Potential stolen-base help

Plus, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout still shine despite nagging injuries

Updated: August 21, 2013, 3:18 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

When life gives you 26 hitting-related fantasy baseball topics of equal merit, you make alphabet soup!

Wait, what? That's not how the saying goes?

Hit Parade

Oh well. It works for these purposes, as, at a busy time -- and a critical one as league standings are concerned, with head-to-head playoffs around the corner -- there's plenty to be said and limited space in which to say it.

So just as we did in Tuesday's "60 Feet 6 Inches," let's play the alphabet-soup game, one topic for each of the 26 letters. Here we go …

A is for Andrus. After a disappointing 2012 campaign in the category, Elvis Andrus has quietly recaptured the success he displayed on the base paths during the first three seasons of his big league career, putting himself in line to both set a new personal best in terms of stolen bases as well as perhaps earn the No. 2 spot in the category in baseball by year's end. At 87.2 percent (34-for-39), he's already enjoying a career-best success rate, and that's critical, considering that Andrus has regressed with the bat during his age-24 season (his .257 batting average and .630 OPS would be career worsts). More to consider: League-wide stolen-base production is down 17 percent from last season, and we've already seen one of the best in the category, Everth Cabrera, lost for the year due to suspension. Andrus might be frustrating to own, only helpful in steals and runs scored, but he has been quite a bit more useful than people think.

B is for Brewers fill-in Khris Davis. Many -- this columnist included -- wrote off the Milwaukee Brewers' stand-ins following the announcement of Ryan Braun's suspension, but since July 22, Davis has batted .340/.404/.760 with a team-leading six home runs, earning starts in each of the team's past six games. Though never touted as a blue-chip prospect, Davis did possess underrated pop throughout his minor league career; he had lifetime .218 isolated power, .217 at the Triple-A level (101 games). He'll presumably be streaky, having whiffed 19 times in 67 at-bats thus far, but could be a handy short-term cog in the 81.8 percent of ESPN leagues in which he's available.

[+] EnlargeStarlin Castro
AP Photo/Andrew A. NellesStarlin Castro's vastly disappointing season is a bit of a mystery.

C is for Castro. Starlin Castro will go down as one of 2012's biggest disappointments. The No. 3 shortstop and No. 37 player overall selected on average in ESPN drafts, Castro ranks 25th at his position and 357th overall on our Player Rater, making him marginally useful in NL-only leagues (he's well below the cut-off in mixed). He's on pace for .240-9-41-10 numbers; Mike Aviles easily beat all of those last season. What's worse, Castro has shown no signs of turning it around, batting .188 with one RBI and neither a homer nor a steal in August, and the Chicago Cubs dropped him to eighth in the lineup Tuesday, following a span of six times in the team's previous 11 games that he had batted seventh. The most compelling case to be made in his favor is this: He's 23, with plenty of career in which to improve. Then again, isn't that argument equal in weight for a Brad Miller or Andrelton Simmons?

D is for d'Arnaud. It took 16 trips to the plate, until a two-out double in the eighth inning of Tuesday's game, for Travis d'Arnaud to register his first big league hit. Like his sluggish start to his career, fantasy owners haven't been swarming to the New York Mets' new starting backstop, adding him in only 1.4 percent of ESPN leagues in the past week. D'Arnaud's stock has slipped for an important reason -- an inability to stay consistently healthy -- the most compelling evidence being that he was Keith Law's No. 14 prospect in the preseason, but he failed to crack Law's midseason top 50. Still, it's good to see the Mets giving one of their top prospects a chance after he had tallied .328/.402/.588 numbers in 86 career games at the Triple-A level (with the caveat that those all came in the absurdly hitting-friendly environment of Las Vegas). I'm mostly anti-d'Arnaud as a short-term fantasy option, expecting that he'll need potentially over a year to adapt to the big leagues while proving he can remain on the field, but in a bad year for catchers, NL-only owners might find him a useful No. 2.

E is for Emilio Bonifacio. He's in the midst of a disappointing year, but don't underrate the value of fresh surroundings to Bonifacio. Since joining the Kansas City Royals, he has four stolen bases in six games, earning most of his six starts as an injury fill-in for Mike Moustakas/Lorenzo Cain. Bonifacio's playing time is hardly secure, but consider this: Ned Yost's Royals have attempted the fourth-most steals in baseball (127), and the fourth-best attempts-per-opportunity (7.7 percent, those "opportunities" as judged by Baseball-Reference.com), this season. AL-only and deep-mixed owners might be the only ones to benefit, but cheap speed is cheap speed …

F is for Franklin. Ah, the perils of strikeout-prone hitters. Nick Franklin, a handy power-speed pickup for those who nabbed him around Memorial Day, has slipped into a deep funk since, batting .202/.273/.394 in 26 games since the All-Star break. This shouldn't have come as a complete shock; he's a good yet non-elite prospect who had a tendency in the minors to fall into bad habits at the plate, best evidenced by his 23.0 percent strikeout rate and 0.35 walk-to-K ratio in Triple-A ball in 2012. Franklin should adjust given time, and fortunately for his fantasy owners, he's on a Seattle Mariners team likely to remain patient with him. That said, he's worth benching in mixed leagues for the short term.

[+] EnlargePaul Goldschmidt
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriPaul Goldschmidt is definitely worthy of all the Gatorade showers and other adulations this season.

G is for Goldschmidt. The No. 4 hitter on our Player Rater, Paul Goldschmidt has, in merely two calendar years (and change), transformed himself into one of the most promising long-term fantasy baseball investments. As he did in 2012, he has made tremendous strides recognizing and driving breaking pitches; he has six home runs and a .355 wOBA in 150 plate appearances that ended with one, and has now lowered his swing-and-miss rate against them from 40 percent in 2011 to 31 in 2012 to 28 this season. He has also answered any questions about his steep platoon split; he's a .293/.396/.530 hitter with 21 of his 31 home runs against right-handers. And, perhaps most importantly for our purposes, he's 13-for-18 on stolen-base attempts, putting him on pace for 17 steals, one shy of his 2012 number. Goldschmidt sure looks like a complete batsman these days, and a legitimate five-category fantasy stud; it's an easy argument to hail him as a first-round candidate for 2014. Best yet for keeper owners: I admit I might have blown the call on my "All-2017 Team" first baseman (understand, though, that I questioned his speed, and the point was bold calls).

H is for Home run/fly ball percentage, or, what partly explains Raul Ibanez's downturn in production the past month. Consider that at the All-Star break, Ibanez's number was 26.1 percent, fourth-highest among players with at least 250 PAs (behind only Chris Davis, Pedro Alvarez and Adam Dunn). Since then, it's 4.0 percent … granted, showing too much regression to the opposite extreme. From 2010-12, Ibanez was a player who homered on approximately 12 percent of his fly balls, a far more realistic expectation for a slugger who calls Safeco Field his home.

I is for Inside the strike zone … or the types of pitches on which Yasiel Puig has enjoyed the most success this season. Consider: His .479 wOBA on pitches in the strike zone is second-best (to Chris Davis) among players with at least 150 such plate appearances; he has a .328 mark on pitches outside the zone. That's significant because pitchers have more recently been challenging him to swing at non-strikes; his 37.5 percent rate of pitches in the zone in August ranks third-lowest. Puig has at least adjusted nicely in the meantime -- he's still a .318 hitter with two homers in the month, after all -- but this is one explanation for why he has (predictably) cooled.

J is for Jeter. After three separate stints on the disabled list this season, Derek Jeter appears on the mend again, having resumed simulated games Monday. But at this point, what confidence could any fantasy owner have that he'll remain on the field consistently enough to contribute? Quadriceps and calf injuries have dogged him since he recovered from last October's broken left ankle, and Jeter has attempted no steals in any of his nine professional games this season, an understandable result. His status as a shortstop -- a position renowned for being thin for our purposes -- and the New York Yankees' leadoff hitter are all you can cling to, but that's straight runs-chasing (a point to be made in an upcoming letter).

K is for Kemp. What an aggravating, injury-plagued season Matt Kemp has endured. He has appeared in 62 and started 59 of the Los Angeles Dodgers' 125 games due to hamstring, shoulder and ankle issues, and according to the team's official website, he's unlikely to return until at least the 40-man roster expansion on Sept. 1. "We thought he'd have a chance before September, but Matt's still not playing," said manager Don Mattingly. Kemp's fantasy owners have remained faithful -- he's owned in 100.0 percent of ESPN leagues -- but I continue to wonder whether he'll contribute much for the remainder of the year. After all, the Dodgers have outfield alternatives, including prospect Joc Pederson after rosters expand, and might take it easy on Kemp with their sights on having him fully healthy for the postseason.

L is for Leonys Martin. Elvis Andrus isn't the only Texas Rangers hitter on a torrid stolen-bases pace; Martin is on track for 35 of his own, or more than he had previously in his professional career (32). But this is as much about Martin's ascent to the leadoff spot in the Texas Rangers' lineup; he has batted .274 with a .326 on-base percentage in 21 games (20 starts) since. Even without Nelson Cruz, this remains a potent Rangers lineup -- adding Alex Rios should only help -- and that means plenty of runs and steals for table-setter Martin.

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesMiguel Cabrera is still doing his thing, but he's also facing a handful of injuries.

M is for Miggy's injuries. It's remarkable what Miguel Cabrera can do even at less than 100 percent. Since July 1, he has missed a combined eight games due to back, hip and abdominal issues, each during a separate stint, yet batted .323/.424/.692 with 15 home runs and 38 RBIs in 37 games during that time. Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland admitted to the Detroit Free Press afterward that Cabrera "was in some pain" following the slugger's strikeout in the ninth inning of Tuesday's game, yet another ailment that bears watching, but Cabrera's success exemplifies what we say about your studs: They're almost always worth keeping active despite the injury risk.

N is for New York Yankees lineup improvements. This is why one must consider lineup construction, rather than merely season-to-date statistics, when evaluating matchups. The No. 23 team in baseball for the season in wOBA (weighted on-base average), No. 26 in OPS and No. 17 in runs scored, these Yankees rank first, first and fifth in those respective categories in the month of August. They've done it by successfully -- let's stop short of saying "brilliantly" -- patching three significant roster holes: They've regained a healthy Alex Rodriguez, improving what was formerly the majors' worst third-base group to an at least league-average level of production; they've acquired Alfonso Soriano to fill their left field/designated hitter voids (look at Vernon Wells' numbers since mid-May); and they've signed Mark Reynolds to boost the right-handed portion of a first-base platoon previously occupied by such poor options as Brent Lillibridge and David Adams. All three, coincidentally, are right-handed, a critical boost for a team that before the All-Star break had the fourth-worst wOBA in baseball against left-handers (.287). This was once a "start-all-lefties-against-them" team; it's now above-average against them, and with this better lineup balance, Yankees hitters should only benefit in terms of runs/RBIs going forward.

O is for On-base percentage … or, the statistic that makes Shin-Soo Choo such a valuable commodity in non-standard leagues. Get this: Choo, currently the No. 47 hitter on our Player Rater, ranks 18th in leagues that go 6x6 replacing batting average with on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Choo's 14.8 percent walk rate, second best in the league, has been plenty valuable to the Cincinnati Reds out of the leadoff spot, too. It's a key reason the Reds might have two 100-RBI guys -- Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce -- after not having any in 2012.

P is for Prado. Martin Prado's season batting line (.282-12-59-3) might not be eye-popping, nor even Prado-esque, but after a sluggish start to his first season with the Arizona Diamondbacks, he has picked up the pace of late. He's a .370/.424/.571 hitter with 25 RBIs in 29 games since the All-Star break, earning himself the No. 9 spot among hitters on our Player Rater in the past 30 days, and he has done it despite rotating his 28 starts between third base (17), left field (6) and second base (5). Most encouraging for his rest-of-year prospects: His 7 percent miss rate on swings since the break is second only to noted contact hitter Marco Scutaro (4 percent).

Q is for Quick quiz: How many players find themselves on pace for a 30/30 season? (As an aside, what did you think I'd use the "Q" for, Carlos Quentin? Not many meaningful hitters, or hitting categories, that begin with "Q".) Answer: zero. In fact, the only players who have either already achieved or are on pace for 20/20 campaigns are Carlos Gonzalez, Mike Trout, Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen, David Wright and … Ian Desmond! In a lost year for the Washington Nationals, Desmond has been one of their bright spots, earning himself the No. 3 spot among shortstops on our Player Rater. If he accomplishes the feat, it'd be the second consecutive season in which he has done it, and as a soon-to-be-28-year-old, that should probably earn him at least as good a spot in 2014 rankings as he received this year.

R is for Reddick. What an aggravating, aggravating player Josh Reddick has been to own this season. A year after belting a professional-best 32 home runs, Reddick has hit only 10 out of the park this season … five of them during that wondrous two-day span in Toronto on Aug. 9-10. Since then, he has batted .229 without an extra-base hit and with a 31.0 percent K rate; in short, Reddick has gone right back to the disappointing character he was before that weekend (one that many fantasy owners missed as he resided on their bench or league's free-agent list).

S is for Springer. Might George Springer be the most fantasy-appealing prospect remaining among possible 2013 call-ups? The power-speed dynamo has rattled off a .311/.427/.661 triple-slash line with 17 home runs and 16 stolen bases in 51 games for Triple-A Oklahoma City, putting him within four home runs and one steal of a 40/40 minor league season (he also had 19 homers and 23 steals in Double-A). He's the top prospect for a Houston Astros team playing for the future, so a September promotion seemingly makes sense, but it's unclear yet whether the team will want to advance its timetable for putting him on the 40-man roster to this season. What's clear: Springer's five-category ability would make him an instant pickup in all leagues if he's promoted.

[+] EnlargeTrout
AP Photo/Brian WesterholtMike Trout still has the edge over Miguel Cabrera, but he's also dealing with some injuries as well.

T is for Trout. I've received plenty of feedback about my recent decision to push Mike Trout ahead of Miguel Cabrera in the "Hit Parade" rankings, and the most logical explanation is by using the past-30 split on our Player Rater to illustrate the impact of lost time: Trout ranks first, Cabrera seventh, thanks in part to Trout having played six more games of the two. So here's why they swapped back this week: Now Trout has had injuries call his value into question, and in his case, back-to-back lost games to a hamstring issue are a mild worry for a guy who generates a good share of value with his legs. As noted with Cabrera above, studs are studs, don't panic. But given their circumstances, I think the switches -- when I've made them -- are correct.

U is for Uggla: You wouldn't normally think that a player with a .186 batting average warranted even a blurb, but in Dan Uggla's case, he's on the mend, and the reason for his absence perhaps partly explains that poor number. He underwent LASIK surgery Aug. 16, after unexpectedly landing on the DL three days earlier, and according to the Atlanta Braves' official website has recaptured his 20/15 vision from previous seasons (it was 20/30 before the surgery). What's more, Uggla resumed batting practice Tuesday, giving him a realistic chance of hitting his personal goal of an Aug. 28 activation, on the first day he's eligible. Might LASIK be the catalyst for an Uggla late-season surge, or at least a return to the point that he's no longer a batting-average killer? It's possible and certainly worth the chance, being that he had missed 8 percent more often on all swings in 2013 comparative to his 2010-12 average, and 9 percent more often on swings at pitches in the strike zone. Available in 42.4 percent of ESPN leagues, Uggla could mount a top-10 second baseman run in September.

V is for Venable. In the past 30 days on our Player Rater, only seven players place better than San Diego Padres outfielder Will Venable. Formerly a "brilliant-platoon" candidate -- the type daily-owners love and weekly owners use during weeks heavy on right-handed opponents -- Venable has actually held his own on his bad side since the All-Star break. He's a .360 hitter with three of his six home runs in 25 plate appearances against lefties during that time, earning starts in four straight against a lefty and 16 consecutive games overall. The more than 50 percent of ESPN fantasy owners who have scooped him up in the past week might have landed themselves a nice little spark plug for the final weeks of the season.

W is for Wong. Kolten Wong, a dark horse candidate for the St. Louis Cardinals' second-base job during spring training, quietly had a much better season for Triple-A Memphis than people gave him credit. He batted .303/.369/.466 there, but it was his 0.68 walk-to-strikeout ratio and 20-for-21 performance attempting steals that stand out. Though the Cardinals hinted that his call-up this past Friday was to deepen the team's bench, Wong has started four of the team's five games since, three at David Freese's expense and one at Matt Carpenter's. It's a frustrating development if you own either Carpenter, a .316/.379/.461 hitter in August, or Freese, .273/.359/.455 in the month, but NL-only owners who scooped up Wong for potentially cheap steals should be pleased. Wong is 2-for-2 in steals already, but he'll need to hit in order to remain in an even division of the second/third base at-bats.

[+] EnlargeXander Bogaerts
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezXander Bogaerts made his big league debut on Tuesday, going 0-for-3 with a strikeout.

X is for "X-man." That's the nickname for Xander Bogaerts, the Boston Red Sox's top prospect and Keith Law's No. 3 prospect in baseball during his midseason rankings update, who was promoted by the team on Monday and made his big league debut a day later. It's a somewhat puzzling move, being that Bogaerts previously wasn't on the team's 40-man roster and the team had promoted Will Middlebrooks a week earlier to man third base, but manager John Farrell told the Boston Herald that Bogaerts will "rotate through the left side of the infield," which sounds dangerously like a part-time/platoon role. His promotion makes sense from an improving-the-team standpoint, a la Wong above, but there's a key difference between the two: Bogaerts is considered a true blue-chip, superstar-caliber prospect; Wong is a good prospect in his own right but not elite, having failed to make Keith Law's midseason top 50. The Red Sox need to find regular places for Bogaerts, a .284/.369/.453 hitter for Triple-A Pawtucket who has impressive 10.0 percent walk and 0.52 walk-to-K rates during his minor league career, and fantasy owners surely won't find another prospect with comparable upside out of the shortstop position -- perhaps eventually adding third-base eligibility -- off the waiver wire.

Y is for Young. As in, Eric Young Jr., not young players. (Though if you consider 28 "young," it's the best of both worlds!) Young might not be much of a hitter -- he sports a lifetime .259 batting average and has batted .250 for the New York Mets -- but his speed and ability to draw walks have earned him a regular place leading off for his new team; he has started 54 of 57 games since his trade and is 20-for-24 in stolen-base attempts with an 8.3 percent walk rate. Considering the Mets' dearth of quality outfielders, Young seems a safe bet to play every day the rest of the year, and he's available in 60.9 percent of ESPN leagues, if you seek cheap steals.

Z is for Zero. That's the number of home runs hit by Atlanta Braves utilityman Evan Gattis in the team's past 24 games, and during that span he has earned only 14 starts (nine in left field, five at catcher). He's a .183 hitter in 60 at-bats during that time; it appears that part-time duty might be having an adverse effect on him. Amazingly, Gattis remains the No. 15 catcher on our Player Rater for the season, but his rest-of-year value has come greatly into question of late. Anyone banking on him finishing strong is counting on this: The Braves' likelihood to clinch a playoff spot early might result in their regulars gaining additional rest, which might benefit Gattis. But even that's probably not enough to make him more than a No. 2 backstop in NL-only leagues.

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