his starters' workloads, most notably rookie Homer Bailey and ace Aaron Harang. Narron tended to lean heavily on Harang and Bronson Arroyo, and the impact on Arroyo has been devastating this season.
Houston Astros: It's a long way to go for him to match his 2006 numbers, but Lance Berkman has seemed much closer to the player he was a year ago in the past week. With his home run on Sunday, he has six homers in his last nine games, and since May 31, he's a .307 hitter (31-for-101) with nine homers, 28 RBIs and a 1.044 OPS in 26 contests. Scale the homers and RBIs to 152 games, his total from 2006, and he'd be at 53-164 numbers, and don't forget, he was a .315 hitter with a 1.041 OPS then. Asking for much more than a batting average in the .290s, 20 homers or 60 RBIs from Berkman from today forward is probably a bit much, but those are still excellent rates for any fantasy slugger. In addition, more facts that should encourage Berkman owners as the All-Star break approaches: He hasn't had worse than a .291 batting average or .944 OPS after the All-Star break in any of his past four seasons (.299/.953 career second-half rates).
Milwaukee Brewers: Yovani Gallardo's owners can't be happy to learn that he's bullpen-bound with the scheduled return of Chris Capuano coming on Tuesday. All the rookie did in his first three MLB games was manage a quality start each time, combining for a 2.79 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 19 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings. In other words, it's clear the 21-year-old can pitch at this level, even if his first two starts become less impressive when considering his opponents (Giants, Royals). Given the opportunity, Gallardo has the talent to rival any rookie pitcher in baseball in the season's second half, and there's little doubt he'll be first in line the next time there's a rotation opening. Capuano, 0-4 with a 6.59 ERA in five starts before landing on the DL with a groin strain, Ben Sheets and Jeff Suppan each likely would have to get hurt or endure a truly disastrous stretch to lose their spots, but Dave Bush and Claudio Vargas will be under the microscope the next few weeks. Bush, incidentally, has a 3.49 ERA and 1.27 WHIP since May 30, Vargas 4.76/1.45 numbers during that span. Keep Gallardo around if you have the luxury of bench room to do it, though the concern here is that the longer he remains in the bullpen, the more time it will take him to ramp back up into a starter's workload once he's called upon.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Zach Duke is DL-bound, as he's battling a sore left elbow and was scheduled to be re-examined on Monday. It's no big loss for fantasy owners, really, as the left-hander had only one quality start in his last eight turns, and a 5.79 ERA and 1.75 WHIP on the season, terrible numbers especially on a low-scoring team like the Pirates. Still, that Duke was once considered one of the team's best prospects makes his elbow issues a concern; it's possible we've seen the last of him this season in terms of fantasy appeal. Shane Youman gets the call in Duke's absence, which is more of a statement on Bryan Bullington's health than an endorsement of Youman. Bullington has allowed 10 runs on 10 hits in 7 1/3 innings in two starts for Triple-A Indianapolis since missing two turns with soreness in his right shoulder. Talent-wise he'd certainly be next in line for a rotation opening, but health issues continue to hold him back. Meanwhile, Youman, 27, was only 4-6 with a 4.70 ERA and 1.58 WHIP in 15 starts at Indianapolis, hardly numbers to warrant adding him to a fantasy roster. He's a short-term solution only.
St. Louis Cardinals: Chris Carpenter has been making decent progress in his recovery from an elbow injury, and was scheduled to make his first minor league rehabilitation start at Class A Palm Beach on Monday. That's despite his experiencing some mild discomfort in his elbow on Friday, though he did manage a pain-free bullpen session a day later. It's his first game action since his Opening Day start against the Mets, and if all goes well, he might be able to return to the Cardinals' rotation before the end of July. Keep tabs on the reports on Carpenter the next few days, as continued progress could lead to him having some fantasy value in the season's second half. After all, he did enter the season as the No. 2-ranked fantasy pitcher on most lists, and there's little doubt he could at least be NL-only or mixed-league matchups worthy given full health.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Randy Johnson returned from the DL with a poor effort last Thursday, as he allowed four runs (three earned) on six hits in three innings against the Dodgers. The Big Unit managed only 69 pitches, similar to the 61 he threw on May 30 after missing a turn in the rotation due to forearm tendinitis. Still, the plan for Johnson has him remaining active, with a scheduled start Tuesday at St. Louis and then perhaps Sunday at Cincinnati, despite his pitching with a herniated disc in his back. He's well worth keeping in fantasy lineups for a favorable matchup against the light-hitting Cardinals, though Johnson owners are well aware of the risk involved with him the remainder of the year. He'll be capped at 100 pitches on Tuesday, enough to make an impact, but hardly a workload of a typical fantasy ace. He might struggle to make more than 15 more starts all year, though for the ones he does make, you'll probably want him active.
Colorado Rockies: Can you think of another time an All-Star closer lost his job before appearing in the Midsummer Classic? That's the case with Brian Fuentes, demoted from the closer role on Saturday after he blew four consecutive save chances, allowing 11 runs (eight earned) on 11 hits in 2 1/3 innings, taking a loss in each contest. Before that point, though, he actually had been one of the most effective finishers in baseball, saving 20 of 22 chances with a 1.89 ERA in 34 appearances. Fuentes' demotion hardly seems a permanent move, one more along the lines of Brad Lidge's brief demotions in 2006 (not this season), though he didn't do himself any favors by allowing two runs on two hits and two walks in an inning of work on Sunday. Expect the left-hander to get another chance once he strings together two or three solid outings, making him an attractive buy-low candidate if you're sniffing out cheap saves. In his absence, Manny Corpas and Jorge Julio become the best bets for saves, making each worth an NL-only pickup.
Los Angeles Dodgers: You can't get much hotter than James Loney the past three weeks. Since his promotion on June 10, he has a better batting average than any National Leaguer: .415 (22-for-53). In addition, with news that Nomar Garciaparra has been shifted to third base, a move that began last Tuesday, Loney's stock remains on the rise. He has started nine of the Dodgers' last 10 games, and should get the bulk of the at-bats looking forward, especially accounting for Garciaparra's career-worst .273/.646 rates. Loney warrants a pickup in every league at this point, especially accounting for his .296 career minor league batting average. For a kid so young -- he's 23 -- he's about as stable as a rookie comes in the category, and as he matures, the power will come. As for Garciaparra, don't count on a position shift waking him up offensively. He's a .239/.548 hitter since June 1, and the most significant development of his move to third is it effectively kills any chance Wilson Betemit has at making a fantasy impact the rest of the year.
San Diego Padres: Deciding that their left-field vacancy was enough of a concern to take a chance on a troubled player, the Padres acquired Milton Bradley from the Oakland Athletics on Friday in exchange for right-handed relief prospect Andrew Brown, a name that might only be familiar in that he came to San Diego in the winter's Josh Barfield trade. Bradley immediately landed on the DL on Sunday, retroactive to June 21, with his strained oblique, the same injury that caused the cancellation of Oakland's previous deal with the Kansas City Royals. He'll be back right after the All-Star break, and could take over the everyday role in left field once healthy. With Bradley's potential, he's not a bad player for NL-only owners to gamble on, as he's a .287 hitter since 2003 who could manage double-digit homers and steals given a healthy half-season. Mixed-league owners should adopt a wait-and-see approach, monitoring his playing time initially. Keeper-league owners, meanwhile, probably shouldn't bother; a player with Bradley's health and attitude concerns doesn't seem likely to ever fully realize the potential scouts saw in him.
San Francisco Giants: Faced with the choice between two rookie outfielders, the Giants on Sunday opted to keep Fred Lewis around, returning Nate Schierholtz to Triple-A Fresno. Their statistics might have indicated the reverse would have been the smarter move; Schierholtz batted .325 (13-for-40) in his 14-game stint with the Giants, while Lewis batted .253 (24-for-95) with 12 RBIs in 25 games before hitting the DL on June 9 with a strained right oblique. Still, that Schierholtz is the younger player (23 to Lewis' 26) and probably the one with the higher ceiling means everyday at-bats are more crucial to him, and he'll likely only receive those while at Fresno. Only owners in deep keeper or NL-only leagues should bother keeping Schierholtz around, though he has a chance to start for the Giants by 2008, if not sooner if the team can move Randy Winn later this month. As for Lewis, he shouldn't receive enough at-bats to make much of an impact, even in NL-only formats.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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