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Friday, May 29, 2009
Hurting for production

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

Big Rotowski
I have a confession to make. I am slow -- painfully slow -- to make changes to my fantasy baseball teams. I am so patient, I make Bartleby the Scrivener look like he has A.D.D. (A big shout out to all you English majors out there.) The baseball season is long, goes my logic, and the worst moves are made in overreaction to a small sample size. When superstars struggle, I shrug and smile. When mediocre talents burst onto the fantasy scene, I resist the temptation to add them.

But is that wise?

While others are pouncing on the hot starts of guys like Casey Blake and Josh Outman, I calmly wait for Carlos Quentin to get his head dislodged from his posterior. I suppose I've always known my proclivities in this area, but they were never clearer than during a radio gig I did earlier this week. Fantasy owners phoned in with questions, and a surprising (to me) number of them were distress calls about Jason Bartlett and Melky Cabrera. And I'm all like, "Huh?" I mean, I know those guys have put up some pretty good numbers so far in '09. But when I get the question (really), "Should I drop Jimmy Rollins and pick up Ben Zobrist?" I realize I'm out of step with a sizable chunk of fantasy nation.

By that, I don't mean to imply that I'm better than a sizable chunk of fantasy nation. In fact, I sometimes wish I had a little more gumption, that I was a little more willing to believe in the impossible breakout season that could lead me to add a guy I never thought I'd consider adding. And I'd also have a lot more sympathy for fantasy owners crushed by the news that their unexpected fantasy find has health issues.

That brings me to Bartlett, Cabrera and others. For those owners who've ridden the unexpected nice starts of these guys, the question begs asking: Is this where the gravy train ends? Will these players be able to come back from their current nick-ups and pulled muscles to continue where they left off? Or do these health hiccups signal you to consider quitting while you're ahead, and start looking for replacements? I write about starting pitchers ad nauseum every week (in my Sixty Feet Six Inches column), so I'll stick to hitters here, and see if I can't work my way around the diamond and drum up a little love for the hurting unexpected stars among us. (Stats through Thursday's games.)

1. Felipe Lopez, 2B, Diamondbacks. (.323, 4 HR, 10 RBI, 21 R, 4 SB) The D-backs' leadoff man hasn't played since last Saturday because of an injured hammy, though there's a good chance he'll return for Friday night's game against the Braves. Lopez is fantasy's 14th-most-valuable second baseman so far in 2009, and after stealing just one base in April, he has nabbed three in May, giving hope that he can reach double digits for the fourth time in his career. But it's the batting average that has me suspicious. His batting average on balls in play is .370, and that .323 mark currently sits around 60 points higher than his career number. And the fact it's a leg injury that's shelved him makes me worry he might not run for a bit. As a fantasy position, second base is getting thinner because of injuries, but I'm of a mind that Lopez has seen his best days in '09. Verdict: Don't feel compelled to ride him.

Jason Bartlett
Jason Bartlett's breakout campaign has been interrupted by an ankle injury.
2. Jason Bartlett, SS, Rays. (.373, 7 HR, 30 RBI, 32 R, 14 SB) I went on TV in March endorsing Bartlett as my favorite shortstop sleeper of 2009, so his ridiculous performance to date grants me a measure of self-esteem. Unfortunately, he's on the 15-day DL with a sprained ankle, with a return date of around June 8. Was this the honking horn of reality interrupting Bartlett's sweet slumber of studliness? Well, let's be real: the batting average is stoooopid, and won't last. He's a career .285 man with a .411 BABIP in '09. And considering he's already reached his single-season high for homers, I'm not expecting that much more power. But the speed and the runs? I think they're for real. Bartlett stole 18 bases before the All-Star break last year, then battled leg injuries in the second half and stole only two thereafter. He's a legit 30-SB threat, provided, that is, his left ankle is up to the task. He won't stay fantasy's most valuable shortstop, but I'm still believing. Verdict: Reasonable expectations will be rewarded.

3. Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Giants. (.304, 3 HR, 17 RBI, 16 R, 2 SB) That lusted-for catcher eligibility we talked about in March doesn't seem forthcoming in most leagues: Sandoval has played only three games so far behind the dish. But he's backing up his .345 average in 145 at-bats last year with a fine season so far, one that's improbably seen the, shall we say, rotund Sandoval actually steal a couple of bases. (He was also caught stealing twice last week.) Now Sandoval has a strained muscle in his elbow, one that's caused him to miss this week, and which could still land him on the DL. Right now, he's a batting-average-dependent player without much plate discipline, and the worry would be that physical setbacks could hinder his development as a potential power hitter. As a catcher, he'd be ownable in all leagues. As strictly a third baseman, I'm not sold on him as a mixed-league option. Verdict: Average is for real, and unfortunately so is the power.

4. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds. (.360, 8 HR, 33 RBI, 23 R, 2 SB) Votto doesn't quite fit the mold of the other guys in this column, because I loved him entering '09. He's going to be a star. There's really nothing about his numbers I think is unrealistic here except the average, which is buoyed by a .402 BABIP. So that number is coming down, but any questions we had about whether he's a legit power hitter seem silly now: He's for real. He's on this list because his fantasy owners got freaked over the past couple of weeks by his dizziness; fortunately, it turned out Votto had an inner ear infection, and according to our ace injury analyst Stephania Bell, there shouldn't be any lingering trouble. Unlike a lot of players on this list, I don't think Votto's playing way above his level. Verdict: Take advantage of the dizziness worries and go get him.

5. Jack Cust, OF, Athletics. (.255, 7 HR, 25 RBI, 25 R, 1 SB) The best number Cust has going for him at the moment is that first one: he's hitting .255., 14 points above his career average (and 24 points above his 2008 production). Most particularly, Cust's strikeout rate is way down: He fanned 41 percent of the time in both '07 and '08, but sits at 26.8 percent so far in '09. What's odd is that Cust is walking less frequently, too: from 18.8 percent in '08 to 12.8 percent in '09. So he's making more contact, and, incidentally, hitting more fly balls: 46.5 percent of his batted balls are of the "fly" variety, compared to 38.5 percent last year. And his home run-per-fly ball rate has cratered, from a monstrous 31.7 percent in '07 and 29.7 percent in '08 to just 13.2 percent so far in '09. He's battled back spasms and a respiratory ailment this week; the bad back isn't great news, but it's also something he's dealt with for years. So the big question is: Can he keep up the average? I honestly think .250 for the season is in range, thanks to the reduced strikeouts. And I really believe his HR/FB rate will get more favorable, and his power numbers will improve. Verdict: I can't believe I believe.

6. Travis Hafner, DH, Indians. (.270, 4 HR, 8 RBI, 10 R, 0 SB) Hafner was a fun story the first couple of weeks of '09, turning back the clock to 2006 with some Bunyan-esque blasts. Unfortunately, the shoulder woes that ruined his past two seasons flared up again, and he wound up on the DL. Did you hang onto him? Should you have? Hafner told the Cleveland Plain Dealer he believes he'll return next Monday, and Eric Wedge said Hafner looked "free and easy" in batting practice a few days ago. I don't hate the idea of trying to catch some power lightning in a bottle next week, just to see if Hafner's got that spark left in him. But I have to say I'm mighty suspicious. Let's just say stinking in '07 then missing most of '08 then having a recurrence of the same injury in '09 doesn't breed confidence. Verdict: The old days are gone.

7. Melky Cabrera, OF, Yankees. (.323, 5 HR, 20 RBI, 20 R, 4 SB) After a spring filled with lots of Yankees garment-rending about what the team would do in center field, Cabrera seemed on the cusp of solidifying the position when he smacked into the wall trying to catch an Ian Kinsler fly ball earlier this week. The injury is considered a bruise, and Cabrera should only miss a week or so, but this throws a wrench in the works. Sure, a .349 BABIP indicates that the Melk Man's average is probably a little lucky, but it's not disastrously high, and Cabrera has been an unexpected spark during New York's resurgence. But you know what? I don't trust him. Yes, he's slugging .481 right now, but the memory of his .341 last year still stings (he's never slugged better than .391 in a big league season). The pop, I fear, wasn't for real in the first place, and an injured shoulder isn't going to help. Verdict: If you want contact, he's a decent option, but he's not a serious longer-term mixed-league option.

8. Omir Santos, C, Mets. (.268, 2 HR, 15 RBI, 10 R, 0 SB) Santos is a former Yankees farmhand called up to the Mets by necessity amid the catcher carnage at Citi Field, and he may have submitted his career highlight by drilling a game-winning homer off Jonathan Papelbon at Fenway last weekend. He's owned in 0.3 percent of ESPN leagues, so it's not like the fantasy world is leaping to add Santos, but he has been the game's 10th-most-valuable catcher over the past week. Alas, he also suffered a shin bruise a couple of days ago, and left the starting lineup in favor of Ramon Castro. Santos is much-beloved in Mets communities, with many fans and talk-show hosts contending that the team simply cannot send him down while he's hitting. (By contrast, injured starter Brian Schneider is at .143, while Castro is hitting .253.) We'll see. But except in an NL-only league, there's probably no reason to add Santos. Verdict: Only for the catching-desperate.

9. Coco Crisp, OF, Royals. (.233, 3 HR, 14 RBI, 29 R, 11 SB) He's been a batting-average drain, but Crisp has more than made up for it with huge run production and speed that foretells the first 30-steal season of his career. Alas, he's missed time over the past few days because a sore shoulder that's plagued him for weeks, and as Red Sox fans can attest, it's always something with this guy. However, the .233 mark is artificially low: he's got a .248 BABIP and is a career .277 hitter, so things should get better in that regard. And when they do, Crisp suddenly ascends to very interesting mixed-league fodder. Right now, he's not even owned in three-quarters of ESPN leagues, and I think that number should go up, provided he can get back in the lineup and prove his shoulder's all right. Verdict: The speed-needy need look no further.

Christopher Harris is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.