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Wednesday 18th Oct 2017

I really like the expanded playoff format, where we have an extra wild card team.

I know, the postseason seems so interminably long, pushing all the way to Halloween as often as not before we find a winner, but in a game that can so often be decided by a bounce or a throw or a bad pitch, or call, the difference between success and failure is indeed quite fine.

I do confess that this time of the season, I try to make sure my teams are loaded with as many contending players as I can get, for generally that means everyday play from the guys who got the team there, and that means stats, which are good.

It is pretty clear that Oakland, with the best team and record anywhere this year, followed closely by the Angels, are pretty strong locks for two of the five playoff spots, and as of today, the Tigers and Orioles would join the fray.

But, what do we think of the rest of the likely suspects?

Toronto (57-50): Amazing that the Jays have kept it close after losing Edwin Encarnacion, not to mention Brett Lawrie, Maicer Izturis and Adam Lind for spells. But, they have hung tight and they are the best of this lot of clubs, and I think they are better than the Orioles. Their rotation is largely workmanlike, though I expect Marcus Stroman to settle in atop the group as he gains confidence and experience and becomes a real professional. The team is supposed to get Encarnacion and Lawrie back within the next ten days, and if that happens, look out Baltimore. Although the acquisition of Danny Valencia tells me at least one of them is not as close to ready as we would like to think.

New York (54-51): Brandon McCarthy and Chase Headley have provided a nice shot in the arm for the Yanks, but aside from the fact that they are aging and the long part of the season is ahead, well, Hiroki Kuroda and David Phelps atop a rotation does not seem very threatening, and Shane Greene and Chris Capuano at the bottom is scary. Right now, the Yankees have a run differential of -36. That simply won't cut it.

Seattle (54-51): The Mariners have done pretty well with an outfield of Dustin Ackley, James Jones and Endy Chavez, but that is because they have Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young atop their rotation. I actually do think the team will suffer playing in the best division in baseball, where in September they will see a lot of the Athletics and Angels. The real problem in Seattle, though, is I am not sure this team will be close to as good in 2015. Or at least I don't see much foundation for improvement.

Kansas City (53-51): If Mike Moustakas can actually show that he can simply hit .250 to go along with the pretty good power he has, then the Royals will surely be right there as a complete, if still a bit inexperienced, team. But, the truth is I like these guys. A very strong outfield of Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon and Norichika Aoki, with maybe the most unheralded shortstop, Alcides Escobar, along with Salvador Perez and of course Eric Hosmer is a good and mostly up-and-coming lineup. Truth is I think that Toronto will push Baltimore into a funk, and give the Royals a shot at the wild card. And, they may do well for a round, but, the inexperience will do them in. At least this year. But, they will be this year's Cinderella team.

Cleveland (52-53): The Tribe are certainly as much fun to speculate upon as are the Royals. They have a lot going for them, in Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, but hope, as in they can hope Danny Salazar can regain his 2013 magic, and a prayer that Justin Masterson can return from injury and simply be consistent are slim reeds. Still, the Indians have a pretty good offense despite a somewhat derelict outfield, with a run differential of +6, as opposed to the -1 Kansas City still owns. In the end, I think their depth, or lack thereof, will betray them. But, the Indians have a nice core to watch going into 2015.

So the Yankees got Chase Headley on the heels of Brandon McCarthy in some kind of push to make the postseason.

You have to admire the doggedness, not just of the team, but of the front office in the Bronx, for this year's team did not seem like anything close to championship material.

Still, with a record of 50-48, New York is just four games behind division-leading Baltimore despite some enormous obstacles.

The team lost both their mainstay over much of the last decade in C.C. Sabathia, who was steady, if facing declining skills, as well as their new ace Masahiro Tanaka along with Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda, which represents 80% of the team's Opening Day rotation.

The team's offense, peppered by aging and somewhat bruised veterans like Ichiro Suzuki, Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira and Brian Roberts, does not have a position player with a batting average over .300 (Jacoby Elsbury, at .291, is the closest) and Teixeira leads the team with 17 homers, but after that there is a bit of a power gap.

In fact, the team has a run differential of -36, yet they still are contending. In fact, they are the only team with such a negative number and a winning record.

The team did try to rebuild their rotation on the fly, but it is a tough road to hoe if they are expecting Hiroki Kuroda, David Phelps and McCarthy to continue and best the likes of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello.

Still, Headley is a switch-hitter who is hitting 30 points higher as a lefty, with 22 more RBI this season, and with a .300-1-9 line over the last month and might well be over his injury woes, and he should benefit from the short right field line.

But that simply won't be enough to do much more than maybe earn the team a wild card spot--if that--and then get trounced out in the first round of the playoffs.

A lot of the success of the Yanks this year has to be attributed to Derek Jeter's last hurrah, for the team Captain has always comported himself with drive and dignity, not to mention consistency, and his push to excel to the peak of his skill set largely modifies the team's success.

For Derek has posted very un-Jeter-like .272-2-27 totals this year: good for a lot of players, but way below D.J.'s expectation and career mean of .311-16-78.

Now 40, though, Jeter's season has to be considered somewhat triumphant in that he has kept healthy and keeps pushing through, much like his aging Yankees mates.

It is a credit to the team--which after this year will have to overhaul their everyday lineup with a lot more than the baling wire and duct tape that cobbles them together for now, for only Ellsbury and left fielder Brett Gardner represent anything close to youth, so likely some dark days abide at Yankee Stadium over the next few years.

But, the marvel of baseball is that in the here and now, they are contenders, and despite how things look on virtual paper, the first trick is to simply make the postseason.

After that, all bets are off.

I get a lot of pleasure as my age advances in rebuilding my fantasy keeper teams, and that means I always enjoy watching the Major League teams do the same thing.

Over the past seasons, pretty much led by Tampa 15 years ago, Kansas City and Seattle and Houston are a few of the teams that have embraced the rebuild philosophy of trade with an eye on the future, looking for star prospects, and then drafting in the same vein, with the thought of building as much of a roster as permits out of talent that has more or less come up the ranks together, and thus gelling as a team in the Majors collectively.

This season, there are a couple of teams I have been watching for this, and those teams are both storied, and touched by the hand of Theo Epstein (and probably the joy of my mate, Lord Z).

The first are those inhabitants of Wrigley, the Cubs, with a ton of talent awaiting advancement.

Alas, they are a National League team, the focus of this feature is the American League.

No problem, for the Red Sox offer no fewer choices.

What is amazing, and even a tad scary about the Red Sox is the team just won a World Series last year with a largely veteran team on which only one of the players I will note today on that postseason roster.

Irrespective, let's take a look at some of the riches the Red Sox will bring forth in the next year or so, making them a formidable--and potentially dominant--team in the AL East.

Xander Bogaerts (SS/3B): Let's start with the player we know, who did indeed earn his way onto the Boston Series roster, with Bogaerts, whose debut against the Giants I actually witnessed last year. The .235-6-22 line might seem disappointing, but remember that Bogaerts doesn't turn 22 till sometime during the 2014 postseason (October 1). In the Minors, over four seasons and 378 games, he banged 36% of his hits for extra bases, and logged a .373 OBP (.862 OPS). Bogaerts plays short and third so far, fitting what I believe is the new Billy Beane defined prototype for a player, who can not just hit, but play several defensive positions effectively. I see Bogaerts as the shortstop in the future.

Brock Holt (1B/2B/3B/OF): Quite a splash the hard-nosed playing Holt has made this year, hitting .327-6-21 with six swipes at age 26. Holt is going to have to work a bit on his plate discipline (18 walks to 51 whiffs) but even if he is low on walks, Holt does put the ball in play. And, that means as he is able to draw more walks, he will get that much better (in watching him play, I see his eye improving simply because he is a heady player). I see Holt settling in maybe at first, but more likely in left field over the long haul.

Mookie Betts (2B/SS/OF): Just brought up, at age 21 (he turns 22 a week after Bogaerts), Betts logged 164 walks to 120 strikeouts (.408 OBP) in the Minors, and that alone tells me tons. With 23 minor league homers over his 276 minor league games, Betts has pretty good pop--a quick bat that is--for a player of slight build (5'9", 155 pounds, but expect his power to increase as he fills out). He has speed as well (88 steals), and though Mookie has been playing the outfield with his call-up, I see him as the second base complement to Bogaerts in future years. The only question is when Dustin Pedroia is done? Otherwise, Mookie will play in the outfield.

Garin Cecchini (3B): Probably the best bet to simply grab one spot, and hold it (as in the hot corner), Cecchini has a .299-17-178 line in the Minors over 358 games, with 93 doubles and a great .399 OBP (201 walks to 299 whiffs). At 23, Cecchini is an old guy among this bunch, but I see him on the left side full time starting next year.

Jackie Bradley, Jr. (OF): Another youngin' with a good eye, Bradley is playing in his second season, but his big league numbers (.227-1-6) don't really yet reflect his eye and skills. Another great OBP (.404) guy, with 132 walks to 172 strikeouts along with a .297-20-101 line over 218 games, Bradley also has 31 swipes. He will stay in the outfield, but I really see Bradley and Bogaerts kicking it up next year in their third season of play in the Majors.

Christian Vazquez (C): Considering Vazquez has arrived with a lower profile than his somewhat shinier predecessors (like Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway), there is something about it that makes me think Vazquez might indeed be the answer. A 23-year-old Puerto Rican product, Vazquez nevertheless has seven years of professional play with a .265-38-251 minor league line. Again, a good enough 204 walks to 361 strikeouts and as a catcher, we can expect that number to improve.

Henry Owens (P): A 6'6", 205 pound southpaw, Owens, who is 12-3, 2.21 at Double-A Portland this year, turns 22 next week. In the Minors, he has a 35-14, 3.18 over 342.3 frames with 410 punchouts. Owens has allowed 155 walks and 253 hits--just 24 of them homers--in the Minors (1.192 WHIP) and has 111 whiffs this year over 105.6 innings. Owens might get a fall call, but look for him to challenge for a Major League roster slot next year.

Baseball is indeed changing. Prospects are being moved up more quickly and the result is a fun alternative to watching a fading former star play regularly because he has a big salary.

It is refreshing that teams want to move towards youth, and even with that, there is a great push towards players who can do a few things. And, I am not just talking tools: it is more a case of players who can be brought up and learn the ropes while having the skill to play a few defensive spots.

This year is particularly rich in the Junior Circuit, so this week let's look at five guys I really want to try and grab for my keeper leagues.

Brock Holt (3B/OF, Red Sox): Holt is one of those hard nosed throw back players, not unlike his teammate Dustin Pedroia, who might not look like they are good as they are, but in reality, are way better than we first imagined. A ninth-round selection of the Buccos in 2009, the Pirates, ostensibly deep in the outfield, swapped Holt to the Sox as part of the Jerry Sands/Mark Melancon/Ivan de Jesus deal of 2012. Too bad, because Holt would have played anywhere the Pirates wanted, meaning they missed out on a solid player with a profile to play anywhere. In the Minors, he posted a strong .307-15-181 line with 101 doubles and a good .372 OBP. Then he is .315-2-15 with five swipes since being inserted in the starting lineup. When they talk about guys playing the game the right way, this is the example.

Mookie Betts (SS/OF, Red Sox): Boston might be struggling this year, but sometime in 2015 they will take off and dominate the AL East for the next few seasons, based upon Holt, Xander Bogaerts, Garin Cecchini and Jackie Bradley, Jr. Oh yeah, and Betts, who might have the best eye of any minor leaguer brought forth over the past few seasons. In the Minors, he collected 164 walks to 120 whiffs, with 88 swipes. He is just 21, so give the kid a few weeks to get the hang. Then look out.

Nick Castellanos (3B/OF, Tigers): Castellanos earned a starting job this spring after blasting through the Tigers system. A first-round pick in 2010, Castellanos arrived at Comerica last fall and hit .278-0-0 over 11 games. This year, he started slowly, hitting .233-3-14 in April, .233-1-6 in May, but in June, he is showing he is getting the hang with .337-2-10 totals and a couple of swipes.

George Springer (OF, Astros): 65 games in the Majors and his 162-mean extrapolates to .245-40-107. He does strike out still, but it is only 65 games. The kid is a monster.

Kole Calhoun (OF, Angels): Calhoun actually lost his rookie status last year, with a .282-8-32 line over 58 games. That earned him a starting right field gig in Anaheim to open 2014, but a sprained ankle sidelined him for five weeks. And, though he was slow to get in a groove, he now carries a .284-7-19 line, .375-3-10 of which he earned over the last three weeks. Dude can rake.

Ok, let's just agree that the Oakland Athletics are indeed the best team in baseball at this moment in time and space.

With 47 wins, the Athletics are tied for the best record in the Majors and have the best record in the American League.

Their run differential of +135 is 101 runs better than the Brewers, who are tied with Oakland with each team holding 47 wins.

The team's 3.02 team ERA--culled with the likes of Jesse Chavez and Drew Pomeranz--is the second best in baseball.

Finally, those upstart Athletics have actually won a pair of AL West titles in a row without anyone even close to being a star a la Adrian Beltre or Mike Trout, two of the dominant players in the American League West, and they are in line to win their third straight.

Of course, I understand there is a lot of season remaining, and the arms of Chavez and Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray, none of whom is used to tossing more than 180 innings in the big leagues, and Oakland could fall from their lofty perch, but that would mean the Angels or resurgent Mariners would likely win.

And, while we know winning the playoffs and series is largely a faction of a good team being hot at the right time, the Angels are no strangers to the postseason, not to mention while Seattle has been out of the postseason mix for awhile, the Rangers have not, with World Series appearances in both 2010 and 2011, almost making it back in 2012 save being bumped off by the then upstart Athletics.

But, I noticed in that same 2012 that three of the AL West clubs were in the postseason in the first year of the new wild card format, a pretty tough feat. And, it was then I determined that without question, the AL West was indeed the toughest division in baseball.

That continued to be true in 2013 despite the addition of the weakling Houston Astros (although watch out, they will be joining the tight fray in a little over a year).

Alas, those poor Rangers would likely be in the mix if they did not have 18 of their players on the DL as I write, and considering that, the fact that Texas has 35 wins--equal to or better than eight other teams--is pretty much amazing.

Still, the top three teams in the AL West have 41 or more wins, and no other division in the Majors can boast that, nor can any other division claim to have a league won-loss mark as good as the division.

Meaning, the days of the Yankees and Red Sox and Orioles and Blue Jays--and even the Rays, who are struggling like the Rangers--being the default tough place to play are gone.

It is true that sports and teams and winning are things that are cyclic. That means one of these days even the Cubs will win it all. Just not this year.

Similarly, if we just look at baseball, where up until the 70's the American League so slaughtered the NL during the mid-season classic, and then suddenly the NL had the best players and was in charge. And, again the tide has turned back to the Junior Circuit.

Now, maybe I live in a vacuum, but unlike the days when the AL East was the toast of things, I see very little written about just how good the Athletics and their divisional co-horts are.

But, I have seen it for awhile now.

And, the rest of the world better watch out.

Because being under-rated, which Oakland is, just seems to make them better.

Oh, how fickle are the wings of Major League pitchers.

If you own Grant Balfour or Joe Nathan or Hector Santiago, you know exactly what I am talking about.

So, who are some veteran starters that have been up and down riding a yo-yo of good start to bad in no particular order, making it hard to even figure when to stream them, and what do they have in store?

Let's start with maybe the toughest thing to watch in the Tigers' Justin Verlander, who pitched so well down the stretch last year that many might have overlooked his drop off from a 2.64 ERA and 1.057 WHIP in 2012 to a 3.46 ERA and a 1.315 WHIP last year to his 6-7, 4.98 2014 with a 1.556 WHIP this year. Perhaps most alarming is the atrocious strikeout-to-walk of 1.68 with Verlander whiffing 69 while walking 41 over 97.6 innings this year.

Oakland's Jesse Chavez might seem like a new name to some fantasy players, but the reality is that Chavez is 30 years of age and had five big league seasons under his belt, although just two starts, over the 191 games in which he has appeared prior to this year.

With 86 innings already under his belt this year, Chavez has easily set his career high for that stat and we are not even half-way through the season.

Chavez has been just great with a 6-4, 2.93 line complemented by a 1.198 WHIP and really solid 78 strikeouts. The right-hander has been very efficient with his pitch counts each start, however, tossing 180-plus innings would triple his career high in the Majors. Oakland is so good--and still vastly under-rated (just check out their run differential compared to the rest of baseball if you have doubts)--but were I Bob Melvin I would more than monitor Chavez and make sure his amazing transformation continues to be successful by not wearing his pitcher out.

I really thought Chris Tillman had settled into a role as a solid #2 or #3 rotation member after being a second-round pick of the Mariners, and then part of one of the less successful trades (well, depending upon how you look at it) ever as Seattle swapped the pitcher plus Adam Jones and three other players for Erik Bedard in 2008.

And, though it seems like Tillman's numbers are not so bad when you look at his start log, and realize 26 of the 47 runs he has allowed occured over four of his 15 starts this year, but his strikeout-to-walk number has dropped to 1.61 (58 whiffs to 35 walks) and his 4.82 ERA and 1.488 WHIP scare me.

It appears that Justin Masterson is a new "Saberhagen-metric" darling, based upon his numbers since 2010. That year, it was 6-13, 4.70, then 2011 brought 12-10, 3.21, followed by 11-15, 4.93 in 2012 and then a really fine 2013 with a 13-10, 3.45 mark. So, logically, this is an off-year as witnessed by his 5.05 ERA and 1.524 WHIP. Stay away this year: jump on the cheap next. 

Right after the AL Tout auction in New York, I was asked on Sirius XM if I was worried about Ubaldo Jimenez: that he did get whiffs, but he also could be wild. My answer was a simple, "Yes." However, as we all know, Jimenez is indeed streaky, so I have him stashed on my reserve list, hoping one of those streaks starts around the break, and lasts through the balance of the season. Just like last year.

Something interesting--and even somewhat refreshing--is happening in the American League these days with the influx of "Who are these guys?" rookies in 2014.

Mind you, there are always those pleasant "against the odds I've paid my dues" players like Mike Aviles and Brad Ziegler: players with what seemed to be marginal Major League skills who arrived at the Show after paying their minor league dues and suddenly break through to a reasonable career at the highest level.

Not that the bulk of players I am thinking about really match that profile, as much as they conform to "Where did this guy come from?" collection of rookies to emerge.

But, of course the hype goes to Jon Singleton and George Springer in the AL. The problem though is that prospects of their stature are usually either owned in keeper leagues, or picked up late in a draft or auction in throw back formats. Meaning no one in the league has a chance to bid a FAAB buck and take a chance.

It does seem, however, that this year there is a move to teams being deeper in multi-positional players who can slide onto a bench, then the lineups, and plug an unforeseen hole or two (I personally think the Athletics model of this is the perfect answer to high priced free agents, allowing franchises to build what my partner Todd calls "the perfect on-field Strat-O-Matic team").

Anyway, I also find it interesting that while the NL can counter Singleton and Springer with Oscar Taveras and Gregory Polanco, there have been relatively few $1 out-of-nowhere finds to counter in the Senior Circuit. Which is kind of a shame, as those lesser known producers are indeed making a difference in the AL.

So, just what players am I talking about? Well, let's look at my five favorites.

Yangervis Solarte (Yankees): Pressed into play simply because of injuries and suspensions, Solarte does wear the Mark Grudzielanek prize for playing in the Minors for awhile, having a decent spring, making the club and then being a team leader prize this year. His .299-6-28 line, with a very nice .369 OBP (22 walks, 25 whiffs) makes it possible for Solarte's, not Alex Rodriguez' beak gracing the cover of the Yanks 2015 media guide. Plus, the 26-year- old plays second, third, and short, a position flexibility bonanza. Solarte went for $16 of Tout Wars FAAB.

Brock Holt (Red Sox): Boston is good at pulling these guys out of nowhere, think Daniel Nava, but among all these "surprises", I like Holt's future chances the best. Holt has an .855 OPS to go with a .339-1-13 line that includes three swipes over his first 29 games. He has played first and third and will shortly qualify in the outfield as well, and I like him a lot better than Will Middlebrooks at third anyway. Holt went for $4 of FAAB (as opposed the $13 Middlebrooks cost during the Tout auction).

Kevin Kiermaier (Rays): Struggling nearly as much as the Rangers with the injury/luck whammy, the Rays still really did not have a guy in the wings a la Rougned Odor or Jurickson Profar. But, the Rays have needed outfield help in deference to their own hot youngin' Wil Myers getting hurt. Well, hello Kiermaier, who is hitting .357-3-4 over his first 16 games, with eight of his 15 hits going for extra bases. That was enough to prompt a $16 winning FAAB bid in Tout.

Danny Santana (Twins): Talk about unassuming, Santana was hitting .267-0-7 at Rochester when summoned to help after Sam Fuld, whom the team acquired off waivers from the Athletics, was hurt. Maybe this month will be the only fruitful one the kid ever has in the Majors, but so far he is .364-2-11 with four swipes at Target over 23 games, and qualifies at short and the outfield. He went for $1 in FAAB.

Eugenio Suarez (Tigers): First there was Jose Iglesias, and he got hurt. Then there was Alex Gonzalez, and he couldn't do it any longer. Then Andrew Romine, who apparently cannot do it yet. But Eugenio Suarez? Hello? Well, Suarez is .364-2-4 over his first week manning short for Detroit, and that is one more dinger than Romine and Gonzalez combined.

To say that the Texas Rangers have been snakebit this season is an understatement. No team in all of baseball has been decimated by injuries more than the Rangers this year, which can only have GM Jon Daniels wondering what it was that he did to deserve the karmic payback that has attacked his roster with a vengeance and has cast serious doubt on any hopes of making it back to the playoffs this year.

The news that Prince Fielder will miss the rest of the year, thanks to a neck injury that will require surgery, sent ripples through the fantasy community and brings an early end to a mostly disappointing first year in Arlington for the team’s biggest off-season acquisition. To compound matters even more, the same day that word of Fielder’s impending surgery broke, it was also revealed that second baseman Jurickson Profar re-injured his shoulder and will now be sidelined until at least August.

The fact that Profar reportedly aggravated his injury by rolling over in bed just added to the ridiculous string of bad luck that started back when starter Derek Holland tripped over his dog Wrigley in January, tearing his meniscus. Since then, the team has sent 17 players to the disabled list, including starting catcher Geovany Soto and promising young starter Martin Perez, who was breaking out in April before breaking down in early-May and undergoing elbow surgery. No one seems safe, as reserve outfielder Dan Robertson can attest after sustaining a fractured cheekbone in a collision with Alex Rios.

Obviously, the Fielder injury is the biggest blow for fantasy owners, since he cost a pretty penny on draft day. He was coming off a lackluster 2013, but the move to a hitter’s park had people expecting a rebound, especially in the power department. While the signs of decline were there, the one thing you could hang your hat on when selecting the bulky slugger early was his durability. He had missed only one game in the last five years, and never played less than 157 games in his eight full seasons in the Majors.

But all those numbers don’t mean much today and won’t help either the Rangers or fantasy owners move on without a major part of their respective roster. The Rangers will stay in-house for now, as Mitch Moreland will be pressed into everyday duty at first until further notice. He also will be moved up in the lineup, which along with regular playing time should help to increase his value. He won’t replace the power that Fielder brought to the lineup, but he can drive in runs if he can stick behind the table-setters, and he still has decent pop. In the wake of all the moves Daniels made this off-season, hanging onto Moreland, even after signing Fielder, could turn out to be one of the better decisions he made.

The other name that has been bandied about over the weekend was Kendrys Morales, who is still waiting for someone to liberate him from free-agency limbo. If you lost Fielder over the weekend, then stashing Morales is a smart play. Even if teams wait until the deadline for draft compensation passes on June 8th, at that point someone will step up with an offer, with the Rangers one of a handful of teams that figure to make a play for his services.

AL Round-Up

Yordano Ventura left his start on Monday in the third inning with discomfort in his elbow after giving up five runs on seven hits and three walks. His fastball velocity was down in the low 90’s, which was the first sign that something wasn’t right with the diminutive flamethrower, whose fastball regularly touches 100 mph. He will undergo an MRI Tuesday and fantasy owners are holding out hope that he will not become the latest to fall victim to Tommy John surgery this year. The team doctors have suggested the injury isn’t to the UCL, but we won’t know until they take a look inside. The best case scenario would be a short trip to the disabled list while the worst case...well you know.

The Rangers took some of their frustrations out on Justin Verlander on Sunday, pounding him for nine runs (six earned) on eleven hits in five and a third innings. He also walked three and struck out only one batter, something that hadn’t occurred since 2008. That makes two starts in a row that Verlander has given up eleven hits, which has pushed his WHIP to an unsightly 1.51. He’s given up 16 earned runs over his last three starts as well, which has pushed his ERA over 4.00. His struggles have owners scratching their heads and actually pondering benching their “ace” until he rights the ship. His velocity has continued to drop, his walks are up and his mechanics have been sloppy, which has led some to question if he is still suffering some of the effects of his abdominal surgery. If you have him, you can’t drop him and trading him while his stock is this low makes little sense as well. All you can do is hope that he can turn things around even if he can’t return to the dominant heights he has reached previously in his career.

George Springer continued to reward fantasy owners who stuck with the rookie after a dismal start to his career in April by homering for the fourth consecutive game on Monday. The five home runs in four games gives him eight for the month of May and firmly slams shut any window you might have had to acquire the 24-year-old cheaply.

The Red Sox finally decided to shut down the ailing Mike Napoli so he can recover from a host of nagging injuries. Mike Carp will be the primary beneficiary while Napoli is out, but the Red Sox will hope to get Napoli back into their struggling offense as soon as possible.

Staying in Boston, Clay Buchholz could be on the verge of losing his rotation spot after issuing a career-high eight walks against Atlanta on Monday. He gave up six runs, which gives him an ERA of 7.02 on the year. Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster are next in line to replace him should the team decide to go that route.

The Angels got Kole Calhoun back from the disabled list, but he did not reclaim his leadoff spot upon his return. If he remains in the lower part of the lineup, it puts a little bit of a damper on his fantasy prospects going forward, not to mention that he may sit against lefties as well. I still like him, but not as much as I did prior to the season.

Dallas Keuchel, HOU - The 26-year-old left-hander won his third straight decision on Monday, limiting the Los Angeles Angels to two runs on five hits. He came within one out of registering his second consecutive shutout, this after blanking the Texas Rangers early last week. In those last three starts, he has struck out 22 batters in 25.2 innings of work while issuing only one free pass. For the season, the Astros emerging ace now sports a nifty 55/12 K/BB ratio.

Keuchel came into the season with basically zero fantasy buzz. He was coming off two fairly lackluster years and was slated to be a back-end starter for the worst team in the Majors. He’s not a guy that throws extremely hard, and the key for him is to keep the ball on the ground and limit the home runs. So far, he has been able to do both of these things extremely well, illustrated by a ground ball percentage that now sits at 67.7%. His strikeout rate sits at 22.7%, which is almost 5 points higher than last year, and he has been able to avoid the home run ball, allowing only four so far in his 62 innings of work.

The young lefty's success could partly be due to a change in repertoire, as he scrapped his curveball for a slider this year, which is producing more swings and misses and also seems to have made his best pitch, his change-up, even more effective. The improved secondary offerings, coupled with better control, have allowed him to survive with a fastball that tops out at about 90 mph.

Keuchel was a popular waiver add this week, due to the fact he was slated for two starts, and those who took a low-cost gamble on what they thought might be a one-week option may have stumbled onto a mixed league gem. Yes, there is every reason to doubt that he will be able to continue to pitch at this level, and the Astros offense will continue to cost him some wins. Still, if you are looking for some help for a depleted pitching staff, I suggest grabbing Keuchel in any leagues where he is still available before he faces off against the Mariners later this week. If he rips off another gem, there goes the window to get in on the breakout.

Phil Hughes, MIN - The former Yankee was a popular sleeper target for many this season, based mainly upon the belief that finally getting away from the unfriendly confines of Yankee Stadium as well as the potent offenses in the packed AL East would allow the 27-year-old to finally establish himself as a complete pitcher and put last year’s disaster of a season behind him. Hitching your fantasy fortunes to a player like Hughes is never easy, since you inevitably will have to bury memories of the countless six and seven-run meltdowns he’d deliver, just after you finally decided to stick him into your fantasy lineup. At certain points last year, starting him was akin to pouring gasoline on your ratios and waiting for him to light the match.

Despite the newfound optimism of those who invested, it looked like more of the same as this season began. He opened the year with three straight mediocre showings, failing to get past the fifth inning and surrendering four runs each time. He finished April with a 5.14 ERA and started to find his way onto waiver wires. He started to turn things around with his final start of April, when he limited the Detroit Tigers to two runs on four hits in seven innings while striking out six and walking none. Since that game, he has reeled off three more quality starts, including seven shutout innings against those very same Tigers, which has lowered that ERA down to 3.61. He seems to be settling into his new digs, and at least seems to have emerged once again as a guy you can feel secure inserting into the back-half of your fantasy rotations when the matchups look good, without fear he will torch your ratios. He is slated for two starts next week, which should help tick those ownership numbers back up by the weekend.

Trevor Bauer, CLE - Fantasy owners have been waiting for the Indians to make the move to recall Bauer from the Minors. They just didn't think it would come at the expense of Danny Salazar. Bauer was very solid in his one spot-start earlier this year and has pitched very well in Triple-A to start the year. He is 4-1 with an ERA of 2.15, a WHIP of 1.09 and 44 strikeouts in 46 innings of work in his seven starts in the Minors. The key to his success so far has been limiting the walks which have plagued him since his time in the Arizona Diamondbacks system.

If Bauer has truly turned the corner with his control, there is no doubt that he has the stuff to be successful in the big leagues, and deliver some much needed strikeouts in the process. His fastball has plenty of pop, and his curveball can be a real weapon when he is able to get ahead in counts, something he has struggled to do so far in his brief career. The news of his recall broke over the weekend, and with a two-start week, he was likely scooped up in many leagues where he wasn't stashed. With the rocky debut of Kevin Gausman the other day casting some doubt over how effective he will be this year, Bauer could leapfrog him as the pitcher with the best chance to make an impact from the Minors this season. All eyes will be on him this week as he tries to help turn Cleveland's season around.

Drew Pomeranz, OAK - Pomeranz, a former first-round pick of the Cleveland Indians, was the major piece dealt to the Colorado Rockies in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade. After two very mediocre seasons in the thin air of Coors Field, Billy Beane came knocking and traded the oft-injured Brett Anderson for the young left-hander. The prospects of making much noise this season seemed unlikely, and with plenty of arms ahead of him in the rotation, a ticket to the bullpen was the best he could hope for.

He took to his new role, finishing April with a 1.59 ERA in 11.1 innings of relief. As the injuries mounted in the A’s rotation, he bided his time until the team finally tired of Dan Straily’s struggles and sent him down to Triple-A to try and regain his confidence. Pomeranz got the spot start, and hurled five scoreless innings against the Mariners in a 2-0 A’s victory. The effort earned him another start against the White Sox, and he once again delivered five dominant shutout innings, striking out eight in an 11-0 blowout. He will take the mound twice this week, against Tampa Bay and Toronto, both on the road, and how he fares in those two contests will go a long way to determining how much value he will have beyond AL-only leagues.

While I give him all the credit for his nice start to the season, and for stepping in and solidifying the back of the rotation, I am not totally sold that he will be a long-term asset for mixed leagues just yet. His fastball is decent but not overpowering, and he backs that up with a decent curveball. But he doesn’t have much in the arsenal beyond that, which doesn’t give me a ton of confidence once opposing hitters get to see more film on him. At this point, I still view him as an arm to stream on days he is pitching at home against favorable opponents.

Danny Duffy, KC - A former top prospect, Duffy’s career was derailed by Tommy John surgery in 2012, but he worked his way back to the Majors, finishing 2013 with a string of decent starts, which gave him some renewed upside heading into this year. Duffy lost out to Yordano Ventura in the battle for the final rotation spot this spring and then went to the bullpen and waited. An injury to Bruce Chen has given Duffy his shot, and he is doing everything he can to make the Royals think twice about removing him once Chen is ready to return.


He finally broke through for his first win of the season over the weekend as he flirted with a perfect game against the Orioles. In the end, he allowed two hits in seven scoreless innings, but surprisingly only struck out two in the contest. Has Duffy finally turned the corner into becoming the pitcher the Royals have always hoped he would be? Time will tell, but those in deep leagues can take a shot and see if he has finally figured things out. Just keep an eye on his strikeout and walk rates, which could be a window to evaluating his prospects going forward. Walks have always been a problem, and the numbers show he still issues too many free passes. Couple that with a dip in his K% and an extremely low BABIP of .162 and there are enough flags to suggest that there will be more bumps in the road before Duffy becomes a mixed league mainstay.

Quick AL Notes

The Angels will get back David Freese and Kole Calhoun later this week. Since it appears that Raul Ibanez’ roster spot is secure, that means that either C.J. Cron or Grant Green will be sent down. Green offers more versatility, but Cron brings a power bat that can give Albert Pujols needed rest in the field.

Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana have been two of the most disappointing players this year as both are hitting below .200. The Indians finally shuffled their lineup, dropping Swisher to the sixth spot and Santana to seventh on Sunday against the A’s. Both responded by going a combined 0-for-9 while leaving nine runners on base. Santana went 0-for-4 the next day to drop his average to .148, which is the worst average of any regular in all of baseball. Only Mike Moustakas is happy about this development.

Jose Abreu will be sidelined by an ankle injury for at least the next two weeks, as the team finally put the ailing slugger on the disabled list. Paul Konerko will fill in, and could be the best option you will find to plug in while you wait patiently for the Cuban slugger’s return.

It took a little bit longer than I thought it would for Chris Colabello to turn back into a pumpkin, but May has not been kind to April’s surprise player. He is hitting just .127 this month with only three RBI, this after driving in 27 in April. Thank him for his service and move on to your next speculation.

Will Middlebrooks is having a 2014 to forget. The third baseman fractured his finger and was placed on the disabled list over the weekend. In response, the Red Sox went out and signed Stephen Drew to help fill the void. Xander Bogaerts will slide over to third base and Drew will take over at short after he gets into game shape. Middlebrooks will head to the bench and really isn’t worth hanging onto at this point. With Drew off the market, that leaves Kendrys Morales waiting for the June 5th draft to arrive so teams can sign him without giving up draft pick compensation for his services.

Injuries can be the bane to a fantasy owner’s existence, especially when they strike in bunches and take out key performers from your fantasy lineup, sometimes for extended periods. Remember how pleased you were with that draft where you grabbed Chris Davis, Jason Kipnis, Ryan Zimmerman, Mark Trumbo, Aroldis Chapman, Kris Medlen and Wilson Ramos with your first seven picks? While that hypothetical draft would qualify as the ultimate nightmare, it unfortunately is entirely possible.

Injuries are a part of the game, and despite our attempts to mitigate as much risk as possible on draft day, we can’t predict who is more likely to take a comebacker to the face, an errant fastball to the wrist or shred a thumb ligament sliding headfirst into second base. All anyone can do is suck it up and try to weather the storm as best as possible. There is nothing worse than clicking on one of your various roster pages only to see those annoying little red crosses next to your players' names. But, injuries mean opportunities for other players to receive regular playing time or get that anticipated promotion and create buying opportunities for a struggling fantasy team.

We have spent the last two weeks speculating on when the Blue Jays would pull the trigger on prized rookie Marcus Stroman. Our initial inspection noted that with the injury prone arms ahead of him, it was only a matter of time before he got his shot. Sure enough, Brandon Morrow has sustained his yearly injury, this time to a tendon in his pitching hand, and looks like he could be headed for season-ending surgery. Stroman has been great at Triple-A to start the year, and while he will start out in the bullpen, the team will slide him into their rotation in short order. If you didn’t speculate early, the window to take a shot will close this week.

Last week also saw a couple of key contributors from the American League join the ranks of the injured. The White Sox lost another starting outfielder, as Adam Eaton strained his hamstring, and the Cleveland Indians lost All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis to the dreaded oblique injury. Eaton tweaked his left hamstring a couple weeks ago and missed five games. This time he pulled his right hammy, so the team decided to shut him down and let him further recover. It’s yet another blow for the injury-riddled White Sox, who already lost Avisail Garcia for the year and are waiting for ace Chris Sale, Conor Gillaspie, Jeff Keppinger and prospective closer Nate jones to return from injuries. While Eaton is sidelined, Jordan Danks will see regular playing time and Alejandro De Aza gets a little more time to try and get his game untracked. Moises Sierra was plucked off waivers and could be a short-term option for AL-only owners as he should get some platoon at bats in centerfield over the next two weeks.

The news on Kipnis is a little more serious, as oblique injuries can be extremely hard to recover from, meaning Kipnis could be sidelined anywhere from 3-5 weeks. The Tribe has a host of in-house options, which in this case isn’t necessarily great news for fantasy owners. Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn, Elliot Johnson and the newly promoted Jose Ramirez are all options for manager Terry Francona, and he will mix-and-match with Aviles and the speedy Ramirez getting the bulk of the playing time. AL-only owners can look to Ramirez and hope he sees enough playing time to deliver some stolen bases, as speed is the most developed part of his game at this point.

The biggest injury development in terms of newly promoted offensive talent occurred when struggling Angels third baseman David Freese cracked a bone in his finger over the weekend and landed on the disabled list. The team responded by promoting slugging prospect C.J. Cron to take his place on the roster. While Cron doesn’t play third base, he will get an extended look at DH thanks to the struggles of 41-year-old Raul Ibanez. Cron comes to the bigs with a power profile, and was hitting .319 with six home runs and 29 RBI at the time of his promotion. If he hits, he could also see some time at first base to help ensure Albert Pujols stays healthy all year. Cron doesn’t have the upside of an Oscar Taveras or Gregory Polanco, but if you are looking for pop, he is worth making an aggressive bid in hopes he can take this opportunity and run with it. He collected five hits in his first two starts and found himself hitting cleanup Monday night.

I will confess to taking the plunge on Cron in a few leagues this week, spending pretty big on him in a couple places where I had been living with Mike Moustakas as my CI. I’m not entirely sold that he will be worth what I spent, but sometimes you need to take a shot on upside, especially when it comes to power. Playing time could become an issue as the team gets other injured players back, and Cron isn’t really an option on defense anywhere but first base, which doesn’t help his cause long-term as long as Pujols remains healthy. Still, I am glad to add him, since he does profile as someone who can hit for a decent average to go along with some decent power. At least he allows me to finally get Moose out of my everyday lineup.

Around the Rest of the AL

Hisashi Iwakuma finally made his return to the Seattle rotation from his finger strain and gave up four runs in just under seven innings. He should continue to round into form going forward.

As expected, the Mariners finally pulled the plug on Abraham Almonte, sending him back to Triple-A and calling James Jones back up. Jones is worth a flyer in AL-only leagues, since he should become the primary centerfielder. He brings speed to the table, so those in other formats in need of a speed boost could speculate as well. Michael Saunders also is worth adding again in all leagues, since he should take over as the new leadoff hitter while Almonte tries to work his way back to the Majors.

Ernesto Frieri took advantage of Joe Smith puking in the bullpen to lock down a save on Monday, his first since getting removed from the role a couple weeks ago. We mentioned last week that the Angels likely wanted to get Frieri back in the role, and Smith's stomach bug provided the opportunity. Smith was great as a replacement, but he has more value to the Angels in high-leverage situations. If you spent big on him last week, hang onto him since Frieri is far from safe and Smith could still be in the mix for saves for the time being.

Eric Hosmer finally hit his first home run of the season in San Diego, which fantasy owners hope is a sign of more to come. They will still have to wait for his first stolen base. Sticking in Kansas City, Lorenzo Cain returned from the disabled list and went 4-for-5 in his first game back. Now if only Billy Butler can just get his game untracked.

Brett Cecil is getting his shot at the top of the Toronto closer committee until Casey Janssen is ready to return. Janssen is currently on a rehab assignment and will need at least a few more appearances before being reinstated. Grab Cecil for some short-term saves if you are grinding.

Josh Hamilton should pick up a bat sometime later this week as he continues to rehab after thumb surgery. He is making nice progress in his recovery and there is optimism he will beat his original timetable to return to the lineup. Regardless, he still won’t be back until late-May at the earliest.

Eduardo Escobar is starting to take over shortstop duties from Pedro Florimon, and he added to his case by coming off the bench to hit a game-winning home run against the Indians in extra innings on Monday.

If you were one of the lucky owners out there who targeted Jose Abreu in drafts as a fallback option if you decided to pass on the top ranked options at first base this year, you have to be feeling pretty good as April comes to a close. The hulking Cuban slugger has been better than advertised and should walk away with the Player of the Month award, thanks to his league-leading 10 home runs and 32 RBI, which are both new major league records Ironically, he should edge out a resurgent Albert Pujols, the previous owner of both records that Abreu just smashed. The Angels first baseman shared the previous record of nine April dingers with Kent Hrbek and Carlos Delgado as well as having set the old standard for April RBI at 27. At this early stage, it is pretty safe to say that the $68 million dollar contract (a record for a non-Japanese international signing) is looking like the biggest bargain of the off-season.

We here at Mastersball were pretty bullish on Abreu this preseason, but even with one of the more optimistic projections that I saw out there, we were still factoring in considerable risk that left Abreu on the outside of the top-10 at his position. When I highlighted him as a breakout target way back in January, in my first baseball article of the year, I referenced the wide range of outcomes that were possible and the difficulty the fantasy community was having projecting him. My advice at the time was to pay for a .285/80/28/85 line and then hope he hit the ground running, since he could then absolutely blow past those power numbers. Now, he looks like he could hit 28 by the All-Star break.

I have a couple of shares in him this year, and certainly wish I owned him in more places than I do. The average “price” I paid for him in the leagues I own him was an ADP of 92, and on average he was the 12th first baseman drafted where I landed him, which clearly is much lower than it would have been if we all owned crystal balls. How many people would draft Anthony Rizzo, Allen Craig or even the now injured Mark Trumbo over him if they were drafting today? At the very least, he should have been selected in the second wave of first base options that also included Pujols, Eric Hosmer and Adrian Gonzalez.

The biggest question remaining for Abreu owners is whether or not he can keep this up, and should you just sit back and enjoy the ride or try to cash in while his stock is sky high? First off, the power is real and it isn’t going anywhere. He is going to hit home runs, and at times hit them in bunches, and while he may not tally double-digits in any month the rest of the way, he is one of a handful of players in either league that have a reasonable shot at finishing north of 40 home runs at season’s end. The only blemish in the early going is a strikeout rate that is higher than you would like to see at 22%. That is better than Chris Davis territory, but lags behind every other player listed above, and it stands as the number to watch going forward. As opposing pitchers start to make adjustments, will the young slugger be able to do likewise? How will he handle his first prolonged slump, which will arrive at some point?

I got a chuckle today when I read a fellow writer’s piece, where he uttered the name Chris Shelton while assessing Abreu’s value, reminding us all of the former Tiger who dazzled everyone in 2006 with 10 early home runs, only to hit a meager six the rest of the way. While it is a fair enough point to make that April stats are still just that, I think the fantasy community feels much more comfortable that Abreu is here to stay for the rest of the season. The list of players I would trade him for straight up is pretty short, but if I could get a comparable first baseman along with another piece in return, I might be tempted to cash in at least one of my shares seeing as his value may never be higher.

Around the American League

Were it not for Abreu’s April heroics, the resurgence of the aforementioned Prince Albert would have been the month’s biggest headline. He is a player I wanted no part of this off-season, as I was firmly planted on the side that felt his best days were behind him and there always seemed to be at least one owner who believed in him in all of my drafts this year. With nine home runs and 22 RBI to start the year, I will at the very least say I am glad to see him terrorizing opposing pitchers again. He is a proud man, and the motivation he showed this spring to put last year behind him has carried over into the season. I congratulate him for that as well as becoming the newest member of the 500 home run club.

Ivan Nova and A.J. Griffin joined the growing list of pitchers headed for Tommy John surgery this year. The Yankees will slot rookie Vidal Nuno into the back of their rotation for the time being, but I expect that Brian Cashman is already working the phones and waiver wire looking for other options. David Phelps could eventually bump Nuno, but he is filling in for the suspended Michael Pineda for now. As for the A’s, Griffin joins Jarrod Parker on the sidelines for the rest of the year, but the A’s are in less dire straights than the Yankees. Jesse Chavez has been a savior for the staff as a replacement for Parker, and Tommy Milone has held his own and given the team solid, if not spectacular, starts. The Griffin news solidifies his place in the rotation for now, as he was the most likely to get bumped had Griffin made it back healthy.

By the time you read this, Manny Machado should already have been recalled to the big leagues, a few days earlier than expected. His return is pleasant news to those who took the injury discount in drafts and could signal the end of Jonathan Schoop’s time with the big club, for now at least. Schoop has shown flashes, but he hasn’t hit well enough to seize the job. The team might decide he is better off playing full-time at Triple-A, while the O’s utilize a combination of Ryan Flaherty, Steve Lombardozzi and perhaps recently recalled Jemile Weeks instead.

The honeymoon could be over for Mariners outfielder Abraham Almonte. After starting the first 23 games of the season, 22 of those as the leadoff hitter, he finally took a seat on the bench as Michael Saunders stepped in at both centerfield and as the leadoff hitter. Almonte is hitting just .204 to start the year. The team hasn’t pulled the plug just yet, but they did call up Cole Gillespie for additional outfield depth. Almonte may only have until Logan Morrison returns from injury to get his game untracked. The only thing working in his favor right now is the fact that Saunders has been equally lackluster to start the year.

The closer carousel keeps on spinning, this time claiming the Angels' Ernesto Frieri as it’s latest victim. Veteran Joe Smith will assume closing duties for now, and was likely scooped up in all leagues last week. Smith is a capable fill-in, and worth owning for as long as he has the gig, but I am sure the team would like to see Frieri reclaim the job and restore order to the bullpen as soon as he is able. You have to hold him for now and hope for the best.

Speaking of unsettled bullpens, it looks like Jim Johnson is on the verge of reclaiming the closer’s job out in Oakland after stringing together six consecutive scoreless appearances since being removed from the role on April 10th. Manager Bob Melvin indicated as much last week and it seems likely Johnson will get the next opportunity that arises.

Oswaldo Arcia is finally heading out on a rehab assignment and could be back by this weekend. With Chris Colabello continuing to play well, Jason Kubel figures to slide back into a platoon at DH with Josmil Pinto and others.

I mentioned rookie Marcus Stroman a couple weeks ago as the name at the top of the list for the Blue Jays if they decided to make a move in their rotation, and it seems like his time could come sooner than expected. The team has aligned his schedule to that of Dustin McGowan, and if the latter continues to struggle against the Royals, Stroman could be up by the weekend. Time to speculate where you can.

Trevor Bauer is another young arm that could find himself in the rotation soon. Carlos Carrasco has struggled to start the year and has finally been banished to the bullpen today. The Indians are opting to go with Zach McAllister on short rest against the Angels on Wednesday and will need a new fifth starter at some point during the next homestand. Bauer is the leading candidate to get the call, but veteran Josh Tomlin is also an option.

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