Reality Check: Stretch run storylines
What are the big storylines for owners to consider heading into the stretch run? Our Scott White breaks down the 10 biggest questions he sees entering the second half.
So you think you have this season figured out? You don't know the half of it.
Actually, you do. You know exactly the half of it because it's halfway over.
But the other half, I wonder about that one. I'm guessing you are, too. Storylines have yet to play out, and until they do, questions will go unanswered.
Here I give you what I consider to be the 10 biggest heading into the second half and, better yet, my approach to them. I don't know the answers, obviously, but I can deduce.
And isn't that the only way to play Fantasy?
10. How many Brewers will be earning saves in September?
The Brewers began the year with John Axford as their closer. He bombed. They then turned to Jim Henderson. He thrived but couldn't stay healthy. Thus, the role has belonged to Francisco Rodriguez for the last six weeks or so, during which he has compiled a 1.25 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings in 22 appearances. Of course, Axford has a 1.85 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 39 appearances since forfeiting the role to Henderson, and Henderson, now off the DL, has a 1.95 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings in 33 appearances this season. Judging by those numbers, the Brewers have not just one closer, but three. Meanwhile, the Tigers, Red Sox and Diamondbacks all have unsettled closer situations. With the trade deadline approaching, Rodriguez is obviously the Brewers reliever to own in Fantasy, but Axford and Henderson should still be on your radar.
9. Are we finally seeing the real Eric Hosmer?
Former Royals hitting coach Jack Maloof, who the team fired on May 29, subscribed to the theory that Kauffman Stadium is no place for home run hitters. And so he did his best to ruin the Royals' crop of up-and-coming sluggers, transforming them into spray hitters who didn't have to worry about flying out to the warning track. So I guess, then, Hosmer was his star pupil. Nobody could understand why his pop disappeared after his stellar rookie season. Judging by his peripherals and pedigree, it didn't make sense. New hitting coach George Brett may not be the master teacher, but he's not Maloof. Not surprisingly, Hosmer has hit .318 with eight homers and a .907 OPS in six weeks under his tutelage. Plenty of pop there. Knowing how good Hosmer should have been all along, I'll hope for the best until he gives me reason not to.
8. Which player stands to gain the most at the trade deadline?
When a player gets traded, changes in venue and supporting cast aren't nearly as pertinent to Fantasy owners as changes in role, particularly when it's the one and only role that makes a reliever worthwhile. Though the Brewers have a couple closers in waiting, the more rewarding option for Fantasy owners already got a chance to audition for the role when Rafael Betancourt missed time with a groin injury in June. With a 0.96 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings, Rex Brothers is a stud in waiting, and the Rockies have groomed him to close from the beginning. Granted, they're fringe contenders now, but with a 9-18 record over their last 27 games, they're fading fast. If they pull the plug, a free agent-to-be like Betancourt would be an obvious choice to go and the top target for any contender looking for late-inning relief.
7. Is Josh Hamilton Josh Hamilton yet?
It's not much, but a .346 batting average, four homers and 1.080 OPS over his last 14 games is a step in the right direction for Hamilton after he began the season with a .207 batting average, 10 homers and .640 OPS in 72 games. Of course, he's still only about a .240 hitter since the beginning of last June (more than a full season, mind you), which is a far cry from what Fantasy owners drafted him to be. He doesn't have much explanation for the turnaround either, saying he just quit worrying about it. No doubt, Hamilton wouldn't be the first big free-agent signing to feel suffocated by his contract and need a few months to learn to breathe again, but considering all his swinging and missing comes just when he's exiting his prime at age 32, one little hot streak isn't enough to win me back. I recognize the potential and certainly haven't buried him in my rankings, but he's introduced so much risk to the equation that I'd still take Hunter Pence or Desmond Jennings over him.
6. Which yet-to-arrive prospect will make the biggest impact?
Billy Hamilton is the obvious answer considering he's the one preseason draft-and-stash yet to earn the call despite staying healthy all year, but he just isn't showing any improvement at Triple-A. His batting average has been stuck in the .250 range for weeks now, and his .301 on-base percentage is the last thing a contender wants in the leadoff spot. Christian Yelich is a possibility, but injury woes have limited his exposure to Double-A pitching, which has limited him to a .256 batting average so far. I could see him struggling for the Marlins. Nick Castellanos has a chance if the red-hot Matt Tuiasosopo doesn't hold him back, but right now I'm liking Taijuan Walker to make the biggest splash of anyone. He'll have to contend with an innings cap, but he's proven too dominant for Triple-A. With scouts raving about his stuff and poise at age 20, he's beginning to sound like another Jose Fernandez, which can only be a good thing for Fantasy owners.
5. Will stashing all these injured Yankees eventually pay off?
Right now, they seem far away, but Derek Jeter's sudden return Thursday (and the new injury that followed) showed how abruptly these things can change. Mark Teixeira is obviously a lost cause, and Kevin Youkilis probably doesn't offer enough at this stage of his career to justify the wait. But Curtis Granderson's pinkie won't stay broken forever. Wish you had Raul Ibanez in your lineup for his unexpectedly brilliant first half? Those numbers wouldn't be so unexpected for Granderson in the second half. Meanwhile, Michael Pineda could return to the rotation any day now. Stashing him is a little trickier since he's no longer on the DL, but let's not forget he was practically an ace as a rookie two years ago and has more or less regained the velocity on his fastball following shoulder surgery. I'd stash him over any other minor-league pitcher right now, Taijuan Walker included.
4. When is the time to trade Jose Fernandez and Shelby Miller?
Innings limits. They have a way of interrupting good seasons for rookie pitchers. The Marlins have set Fernandez's at 170 or so. The Cardinals haven't set Miller's, at least not publicly, but considering he threw about 150 last year, 180 seems likely. The exact number is irrelevant. Even if permitted to throw 200 innings, Fernandez and Miller wouldn't be equipped to handle it as rookies. An unfamiliar rise in innings typically leads to undesirable numbers. Still, a known limit will cut into a player's value more than a general tendency, which makes trading these two a tricky proposition. To give Fernandez more time to maximize his value and Miller a chance to redeem his, I'd wait until the end of July to shop them aggressively.
3. How will the Braves make room for Brandon Beachy?
Beachy's setback in mid-June may have delayed the decision, but it didn't eliminate it. And frankly, we don't have any more clarity now. It's a big deal in Fantasy because it impacts not just Beachy, but two virtual mainstays in Kris Medlen and Julio Teheran. Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm haven't been as effective, but unlike Medlen, they can't transition to the bullpen, and unlike Teheran, they're equipped to go a full 200 innings. But the trade deadline is right around the corner. Just because the Braves are contending doesn't mean they can't move excess. Both Hudson and Maholm are free agents at season's end, so the Braves have no attachment to either, apart from the sentimental with Hudson. And either would land the Braves a better late-inning reliever than Medlen, who has clearly found his niche as a starter. This dilemma seems destined to resolve itself, so relax, all you Medlen and Teheran owners.
2. How much will Yasiel Puig slow down?
I'll just come out and say it: Puig won't hit .400 in his rookie season. You can challenge me on that if you want, but I have all of documented history backing me up. And judging by his 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, I'm guessing his regression won't be a gentle slide into normalcy but a cliff dive of more than 100 points in batting average. Of course, even if that comes to pass and he hits .265 the rest of the way, he's still a .310 hitter overall and likely the NL Rookie of the Year, factoring in his power and speed. Funny how numbers work, right? I rank Puig 21st among outfielders the rest of the way, which means he's really, really good. But not so good that you should outright refuse every offer that comes your way.
1. Will the Biogenesis investigation wreck your title hopes?
For the most part, Fantasy owners have done their best to tune out the Biogenesis stuff because it's all too theoretical and speculative to make any informed decisions with it. But as reports begin to fill in the gaps, a worst-case scenario seems all the more plausible. Rumor has it suspensions are coming for the 20 or so players connected to the Biogenesis clinic soon after the All-Star break, which would be unprecedented, to say the least. The MLB Players Association figures to fight any suspension that comes without proof, and proof most often comes in the form of positive tests, which are presumably lacking here. It's a messy situation that only the courts can sort out, and anyone who relies on precedent to guess how long it will take is probably guessing wrong. There is no precedent for this.
Among the relevant mixed-leaguers in question -- a group that includes Everth Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Bartolo Colon, Melky Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta -- the one with the most trade value is Ryan Braun, and I've moved him down to 15th in my outfield rankings to reflect the growing risk. It's now high enough that you should consider taking a lesser player for him, but not high enough that you should take whatever you can get.
For extra credit ...
Is Aramis Ramirez still worth the
His knees clearly aren't right, which is perhaps reason for optimism, but if his first DL stint couldn't cure him, I'm not sure this second one will make much of a difference. At age 35, he might never be fully healthy again and is overdue for a decline anyway. I wouldn't count on him being more than a middle-of-the-road mixed-league option when he returns.
Can we trust Tony Cingrani to stick
I'm willing to believe it more this time than any of the others. Apparently, three trips to the DL for the same injury is enough to convince the Reds that Johnny Cueto has a real problem. They haven't specified a timetable for his return, but they clearly won't rush it. If it drags on long enough, I could see the Reds opting to shut him down completely, especially if Cingrani continues to pitch like he has so far.
Will Evan Gattis get enough at-bats
He doesn't need that many. Catchers can get away with sporadic at-bats because they're all subject to them to some degree. Back in his Angels days, Mike Napoli played only about half the time and still delivered big enough power numbers to matter. Gattis has the added advantage of being his team's fourth outfielder. Jason Heyward's hamstring injury Thursday is just another example of this situation will perpetually sort itself out.
Is Adam Eaton's elbow really OK?
Thinking back to what Carl Crawford endured last year -- with MRIs coming back clean but repeated soreness and stiffness in his elbow until, whoops, Tommy John surgery -- I'm a bit skeptical, but Eaton's second rehab stint clearly went better than his first. For the upside, I'm willing to roll the dice on him. He's like Starling Marte, but with the plate discipline of Shin-Soo Choo.
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