Fantasy Camp Notes: Matsui, Schmidt health in question

Every day throughout spring training, ESPN.com's fantasy writers will give you a quick-hitting look at the latest news from the camps from a fantasy angle.

It's here, it's finally here! Spring training began Thursday, with pitchers and catchers reporting for eight of the 30 teams; 10 more have them in camp beginning today. It's an exciting time for us for fantasy; it's our first chance to see the players in action in four months, and, in essence, the official start to the daily news cycle. And there's no shortage of news to get the ball rolling.

Hideki Matsui admitted to the Yankees' official Web site that he has yet to return to game shape after offseason knee surgery. Both he and manager Joe Girardi, though, believe the veteran slugger will be ready in time for Opening Day. Whether that's as a left fielder or designated hitter is uncertain. Defensively speaking, the Yankees are better off with Melky Cabrera in center field and Johnny Damon in left, relegating Matsui mostly to DH duties. Perhaps that'd be better for his full-year health anyway. Keep tabs on Matsui's knee in the coming weeks, as I worry about his 33 years of age and dreadful finish to 2007, when he batted .184 with a .662 OPS in his final 27 regular-season contests. We have him conservatively ranked 28th among outfielders, and it's probably smart to keep him there. I have him a spot or two lower than that, in fact.

• Ah, there are those dreaded words: "experience" and "gamer." Such words have led to many an undeserving player earning a starting role in past spring trainings, and such words came floating out of Dodgers camp on Thursday, according to the team's official Web site. Take a listen: "I've always been one to favor experience," said manager Joe Torre in reference to Juan Pierre, about whom he added, "We know he has no power, but he's a gamer." Torre is referring to what multiple sites are reporting as a left-field battle between Pierre and Andre Ethier, and the team's Web site, in fact, lists Matt Kemp as a member of a two-position battle among the three. Folks, this is the kind of report that has me petrified regarding Kemp, the one name of the three who deserves his 600-plus at-bats. Which one should sit most? Probably Pierre, though it might not turn out that way. That's a critical battle to watch the next month, and if you're drafting today, don't get overzealous bidding on Kemp. I say that not as a knock on his skill set, more as skepticism regarding his chances at regular at-bats to begin the season.

• Sticking with the Dodgers, ESPN The Magazine's Tim Kurkjian reports that Jason Schmidt isn't being counted on to be ready for Opening Day, or, at least he's not by Torre, who said Schmidt "is on the back burner." Schmidt reported to camp Thursday and said that in the past two weeks, he made a significant breakthrough in his recovery from shoulder surgery, as he woke up one day without stiffness or soreness. He has been throwing off a mound twice a week for the past month, and while he might begin the year on the disabled list, it's not unthinkable he could prove ready by Opening Day. That's not enough to get me noticeably investing in Schmidt just yet, but it bears watching.

• Don't expect Francisco Liriano in camp in the next few days, though it's not because of any slow recovery from Tommy John surgery, but visa issues stemming from a 2006 DUI arrest. He'll miss the first week of camp, which will set him back a few days in his preparations for Opening Day. All the reports on Liriano's rehabilitation are positive otherwise, so mark this down merely as something to check in a week, to make sure he's not significantly behind the other Twins in their throwing programs come the start of the exhibition season.

• Perhaps it explains his extreme first- and second-half splits from 2007, perhaps not, but I'll be interested to see how Reggie Willits looks in the next month after word from the Angels' official Web site that he had his gallbladder removed in January. He indicated that he was bothered all last season by pain in his stomach and rib cage, which could help explain his pedestrian .252 batting average and nine steals in 70 games from July 1 on, after he batted .337 with 18 steals in his first 66 contests. The bigger concern with Willits this year is the full Angels outfield, but I'll have my eye on him. He's a high-on-base type with great speed and will be quite the sleeper with a strong camp.

• Wow, can't say I expected this one. Chris Ray, who had Tommy John surgery on Aug. 16, will apparently begin his throwing program on Friday with some light tossing, putting him on schedule in his rehabilitation. He told the Baltimore Sun he'll be back by the one-year anniversary of the operation, which would be pretty remarkable. Ray is a distant long shot for a single save chance all year, but for his 2009 value, it'd be nice to see him log a few games in September to get back in shape.

• Ray's absence, by the way, clears the closer role for 2008, and that same report in Thursday's Sun noted that newly acquired George Sherrill opens camp as the favorite for the spot. That was my expectation at the time of the Erik Bedard deal, and while managers seem to conform to the traditional logic that right-handers make better closers, the lefty Sherrill truly deserves the first shot. He has closer's experience in the minors and in independent ball, and with a strong spring could be a sneaky 30-save option.

• Sleeper watch! According to the Cubs' official Web site, Felix Pie is no lock for the center-field role this spring. Arizona Fall League MVP Sam Fuld will absolutely be in the running. Pie's bat might bring a little more pop, and he'll clearly begin camp as the favorite for the role, but Fuld is a speedy type with a bit better plate discipline in his minor league career. NL-only owners looking for cheap steals should keep tabs on this race, because if Fuld makes the team, he'll be a nice low bid in the late rounds.

• That same report, incidentally, also focused on the Cubs' closer picture, in which manager Lou Piniella said he'd make his final decision about three-fourths of the way through spring training. He named the candidates, too: Bob Howry, Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood. Not that we weren't expecting that, but it's a clear sign Ryan Dempster, despite the offseason addition of Jon Lieber, will remain in the running for a rotation spot. Marmol is the high-upside candidate fantasy owners should want right now, but this is truly a wide-open competition, meaning it's a bit early to toss any lofty investment his way.

• Speaking of Dempster, the Chicago Sun-Times notes that he's in a four-man race for the final two spots in the Cubs' rotation, battling Lieber, Jason Marquis and Sean Marshall. I know the man I want in one of those two spots: Marshall, a low-end NL-only sleeper with nice command ratios in the past. That hardly means he'll win one of the spots, as he'll need to earn it. Besides, he has been rumored in proposed dealings for Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts. I'd say the 25-year-old is absolutely someone to watch closely for the next month, though.

• OK, suddenly I'm a lot more skeptical about new Royals manager Trey Hillman than I was at the time of his hiring. According to the Kansas City Star, Hillman says he might give Miguel Olivo some time in left field this season. Are you serious, Trey? Olivo might have proved one of the more fleet-footed catchers the past six seasons, but he doesn't exactly have the bat for the position. If anything, this might be Hillman's creative way of saying he's hoping to wedge both Olivo and John Buck into the same lineup against left-handers -- Olivo hits them quite well -- and that could hint as to which player stands the better chance at regular at-bats. Not that I want either catcher if I can help it, but forced to pick, I'm taking the former Marlin first.

• Cardinals manager Tony La Russa told the team's official Web site that he doesn't expect Chris Carpenter, coming off Tommy John surgery, to be ready to throw 110-120 pitches in a game until sometime midway through the season. I'd call even that a generous estimate and wouldn't advise more than a 10-start projection for Carpenter in 2008, and even then, he might not look like his old self in those outings anyway.

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