Reality Check: Wounded warriors find their way back
The second half is a time for new beginnings, for stepping out of the four-day break refreshed, renewed and ready to right all the wrongs of the first 3 1/2 months.
Which for some players simply means playing again.
Yes, many of the ones you've been stashing for weeks on end are back, the midseason checkpoint once again serving as a logical return date for anyone suffering an injury of medium severity.
And most of them have already made their returns known in Fantasy. Jacoby Ellsbury , a consensus first-rounder who played only a week before dislocating his shoulder in mid-April, Matt Kemp , who was far and away the best player in Fantasy before his hamstring troubles began in mid-May, Andre Ethier , his partner in crime who had earned must-start status himself before straining his oblique in late June, Nick Markakis , who was showing more pop when he broke his hand in late May, and Lorenzo Cain , a preseason sleeper who never had a chance to become anything more thanks to a torn hip flexor in early May, all have three-hit games to their credit in the few days since returning. Even Marlins speedster Emilio Bonifacio , a player highly regarded for his versatility, at least has a stolen base to his credit. He was on pace for 80 of those before spraining his thumb in late May -- an injury that ultimately required surgery.
Needless to say, the Fantasy owners who stashed those six are patting themselves on the back today, their patience and foresight rewarded with high-end production (or at least the potential for it) at a time when it's almost impossible to find on the waiver wire.
Then, there's the guy who stashed Lance Berkman .
It's not like it was a bad idea. Berkman was a top-10 first baseman and top-12 outfielder in Fantasy last season, rebounding from an injury-plagued 2010 to produce his usual .300 batting average and 30 home runs. And it's not like his production was lacking when he tore his meniscus in mid-May. By all the data available to us, he's more or less the same player as last year. Still, his situation is different. While all those other six go back to their usual positions to put up, hopefully, their usual numbers, he, uh ... well, perhaps you should hear it from him.
"I shouldn't be playing ahead of any of the guys we have out there," Berkman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during the All-Star break.
But ... he's capable of a .300 batting average and 30-plus homers every year. Those players don't just grow on trees, right?
For the Cardinals, they do, and no other player embodies that idea more than Berkman's direct replacement: Allen Craig .
Craig, unheralded in the minors despite hitting .308 with an .888 OPS in parts of seven seasons, hit .315 with 11 homers and a .917 OPS in 200 at-bats as a part-timer last year, following it up in the NLCS and World Series with a .296 batting average, four homers and 1.147 OPS. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that he returned from his own knee surgery this offseason to hit .297 with 13 homers and a .947 OPS in 185 at-bats as a replacement for Berkman.
And if those numbers are no surprise for him, then logically speaking, they're also a realistic expectation for him. And if those numbers are a realistic expectation for him, then how could you justify removing them from the lineup?
You can't. Berkman knows it as well as anyone, which is why he made it easy for the Cardinals by forgoing a rehab assignment, which would have prepared him for an everyday role, and opting instead for the one approach no one ever takes after a two-month absence.
"I'd rather work my way back in at this level," he said.
What does that look like? A spot start here, a pinch-hit appearance there -- in short, a bunch of part-time at-bats.
By his own doing.
It's probably not as unselfish as it sounds. With Craig batting fourth or fifth every day and delivering big hits seemingly every day, Berkman probably saw the writing on the wall and thought, "Why waste time in the minors if I'm destined for spot duty anyway?" Or maybe, hoping for one last shot at the postseason at age 36, he recognizes that the Cardinals probably won't get back in the race without Craig in the lineup.
Again, Berkman is perfectly capable of delivering numbers like the ones he did last year, but at his age, coming off knee surgery and only two years removed from a career-worst season, is that really the most-likely scenario? If in a best case he'll do what Craig is already doing, isn't Craig the better player? That's not always the deciding factor in these situations, especially when the better player is making less money. The coaching staff feels pressure from the front office. The fans and media can't stop asking questions. All in all, it's a mess. Fortunately, Berkman's decision to rehabilitate his knee in the majors gives the Cardinals a built-in excuse.
"I don't think [Berkman] is ready to go out and play nine innings five straight days. Getting Craig at-bats I don't see as a problem," general manager John Mozeliak told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Of course, no one is saying Berkman won't play at all. Spot starts are part of the plan, as we saw Sunday. At times, the Cardinals might even start him alongside Craig, who is also capable of playing left field, right field and, in a pinch, third base. Because the Cardinals have All-Stars at those three positions, though ( Matt Holliday , Carlos Beltran and David Freese ), that's hardly an everyday solution.
No, first base remains the most logical place for Craig to play, which means Berkman will spend a fair amount of time on the bench.
The timeshare isn't an ideal scenario for either player, but I'm sticking to the idea that Craig will be more of a hindrance to Berkman than the other way around. A player like Berkman, who's prone to cold stretches and accustomed to everyday duty, faces an uphill battle with his newfound role. As long as Craig continues to deliver, as he has in every role at every level to this point, the dilemma will quickly fade for the Cardinals.
Perhaps now, amid the hype of his return, is the ideal time to shop Berkman. It's certainly the right time to talk to your league's Craig owner, who's probably fearing the worst.
In the now ... A look at how recent events have impacted certain players' Fantasy value
Tyler Colvin , 1B/OF, Rockies: So what if Colvin had another good game? He still doesn't play enough to matter in Fantasy, right? Um, you might want to check that game long again. Between left field, center field, right field and first base, Colvin has started 14 of the team's last 15 games. Kind of puts that .337 batting average and those 10 homers over his last 26 into perspective, right? With Todd Helton now on the DL with a hip injury -- the kind that could be a deathblow for 38-year-old like him -- Colvin should have even more starts coming his way. He homered 20 times in 358 at-bats for the Cubs in 2010, so the power is certainly legit, and considering he's batting .283 with an .833 OPS away from Coors Field and .304 with an .876 OPS against left-handed (i.e. same-handed) pitchers, his numbers aren't warped by ridiculous splits. He's simply a 26-year-old coming into his own in an extremely favorable hitter's environment. Ignore him no more.
James Shields , SP, Rays: If you've played Fantasy long enough, you've seen the high-end players bounce back from slow starts often enough that you pretty much always expect it to happen. But at some point, patience can become as much of an impediment as impatience, and we've about reached that point with Shields. It's not like he's another Adrian Gonzalez , with a track record so pristine that you have to assume he'll fall in line with it eventually. Remember 2010? It's not like he's another Ian Kennedy , with enough good starts mixed in with the bad that you can't help but still trust in the talent. For Shields, the hits just keep going up and up and up, and we've seen it from him before. Apparently, his stuff is on such a tightrope that if his location is less than perfect, he gets pounded. I'm not suggesting you drop a guy whose name carries so much value, but maybe you shop him and take what you can get.
Nori Aoki , OF, Brewers: Aoki is a fine role player who can make an unexpected contribution in Fantasy from time to time. At least, that's what his ownership percentage of 39 would have you believe. In actuality, he's pushing every-week status in mixed leagues. Since taking over as the Brewers' regular right fielder on May 21 -- a move made possible by Corey Hart 's shift to first base, which was made possible by Mat Gamel 's season-ending knee injury -- Aoki is the 16th-highest scoring outfielder in Head-to-Head leagues, fueled by a .292 batting average, four homers, 11 steals and .812 OPS during that stretch. No, he doesn't stand out in any one category, but as is often the case for overlooked players, his on-base ability and extra-base pop fills in the gaps to create a complete player. It's basically what Shane Victorino has done all these years. Aoki may not save your team in a Mike Trout sort of way, but chances are he's better than one of the outfielders you're currently starting.
Ubaldo Jimenez , SP, Indians: Oh, that Jimenez ... always teasing us with his high-end arsenal. No, it's not what it once was, but with an average fastball velocity of 92.4 miles per hour, good for 21st among right-handed starters, it's still more than good enough to get the job done. That is, if he throws strikes with it. For a three-start stretch in June, he looked like he had finally figured that part out, walking just three batters en route to a 2.75 ERA. But in his four starts after that, he allowed four walks, four walks, four walks and one walk.. He maintained a low ERA during that stretch, lulling the less-observant into his trap before springing it Saturday by allowing eight earned runs in 2 1/3 innings ... to go along with four walks. In other words, more of the same for Jimenez, who has mostly been a headache in Fantasy since his near Cy Young 2010. He's OK in the right matchups, but he's a marginal type in mixed leagues.
Casey McGehee , 1B/3B, Pirates: Remember when McGehee was regarded as a top-12 third baseman in Fantasy? Ah, those were the days ... way back in 2011. Yes, it was just last year people were drafting him for that purpose, and understandably so. He was coming off a 23-homer, 104-RBI campaign with the Brewers. A down performance last year confined him to a reserve role and eventually reduced him to signing with the Pirates. But those Pirates have been hitting well lately, and their decision to start McGehee has been a big part of it. McGehee initially got hot as a reserve, batting .304 with six homers and an .891 OPS over his last 29 games, but between the corner infield spots, he has now started eight straight. The Pirates' lack of star power gives them little incentive to sit McGehee, which is all the more reason for you to look into him as at least a stopgap option in Fantasy.
Down the line ... A brief update on some of the minor-leaguers who have caught the attention of Fantasy owners
Matt Harvey , SP, Mets: As unexpected contenders, the Mets have every incentive to fill out their starting rotation with pitchers who are, you know, good. So with Dillon Gee down for the year with a blood clot in his right shoulder, a top prospect like Harvey is actually in the discussion to take his place. In fact, manager Terry Collins called Harvey's Monday start at Triple-A an audition for the opening with the big club on Saturday. Harvey tends to get overshadowed in the Mets system by ace-in-waiting Zack Wheeler , but he's a high-end prospect in his own right, his mid-90s fastball contributing to more than a strikeout per inning at Triple-A. Though his 1.31 WHIP there suggests he won't be an ace right away, he could make a Jarrod Parker -like impact in the second half.
Adam Eaton , OF, Diamondbacks: Perhaps the Diamondbacks wouldn't even be entertaining the possibility of trading Justin Upton if not for Eaton, who has taken the minor-league world by storm with his .381 batting average between Double- and Triple-A. That's not a misprint. It's actually gotten better since his promotion to Reno, where he's hitting .391 in 327 at-bats. He's not just a one-trick pony either. His keen batting eye (.465 on-base percentage between the two stops) and elite base-stealing ability would make him an ideal leadoff hitter for a contender otherwise lacking one, and he even has some pop, as his .537 slugging percentage shows. Even without an Upton trade, the Diamondbacks have to be looking for an excuse to get Eaton in their lineup. NL-only owners should have him tucked away for that day.
Javier Baez , SS, Cubs: Baez -- the ninth-overall pick in last year's amateur draft -- was held back to start the season, but you'd never know it looking at his numbers. In only 145 at-bats at Class A Peoria, he already has eight homers and 16 steals to go along with a .331 batting average. His bat speed was compared to Gary Sheffield 's coming out of high school -- which is about as good as it gets -- and so far, the numbers have only backed it up. At age 19, he's not looking at a September callup or anything, but his talent will move him quickly up the ladder. For Fantasy purposes, he's not far off from the elite duo of Jurickson Profar and Manny Machado among shortstop prospects.
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