Print and Go Back ESPN.com: 2013 [Print without images]

Thursday, September 12, 2013
Hitter rankings fickle down stretch

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

One hundred sixty-two games certainly seems like a lot, if you're the unfortunate owner of Carlos Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Edwin Encarnacion or Allen Craig.

Hit Parade

All of these players are dealing with injuries of varying severity, and the grueling, lengthy season has forced their on-field teams to ease off them recently. The result for fantasy teams is that their owners are being forced into difficult decisions with them during the stretch run. Here's the crazy -- or should that read "not so crazy" -- reality: All of them warrant cut consideration, at least in 10-team ESPN standard redraft formats.

At-bats -- or plate appearances, if you agree with my preference in statistics measuring playing time -- are precious, and the decision to go with a less battle-tested, albeit every-day player over a day-to-day, name-brand fantasy stud becomes more valid as each of the 18 remaining days to the 2013 regular season tick down. It's the reason why you'll see such fantasy studs plummeting in my weekly rankings at column's end, despite the fact that all would warrant far healthier rankings for 2014 in full.

As an aside: Don't worry, we've got you covered for early 2014 rankings; they will be published in a future edition of Hit Parade.

Let's get back to those injury-plagued players and examine their rest-of-2013 prognoses, as well as touch on several other pertinent topics.

Carlos Gonzalez
Carlos Gonzalez may officially be available to play, but should fantasy owners risk using him?

Carlos Gonzalez: He probably shouldn't still be playing, not with his Colorado Rockies mathematically eliminated from postseason contention, having battled an injured finger since the beginning of July. Since being activated from the DL on Sept. 3, CarGo has appeared in six games but has yet to make a trip to the plate; he has 69 PAs in 23 games total (minors included) since first missing time with the ailment (July 8-9) and has batted just .279 with two home runs and a 29.9 percent strikeout rate during that time. Gonzalez seeks a second opinion on surgery later this week, and I'd call it fair to declare his over/under on remaining 2013 PAs at 1.

Jacoby Ellsbury: He has a compression fracture of the navicular bone in his right foot, an injury he played through for a week. He will be re-examined by the Boston Red Sox's team doctor Friday and might yet return before the regular season ends. That said, the Red Sox have a magic number of eight to clinch the postseason, so any Ellsbury offerings will probably be with the team's design of gearing him up for October. A few token final-week starts aren't that likely to help you.

Edwin Encarnacion: The No. 9 hitter on our Player Rater, Encarnacion hasn't played since tweaking his wrist Sept. 7. Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons admitted Wednesday that there is a possibility that the slugger won't play again this season. There's no reason for the Blue Jays to push him. Even in the best-case scenario that he heals quickly enough to play in the final week, he's probably a smarter cut in shallow formats with an eye on reclaiming him in that event.

Allen Craig: His is a somewhat different circumstance than any of the above three -- perhaps that's the reason for his having been the subject of many fantasy owners' questions the past week -- as his St. Louis Cardinals are in a dogfight for positioning between being National League Central champs or wild-card play-ins as the home or road team. Three games separate them, the Pittsburgh Pirates (1 back) and Cincinnati Reds (3), so the Cardinals need these games and surely would like a healthy Craig. That said, the Cardinals are fortunate to have a productive backup in Matt Adams, a .250 hitter with three home runs and a .571 slugging percentage in his first eight games of September, so it's understandable that the team isn't rushing Craig back from his foot injury. I said at the time it happened that Craig might miss a week; I'll amend that to next Monday as a guess (again, guess). Even then, Craig might sit some days for Adams, especially once the Cardinals lock in their playoff seed.

So what of David Wright, then? The New York Mets third baseman, still 36th among hitters on our Player Rater and still in my top 150 hitters ranked below, has resumed fielding grounders and running the bases, which at least offers hope of a return from his hamstring injury this season. As a DL-eligible player, he's more deserving of keeping around even in shallow formats, even if his Mets, like the Rockies, were mathematically eliminated from contention Wednesday. Still, and this is again guessing, I can't see him offering you much more than 8-10 games.

And Starling Marte? He was activated from the DL on Sept. 7 but was declared a mere pinch runner and late-inning defensive replacement, neither role warranting much fantasy consideration; Billy Hamilton might be the only player in rotisserie baseball history to warrant a look locked into a mere pinch-runner role. After all, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Aug. 27 that Marte was two weeks away from even swinging a bat -- he wound up taking a few swings a day later -- and he was merely hitting off a tee as recently as Sept. 6. Marte could log some final-week time as the Pirates gear him up for the postseason, but his value would probably be capped to NL-only leagues.

OK, so that's the injured players. Is anyone healthy then? Well, sure ...

Evan Gattis
Evan Gattis is again showing the power that made him a hot commodity early in the season.

Evan Gattis: This is the kind of player that a team preoccupied with printing playoff tickets loves to own. He's plenty capable of providing regulars rest, with negligible decline in production. In short, he's much to the Atlanta Braves what Adams is to the Cardinals right now. Gattis' 6.6 percent home run rate (as a percentage of his at-bats) is fifth among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances, his 21.5 home run/fly ball percentage is 12th, and he has some of the best raw power of any hitter. Since his recall Sept. 3 -- with a quick, three-game stop at Triple-A Gwinnett as the Braves creatively tinkered their playoff roster -- he has started all eight team games in left field, batting .333 (10-for-30) with four home runs.

As a player with just 88 games played, 313 plate appearances and no clear place to play every day during the postseason, Gattis should continue to provide the Braves' regulars rest as he auditions for whatever role the team desires in October. Perhaps that's as a platoon left fielder, pinch hitter or mere three-position backup, but enjoy the ride for now, just as you might have in April.

The San Diego Padres schedule: Though Petco Park's smaller 2013 dimensions have given their hitters a fighting chance this season, any game that the Padres play away from that cavernous venue is a positive for their hitters. That's why a schedule that includes 11 road games out of their final 18 is a plus:

@PHI-1, @ATL-3, @PIT-4, LAD-3, ARI-4, @SF-3

As noted in Wednesday's 60 Feet 6 Inches, American League hitters have a substantial schedule advantage over National League batsmen, but perhaps you might be surprised to learn that it's the Padres who stand out with the NL's best remaining schedule, as one of the few teams in the Senior Circuit that rank in the upper half in terms of weighted on-base average and runs scored potential. One reason for this: The aforementioned Braves couldn't make it any clearer that they're resting up for the postseason than when they announced Wednesday that Freddy Garcia and David Hale would start two of the three games against the Padres. The Los Angeles Dodgers might be resting for the playoffs by the time that Sept. 20-22 series arrives, and the Arizona Diamondbacks' most effective pitcher this year, Patrick Corbin, could be up against an innings cap by that Sept. 23-26 series.

Padres
Will Venable has been a pleasant surprise in recent weeks and could finish 2013 with a flourish.

Fantasy owners should be pleased to learn that only one Padres hitter -- Will Venable (97.1 percent) -- is owned in more than 61 percent of ESPN leagues. Their batsmen are widely available and could plug holes as you try to scrape together lineups in these challenging weeks of the year. Jedd Gyorko, owned in 58.9 percent of ESPN leagues and both second- and third-base eligible, has home runs in two of his past four games. Chase Headley, owned in 60.9 percent and one of 2012's most productive second-half hitters, is a .304 hitter (7-for-23) with two home runs since returning from a minor back issue. And Nick Hundley, available in all but 0.2 percent of ESPN leagues, has an outstanding September history, as cited in this space last week.

If you own him, hopefully you've fallen in love with Venable. He has always been that sneaky 10-homer, 25-steal performer, one who can be brilliantly maneuvered when the matchups call. You would have always wanted him in there against right-handed starters. As a 30-year-old this season, however, he has finally become a complete performer, one with much better power than expected. Consider that Venable is a .302 hitter with four home runs in 55 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers since the All-Star break; he was a .220 hitter with five homers in 346 PAs against lefties in his career up to that point. Couple this with the Padres' favorable schedule and he's likely to finish the year strong.

Care to guess which team has the most surprisingly poor remaining schedule? It's the Detroit Tigers, who made Wednesday's 60 Feet 6 Inches for their favorable pitching schedule. Let's remind you of it:

Off day, KC-3, SEA-4, CWS-3, @MIN-3, off day, @MIA-3

Those opponents might not strike you as particularly scary, but keep a few things in mind: The Kansas City Royals have underrated starting pitching, the Seattle Mariners could always drop in a Felix Hernandez or Hisashi Iwakuma start, and by the time the team leaves for its six-game, season-ending road trip, it will probably have already wrapped up the AL Central and will be resting regulars.

Miguel Cabrera
Will Miguel Cabrera get more time off down the stretch to heal up for the playoffs?

Miguel Cabrera is the big name under the microscope, having missed 11 of the Tigers' past 63 games with back, hip and abdominal injuries, not to mention his having prematurely exited a few more with those ailments. He's in need of some pre-playoff rest, and while he's too valuable in fantasy to ever bench without advanced notice of his sitting a game -- which means daily-league owners should keep a close eye on Tigers daily lineups -- he's no guarantee to be the No. 1 player in the game from today forward.

Victor Martinez (34 years old with 144 games played), Torii Hunter (38 and 131) and Prince Fielder (played all 146 Tigers games) could also get additional days off.

Jean Segura: He's the No. 1 shortstop for the season on our Player Rater, but raise your hand if you've noticed that, on our Last 30 split, he's only 18th at the position. Segura has slipped into an awful funk during the season's second half, a .247/.272/.301 hitter with zero home runs, 10 runs scored and a mere 9-for-15 performance in stolen bases -- the latter most disconcerting considering it's usually his strength. Since the All-Star break, he has the majors' sixth-worst qualified well-hit average (percentage of at-bats that result in hard contact) and seventh-worst wOBA, with .093 and .295. The argument can be made that Jonathan Villar will be the more valuable fantasy shortstop the rest of this year.

Kole Calhoun: Not many people could have predicted this, but Calhoun has been one of the more impressive Los Angeles Angels hitters of late, having started 13 of the team's past 15 games and batting .383/.407/.596 with two home runs and 15 RBIs during that span. Though he has always been a contact-hitting, patient type -- with 11.9 percent walk and 16.5 percent strikeout rates during his four-year minor league career -- Calhoun always profiled as more of a fourth-outfielder/below-average regular type; he seemed the kind of player who could warrant a regular role in a thinner outfield, like that of the Mets, but hardly could crack the Angels' starting three. Injuries to Albert Pujols and Peter Bourjos (who has since returned to action as a part-timer), however, created an opportunity for Calhoun, and in it he has thrived. He's another of those beneath-the-radar options for your stretch run.