- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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Here's what I'm seeing around the league:
• Kelvim Escobar probably won't start throwing until the second or third week of March, according to the Los Angeles Times, which means the Angels likely plan on keeping him out until at least May. Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana, who were set to battle for the final rotation spot, both should have starting slots for at least a month, whereupon the less productive of the duo will either hit the bullpen or the minors. Escobar definitely needs to drop on your cheat sheet, although Escobar owners usually plan for him to miss time anyway. And let's remember that five months of Escobar still beats six months of a lot of pitchers. Of course, there's no saying he won't miss more time even after he comes back. Counting on him for five months -- and drafting him as such -- is a gamble.
• The Associated Press reports that rookie J.R. Towles will begin the season as Houston's starting catcher, replacing Brad Ausmus. That's huge news for one of the National League's two prospective starting rookie catchers (the other is the Cubs' Geovany Soto). You still need to tread lightly, because the number of rookie backstops who've made significant fantasy impacts in the last decade can be counted on one hand. But Towles is an intriguing pick in mixed two-catcher leagues and NL-only leagues.
• The Chicago Tribune reports that Lou Piniella has penciled Kosuke Fukudome into the fifth spot of the Cubs' lineup, behind Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Theriot, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. That certainly is subject to change if Chicago is able to complete the long-rumored deal for Brian Roberts. Seeing as it's still only the middle of February, this news should be taken with a grain of salt. But it's interesting nonetheless. Fukudome is a sleeper in mixed leagues, but he's not a particularly powerful hitter. He had two 30-plus-homer seasons in Japan but usually tracked around 20, and he made his bones with an OBP better than .430 the last three seasons (he also had more walks than strikeouts in '07). My thought is Sweet Lou will see Fukudome nickel-and-dime from the five-hole and wind up moving him up to the two-spot, my colleague A.J. Mass speculated yesterday. Theriot might be a candidate to drop in the order, especially if Felix Pie proves capable of middle-of-the-lineup production.
• The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Jason Isringhausen isn't likely to pitch in many games this spring, as the Cardinals try to keep their closer fresh. Instead, Izzy will focus on his stamina in batting practice and off-field workouts. So don't be concerned if you don't see him throwing in games.
• The Post-Dispatch also reports that the Cardinals will "take it slow" with Albert Pujols this spring. Pujols has a ligament problem in his elbow, and hauntingly told reporters, "If it blows out, it's going to blow out." Eek. That's not exactly the kind of talk you want surrounding your first-round pick. Talk about boom or bust. At this point, you must seriously consider whether taking Pujols as your first-rounder is worth the risk.
• Josh Fields has the inside track on the White Sox third base job, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The paper quoted Ozzie Guillen as saying, "I don't know exactly where Joe Crede is health-wise. I don't know what Joe can do for me." Several news outlets have reported that the Sox will trade Crede if he proves his back is healthy in spring training -- the San Jose Mercury News has reported that Crede could go to San Francisco for Noah Lowry -- so one wonders why Guillen would be stoking the embers of doubt just now. Regardless, Fields is sounding more and more like Chicago's guy and his 23 homers in 100 big-league games last year indicate his power potential is real. Of course, he hit only .213 against righties in that span, which gives me pause in recommending him whole-hog.
• Because Nelson Cruz and Jason Botts are out of minor-league options, recently signed Kevin Mench is very unlikely to make the Rangers' Opening Day roster, according to The Dallas Morning News. Mench reportedly has a clause in his contract that forces him to play in the minors for two months if he doesn't make the team.
• As reported on ESPN.com's Spring Training blog, Francisco Rodriguez will report a day or two late to Angels camp, not supposedly because of disgruntlement over his pending arbitration hearing, but rather because of a "personal problem." The Angels have offered K-Rod $10 million for the upcoming season, while the pitcher wants $12.5 million, the year's highest requested price tag among all arbitration cases. Rodriguez certainly will be one of the elite closers in '08, but his fantasy owners can't be too psyched about K-Rod and the Angels struggling to hammer out a longer-term deal. This is Rodriguez's final year of arbitration and we all know bad feelings can fester in a contract year. In a lesser organization, K-Rod's long-term value would certainly suffer at least a bit.
• Mark Prior threw well on Saturday, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune, but probably won't face live hitting until mid-March. That certainly puts a damper on enthusiasm that Prior could be a fantasy threat at the back end of the Padres' rotation, and you'd have to assume he won't pitch in the majors until May, at the earliest. Justin Germano, Glendon Rusch, Wilfredo Ledezma, Clay Hensley, Justin Hampson and Shawn Estes have all been mentioned as fifth-starter possibilities, and, of course, Randy Wolf is no guarantee to remain healthy as the No. 4.
• The San Jose Mercury News reports that the plethora of mediocre players in the Giants' outfield is almost entirely out of options.Fred Lewis, Dan Ortmeier and Rajai Davis would all have to clear waivers in order to be sent back to the minors, and the Giants seem unlikely to take that chance. What does it mean? First off, Nate Schierholtz fans probably will have to wait a while longer, because Schierholtz does have options. The former second-rounder likely will start the year at Triple-A after his excellent Arizona Fall League performance (.348/.363/.596). Unless San Francisco is wedded to 36-year-old walking disaster area Rich Aurilia playing a lot (and they shouldn't be), Ortmeier could be the team's starting first baseman (blech!), with the speedy Davis backing up brittle Dave Roberts and Lewis playing behind Aaron Rowand in center.
• Miguel Montero is recovering from an index finger he broke playing winter ball, according to The Arizona Republic, but he should be able to take batting practice in two weeks. Chris Snyder had a more valuable season behind the plate for the Diamondbacks (.252/13/47) during 2007, but Montero (.224/10/37) still figures to steal enough playing time to be annoying to fantasy owners. Snyder struggled big-time against righties during '07 (.215 AVG, .698 OPS), which could mean a healthy Montero might still get two or three starts a week right out of the gate, with the opening for even more playing time if he excels.
• The New York Daily News reports that Carlos Beltran isn't "where [he] want(s) to be" when it comes to his surgically repaired knee. He probably won't play in the Mets' first few exhibition games, but Beltran did say he still expects to be ready for Opening Day.
• Shawn Hill told The Washington Post that he expects to be able to throw without restriction as Nationals camp opens. During 2007, Hill showed flashes of the sinker/off-speed stuff that hitters pound into the ground, but he couldn't stay healthy, eventually requiring forearm surgery (and surgery on his non-throwing shoulder). Hill and John Patterson are massive fantasy teases, guys you probably can't draft in mixed leagues, but pitchers who have a chance to be factors as free-agent acquisitions (or late-round gambits). For his part, Hill has never made more than 20 starts in a single season over the last four years, while Patterson has made just 15 combined big-league starts the last two seasons.
• More Nats news! The Post also reports that manager Manny Acta has installed Cristian Guzman as his starting shortstop and Ronnie Belliard as his starting second baseman but that Felipe Lopez will be given a chance to win either job. Fantasy owners must hope that Lopez gets in the mix, and soon, because the other two guys don't have much value. Lopez at least has speed.
• The Boston Herald reports that Kyle Snyder has been told he'll be involved in an open competition for the Red Sox's fifth starter job. That contest will include favorite Clay Buchholz and Julian Tavarez. However, I'm trying to envision a scenario in which Snyder makes this rotation, and outside of some kind of meteor strike, this gig is still coming down to Buchholz (if the kid pitches acceptably well in the spring) or Tavarez (if Buchholz needs more time at Triple-A).
• According to The Arizona Republic, the experiment that might've seen Micah Owings play some first base this year seems to have been scrapped before it ever began. There's currently no plan for the hard-hitting Owings to take grounders at first. The second-year hurler, who won the NL's Silver Slugger Award last season, will be the Diamondbacks' fifth starter.
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.