Commentary

Finding the next Ben Zobrist

Baker, Diaz, Willingham among reserves deserving of more playing time

Updated: July 6, 2009, 2:30 PM ET
By Eric Karabell | ESPN.com

Leading Off

Judging by the fact that his name leads our most-dropped list, I'd say those who owned Juan Pierre pretty much read the situation correctly. Manny Ramirez returned to the Dodgers this past weekend, meaning Pierre's run as a somewhat effective leadoff hitter for baseball's top team was over.

We know what Juan Pierre can do. He sometimes gets on a base at a decent clip, steals bases and occasionally scores runs. He didn't do two of those things very well in June, but only two players stole more bases, so in the fantasy world we see e-mails from Pierre owners across each league begging someone to take him in trade. He's really not that good! Look at his June! Anyway, now he's on the L.A. bench, clamoring to play again, when he really doesn't deserve it for his current team. I suppose there are worse every-day outfielders in the bigs today, but that doesn't make it right.

However, there are quite a few players in the game today who aren't getting much of a chance to play, and I maintain some of these players could make a fantasy impact and have some upside. The point is we just don't know. Pierre made an impact when he was playing, probably not as much of one as most think, but he still made his mark.

Some of these players are reserves for a reason. Their clubs might not have room for them as starters, like Pierre in Los Angeles, or maybe these players would be overwhelmed if they suddenly received more at-bats. It's tough to tell. Two years ago, Ryan Ludwick did well in half a season, then last season he was a power monster. Now he's pretty average again. Ben Zobrist has blossomed this season after a few years of being a utility guy, and he's one of only five players with an OPS over 1.000. That's incredible! Then again, everyone wanted to see Emilio Bonifacio play regularly when he started this year on fire, and we've seen in 10 weeks since he's just not that special.

Anyway, here are some players I'd like to see get more run, because they've made an impression on me when they've received opportunities. Certainly there are others you might want to see play as well. I don't want to include obvious top prospects like Mat Gamel and Matt LaPorta, because they're obvious and don't really fit with this group. And yes, this is probably more for deeper league owners, but then again, production is production.

Ryan Hanigan, C, Reds: He has more at-bats than most backup catchers, since Ramon Hernandez played a lot of first base when Joey Votto was out, and look how well Hanigan did. He's hitting .338 and has terrific strike zone awareness, having walked 22 times against 12 strikeouts. The right-handed Hanigan hasn't showed power at any level, ever, so it's unlikely he'd be a double-digit power provider if he got regular time, but I would think most of us would be interested in a catcher who can hit .300. Despite hitting one home run all season, Hanigan ranks fifth among all catchers with a minimum 150 plate appearances in OPS. There's value in that.

Matt Diaz
AP Photo/Nick WassMatt Diaz is hitting .357 against lefties, but three of his four homers have come against righties.

Matt Diaz, OF, Braves: I've rarely understood why Diaz hasn't gotten a chance to be the Braves' every-day left fielder. Sure, the guy can rake left-handed pitching, but it's not like he's miserable against right-handers. In 2007, Diaz batted .338 with 12 home runs, and he did hit .318 against right-handed pitching that season. So far in 2009, Diaz has hit three of his four home runs against right-handers, with a .274 batting average, and an OPS more than 100 points greater than Garret Anderson from both sides of the plate! Why was Anderson signed? Well, I understand every team needs depth, but Diaz is flat-out better than Anderson and Jeff Francoeur. Lately, Bobby Cox has seemed to notice, sitting his every-day right-field outmaker. Give Diaz 500 at-bats and I think he'd flirt with 20 home runs and still hit .300.

Jeff Baker, 1B/2B, Cubs: Just acquired from the Rockies when they didn't need him anymore, Baker could absolutely become the latest version of Mark DeRosa if Lou Piniella uses him correctly. I would think Baker would play quite a bit at second base, and while he's not Ryne Sandberg by any means, he does have some pop. Baker hit 12 home runs in 333 plate appearances a season ago, and while a few of those trends aren't promising -- he was far better versus lefties, and not very good away from Coors Field -- that doesn't presume he can't hit right-handed pitching in parks outside of Denver. A year ago we all wanted to see Mike Fontenot play more; this season he has, and it hasn't gone so well. Let's see what Baker can do with regular playing time.

Jayson Nix, 2B, White Sox: This scrappy fellow has showed very little at the major league level, but I followed him through the minors when he flashed a nice combination of 20/20 power and speed, and when he made the U.S. Olympic team. I don't think we can assume his .189 major league batting average is the real deal, not yet; certainly it doesn't mean he can't play. In barely 100 plate appearances with Ozzie Guillen's crew, Nix has hit six home runs, and until this weekend was slugging better than .500. I'm not saying he's the next Zobrist, but he's also shown that type of ability, and he certainly has more pop than Chris Getz.

Seth Smith and Matt Murton, OF, Rockies: Smith got the start in left field Sunday, and did nothing with the chance, but overall this season he's drawn more walks than he's fanned and he's flashed power. He profiles as a .300 hitter with a high on-base percentage, and enough home runs to be worthy of fantasy attention, maybe up to 20. Overmatched center fielder Dexter Fowler hit .244 in June, after batting .237 in May. He needs more time in the minors. The Rockies should play Smith regularly in left field, and Ryan Spilborghs in center. As for Murton, fantasy owners have been down his road before, and he's rarely come through, but look what he's doing at Triple-A Colorado Springs: A recent cold streak lowered his batting average below .400, but he's still sporting an OPS over 1.000 and he's walked more than he's struck out. I always thought Murton got a raw deal with the Cubs a few years ago. He batted .297 in more than 500 plate appearances as a 24-year-old in 2006, and he had power potential. Surely some team could use a guy like this.

Brandon Wood, SS/3B, Angels: I'll keep this short, because I've written about this situation a few times and it's mystifying, but Wood is now hitting .312 at Triple-A Salt Lake with a .585 slugging percentage. He's ready. I don't think there's any question he'd help the Angels.

Willy Aybar
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesWilly Aybar has hit 17 homers over the past season and a half for the Rays in part-time action.

Willy Aybar, 2B/3B, Rays: Maybe he's the next Zobrist, eh? Aybar smacked 10 home runs last season in limited work, and he's already at seven this year. He's a switch-hitter who doesn't have a major platoon split. He just needs a chance. I'd keep an eye on Pat Burrell, hitting .095 over the past week. Aybar might be able to help the Rays more offensively if his struggles continue.

Josh Willingham, OF, Nationals: He's third on the team in home runs, and his biggest problem until recently was his own health. Of course, he also has to deal with a crowded outfield and an organization that rarely knows what it's doing. Presumably Elijah Dukes will return from Triple-A Syracuse to play a corner outfield spot, because overrated Nyjer Morgan is manning center field. Willingham hit 26 home runs with Florida in 2006, and hasn't been back to that number since, but if the Nationals would just play him every day, he'd probably make a run at that. Willingham is available in more than 97 percent of ESPN leagues.

Mike Carp, 1B, Mariners: OK, so Russell Branyan is on pace for 40 home runs and a .300 batting average, but why can't Big Russ play third base now that Adrian Beltre is on the shelf? Or why can't he be the designated hitter? Carp, acquired in the J.J. Putz haul from the Mets, is hitting .298 at Triple-A Tacoma with power, all of it against right-handed pitching. Maybe he'd need to be platooned, but that's fine. He's no Chris Woodward.

Quote of the week

"I've just got to throw myself in the mix, because I know the physical tools and physical skills are there. I need a chance, like last year. I just need somebody to believe I can get it done and be patient, because I'm not a very good April-May guy. Sometimes that kind of hurt me. I just need time to play. There's always going to be somebody breathing down your back, but to the extent where I still have a chance."

Lastings Milledge is not only right on the money here; he also should be applauded for being honest, confident and, frankly, pretty smart, not long after being traded last week from the Nationals organization to the Pirates. Give him time to heal from a broken finger and finish his rehab assignment, then play regularly at Triple-A Indianapolis. I predict he's in the majors this month and showing off his power and speed. Yes, he will matter in fantasy, soon. Get ready. I love this move for the Pirates.

Whatever happened to … strikeouts meaning an automatic low batting average?

Mark Reynolds
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesMark Reynolds is hitting a respectable .269 with 24 homers and 13 steals despite striking out a whopping 111 times.

I maintain that one of the most amazing statistics for this season is the fact Russell Branyan is hitting near .300. There is absolutely nothing in this guy's past that would portend such an amazing feat. His career mark is .237. But something I have noticed this season is that a number of high strikeout hitters have found a way to keep a good batting average along the way. Branyan has the same walk and K rate as Jack Cust, another notorious whiffer who barely hits his weight, but he's found time to sprinkle in enough singles along the way. I think batting second is a very good thing for Branyan.

Meanwhile, Mark Reynolds should absolutely be an All-Star; he's a top-10 fantasy option and while hitting .269 doesn't help a fantasy team, it doesn't hurt it very much either. Hitting .249 does. David Wright just had back-to-back hitless weekends (0-for-22 overall, with eight strikeouts) and is in the top-10 for most K's this season, but still might win a batting title. Justin Upton, Matt Kemp and Shin-Soo Choo are others who are hitting .300 while swinging and missing a lot.

I've always believed a batter's strikeouts can get a little overrated, and misleading. Nobody in Arizona is going to whine about Reynolds whiffing 200 times if he continues on his 48-122-26 pace, are they? Sure, a recent slump has taken Ryan Howard back into the .250 range, Carlos Pena is barely hitting his weight and a low batting average helped send Chris Davis to Triple-A, but let's not presume Howard, Pena and Davis can't hit for average. Pena hit .282 two seasons ago, Howard's career mark is .276. Davis clearly has to make adjustments, and there's no reason why he can't succeed and hit .270 at some point in his career. You spent a high pick to get him; wait around a few weeks and see if he comes back to the Rangers even stronger.

It sure would be nice if … Rick Porcello gets back on track

I went down the Porcello route in a few leagues, and they are keeper formats, so there's no way I would deal the guy for junk at this point, because I think we can all see how nice the future is going to be. Then again, my immediate future in those leagues is the next three months, and the 20-year-old Porcello has been going in the wrong direction for the past month or so. Porcello told reporters this weekend he feels great, even though the stats don't look that way, as he's failed to make it through six innings in four consecutive outings, and six of seven.

Manager Jim Leyland will continue to keep the pitch counts low, as he should for such a young arm, but obviously at some point what the Tigers do with the kid might not be what fantasy owners want. He could get shut down or have starts skipped. Maybe he helps out in the bullpen down the stretch. The same could happen with walk machine David Price. I always say I'll do what it takes to win a championship now, because let's face it: Nobody knows how future seasons will play out, no matter how strong your keeper corps appears. Then again, I see Porcello being a 200-strikeout guy by 2011. The rest of 2009, however, might not be as positive as we were led to believe in May.

Stat of the week: 300, and counting

While Albert Pujols gets tons of attention for hitting home runs and being, well, the best player in the game, there was actually another active player's name in the stat for most home runs in the first nine seasons of a career. Pujols will catch Ralph Kiner with his next dinger, and soon pass him for home run supremacy in this interesting stat, but Adam Dunn has hit 300 home runs in his underrated career, giving him the fourth-most for the first nine years in baseball history. Dunn gets attention for the strikeouts and his lack of fielding prowess, but he hits a lot of home runs, takes a lot of walks and sports a career OPS on the good side of .900. In fact, among active hitters Dunn ranks in the top 20 for career OPS, and I'd sure take him in fantasy right now over about half of that crew, which includes Jim Edmonds, Ken Griffey, Travis Hafner, Carlos Delgado and Jason Giambi. Dunn is 29 and on his way to possibly the best season of his career, and I venture to say few are noticing. His average live draft position put him in Round 9. His Player Rater rank exceeds that easily. For more on Dunn, check out Tristan Cockcroft's Fantasy Forecaster.

The final word

I made a trade this weekend in the Tout Wars mixed league, where my team just hasn't performed as well offensively as I thought it would. I spent a buck on Emilio Bonifacio in March, and I'd say I got more than my money's worth from him. I moved Bonifacio for Garret Anderson and Dan Meyer. I need power, and while Anderson is certainly nothing special, he is an upgrade over Bonifacio for home runs, RBIs and batting average. I put my proverbial money where my mouth was on Meyer, whom I've been touting as a saves guy for a while. This trade should help a bit. I made it while sitting on a beach, and I like it a lot more than I thought I would.

The point I want to make is, I won't be rooting against Bonifacio now that I've moved him. I always find it interesting when fantasy owners trade a player and then suddenly hate that guy, hoping he'll make the owner look good by going into a 2-for-30 slump or by getting hurt. Unless you're the second-place team and the team you dealt with is in first -- which you should never do anyway -- I don't see why rooting against Bonifacio would make much sense. Worry about your own team. It doesn't matter to me if Bonifacio continues to run like crazy, after stealing six bases in the past week, and bats .500 over the next month. He's gone. I moved him.

I need to root for Anderson and Meyer, in theory, and unless Bonifacio catapults the team I traded him to into first place I don't see how his performance remains relevant to me. Maybe I just don't root against players, since I have so many teams and Bonifacio is on a few of them, but the same would hold true for someone like Jose Guillen, whom I own on one team. Sure, maybe your league owners will razz you a bit if a player you trade suddenly turns into a star, but I don't think that will happen with Bonifacio, and the best way to shut your buddies up is to, of course, win.

Ultimately I doubt I will win Tout Wars, but the experience has been a positive one. Maybe Edwin Encarnacion can bring me some power the rest of the way, and eventually Carlos Delgado as well. Oh, and Garret Anderson!

Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.

Eric Karabell | email

ESPN.com Senior Writer

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