Around the NL: Return of Dempster, Gordon and Lidge
What's been going on around the National League in the past week? Here's a quick-hitting look at the news and notes for each of the 16 NL teams:
Atlanta Braves: John Smoltz landed on the DL on Friday with inflammation in his right shoulder, his first stint on the DL since being shifted back into the rotation between the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Fortunately, the news on the right-hander is promising; an MRI revealed no structural damage, meaning Smoltz could return as soon as the inflammation subsides. He's a bit riskier second-half bet because of the troublesome nature of shoulder injuries, but consider that Smoltz is a gamer, the kind of guy who has pitched through minor bumps and bruises many times through the years. Don't be at all surprised if he pitches as expected on July 18, the first day he's eligible to return. Until then, though, rookie Jo-Jo Reyes will get one more start, July 17 against the Reds, with his performance then determining whether he'll remain in the rotation. His first turn, on July 7 in Smoltz's place, wasn't impressive; he went three innings and allowed five runs, five hits (two of them home runs) and three walks. Still, Reyes was 10-1 with a 3.08 ERA in 17 starts between Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Richmond, so there's NL-only upside in him. The concern: his control, as he averaged 4.2 walks per nine innings in the minors this year and 3.4 for his minor league career. Reyes could be a matchups option with time, but take a wait-and-see approach with him.
Florida Marlins: Josh Johnson returned to the DL on Thursday with a strained right forearm, and one has to wonder now how much more, if anything, he'll offer fantasy owners the remainder of the year. He has been shut down through the remainder of the week, but still plans to return to action once eligible to return July 20. However, taking into account Johnson's recent history, that's an extremely optimistic timetable for recovery. Remember, he was shut down in mid-September last season with tightness in his forearm and reported tightness in his triceps after a throwing session in late January. Pitchers who battle those kinds of problems for this long often succumb to surgery, and any further setbacks could put Johnson at risk for a season-ending operation. It's probably safe to drop him from your roster at this point.
New York Mets: Lastings Milledge could be on his way back to New York to begin the season's second half. That's because Carlos Gomez, the Mets' starting left fielder in 10 of 11 games from June 24 to July 4, will be sidelined for as long as two months after suffering a broken hamate bone on a checked swing last Wednesday. Gomez landed on the DL a day later, leaving left field to a Damion Easley/David Newhan platoon after the Mets designated Ricky Ledee for assignment Sunday. It's hardly the kind of solution a contending team should count on for long, which is why Milledge's performance the next few days bears watching. Since his return from a foot injury, Milledge is 12-for-34 (.353) with six extra-base hits, three of them home runs, and eight RBIs in eight games between the rookie league Gulf Coast Mets, Class A St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton. He could be promoted to take over the everyday left-field duties beginning with Thursday's game against the Reds, making him a useful NL-only pickup.
Philadelphia Phillies: It appears Tom Gordon is going to win the race of former Phillies closers attempting to return from shoulder injuries. He tossed 1 2/3 scoreless innings in a rehabilitation outing for Class A Clearwater on Sunday and should make one more appearance Tuesday before being ready to be activated. Gordon is on schedule to return from the DL in time for Friday's game and might be ready to reclaim the closer's role after only an outing or two working in non-pressure situations. Long term, that's a role that should belong to Brett Myers, but with Myers slated for two more bullpen sessions and a minor league rehab stint, he might not be back until closer to the end of the month. Gordon might squeeze in a good two weeks' worth of save chances before returning to middle relief, so keep him around, even in shallow mixed leagues. Once Gordon is activated, expect Antonio Alfonseca to return to his former set-up relief role.
Washington Nationals: For those of you who have been waiting all year for Nick Johnson's return, keeping him stashed on your DL, be prepared to wait a bit longer. He saw a specialist in New York on Friday because of continued soreness in his right hip and will undergo an MRI exam during the All-Star break to determine the source. Johnson has been taking ground balls, running the bases and taking some batting practice, although no timetable has been set for his return. Speculation on that front might heat up once play resumes Thursday, as the Nationals are widely rumored to be shopping Dmitri Young, perhaps the only way the team will be able to clear a regular spot for Johnson. Still, it's no guarantee that Johnson will be able to make a healthy return this year, and even if he does, it'll take time for him to get up to full speed at the plate after so much missed time.
Chicago Cubs: The Cubs hope to get closer Ryan Dempster back from his strained oblique in time for the start of their four-game series against the Giants on Monday. He initially had been expected to return in time for the team's final series before the All-Star break, however, a setback on Friday pushed back his return date. It's still possible Dempster might have his July 16 target date pushed back again, although it appears he'll be back closing games for the Cubs by no later than month's end. His DL stint makes it increasingly unlikely the team will experiment with him as a starter this season, so count on him to be right back in the saves mix once activated. Bob Howry, who has four saves in five chances in Dempster's absence, and Carlos Marmol, who converted his only save chance, will return to set-up roles once Dempster returns. Expect Howry to get the call again if Dempster has any further problems, as he's the more experienced of the two stand-ins; Marmol might be a better bet as a saves handcuff in 2008.
Cincinnati Reds: Although Homer Bailey was optioned to Triple-A Louisville on Sunday, don't take it as a reflection on his performance. With the All-Star break eating up three days this week, the Reds plan to get him at least one start for Louisville as a tune-up before recalling him to resume his role as the team's fifth starter. Of course, the Reds would need to DL a player to bring Bailey back in time for a July 16 start, the next time the team needs a fifth starter, and the fact that he'll pitch Thursday for Louisville makes him unlikely to pitch then, anyway, because he'd be on three days' rest. Still, he could be kept on schedule to pitch the next time the fifth-starter's spot comes up, July 21 at Florida. Bailey has struggled thus far in his MLB career, with a 6.99 ERA and 21 walks in 28 1/3 innings in six starts, but he remains too talented to let go except in shallow mixed leagues. He needs to get more aggressive with his command, but there's still plenty of upside in the rookie.
Houston Astros: The Astros expect to get Brad Lidge back from the DL before their first game of the season's second half Friday, and all indications are that he will reclaim the closer's role immediately. He hasn't had any problems with his strained left oblique in his throwing sessions and should throw a minor league rehabilitation outing for Double-A Corpus Christi on Wednesday as a tune-up. Lidge is hardly a guarantee to reclaim his elite fantasy closer form, as he has blown nine of 41 save chances (22.0 percent) since the start of last season. Still, he had a 0.92 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and .158 BAA in his last 26 appearances before hitting the DL, which is encouraging. Stand-in closer Dan Wheeler, meanwhile, has blown three of his five save chances and posted a 9.00 ERA, 1.63 WHIP and .329 BAA in his past 17 appearances. Neither is that safe a bet for the season's second half, but Lidge could be decent, perhaps in the Nos. 15-20 range among closers.
Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers will be without Bill Hall for an extended period after the center fielder suffered a sprained right ankle trying to rob the Pirates' Ryan Doumit of a home run Thursday. Although no timetable was given for his return, Hall might miss six weeks or more, a painful loss for fantasy owners who count on him for his shortstop eligibility. In his place, expect the Brewers to mix and match between Gabe Gross, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Kevin Mench to fill one outfield spot, depending on the opponent's starter. Gwynn, recalled from Triple-A Nashville when Hall landed on the DL, started each of the Brewers' two games against a right-hander over the weekend, which seems to indicate he'll play enough to warrant NL-only consideration for those in need of stolen bases. Expect Geoff Jenkins to get everyday at-bats in left field, which actually hurts his value more than it helps; he's a .149 hitter (20-for-134) with four homers and 51 strikeouts against left-handers since the start of last season. Be prepared for a drop in his batting average.
Pittsburgh Pirates: It required a great deal of patience, but those who waited on Adam LaRoche finally are reaping the rewards of his bat. He wrapped up the season's first half by batting .425 (17-for-40) with five homers, 11 RBIs and 10 runs scored in 10 games, finally establishing himself as a useful NL-only first baseman or mixed league corner infielder. It's actually not merely a two-week hot spell, though; dating back to May 5, LaRoche is hitting .282 (61-for-216) with 10 homers and 40 RBIs in 58 games. That's a 26-homer, 103-RBI pace over a 150-game season, well within range of his 32 and 90 numbers from a year ago. It's possible that LaRoche, who somehow was hitting only .138 with a .510 OPS entering the games of May 5, merely needed time to adjust to his new surroundings, which means a more productive second half could be on the way. He's a .289/.909 career second-half hitter, so a .290-15-45 performance from today forward is realistic.
St. Louis Cardinals: Kip Wells will rejoin the rotation after the All-Star break, starting the team's first game of the traditional second half, Friday at Philadelphia. His performance as a reliever the past three weeks apparently earned him another chance to start; he had a 0.82 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and .220 BAA in four relief appearances. In between those outings, he had a five-inning, one-run start against the Phillies on June 24, so it's not unthinkable that he could have improved enough to be a useful NL-only matchups type in the season's second half. Of course, that Wells managed only one quality start in an 11-start span from April 19 to June 14 -- and an 8.58 ERA, 1.91 WHIP and .313 BAA during that span -- warrants some concern. On this Cardinals team, run support won't be easy for him, and continued struggles by Wells might mean he'd easily be bumped once Chris Carpenter is healthy enough to return, which might be before month's end.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Randy Johnson returned to the DL last Tuesday, and this time, his back is enough of a concern that his owners need to lower their expectations of him for the rest of the year. He has a herniated disc in his back, and at age 43 isn't as capable of pitching in pain as he was earlier in his career. Most pitchers will get about 15-16 starts in the season's second half, but Johnson's owners shouldn't count on his making many more than 10, if that many. In his place, Yusmeiro Petit, the prospect acquired from the Marlins in the March Jorge Julio trade, will start in Johnson's rotation spot anytime the veteran is unavailable. Petit was 7-4 with a 4.09 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and .240 BAA in 15 starts for Triple-A Tucson, numbers that make him worthy of at least NL-only consideration, but keep your expectations realistic. After all, he's a tad wild, averaging 3.9 walks per nine at Tucson, and his 4.57 ERA and 1.34 WHIP in 35 career starts at the Triple-A level indicate his upside isn't as great as it might have been during his days in the Mets organization.
Colorado Rockies: Rookie right-hander Jason Hirsh landed on the DL last Tuesday after spraining his right ankle running the bases in his start July 2. He shouldn't be out for long, though; with a little luck, he could be back in the rotation about July 21. Hirsh threw a bullpen session Sunday without any significant issues and will throw another one Thursday. Barring a setback, he should then make a rehabilitation start for Triple-A Colorado Springs on Monday. Hirsh is hardly the type of pitcher a fantasy owner with limited DL spots should keep on hand, but he's not a terrible pitcher for NL-only keeper owners to have around, either. Scouts always felt he had No. 2/3 MLB starter upside, and in his first eight starts this season, he had a 3.99 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and .239 BAA, hardly bad numbers from a Rockies pitcher. Hirsh and Jeff Francis could constitute a formidable one-two punch for these Rockies beginning with next season, and it's not unthinkable that Hirsh could bounce back as a matchups type in this year's second half.
Los Angeles Dodgers: There's finally an explanation for Randy Wolf's dreadful outing last Tuesday (3 IP, 5 H, 6 R) and his problems in the walk department of late (15 in 20 2/3 innings his past four starts); the Dodgers placed the left-hander on the DL on Wednesday with a sore shoulder. An MRI revealed only an impingement and no structural damage, meaning Wolf might not miss more than another start or two, although his health will need to be watched closely in the season's second half. He kicked off the year with a 6-3 record, 3.41 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 71 strikeouts in 66 innings in his first 11 starts, re-establishing himself as a reliable weekly fantasy starter, but he also wasn't close to that kind of pitcher the three previous years. Health issues limited Wolf to only 48 starts from 2004 to '06, and it'd be no surprise if he slipped back to that kind of performance; he managed a 4.58 ERA and 1.43 WHIP for the Phillies in that span. Expect either Eric Stults or Brett Tomko to start in Wolf's place on July 17 as a short-term solution. Long term, if Wolf misses further time, the Dodgers could pursue a starter on the trade market.
San Diego Padres: Milton Bradley certainly is making the most of a fresh start in San Diego. He returned from the DL on Saturday after missing time with a strained oblique, going 1-for-3 with a walk and two runs in his Padres debut, then 2-for-4 Sunday with a stolen base and a run. He should continue to get the bulk of the playing time in left field, especially with Terrmel Sledge on the DL with a sprained right thumb, and is well worth adding in NL-only or larger mixed leagues. Bradley is capable of batting .290 with double-digit totals in home runs and stolen bases over a full season, meaning he could approach 8-10 in either category if healthy the entire second half. In addition, he batted fifth in his first two games for the Padres, which should help boost his RBI total. Something else to consider: Bradley, who has a history of attitude problems, was a .282 hitter with seven homers and 25 RBIs in his first 50 games for the Dodgers, and a .280-8-28 hitter in his first 50 games for the Athletics, which indicates that he often gets off to a hot start for a new team. Those seem like fair expectations here.
San Francisco Giants: Closer Brad Hennessey was lifted from a save chance Friday after allowing a walk and a hit with two outs in the ninth inning against the light-hitting Cardinals. That allowed Randy Messenger to pick up his first save, and it puts the Giants' closer picture in some question heading into the season's second half. Since taking over for traded Armando Benitez on June 1, Hennessey has a 5.14 ERA, 1.43 WHIP and .291 BAA in 13 appearances, hardly the numbers of a topflight closer. Messenger, meanwhile, has a 1.50 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and .250 BAA in 15 appearances since coming over in that Benitez trade. Neither reliever seems a particularly strong bet to enjoy a notable career as a closer, although NL-only owners should keep tabs on the Giants' ninth-inning picture in their first few games after the All-Star break. The team says it's still Hennessey's job, but Brian Wilson could enter the mix later in the year. Another sleeper: Patrick Misch, who has a 0.98 ERA and .177 BAA in his past 11 appearances for Triple-A Fresno.Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.