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Monday, June 4, 2007
Around the NL: Bailey awaits promotion

By Tristan H. Cockcroft

What's been going on around the National League in the past week? Tristan H. Cockcroft takes a quick-hitting look at the news and notes for each of the 16 NL teams:

National League East

Atlanta Braves: There's little doubting Chipper Jones' talent; it's his health that often comes into question. He had been one of the best hitters in baseball through May 23, batting .300 with a 1.017 OPS and a pace of more than 40 home runs. Unfortunately, that was the date he reinjured both his thumbs, after he collided with the Pirates' Jose Bautista 12 days earlier. Jones finally landed on the disabled list Friday and might miss another week, or more. As had been the case with him from 2004-06, during which time he has missed a combined 130 games, Jones is a must-play when active, but a player you can't count on for a full 162 starts. With him sidelined, rookie Yunel Escobar was recalled from Triple-A Richmond and earned starts in each of his first two games on the roster. A .295 career minor league hitter, Escobar could adequately fill an NL-only corner or middle infield spot for the short term. However, don't count on much else from him; in 223 career minor league games he has only 10 home runs and 14 stolen bases.

Florida Marlins: It took them a half-year, but the Marlins finally acquired Armando Benitez from the Giants late Thursday night. Fortunately for them, it cost the Marlins a vastly reduced price -- middle reliever Randy Messenger. This trade shows how far Benitez's stock has fallen since his 47-save, 1.29-ERA campaign with the Marlins in 2004. But that's not the only sign of Benitez's slide; he's initially being used in a set-up role with his new team, despite the fact that he has 289 career saves. That's testament to how well Kevin Gregg has pitched of late. In his past 10 appearances, Gregg has six saves, a 0.00 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 9 2/3 innings. Even Henry Owens, who had four saves and a 1.96 ERA in 17 games before hitting the DL, didn't reclaim his old role once he activated was Thursday. Gregg's owners should continue to ride the hot streak, but in NL-only leagues, keep tabs on Benitez and Owens. Either could be a useful handcuff, though taking into account Benitez's injury history, I'd go with Owens first.

New York Mets: The Mets expect to get Jose Valentin back from the DL by the weekend. Valentin's inevitable return from the DL has pundits wondering, "What will happen to Damion Easley?" It's a fair question, taking into account his production since April 28, when he came in for the injured Valentin. Since that date Easley has hit .248 (25-for-101) with five home runs and 13 RBIs in 30 games, respectable numbers. Still, all indications are that second base will once again be Valentin's spot, although it'd be smart of the Mets to utilize this duo in a platoon. Easley is a .308 hitter with four homers and a 1.001 OPS in 44 plate appearances against left-handers this season, Valentin a .283 hitter with a .874 OPS and 18 homers in 378 plate appearances against right-handers in his career with the Mets. Such an arrangement would favor Valentin, by virtue of there being more right-handed pitching in baseball, but it would also keep each of their batting averages respectable enough to warrant NL-only consideration. Keep an eye on their playing time next week.

Philadelphia Phillies: It's now a race between Tom Gordon and Brett Myers to see who gets back first to reclaim the closer job. Gordon threw a 60-pitch session from flat ground on Sunday, and he'll continue his rehabilitation at the team's spring-training facility in Clearwater, Fla., this week. Barring any setbacks, he could be ready to return to the Phillies sometime in late-June. Myers, meanwhile, has yet to resume throwing, making it unlikely that he'll return from the DL once eligible on June 9. It's unclear when he'll pick up a baseball again; although the team still feels its original three-week timetable is reasonable, as he'll probably be ready to return to action around 10-15 days after he resumes throwing. Fantasy owners shouldn't count on either closer hopeful returning before at least June 20, meaning Antonio Alfonseca owners should get another two weeks of saves.

Washington Nationals: Dmitri Young is in the midst of a hot streak -- he's batting .520 (26-for-50) with two home runs and 13 RBIs in his past 15 games, including a streak of eight consecutive hits from May 31-June 1. The streak has raised his season batting average to .323, 33 points more than his career mark, and has made a reliable fantasy option in NL-only formats. Young isn't a bad player to use during his hot streaks, as he has managed four seasons in his career with at least a .297 batting average and three years with at least 21 home run. However, health isn't exactly a strong point for him. He played only 48 games in 2006 and has appeared in more than 126 contests once since 2001, so keep in mind he should only be viewed as a short-term solution. Another benefit of Young's improved play: better lineup protection for No. 3 hitter Ryan Zimmerman, who has been slotted ahead of the veteran in each of the team's past five games.

National League Central

Chicago Cubs: Things have begun to go haywire in Chicago, evidenced by the ejection of manager Lou Piniella on Saturday and his subsequent suspension for his tirade in that game. Piniella's rant came a day after a more disturbing incident, when Carlos Zambrano and Michael Barrett came to blows in the dugout after the right-hander was shelled for five runs in a disastrous fifth inning. For Zambrano, it was his third poor outing in his past five turns, and coincidentally, each of those miserable performances came at Wrigley Field. He's now 1-4 with a 7.91 ERA in six home starts, and he has allowed 13 home runs, three short of his average number from 2003-06 (16), in only 73 2/3 innings (he averaged 215 1/3 the past four years). Zambrano could be facing disciplinary action from the team, and one has to wonder whether the incident will have an impact on his chances of returning to the team since he will be a free agent in the winter. He's talented enough to rebound with time, but does his increased home-run rate suggest a hidden problem? After all, Zambrano did log 839 1/3 total innings before his 25th birthday, so if you're looking at him as a buy-low candidate, remember, there's some risk that his arm has been worn down.

Cincinnati Reds: Get ready for that next big thing among pitching prospects, as both Cincinnati newspapers are reporting that Homer Bailey will be called up to make his MLB debut Saturday against the Indians. He was 6-1 with a 2.31 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and .191 BAA in 10 starts at Triple-A Louisville, and he has posted in quality start in four of his past seven turns. Whatever the league format, except in the shallowest of yearly-mixed formats, Bailey is worth an instant pickup for fantasy. Remember, he was a prospect considered no less than the Yankees' Phil Hughes or the Giants' Tim Lincecum in the preseason -- he was ranked fifth overall by Baseball America, one spot behind Hughes and six ahead of Lincecum. Great American Ball Park's hitter-friendly confines could lead to some matchups worth avoiding with Bailey, and as is the case with any rookie, an adjustment period could be necessary. Still, he's the type of pitcher whose arsenal can be unhittable at times. Bailey could be every bit as valuable as Lincecum has been to date, or perhaps the Angels' Jered Weaver was last season.

Houston Astros: It's officially time for Dan Wheeler owners to start worrying, after he suffered back-to-back dreadful outings over the weekend, allowing three runs in each. In his past 11 appearances, Wheeler has allowed 10 runs in 12 innings with only four save; he has been particularly susceptible to the long ball, with five homers surrendered. Fortunately he hasn't performed that poorly in his save chances. Keep in mind Astros manager Phil Garner affinity Brad Lidge, who served him well closing games in the team's National League championship season of 2005. Despite battling some knee soreness of late, Lidge has a 1.04 ERA, .107 BAA and 24 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings (15 appearances) since May 1. Those numbers could be enough to put him in line for another chance at closing games, meaning Wheeler owners should handcuff Lidge quickly.

Milwaukee Brewers: So much for that early-season Craig Counsell/Tony Graffanino platoon landing itself back on the bench. The Brewers placed Rickie Weeks on the DL on Friday with tendinitis in his surgically repaired right wrist, forcing Counsell and Graffanino back into action as platoon mates at second base. Neither player should be a particularly appealing short-term fantasy fill-in, except for NL-only owners desperate for infield help. The real story here is the loss of Weeks. He has long tantalized owners with his 30/30 potential, but to this stage of his career hasn't been the healthiest of fellas. In the 27 games before he went on the DL, Weeks was batting only .223 (23-for-103) with one home run and 28 strikeouts, looking much like the player he was the first week of spring training, when he was still working back to full strength coming off that wrist operation. He will have a cortisone shot and might miss two or three weeks. Even when he returns, Weeks could remain a mild health risk all year.

Pittsburgh Pirates: It's not that it's a shock that Salomon Torres wound up being pulled from the closer role on Friday; more curious was the timing of the announcement. Sure, the right-hander was coming off a terrible blown save last Thursday, his fourth of the season, but in 13 appearances before that from April 27-May 29, he was a perfect 6-for-6 in saves with a 2.03 ERA. Still, Torres had a 4.88 ERA and four blown saves in 16 chances at the time, so the switch to Matt Capps makes some sense, especially since the latter has a 2.97 ERA, .232 BAA and 15 holds in 31 appearances, much better numbers. Capps picked up his first save of the season with a perfect inning on Saturday; while Torres did his part to blow a two-run lead pitching in the seventh and eighth innings of Sunday's contest. In short, this weekend's performance probably solidifies Capps' hold in the role for now, making him well worth adding in all fantasy formats. Even on a so-so team like the Pirates, he could pick up an additional 15-20 saves, and he should remain a reliable source of ERA/WHIP.

St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals' offense is already arguably the most disappointing one in baseball, ranking No. 28 with an average of 3.94 runs per game. That's why it's so disconcerting to learn that Chris Duncan and Scott Rolen, two of the team's more reliable hitters, are battling nagging injuries that could land both of them on the DL. Rolen, a notorious injury risk, strained his hamstring on Friday and is out for at least a few more days, while Duncan was scheduled to work out on Monday after being diagnosed with a staph infection in his left knee. That leaves only one player with an OPS better than .750 in the active lineup, Albert Pujols (.888), and don't underestimate the impact that injuries to Duncan and Rolen will have on Pujols in the RBI/runs scored department. The loss of those two will also have a negative impact on the number of quality pitches he sees. Pujols is heating up with a .397 batting average (27-for-68) and five homers in his past 18 games, but any hopes of a 125-RBI, 130-run season, which were his averages in those categories from 2003-06, seem gone.

National League West

Arizona Diamondbacks: After missing his previous scheduled start on May 25 due to forearm tendinitis, Randy Johnson returned to action Wednesday with another stellar outing on the road. For the second time in three turns, Johnson went six shutout innings allowing only one hit while being held to a limited pitch count. Considering that those starts came at Colorado's Coors Field and Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, two of the toughest matchups he could face, and that he's now 3-0 with a 1.90 ERA, 0.59 WHIP and 34 strikeouts in his past four turns overall, it's clear Johnson is close to peak form right now. His back and forearm might continue to be mild worries the remainder of the year, and his 89.6 pitches-per-start average isn't enough for him to tally elite-starter numbers, but Johnson indeed looks like the bounce-back candidate advertised in the preseason.

Colorado Rockies: While most of the attention paid to disappointing rookies this season seems to go to the Royals' Alex Gordon, we shouldn't be offering a free pass to the Rockies' Chris Iannetta, either. He has ranked as one of the biggest rookie busts of 2007. At this stage of the season, one has to wonder whether Iannetta would be better served with a stint at Triple-A Colorado Springs to straighten himself out. He's batting only .184 with 29 strikeouts in 87 at-bats, and has earned only 10 starts in the team's last 26 games. Iannetta's only fantasy value is in keeper leagues, but it would probably be better for NL-only owners if he went back to the minors to work out his issues and then returned after the All-Star break. He should be a great hitter with time, but at age 24, Iannetta right now looks like a player who might not be relevant until at least 2008.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Health problems are beginning to become a significant concern for Takashi Saito owners, as he battled shoulder soreness around Memorial Day weekend, and now he's on the sidelines for the next few days after experiencing some hamstring tightness on Sunday. He was scheduled to be re-evaluated Monday, but consider that hamstring problems are more of a problem for pitchers than you'd think; look at how they've affected pitchers like the Yankees' Chien-Ming Wang and Phil Hughes and the Rangers' Kevin Millwood this season. Saito might wind up only missing a couple of games, but at his age -- he's 37 -- any nagging health problems need to be closely monitored. He has been an extraordinary closer in his brief big league career, with 40 saves, a 1.93 ERA and 0.87 WHIP through a year-plus, but the man next in line to him for saves, Jonathan Broxton, has been comparably unhittable since the start of last year, with a 2.65 ERA and .216 BAA. Broxton would step in for Saito any games he misses. With increased opportunity, Broxton has potential to be a top-10 fantasy closer.

San Diego Padres: It's official; Justin Germano has nailed down fifth-starter role for the foreseeable future. That became evident when the team activated Clay Hensley, he of the 7.62 ERA and 2.05 WHIP in six starts, on Friday and optioned him to Triple-A Portland. Hensley will work out his struggles in the minors, but by the time he proves himself useful once more, Germano might have a firm grip on his rotation spot. What has made Germano so effective this season is an unreal walk rate (0.58 per nine innings), a high ground-ball ratio (1.67:1) and efficient pitching (with a little help from Petco Park) and that's a perfect recipe for continued success. He should continue to be a worthy NL-only option and perhaps even a mixed league matchups candidate.

San Francisco Giants: The aforementioned Benitez trade actually wound up having a greater impact on his former team's closer situation than it did his new one. That's no surprise; Benitez was the Giants closer, so his departure created a new opportunity in one of the thinner bullpens in baseball. Brad Hennessey had been the stand-in for Benitez on two previous occasions, saving both his opportunities. The fact that Hennessey has a 2.82 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 1.40:1 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio suggests that he's efficient enough to be moderately successful in the role despite a career 4.76 K/9 rate. Those owners who missed out on Pittsburgh's Capps shouldn't feel bad about Hennessey as a fall-back. Hennessey however, still has something to prove, and NL-only owners can continue to speculate on other future Giants closer candidates. Vinnie Chulk and Kevin Correia from the big club, and Jonathan Sanchez, Patrick Misch and Brian Wilson from Triple-A Fresno, should be closely monitored. The hottest hand of the bunch could easily put himself in line for the next look if Hennessey is ineffective.

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for You can e-mail him here.