The Big Rotowski: Players in danger of losing jobs
Homer Simpson has job security.
I mean, no matter what that dude does as an inspector at that nuclear power plant, no matter how many half-brained careers he stops and starts in place of his safety stewardship of Sector 7-G, no matter how many diatribes the now-departed Frank Grimes launched against him, Homer just keeps on truckin'.
By contrast, Jorge Cantu is a benched man walking.
The current Marlins third baseman is off to a slow start -- 7-for-29, one double, one stolen base, no walks and six strikeouts -- and his team is amassing an army of potential replacements who'll be ready to storm the hot corner at Dolphin Stadium at a moment's notice. Dallas McPherson is at Triple-A Albuquerque and hit a round-tripper for the third straight day Sunday. Wes Helms just came over from the Phillies for cash considerations. Alfredo Amezaga is still around. Even Cantu's owners in NL-only leagues need to be highly suspicious of a player who will almost assuredly provide the opposite of Homer-esque occupational durability.
Who else looks likely to lose his full-time job at some point in 2008? Here are seven players likely to ride pine, and the folks who might replace them. For the sake of discussion, I'm going to leave out protracted discussion of the closers I think won't make it through the season. Suffice it to say that Brandon Lyon owners should be looking hard at Tony Pena right now, and Eric Gagne and Kerry Wood owners shouldn't believe they're out of the woods just yet. (These players are listed in the order of their ownership in ESPN.com games.)
So far, Duncan has played the field only once because of a bad hamstring, but that's not what I think could cause him to lose his full-time gig. Rather, I worry about his inability to hit lefties. In his career against southpaws, his batting average is .208 and his OPS is .627. Of his 44 career homers, four have come against lefties. This is not good. Presumptive right fielder Skip Schumaker got off to a bad first week, which probably makes him a better candidate to ride pine than Duncan, but given the presence of Rule 5 pick Brian Barton and prospect Colby Rasmus, who's currently at Triple-A, there's no guarantee either Duncan or Schumaker will be full-time players all season.
2. Jack Cust, OF, Athletics (owned in 29.9 percent of ESPN leagues)
His contact problems will be his undoing. Last season, he missed one-third of the times he swung, which is awful and presages a bad batting average. I expect him to be in the mid-.230s, which first of all means that whatever homers he gives you are offset by his killing average, so he's only ownable in AL-only leagues (and only then for teams that have a few .300 hitters). But I also think eventually it means the rebuilding A's come to their senses and get Carlos Gonzalez into the outfield on a semipermanent basis. That will affect the playing times of Cust, Emil Brown and Mike Sweeney. Billy Beane can't seriously believe that any of those three players will be around by the time the A's are ready to be competitive again.
3. Mark DeRosa, 2B, Cubs (owned in 19.2 percent of ESPN leagues)
I don't mean to pick on the plucky DeRosa, who's had all kinds of medical woes this spring, but it sure sounds like the Cubbies wanted Brian Roberts, doesn't it? Like Oakland, Baltimore has basically come out and admitted it isn't trying to compete in '08, so Roberts, who'll be a free agent in '09, makes no sense for them. He'll be traded by August, and my money's still on the Cubs as a primary suitor. DeRosa's off to a swell start, but this team believes it can win the NL pennant. If Alfonso Soriano isn't going to run like he used to, they could really use a top-of-the-order catalyst, and Roberts fills that bill.
This entry is really meant for both Hairston and Jim Edmonds. One of those guys ain't makin' it, because Chase Headley showed he's ready to hit major league pitching this spring. Third base is Headley's natural position, and he's a better fielding prospect than Kevin Kouzmanoff, but the Crushin' Russian is staying put. So Headley has to learn left field in the minors. Once that happens, he'll be on the big club. Because Edmonds is making $8 million, you'd have to believe Hairston will be the odd man out in left field once Headley arrives, with the caveat that if and when Edmonds gets hurt again, Hairston will move to center. The story here, though, is that Headley will be eminently rosterable once he ascends.
5. Livan Hernandez, SP, Twins. (owned in 11.0 percent of ESPN leagues)
First of all, good for all of you owners out there for not leaping at Livan's first two wins. It's hard to imagine an Opening Day starter who's 2-0 with a 3.86 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP being owned in such a small percentage of leagues, but that's as it should be: Hernandez is a time bomb. Even in his two effective starts, he only has three strikeouts, and we all can see what's coming: Livan will reassume his 1.60-WHIP-like ways once the league gets a look at him. Plus, let's remember that before last year's mess in Arizona, Hernandez hadn't pitched a full season without injury since '05. Philip Humber was strong this spring, and he'll make an interesting call-up come July or August; if it's not Humber, the Twins certainly don't lack for pitching prospects who could take Hernandez's place.
6. Dave Bush, SP, Brewers (owned in 4.7 percent of ESPN leagues)
Bush has already fallen pretty far in most fantasy estimations, thanks to his 5.12 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in '07. He was dreadful his first time out (5 1/3 IP, 6 R, 6 H, 6 BB), and if that continues, the Brewers can't have a ton of patience with him. Carlos Villanueva and Manny Parra were good most of the spring and are off to nice beginnings, and Yovani Gallardo should return in a week or two. Either Villanueva or Parra is likely to get the heave-ho from the rotation in April, but if Bush doesn't get his act together, Ned Yost will make a move.
7. Juan Uribe, 2B, White Sox (owned in 0.9 percent of ESPN leagues)
Uribe obviously isn't owned in enough fantasy leagues to make his prospective benching a real story, but if it happens, it would be news for Alexei Ramirez. If Uribe and his lifetime .295 OBP get pulled, Ramirez probably gets the second-base job, which would make him a very nice sleeper in a lot of leagues. It's also worth noting that while Jerry Owens was out with a bad groin, it was assumed Ramirez would play center field in his place, but instead Nick Swisher has moved there, giving Carlos Quentin a chance to shine (seven RBIs in four games) in left. If Owens can't get healthy or can't get on base enough, Quentin would benefit (and the fact that Ramirez might be out of the way, playing second, wouldn't hurt either).
Finally, here are a few lesser-owned players whose replacements could nonetheless be important for fantasy purposes:
• Willy Aybar, 3B, Rays: Despite Evan Longoria's quiet start at Triple-A, I still think it's just a matter of time (and arbitration eligibility) before he gets his call-up.
• Esteban Loaiza, SP, Dodgers: As of this writing, Loaiza was due to get his first start Monday as the Dodgers' fifth rotation man. But Jason Schmidt is a couple of weeks from a rehab assignment, and phenom Clayton Kershaw wowed Joe Torre this spring. One of those guys will replace Loiaza.
• Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis, SS, Angels: Brandon Wood can hit. He just hasn't proven it in the majors yet. He's at Triple-A relearning how to play shortstop. I still think he'll be up this season.
• Dana Eveland, SP, Athletics: Sure, he was terrific for one start. But the hefty lefty has a history of control problems, and Gio Gonzalez is waiting in the wings.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.