Sixty Feet, Six Inches: AL rotations roundup

Last week, I gave an National League starting rotations State of the Union; this week, it's the American League's turn. Once again, I'm tasked with giving you one interesting rotation quandary per team, and I've ranked them, from most- to least-interesting. Here goes:

Detroit Tigers: Is Justin Verlander ever going to start acting like an ace? I was as big a Verlander advocate as there was in March, and while it's true his ERA has come down more than two full runs since May 8, he hasn't gone more than six innings in his past three starts and has exceeded seven innings just once since April 12. He's also walked 45 in 108 innings, a season after allowing 67 in 201 2/3, and his K/9 is down from 8.2 in '07 to 6.5 this year. Detroit is a hot team, so wins should be there, and Verlander insists he's healthy. I'm not completely sold on that, though.

Cleveland Indians: Can Cliff Lee keep it up? After back-to-back bad starts on May 30 and June 4 (each of which he won), Lee looked primed for a predictable fade. In five outings since, he hasn't allowed more than two runs. I continue to be baffled by how Lee has suddenly turned from an impresario of the fly ball to a master of the grounder, and I still wonder if he's going to turn into a pumpkin. But I have to say: I think I believe in his hot first half more than in Edinson Volquez's.

Oakland Athletics: Which will come first: a Rich Harden trade or a Rich Harden injury? Harden will be a free agent after the '09 season, which, according to the Mark Teixeira school, makes him a possible trade target this month. Potential suitors drool over his incredible stuff and his numbers (2.25 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 88 K in 72 IP), but worry that a body part will fall off at any moment. If you're a Harden owner who likes to live dangerously, keep riding him. But let's face it: the market for him is never going to be higher. If Oakland does deal Harden (right now they're just 4 1/2 games back of the Angels), it could mean Gio Gonzalez or James Simmons gets an audition.

Seattle Mariners: Will Erik Bedard get his act together, and will he do it in Seattle? By most accounts, Bedard has been moody and soft in his time in the Pacific Northwest, and like Harden, he'll be a free agent after next year. He'd make a sweet trade acquisition for a contender, but the Mariners have to worry about saving some face here, having dealt away a tremendous package to get Bedard from Baltimore this winter. Either way, considering how poorly his back has apparently felt over the past month, Bedard faces an uphill battle to come near his '08 expectations.

Minnesota Twins: What will become of Francisco Liriano in 2008? The Twins are a great story: second place in the AL Central despite dealing Johan Santana. But how bad do they look for forcing Liriano into the rotation to start the year? The organization clearly rushed its bonus-baby lefty, who's been extremely up-and-down at Triple-A since his demotion. His most recent outing was a great one, though, giving hope that he'll be back in July.

Boston Red Sox: Is Clay Buchholz on his way back to the majors? The Boston Globe reports that Buchholz could replace Justin Masterson in the Boston rotation as soon as this weekend, and since Bartolo Colon still has to perform a rehab assignment, he's unlikely to be a starting candidate for a few more weeks. Buchholz wasn't really "demoted," per se; the Red Sox said his fingernail was cracked, then used it as an excuse to give him a rest and work on his location in the minors.

Chicago White Sox: Who's more for real, John Danks or Gavin Floyd? Chicago has ridden these two young starters to first place in the AL Central. Floyd is 9-4 with a 3.45 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP, while Danks is 5-4 with a 2.50 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP. They're both essentially owned in all ESPN leagues, so you're not going to pick one up off the waiver wire, but should you sell high? My money is on Danks over Floyd for the second half, but Floyd has confounded my predictions to this point.

Kansas City Royals: Can Gil Meche get his fantasy ownership above 33 percent? Meche was a nice story in '07, parlaying his massive free-agent deal into a sub-4.00 ERA and some fantasy respect. Unfortunately, he subsequently squandered that pre-draft love with a 7.81 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in April. But while you weren't watching, Meche posted ERAs of 3.65 and 3.13, and WHIPs of 1.14 and 1.11, in May and June, respectively. He's also fanned 82 in 108 1/3 innings, but unfortunately was lit up on Wednesday night.

Tampa Bay Rays: Will David Price go from Rookie League ball to the majors in a season that began with him on the DL? The possibility of last year's first-overall pick making that big a jump seemed remote as recently as May, but Price is throwing well at Double-A. If Tampa is still in contention come August, Price might make a nice little addition. As a plethora of rookie starters not named Edinson Volquez have shown this year, fantasy stardom is tough to come by in your first season. But Price would be worth a shot in fantasy leagues if he comes to the bigs.

Toronto Blue Jays: Will A.J. Burnett get traded? He's been awesome in consecutive outings and he's got 108 strikeouts in 106 1/3 innings, but he's always one pitch away from the DL and failed to get out of the sixth inning in four of five starts before this recent nice stretch. I feel smart for naming Burnett one of my top-five turnaround candidates just a few weeks ago, but if I were the Jays, I'd get rid of this guy for a prospect fast. If he goes, John Parrish (who's up right now for Shaun Marcum) could stay in the Toronto rotation.

Baltimore Orioles: Can Jeremy Guthrie keep it up? Viewed as somewhat of a fluke last year, Guthrie has been just about as good in '08, posting a 3.50 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP. His strikeout rate is lower and his walk rate is higher, plus he hasn't been as dominating as he was in the first half of '07 (remember that he really cooled off toward the end of last year). However, six years after being selected in the first round, Guthrie is finally living up to his billing.

New York Yankees: Will the kids get healthy and be fantasy-relevant? With Chien-Ming Wang probably on the shelf for the rest of '08, the Yankees are going to need something from Ian Kennedy and/or Philip Hughes if they're going to make the playoffs. Kennedy has begun his minor league rehab stint, having thrown two outings at Class A, while Hughes is still at least a month away from beginning his program. New York could go trade for C.C. Sabathia, but that's looking less likely now.

Texas Rangers: Will Eric Hurley be a young Kevin Millwood? Baseball America likens Hurley to Millwood, and considering the original article is already pitching in Arlington, you'd think Hurley would have a nice pattern after which to model himself. The kid has been OK in his four career big league starts, and already warrants AL-only consideration. If he shows he can keep the ball down consistently and still get hitters to swing, I might talk him up to mixed-leaguers in a month.

Los Angeles Angels: Will all five starters get to 15 wins? This question was actually posed by my ESPN pal Nate Ravitz, and it's a pretty good one. The guy you'd think might be hardest-pressed would be John Lackey, who's got only six, primarily because he missed a month and a half. Joe Saunders already has 12 wins and Ervin Santana has nine, so they seem like good bets. Jered Weaver and Jon Garland each have seven -- and sorry, Nate, Garland is where I draw the line.

Comings and Goings

Felix Hernandez went on the DL, retroactive to June 24, with an injured left ankle. Hernandez is expected to be ready to go when he's eligible to be activated next Wednesday. Ryan Rowland-Smith had a 3 2/3-inning stint starting in King Felix's place Tuesday, but didn't pitch very well. … Carlos Zambrano is expected to come off the DL on Friday to face the Cardinals in St. Louis. … Brett Myers has been the subject of much speculation and pixel dust in this column so far in '08, and with good reason: He's been dreadful. I predicted a second-half turnaround for him a couple of weeks ago, but that's going to have to wait, as the Phillies demoted Myers to Triple-A on Tuesday. He's still a buy-low candidate if he can get himself straightened out after a few starts in the minors, but you'd have to think we're not going to see much of him in July, at the very least. J.A. Happ and Chad Durbin are currently candidates to replace Myers in the rotation. … Roy Oswalt left Monday's start after six very effective innings because of a strained hip. He'd fanned nine and walked no one to that point, and wound up posting a win. The Astros aren't sure if he'll be able to take his next turn Saturday. … Erik Bedard, who missed a start because of his balky back, returned Saturday and held the Padres to one run and three hits in 5 1/3 innings. He's scheduled to throw against the Tigers at home Friday. … The Cardinals hadn't given much news on Adam Wainwright's injured finger, which had led some to speculate that he'd be out a good long while. But the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Tuesday that the team thinks Wainwright can return soon after the All-Star break. … Hiroki Kuroda came off the DL for the Dodgers on Wednesday and pitched seven shutout innings to post his fourth win. Meanwhile, Brad Penny came through a simulated game in one piece this week, and is slated to return from the DL on Saturday against the Giants. Kuroda and Penny replace Chan Ho Park and Clayton Kershaw in the L.A. rotation, with Eric Stults sticking. … The Dodgers demoted Kershaw to Double-A Jacksonville on Wednesday. He was a hot waiver acquisition in May (I told you not to get too excited), but he walked 24 in 38 2/3 innings and couldn't get out of the sixth inning since his first start. Kershaw could come back later in the year, but remember, the Dodgers have put a hard cap on his innings for the year. … The Rockies put Jeff Francis on the DL with a sore shoulder yesterday. Francis told the Rocky Mountain News that he could've pitched through the pain, but the team wanted to give him a couple of weeks off. Mark Redman was called up from Triple-A to take Francis' place in the rotation. … Micah Owings missed his scheduled start Wednesday because of his bad back. Yusmeiro Petit took Owings' place, allowing one run, two hits and no walks in six innings. … As I mentioned above, the Boston Globe reports that Clay Buchholz might take Justin Masterson's turn in the Red Sox rotation this weekend. Masterston has struggled in his past two outings. … The Nationals called up Collin Balester on Tuesday and watched him make his big league debut against the Marlins; he allowed one run in five innings to earn a victory. Balester isn't an ace-in-the-making, but he could be a No. 2; he won't strike out a lot of batters, but he pitches effectively to contact and gets outs. He's NL-only-worthy right now. … The Los Angeles Times reports that Kelvim Escobar woke up with severe pain in his shoulder after his most recent rehab outing, and that the Angels plan to shut him down for the rest of the season. … Kason Gabbard went on the DL because of soreness his pitching elbow, and was replaced in the Rangers rotation by Luis Mendoza. Mendoza pitched against the Yankees on Wednesday and allowed one earned (but five unearned) runs in 4 2/3 innings. … The New York Times reports that Orlando Hernandez is aiming to return to the Mets rotation by the end of July.

On The Farm

Francisco Liriano had been mediocre in two straight Triple-A outings, allowing nine hits in each. But his last time out Monday for Rochester, he struck out nine, allowed four hits and one walk, and made it through seven innings. A couple more in a row like this and the Twins might finally get around to using him on the big club again. … The Rays are having a storybook big league season, but unfortunately, one of their best prospects, Jake McGee, will have to have Tommy John surgery next week. McGee and Wade Davis have been known as a pair since they were drafted in the fifth and third rounds, respectively, in 2004. Davis will now assuredly move ahead on prospect lists, alongside David Price and Jeremy Hellickson. … Josh Johnson has shown decent control through four minor league rehab starts, walking three while striking out 16. While he's been hittable at Double-A Carolina (.354 BAA in two starts), the Marlins seem close to pulling to trigger on bringing Johnson back to the majors, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He'll pitch again in the minors Friday, and if it goes well, the Marlins might bring him up thereafter. But because he's returning from Tommy John surgery, I have to admit I'm skeptical he's going to be worth owning in fantasy leagues. … Rich Hill had another disastrous outing Tuesday, pitching for the Cubs' Rookie League team. He walked three and hit a batter while recording just one out. About a month ago, I wrote that I wasn't ready to give up on Hill. Well, I'm ready now. Forget about him for this year; simply hope the kid can get over this massive case of the yips by '09.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.