Reality Check: Major hype for minor productivity

by | Senior Fantasy Writer
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Francisco Liriano, Homer Bailey, Tommy Milone and Mike Leake.

Those are some of the pitchers owned in fewer Fantasy leagues than Trevor Bauer. Together, they're averaging more Head-to-Head points per start over the last six weeks (14.3) than James Shields is over the course of the season (14.1).

Danny Espinosa, Everth Cabrera, Michael Saunders and Gregor Blanco.

Those are some of the hitters owned in fewer Fantasy leagues than Anthony Rizzo. Together, they're averaging more Head-to-Head points per game over the last six weeks (3.0) than Dan Uggla is over the course of the season (2.9).

On just about every waiver wire in just about every Fantasy league, players who are actually contributing right now -- and at a high level, no less -- are available. Yet Bauer and Rizzo, with their zeros across the board, aren't.

Saying this duo has captured the imagination of Fantasy owners would be like saying dirt is dirty. It's so mind-numbingly obvious that it's a waste of everyone's time. You've seen it yourself on the discussion boards, from the unbridled enthusiasm whenever Bauer pitches another gem to the public outcry whenever some front office type suggests Rizzo isn't ready. Fantasy owners aren't just caught up in the narrative; they're dancing at the ball with Prince Charming.

And the clock is about to strike midnight.

Rizzo is already on his way to the majors, a move that became possible with Bryan LaHair's recent transition to right field. Bauer, meanwhile, is set to arrive Thursday. The Diamondbacks placed Joe Saunders on the disabled list Saturday with a strained left shoulder, and even with the lack of specifics surrounding the injury -- such as severity, timetable for return, etc. -- general manager Kevin Towers made good on his hints from earlier this month that Bauer would get the nod at the first opening.

"He's pretty much done everything he probably could do at Double-A and Triple-A, and he's been very successful at it," Towers told the Arizona Republic a couple weeks ago. "Sometimes you've just got to wait your turn, wait for that opportunity. How that opportunity presents itself -- be it an injury, a trade, or somebody not performing who ends up going down -- then you take advantage of it."

When they take the field, all the potential that has everyone so excited will no longer have the benefit of imagination. The fantasy will end, and the Fantasy -- capital "F" -- will begin. When all those bubbly thoughts meet with cold, hard statistics, will the fairy tale come true, or will we instead get the Tim Burton version, complete with skulls and crawly things?

I don't mean to scare anyone who already owns Bauer or Rizzo. Your patience and foresight are about to pay off, and that's a wonderful thing. But understand that you can't possibly know what the payoff might be. If you're relying on one to fill a long-standing need or, worse yet, to save your season, you're setting yourself up for as much disappointment and regret as the owners who didn't bother to add them in the first place.

You're better off acknowledging the full range of possibilities for whichever of these two you have and then mapping out the rest of your roster accordingly. It may not be as fun as going all pie-in-the-sky with him and bragging to your friends about your future together as you swoon over his minor-league numbers, but it's less likely to end with you smashing a dish against the wall.

So what are those possibilities? You should know the good by now. Bauer, as the third overall pick in last year's draft, has some of the best stuff of any minor-league pitcher and is already more polished than most given his time at UCLA. He has averaged 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings to go along with a 2.23 ERA in 16 minor-league starts, and the Diamondbacks have hinted of adding him to their rotation since as early as spring training. Rizzo, meanwhile, is hitting .345 with 23 homers and a 1.110 OPS in 255 at-bats at Triple-A Iowa. Those numbers pretty much speak for themselves.

But the naysayers have their say and have said "nay" to both, pointing to Bauer's less-than-stellar walk rate of 4.6 per nine innings and Rizzo's dependence on hitter-friendly ballparks. Both are valid concerns that you could choose to accept as hogwash or not, but you won't know if you're right until you see them played out one way or the other.

Of course, the most likely scenario is probably somewhere in the middle, with Bauer and Rizzo each making useful Fantasy contributions without, you know, completely rewriting the record books.

My best guess for Bauer, knowing how studious he is about pitching and how carefully he forms a plan of attack, is that he knows exactly what he's doing on the mound and that, if the walks start to get him in trouble, he'll simply stop issuing the walks. Even if it's not that simple, a walk rate of right around four per nine innings is hardly a death sentence for a pitcher with his kind of stuff. In terms of immediate impact, a reasonable comparison would be Tim Lincecum, who posted a similar walk rate while taking the Fantasy world by storm as a rookie in 2007.

My best guess for Rizzo, knowing his previous contrast in major- and minor-league stats (he hit .141 in the majors last year despite hitting .331 at Triple-A Tucson -- a similar hitting environment to Triple-A Iowa) and that he was a .260-hitting, .825-OPS guy during his last stint in a normal hitting environment with the Red Sox's Double-A affiliate in 2010, is that his flaws will keep him from measuring up to the best of the best at first base, at least this year. Granted, you could do a lot worse than Adam LaRoche off the waiver wire at this point. You just shouldn't expect Prince Fielder.

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Could they perform better than that? Anytime you're dealing with high-upside players, it's possible, but keep in mind Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are exceptional cases. The chances are just as high that Bauer and Rizzo bomb right out of the gate and have to go back to the minors for more seasoning.

If you own them and they come through for you, great. It's a nice bonus for your team. But if you know of someone so caught up in the hysteria that he's willing to trade you a proven commodity for one of them -- say, a Yovani Gallardo-type pitcher or a Shane Victorino-type hitter -- it's an even better scenario in seasonal formats.

You don't want to get caught waiting for the glass slipper when you could have been dancing the night away.

In the now ... A look at how recent events have impacted certain players' Fantasy value

Will Middlebrooks, 3B, Red Sox: After Kevin Youkilis' return from a back injury in late May, Middlebrooks was stuck in Fantasy no-man's land. The talent he showed when filling in for Youkilis made him almost impossible to drop in certain leagues, but he didn't play enough to make a relevant contribution in those leagues either. Well, after watching Youkilis bat .191 over the last three weeks, the Red Sox front office decided enough was enough, dealing Youkilis to the White Sox on Sunday to give manager Bobby Valentine the freedom to play his hot hand. And with a .625 (10 for 16) batting average and three homers over his last six games, Middlebrooks is no doubt a hot hand. His lack of plate discipline puts him closer to David Freese than Adrian Beltre among third baseman, but he's a top-12 option regardless. He's done nothing but rake since coming up from the minors and now gets the at-bats to make the most of it.

Drew Storen, RP, Nationals: Even during his long road back from elbow surgery, Fantasy owners in 70 percent of leagues have stuck with Storen, convinced he would eventually be an elite option closing out games for the pitching-heavy, first-place Nationals. Just look at what Tyler Clippard is doing. Um ... yeah, about that ...

"Right now, [Clippard is] my closer, and I can't see me going to somebody else," manager Davey Johnson told MLB.com Saturday. "[Another pitcher] would have to show up here probably in a setup role before they'd have the opportunity to close."

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Come again? I'm no expert in coach speak or anything, but it sounds to me like Johnson is saying Clippard is his guy regardless of whether or not Storen is ready to return after the All-Star break. And looking at the numbers, you can hardly blame him. Since assuming the closer role on May 22, Clippard has 12 saves -- the second-most in baseball during that stretch, and has allowed only one hit. Dating back to the start of 2009, he has a 2.45 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings, so if anything, this ascension was long overdue. Of course, Johnson could simply be hedging his bets here, wanting to see Storen dominate for a few appearances before handing him back the role, but now he's left it open to speculation. Adjust accordingly.

Justin Masterson, SP, Indians: Believe it or not, Masterson has a 3.21 ERA over his last 11 starts, which is exactly the same as what he had last season, when he was considered one of the biggest breakouts among starting pitchers. Surprised? Yeah, he got off to a slow start, and has had a couple rough patches -- a seven-run outing and six-run outing -- during that hot stretch that may have convinced you he wasn't back on track. But the good starts have far outnumbered the bad and have shown that all the progress he made last season wasn't a flash in the pan. He lacks the strikeout potential of an ace, but he's the kind of pitcher you can trust on an every-week basis. If you wrote him off early, you're missing out now. Toss his current owner an offer just to make sure he feels the same way.

Carlos Zambrano, SP, Marlins: So much for all that. Zambrano re-entered the Fantasy discussion this season by posting a 1.96 ERA and 1.07 WHIP over his first eight starts, but few returns to normalcy have been as swift or definitive as his. With an 8.04 ERA and 1.75 WHIP over his last six starts, his season marks are up to 4.01 and 1.30, which, considering he's not a strikeout-per-inning guy anymore, are practically worthless in standard mixed leagues. And really, that lack of strikeouts should have signaled this demise all along. It's not like his command got any better during that eight-start stretch. He still issued 3.6 walks per nine innings. With his average fastball velocity down to a career-low 90.0 miles per hour, he couldn't avoid the damage forever. That's not to say he'll be quite this bad going forward, but now that the numbers have normalized, you can have more reasonable expectations going forward.

Brandon Belt, 1B/OF, Giants: Just how hot has Belt been? With his .405 batting average, four home runs and .532 on-base percentage over his last 12 games, his season OPS is up to .833, higher than that of Michael Cuddyer, Mark Teixeira and Albert Pujols. With Aubrey Huff on the DL, Brett Pill in the minors and Buster Posey back behind the plate full-time, Belt is now getting what most would consider a prerequisite for a breakout: regular playing time. Whether that or his recent mechanical adjustments -- he now stands more open and upright at the plate -- are more responsible for his recent surge is irrelevant. In every way -- the power, the on-base ability and even the speed -- he's fulfilling the potential that made him the No. 23 prospect according to Baseball America last season. If he keeps it up, he could be the biggest steal off the waiver wire since Allen Craig.

Down the line ... A brief update on some of the minor-leaguers who have caught the attention of Fantasy owners

Ryan Lavarnway, C, Red Sox: After a slow start to the season, Lavarnway has come alive over his last 14 games at Triple-A Pawtucket, batting .368 (21 for 57) with four home runs. He's an offensive force, no doubt, having averaged 25 homers over his last three minor-league seasons and compiled a .939 OPS between Double- and Triple-A last year. The only reason he didn't make the roster out of spring training is because his defense is still a work in progress. His biggest hindrance now is Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who himself has offered more-than-adequate power at the major-league level, but with Kevin Youkilis gone, the Red Sox may end up needing an extra bat on the bench. Even in a part-time role, Lavarnway's offensive potential could make him a clutch pickup in a two-catcher league.

Ryan Wheeler, 3B, Diamondbacks: By now, we can safely deduce the Diamondbacks aren't entirely satisfied with .240 hitter Ryan Roberts at third base. Not only have they tried out minor-league journeyman Cody Ransom and Orioles castoff Josh Bell at the position, but they also came up, if only briefly, in the Kevin Youkilis trade rumors. So clearly, prospect Ryan Wheeler has an open door to the position, and considering he's hitting .365 with 11 home runs and a .976 OPS at Triple-A Reno, it's only a matter of time before he steps through it. Granted, he's not the highest-profile third base prospect in the league -- getting trumped by Matt Davidson even in his own organization -- but he has hit at every level and is a worthy add in NL-only leagues.

Zack Wheeler, SP, Mets: Coming into 2012, Wheeler seemed a certainty to spend a full season developing in the minors. Of course, the Mets seemed a certainty to finish in last place. Now that they have a reasonable chance of being over .500 at the All-Star break, their plans could change. Granted, Wheeler has yet to climb even to Triple-A, but with a 1.88 ERA to go along with 5.4 hits per nine innings and 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings at Double-A Binghamton, that promotion is just around the corner. And if a starting pitcher goes down with the Mets still in the running for the second wild card, their best bet may be to call on their future ace.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott White at @CBSScottWhite . You can also e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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