Sunday, May 31, 2009

Mauer Power

Now I remember why Joe Mauer was ranked so far ahead of other catchers entering this season.

Here's what the kid has done in May: Hit .414 with a .500 OBP and .838 slugging pct. (all tops in the majors) along with 11 homers and 32 RBIs. His previous season high for homers is 13, by the way.

Now, we all know Mauer can hit for average, and I expect him to continue to flirt with .400 for a while now before settling down into the .330 range. And we'll take that. But will the power surge continue? And where did it come from, anyway?

Even Mauer doesn't seem to know for sure, but the consensus explanation seems to be a great hitter is simply maturing and improving. Keep in mind Mauer just turned 26 last month and is only beginning to enter his power prime. While I don't expect him to keep going deep at this rate - which would put him at about, oh, 45 homers - I think it's perfectly reasonable for him to finish with a minimum of 20-25, which would be well more than anyone expected from him. As long as he can do that without his average suffering (hasn't been a problem so far), he'll easily finish the year as fantasy's top catcher - much to the dismay of those who reached for Brian McCann or Russell Martin on draft day.

Photo by The Associated Press

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Trevor Hoffman: An appreciation

I'll admit I was skeptical of Trevor Hoffman as a fantasy closer entering this season. I was worried about his advanced age, his decline in recent years and his move away from the friendly confines of Petco Park.

Silly me. I shouldn't have hassled The Hoff. He has been simply lights out this season for the Brewers, his new club. So far he's a perfect 11-for-11 in saves with a 0.00 ERA and 10 Ks in 13 innings. He's been a brilliant pickup, both for surprising Milwaukee and for fantasy squads.

Hoffman somehow slipped through the cracks on draft day in my 10-team league, mostly because he started the season with an oblique injury that kept him on the DL. I had some early hiccups in my closer situation, and I even briefly used Carlos Villanueva, Hoffman's early-season fill-in with the Brewers, for a couple saves before I'd seen enough. Then I heard some encouraging news about Hoffman's rehab progress at the start of April and figured what the heck, why not pick up the old guy, stick him in one of my DL slots and give him a shot? Turned out to be one of my best moves so far in a season that unfortunately hasn't included many.

So, can Hoffman keep this up? I don't see him getting the 60 saves he's on pace for, nor do I expect the ERA to remain at zero. And while last year's stats indicated Hoffman was on the decline, that simply means he is no longer the top-of-the-line fantasy commodity he once was. He still went 30-for-34 in save opportunities in 2008 and struck out just about a batter an inning, along with an acceptable 3.77 ERA. It certainly seems like he can at least duplicate those stats this year, and he'll probably better them, provided he stays healthy (the oblique shouldn't be a recurring problem) and the Brewers remain in contention (no reason they can't). If you got him on the cheap like I did, give yourself a pat on the back and watch the saves keep rolling in.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

K-Rod needs a chiropractor

I've never experienced back spasms, so maybe I'm not the most qualified person to weigh in on this. But I'm not sure I've heard of an otherwise healthy major league ballplayer in the prime of his career having to be taken to the hospital for back spasms.

But that's just what happened to Mets closer and fantasy superstar Francisco Rodriguez on Saturday night. Not what you want to hear after you've been enjoying another stellar season from K-Rod so far: 12-for-12 in save opportunities with a 0.87 ERA. No word on whether the fine dancing skills displayed above with pal Jose Reyes are the root cause.

From what I can tell in researching this crazy-old page from 1999, back spasms are usually treated with ice, rest and an anti-inflammatory, so it doesn't seem like we're looking at major surgery or anything. There's no word on how long Frankie will be out, but if these things are painful enough that he had to go to the hospital and they can pop up randomly like this, I'd imagine the Mets will take their time in bringing him back. That means JJ Putz is an immediate pickup for K-Rod owners if he's not already been handcuffed or taken by someone else. The former Mariners closer pitched the ninth and got the save Saturday in a 3-2 win over the Red Sox.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Welcome Mat Gamel

It's interleague time, which means a bunch of lineup shakeups. Some NL teams will be using a DH this weekend in American League parks. How can we, as fantasy players, take advantage? Here's one way: Pick up Mat Gamel.

Gamel is a Milwaukee Brewers rookie who's so cool, he only needs one T in his name. He's also one of the game's top prospects, a superb young left-handed hitter who led the Double-A Southern League last year in RBIs, total bases and extra base hits and was second in average.

It seems like his only flaw is he's not very handy with a glove, but don't let that scare you off. The Brewers will likely use him as a DH a bit in this weekend's series at Minnesota and then continue trying to find him at-bats as he shares some time at third with Bill Hall. Gamel had already blasted eight homers and was batting .336 in Triple-A this year before last week's call-up, and he hit his first major league homer in his first career start Monday against St. Louis.

Gamel's got an opportunity to really shine this weekend, and then again next month on the road against Cleveland and Detroit. Add the kid and give him a shot in those games. If he fails, he goes back to the minors until next season; if he lives up to expectations, he'll stick around the rest of the year, and you just grabbed yourself the next Ryan Braun.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Buying Alex Rios

Not sold on the Toronto Blue Jays as the 2009 AL East Division champs? I hear you. But when you consider they've been ruling the standings so far with Alex Rios, perhaps their best all-around player, not hitting his stride until recently, one might start to think the Jays are for real.

Rios had a pretty lame April (.248, 1 home run) but has been scorching hot this month. He's really turned it on in his past eight games (10-for-29, three HRs, seven RBIs) and is beginning to look like the top-50 fantasy player he should be. If there's anything to complain about it's his lack of steals - only three so far this year after swiping 32 bases last year. I'd be concerned because Toronto as a team is third-worst in the AL in stolen bases (20) this year.

Maybe that 20-20 season we've been hoping for isn't coming, at least the steals part of it. But now is the time to go out and acquire Rios if you can, or to confidently put him back in your starting lineup.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Big Papi, little results

I sure hope you didn't waste a high pick or a keeper slot on David Ortiz this year.

You've gotten almost no return on your investment this year from Big Papi, who entered the weekend hitting an empty .208/.318/.300 (career: .285/.380/.547).

Ortiz also hasn't homered at all this year and hasn't gone yard in his last 144 at-bats - his longest drought since Sept. 9, 1998, to June 9, 2000, as the Associated Press reports, back when he was a nobody playing partial seasons with the the Minnesota Twins.

Now he's being benched for this weekend's series in Seattle - or taking a mental timeout, as Red Sox manager Terry Francona describes it. But it will be interesting to see what they do with Ortiz once he returns to the lineup: Will he continue to bat third, sapping all the life out of an otherwise potent offense? How long do they stick with Big Papi now that he's beginning to show signs of age and Manny Ramirez withdrawal?

And what the heck do fantasy owners do with him? In my main league, Ortiz was traded a few weeks ago straight up for OF Chris Young ... and then dropped the other day in favor of RP Michael Wuertz. How the mighty have fallen.

In my mind, unless you're in a really shallow eight-team league, you've got to stash Papi on your bench for now. Yes, he's looking washed up at this point, but there's a lot of time to regain his stroke, and the Sox are obviously going to give him multiple opportunities to do so. You could stick Russ Ortiz in the third spot in that lineup and he'd still manage to put up some decent numbers with enough chances. Obviously you're not going to get what you expected out of him this year, even if he goes on a major hot streak, and even if he does, this little episode has to raise a giant red flag for next season.

If you're looking some sort of positive, there's this: With interleague play starting up next week, Ortiz wasn't going to see many at-bats in the coming week anyway, so at least you won't be faced with a tough decision. Bench him until he starts to show a pulse.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tommy Boy

Looking for that lightning-in-a-bottle prospect, that spark that will put your fantasy team over the top?

Go get Tommy Hanson.

Hanson is the Braves' top pitching prospect and has dominated at all levels so far. He's currently tearing up Triple-A (2.01 ERA, 57 Ks and 13 BBs in 40 2/3 innings) and is considered an ace in the making.

The 6-foot-6, 210-pound right-hander isn't quite as well known as Rays prospect David Price (who made a major league cameo last year) but could be every bit as valuable as Price in fantasy leagues this year. Like Price, Hanson is apparently being held out of the majors in part to delay his arbitration eligibility, but that soon won't be an issue. It's also only a matter of time until Atlanta realizes Hanson is more deserving of a spot in the rotation than Jo-Jo Reyes (0-2, 5.48 ERA, nine straight losses dating to last year, plus his name is Jo-Jo). Act now and grab him while you can.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Manny being Manny ... and ruining fantasy teams

Manny Ramirez's 50-game suspension after testing positive for a banned substance doesn't just hurt the Dodgers. It's a harsh blow for any fantasy team built around the slugging enigma.

Manny's been on a tear ever since donning Dodger Blue late last year, and he was off to a stellar start in 2009: .348, six homers, 20 RBIs. Those numbers won't easily be replaced; L.A. will probably turn to Juan Pierre as their everyday left fielder, which is the equivalent of canceling American Idol and running some old Bosom Buddies reruns in its place.

Manny's absence from the lineup also creates problems for some other Dodgers hitters, particularly young Andre Ethier (.317, six homers, 27 homers), who's been enjoying a breakout season batting third in front of Ramirez. Think he'll be seeing as many good pitches without Man-Ram on deck? You might expect a bit of a drop in his stats, at least until around the All-Star break when Manny is due to return.

And speaking of bosom buddies, now that the door has been opened to possible steroid use by Ramirez, it's only natural for the spotlight to drift onto Manny's days in Boston, when he and pal David Ortiz were terrorizing the league. (ESPN columnist and resident BoSox diehard Bill Simmons has an excellent take on it.) If this wasn't simply a "personal health issue" or doctor's mistake but rather the deliberate use of a substance often associated with steroid use, one could reasonably assume this isn't the first time Ramirez has used performance enhancing drugs, and thus we could also figure some of his former Red Sox teammates have juiced in the past.

Might that explain the stunning and precipitous drop in Ortiz's stats the past few years? We may never know, and perhaps it's unfair to associate Big Papi with cheating, but I'd definitely be concerned with Ortiz's decline and be looking to deal him if possible, especially in light of Thursday's bombshell.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

How did Zack Greinke get so good?

Royals pitcher Zack Greinke is just beginning to show up on the nation's radar - a 6-0 start with a 0.40 ERA will do that, even if you are pitching in Kansas City.

But fantasy players have known about the young hurler for a long time now, all the way back to 2003 when he was the minor league player of the year. He was a bit homer-prone early in his career and went through plenty of growing pains after being rushed to the majors at the delicate age of 20. Then he bottomed out, succumbing to depression and social anxiety disorder and walking away from baseball, as Joe Posnanski details in this week's Sports Illustrated cover story.

But now Greinke is back and in a better place mentally. And that's translated to amazing success on the mound, where the 25-year-old is the early front-runner for the AL Cy Young. He's been fabulous this year - 54 strikeouts to eight walks, two earned runs in 45 innings, three complete games. And it's no fluke, either: this is what scouts and observers always believed Greinke was capable of, thanks to excellent command of both his fastball and his curve. Obviously he's not going undefeated, and that ERA is bound to creep up a bit, but don't sell high here. You're getting ace-quality numbers from a pitcher who likely was taken in the middle rounds of the draft or cost a fraction of disappointments like Brandon Webb or Cole Hamels. Enjoy the ride, and let's see what Greinke is capable of this year.

Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The A-Rod Saga continues

On today's episode of The Alex Rodriguez Saga ...

The New York Yankees slugger, who has yet to make his 2009 debut as he recovers from hip surgery, is currently on rehab assignment in Florida. He went 1-for-6 with a walk Friday against Pittsburgh Pirates minor leaguers in an extended spring training game, as the Bradenton Herald's John Lembo reported. He followed that up with another exhibition Saturday in Tampa, playing the field for the first time.

A-Rod's official return date had been penciled in as May 15, but the Yankees say he is ahead of schedule and could return as early as New York's May 8-10 series against the Orioles. That's pretty remarkable, considering some of the dire predictions that popped up when word of Rodriguez's injury first surfaced. It's also an encouraging bit of news for his fantasy owners, who've had to endure endless stories about A-Rod's alleged steroid use (as far back as high school!) while keeping one of the game's best players on their benches.

If you're one of those owners, start clearing room on your active roster. You should be putting A-Rod in your lineup as soon as the Yankees do, no matter how he hits in these meaningless spring games.

The Steinbrenner boys and their braintrust will not risk bringing back their multi-million-dollar man before he's ready, and the team actually isn't desperate for A-Rod's offense; the Yanks are currently second in the league in runs scored without him. Once he eases his way back into game shape, that offense will be even more dangerous. So back off that ledge, Mark Texeira owners - brighter days are around the corner. A-Rod's almost here.