Around the NL: Smoltz OK, Soto called up
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: John Smoltz's shoulder has shown signs of improvement, and he's expected to make his next scheduled start on Wednesday. He was diagnosed with inflammation in his right shoulder last week, but has been playing catch without any issues the past few days. It seems Smoltz's owners can breathe a sigh of relief, as he again seems to have dodged a long-term DL stint due to minor aches and pains. At age 40, Smoltz has aroused concern in recent years that a physical breakdown is coming, and while his avoiding one this year isn't an absolute guarantee, he has done an exceptional job of avoiding injury setbacks in recent memory. He's not any riskier than any other aging or brittle pitcher, and could easily maintain the 3.24 ERA and 1.18 WHIP he has posted since returning to a starting role in the second half of the 2005 season. With Smoltz back, Jo-Jo Reyes seems likely to return to Triple-A Richmond, barring a fabulous outing on Tuesday.
Florida Marlins: One has to wonder whether, looking at his mediocre numbers this season, Dontrelle Willis might not be fully himself right now. His 4.81 ERA and 1.58 WHIP would represent career worsts -- by far -- and he's actually 4-8 with a 5.09 ERA, 1.63 WHIP and .285 BAA in his last 17 starts. During that time, Willis has only six quality-start efforts, and his walk rate, 4.45 per nine, is well above his career number (2.98). Could that be a signal that the left-hander might not be 100 percent healthy? Don't forget, he had a start pushed back a few days in late June due to soreness in his forearm, and that he threw 817 1/3 innings at the big league level before his 25th birthday makes him at greater risk for a breakdown than most young pitchers. Willis isn't even helping NL-only owners at this stage, and he's a gamble the remainder of the year. Keep him reserved, but don't be surprised if things don't get much better for him this season.
New York Mets: The Mets got Oliver Perez back from the DL on Sunday, and were scheduled to get Jorge Sosa back from the DL on Monday, putting their rotation back at full health. The timing was rather fortunate for the team; Sosa missed only the minimum 15 days, Perez 17, with three of those days eaten up by the All-Star break. Perez won his return start on Sunday, allowing two runs on six hits in six innings and, most importantly, walking only three batters. His back problems could always return, though it seems the left-hander is back to being nearly as useful as he was the first half of the season, when he won seven of 15 starts with a 3.14 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. Sosa, meanwhile, is a bit riskier as a second-half bet, as he's often inconsistent with his command. It'd be better for his owners to wait a start or two to see whether his hamstring continues to be an issue, and after that, to use him only based upon the matchup. Still, with a favorable home ballpark helping him and a fair share of weak NL offenses, if Sosa makes 14 second-half starts, 7-9 could be useful.
Philadelphia Phillies: Though the Phillies suffered their 10,000th loss in franchise history on Sunday, the postgame news wasn't so bad, as former closer Tom Gordon was activated from the 60-day DL. He allowed five runs on six hits in four innings in three rehabilitation appearances between the rookie-ball Gulf Coast League Phillies and Class A Clearwater, though all five runs he surrendered came in his first outing. Still, those numbers suggest the right-hander might need a tune-up appearance or two in a lower-pressure role than closing, meaning it could be a few more days before he's a candidate for saves. In addition, Brett Myers is rapidly approaching a return from the DL himself, scheduled for a simulated game on Tuesday and then a short minor league rehab assignment. Gordon might not see more than a couple of weeks as the Phillies' closer before Myers takes over, so don't get your hopes up as far as saves are concerned. In fact, with each a bit risky in the health department looking forward, don't count on too much from either reliever.
Washington Nationals: Manager Manny Acta said Sunday that he intends to insert Alex Escobar into the lineup as his everyday left fielder, once Escobar recovers from the shoulder and ankle injuries that currently have him on the DL. Escobar hasn't been particularly productive in eight games of a rehabilitation assignment between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Columbus, batting .138 (4-for-29) with no homers and seven strikeouts, but Acta feels he has the power potential desired from a corner outfield spot. Sure, Escobar had a .487 slugging percentage and averaged one homer per 23.1 at-bats for his minor league career entering 2007, but he also has holes in his swing, as evidenced by his one strikeout per 3.45 at-bat ratio during that span. He's still young and talented enough to warrant stashing on an NL-only bench, but don't get your hopes up, accounting for his weaknesses and injury history. Ryan Church, meanwhile, will shift to center field, perhaps losing the occasional start against a left-hander to Nook Logan.
Chicago Cubs: When the Cubs traded Michael Barrett to the Padres on July 20, it was clear at the time that offense was going to be a problem at their catcher spot. Koyie Hill and Rob Bowen might be capable enough defenders, but at the bat, the duo combined for a .104 batting average (6-for-64), no home runs, six RBIs and two extra-base hits, both doubles, in 20 games since Barrett's departure. As a result, after waiting three long months to determine whether his bat was for real at Triple-A Iowa, the Cubs promoted Geovany Soto on Friday in an attempt to pack some punch into the position. Soto, 24, was batting .341 (77-for-226) with 12 homers and 55 RBIs in 69 games for Iowa, including a .361 mark (52-for-144) with 11 homers and 41 RBIs in his last 42 contests. Unfortunately, while Soto's minor league performance has opened some eyes, keep in mind it's the first time in his professional career he has been much of an offensive force. He was a career .262 hitter with a .371 slugging percentage who averaged one homer per 63.0 at-bats entering 2007, and was widely considered more defensive-minded than offensive-minded. Soto should earn enough playing time and perhaps kick things off hot enough to be useful as an NL-only No. 2 catcher, but in the long term he's probably not much more than that.(Editor's Note: The preceding passage was written before the Kendall trade was announced.)
Cincinnati Reds: Josh Hamilton landed on the DL for the second time this season last Thursday, this time due to a sprained right wrist. Despite his health woes, though, he managed a .303 batting average (27-for-89), six homers and 12 RBIs in 27 games between DL stints, a sign that he's hardly slowing down at bat. Expect Hamilton back in a couple of weeks, after which time everyday at-bats seem more assured, since either Adam Dunn or Ken Griffey Jr. might have been traded. For now, Ryan Freel and Norris Hopper appear to benefit most. Incredibly, interim manager Pete Mackanin is as enamored with Hopper as his predecessor, Jerry Narron, was, starting Hopper in each of the team's past three games. Hopper is quick, but the better bet for a respectable batting average -- think .260s -- and a couple of steals per week is Freel, who has five straight starts since Hamilton got hurt, three in center and two at third base. Hopper, meanwhile, is more of a batting-average risk who could net one steal a week with enough at-bats, and really, he's not talented enough to warrant Mackanin using him this often at Edwin Encarnacion's expense.
Houston Astros: With his 3,000th career hit now in the books, and writers everywhere now discussing his credentials as a Hall of Fame candidate, Craig Biggio enters the season's second half in a diminished role. According to a Houston Chronicle report, Biggio and manager Phil Garner have set up a schedule in which Biggio will start fewer games, particularly road contests. It's a decision that might come across as a tad perplexing to his fantasy owners, since he's a .337 hitter (33-for-98) in his last 25 games, in one of the hottest spells of his recent career. Still, resting Biggio is a move that makes sense, especially if done most often on the road. He's merely a .197 hitter with a .554 OPS in 40 road games this year, compared to .302/.801 in 43 games at home, and since 2005 he has managed a batting average at least 56 points and an OPS at least 208 points higher at home than on the road. Of course, part-time status hurts Biggio, and his fill-in, Chris Burke, in most fantasy leagues, not that either is a huge loss. It does however, preserve Biggio's batting average in NL-only formats. Regardless, his primary appeal will be in daily leagues, where you can spot him out on the road or against tough right-handers.
Milwaukee Brewers: Bill Hall told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Friday that he hopes to return from a sprained right ankle as soon as next weekend. That'd be a remarkably quick recovery, considering at the time he got hurt on July 5, his timetable had him missing four to six weeks. Hall hasn't resumed running yet, but he's doing "speed walking" without any issues, which is a good first step. Hall is eligible to return from the DL as early as Friday, though that might be a bit optimistic; more likely, he'll be back to begin next week. Monitor his progress, as setbacks are always a possibility, but if Hall returns in the next week, he'd immediately reclaim the everyday center-field role. That'd return Kevin Mench to a platoon role with Geoff Jenkins in left field, Corey Hart to right field full time and Tony Gwynn Jr. most likely to Triple-A Nashville.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Jose Bautista landed on the DL on Sunday after he cut his left hand on Chipper Jones' spikes while attempting to steal third base a day earlier in a game against the Braves. It's not too significant a loss; he was hitting .167 (11-for-66) with one homer and 14 strikeouts in his last 19 games. Still, while Bautista isn't a tough man to replace in fantasy, it's not the best timing for him to be sidelined. He's now 26 years old, nearing the point of his career where he might not get too many more prime chances as a regular, and he had started 48 of 50 games at the time he got hurt. Jose Castillo, a .191 hitter (35-for-183) with no homers since last Sept. 1, will see everyday at-bats in Bautista's absence, and could again make the third-base position a battle with a couple-week hot streak. That would limit either's appeal in NL-only formats long term.
St. Louis Cardinals: Setbacks have become the story of Chris Carpenter's year, and his most recent one appears to have the makings of a season ender. He experienced more stiffness and swelling in his right elbow after his most recent minor league rehabilitation start for Class A Palm Beach last Sunday. It was only his second such appearance in game competition, and initially seemed an encouraging outing, as he went three shutout innings. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Carpenter's current elbow issues might be related to an arthritic condition the team thought secondary to bone spurs when the right-hander had surgery on May 8. The Cardinals have yet to decide how to proceed with him, though Carpenter will probably need to resume his rehabilitation from step one, meaning he'd be at least a month off a return to the team, if that soon. Barring a surprising turn of events in the next couple days, don't expect him to be of much help the rest of the year.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Don't write off former top prospect Carlos Quentin entirely simply because of his demotion to Triple-A Tucson on July 6. Sure, he underperformed terribly this year, with a .210 batting average and .649 OPS in 66 games, and .185/.542 numbers in his final 29 games with the Diamondbacks. He's only 24 years old, though, with plenty of time to correct his flaws, and in six games since being returned to Tucson, he's 7-for-18 (.389) with two doubles, one triple, one homer and six RBIs. With another couple weeks' worth of numbers like those, Quentin could quickly earn another chance with the big club, meaning he still has a bit of NL-only appeal. Keeper-league owners, though, should be as patient as possible; Quentin has future All-Star potential, and it shouldn't be long before he gets another chance, this or next year.
Colorado Rockies: So much for the idea that Brian Fuentes' demotion from the closer's role was merely a couple-week thing. The left-hander, who opted out of last week's All-Star Game due to a strained lat muscle, apparently has been hurting enough that he landed on the DL on Friday, retroactive to July 4. That'll make him eligible to return this Thursday, after he first makes a rehabilitation appearance for Class A Asheville on Tuesday. Sure, Fuentes is suddenly a worry to fantasy owners after blowing four saves and managing a 20.77 ERA and .481 BAA in his last six appearances, but it's possible the injury was mostly responsible for his problems on the mound. Keep him on hand in leagues where you have the bench room to do so, as it's tough to ignore his 20 saves, 1.89 ERA and .175 BAA in 34 games before that rocky stretch. A healthy Fuentes could quickly reclaim his role and again be a solid second-tier mixed-league option.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Randy Wolf continues to play catch and says his shoulder is pain free, putting him in line to return to the rotation sometime in the next week or two. A return on July 19, the first day he's eligible to return, appears unlikely, but a July 25 start at Houston, the next time his turn comes up, could be possible. Keep tabs on Wolf's progress, as he was rather useful the first two and a half months of the season, with an 8-4 record, 4.06 ERA and 83 strikeouts in 82 innings in 14 starts. There's a great deal of NL-only value, and mixed-league matchups appeal, in that. For now, Brett Tomko will get another start in Wolf's place, pitching Friday's game against the Mets. That's not a great matchup for him in fantasy leagues, though anytime he's called upon for another spot start in August or September, he could be NL-only useful depending on the opponent.
San Diego Padres: Jake Peavy had his first start of the season's second half pushed back two days, to Tuesday, due to biceps soreness. That might raise a warning flag for his owners; the Angels' Jered Weaver is one example of a pitcher who endured a DL stint with a similar injury. Still, don't panic with Peavy, as the Padres might merely be playing it safe with their ace right-hander. He was the All-Star Game starter last Tuesday, an assignment he surely wouldn't have accepted had he truly been at less than 100 percent. In addition, Peavy has made only one DL stint in his career, in 2004, which cost him six weeks, and the Padres have been rather careful managing him, allowing him an average of 200 innings even in his three full seasons (2003, 2005 and 2006). More notes of encouragement: He was 11-4 with a 2.40 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and .221 BAA in 18 starts after coming off the DL in 2004, demonstrating his resiliency. After Johan Santana, there isn't a better fantasy starter out there, biceps issue or not.
San Francisco Giants: Barry Bonds again has slipped into a dreadful slump the past week-plus, batting .045 (1-for-22) without a homer or RBI and six strikeouts in seven games. In fact, after completing an 0-for-12 performance in a three-game series against the Dodgers to kick off the season's second half, Bonds popped off to reporters on Sunday, visibly showing signs of his frustration. While it's almost a given he'll manage the five home runs he'll need to break Hank Aaron's all-time record in the next several weeks, Bonds might be no more than an ordinary fantasy outfielder in mixed formats the rest of the way. He could see decreased at-bats after passing Aaron, and a guy with a .246 batting average (35-for-142) and six homers in 52 games the past two-plus months isn't all that useful. At 42, Bonds now seems much more name than true fantasy value.Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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