Cockcroft: Dempster out as Cubs' closer
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: The Braves avoided a real scare after Bob Wickman returned to Atlanta from New York last Thursday to undergo an MRI on his sore forearm. The exam revealed no damage, and the right-hander returned to his closer's role Saturday, pitching a scoreless inning to notch the save. Wickman had complained of some soreness in the two weeks prior, and with former Kansas City Royals closer Octavio Dotel now on the team, Wickman's owners had to have some doubts about his prognosis for the remainder of the year. Things sure changed quickly, though. Dotel himself landed on the DL on Friday with a strained shoulder, perhaps explaining his 8.31 ERA in his first five games for the Braves. He is expected back in the minimum 15 days, although this presents a golden opportunity for Rafael Soriano to establish himself as the top alternative to Wickman. Soriano's 7.07 ERA, 1.36 WHIP and .273 BAA in 14 games since the All-Star break indicate he is a bit further from "handcuff" status than he was at the beginning of the season, but if Wickman suffers a setback while Dotel is out, be prepared to grab Soriano off the free-agent list.
Florida Marlins: With Byung-Hyun Kim now a member of the Diamondbacks, the Marlins turned over his rotation spot to rookie right-hander Daniel Barone on Friday. He managed 4 2/3 innings of three-run (two earned) ball against the Mets, not a terrible outing for a pitcher making his MLB debut, but hardly a fantasy-worthy effort. Barone was 7-0 with a 4.09 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and .256 BAA in 10 starts for Triple-A Albuquerque after going 1-3 with 3.86/1.15/.245 numbers in 13 starts for Double-A Carolina this season. He is a pitch-to-contact type -- despite throwing only 56 of 104 pitches (53.8 percent) for strikes Friday -- but without overpowering stuff, Barone's appeal should be limited to NL-only matchups. He is worth keeping tabs on but should be viewed as a fill-in for the Marlins until they can restock their rotation during the offseason.
New York Mets: Paul Lo Duca aggravated his hamstring injury Saturday in only his fifth game back after missing six contests with the same problem, and he landed on the DL a day later. He will miss at least two weeks and perhaps more, especially with the Mets more interested in having him back to full speed for the postseason than in rushing him back too soon. It's actually not that bad a setback for the team; Ramon Castro has done an excellent job as Lo Duca's backup this season and could be called an offensive upgrade, in fact. Lo Duca had a .268 batting average, .311 on-base percentage and .356 slugging percentage in 373 plate appearances at the time he got hurt, while Castro has .282/.324/.534 numbers in 142 plate appearances. Castro is the better power source of the two, so NL-only owners should pick him up, while a case can be made that he is a fine No. 2 option in mixed leagues. He did leave Sunday's game with a sore back, though, so keep tabs on him. He should be back Tuesday, but monitor his health.
Philadelphia Phillies: Although Tom Gordon and Brett Myers each have a save in the past week, it appears Myers is once again the Phillies' go-to guy in the ninth inning. He has three saves in three chances and pitched the ninth inning in each of his eight appearances since returning from the DL, finishing all of those games except for the team's 11-inning affair against the Brewers on Aug. 5. Gordon, meanwhile, has pitched the eighth in four of his past five appearances, picking up a save Friday only because Myers had worked the previous two days. Myers might occasionally be shaky, such as in the two games he lost in the ninth inning on Aug. 1 and Aug. 9, but he should be good for 10-12 saves assuming he stays healthy the rest of the year. As for Gordon owners, his value primarily is as a handcuff to Myers, although he could sneak in the occasional save on Myers' off days, giving him a little appeal in NL-only formats.
Washington Nationals: Shawn Hill is scheduled to return from the DL on Tuesday after missing three months with soreness in his right elbow and left shoulder, the latter suffered while running the bases in a game in April. On May 11, in his last appearance before hitting the DL, he actually pitched five no-hit innings, bringing his full-season numbers to a 2.70 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and .204 BAA in eight starts. Hill also was an effective minor league pitcher, with 3.12/1.20/.252 numbers in 93 career games (92 starts), so despite his status as a pitcher backed by the league's worst offense, he might have a bit of NL-only or matchups appeal the next month-plus. Expect the right-hander to need some time to get back to full speed, and monitor his performance closely, particularly how deep he pitches into games. With Hill returning, Mike Bacsik will return to the bullpen, despite having managed 4.08/1.22/.263 numbers in six starts since the All-Star break.
Chicago Cubs: With Ryan Dempster's velocity down around 91-92 mph, manager Lou Piniella told the Chicago Tribune on Saturday that the right-hander has been demoted from the closer's role. Since his return from the DL on July 21, Dempster has a 4.50 ERA, 2.20 WHIP and .317 BAA in 10 appearances, earning only one save chance during that time, converting it in a 4-3 game July 24 at St. Louis. He will pitch in earlier innings, allowing Bob Howry, he of the seven saves in eight chances with a 4.97 ERA in 13 appearances while Dempster was sidelined, to slide back into the ninth-inning role. Expect Dempster to reclaim the closer's role once he is back to full strength, although Howry warrants a look for those desperate for saves in deeper formats. Unfortunately, it also is worth noting that the Cubs have yet to generate a save chance since that July 24 contest, a span of 19 games. ... Felix Pie has four straight starts in center field after being promoted from Triple-A Iowa on Aug. 8. He went 4-for-17 (.235) in the Cubs' four-game series over the weekend at Coors Field, each against a right-hander. If the Cubs continue to hand Pie regular at-bats in center field, he will be a useful NL-only addition, but don't count on him being that useful once Alfonso Soriano returns from his torn quadriceps in September.
Cincinnati Reds: Ryan Freel underwent season-ending arthroscopic surgery to repair cartilage in his right knee last Wednesday. He will be on crutches for four to six weeks, although he should be back to full strength by spring training 2008. With Freel sidelined, Josh Hamilton, who returned from the DL on Sunday, stands to benefit most. Hamilton presumably will platoon with Norris Hopper in center field, earning all of the starts against right-handers, making him the far more appealing fantasy choice. That he is a .292/.385/.617 hitter against right-handers suggests Hamilton could offer his owners a batting average in the .280-.290 range with 6-8 home runs the remainder of the season. ... Matt Belisle was optioned to Triple-A Louisville on Saturday, although it won't be Homer Bailey who gets the call to assume the open rotation spot. Bailey, sidelined with a strained groin since July 19, will report to Class A Sarasota this week to continue a throwing program. The rookie right-hander could be a factor in the Cincinnati rotation in September, but it is looking increasingly likely that he won't make a noticeable impact until sometime in 2008.
Houston Astros: Brandon Backe tossed five scoreless innings for Triple-A Round Rock on Sunday in his third rehabilitation start coming off Tommy John surgery. He has a 3.29 ERA, 1.54 WHIP and .275 BAA in his three rehab starts, with three more scheduled. That puts Backe on track to return to the Astros sometime around Labor Day, and with the team 9 1/2 games out in the division race and 11 in the wild-card race, it would make sense for the team to get a sense of how healthy he is heading into 2008. He threw 93 pitches in Sunday's start, up from 74 on Aug. 7, meaning he could get fairly close to a starter's workload by the end of the season. Coming off such a serious surgery, one that often takes more than a half-season's worth of game action for a pitcher to return to peak performance, Backe won't be that useful a fantasy option this season. Still, it will make him a more interesting 2008 sleeper candidate if he can sneak in a few outings.
Milwaukee Brewers: So much for Rickie Weeks' stint at Triple-A Nashville to work on his hitting. He was recalled last Thursday after Tony Graffanino suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament on Wednesday, ending the latter's season. Not that Weeks didn't warrant a promotion; he had hit safely in each of six games for Nashville, batting .455 (10-for-22) with three doubles and a triple. He will reclaim the everyday second base role, and in his first three games back with the Brewers, he batted leadoff each time. Weeks' wrist, which has troubled him for more than a year, might continue to limit his potential in the batting-average category, but so long as he keeps batting first and averaging one walk per 7.20 plate appearances, as he has this season, he will be a fine source of runs scored and stolen bases. It is possible Weeks could bat .250 from this point forward, but he might net you as many as 30-35 runs and 6-8 steals, solid numbers from your second base spot.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Xavier Nady continues to be limited by a hamstring strain, going without a start in the Pirates' first 10 games in August, making three pinch-hitting appearances during that time. He could be a candidate for the DL if he is not back in the lineup in the next few days, something that could benefit players like Jose Bautista, Jose Castillo and Ryan Doumit. Bautista, who returned from the DL on Aug. 1, has earned two starts apiece in center field and right field in addition to his five starts at third base, while Doumit has snuck in seven starts in right field in those 10 contests. Castillo, meanwhile, has picked up three starts at third base, two of them against left-handers. All that shuffling should increase position flexibility for fantasy owners, not that the trio is all that appealing outside of NL-only formats. Doumit has batted .316 (12-for-38) with one homer and four RBIs in the 10 games since Aug. 1, though, and has the most appeal of the three due to his catcher eligibility. He is not a bad mixed-league No. 2 option.
St. Louis Cardinals: Rick Ankiel's miraculous transformation from left-handed starter to power-hitting outfielder now is complete, after he was promoted by the Cardinals last Thursday when Scott Spiezio landed on the restricted list for a problem related to unspecified substances. What's more, Ankiel belted a home run in his first game of the season on Thursday, with two more on Saturday, earning himself starts in each of the Cardinals' four weekend contests, three of the starts out of the No. 2 hole in the lineup. He batted .267 with 32 homers and 89 RBIs in 102 games for Triple-A Memphis this season, enough to earn a decent share of the right field at-bats ahead of Juan Encarnacion, at least for as long as he remains hot. Of course, while Ankiel is a hot pickup now, don't let your expectations get the best of you. He struck out once per 4.3 at-bats and walked once per 16.9 plate appearances while at Memphis, and might be susceptible to breaking pitches. Ankiel has the power to help NL-only owners, but he might bat in only the .250s while notching around 8-10 home runs in a regular role.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Brandon Webb broke his own franchise record Saturday for consecutive scoreless innings, pitching his second straight shutout to extend his mark to 33 innings. That brings his season numbers to a 2.77 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and .238 BAA, in line with and perhaps better than his 3.10/1.17/.246 numbers from his Cy Young campaign of a year ago. Webb will need to maintain close to this kind of pace to get his D-backs into the playoffs, with run support a problem; his team averages 4.22 runs per game, second-worst in MLB. Still, he is on pace for 16 wins, the same number he had last season, and 211 strikeouts, 33 more than his 2006 total. Webb, one of the lowest-risk starters thanks to his 3.76:1 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio and 0.65 home runs per nine innings ratio for his career, again is looking like one of the most trustworthy fantasy options around. Expect top 5 starter's numbers from this point forward.
Colorado Rockies: The Rockies promoted Ian Stewart, once considered one of the best prospects in the game, from Triple-A Colorado Springs on Saturday, after placing utilityman Jeff Baker on the DL with a concussion. Stewart was in the midst of an encouraging season at Colorado Springs, batting .304 with 15 homers in 112 games, including a .316 mark with 12 homers in 58 contests since June 7. Unfortunately, while he is an appealing talent in a hitter-friendly ballpark, Stewart might not get enough opportunities to play with Todd Helton locked in at first base and Garrett Atkins at third. He will make the team's offseason decisions tougher at the corner infield spots and be a useful backup for Atkins or Helton owners in NL-only formats, but don't expect too much from the rookie this season. ... Jason Hirsh landed on the DL on Friday with a fractured fibula in his right leg, after pitching through more than five innings last Tuesday with the injury. He might be out for the season, perhaps opening a rotation spot for Franklin Morales, one of the team's top prospects. Morales, a left-hander ranked the Rockies' No. 2 prospect by Baseball America in the preseason, is 2-0 with a 1.42 ERA in two starts for Colorado Springs, after managing a 3.48 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and .226 BAA in 17 starts for Double-A Tulsa. He is a little wild -- he has averaged 4.5 walks per nine innings this season -- to be trusted in fantasy leagues this season, but NL-only owners can stash him on a bench for now.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers' acquisition of Mark Sweeney -- acquired from the Giants last Thursday for a player to be named later -- isn't anything exciting for the fantasy owner, but in a roundabout way, it could impact the value of James Loney. It is possible the Dodgers are souring on backup corner infielder Olmedo Saenz, who has .182/.303/.330 numbers, with Sweeney merely serving as insurance against a Loney injury. Saenz actually has only three starts at first base since June 23, batting .074 (2-for-27) during that span, while Loney has 40 starts during that span, batting .312 (48-for-154) with four homers and 20 RBIs. The Dodgers haven't been nearly as apt to sit Loney against left-handers this season, and with Sweeney, another left-hander, on the active roster, it is less likely the rookie will sit much the remainder of the year.
San Diego Padres: David Wells' Padres career came to an end last Thursday, as the team designated him for assignment, giving them 10 days to trade, demote or release the left-hander. While it is possible Wells could catch on elsewhere, that he had a 5.54 ERA, 1.59 WHIP and .322 BAA in 22 starts, 12 of them at pitching-friendly Petco Park, doesn't bode well for his chances on any other team. He was replaced in the rotation Friday by Wilfredo Ledezma, a spot starter more suited to middle-relief work, but in the long haul, he should be replaced by Clay Hensley, he of the 3.56 ERA in 29 starts last season. Hensley was a dreadful 1-3 with a 7.62 ERA, 2.05 WHIP and .350 BAA in six starts earlier this year before landing on the DL with a strained right groin, but he tossed a respectable 4 2/3 innings in a spot start for the team on Aug. 4, then six innings of two-run, five-hit baseball for Triple-A Portland on Friday. He could have some matchups appeal the remainder of the season, especially in home games. Still, keep in mind the Padres are linked to trade rumors for the Yankees' Kei Igawa, so Hensley's rotation spot is hardly assured.
San Francisco Giants: Russ Ortiz returned to the Giants' rotation Friday with five innings of two-run, four-hit baseball, a decent enough outing that the team will stick with him as its No. 5 starter, having demoted rookie Patrick Misch to Triple-A Fresno the same day. Keep in mind, though, that the performance came against the Pirates, MLB's 25th-ranked offense (4.33 runs per game) -- which is enough to indicate possible NL-only matchups potential for the right-hander, gives but no reason to add Ortiz in shallower fantasy formats. It is important to remember that Ortiz had only one quality start in five tries to begin the season, with a 6.44 ERA, 1.74 WHIP and .344 BAA during that span, and two in 26 starts since June 15, 2005, during which time he has 8.66/2.04/.344 numbers. Sure, he has 3.64-1.35-.241 numbers in his career at AT&T Park, but based on his recent track record, you should be awfully choosy with Ortiz on the matchups front.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.