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Wednesday 18th Oct 2017

September is right around the corner and this is the time of year when teams will give some of their minor league talent a taste of the big leagues. This is more commonly known as the September cup of coffee. There have already been a number of players called up this season. Here’s a rundown of those and some still to come.

Ken Giles – The 23-year-old got the phone call on June 8 and was put in the Philadelphia Phillies’ bullpen. He has appeared in 31 games, pitching 32 2/3 innings, and has performed very well with a 3-1 record, 1.38 ERA and a 47:9 K:BB ratio. His manager, Ryne Sandberg, said he doesn’t foresee the 6’2” right-hander getting a chance to spell closer Jonathan Papelbon for any save chances the remainder of the year but Giles is certainly a strong candidate to inherit the role should something happen with Papelbon next year.

Andrew Heaney – The 23-year-old southpaw of the Miami Marlins was up earlier in the year and started four games. He might as well have stayed in the minor leagues, however, as he was beat up to the tune of three losses in those starts without a win and surrendered 15 earned runs, 24 hits (including an astonishing five home runs) and six walks in only 20 2/3 innings and was sent back to Triple-A New Orleans. Heaney is still a good prospect and should be back up again in September. Just keep in mind that many times, left-handed pitchers don’t come of Major League age until later in their career.

Oscar Taveras – One of the top prospects of the St. Louis Cardinals coming into 2014, the 22-year-old has been up and down between the Minors and the parent club this year. He has played in 56 games, garnering 180 at-bats, but hasn’t lived up to his hype and minor league play.  His average currently sits at .233 with only nine extra base hits, including two home runs. While the results haven’t been there, Taveras is still to be considered a top talent for years to come.

Gregory Polanco – One of the most anticipated call-ups of 2014 came on June 10 when the Pittsburgh Pirates reached out to Triple-A Indianapolis for the 22-year-old outfielder. Polanco has been hot and cold in his big league time. He hit safely in his first 11 games, had a stretch of 35 at-bats with only three hits in mid-July in which his batting average dropped below .250, went 18-for-50 in early August getting his average back up to nearly .270, then managed only one hit in his last 30 at-bats. Polanco was sent back to Indianapolis when the Pirates recalled Jose Tabata but will most likely return to Pittsburgh when big league rosters expand in September.

Javier Baez – One of a number of blue chip prospects of the Chicago Cubs, Baez was brought up from Triple-A Iowa in early-August, and the 21-year-old middle infielder has certainly flashed a great amount of power for his position with seven home runs in only 86 at-bats. As pretty as that looks, the flip side is just as ugly with a .198 average, .233 OBP and a whopping 40 strikeouts against only four bases on balls. Despite this, he still remains a high-end talent. Let’s hope he goes the way of Jeff Kent instead of Dan Uggla.

Jorge Soler – Another of the Cubs’ top minor league talents, Soler just got the call up this Wednesday. In 151 career minor league games, the 21-year-old has 28 home runs and 17 stolen bases, although none of the swipes have come in 2014. In his debut, the right fielder was slotted fifth in the batting order and went 2-for-4 with a home run in his first big league at-bat, which came in the Great American Smallpark. It was déjà vu all over again as Starlin Castro also homered in his first at-bat, also in Cincinnati.

Joc Pederson – A very talented outfielder in the Los Angeles Dodgers system, Pederson will probably get a look of what the view is like from a major league dugout in September after a 30/30 (33/30 to be exact) season this year in Triple-A Albuquerque – a feat that hasn’t been accomplished in eight decades. Manager Don Mattingly, while admitting the 22-year-old will get a taste of playing in Los Angeles, said he wouldn’t get regular playing time.

Archie Bradley – The gem of the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system, Bradley has only appeared in 17 minor league games over three levels due to missing about two months with an elbow injury. The big right-hander has a 9.5 K/9 over his minor league career and should be the cornerstone of the Diamondbacks team for as long as they want to pay him. The 22-year-old could see some action this year, especially if Arizona wants to sell a bunch more tickets.

Kris Bryant – In case you needed more evidence the Chicago Cubs’ farm system was pretty darn good, here’s Kris Bryant, a 22-year-old third baseman. Between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, all the big (6’5”, 215 pounds) Bryant has done is hit at a .329 clip with 43 home runs and 15 stolen bases. In other words, he picked right up where he left off as the MVP of the Arizona Fall League. There isn’t much at all left for him to prove in the Minors, so expect to see him up in Wrigley with the aforementioned Baez and Soler. The future is certainly very bright for the Cubbies.

These are only a handful of the prospects we’ll likely see up with major league teams this September. Personally, it’s one of my favorite times of the season as I – along with many other fans – look forward to seeing the next generation of Major League stars, some of whom are already on my teams in keeper leagues.

Whether it is a yearly trend or just anecdotal evidence, it seems in a lot of cases we have a tale of two seasons between the first and second halves of the MLB season. We always hear talk of this team being a first half team and fading in the second half or that player being a second half monster. When we’re talking about teams, however, the problem is the personnel isn’t the same for enough years to call it anything more than not comparing apples to apples. With individual players, we’re usually not talking about comparing enough years to call it anything more than a small sample size to declare anything definitive. That being said, it still is a worthwhile exercise to look at which teams and players are hot or cold any given year in order to improve our fantasy team as we try to manage it to a title.

In the East Division, the Atlanta Braves had a small lead over the Washington Nationals. At this point, Washington has opened up a five game lead on the Braves due to a 13-11 record since the All-Star break while Atlanta has gone 8-16. That gives the Braves the worst post break record in the East. The team with the best post ASB record has been the Miami Marlins, who are 15-10 since the Midsummer Classic.

The Milwaukee Brewers had a slight lead over the St. Louis Cardinals going into the break and they are still sitting atop the Central Division with a 66-54 record. The Cards have slipped back to third while the Pittsburgh Pirates have climbed up to second place. Pittsburgh has made their move on the strength of the division’s best record – 15-9 – since the ASB with Milwaukee not far behind at 13-11. St. Louis has only managed a 10-12 mark so far, which is second worst in the Central.

Out in the West Division, the Los Angeles Dodgers had a slim lead over the San Francisco Giants but the Dodgers have opened that up to five and one-half games since the break. Los Angeles has put up 15 wins against nine losses in that time while the Giants have been three games below .500 at 11-14.

The team with the worst result since the break has been the Colorado Rockies, who have only managed six victories to go along with 18 losses. The best record post ASB also comes from the West but it isn’t the Dodgers. Surprisingly, the San Diego Padres hold that honor to date with a record of 15-8.

On the individual player side, chicks dig the long ball so we’ll start there. Giancarlo Stanton and Troy Tulowitzki were tied with 21 home runs followed closely by Anthony Rizzo, Todd Frazier and Marlon Byrd with 20, 19, and 18 respectively. Stanton, with 31, has opened up a four dinger lead over Anthony Rizzo. Giancarlo has ten home runs since the break followed by Lucas Duda with seven and Matt Holliday, Matt Kemp, Mark Reynolds and Anthony Rizzo with six each. Tulowitzki has fallen back in the standings due to injury.

Denard Span has been the hottest hitter with regular at-bats, putting up a .424 batting average. He's trailed by Josh Harrison at .372 and Daniel Murphy at .353. All are at or close to 100 at-bats, which is a decent number to look at. Tommy Medica has been hot with a .373 average but that comes in about half the number of at-bats as those previously mentioned – a much smaller sample size.

Adrian Gonzalez leads the pack with 20 RBI with Stanton nipping at his heels with 19 of his own followed by Kemp and Hunter Pence tied with 18 each. Harrison has the lead with 21 runs scored and Nolan Arenado is second with 17. Carlos Gomez, Ender Inciarte and Gregory Polanco each have 16 runs. Gomez leads the league with ten stolen bases since the ASB with Span, Dee Gordon and Harrison each tied with eight. On the negative side, Marcell Ozuna (33), B.J. Upton (32) and Stanton (30) all have struck out more than a third of the time since play resumed after the break.

A very large number of pitchers have five starts in the second half. Six of those – Ervin Santana, Johnny Cueto, Tyson Ross, Doug Fister, Wily Peralta and Kyle Hendricks – have four wins in their five starts. Santana, Cueto and Ross don’t have any losses to go with the wins.  Cueto is leading the league in strikeouts since the break with 40. Cole Hamels has 38 followed by Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg and Alex Wood all with 37. Among starters, Hamels has a microscopic 0.73 ERA with Cueto, Kershaw, Ross and Francisco Liriano all sporting sub 2.00 marks.

Moving to the closers, Steve Cishek has recorded ten saves without blowing any. Francisco Rodriguez is second with nine followed by Jenrry Mejia and Trevor Rosenthal with seven each. Mejia also has one blown save. Surprisingly, of these four saves leaders, only Rosenthal (1.64) has an ERA lower than 2.00. Mejia and Rodriguez both have 3.72 marks and Cishek a bloated 4.15 ERA post ASB.

This is just a cursory look at some second half stats to date and is one of the things that makes baseball such an interesting sport - there are so many stats and ways to analyze or argue about them. Fantasy titles are won or lost based on how each team owner interprets them and which moves they decide to make. Now is the time to choose wisely.

When the clock struck 4 PM ET last Thursday, the dust settled after a flurry on the final day of the non-waiver trade deadline for MLB. While the Boston Red Sox made the most noise on the final day, there certainly were moves from National League teams. A recap of the final day:

Arizona Diamondbacks – Sent Gerardo Parra to the Milwaukee Brewers for Mitch Haniger, a 23-year-old former first-round pick who lost much of his first round luster, and Anthony Banda, a 20-year-old who was so far down the Brewers prospect list he was below the sub-basement. They also traded Martin Prado to the New York Yankees for catcher Peter O'Brien, a 24-year-old who has shown some power at Double-A with 23 home runs in 72 games.

Chicago Cubs – Traded Emilio Bonifacio and left-handed reliever James Russell to the Atlanta Braves for Victor Caratini. Caratini was a catcher in the Braves organization but played third base in college. He might see a position change if the Cubbies see him as a better infielder than backstop. Atlanta got someone who can play all over the field and the southpaw bullpen help they wanted.

Miami Marlins – Sent outfielder Jake Marisnick, third baseman Colin Moran and right-hander Francis Martes to the Houston Astros for starting pitcher Jarred Cosart and outfielders Enrique Hernandez and Austin Wates. Cosart is a promising 24-year-old who might be better off at the end of the bullpen eventually. Hernandez has played in the outfield mostly this year but can play the middle infield as well. He’ll be a super utility player for Miami with a chance to eventually stick as a starter. Wates basically amounts to fodder in this deal.

St. Louis Cardinals – The Cards received right-handed starter John Lackey and 22-year-old Corey Littrell (a fifth-round draft pick in 2013) for Allen Craig and Joe Kelly. St. Louis is hoping Lackey and the previously acquired Justin Masterson will bolster the starting rotation for the stretch run.

San Diego Padres – Traded outfielder Chris Denorfia to the Seattle Mariners for outfielder Abraham Almonte and right-hander Stephen Kohlscheen.  Almonte was a former Yankees prospect who hasn’t done much in the Minors or in 25 games for Seattle last year. Kohlscheen is big (6’6”) but doesn’t have big potential. All you need to know is he’s 25 years old, hasn’t seen the Majors yet and was a 45th round pick in 2010.

Washington Nationals – Received shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for infielder Zach Walters. Cabrera has played five games at second base since the trade, replacing Danny Espinosa.

Even though the non-waiver deadline has passed, that doesn’t mean general managers are done wheeling and dealing. We are now in the waiver trade period. In this process, teams put players on waivers. The players could be claimed by any major league team. If a player is claimed by more than one team, the team lower in the standings in the same league wins the claim. The two teams then have the opportunity to work out a trade or the player’s original team can opt to let him go with the claiming team assuming the contract. Teams putting players on waivers usually have a team or two they would be willing to consummate a trade with. If the winning team in the waiver process isn’t any of them, then the team just pulls the player back from waivers. This is usually a shell game as teams can put up to seven players a day on waivers – many players they have no interest in trading.

One team that should be very active is the Philadelphia Phillies. After doing nothing before the deadline, they are in just as bad a position as they were before – an old team getting older with some big contracts they desperately need to unload. General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has stated he received many inquiries but none of them were worth the players they would be losing. But here the Phils sit with the same old players and big contracts and they’ll be a year older next year. They needed to dump some of those big contracts that are like an anchor around their necks. We’ll see if they pull the trigger this month. Reportedly, some players are willing to waive their no-trade clauses to go to a playoff contender. Evidently, Cliff Lee won’t be one of the players changing uniforms as he was again placed on the disabled list. The difference now is he has cleaned out his locker, which is a pretty good sign he’s done for the season, although nothing has officially been said.

Another team that didn’t do much was the Colorado Rockies. This didn’t sit well with super shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who said “something needs to change” with the team but stopped short of saying he wanted out.

Teams will now see what they can accomplish for this year or the future during the month of August.

When preparing for a draft, there are always those players we target as late round picks or worthy of a minimum bid in the hopes they pan out into something valuable. Sometimes, we base this on skills analysis, something we read or heard, some extent of past performance, or just a gut feeling. These guys aren’t counted on to be a base of a fantasy team but someone who could maybe take a next step and wind up outperforming their auction bid or draft position. In many ways, we’re trying to catch lightning in a bottle with these picks.

Nathan Eovaldi is one player I had my eye on at the end of the 2013 season and wanted to target as an end-game addition this season. He was drafted in the 11th round of the 2008 draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He went on to spend four years in Low-A, High-A and Double-A before getting called up in 2011 for a 34 inning cup of coffee in which he performed decently but didn’t really impress. Eovaldi showed flashes in the Minors, where he struck out better than 8.5 hitters per nine innings, but those flashes were few and far between – more like a blind squirrel finding a nut.

In 2012, he was the cornerstone for the Miami Marlins in the trade that sent Hanley Ramirez to the Dodgers and Eovaldi to South Florida. In that split season with Los Angeles and Miami, he put up a 4.30 ERA and only struck out 5.88/9 – which is in the ballpark for what he did most of his career. But the Marlins obviously thought there was something there to want him as the main piece for sending Ramirez packing to the west coast.

So what did Miami see? For just about his whole career, he’s been able to dial up a four-seam fastball in the 94-96 MPH range on a consistent basis. He was even able to surpass 98 on occasion. The big right-hander (6’2” and over 200 pounds) also used a two-seam fastball that was a couple MPH slower than his four seamer. He possessed a smooth delivery that delivered both pitches with apparent ease. His secondary pitches were a mid 80’s slider, a high 70’s curveball and a low 80’s changeup. Part of the problem, however, was the slider was adequate for a power pitcher but the curveball and changeup weren’t up to par as quality offerings for a third pitch. Obviously, the Marlins thought they could help him develop that third pitch that the Dodgers hadn’t.

So as a power pitcher, why hasn’t the now 24-year-old become a strikeout pitcher? Besides lacking a plus third pitch to keep hitters off balance, the knock on his four-seam fastball has been that it’s too straight. Most major league hitters can put a straight fastball in play once they time it. Eovaldi currently features both fastballs together about 63% of the time; slider 26% and curveball/changeup combined about 11%. The implication is he relies on his power pitches too much.

Additionally, some scouts think he tips off his pitches with slight differences in either release point, arm angle, or both. The more alike things look on different pitches, the harder for a batter to recognize which pitch is actually coming and they are kept off balance. A changeup, especially, needs to look like a fastball as far as arm speed goes in order for it to be an effective major league pitch. He really doesn’t even show his changeup to right-handed hitters. Since his fastball is obviously his favorite pitch in terms of usage and he lacks both movement on it and a quality off speed pitch, hitters can sit dead red.

So what did I see to warrant interest on my part heading into the current season? On August 16 last year, Eovaldi allowed nine earned runs on 12 hits in only three innings at home against the San Francisco Giants. In his following seven starts (which happened to be his last seven starts of 2013), he allowed two or fewer runs in six of those contests and he earned the win in four of them. There was one game in which Miami was hosting the Washington Nationals where Eovaldi allowed five earned runs on nine hits in only three innings. The other six games combined, he put up a 1.61 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and improved 7.35 K/9 against the likes of the Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Phillies, Nationals, Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers – three of which were playoff teams (Tigers, Braves and Dodgers).

While a 7.35 K/9 certainly isn’t elite, it was an improvement of 1.10 K/9 over the rest of his 12 games. To me, that was something worth noting as a step in the right direction to realizing the potential of his good raw stuff. That hasn’t materialized, however, as Eovaldi has regressed to a 4.37 ERA and 6.15 K/9 in 22 games to this point in 2014.

Still only 24, Eovaldi is young enough to learn how to refine his craft. But, he needs to start making strides in that direction in order to realize the potential of his natural velocity.

There’s no worse feeling in the fantasy world than drafting your team and expecting big things only to have one of your top players not perform up to standards – whether it be because of injury or just a crappy year. When this happens, the inevitable response is a bunch of words not fit for print here directed at said player to go along with much gnashing of teeth. If a player gets off to a bad start, the usual reaction is to hold onto him, hoping he’ll work it out. If things don’t turn around, the next reaction could be to try to dump the player on someone else based on name value. If, however, you wait too long, then you need to take a deep discount or be stuck with the player for the duration of the season. If I’m in that position, I’m loathe to actually just cut the player because I’m afraid the next owner to pick him up will wind up getting what I had banked on.

One such player many fantasy players were counting on for this year was Cliff Lee. The 35-year-old has been fantasy gold for most of the past six years and has anchored many a team’s pitching staff. Coming into the season, the southpaw was in the top-3 of starting pitchers in the National League. His auction value was in the $30 range and he went for more than that in some leagues. At that price, it was expected he would easily attain double-digit wins, an ERA close to 3.00, WHIP in the low 1.00 range and strikeouts north of 200. It looked like Lee was going to have another typical Cliff Lee season after spring training when he put up a 2.55 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, more than a strikeout per inning and less than a hit per inning.

But then the regular season started. Lee’s first start was in Texas against the Rangers. He lasted only five innings and was tagged hard. After the smoke had cleared, the box score showed eight earned runs, 11 hits allowed and only one strikeout in five innings of work. That equated to a 14.40 ERA and 2.40 WHIP for him and his owners – a very inauspicious start to the season to say the least. In his next three starts, he allowed zero, three, and one earned run but still gave up more than a hit per inning.

His best game came in his fifth start of the year against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In that game, Lee went eight innings and only allowed four hits, zero walks, and struck out ten. His owners must have thought the train was back on the tracks, but he followed that with an eight hit and two walk effort against the Arizona Diamondbacks in which he surrendered three earned runs and only struck out two.

After that, Lee kind of had an up and down performance for the next four starts. After allowing two earned runs on May 18 to the Cincinnati Reds in a game in which he gave up nine hits and only struck out three, Lee was sent for an MRI due to a sore throwing elbow – never something real or fantasy GM’s like to hear. The report came back that it was a strained flexor tendon and not something that would require the all too familiar Tommy John surgery that was running rampant during the early part of this season. The Phillies were saying he might only miss two weeks with the strain and he was placed on the 15-day disabled list.

Two weeks later, however, the ace still had not been cleared to begin throwing and his owners started to worry even more. On June 10, he participated in some light tossing – just to get a feel for how the elbow felt. Things seemed OK and the schedule was pushed to light throwing every other day. On June 16, things were moved to a mound where he threw only fastballs on a very limited pitch count to see how the arm felt. The schedule was moved to throwing bullpen sessions in increasing pitch increments with a simulated game forecast for sometime during the last week of June. On July 1, he progressed to throwing 60 pitches against live batters and a minor league rehab trip would be next – Philadelphia was certainly taking it slow and easy with their star. In the first of these, he was limited to just two dozen pitches for High A Clearwater in a game that was cut short by rain. This start covered two shutout innings with one hit and two strikeouts.

The next start was again for Clearwater in which he allowed three runs in four innings but he did throw three quarters of his pitches for strikes. This now brings us to July 15 and his last rehab start. Things didn’t go well in this game as he was roughed up for eight runs, albeit only three earned, in 4 2/3 innings with only two strikeouts. This certainly wasn’t what Lee owners were hoping for.

He was activated from the DL this Monday and pitched against the San Francisco Giants at home. In his first start back, the Giants treated him roughly, with 12 hits, six earned runs and only three strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings. Not good at all and Cliff Lee owners are officially worried again and certainly wondering if there is a more extensive issue with him this year. I’ve heard more than a few wondering if he’s hit the wall and the slide is here.

I don’t have the answer to that but am glad I don’t have any ownership in him this year. It doesn’t look good but there isn’t much those with some stock in him can do at this point but wait and hope. With the way things have been going, however, Daisy Duke would rather be riding in a Pinto than this Lee.

Let’s take a tour of the Senior Circuit with an eye on what we can expect fantasy-wise after the break.

Arizona Diamondbacks: With the return of Mark Trumbo, something has to flesh out in the outfield. Early indications are Ender Inciarte and Cody Ross will lose the most playing time while David Peralta will continue to play, mostly in centerfield. Trevor Cahill is back but he’s still a risk as he walked 20 hitters in 28.1 innings at Triple-A Reno.

Atlanta Braves: The prognosis for Evan Gattis improved over the break as he’s taking batting practice with the hope of returning the last week of July. Backs can be tricky, so counting on any more than 150 AB the rest of the way is optimistic.

Chicago Cubs: The next 10 weeks could be very interesting in Wrigley Field. Playing time is not guaranteed for Arismendy Alcantara but it’s certainly there for the taking. There’s a good chance Javier Baez and Kris Bryant get a cup of joe before season’s end. What’s really scary is with all the focus on the infield prospects, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora are ignored. From a fantasy sense, so long as you don’t need to chase wins, Tsuyoshi Wada and Kyle Hendricks are intriguing arms to monitor. The strikeout potential can certainly help an NL-only team and they could even be streaming options in mixed leagues.

Cincinnati Reds: The news Joey Votto will only be out a couple weeks means the Reds can use Brayan Pena (again) to cover and focus on a replacement for Brandon Phillips. At least short term, Zack Cozart gets a little boost hitting second. As an Aroldis Chapman owner in multiple leagues, I’m a bit concerned how he left the field after his All-Star stint. Supposedly he tweaked a previous injury and should be OK, but until I see him blaze a 100 mph heater over the weekend, I reserve the right to be concerned.

Colorado Rockies: We’ll know in another week if Michael Cuddyer has a chance to return this season (probably late-August if it happens). In the interim, Carlos Gonzalez will man right field, which may help keep him healthy. Who am I kidding – it’s CarGo, nothing can help keep him healthy.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Carl Crawford is back, which makes a crowded outfield a little more crowded. The problem is no one can really play centerfield as well as a playoff-bound team typically runs out there. Matt Kemp wants to play every day, which could push him back to center. Heck, the Lakers once won with Magic Johnson playing center, so who knows.

Miami Marlins: I’m not sure if the pheromones are obvious, but I’m developing a pretty serious mancrush on Christian Yelich. Last year, it was Kole Calhoun, this season it’s Yelich. Not only has Giancarlo Stanton stayed healthy, he’s piggybacking with the improved Marlin attack, as his RBI and runs total may both tip triple digits.

Milwaukee Brewers: The tragically sad death of Jean Segura’s infant son has Elian Herrera with the team while Segura is with his family. Obviously, there are more important considerations than when he’ll be back with the team, but the most recent news is the club is attempting to get in touch with their shortstop and will support whatever he decides.

New York Mets: Don’t look now but Curtis Granderson is heating up. The rest of the outfield is still transient but a healthy Juan Lagares is the closest they have to a regular. Daisuke Matsuzaka is heading back to the bullpen as Dillon Gee has returned and Jon Niese will soon follow.

Philadelphia Phillies: Cliff Lee will be back next week but for how long? The game “Who will close if Jonathan Papelbon is traded?” is sweeping the nation. Antonio Bastardo is possible but he’s also on the block. Jake Diekman and my choice Ken Giles are also possibilities.

Pittsburgh Pirates: The Bucs are a solid starting pitcher away from hanging in the wild-card race for the duration. It will be interesting to see if they take the plunge. The intriguing fantasy question will be how the Pirates continue to find playing time for Josh Harrison as when everyone is healthy, he’s the odd man out. His flexibility should keep his bat in the lineup fairly frequently.

San Diego Padres: Hopefully, not many of you followed my lead expecting a strong season from Everth Cabrera, but if you did, I’m sorry. The usual Huston Street/Joaquin Benoit rumors are running rampant again with Kevin Quackenbush as an intriguing speculative stash. Quackenbush has 27 whiffs to only eight walks in 26.3 frames, allowing just one homer.

San Francisco Giants: Angel Pagan’s return is about a week away. Marco Scutaro is back but expect Joe Panik to keep getting some decent playing time. In his last three outings, Sergio Romo has fanned seven with no walks and just one hit, covering 3.1 stanzas. Let’s just say I don’t think he’ll end the season with the same number of saves he has now.

St. Louis Cardinals: A white-hot Kolten Wong (.321 with five homers and three steals since July 6) has likely earned regular run at second. Oscar Taveras has pushed Allen Craig to the bench. Craig hasn’t forgotten how to hit; it’s just one of those years. A Lawr Michaels fave George Kottaras could supply some pop in Yadier Molina’s stead.

Washington Nationals: Adam LaRoche’s continued success is making it really hard for the Nats to move Ryan Zimmerman to first and Anthony Rendon to third. A decision on Jordan Zimmermann and his biceps strain should be made before Friday’s games begin. Blake Treinen and Taylor Jordan are possible replacements if the need arises.  I know they still have to get there, but if they do I really like the way Washington sets up for a playoff run.

We have less than a week to go to the All-Star Break when the American League will host the National League at Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins. This gives me another chance to rant about one of my biggest pet peeves – the fact this exhibition game determines which league gets home field for the World Series. In my mind, this is one of the dumbest decisions Bud Selig has made. Now that I got that out of my system, let’s move on.

The various division races are tightening up. As of this writing, the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves are tied atop the East; the St. Louis Cardinals have closed to within three games of the leading Milwaukee Brewers in the Central; the Los Angeles Dodgers (minus a few million dollars due to a jury award in the Bryan Stow case) are one-half game up on the San Francisco Giants in the West.

The Colorado Rockies lead the league with 441 runs scored – not surprising considering where they play. At 482, the Rockies have also allowed the most runs – not surprising considering where they play. Milwaukee has the second most runs scored at 402. The San Diego Padres have the most anemic offense, having scored a mere 272 runs. Washington has the best run differential at +53 while the Arizona Diamondbacks have the worst at -64.

The Nationals, at nine games over .500, play the best at home while Arizona owns the worst home record at 14 games below break even. Los Angeles has the best road record, having won ten games more than they lost while Colorado has lost 14 more games than they’ve won on the road.

On the individual side, Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki leads all National League players with a .350 batting average and 70 runs scored. Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins has the most home runs in the NL with 21 and most RBI with 63. Andrew McCutchen has worked the most bases on balls with 57 while B.J. Upton has struck out the most – 111 times. Dee Gordon leads in thievery with 42 stolen bases.

Among pitchers, Johnny Cueto of Cincinnati has thrown the most innings – 137 2/3 – and is on pace to accumulate over 250 innings. Washington’s Stephen Strasburg leads the league with 140 strikeouts and could top 250 for the year. Alfredo Simon of the Reds leads with 12 victories while Eric Stults of the San Diego Padres only has one fewer loss than Simon has wins. Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel (not surprisingly) and Milwaukee’s Francisco Rodriguez (surprisingly) lead the NL with 27 saves.

One of the biggest surprises so far has been the Cincinnati Reds’ young outfielder Billy Hamilton. Many projections had Hamilton struggling in the batting average department to the extent he might be demoted and lose a lot of playing time. While the 23-year-old speedster did struggle mightily for the first month, he has steadily raised his average to .280 with a .312 OBP. This has enabled him to steal 37 bases, although he needs to improve his percentage after being caught 12 times. Hamilton has even added five home runs and 36 RBI from his spot atop the Reds lineup.

The comeback player of the year so far is Justin Morneau of the Rockies. After a 2013 season in which he batted .259 with 17 home runs and 77 RBI for the Minnesota Twins and Pittsburgh Pirates, the Colorado first baseman is batting .313 with 13 home runs and 59 RBI – on pace for 22 home runs and 103 RBI. Teammate Troy Tulowitzki is the leading MVP candidate with his aforementioned .350 average and 20 home runs, 70 runs and 49 RBI. A few pitchers, including Adam Wainwright, Cueto and Clayton Kershaw, are in the running for the Cy Young. Wainwright has an 11-4 record with a 0.92 WHIP, 1.79 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 131 innings pitched. Cueto is the owner of a 9-6 record with a 0.88 WHIP, 2.03 ERA and 134 strikeouts in just over 137 innings. Kershaw of the Dodgers has a 10-2 record with a 0.87 WHIP, 1.85 ERA and 115 strikeouts in only 87 innings due to missing about six weeks of the season with a bad back.

There’s been one major trade so far with Theo Epstein sending Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s for starting pitcher Dan Straily, minor league shortstop Addison Russell (a highly rated prospect) and minor league outfielder Billy McKinney. With Javier Baez already in the organization – another top shortstop prospect – someone figures to be changing positions.

The season hasn’t disappointed so far with some surprises (good and not so good) both in real baseball and for fantasy teams. The rest of the 2014 version of MLB figures to be just as exciting and full of surprises and I’m eager to see it play out. I just hope the announcers at the mid-season classic don’t set me off by reminding me what’s at stake in that game.

Even though we haven’t reached the unofficial midway point of the baseball season – the All-Star break – the 2014 season is more than halfway in the books with the vast majority of major league teams having played at least 82 games. It’s a good time for teams to take a look at their lot in the standings and start to plan for the dog days of summer.

As we enter play Wednesday, the Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers and San Francisco Giants are in the lead in their respective divisions. The Braves have a one-half game lead over the Washington Nationals with the Miami Marlins hanging in there five and one-half games out. The Giants also have a one-half game lead in the NL West over the Los Angeles Dodgers. All the other teams in the division are behind by double digits. If the Dodgers get their act together at home (on the road they are ten games over .500 but just playing break even ball at home), they could really make some hay in the standings. The Brewers are the biggest surprise of the three division leaders with a six and one-half game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals and the best winning percentage in the National League. In fact, only the Oakland A’s have a better record than the Brew Crew in all of baseball.

Teams now have a pretty good idea whether they are pretenders or contenders. The pretenders will be looking to set themselves up for the future by adding prospects, trimming salary, or both while the contenders will be looking to add that final piece or two for the run to October. In this regard, both sides will find something they can come together on. What remains to be seen are which teams will be willing to deal and which will be willing to make any additions. Either way, there are some options that might be available for the frontrunners that I will go through. Many times, this is a crapshoot to try to predict, and more often than not, most names we think could be moving wind up staying put but it’s fun to speculate.

Ryan Howard is in the middle of a contract extension he signed in 2010 that will take him through the 2016 season plus a club option for 2017. The first baseman will make $25M through the end of 2016 with the 2017 option being another $23M with a $10M buyout. Ryan’s contract gives him the right to block deals to 21 teams, but with the Phillies getting long in the tooth (Howard is 34) and their window now closed, he might be willing to go someplace else for a playoff run.

In the same boat with Howard but a year older is Cliff Lee. The big left-hander has been nursing a strain to a tendon in his throwing elbow but seems set to start a minor league rehab assignment. Naturally, anyone coming off an injury – especially a pitcher with a hurt throwing arm – has an uphill climb when it comes to possibly being dealt. But Lee isn’t just anyone. He’s the type of pitcher who could make a huge difference in the battle for the playoffs.  The southpaw is under contract through the end of 2015 for $25M each year and a $27.5M club option for 2016 with a $12.5M buyout. Like Howard, Lee’s contract enables him to block any trade to 21 teams.

The Chicago Cubs aren’t going anywhere fast and could be willing to unload some pieces. One of those pieces is Jason Hammel. The 31-year-old is having a nice year with seven wins and a 2.98 ERA for the lowly Cubbies. He’s in a contract year as Chicago signed him to a one-year deal this January that will pay him $6M for the season with an additional $1M in performance bonuses possible. Due to the contract, he would be very attractive to other teams looking to add someone without having to take on a huge amount of salary for multiple years. If President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein is willing to part with Hammel, there could be a bidding war involving several teams.

Another interesting chip the Cubs have is right-hander Jeff Samardzija. Although he only owns a 2-7 record, the big starting pitcher has a 2.83 ERA with 103 strikeouts in 108 innings with only 31 walks. Just as attractive as his peripherals is the 29-year-old's contract – one year for $5.345M. The suitors will be lining up at Theo’s doorstep for the services of Samardzija.

Going out west, the San Diego Padres have a couple pieces of their own that other teams might be interested in. First is 30-year-old Huston Street. The closer is having a superb year with a 0.77 WHIP, 0.90 ERA and 32:7 K:BB ratio in 30 innings pitched. The veteran right-hander has converted 22 of 22 save opportunities in 2014. Street is affordable at $7M for 2014 with a club option for 2015 at another $7M.

Moving from the bullpen to the starting rotation, we come upon right-hander Ian Kennedy. The 29-year-old doesn’t have eye-popping numbers (3.87 ERA, 1.23 WHIP), especially considering he pitches in Petco Park, but his peripherals are pretty darn good. First off, Kennedy’s velocity is up almost 1.5 MPH over 2013 with a reduction in BB/9 and increase in K/9 which gives him a K:BB of 4.14 – an 86% increase over last year’s 2.23 mark. His BABIP is .338 compared to his career .299, which may signify he’s been a little unlucky. Further evidence of this is Kennedy's 2.97 FIP. Finally, he is third in the National League in strikeouts. With a contract of $7M for 2014 with a club option for $7M in 2015, Kennedy is certainly affordable as well. Definitely someone some teams wouldn’t mind having in the middle of their rotation.

While this is certainly not a complete list of who might be traded as we approach the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31, it at least whets the appetite. There are sure to be many other names bandied about between general managers over the next few weeks and, as is usually the case, the talk of trades will vastly outperform the actual consummation of trades. But it gives me something to write about and baseball fans in general something to talk about as the dog days of summer set in.

Sometimes the best way to get ahead is to stay two steps ahead of the pack. Depending on your league rules, stashing players that can make a difference in the second half is one way to accomplish this. What follows is a list of some names that could help decide NL-only and Mixed leagues, depending on the depth of the player pool.

Andrew Lambo, 1B/OF, Pittsburgh Pirates: Lambo almost broke camp with the Bucs but was sent back to Triple-A Indianapolis in April. He played 26 games, slashing .344/.430/.570 (1.000 OPS) before having surgery on the ulnar-collateral ligament of his right thumb. He’s due back sometime in late July/early August which could give him about six weeks of MLB time if he shows any sort of pop when he returns. His spot will have to be first base, where Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez are currently splitting time. If Pittsburgh falls out of the wild card race, they may look to see what they have in Lambo down the stretch.

Darin Ruf, 1B/OF Philadelphia Phillies: Ruf is also presently on the shelf but should be back in a couple of weeks. He’s got a hairline fracture in his left wrist and a banged up knee, both suffered from trying to run through a wall earlier this month. If the Phillies are sellers, a corner outfield spot may open up. As Ruf exhibited after the All-Star break last season, he’s got some pop (14 HR in 293 PA) and can take a walk (11.3 percent BB%) but struggled with contact (31.3 percent K%). He did it once, why can’t he do it again?

Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs: Kris Bryant is deservedly capturing all the attention as Baez is struggling to make consistent contact at Triple-A Iowa, but 11 HR and 14 SB reminds us just how much of a fantasy monster Baez will be when he does mature (he’s only 21). The Cubs would have to use him at second as Starlin Castro is having a nice comeback campaign. Baez has fanned 91 times while drawing only 18 walks, so there’s work to do. But if he can show any sort of improved discipline on the farm, a second-half promotion is not that much of a stretch.

Maikel Franco, 3B, Philadelphia Phillies: Yeah, yeah I need to let this go but Franco is the future at third in Philly, not Cody Asche. Though, @cody_smasche is one of my favorite Twitter handles. It’s not as good as @BringerofRain (Josh Donaldson), @El_Coffee (Gregory Polanco) or @FlavaFraz21 (Todd Frazier) but it’s cute. Back to Franco, his decimals at Triple-A Lehigh are just .212/.268/.326 for a paltry .594 OPS, but he’ll be playing in the Future’s Game, which is a reflection of his still top-prospect status. While his 48:21 whiff to walk ratio isn’t great, it isn’t completely horrible. If Franco can get hot early on in the second half, there’s still time to do some damage in the Senior Circuit.

A.J. Pollock, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks: Pollock isn’t a stranger to NL followers, but if your league has limited reserve and/or DL spots, he could be available since he’s going to be out until at least mid-August, maybe longer. Ender Inciarte has had his moments filling in, but Pollock’s combination of hitting and defense is sorely missed in the desert.

Marco Scutaro, 2B, San Francisco Giants: Okay, we’re stretching here, but Scutaro is a veteran and if Joe Panik slumps, the Giants may prefer Scutaro for their playoff push. The best that can be said about the veteran is he may not hurt you in average and could score a few tallies. Hey, it’s better than nothing.

Joe Kelly, SP, St. Louis Cardinals: The Redbirds can seemingly pluck an able arm right off the Arch but they’ll soon have an old friend return as Kelly is slated to start a rehab assignment soon. Assuming there’s no setbacks with his hamstring, the recent loss of Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia clears a path for a big league return. Don’t be concerned that Kelly was recently put on the 60-day DL; it was simply procedural to open up a spot on the 40-man roster.

Robbie Erlin, SP, San Diego Padres: While the cause of Erlin’s sore throwing elbow is still a bit sketchy, he’s pain-free and the MRI’s are clean, so he’s throwing again with the hopes of returning a bit after the All-Star break. But with Odrisamer Despaigne holding down the fort, Jesse Hahn looking good but still raw, Andrew Cashner a health risk and Eric Stults being, you know, Eric Stults, the fire-balling southpaw will have a spot waiting for him when he’s ready.

Burch Smith, SP, San Diego Padres: Speaking of the depleted Padres staff, Smith still looms as a second-half savior. He’s been out since early April with a sore forearm, but if he can make it back and show any modicum of control, he’s a strikeout machine.

Taylor Jordan, SP Washington Nationals: Tanner Roark has laid claim to the fifth rotation spot in Washington and is doing all he can to keep it, so it will take an injury for Jordan to get retribution for his April shortcomings before being sent to Triple-A Syracuse. Jordan isn’t exactly lighting it up on the farm, but his 28:8 strikeout to walk ratio in 31 frames is encouraging.

Death. It’s the most inevitable thing of this journey we call life. It is the one thing that everyone will eventually be able to claim as personally touching them. Everybody can’t even say that about birth because not everyone has their own children. Yet every one of us has or will eventually lose someone very close to them. It is lurking – sometimes even seeming to be stalking – in each and every one of us. The older we get, the less indestructible we feel. When we’re younger, that’s exactly how we feel. We don’t think about death because it seems to be so far in the future. But when we get to the age I am and you hear of people passing at a younger age than your own, it gets you thinking you’re not as invincible as you once thought.

That’s how the passing of Anthony Keith Gwynn Sr. felt to many people. There are many more than just myself who watched Tony ply his trade in the big leagues. He was the consummate professional and a feared hitter. He didn’t play on many winning teams but when he came to the plate against your team, you still felt some trepidation. And dare I say maybe you even hated him – if just for a moment – when he got a hit in a critical spot in a tight game.

But you couldn’t hate Tony for long. More than being a great ballplayer, he was a gentleman to everyone he met. I never had that opportunity but I read plenty about him through the years and never read a bad word about him. It was said that he treated the clubhouse boys as well as he treated the owner of the team. And it was never disingenuous. Except for during the heat of battle of a game, he always seemed to be smiling. Not just a little grin, but a big wide grin that made him seem warmer than the summer days of San Diego.

Tony Gwynn was a point guard at San Diego State and is the all-time assists leader for the school. He also played baseball and became an All-American. Gwynn wound up being drafted by the San Diego Clippers of the NBA in the tenth round of the 1981 draft. The same day, he was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the third round of the amateur draft. Thank goodness he decided to play baseball professionally.

Gwynn himself admitted that he wasn’t a real good defender, couldn’t throw and wasn’t a good base runner. He had to work at it. And work at it he did. He was one of the first to utilize video tape as a way of improving himself and used it so much was given the nickname Captain Video.

Captain Video worked so hard off the field to improve himself it showed to the tune of 19 consecutive seasons of batting over .300 and eight National League batting titles. Davey Lopes quipped that a slump for most players would be 0-for-35 but a slump for Tony Gwynn was like 5-for-15. Tony didn’t just work hard on his swing but on all other facets of the game. He had five seasons with over 25 stolen bases, including a career high 56 in 1987. His career ended with a total of 319 swipes and a career batting average of .338 – the second highest in the post World War II era – and five Gold Gloves. All a testament to his hard work.

Mr. Padre (as he is also known) appeared in six postseason series in his career, including two World Series appearances in 1984 and 1998. As the pressure mounted, he got better, batting .250 in the NL Division Series, .289 in the NL Championship Series and .371 in the World Series. Most of the World Series damage was done in the 1998 matchup against my New York Yankees. In that series, Gwynn hit .500 (8-for-16 including one home run) against the likes of David Wells, Orlando Hernandez and Andy Pettitte. There was no other Padre who struck fear in Yankee fans' hearts the way he did, including Greg Vaughn and his 50 regular season home runs.

In 2007, Tony Gwynn was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. During his induction speech, he said “And when you laugh and you can laugh at yourself and laugh at others, that makes the game a whole lot easier to play.” That says a lot about his overall outlook on things. He was a simple and humble man whose favorite moment in the game was to be the last man standing out there with Ted Williams as he threw out the first pitch of the 1999 All-Star Game. This from a man who had many career highlights, including joining the 3,000 hit club in only 2,284 games.

In 2010, Tony Gwynn was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer. It was removed surgically and he underwent radiation treatments but it kept recurring. Gwynn blamed it on his use of chewing tobacco. Tony fought long and hard but lost his battle with cancer on June 16. Baseball has banned smokeless tobacco entirely in the minor leagues since 2001 but the MLBPA has resisted the same at the highest level. Maybe it’s just talk of a cancer survivor but it's high time MLB did the same in the big leagues – in Tony Gwynn’s memory.

Tony Gwynn is gone but he will long be remembered. Baseball and the world could not have had a finer gentleman. Thanks to the fact we live in such a technologically advanced age, we don’t have to go far to replay some moments in the life of Captain Video.

We’re at the point in the baseball season where everyone’s attention turns towards the minor leagues and when the next shiny prospect will be called up. Real baseball fans want to see their top prospects at the big league level because they represent hope for the future. Fantasy owners want to see the same prospects promoted because there’s a widespread belief they offer the path to a championship in the year the call-up is made.

Adding to the angst is that both groups are at the mercy of MLB and the MLBPA (MLB Players Association) due to a clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) known as “Super Two”, but not many people know what it means. In the CBA, a player with more than three years but less than six years of service is eligible for salary arbitration. “Super Two” says that if a player has at least two years of service but less than three he can be eligible for arbitration if they have at least 86 days of service the preceding year and ranks in the top 22 percent in total service in the entire group of players having at least two but less than three years of major league service.

So why should we care and what does it mean? For MLB owners, it means they could save a bundle of money by delaying the call-up of the aforementioned shiny prospects. It’s a guessing game, however, because due to the way a Super Two is calculated, there is no hard date during the year for the cutoff. So the owners play a guessing game and try to delay the call-up as long as possible.

What it means for the players is if they qualify for Super Two status, they get an extra year of salary arbitration, which amounts to more money for the player. One of the best examples of what this means is Tim Lincecum qualified for Super Two status and made $9 million during his first year of arbitration while Clayton Kershaw didn’t qualify and only made $500K in his fourth year after being called up. Kershaw wound up making $19.8 million over his first five years while The Freak earned over $42 million his first five seasons. That’s the business of baseball.

So now we come back to this year. The Houston Astros didn’t hesitate (to many people’s surprise) in calling up outfielder George Springer in the middle of April. That only whet the appetite of National League fans and set many fantasy players chomping at the bit for the first NL call-ups. The most anticipated names were shortstop Javier Baez of the Chicago Cubs, outfielder Oscar Taveras of the St. Louis Cardinals and outfielder Gregory Polanco of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Taveras was brought up on May 31, Polanco got the call June 10, and we’re still awaiting the arrival of Baez.

So with the news that Taveras and Polanco would be up with their parent clubs, the waiver wire was buzzing and FAAB was being spent in bunches in many leagues. But is that normally money well spent? In most cases, it isn’t. There aren’t many Ryan Braun-like performances in a player's first year. As good as these players are in Triple-A, things are much different in the Majors.

The 21-year-old Taveras had a .325/.373/.524 slash line at Triple-A Memphis before St. Louis gave him his debut. In ten games with the Cardinals, his slash line is .194/.231/.306 – certainly not a good ROI on a big FAAB investment. Those who took the leap were surely salivating after he smashed his first big league home run in his first big league game, but he has only managed six hits and two walks in nine games since then. An average projection for the rest of the season for Taveras has him hitting eight home runs, batting about .275 and stealing five or so bases. These numbers aren’t much different than what Nate Schierholtz, Andrelton Simmons, Seth Smith, Martin Prado or Gerardo Parra will accumulate the rest of the way.

Polanco, at 22, is one year older than Taveras and has two hits in his first two major league games. His average projection for the rest of the season is eight home runs, a .285 batting average and mid teens in stolen bases. Not too far off from what guys like Carl Crawford, Daniel Murphy, Angel Pagan, Christian Yelich and Jimmy Rollins will give your team.

If you are in a redraft league, you have many different options at your disposal in the way of trades and waiver wire acquisitions than spending the amount of FAAB it would cost you to get either Taveras or Polanco or any other shiny prospect that will be called up. In a keeper or dynasty league, the factors are different and you have to put more thought into what you’re going to do depending on if you are playing for this year or acquiring talent for the future. In either case, temper your expectations for what any rookie will do for your team in their first season. Pittsburgh could arguably have the best outfield in baseball with Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Polanco. But it almost assuredly won’t be in 2014.

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