This has been one painful season -- literally.
Moments after news broke that Joey Votto would miss the next 3-4 weeks following knee surgery, and subsequently Jose Bautista was lost to the disabled list, fantasy owners were abuzz with frustration about how damaging the losses were to their respective squads. I received a few tweets, in fact, within minutes from people who actually owned both players.
Replacing a Votto or Bautista is never easy. It is something rarely done with a waiver-wire gem, and there's no denying the truth: Owners of either player are going to suffer in the standings to some degree while said players are absent.
But here's the other, oft-overlooked truth: You can absorb such a blow by making a timely, smart deal for an undervalued slugger right now.
Many fantasy owners believe that replacements are something easily found on the scrap heap. I'm sorry, but the unfortunate reality is that Brandon Moss, the highest-ranked first baseman on our Player Rater (available in more than 75 percent of ESPN leagues), is not going to give you Votto-like numbers during the time that Votto misses. But a few players whose skill improvements in the past several weeks warrant attention might well do so.
Consider these five names my "second-half bargain bets," players who, despite possessing nowhere near the reputation of a Votto or Bautista, stand realistic chances at approaching their statistical levels the remainder of the year:
Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks: I was concerned about Goldschmidt at the beginning of spring training, witnessing some of the flaws in his swing that I believed might take months to fix. Sure enough, through his first 34 games, he batted .223, hit only two home runs and struck out 36 times in 112 at-bats, or a 29.0 strikeout percentage when applied to plate appearances (which is my preferred measure of strikeout performance). But then, like flipping a light switch, something changed for Goldschmidt. He has batted .348 in 44 games since, belted 10 home runs and struck out only 20.3 percent of the time, a rate that, applied to batting average qualifiers in the 2011 season, would have placed him in the 25th percentile (calculating that with strikeouts being a bad thing), rather than in Mark Reynolds/Drew Stubbs panic-mode territory.
All of Goldschmidt's improvements address the problem areas I discussed in the preseason. At the same time I noted that he could make said adjustments, but it was a matter of how quickly. Comparisons to Giancarlo Stanton's career progression were legitimate, if Stanton is to be described as one of the quicker examples in recent history to make those adjustments. Let's put Goldschmidt's performance into statistical perspective:
[b] He's a .308/.376/.538 hitter, up from .147/.224/.294 as a rookie in 2011, against off-speed stuff (curves, sliders, changeups or knuckleballs), and has lowered his miss percentage on swings by a whopping 11 percent.
[b] On pitches "down" and "away" -- those measured as the lower third of the strike zone and beneath as well as the outer third and outside -- he has increased his batting average by 123 points, chased 5 percent fewer non-strikes and drawn a walk 13 percent more often.
This is no longer a "heat or cheat" player, but rather one of the burgeoning power sources in baseball. Goldschmidt, still only 12th among first basemen on the Player Rater, stands an excellent chance at being a top-10 player at his position going forward, so inquire with his owner whether he's still cheap via trade. Here's a bold call for him: I think he could bat .270 yet hit 20 homers the rest of the season.
Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves: Opinions on whether Freeman's 2012 season has been respectable or a total disaster seem varied -- at least judging by many of the questions received about him during the first half -- and it's that perception that makes him a potential buy-low candidate today. He remains 16th among first basemen on the Player Rater, yet has top-10 potential, based upon his underrated power potential. Taking simply Freeman's full-season statistics, these stand out: He has improved his well-hit average by 10 points, his isolated power by 34 points, and has hit 6 percent more fly balls and 3 percent more line drives than he did in 2011. He has also chased 4 percent fewer pitches out of the strike zone. Remember, part of Freeman's problem during what was an awful, .188-hitting, 27-game stretch from May 7-June 19 was an issue with his eyes: It took him several days to receive goggles to help ease the issue.
Freeman batted .292 after the All-Star break last season, hitting eight home runs and driving in 33 in 69 games. There's no reason he can't bat close to that with similar run production, while approaching 15 homers.
Tyler Colvin, Colorado Rockies: Be it at first base or in right field, the Rockies need to get a sense of just what they have in Colvin looking forward. Todd Helton's DL status paves the way for Colvin to play; Colvin's .323/.374/.747 triple-slash line, 10 homers and 27 RBIs in his past 28 games surely have earned him a regular place in the lineup the rest of the season. Coors Field might have inflated his numbers somewhat, but his .283/.308/.525 road rates show that he's not a complete Coors product. Two things have spawned his breakout: Improved performance against lefties (his batting average is 241 points and OPS 692 points higher than in 2011 in that split) and plate coverage on the outside third (his batting average is 166 points, OPS 509 points, higher). Batting average is likely to remain a problem for a hitter with a 25.4 percent lifetime strikeout rate, but Colvin's could be the sneakiest 15 homers available the rest of the way.
Adam Lind, Toronto Blue Jays: He's easily the least trustworthy name on the list because of his lengthy big-league history of extremes -- both scorching hot and freezing cold streaks -- but that might also make him the least difficult to acquire of the bunch. He is, after all, available in more than 50 percent of ESPN leagues. Thanks to his work with Triple-A Las Vegas hitting coach Chad Mottola, primarily shortening his stance and beginning his swing earlier, Lind has looked like a different hitter since his June 24 recall. He's a .339/.400/.644 hitter with five home runs in 18 games since that date, and more importantly, has missed on only 14 percent of his swings, an extremely low rate compared to his history. Lind's improvement shows in his performance against lefties (235 points higher in batting average after his recall than before it in 2012), his numbers on pitches on the outer half (256 points higher in batting average) and his stats on pitches clocked at 93 mph or faster (200 points higher in batting average). Whether he can sustain that for an extended period -- think seasons rather than weeks -- is a valid question, but Lind might yet have a mini-breakout during the second half.
TOP 125 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 125 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics they already have accrued. "Prev Rnk" is the player's rank among hitters in our All-Star break Top 250.
Delmon Young, Detroit Tigers: His has been a tumultuous season, but in his past 29 games, Young is a .308/.311/.453 hitter, and his second-half history hints that he might yet have more to offer looking forward. Here's what stands out about his recent uptick: He has cut his strikeout rate from 19.7 percent before June 12 to 15.6 since it; his well-hit average is up, from .209 to .248; and his ground-ball rate has dropped, from 41.9 to 35.6 percent. Considering Young's off-the-field issues coupled with his years of failing to realize his full potential, might he not, at age 26, recognize he's running out of chances for big-league teams to grant him regular at-bats? Surely he'd like to finish his free-agency walk season on a positive note, and his recent performance hints at that. Young's average career second half -- scaled to 70 games -- is a .296-8-43 stat line, and there's no reason he can't match or even exceed those numbers.
Erick Aybar, Los Angeles Angels: Few players, let alone shortstops, have quietly revived seemingly lost seasons as effectively as Aybar has done in the past month. In his past 30 games, he's a .355/.397/.564 hitter with four home runs and 16 runs scored, earning himself the No. 5 spot at his position in that period on the Player Rater. Dismiss the homers if you wish -- some might point out that two were hit at Yankee Stadium on humid days -- but in defense of Aybar's Yankee Stadium power outburst, both homers were second-deck shots that would have exited any ballpark in baseball except for maybe Petco. At his current rate of improvement, Aybar might not be far off reclaiming the No. 2 spot in the lineup, which would provide a healthy boost to his runs scored total. He did, after all, start two of the Angels' past three games out of that spot.
Kevin Youkilis, Chicago White Sox: If the Boston Red Sox mistakenly gave up on him assuming he was done (or close to it), it wouldn't be the first time that's happened. Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez or Manny Ramirez, anyone? Youkilis has thrived sporting his new pair of Sox; he's a .319/.415/.551 hitter in his first 18 games for his new team. More importantly, Youkilis has resumed many of the positive things he did during his better years in Boston: He has a 13.4 percent walk rate that almost matches his 13.2 percent number from 2009-11 combined and a .217 well-hit average that isn't far removed from his .257 number from 2009-11. Though this might be a bit more of a hot streak than total rebirth, Youkilis is playing like he has new life in his bat, and he's in a favorable circumstance hitting high in an order with sluggers who can drive him home and in a ballpark that plays well for power. There's no reason he shouldn't be one of the 10 most valuable third basemen the remainder of the year.
Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals: So much for his shoulder threatening to return him to the disabled list. In fact, it was a June 24 cortisone shot for the injured AC joint in his shoulder that coincided with Zimmerman's improved play; he is a .354/.420/.722 hitter with seven home runs, 21 RBIs and 18 runs scored in 19 games since. During that span, he has hit more than 7 percent more fly balls, nearly 3 percent more line drives and has a .342 well-hit average, considerably better than his .218 well-hit average before hat date. Questions about Zimmerman's health are no longer warranted; he has shown that he's back to his prior top-eight fantasy third baseman form.
Lucas Duda, New York Mets: July has been a rough time for Duda and his Mets. Once the team's leading home run hitter -- the honor was entirely his as recently as June 29 -- Duda has batted .138/.286/.241 with one home run and a 31.4 percent strikeout rate in nine games in the calendar year's seventh month. His Mets have won only three of 11 games. Coincidence? Mostly, in all probability, but Duda's struggles certainly don't help. He's also nursing a strained left hamstring that required a cortisone shot on Monday; he's scheduled to return to action Wednesday, but it's too soon to tell whether he'll enjoy a Zimmerman-esque rebound or continue to struggle until he returns to full health. Two reasons for concern: Since June 8, a span of 29 games played for Duda, he has struck out 6 percent more often and hit 5 percent more ground balls.
Paul Konerko, Chicago White Sox: Where have you gone, Paul Konerrrrkoooo your power stroke has left and gone away ay-ay-ay. In all seriousness, Konerko's power drought now extends 13 games and 60 plate appearances, and he's a .238/.317/.331 hitter with only three homers in 34 games since the beginning of June. That's an important time span; it roughly coincides with a wrist injury that cost him three games in early June and might have contributed to his power outage since. Sure enough, Konerko has a .169 well-hit average since June 1, down from .250 in the first two months, as well as .092 isolated power and a 6.1 home run/fly ball percentage. Argue for correction to those categories if you prefer an optimist's approach, but if Konerko is playing at less than 100 percent, those stats are more understandable.
Mike Napoli, Texas Rangers: He has been one of the most maddening catchers to own this season. Regression to his batting average has gone to the extreme, and now he has been battling a quadriceps injury that cost him a couple games of late. Napoli is a .154/.290/.231 hitter with only one home run plus a 32.3 percent strikeout rate during his past 23 games and ranks 42nd among catchers on our Player Rater the past 30 days. For the season, he has struck out more than 10 percent more often than he did in 2011, and his well-hit average has tumbled by more than 100 points. The problem with that is that the Rangers were ambitious using him frequently behind the plate when he was hitting like he did the second half of last season; they're more likely to look to Yorvit Torrealba for defense if Napoli doesn't turn it around soon with the bat.
New position eligibility
The following players have become eligible at new positions -- it's 10 games to qualify at a new spot -- in ESPN standard leagues during the past week: Billy Butler (1B), Matt Downs (3B), Maicer Izturis (SS), Kyle Seager (2B), Drew Sutton (OF), Justin Turner (1B).
Nearing new position eligibility
The following players are on track to earn new eligibility in the coming weeks: Robert Andino (8 games played at 3B), Jeff Baker (9 games played at OF), Ronny Cedeno (9 games played at 2B), Pedro Ciriaco (8 games played at 2B), Steve Clevenger (9 games played at 1B), Brooks Conrad (9 games played at 3B), Jason Donald (8 games played at SS), Brandon Hicks (9 games played at SS), Elliot Johnson (9 games played at 2B), Jayson Nix (8 games played at SS), Donovan Solano (8 games played at OF), Mark Trumbo (8 games played at 3B), Justin Turner (8 games played at SS).