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Wednesday, May 21, 2014
2014 fantasy rankings update

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Do yourself a favor: Open a new browser window, scroll to your fantasy baseball team (or, preferably, fantasy baseball teams), and count up your number of currently-DL'ed players. Don't worry, I'll wait.

If you've got one or fewer, consider yourself lucky.

Here's the plain fact we fantasy owners face: A whopping 15 players, as things stood as of noon ET on Wednesday, who qualified as either (A) one of the top 100 players selected on average during the preseason, (B) one of the top 100 players to date on the 2014 Player Rater or (C) players owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues, resided on a major league disabled list. That's an average of 1.5 effectively "must-own" players per ESPN standard-league team (those in standard, 10-team formats).

To possess a fantasy baseball roster today that has been relatively injury-free would be a feat, and the truth is that, whether yours has been or not, inevitably you've had to do some degree of research involving an injured player. In short, either you've been faced with a decision whether to keep one around during his absence, whether to add one who has been cut or whether to trade away or for one.

As the keeper of the going-forward rankings, I've found this a particularly difficult process this season, but this week is especially challenging: Two of the first 30 players selected this preseason face uncertain injury timetables, and of the seven players who plummeted the most in my rankings this week, six did so as a direct result of injuries.

We'll get to the first one, because he was the No. 12 overall pick this preseason and his news is fresh: Prince Fielder, who had played 547 consecutive games going into this past Saturday's action, received an injection for a herniated disc in his neck that day that cost him two games of weekend action. A candidate to return on Tuesday, originally being listed in that night's lineup, he was subsequently scratched, then held out of Wednesday's game before it was announced that he would not travel with the Texas Rangers to Detroit for their four-game weekend series beginning Thursday.

Prince Fielder
Prince Fielder, who is out indefinitely with a neck injury, dropped to No. 88 in the ranks.

I've discussed Fielder ad nauseam this week, from his ground-ball spike (49.6 percent rate this season, up from a 41.6 percent mark from 2011-13 combined) to his decreased hard-contact frequency (.192 well-hit average, down from .262 from 2011-13) to his rising rate of defensive shifts faced and the resulting impact upon his batting average. He was due to plummet in my rankings this week regardless of whether he played Tuesday or Wednesday, but with news that his absence could soon extend into the "indefinite" state, his value is in a precarious spot. Fielder was a player who two weeks ago I termed a modest buy-low candidate, on the strength of what was then a slight uptick in hitting numbers, but all that's now out the window. He dropped substantially this week, to No. 88 overall, and is outside my top 10 first basemen.

Next up, Philadelphia Phillies ace Cliff Lee in a matter of hours on Tuesday went from seemingly healthy to "his elbow is tender and he's having an MRI" to the DL. Listening to general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., Lee's prognosis is as uncertain as they come.

"We just don't know yet," Amaro told ESPN.com. "It could be two weeks. It could be three weeks. It could be four weeks. Who knows? It could be 30 weeks. We think it will be shorter. It's a pretty mild strain. ... We just have to be really cautious with him."

Thankfully, Lee -- and Andrew Cashner, a few days before him -- appears to have escaped the dreaded Tommy John surgery route, but any elbow issue warrants concern. That Lee's injury has been termed a Grade 1/Grade 2 -- the label alone sounding awfully unclear -- has me thinking this will be lengthier than a 15-day absence, and we're not going to have any idea how long he'll be out until he resumes throwing, which won't happen for at least another week. Lee tumbled a whopping 20 spots among starting pitchers this week, which is significant but understandable, if you consider the fact his durability was one of the most compelling arguments in favor of Lee being included in the top tier of starting pitchers.

Among the other injury-related drops in the rankings: Carlos Beltran dropped 85 spots overall after he landed on the DL with bone spurs in his right elbow, an injury he'll try to play through in an effort to avoid surgery with an up-to-three-month timetable for recovery. ... Ben Zobrist fell 77 spots after injuring his thumb on a headfirst slide into second base on May 14, only hours after last week's ranks published. ... Gio Gonzalez moved down 71 spots after he surrendered 10 runs in 7 1/3 innings in his two most recent starts, subsequently landing on the DL with shoulder inflammation. ... And the aforementioned Cashner, who has an elbow injury of his own for which an MRI revealed only inflammation but no structural damage, dropped 54 spots.

Rankings quick hits

Yasiel Puig continues his upward rise thanks to some significant skills advancement this season. I cited many times this preseason the numbers illustrating his free-swinging, impatient nature, but many of those measures have exhibited substantial gains. Most notably, Puig has cut his chase rate -- the percentage of non-strikes a batter swings at -- by nearly 8 percent (26, down from 34); he has cut his miss rate -- percentage of swings that are flat-out misses -- by more than 6 percent (28, down from 35); and he has taken 69 percent of his plate appearances to three or more pitches this season, up from 63 percent. This is a different Yasiel Puig, and it's possible that with continued growth, pertaining most to his stolen-base success rate, he could soon be a candidate for the top 10 overall.

Victor Martinez's own upward movement is unstoppable, and it's entirely possible that his No. 55 overall ranking -- that the effective equivalent of a top-10 first baseman, once he qualifies -- is vastly undershooting his rest-of-year potential. Martinez had as many home runs as strikeouts (11) entering Wednesday's game, and he homered in that contest. It's a statistic that continues to be astonishing.

• You can see my full thoughts about his skill set in the video that tops this article, but Alex Cobb returns to the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday, and it's entirely possible that his buy-low window might close as soon as the first batter he faces in that game. My guess: You can still easily get him for cheaper than I've ranked him below. On Wednesday, that is.

Allen Craig is beginning to show signs of turning his season around, that having begun with the St. Louis Cardinals' three-game series in Pittsburgh May 9-11. Since and including that series, Craig's ground-ball rate is 53.6 percent (it was 61 percent entering that series), and his well-hit average is .154 (up from .146). Those are small steps, and his rankings increase accounts for that, but anything at this point is a plus from him.

• Though he's no longer the player he was in his 20s, Mark Teixeira looks considerably better than the version we saw in either 2012 or 2013. Consider that he has appeared in 21 consecutive New York Yankees games, only one of those a pinch-hitting appearance and two of them designated-hitter starts, while batting .284/.384/.622 during that span. The healthy 2014 Teixeira model might be nothing more than a .250 to .260 hitter with 30- to 35-homer potential, but that's largely the Teixeira we saw in 2010-11, when he averaged .252-38 numbers per 162 games played in those categories. I've made the requisite adjustments and he's now my No. 141 overall player.

Stephen Drew enters the rankings as my No. 205 overall player and No. 19 shortstop, which puts him on the 10-team standard radar but not at great expense in terms of FAAB or waiver position. Simply put, I think he's more platoon than full-time player at this stage of his career, his .263/.348/.431 triple-slash line against right-handers from 2011-13 (.341 wOBA) compared to .204/.263/.340 (.263) vs. left-handers making him appear an obvious partner for either Xander Bogaerts or Will Middlebrooks, once the latter returns from the DL. Drew has the look of a brilliant daily-league pickup who will wind up overrated in weekly or shallow-mixed formats, and I wonder whether, if you've stashed him for this long, his trade value might never be higher than it is right now.