Cockcroft: Many happy returns in the NL
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: Citing his lack of interest in pitching in non-save situations, Bob Wickman was designated for assignment by the Braves on Friday, despite the fact that the decision means the team will have to resort to a closer-by-committee until Octavio Dotel heals. Wickman, 20-for-26 in save chances with a 3.92 ERA this season, should latch on elsewhere within the team's 10-day window to trade him, though he'll have a steep climb to reclaim a closer's role on a new team. Among Braves pitchers, Rafael Soriano, who notched five saves and 7 1/3 scoreless innings in seven appearances in Wickman's absence in early May, becomes the best bet for saves in the short term. He has the makeup to close, should get the first chance to nail down the job and has a respectable 1.86 ERA and .194 BAA in his last nine appearances. Peter Moylan, who has a 1.21 ERA and .181 BAA in his last 20 appearances, is the next-best option and worthy enough to add in NL-only formats. As for Dotel, sidelined with a shoulder strain, he experienced pain in his triceps during a throwing session Friday, putting his estimated return date in the unknown category. There's a chance he'll return this season, but he'll need a rapid turnaround in his rehabilitation in the next week to have much of a chance at netting any saves by season's end. Edgar Renteria's return from an ankle injury Wednesday lasted all of one pitch, after he aggravated the ankle taking a pitch in his first at-bat and returned to the DL a day later. He still has a chance at an early to mid-September return, but expect the Braves to be more cautious with him this time. In his absence, Yunel Escobar returns to shortstop in an everyday role, opening up Kelly Johnson to start at second base against both left- and right-handers. Escobar warrants a pickup once more in NL- and deep-mixed formats.
Florida Marlins: After a three-week detour through Arizona, Byung-Hyun Kim is back with the Marlins. He'll serve as a reliever initially, after pitching so poorly in two starts for the Diamondbacks (23.63 ERA), but could be a candidate to move back into the rotation in September. After all, Kim didn't do a poor job working out of the rotation for the Marlins earlier in the season. He had a 3.25 ERA, 1.42 WHIP and .203 BAA in six starts for them before being let go the first week of August, and 4.16/1.56/.227 numbers in 14 games (13 starts) for the Marlins overall in his previous stint with them. Kim isn't worth adding to an NL-only roster right now, but accounting for his strengths against right-handed hitters (.216 AVG, .323 OBP, .299 SLG) and his pitching-friendly home ballpark, there could be a quality matchup or two of his to exploit in the season's final weeks.
New York Mets: Paul Lo Duca (hamstring) was activated from the DL on Monday, and scheduled to return to the lineup for the game at Philadelphia. He missed the minimum 15 days, and was 3-for-8 (.375) with one home run in three rehabilitation games combined between Class A Brooklyn and Double-A Binghamton over the weekend. With usual backup Ramon Castro still on the DL, Lo Duca should receive the bulk of the at-bats behind the plate for the Mets for the next week-plus, and NL-only and deep-mixed owners can activate him right away. Still, Lo Duca's fantasy appeal in more shallow leagues is limited. He had only .239/.261/.284 rates in 19 games since the All-Star break before getting hurt, and is a lifetime .239/.293/.362 hitter in September. Expect the Mets to slot Lo Duca low in the lineup, meaning he's a bit more name than true value.
Philadelphia Phillies: Chase Utley (broken wrist) returned to the lineup Monday against the Mets, one month and one day after he was sidelined after being hit by a pitch from Nationals rookie John Lannan. He'll reclaim his normal No. 3 spot in the lineup, after going 2-for-11 (.182) in a three-game weekend rehabilitation assignment with Double-A Reading. Utley's owners might be a bit concerned he'll need a few games to regain his timing, and that's a valid worry, though he's far too productive to doubt for the season's final month. Even at less than 100 percent, Utley should easily rival any of the top five fantasy second basemen the rest of the way, and he'll still be a top keeper during the winter. With Utley due back, Tadahito Iguchi's role will diminish greatly, to the point the Phillies might consider shopping him before the Aug. 31 deadline for teams to set a postseason roster. Iguchi has begun taking grounders at third base and shortstop, in an effort to get him into the lineup on rare occasions, and owners in deep leagues should be patient with him in the event he's dealt again, but downgrade your expectations from him in September a fair amount, especially if he's not dealt. Cole Hamels landed on the DL on Wednesday with a mild strain of the medial collateral ligament in his left elbow, an injury that sounds worse than it is. An MRI showed no ligament damage, and the left-hander threw on the side Saturday without any issues and was scheduled for a bullpen session Monday. He might be back within a week if he avoids any setbacks, though the Phillies will surely be cautious with their young ace if he runs into any further trouble.
Washington Nationals: Jason Bergmann, another one of the Nationals' remarkable pitching finds from earlier in the season, is scheduled to rejoin the rotation Tuesday after managing a 1.59 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in three rehabilitation starts for Triple-A Columbus earlier this month. That might seem insignificant for fantasy, but keep in mind Bergmann had a 4.56 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and .225 BAA in 14 starts for the Nationals earlier this season, and 2.76/1.02/.162 rates in eight starts to begin the season before first hitting the DL. Those back up the idea that Bergmann has matchups potential, like fellow rotation-mate Shawn Hill, meaning NL-only owners should consider stashing him on a bench for now. With Bergmann back, rookie John Lannan was optioned to Triple-A Columbus on Sunday, more a maintenance-type move than a criticism of his talent. Lannan had 4.15/1.53/.273 numbers in six starts for the team, not bad rates, but the team is trying to limit his workload. Remember, he jumped from Class A ball to the majors this season, logging 157 1/3 total innings in the process, so expect him to be used sparingly looking forward, if he's promoted at all in September. Lannan should be a candidate for the 2008 rotation, though.
Chicago Cubs: The Cubs on Thursday acquired Craig Monroe from the Detroit Tigers, who had designated him for assignment six days earlier to clear room for rookie Cameron Maybin. Such a move, according to the Detroit Free Press, will cost the Cubs a minor league left-hander, either Neal Cotts, Will Ohman or Clay Rapada, though for fantasy the significance of the move is it'll cost Matt Murton a fair share of at-bats. Monroe started both Saturday's and Sunday's games, though Murton did also sneak in a start against a left-hander on Saturday. Once Alfonso Soriano returns, though, he'll presumably drop Monroe into the platoon outfielder role Murton once held, meaning NL-only owners shouldn't count on too much production from Monroe. He's a useful pickup, but more valuable to leagues with daily transactions, allowing you to capitalize on his games versus lefties, against whom he hits for .293/.308/.525 rates this season. Speaking of Soriano, his torn quadriceps has healed well enough that the Cubs plan to have him back in the lineup for Tuesday's game, putting his timetable about a week ahead of its original estimate. He'll reclaim the everyday left field and leadoff roles, bumping Ryan Theriot back to the No. 2 hole and the aforementioned Monroe and Murton into diminished roles. Soriano might not be so apt to run as freely on the basepaths coming off such a serious injury, but there's little reason to lower your September expectations for him with the bat.
Cincinnati Reds: It took him 11 minor league seasons -- plus a 2003 season lost to Tommy John surgery -- but Tom Shearn finally reached the big leagues on Sunday, winning his MLB debut with seven innings of three-run baseball against the Marlins. He's the latest no-name to break into the Reds' rotation, and the oldest player to make his MLB debut for the Reds in more than 14 years. With Bobby Livingston presumably out for the year with a tear in his labrum, Shearn could earn a few more starts as the Reds rely on a patchwork back end of their rotation. Matt Belisle, he of the 5.12 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in 31 career starts, is back to help out in that regard, too, winning his return start on Saturday (7 IP, 4 ER). With such unproven pitchers rounding out the Reds' rotation, one has to wonder whether top prospect Homer Bailey, working his way back from a groin strain, might return to the team in September. Don't bother with Belisle or Shearn, outside of the slim possibility either warrants an NL-only matchups play on a given night, though Bailey's minor league rehabilitation should be closely monitored the next week.
Houston Astros: Injuries continue to strike the Astros' rotation, beginning with the news that Jason Jennings is out for the season with a torn flexor tendon in his elbow. It's unclear whether he'll require surgery to repair the injury, something that could cost him a significant chunk of 2008. In addition, ace Roy Oswalt missed his start Thursday with a strained oblique, though the current plan has him ready to return to the rotation Wednesday against the Cardinals. Juan Gutierrez stepped in for Oswalt Thursday, allowing six runs in five innings, though it's rookie Troy Patton, who stepped in for Jennings on Saturday, who warrants more fantasy attention. The left-hander was widely considered the team's top pitching prospect at the time of his MLB debut, and he was 4-2 with a 4.59 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and .247 BAA in eight starts for Triple-A Round Rock after beginning the season with a 6-6 record and 2.99/1.26/.247 numbers in 16 starts for Double-A Corpus Christi. Patton might be no more than a matchups consideration in deeper leagues the remainder of the season, but with his talent, he's not a bad pitcher to stash on an NL-only reserve list. Hunter Pence returned from the DL on Aug. 21, after missing nearly a month with a sprained right wrist. He's a respectable 6-for-28 (.214) in six games since his return, batting second in each contest, and is worth activating in all but the most shallow leagues right away. Pence might not be the .330 hitter he was before getting hurt in the season's final weeks, but he's still a capable NL- and deep-mixed starter and a quality keeper.
Milwaukee Brewers: Claudio Vargas is apparently DL-bound after being knocked around for six runs on five hits in two-thirds of an inning against the Giants on Friday, apparently troubled by a sore back. Such an ailment could explain his problems in light of such a favorable matchup on paper, and if he hits the shelf, it's probable Vargas won't be of any help to fantasy owners the rest of the season. Chris Capuano tossed five innings of four-run relief in place of Vargas on Friday, though he's unlikely to get another chance in the rotation, at least not now. Ben Sheets, still working his way back from a sprained finger, is the Brewers' top choice to assume Vargas' rotation spot later in the week, and if he's not ready to pitch, either Manny Parra or Carlos Villanueva should get the call. Sheets should be back with the team in the next week to 10 days, though Parra isn't a bad NL-only consideration, especially since he could earn a spot start or two the remainder of the season. His 3.09 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in eight appearances this season indicate he can be helpful, even coming out of the bullpen.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Nate McLouth sure has been getting into the act for the hot-hitting Pirates this month, batting .284 (27-for-95) with seven homers, 17 RBIs and six stolen bases in 24 games. That has elevated him into near-everyday status in center field; he has 22 starts there in the team's last 25 games. It's his power, though, that has been so surprising. He had never managed better than 12 homers in any of his six previous professional seasons, (and those 12 came in 2001 at Class A Hickory). Still, McLouth has a bit more pop in his bat than the man he has been filling in for, the injured Chris Duffy, who is likely out for the season with a sore shoulder. It's asking a lot for McLouth to maintain his current power pace, though with him seemingly entrenched as the team's leadoff hitter and regular center fielder, there's no reason he couldn't bat .280-plus, score a decent share of runs and be a solid source of stolen bases looking forward.
St. Louis Cardinals: Scott Rolen is finally offering his fantasy owners something a little more respectable of late, with .263/.305/.436 rates and 19 RBIs in 37 games since the All-Star break. Those aren't great numbers, and certainly not up to his usual All-Star levels, but with his Cardinals now back in the thick of the division race, expect him to continue playing through his nagging aches and pains. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Rolen, who had two previous surgeries on his shoulder, is due for another offseason operation to remove scar tissue from the area, which could help explain his disappointing full-season statistics. Another interesting stat from the newspaper report: Since May 22, Rolen is 17-for-43 (.395) with two homers after days off. That backs up the idea that he's playing well below 100 percent health, but it could also identify an interesting matchups consideration for those of you in leagues with daily transactions.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Jose Valverde notched his MLB-leading 40th save Sunday, a remarkable feat for a pitcher who had 33 total from the 2005 All-Star break through the end of the 2006 season. No one should have doubted the right-hander's talent, but his durability had been called into question in the past. He has pitched in 55 games this season, marking just the second time he's logged that many appearances (61 in 2005), and in each of his four previous MLB seasons he also required time at Triple-A Tucson for seasoning. In 2005, Valverde also spent 25 games on the DL with a biceps problem. This season, though, he has answered all the questions about his durability. His ERA has been 2.70 or better in every month except May (5.25), and keep in mind that May number was as high as it is because of a five-run meltdown against the Mets on May 3. In May, Valverde was actually 9-for-10 in save chances. He's clearly erasing that reputation as an injury-prone, inconsistent closer, and while he might always be a small risk in the health department, count on him entering 2008 ranked one of the better fantasy closers out there, and deservedly so.
Colorado Rockies: Willy Taveras (quadriceps) was scheduled to begin a minor league rehabilitation assignment for Triple-A Colorado Springs on Monday, putting him in line to return to the Rockies around the Sept. 1 40-man roster expansion. He should play three games for the Sky Sox, and might be activated Friday, in fact. Ryan Spilborghs has started 16 of the Rockies' past 23 games, 10 of them in center field, though he'll presumably return to his platoon-specialist role once Tavares returns. Spilborghs is a .388/.434/.672 hitter against left-handers this season, meaning he should play regularly against that side, whether spotting in for Taveras or for right fielder Brad Hawpe. He might also provide some needed rest for Taveras against certain left-handers. NL-only owners in need of speed can activate Taveras for next week's games, though Spilborghs should continue to have matchups appeal in NL- and deep-mixed formats when scheduled to face a lefty.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The career of David Wells perseveres once more, as the Dodgers inked the portly left-hander Friday to a contract for the remainder of the season. He notched a win in his Dodgers debut Sunday, limiting the Mets to two runs in five innings of work. With Wells on hand, Brett Tomko was designated for assignment Friday, giving the Dodgers until next Monday to trade, release or assign the right-hander to the minors. Tomko's departure is a bit curious; though he had a 6.57 ERA, 1.66 WHIP and .327 BAA in 18 relief appearances this season, his 3.64/1.25/.246 numbers in 29 games in relief last season suggest he might have been useful in a bullpen role in September. Expect him to catch on elsewhere, not that he's likely to have much fantasy value this season. As for Wells, despite his promising effort Sunday, keep in mind he has 5.46/1.61/.323 numbers in 23 starts this season, averaging only 5.37 innings per start. There might be a useful matchup or two in his future, but don't consider him a great pickup overall.
San Diego Padres: Chris Young missed his scheduled start Sunday after developing tightness in his back during his previous turn Aug. 21. He played catch Saturday, though, and could be able to rejoin the rotation for his next turn, tentatively scheduled for Friday. With Young sidelined, the Padres turned to Tim Stauffer, who was shelled for 11 runs in four innings in a spot start Sunday. Stauffer could get another turn, especially with fifth starter Clay Hensley being demoted to Triple-A Portland on Sunday, but he's hardly a worthy addition for fantasy owners. Don't race to add Padres pitchers as matchups types simply because they're slated to pitch at pitching-friendly Petco Park this week; Stauffer is a poor choice, as are many of the team's alternatives at Portland. Marcus Giles landed on the DL on Sunday after suffering a sprained left knee as a result of a nasty slide by the Phillies' Carlos Ruiz two nights earlier. Fantasy owners won't miss Giles, hitting only .164/.240/.239 in 26 games since the All-Star break, but this could create an interesting NL-only stopgap solution, with Geoff Blum taking over the bulk of Giles' duties. Blum has .292/.351/.404 numbers in 23 games in August and hits right-handers (.263/.337/.374) quite a bit better than Giles did (.224/.295/.307), meaning he's not a bad middle-infield consideration in those formats for the next two weeks.
San Francisco Giants: Brian Wilson, a popular sleeper for saves in the preseason, might be quietly taking over the team's closer duties. Better late than never, eh? Wilson picked up two saves in the past week, and has 8 2/3 scoreless innings, a 0.69 WHIP and .103 BAA in eight appearances since being promoted from Triple-A Fresno on Aug. 11. He hasn't been officially declared the closer, though, and it's important to note that Brad Hennessey has five saves in five chances and a 3.60 ERA in 11 appearances of his own in August. Expect the duo to share the closer duties for the remainder of the season as the Giants evaluate them as candidates for the 2008 role. Wilson is probably a lot better-suited for that spot next season, though he'll have to prove it the rest of this season. NL-only and deep-mixed owners should find value in either reliever, especially noting that the Giants' weak offense means any wins they get will probably be close ones.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.