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Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Cockcroft: Setback for Sheets

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

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: Edgar Renteria (ankle) could return from the DL sometime during the team's three-game series at Cincinnati, which began Monday night. That begs the question, what happens to Yunel Escobar, hitting .283 (17-for-60) with one homer and seven RBIs in the 16 games Renteria missed? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the rookie will shift into a second-base platoon with Kelly Johnson, greatly reducing Escobar's fantasy appeal. Renteria should slide right back in as the team's everyday No. 2 hitter, but Escobar had been serving as the team's leadoff man against left-handers even before Renteria got hurt, an arrangement that shouldn't change. Escobar is a .343 hitter with a .385 on-base percentage and .412 slugging percentage in 109 plate appearances against southpaws this season, so it's a setup that makes sense. Even in a diminished role he could have a little value in deep NL-only formats. As for Johnson, the loss of at-bats against his weaker side -- he's a .270/.367/.416 hitter against lefties -- will hurt him, but any loss of home runs/RBIs/runs scored should be made up for with a more stable batting average.

Florida Marlins: Ricky Nolasco (elbow) allowed six runs (five earned) on five hits, four of them home runs, in 4 1/3 innings in his most recent rehabilitation start for Triple-A Albuquerque on Sunday. With that, he now has a 4.32 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and .206 BAA in seven rehab appearances (including five starts), putting him fairly close to a return to the big club. The Marlins expect to have Nolasco back in a relief capacity within the week, though it's conceivable he'll be a rotation consideration in the near future, since he did get some starts during rehab and the inexperienced Daniel Barone is managing 6.23/2.08/.324 numbers in his first two big league starts. Nolasco might be no more than an NL-only matchups consideration, and only after he builds up stamina, but keep an eye on him.

New York Mets: Pedro Martinez (shoulder surgery) made his third rehabilitation start Monday for Class A St. Lucie, throwing 72 pitches and allowing two unearned runs in his five innings of work. He gave up just two hits and one walk and struck out four. The right-hander has been lobbying lately to return straight to the Mets after the appearance, though more likely he'll make another two or three starts, considering he hadn't pitched all that well in his previous two appearances. Martinez could be back around Labor Day weekend, but proceed with caution since his three starts have come at low minor league levels. He may not be all that trustworthy to fantasy owners in September. … Backup catcher Ramon Castro joined starter Paul Lo Duca on the DL on Saturday, complaining of lower back pain. With the team's two catchers on the shelf, the Mets have had to make do with journeymen Mike DiFelice and Sandy Alomar Jr. for the past week. Neither warrants fantasy consideration, though. DiFelice, a career .235/.287/.356 hitter, has been getting the bulk of the starts, but the Mets face a tough schedule for such a weak batsman the next couple of weeks.

Philadelphia Phillies: Adam Eaton landed on the DL Wednesday with shoulder inflammation, which might have been more of an excuse to bump him from the rotation than a significant health issue. The right-hander had an 8.79 ERA, 2.06 WHIP and .385 BAA in six starts since the All-Star break, and his 6.82/1.74/.315 numbers in 12 starts at home back up the critics who said in the preseason that he wasn't cut out to call the Citizens Bank Park bandbox his home. Eaton could be back after the rosters expand to 40 players on Sept. 1, but he's not guaranteed to return to the rotation, outside of an emergency scenario. Rookie J.D. Durbin took his place and offered a quality start against the Pirates on Friday, though he's not much more than an NL-only matchups consideration. Still, that's better than what Eaton had been all season. … Chase Utley (broken hand) has been taking ground balls and throwing lightly in the past week, and on Monday was cleared to resume swinging a bat and throwing without a splint. A timetable for his return will be set later in the week, but a good guess would be that he'll return in 10-14 days.

Washington Nationals: The Nationals acquired Wily Mo Pena from the Boston Red Sox on Friday in exchange for a player to be named later, which might not be a bad situation for the outfielder to bounce back. Though general manager Jim Bowden initially said Pena would platoon with Ryan Church in left field, Pena started each of his three games with the Nationals (two against right-handers), an arrangement that the team should consider for the remainder of the season. For one thing, Pena's struggles with the Red Sox might have been a result of merely not getting regular at-bats, sitting against most right-handers. For another, the Nationals planned to make Alex Escobar their everyday left fielder once he returned from the DL, with Church shifting to center field, and Pena has quite a bit more potential than Escobar does. Remember, Pena was a .287/.333/.494 hitter in 48 games as a near-regular for the Red Sox in the second half last season, and while RFK Stadium will hurt his offensive potential, he's not a bad gamble to take in NL-only formats.

National League Central

Chicago Cubs: Only days after manager Lou Piniella said Ryan Dempster would be used earlier in games until his velocity returned to its traditional levels, the right-hander saved back-to-back games against the Cardinals over the weekend, each time pitching a 1-2-3 ninth inning. It seems the right-hander is back in his usual role, though as always, Piniella played coy with that strategy, noting that his previous statements about demoting Dempster apply more to road games, where there might not be a ninth inning to pitch. Regardless, Dempster has now gone six consecutive games without allowing a run, with a .100 BAA during that span, so it's safe to call him a useful second-tier fantasy closer once more. … Carlos Zambrano's "contract year" appeal is gone, after the right-hander signed a five-year, $91.5 million contract on Friday. He'll also have a vesting option for 2013, keeping him with the Cubs for a good share of his career. Of course, news of the extension came on the heels of him losing back-to-back starts and posting an uncharacteristic seven walks in another start in August, things that have some wondering whether he's at less than full health. Zambrano, who logged 839 1/3 innings and averaged 107.7 pitches in 125 starts before his 25th birthday, will always be surrounded by questions about the effects of his workload at such a young age during his slumps. Regardless, he continues to get through them without any serious issues, so while there's always an injury worry, this isn't the time to bail on him.

Cincinnati Reds: David Ross was placed on the DL on Aug. 14 with a concussion he suffered during a collision with the Padres' Mike Cameron on Aug. 12. He has already begun light physical activity and the Reds believe he'll be back as soon as his 15 days are up, but be forewarned that concussions can often be tricky, even if they're not as severe in baseball as, say, hockey. With Ross out, Ryan Jorgensen and Javier Valentin have served in a straight platoon for the past week, an arrangement that greatly favors the latter. For one thing, there are simply more right-handed pitchers in the game; 71.8 percent of all plate appearances in MLB have come against that side. For another, Valentin is a .288/.340/.480 hitter in 721 plate appearances against righties in his Reds career, compared to .148/.263/.217 numbers in 133 appearances against left-handers. With Jorgensen there to help him avoid facing southpaws, Valentin isn't a bad stand-in No. 2 fantasy catcher for the next week-plus.

Houston Astros: Roy Oswalt left his most recent start on Saturday after 4 2/3 innings with a strained left oblique muscle, one that will likely force him to miss his next turn in the rotation. A DL stint for the right-hander hasn't been discussed yet, but don't be shocked if he misses a week or two of action. Of course, the Astros lack many reliable alternatives to Oswalt. Among the best candidates is top prospect Troy Patton, now 4-2 with a 4.59 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and .249 BAA in eight starts for Triple-A Round Rock after managing 2.99/1.26/.247 numbers in 16 starts for Double-A Corpus Christi to begin the season. The left-hander should get a look in the Astros' rotation before season's end, and has the talent to make an immediate impact, even if it's only in NL-only formats initially.

Milwaukee Brewers: Ben Sheets (finger) had to cut short a throwing session on Monday after 78 pitches due to a blister on the tip of his finger. The blister put a damper on what was otherwise an encouraging session and now the time of his return is up in the air once again. With the team's ace still on the mend, questions abound about who might be bumped to make room for him. Rookie Yovani Gallardo was in a mini-slump, before looking sharp in six shutout innings Monday in Arizona. That outing likely solidified his spot, at least for the time being. Chris Capuano is the one who more publicly has been noted as a candidate to be yanked from the rotation. Incredibly, the left-hander is 0-10 with a 6.70 ERA, 1.69 WHIP and .313 BAA in his past 16 starts, all of them Brewers losses, including 0-5 with 6.59/1.65/.310 numbers in 10 starts since his return from the DL on July 3. Capuano clearly hasn't been himself for much of the season, and while he shouldn't be blamed for his team's losses in all those starts, it doesn't help that he has only four quality starts out of those 16 turns, hardly enough to keep his team in the game. Don't be surprised if he's shifted to the bullpen by the weekend.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Xavier Nady returned from a 2½-week absence -- at least with regard to starting games -- due to a hamstring strain with back-to-back multihit efforts against the Phillies over the weekend. Still, he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he is at only "about 95 percent," and that he'd exercise caution with it the remainder of the season. The 28-year-old has enjoyed a bit of a breakout campaign, with .292/.343/.491 numbers, though don't be surprised if he gets more days off or gets lifted late in games for defensive/pinch-running purposes as a result of his hamstring woes. Nady remains a more useful NL-only and deep mixed-league option, and much of that is due to his multiposition eligibility (first base and outfield).

St. Louis Cardinals: Mark Mulder (shoulder surgery) is scheduled to make his second minor league rehabilitation stint for Class A Palm Beach on Tuesday, as he continues to work his way back to full strength. He allowed four runs (one earned) in 1 1/3 innings in his first appearance for Palm Beach Thursday, and might remain on a minor league roster until their season ends before being activated by the Cardinals, meaning he wouldn't be back until after the Sept. 1 40-man roster expansion. Mulder will not only need to prove his health, but also build up his stamina, before becoming a trusted fantasy option, and he's hardly a guarantee to be handed a starting role in September, especially not if the Cardinals remain in the playoff race by then. The best-case scenario has him getting in a few games at the big league level, even if it's in a relief capacity, in order to make him a bit of a safer bet for a comeback season in 2008.

National League West

Arizona Diamondbacks: So much for the idea of "pitching depth" created by the additions of Joe Kennedy and Byung-Hyun Kim. Not two weeks after the D-backs claimed both off waivers, they designated each for assignment Wednesday, frustrated by their combined 21.94 ERA in five appearances (including two starts by Kim). It's no real loss for fantasy owners, and not for the D-backs, either, and really only created a rotation spot to recall Yusmeiro Petit, who hadn't been bad in a starting role earlier in the season. Unfortunately, the rookie right-hander was tagged for six runs on seven hits, including three home runs, in 3 2/3 innings in his return start at Atlanta on Sunday, not a great sign. After beginning the season with a 2.54 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in five starts, Petit has slipped to 10.54/1.76 numbers in his past three turns. Expect him to take some time to get comfortable at the MLB level, despite his 8-4 record and 4.04 ERA in 17 starts for Triple-A Tucson, with NL-only matchups appeal his best shot at value this season.

Colorado Rockies: There's a rotation shake-up going on in Colorado, which must be a bit frustrating to the Rockies considering they boast MLB's third-best ERA since the All-Star break (3.78). Aaron Cook landed on the DL Thursday with a strained left oblique, a significant loss in that it came only days after Jason Hirsh hit the shelf with a broken leg, potentially ending his season. Cook's primary fantasy appeal was as a matchups type; he had a 3.07 ERA in 13 road starts, and quality starts at home against the Diamondbacks, Giants and Padres -- three weak offenses -- this season. Unfortunately, the Rockies' alternatives to Cook aren't nearly as appealing as him on the fantasy front. Rookie Franklin Morales, who tossed 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball out of Hirsh's rotation spot Saturday, isn't a bad addition in NL-only leagues, but Elmer Dessens, as well as newly acquired Ramon Ortiz, isn't worth a pickup. Dessens was touched up for five runs on six hits in 4 2/3 innings out of Cook's rotation spot Thursday at San Diego's Petco Park, a terrible sign for his matchups potential. Ortiz, who could soon displace Dessens after coming over from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for minor league infielder Matt Macri, seems far more fit to succeed as a reliever (3.24 career ERA) than a starter (4.97). Expect the Rockies to mix and match until Cook's return, with mediocre results.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Nomar Garciaparra, the team's everyday third baseman since June 26, landed on the DL Aug. 14 with a strained left calf, a troubling development for the team in light of the fact it traded backup Wilson Betemit at the July 31 deadline. That leaves the position in the hands of Shea Hillenbrand, a player who will be lucky to exceed Garciaparra's .289/.338/.430 rates so far this season as a third baseman, and will be weaker on defense. NL-only owners can pick up Hillenbrand, with upcoming games at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park and against the Nationals' inexperienced staff on the schedule, but consider this a noticeable downgrade for the Dodgers, and one that could hurt the pitching staff -- ground-ball specialist Derek Lowe in particular -- slightly. Top prospect Andy LaRoche, the team's future at the position, is unfortunately not an option right now, because he has been sidelined since Aug. 6 due to a back injury. He was hitting .376 (38-for-101) with 13 homers and 30 RBIs in 29 games for Triple-A Las Vegas since July 1, though, and could be a factor as soon as he heals.

San Diego Padres: The Padres expect to have Milton Bradley (strained hamstring) back in the lineup in time for Tuesday's game at the Mets, after he sat out the starting lineup in each of the Padres' past 15 games, making only two pinch-hitting appearances during that time. Expect him to reclaim his starting left-field role, hitting in the top third of the lineup, not that he's any guarantee to sustain his torrid pace with the Padres in the brief time since his trade from the Oakland Athletics. NL-only owners and those in deep mixed formats can take a chance on the outfielder based on his .355/.456/.618 rates for the team thus far, but few players are as much a health risk as he is. Bradley has already made four trips to the DL this season, two of them due to similar hamstring problems.

San Francisco Giants: Rajai Davis is off to a hot start for the Giants, starting 13 of their last 15 games, and batting .352 (19-for-54) with six stolen bases and 12 runs scored during that span. He has benefited from Dave Roberts' knee issues, which cost the veteran five games from Aug. 10-13 (at least as a starter) and allowed him only three starts in the team's past 12 contests. It also helps Davis that the Giants are a team looking more toward 2008, and getting a sense of which youngsters can help them. He's a speedy type, one who averaged 65 steals in the minors from 2003-06, and one with a lifetime .305 minor league batting average. Expect Davis, acquired from the Pirates in the Matt Morris trade, to play the bulk of the Giants' remaining schedule, or at least more than half of it, and with his speed, he's not a bad NL-only option for teams weak in the stolen base department.

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