Commentary

Trust in returning Utley, Drew?

Updated: June 27, 2012, 11:30 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

It is a week of 2012 debuts, and lost in the hubbub of those hotshot rookie prospects -- Trevor Bauer and Anthony Rizzo -- getting promoted are the season debuts of two well-known fantasy veterans: Chase Utley and Stephen Drew, both of whom are expected to be activated from the disabled list on Wednesday.

Hit Parade

But should fantasy owners party like it's 2009?

OK, OK, technically Utley's greatest fantasy season was probably his 2006, when he led the National League in runs scored (131), had his first of two 30/15 seasons and his only year of at least a .300 batting average, 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. Drew, meanwhile, had his best year in 2008, when he batted a career-high .291 (counting only batting title-eligible seasons) and set personal bests in home runs (21), RBIs (67), runs scored (91) and total bases (307).

Fantasy owners are (mostly) realistic, though, and accounting for these players' injury situations on draft day, wouldn't remotely project a return to their career bests. Utley is now 33 years old, Drew 29, after all. More likely, the hope would be that Utley, at least, restores his 2009 value: That was the last time he appeared in at least 150 games, and in that season, Utley topped all second basemen on the Player Rater. Drew's owners might not wish for him to return to 2009 form, when he finished 25th among shortstops; they might merely be hoping for him to repeat his 2010, the last season he appeared in at least 150 games and one during which he earned a No. 7 ranking at his position on the Player Rater.

Utley is certainly the more intriguing fantasy player of the two, and not simply because he's the only one to have topped his position on the Player Rater previously in his career. Much has been made of his Philadelphia Phillies' offensive struggles this season; yet despite all that, the team ranked 12th in the majors in runs per game (4.34), home runs (73) and team OPS (.727) without him. A healthy Utley injects more life into this offense, and if he can quickly work his back into the every-day lineup as well as his former No. 3 lineup spot -- he started there in 88 of his 103 games last season -- there's no question he'd benefit in the counting-number categories (runs scored, RBIs).

Here's the question with Utley, though: How much have his knee issues the past year-plus diminished his physical ability, perhaps preventing him from being that every-day player? Stephania Bell discussed this in detail on Tuesday, a column well worth reading if you're interested in his level of health risk looking forward. As she notes, the Phillies have been cautious with Utley, so his fantasy owners might want to temper their expectations for now, at least until they see him recapturing said every-day heart-of-the-order role. A guess: He might not quite be ready for that until the All-Star break, so don't be too quick to judge.

[+] EnlargeChase Utley
AP Photo/Kathy WillensLast year, Chase Utley didn't start his season until late May.

Statistically speaking, Utley's 2011 might be the proper measure of his fantasy prospects. He batted .195 in his first 11 games fresh off the knee problem and failed to make 10 consecutive starts until a little over a month (approximately six weeks) into his return. He then batted .297/.379/.505 with seven home runs, 30 RBIs and 10 stolen bases from Games 16-65 (a 50-game stretch), before cooling off to the tune of .221/.299/.356 rates in his final 38 contests. This might be what Utley is at age 33: An up-and-down, extract-the-streaks, risk-of-reinjury player whose proper projection in the remaining 86 Phillies games might be 70-75 played, a .270 batting average, 8-10 home runs, healthy counting-number stats (think 30-35 apiece), but perhaps few steals as the team gives him more red lights.

That's very much a top 10-capable fantasy second baseman, albeit one with a steeper downside than most of the names usually in that group. Look at the 2011 numbers of Neil Walker: .273 batting average, 12 homers, 83 RBIs, 9 stolen bases, 76 runs scored, earning him the 10th spot. That seems about right for Utley, perhaps with a bit more power.

Drew, meanwhile, returns 11 months and one week to the day he fractured his right ankle on a slide into home plate, an injury that's even more disconcerting on a rest-of-the-year basis than Utley's. Drew's prognosis was also discussed by Bell on Tuesday; it seems that there's less of a chance he'll quickly recapture every-day at-bats, and his reputation is less of a heart-of-the-order hitter, too.

Drew might have made his most starts as a cleanup hitter last season (54), and he has made 51 percent of his career starts in one of the top two spots in the order. But with the exception of the leadoff spot, where the Arizona Diamondbacks have been using a combination of frozen-cold Chris Young and utilityman extraordinaire Willie Bloomquist, there isn't an obvious top-half-of-the-order spot for a healthy Drew.

Between the prospect of sporadic starts -- think something like five out of seven games in a typical week -- and no guarantee of the leadoff role, Drew might not be the counting-number asset that Utley could be. Here's the other issue: Drew's reputation is considerably higher than his true value, his career-per-162-games averages settling at a .270 batting average, 15 homers, 71 RBIs, 7 steals and 83 runs scored. Now extract only his ages 25-27 seasons -- his theoretical "prime years" -- and scale them to 162: .277-18-72-7-91. These are good numbers for a shortstop, but remember that last season's No. 10 fantasy shortstop (Derek Jeter) managed .297-6-61-16-84 stats in those categories.

Drew does have an advantage Utley does not, though: He remains available in 84.3 percent of ESPN leagues, whereas Utley is out there in only 4.4 percent. Drew might struggle to be much more than a top-20 fantasy shortstop from this point forward, but at least, he bears watching and perhaps stashing in all but the most shallow leagues (if your bench is already packed).

Three up

Will Middlebrooks, Boston Red Sox: It has hardly been ignored in the fantasy-spin portion of the Kevin Youkilis trade aftermath, but simply put, Youkilis' departure is huge news for Middlebrooks. Playing-time math alone supports it: During a 25-game stretch for the Red Sox from May 28 to June 24, Middlebrooks made 15 starts, two late-game defensive substitutions and manned 136 innings at third base, or 60 percent of the team's available innings at the position. Youkilis played the entire remaining 40 percent, making 10 starts. Now, it's Middlebrooks' gig on an every-day basis, meaning perhaps a 150 percent increase in playing time over what we've seen from him in the past month. By the way, even with the rookie's playing time coming sporadically, he was a .357/.415/.625 hitter with four home runs and 16 RBIs in 65 plate appearances during that span. If there's anything to doubt about Middlebrooks' potential the remainder of the year, it's that a player with a 26.3 percent career minor league strikeout rate, 22.5 percent at the Triple-A level and 23.2 percent so far in the majors might be more likely to bat beneath than above .300. But even if he's, say, a .280 hitter with above-average to good power, in a lineup like that, wouldn't he fall into enough runs/RBIs to remain easily in any fantasy lineup for the remainder of the season?

Trevor Plouffe, Minnesota Twins: He continues to crush the ball, batting .333 (28-for-84) with 10 home runs and 19 RBIs in 22 games in the month of June, boosting his full-season pace to 33 homers, and there might yet be reason to believe that he'll get to that number. According to Parker Hageman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Plouffe has made some necessary adjustments to his batting stance and mechanics, which could explain his unexpected power burst. Plouffe's peripherals back it up: In the month of June, his isolated power is .417, up from .162 previously in his big league career (125 games) and .189 during his Triple-A career (337 games); his fly ball rate is 52.4 percent, up from 38.3 percent previously in his big league career; and his well-hit average is .298, up from .207 previously in his big league career. This is not some flash-in-the-pan, couple-week hot spell; this is a player who has made necessary adjustments to improve his performance. And he's a shortstop-third base-outfield eligible player in ESPN leagues with the shortstop eligibility making him particularly attractive long-term.

Colby Rasmus, Toronto Blue Jays: Talk about making adjustments; Rasmus is a .322 hitter (39-for-121) with 11 homers and 29 RBIs in his past 28 games and has made some tweaks that back him up as a potentially legitimate breakout threat. It's all about his approach against breaking pitches, which is something I discussed in the June 6 edition of "Hit Parade." At the time, Rasmus still wasn't hitting curveballs and sliders, as his .182 batting average, 30 percent chase rate (rate of swings at non-strikes) and 35 percent miss rate on swings through May 25 demonstrated. From May 26 forward -- coinciding with those past 28 games of improved play -- he has batted .303 against them, chased 27 percent of them and missed them on 27 percent of his swings. It's improvement … exactly the kind of improvement that should have any fantasy owner warming to him. I said he was a "sell-high" then. I'm less convinced of that today, though I stress it's still a four-and-a-half-week sample of 142 such pitches (34 that ended a plate appearances), meaning this isn't an "all-in" investment. If that's changing my stance too quickly, I'd reply: Shouldn't anyone change his stance when the player has made a sudden, and unexpected, skills improvement?

Three down

Adam Dunn, Chicago White Sox: I'll state it up front, this might be nitpicking. But with Dunn, who had one of the worst seasons in fantasy baseball history in 2011, even the shortest of short-term cold spells spawns worry. He's 3-for-36 (.083 AVG) with zero extra-base hits and 21 strikeouts -- that is a 47.7 percent K rate -- in his past 10 games, and during that time, he's showing some of the same troubling signs he did during his awful 2011: He's 0-for-15 with 12 K's versus left-handers, which, by the way, now makes him a .157/.283/.416 hitter with a 46.2 percent K rate against that side for the season; he is 1-for-10 when a plate appearance ends on a pitch up in the zone, missing on nine of his 15 swings against them; and he has missed 10 times on 20 swings against pitches clocked 93 mph or higher, the aspect of his game in which he had showed the most improvement previously this season. Again, it's a small sample, and it might be nitpicking. But here's a fair inquiry: What if Dunn entered 2012 refreshed from the winter, yet in truth, he's indeed in career decline and merely running out of fuel in the tank? Fantasy owners in on-base percentage leagues have less to fret, and Dunn might still have some homers to offer his traditional Rotisserie owners. But he's on pace for an astonishing, all-time record 265 strikeouts, his .208 batting average judged the 11th-worst performance in the category in fantasy per our Player Rater (that includes qualifiers, non-qualifiers, whatever). I think it's an ideal time to cash in your chips and get the best return you can for the guy.

Justin Morneau, Minnesota Twins: His health, as well as poor second-half, histories are the factors most responsible for his removal from this week's Top 125, but even if you're on the Morneau-for-the-short-term bandwagon, you've got good reason for doubt. After returning from a wrist injury in mid-May, he belted five home runs in his first 10 games. In 25 contests since, however, he has but one homer and .206/.284/.309 triple-slash rates. For the season, Morneau's swing-and-miss rate is much higher (25 percent) than it was in either 2009 (22 percent), 2010 (21 percent) or 2011 (19 percent), and he came to the plate more in each of those years than so far in this one. He has also become an instant out against left-handed pitching, which caps his value in a way that didn't during his prime; he's a .087/.135/.188 hitter with a 29.7 percent strikeout rate against that side this season. There might yet be more value to squeeze out of Morneau, but it'd likely be short-lived and difficult to predict when. And considering he has a lifetime OPS nearly 100 points lower after the All-Star break (.786) than before it (.885), it's not necessarily worth waiting it out.

Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals: The poster boy for struggling stars profiled in last week's "Hit Parade," Zimmerman had his best game all season on Tuesday, going 3-for-5 with one double and home run. But let's toss some cold water on that hot performance, shall we? It came at Coors Field, where he's now a lifetime .375/.429/.656 hitter in 24 games, and it came on the heels of a week that did nothing but diminish his rest-of-the-year fantasy outlook. Even with that big game, Zimmerman batted .250 (7-for-28) with the lone home run in the seven days since last week's column, and worse, he admitted during the weekend that his shoulder, which cost him a DL stint earlier in the season, indeed is not 100 percent, opening up the possibility of a return there. A cortisone shot on Sunday could help him get to the All-Star break, during which time he'd have another three days' rest, per the Washington Times, but at this point, his fantasy owners might want to consider the prospect that a DL stint might be best for all. It could provide the necessary rest for him to return at full form after the All-Star break; if he presses through, the chances that his struggles continue all year are greater.

New position eligibility

The following players have become eligible at new positions -- it's 10 games to qualify at a new spot -- in ESPN standard leagues during the past week: Taylor Green (3B), Jeff Keppinger (3B), Jose Lopez (1B), Michael Martinez (2B), Luis Valbuena (3B).

Nearing new position eligibility

The following players are on track to earn new eligibility in the coming weeks: Wilson Betemit (8 games played at 1B), Billy Butler (9 games played at 1B), Steve Clevenger (8 games played at 1B), Chris Davis (8 games played at OF), Matt Downs (8 games played at 3B), Maicer Izturis (9 games played at SS), Elliot Johnson (9 games played at 2B), Hector Luna (9 games played at 1B), Buster Posey (8 games played at 1B), Kyle Seager (9 games played at 2B), Mark Trumbo (8 games played at 3B), Justin Turner (8 games played at 1B, 8 games played at SS).

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