The replacement game is a tough one to win.
It's a question frequently posed in my chats -- "Who do I sign to replace so-and-so injured superstar?" -- and it's not one easily answered, certainly not within the limited amount of time we have to answer chat questions. Finding suitable short-term replacements is a complicated exercise, requires careful consideration of a wide range of candidates deep down the free-agent list, and warrants more than a flippant, couple-words-long remark.
This season, one in which a slew of All-Star-caliber talent currently resides on the disabled list, that's even more true than it usually is. Scrolling big league DLs, I can comprise an entire All-Star team of injured players:
C: Joe Mauer (average draft position: 25.7, No. 92 on 2010 Player Rater, 17 in 2009)
1B: Kendrys Morales (ADP: 83.6, No. 46 on 2009 PR)
2B: Chase Utley (ADP: 65.8, No. 25 on 2009 PR)
3B: Ryan Zimmerman (ADP: 22.4, No. 55 on 2010 PR)
SS: Rafael Furcal (ADP: 141.0, No. 129 on 2010 PR)
OF: Josh Hamilton (ADP: 18.5, No. 6 on 2010 PR)
OF: Nelson Cruz (ADP: 27.0, No. 54 on 2010 PR)
OF: Delmon Young (ADP: 87.5, No. 56 on 2010 PR)
More notables: 3B Pablo Sandoval (ADP: 110.6, No. 51 on 2009 PR), OF Vernon Wells (ADP: 129.4, No. 81 on 2010 PR)
Naturally, when you lose a player like one of the ones above, your immediate reaction might be to acquire his real-life replacement. Fantasy owners understandably gravitate toward that strategy; perhaps we do it because that's the obvious choice in many situations in fantasy sports: grabbing the replacement closer, signing the replacement running back or adding the replacement goaltender. In deeper leagues -- AL- and NL-only in particular -- that's often the only choice, being that playing time is so critical in those formats.
But real-life subs aren't always the answer. Sometimes, the proper response is to grab a player from some other team, one who has been overlooked, one who might be quite a bit more talented, one who might even serve you some purpose even after your injured superstar returns. (To put that another way, if David Wright were to get hurt, are you really going to race to the waiver wire to sign someone like Chin-Lung Hu or Justin Turner?)
This is where today's "Hit Parade" comes in.
Granted the space to provide an in-depth analysis of fill-in candidates, let's take a look at some of my favorite picks, players who could be as valuable as short-term options as they are speculative long-term adds even for teams with no injuries at all. These are players available in at least 75 percent of ESPN standard leagues. Since we went "All-Star team" format for the injured players, it only makes sense to pick this as an "All-Star team" of subs:
Catcher: Chris Iannetta, Colorado Rockies (14.1 percent owned). I'm of the mind that catchers endure loooooooooooong career adjustment periods -- hello, Matt Wieters -- and Iannetta's sure has been lengthy, six seasons and counting. Two glimmers of hope, however: He has a 19.4 percent walk rate and 9.6 percent swing-and-miss rate (per FanGraphs), so perhaps he's beginning to figure out this whole, newfangled "plate discipline" thing. I love his power potential and would start him every time the Rockies played a home game. Even deeper: Hank Conger (0.9) and David Ross (0.1).
First base: Mark Trumbo, Los Angeles Angels (16.5 percent owned). He hasn't stopped hitting since spring training opened, and Kendrys Morales' injury issues scare me to death. (I seriously considered dropping Morales from my top 125 entirely.) Exploiting Trumbo's matchups versus lefties -- .353/.389/.676 rates against them -- is smart, and I'm not so sure those at-bats will go away even after the Angels get both Morales and Vernon Wells back. Even deeper: Brandon Belt (2.5) -- I bet he's recalled soon -- and Casey Kotchman (0.2).
Second base: Scott Sizemore, Detroit Tigers (6.3 percent owned). Second base is where the pickings get slimmer, but Sizemore, a once-top prospect who struggled during his rookie 2010, was off to a tremendous start for Triple-A Toledo, batting .408/.495/.605 before his recall. That brings his career Triple-A rates to .315/.392/.487 in 170 games, and here's what I wonder: What if the broken ankle he suffered during the 2009 Arizona Fall League was mostly responsible for his slow start last season? I'll take that chance, at least on a short-term basis. Even deeper: Daniel Murphy (4.4).
Third base: Mike Fontenot, San Francisco Giants (4.9 percent owned). If you own Sandoval, Fontenot is an obvious choice, and I've been suggesting Fontenot as a sub for those in deeper leagues for a couple of weeks now. This doesn't mean Fontenot is exciting; he's a "sub" through and through, the kind of guy who won't hurt you in the short term and might even chip in a counting number or two. Look at his track record: He was a .291/.366/.437 lifetime minor league hitter and has batted .273 in 130 games between this and last season. What's so bad about that? Even deeper: Greg Dobbs (2.2) and Daniel Descalso (0.1).
TOP 125 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 125 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Shortstop: Cliff Pennington, Oakland Athletics (0.7 percent owned). Yes, it gets this bad at shortstop. It's a dry, crusty landscape, a desert sans oases, so understand that "replacement level" means an entirely different thing at this position than, say, even catcher. Pennington is here because of his stolen-base potential; though he has been caught (5) more often than successfully stolen (4) so far, he was 29-for-34 in that department in 2010. You could do a lot worse from a fill-in. Even deeper: Jerry Hairston Jr. (0.0).
Outfield: Josh Willingham, Oakland Athletics (10.5 percent owned). I was shocked to learn he was available in that many ESPN leagues, because Willingham, always known for his power, is on pace for 26 homers and 96 RBIs. In his career, he has averaged 25 homers and 83 RBIs per 162 games played, and the primary knock against him is that he gets hurt a lot. He's healthy now, so why isn't he owned in more leagues?
Outfield: Julio Borbon, Texas Rangers (21.8 percent owned). He's an ideal target for those seeking stolen bases, and fits the "sub" description because he's playing every day while Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton are out. Borbon is terribly streaky -- he batted .179/.250/.282 in his first 15 games -- but judging from his May returns (.367/.367/.467 in nine games), it seems that regular at-bats have done him some good.
Outfield: Roger Bernadina, Washington Nationals (0.2 percent owned). I'm a fan, I was during spring training and I've said on these pages before that I thought it was foolish for the Washington Nationals to demote him at the conclusion of spring training. Bernadina showed us last season that he has some pop (11 homers in 358 at-bats) and can steal a base (16 in 18 tries). With Rick Ankiel hurt and Michael Morse off to a poor start, everyday at-bats are his for the taking. Even deeper: Domonic Brown (3.3) -- he's raking in Triple-A -- and Eric Hinske (0.2).
Rajai Davis, Toronto Blue Jays: He was profiled in the April 20 "Hit Parade," classified an excellent buy-low despite at that time residing on the disabled list with an ankle injury. Davis remains a buy-low in the event his owners are concerned about either his .231/.286/.333 offensive rates in 10 games since activation, or the fact that he has been recently dropped from the leadoff to No. 9 spot in the Blue Jays' lineup. Frankly, this is a player in whom you invest for stolen bases first and foremost, and during that 10-game span, Davis has eight steals in 10 tries, a remarkable amount for this era. That April 20 column discussed the Blue Jays' new "run, run, run" strategy, and Davis benefits from it more than anyone: He has attempted steals on 63.2 percent of his opportunities (those opportunities as judged by Baseball-Reference.com), compared to 33.2 percent entering 2011, and his Blue Jays as a team have attempted steals a major league-leading 10.6 percent of the time. Davis could steal you 50 bases … from this point forward.
Chase Utley, Philadelphia Phillies: Baby steps, yes, but Utley's 1-for-4 performance during his first minor league rehabilitation game with Class A Clearwater on Tuesday represents perhaps his most significant such step in his comeback from a knee injury. Remember, it wasn't too long ago his entire season was threatened; at the same time, let's not forget that it might take but one significant setback for him to succumb to season-ending surgery. Utley can be afforded 20 days' rehab per baseball rules, so the Phillies will face a decision on him by Memorial Day. Following that timetable, he could offer his patient owners four full months of production, and potential top-five second baseman production at that. And it's that upside alone that's responsible for vaulting him from off last week's ranks to a generous No. 80 ranking this week.
Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia Phillies: Sensing a Phillies middle-infielder theme this week? It's purely coincidental, as at the same time Utley has made considerable progress in his rehabilitation, Rollins finds himself in the midst of a 16-game hot streak during which he has .328/.434/.469 offensive rates, four stolen bases and 13 runs scored. It's his base stealing that most warrants our attention. After looking slower on the base paths the past couple of seasons -- he attempted steals 15.7 percent of the time in 2009 and a career-low 12.2 percent last year -- his number in that category has swelled to 17.0 percent so far in 2011, right in line with his 16.3 career rate. Maybe it's a philosophical shift by the Phillies, who have needed to be more creative this season to make up for a somewhat diminished offensive attack, and if so, Rollins would be the clear benefactor. It'd certainly help alleviate concerns that his career is headed in the wrong direction.
Sam Fuld, Tampa Bay Rays: A slump was bound to happen, as he wasn't about to be a batting-title contender forever. Still, who could have expected the kind of cold spell Fuld has slipped into the past three weeks? Beginning with a four-strikeout game -- the "Golden Sombrero" -- on April 24, Fuld has batted .071/.148/.125 in his past 13 games, his on-base percentage so poor that he hasn't even attempted a stolen base during that time. Steals, plus decent on-base ability, were the primary reasons you added Fuld, but he has quickly become a popular drop due to his slump. Defense is his one saving grace right now -- he's third among left fielders in UZR/150 (25.7) per FanGraphs -- but that means nothing to those in the vast majority of fantasy leagues. And with Desmond Jennings enjoying a .297/.417/.449 start in Triple-A, Fuld's job might soon be in jeopardy.
Justin Morneau, Minnesota Twins: That's two weeks in a row for Morneau in "Three down," but he deserves it, after going 4-for-25 (.160 AVG) with zero extra-base hits and six strikeouts in six games since last week's column. Most distressingly, to date, he's on pace to set career lows in several troubling peripheral categories: walk rate (6.8 percent), isolated power (.083), line-drive rate (15.4 percent) and infield popup rate (14.6 percent), per FanGraphs. The pop-ups are distressing, as is this: According to Inside Edge, he's a .179/.281/.232 hitter against fastballs so far, after batting .303, .249, .301 and .278 against that particular pitch in each of the past four seasons working backwards. He's also a .235/.235/.353 hitter against curveballs, after .389, .287, .360 and .372 the past four years. Clearly there is something wrong with Morneau, and in a standard ESPN league, it's understandable now if you've reached the drop point with him. He doesn't belong in any lineup in any league right now, and a comeback doesn't seem imminent.
Jose Tabata, Pittsburgh Pirates: So much for the white-hot start. Tabata, who had back-to-back homer-and-steal games April 8-9 as well as a four-hit effort on April 15, has since run ice cold: He's a .115/.203/.154 hitter who is 1-for-2 stealing bases in his past 16 games. Right-handers have been especially problematic for him this season, limiting him to .209/.298/.308 rates; per Inside Edge, he struggles with inside stuff, batting .207 on high-and-inside and .250 on low-and-inside offerings; and per FanGraphs he has hit ground balls on 96.4 percent of his batted balls that he has hit to the left side. I'm merely theorizing, but perhaps opponents have found a hole to exploit with Tabata: Bust him inside and hope he pulls a weak grounder. His slump looks like a classic "adjustment period" any way you evaluate it, so be patient, but understand this might not be an overnight thing.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.