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Tuesday 27th Jun 2017

With only a few weeks left in the regular season, the American League divisional races have come into focus and the powers-that-be in baseball have to be excited by what they are seeing.  All three division titles are up for grabs, and at this point we have eight teams fighting for the 5 available post-season berths.

In the AL East, the upstart Baltimore Orioles (80-62) has continued their rebirth and as of today they are still locked in a tie for the division lead with the slumping New York Yankees (80-62).  As a baseball fan it’s hard for me to not root for the Orioles to capture their first Divisional Crown since 1997. If Buck Showalter’s crew is going to achieve that goal, they unfortunately will have to overcome more obstacles than just their opponents on the field. They lost lead-off hitter Nick Markakis for the rest of the year with a thumb injury over the weekend and last night “ace” Jason Hammel had to leave his start early after feeling pain in the knee that sidelined him for a month. Nate McClouth was picked up off the scrap heap in early August will now take over at the top of the Oriole lineup and try to continue his mini-rebirth since arriving at Camden Yards.

The one thing going for the O’s is that the team they are battling it out with, the Yankees, have injury problems of their own. First baseman Mark Teixeira aggravated his calf injury on the controversial play that lead to an Oriole victory on Saturday. It is a big loss for the Yankees as Tex is an integral RBI guy in the middle of their lineup. To make matters worse, Captain Derek Jeter limped off the field yesterday with a gimpy ankle. Of greater concern of course are the whispers regarding C.C. Sabathia’s health. His velocity has been down over his last three starts (all losses), and some are speculating that he looks like he is pitching through an injury. Alex Rodriguez has looked good since returning from the DL, and he will have to continue to provide production down the stretch, but if Sabathia is hurt, the Yankees could be in real trouble heading into a key series versus the Tampa Bay Rays this weekend.

The Rays are the team that could rain on the parades of both the teams currently ahead of them in the standings. Evan Longoria’s return to the lineup has helped fuel the playoff push on offense, and it is clear that the Rays have the best starting pitching in the division. They breathed a sigh of relief after David Price’s successful bullpen session on Tuesday, after the Cy Young candidate missed his last start due to “general soreness”. They also welcomed leadoff man Desmond Jennings back yesterday after he missed four games with a bad back.

This is really shaping up as a great race that could very well come down to the last weekend of the season when the Rays host the Orioles and the Yankees welcome the Boston Red Sox to the Bronx for their season finale. Yeah, that will be must-see baseball for sure. It’s a lost season for the last place Red Sox (64-79), but don’t believe for a second that this proud franchise will lay down the rest of the way. Even though they have nothing but pride to play for, they will be integral players in helping decide who wins the crown. They face both the Rays and Orioles six more times down the stretch, so believe it or not, Yankee fans will have no choice but to root for their rivals success in September.

The other team that will have something to say with regards to this race will be the Oakland A’s (82-62). This season’s other surprise team, they are currently leading both the Yankees and O’s in the Wild Card Chase, and has three games apiece against them both.  The A’s still have a shot to overtake the Rangers and win the West, and they play each other seven more times, including a season ending series in Oakland. The Angels are also lurking, but they have the longest odds of any team fighting for a playoff berth. Their schedule has some soft spots, so they could make it a three team race, but first they will try to avoid an A’s sweep today.

The Chicago White Sox (76-66), who currently are battling for the Central crown with Detroit (75-67), are circling the late September four game series versus the Rays on their own calendar. Those four games could very well help determine both division titles and up to 4 of the available playoff spots. I haven’t even mentioned the Tigers, who will have to catch the White Sox to punch their ticket. Only a game behind in the Central it is worth noting that they have the easiest schedule of anyone heading down the stretch with 16 of their last 20 games against the Indians, Royals and Twins.

If I had to make my picks today they would be this:

AL East Champ – Baltimore

AL Central Champ – Detroit

AL West Champ – Texas

AL Wild Cards – Tampa Bay and Oakland

That’s right Yankee fans. I’m not feeling good about your team’s chances down the stretch and I can easily envision the Red Sox being the team that knocks you out. In any case, we are going to have some exciting baseball action this September.

If you haven’t already heard, Felix Hernandez was perfect yesterday. The King pitched himself into the record books by hurling the first perfect game for the Seattle Mariners franchise and the 23rd perfecto in baseball history.  It was also the third perfect game we have seen this season, which is the most we’ve ever seen in one season before. Phil Humber was perfect against the Mariners back in April and San Francisco’s Matt Cain tossed his gem against the Houston Astros in June. This was also the sixth no-hitter in the majors this year.

The victim of Hernandez’ brilliance yesterday was the Tampa Bay Rays, and he disposed of them with a level of brilliance few have topped in the history of the game. He struck out 12 Rays, including five of the last six hitters he faced. The Rays have become all too used to getting shut down in recent years, as this marked the third time an opposing pitcher tossed a perfect game against them in since 2009. Throw in Edwin Jackson’s no hitter from 2010, and that’s four no-hitters over the same span. Ouch!

Hernandez was dominant, throwing 68 percent of his pitches for strikes. The Rays came out with an aggressive approach early in the game, as Joe Maddon’s team came out swinging early and often against the King to start the game. King Felix recorded only two of his twelve K’s in the first three innings and four Rays put the first pitch they saw into play during the first third of the game.  It seems like Hernandez (and catcher John Jaso) took note of the Rays aggressiveness and began to try and expand the strike zone by tossing out more breaking stuff.

It obviously worked, but it is still worth noting that Hernandez did not shut the Rays down with his typically explosive fastball. He only recorded two swinging strikes on fastballs all game long. Most of his swinging strikes came on curves, breaking balls and change-ups. In fact he threw his change-up more than any of his other pitches in the last three innings, and the Rays failed to adjust to the fact that Hernandez basically stopped giving them good pitches to hit.

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that this was a close game that the Mariners ending up winning 1-0. So, despite being hitless heading into the later innings the Rays were never truly out of the game. So with two outs in inning number seven, and Matt Joyce at the plate, Tampa bay's manager Joe Maddon tried his best to disrupt the rhythm of the game by getting ejected for arguing ball and strikes. To be fair, the first-pitch called strike to Joyce which got the Rays' skipper run was both high and outside, and followed a couple of other borderline called strikes, but when a pitcher is flirting with perfection, they often get the benefit of a somewhat generous strike zone, especially when they are pitching at home. Maddon got his money’s worth, as the saying goes, but the possible tactical maneuver didn’t work.

After Maddon’s lengthy discussion at home plate, Felix got Joyce to ground out weakly to first base. He then came out in the eighth and struck out the side. He got Evan Longoria with a nasty breaking ball for out one. Ben Zobrist swung over a change-up that dropped off the table. Carlos Pena then came up and was disposed of with a filthy curveball for the tenth strikeout of the game.

In the ninth inning he got back to work. Desmond Jennings came in to pinch hit for Joe Lobaton. Hernandez sent him back to the dugout with strikeout number eleven with yet another change-up that Jaso practically scooped out of the dirt. Jeff Keppinger somehow managed to put a 1-2 change-up in play, but it was an easy play for SS Brendan Ryan. Sean Rodriguez stepped up as the Rays last chance. He worked the count to 2-0, but the King didn’t waver. He delivered three straight strikes, the last two catching Rodriguez looking for strikeout number twelve. Hernandez thrust both his arms up into the air and was mobbed by his teammates in celebration.

Ever since he entered the league we have been waiting for King Felix to deliver a no-no. He has come close before only to be denied by late game heroics. But yesterday he was masterful, and would not be denied his place in baseball history.

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As news of King Felix’s achievement spread last night, perhaps the happiest person to hear it was none other than Bud Selig. The historic achievement by the Mariner left-hander helped take some of the spotlight off the news that San Francisco Giants OF Melky Cabrera had been suspended for 50 games for testing positive for testosterone. While this was obviously the big news throughout the day, the perfect game at least pushed in to the background somewhat by this morning.

While I don’t really touch on National League players in this column, I am compelled to write about the Cabrera suspension, mainly because I am quite heavily invested in him this season. He was a valuable member of two of my first place teams, who I will now need to replace. Luckily, these two teams are relatively shallow 12 team industry leagues rather than my deeper NFBC teams that are currently in contention, so finding replacements will be a little easier.

Still, it’s hard to find a comparable replacement to what Cabrera was delivering this late in the year. All you can try to do is grab a guy with opportunity in hopefully a good offense and hope for results. A good example might be a guy like Andy Dirks in Detroit. He’s been hitting the ball very well ever since he returned to the Tiger lineup. He has taken hold of the coveted number two spot in that lineup, which will give him plenty of chances to be productive.

Ezequiel Carrera of the Cleveland Indians is another potential replacement, particularly if you are looking for some speed.  He has taken over as the new left fielder for the Indians, and should get a pretty long look the rest of the way. He doesn’t offer any power, but he has plus speed and can hit for average, so he could provide a spark in a pinch. His lack of power makes him more of a deep-league or AL-only option however.

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While King Felix was writing his name into the history books, another Hernandez quietly made his return to the mound yesterday. Roberto Hernandez, formerly known as Fausto Carmona, made his return to the big leagues after serving his suspension for identity fraud that was discovered last year.  Needless to say the rust on his game showed as he allowed 8 runs on 10 hits in 6 innings of work. He didn’t walk anyone, but he also didn’t record a strikeout either. He should be left alone except in the deepest of leagues, and even there you will probably want to wait another start or two before trusting him to deliver better results than this.

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Ryan Dempster and Anibal Sanchez were two of the bigger names that switched leagues at the trade deadline. Both have struggled badly in their new homes and owners in AL-only leagues who broke the bank to bring them on board can’t be too happy with the results.

Sanchez has been terrible since arriving in Motown, and the Tigers may already be regretting dealing away top pitching prospect Jacob Turner for a two-month rental player who is being exposed by stronger AL lineups. Drew Smyly is getting back into shape down in Triple-A, and if Sanchez can’t get his act together soon, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jim Leyland make a change at some point.

Dempster’s struggles were somewhat predictable as well after he landed in Arlington. A good example of how far he has slid in fantasy circles came yesterday in Todd’s latest Roundtable over at KFFL. A bunch of us were asked to choose between various pairs of players. One choice was Dempster or Joe Blanton. Blanton was the overwhelming winner of that matchup, as no one has much faith that Dempster will be able to entirely overcome his new surroundings. If you own either of these two in an AL-Only league, all you can do is hold on and hope for better results. Anywhere else, and you may want to explore other options.

The Baltimore Orioles completed a sweep of the Seattle Mariners yesterday for their fifth win in a row heading into a four-game set against the struggling Kansas City Royals that commences tonight at Camden Yards. The Orioles (60-51) find themselves in second place in the ultra-competitive AL East, just 4.5 games behind the division leading New York Yankees. They also enter today in a three-way tie with the Detroit Tigers (60-51) and Oakland A’s (60-51) for the two available Wild Card berths. Yes, you read that right. For the first time since 1997, fans in Baltimore can actually begin to allow themselves to dream about the return of October baseball. The man at the center of this revival is none other than Buck Showalter, my early choice for American League Manager of the Year.

After fourteen straight losing seasons, the Orioles matter again, and Showalter has breathed life into the once proud franchise. Showalter has always been praised as one of the smartest and most organized managers in the game. His meticulous approach (some would say obsessive) to running things has proven effective in the past, as every team he has ever managed has improved significantly in his second year at the helm.

Tom Verducci touched on the Showalter magic back in April, as the O’s stormed out of the gate with a 14-9 April. He broached the topic of the second-year bounce that Showalter’s teams have always exhibited and attributed it to a team getting through two of Showalter’s spring training camps before the “payoff” comes. The results speak for themselves. In 1993, his Yankee squad finished 88-74, a 12-game improvement from his first year, where he took over the dysfunctional team from Stump Merrill. In 1999, his Arizona Diamondbacks (one year after entering the league) finished 100-62 to win the NL West. While the Randy Johnson signing helped a lot, it was still a 35-game improvement in year two. In 2004, his Texas Rangers finished 89-73, 18 games better than they had the year before. So here we go again with Showalter’s latest reclamation project, an Orioles team that finished 69-93 a year ago.

The biggest challenge for Showalter in Baltimore was changing the culture of bad baseball that had crippled the once proud franchise. Long-time Orioles fans will say he has got the franchise back to doing things “The Oriole Way”, and it is an apt description for how Showalter has approached the job at hand. “The Oriole Way” was a term used to describe the groundbreaking player development system the team implemented in the late 50’s/early 60’s. They were innovators in teaching, drafting and developing prospects at the minor league level, and instituting a systematic approach on how to play the game that would transform the franchise into a model of success in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Showalter and his staff have done their best to bring the Orioles back into contention, but changing the attitude of a team that has become used to losing doesn’t come without bumps along the road. One of the biggest things that arrived along with the new regime was accountability. Gone were the days where lack of effort and hard work would be tolerated. Guys who didn’t fit or buy into the system were sent packing.

Entering this season, the O’s had a nice core group of young players who were hungry to embrace their skipper’s approach to the game, and as a result the wins have followed. Matt Wieters has emerged as a team leader on and off the field.  Outfielder Adam Jones has quietly blossomed into a budding superstar. The rest of the team plays a gritty, hard-nosed style of ball that has allowed them to succeed despite mediocre production from their starting rotation. Their bullpen has picked up the slack so far this season, enabling the team to post a 22-6 record in one-run games and an impressive 12-2 mark in extra-inning affairs.

So what can we expect from the Orioles the rest of the way? Well, some have suggested that the magic is going to wear off soon, as the numbers show that the team is winning more than it should. The team was pretty quiet at the trade deadline, and instead is looking within the organization for help with the stretch drive. To that end, the team just called up Manny Machado, their top position player in the minors, to help bolster the lineup. Machado, who just recently turned 20 years old, has been summoned from Double-A to see if he can provide some energy and defense, most likely at third base to start. Veterans Wilson Betemit has filled in admirably there all season (for a struggling Mark Reynolds) but he is not known for his glove work at this point in his career. It is interesting that the team would call up their shortstop of the future, but much like Mike Olt with the Rangers last week, the O’s have nothing to lose by calling the youngster up and throwing him into the heat of an actual pennant race.

It’s is an aggressive move by Showalter and GM Dan Duquette that shows they are serious about making a run for it this year, despite making very little noise at the trade deadline. In another piece of news, the team quietly promoted top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy to Double-A, and the Machado promotion has the whispers starting that Bundy will be called up in September if the team can somehow manage to remain in the race for that long. The team also should welcome back “Ace” Jason Hammel soon, and hope that he can join surprising free agent Wei-Yen Chen in stabilizing the rotation and taking some of the strain off of the over-worked bullpen.

It harkens back to 1981 when the team called up a then 20-year-old Cal Ripken Jr. for his first cup of coffee. The future Hall-of Famer hit only .128 that season but came back the following year to win the Rookie of the Year award. A year later, he led the Orioles to the World Series. Oriole fans can be forgiven for dreaming that those days have finally returned. The rest of us can smile and thank Showalter for bringing them back from the dead.

With the calendar finally turning to August, we have reached yet another checkpoint on the road to potential fantasy glory. The trade deadline has come and gone, and with it a slew of trades for fantasy owners to ponder, not to mention the bundle of call-ups that often follows after the trading frenzy subsides. The beginning of another month means it’s time to once again take an assessment of your fantasy team, only now it’s time to make sure you are ready for the push to the finish line.

If you are like me, you have more than one fantasy team occupying your time and mind, which hopefully means you still have a couple teams in contention as we enter the final two months of the season. This season, I am managing more teams than I ever have before, a by-product of becoming a member of the writing staff here at Mastersball this off-season. While the extra-large workload has been a challenge at times, it also has given me a greater chance at striking gold with some of my drafts, particularly in some of my most important leagues which I drafted near the end of March. So while I have a handful of bottom-dwelling teams that have been disappointments this year, and a bunch more that are somewhat middling but still in the running for a money spot, I also woke up today to find myself with four first place teams, easily more than I have ever had at the same time before this late in the season.

Currently I am leading the way in both my NFBC Online Championship league and my NFBC Draft Championship league. While I did not field a team in this year’s NFBC Championship (or in the new NFBC XII format either), I did want to throw my hat into the ring in a couple of the overall contests that the NFBC offered, and so I chose the two most affordable options. So not only am I trying to win both of these individual league prizes, I have put myself in a position where I am in the Top 10% in both overall competitions, meaning I still have a chance to make a run to a pair of potential Top-10 finishes in the very large overall competitions. While I have won some satellite leagues in the past and finished in the money in some of the contests previously, adding these two NFBC league titles to the resume would be sweet. Not to mention the prize money would buy me a ticket to next year’s Main Event. 

My two other first-place teams are both industry leagues. One is the Razzball.com RCL Experts league and the other is a FSWA writer’s league. Both of these leagues are being played over at ESPN, and as such both are employing the 180 games started limit for SP’s, as well as more shallow benches than the NFBC employs. These two leagues are “daily” leagues, which have meant much more time investment as I try to hang onto much smaller and precarious leads. While there are no cash prizes at stake in either of these two leagues, seeing as this is the first year that I have been afforded the opportunity to participate in these leagues, I am obviously excited that I have a chance to bag a couple titles under the company banner.

An interesting development for me this season is that three of the aforementioned teams are in 12-team leagues, which is kind of ironic since much of my pre-season prep is focused on the 15-team format, which has been my preferred set-up the past few seasons. I can’t really explain the reasons that I have found the bulk of my success in “shallower” leagues this year, but it is undeniable that there is a little more wiggle room to be found here due to more options on the wire for the duration of the season. It’s much easier to address holes than it can be in a 15-team draft.

While I am obviously very pleased to be sitting in the top spot in these four respective leagues, I have played this little hobby of ours for far too long to think that the work is done. The obvious challenge for me in all of these leagues is to keep grinding away, while I keep looking for ways to improve my teams and bring these four horses to the finish line. In my NFBC leagues, I am starting to try and maximize my innings, as K’s have become a key stat for me as I look forward, particularly in my OCL league. This means I am on the lookout for double-starters, and since I am not alone there, that means I often try to target at least one potential two-start pitcher a week BEFORE he gets those two starts. For example, last week I grabbed Zach McAllister with a conditional bid for $1, looking ahead to his two home starts coming up in Week 19. This week I might target a guy like Blake Beavan, a week before others try to snag him for his two home starts in Week 20.

The other thing that I will be focusing on is making sure I get as many everyday players into my lineups as possible. I can’t afford guys who might sit two or three days a week, which is why I may cut bait with someone like Tyler Colvin this week. He gave me some decent production during a recent hot streak, but I have to try and maximize my at-bats as well to try and sustain my leads where I can, and in those leagues where I am trying to climb back into contention, hopefully take advantage of other owners' laziness by jumping over them in the counting stats. I am actually more concerned about those teams chasing me taking advantage of owners who have started to neglect their lineups, so it is imperative that I stay on my game.

Most of all, I will just try to stick to the routine that has gotten me this far. That means being as organized as I can when it comes to preparing for the various deadlines that occur each and every week. Can’t miss any bidding or lineup deadlines, and have to budget the time needed to do it all effectively. I run my own business from home, and I have very active children who take precedence this time of year. I will have to combat many of the silent enemies that many fantasy players face this time of year: Fatigue, pressure, burnout and vacations. I’m also a big Olympics junkie, so I will confess that I haven’t watched a lick of baseball since they started. The fantasy season is long. It’s what makes the game great, but it also can make you crazy.

My biggest test will come later this month as I follow up a week’s vacation with my family in Fire Island with a trip to Kentucky for my nephew’s wedding over Labor Day Weekend. I also have my first football draft the day before I leave, my second football draft will be squeezed in prior to the wedding, and a third will take place the day after I return. Did I mention I haven’t filled my wife in yet about any of these yet? She’s going to just love how I’ve sandwiched our vacation with drafts. Oh yeah, I am also woefully behind on my football prep as well. Hopefully when September arrives, I’ll still be in the cat bird’s seat as I send my kids back to school and have more time to spend hopefully closing the deal on multiple championship seasons. Wish me luck!

The MLB trade deadline is fast approaching, and with it the first flurry of deals have been completed, giving those playing in AL-only leagues a chance to spend some of the FAAB money that they have been sitting on waiting for the chance to land impact talent coming over from the National League. Let’s take a look at the biggest names changing leagues/teams and what you can expect from them going forward.

Anibal Sanchez/Omar Infante - The Detroit Tigers obtained Sanchez and Infante from the Miami Marlins for a package of prospects highlighted by promising rookie hurler Jacob Turner. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski once again pulls off an aggressive deadline deal and in the process filled his team's two biggest needs. Second base in particular has been a wasteland for Detroit this year, as Ryan Raburn, Ramon Santiago and others combined to produce cringe-worthy statistics.

Infante, who debuted as a 20 year-old back in 2002 with Detroit, is back for a second stint with the club, and is an instant upgrade on both sides of the ball. Infante has had a nice season thus far, hitting .286 with eight home runs and 33 RBIs. He hasn’t shown this kind of power since he hit 16 homers back in 2004. He is currently batting ninth for the loaded Tiger lineup, which puts a little damper on his potential to score runs, but as an everyday player, he’ll be able to help those in need up the middle in AL-only leagues. He went for $53 to CBS’ Jamie Eisenberg in my AL Analysts league on Wednesday.

Sanchez looks like a true rental player for the Tigers, but he will slot right into the back of their rotation behind Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. Sanchez’ arrival is bad news for Drew Smyly owners, as it looks like he will be the odd man out for the remainder of the year. Smyly is currently on the disabled list with an intercostals strain, but he had been a nice surprise this year, putting up decent stats in his 15 starts. Sanchez (5-7) has had an up-and-down season for the Marlins. His ERA has been hovering around 4.00 for much of the year, and that number doesn’t figure to improve with his move to the American League. He should be able to put up more W’s with the Tigers offense backing him up, and he’ll deliver a decent amount of K’s in the balance. He went for $70 to CBS’ Al Melchior in the CBS Analysts League on Wednesday.

As we mentioned earlier, Jacob Turner was the big prize for the Marlins in this deal, and as such, AL-only owners who have been holding onto him can safely cut bait now. In mixed leagues, it is possible the Marlins will clear a spot in their rotation for him before the deadline arrives, as they are actively shopping Josh Johnson. Turner has been hit hard this year in three starts, but a move to the National League and Miami’s spacious ballpark gives him some decent upside for deep mixed leagues down the stretch, if the Marlins clear a spot for him.

The other player to keep an eye on in Detroit is 3B Nick Castellanos. The best part of the deal, from the Tigers perspective, was their ability to hang onto their top offensive prospect. He is currently blocked by Miguel Cabrera at his natural position, but he has been playing some OF in the minors lately to perhaps prepare him for a late season call-up.

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Ichiro dons pinstripes

The trade that sent Ichiro Suzuki to the Yankees started the week off with a bang, and while this is not a case of a player switching leagues, the move to the potent Yankee lineup definitely increases the future Hall of Famer's chances of making an impact in the second half.  Brett Gardner’s season-ending surgery prompted the move, as the Yankees needed to add some speed in the lineup and improve their OF defense as well. There has been plenty of debate the last few days as to how much the move will help to revive the 38-year-old outfielder's game.

Obviously, the move to the Yankees gives Ichiro a much better supporting cast, and perhaps he could even see a little power boost if he can manage to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s famous short porch in right field. He is currently in the midst of his worst season as a professional. His .260 batting average is easily the worst of his career, and he is now hitting eighth in the lineup, the first time in his illustrious career that he has hit that far down in the order. But, of course this is the Yankees, so even down that low, he should have decent opportunities to score and drive in runs, and there is a very real chance that the thrill of the pennant race will reinvigorate his game.

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A-Rod breaks wrist

The excitement of the Suzuki deal for Yankee fans was doused a bit on Tuesday night, when Alex Rodriguez had his left hand broken by a Felix Hernandez pitch that sailed in and caught the slugger right on the wrist and knuckles. I was watching the game and the sound when the ball hit his hand was sickening, and it was clear he had broken something as he writhed on the ground in pain. He’s going to miss 6-8 weeks, meaning he should be back in time for the Bombers' playoff push in late September.

Eric Chavez figures to be the biggest beneficiary in terms of playing time in the short-term, with Jayson Nix and recently called-up Ramiro Pena also sharing playing time. The Yankees could very well go out and grab another option in a trade, but if not I think there is a very good chance that we could finally see the return of Eduardo Nunez to the Bronx.

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Rays land Ryan Roberts

The Tampa Bay Rays obtained 3B/2B Ryan Roberts from the Arizona Diamonbacks for minor league OF Tyler Bortnick. The Rays needed someone to come in and fill in for the injured Evan Longoria and Roberts will take over at the hot corner for the time being. Once Longoria returns, he will join the ranks of other multi-positional Tampa Bay players in a fight for regular playing time.

After a breakout 2011, many tabbE. Roberts thanks to his 20/20 potential. However, Roberts has been a pumpkin for those owners this year, delivering a paltry six home runs to go along with six stolen bases. He got off to a nice start in his Rays debut, going 3-for-4 with a home run and 2 RBIs. This unfortunately will inflate his price a bit, likely making him cost more than he will actually be worth for the rest of the year. Still, his versatility is an asset in shallow formats, and as such he’s a player to target if you need to find some AB’s in AL-only leagues. Just don’t overspend too much for a player that could find himself on the bench in a couple weeks, especially if you only have the funds to land one or two players at the deadline. It's a tough call, but for example, I bid $23 on Roberts in the CBS league. It's high enough that I can beat out 3-4 other teams outright with that bid. That leaves 7 teams that could outbid me, but it's what I'm willing to spend of my remaining $63 budget.

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Tribe trades for Lillibridge

The Cleveland Indians made a minor deal, obtaining Brent Lillibridge from Boston for right-hander Jose De La Torre. The Indians cut backup OF Aaron Cunningham in a corresponding move. This is by no means a sexy move, but Lillibridge still should be picked up again if he was dropped in your AL-only league. He figures to get a few starts a week for the Indians, as he will be the primary UT man the rest of the way. He will surely find his way into the lineup against left-handed pitching, which has been the Indians' Achilles heel all year.

The bigger news for the Tribe may come over the weekend. There are a lot of rumors swirling around current closer Chris Perez and OF Shin-Soo Choo. I personally think Perez will be traded, as the Indians don’t want to pay him big bucks next year in arbitration and have Vinnie Pestano ready to step into the closer’s role. If Pestano is somehow not owned in your leagues and you are hunting for saves, grab him now in case a deal goes down over the weekend.

 

When it was announced prior to the season that MLB had decided to add an extra Wild Card team in both leagues, beginning with the 2012 season, the news was met with generally mixed reactions. As expected, baseball purists chaffed at the idea of further watering down the playoff pool. Further grumbling ensued when it was learned that the new system would have the two Wild Card teams from each league play each other in a one-game playoff immediately after the completion of the regular season.

Commissioner Bud Selig was predictably upbeat as he rolled out the new format and for the most part, whether you agree with the decision or not, it is delivering the intended results. Like it or not, parity has arrived in the majors. A quick look at the standings shows that in the American League, eleven of the league's 14 franchises are in contention for a playoff berth. Seven teams are within three games of the newly implemented second Wild Card slot. Say what you will, but the additional berth is keeping playoff hopes alive in Cleveland, Baltimore, Toronto, Boston, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Oakland, when in previous seasons some of these teams would already be thinking about next year.

Take the Al East for starters. The New York Yankees (57-34) have won eight of their last ten, took three of four games at Boston just prior to the break and just completed a sweep of another division rival, Toronto. Currently ten games up on second place Baltimore (47-44), they seemingly have control of the division. Despite the Bombers' dominance, the other four AL East squads are still alive thanks to the new system. Under the old rules, they would all be looking up at the resurgent Los Angeles Angels and feel less confident about their prospects of making it to the postseason. While the division may already be out of reach, both Boston and Tampa Bay are teams capable of getting hot at any time and making sure that the division secures a Wild Card berth for the 6th consecutive year. The Orioles and Blue Jays have had some injuries deal a blow to their hopes, and a tough divisional schedule doesn’t help matters.

The Angels (50-42) continue to trail the Texas Rangers (55-36) in the West, but have rebounded from their 8-15 April to not only take control of the Wild Card race, but put themselves in position to make a serious run at the Rangers in the second half. Whichever team claims the division crown will of course benefit from the new system, since the one-game playoff for the two Wild Card teams has made winning your division important once again. Regardless, both teams figure to be active once again at the trade deadline and both seem like good bets to make it to October. I think the battle between these two squads will be more dramatic than it would have been in recent years, and the new format is the reason. The reward for being a 90+ win second place team is the opportunity to get knocked off by a likely 85-88 win team while the division champ gets two days off to rest up its stars and line up its pitching staff.

The AL Central may not be able to claim a team as intimidating as either of the other two divisions, but as of today it has the tightest divisional race, with the Chicago White Sox (50-41), Detroit Tigers (48-44) and the Cleveland Indians (47-44) battling it out. The White Sox head into Comerica this weekend while Cleveland starts a homestand with a four game set against the Orioles, before welcoming the Tigers in next week. The Tigers are starting to heat up, which no doubt has gotten the attention of their rivals, since they did the same thing last season, eventually running away with the division. The new format gives a little bit of a safety net to everyone in this division, and the Indians in particular can continue to dream, with perhaps the easiest remaining schedule of all the Wild Card contenders.

The only team still in the running that I have yet to mention is also arguably one of the hottest teams in baseball right now. Yes, I am talking about the Oakland A’s (47-44), winners of 10 of their last 12 games, to put themselves back in the mix. The A’s recent surge has been a delight to watch and an exciting set-up for their upcoming series against the Yankees. Like the Orioles and Indians, the A’s find themselves very much alive for their first playoff berth since 2006.

Perhaps now you’ll forgive Bud Selig if you see him smiling and publically gloating over the increased attendance numbers that baseball is posting this year. The plan when this endeavor began was to increase excitement as well as find a way to not only increase attendance but also juice up television ratings. So far things look pretty good, especially on those fronts. But as with any seemingly “good thing”, it would be short-sighted to fail to point out the less exciting, or favorable aspects the new system has brought along for the ride.

While it is true that an unprecedented number of teams find themselves in contention as we head into the season’s annual trade deadline, it has also produced a situation where many teams are struggling to figure out exactly where they stand heading into it. On paper, this many contenders means lots of buyers, right? You would think so, but it may not be entirely true. While the new system succeeds in once again rewarding teams for winning their divisions, the one-game playoff unfortunately has taken a little bit of luster off the Wild Card berth itself.

As I mentioned with the Angels above, the reward for a team that doesn’t win its division is one playoff game. For the team that claims the second Wild Card berth, that one guaranteed playoff game will come on the road. This is the biggest reason I would have preferred to have seen a three-game series between the two Wild Card teams. At least then both cities, and franchises, would be guaranteed at least one home playoff game. It might not be as dramatic, but it would be better for the fans in those cities and let’s face it, the financial windfall for even one home playoff game is significant. No matter how you slice it, there isn’t as much incentive to claim a Wild Card spot as there was in the past from a financial standpoint for teams, especially those on the fringes of contention.

Adding to the confusion heading into this year’s trade deadline are new compensation rules, which in and of themselves have changed the way GM’s are approaching things this year. In the past, if you lost a free agent in the off-season, you received draft pick compensation for said player. Under the new rules, if a player has not been with his team for a full season, there is no compensation. This will make it much harder for teams, especially small and mid-market ones, to give up boatloads of prospects for a late season “rental” player. With less incentive to include impact prospects, the chance that teams hang onto their impending free agents increases, since the returns may not be enough to justify it. Add in the fact that more contenders means presumably less pure “sellers” could lead to an inflated marketplace for the few available studs, and you can see how this trade deadline could end up being a lot quieter than fans in the cities above would like.

There is one more little glitch that will thankfully only be in place for this season. In the past, the ALDS (and NLDS) have used a 2-2-1 format, with the highest seeded team opening with two home games. Due to scheduling issues for this season, the lower seeded team will open with two games at home, followed by three games in the higher seeded team’s ballpark. This means that the team with the best record will open up on the road against potentially the fifth best team in the league. Not exactly a great reward for that achievement, but at least it will revert back to the old format for next year.

As I prepared to write this article, I decided to shoot an email out to some of my fellow writers here at the site to get a general sense of their own personal feelings toward the new Wild Card format. Zach Steinhorn replied “I don't see a whole lot of negatives in adding the second wild card. More teams will still be in the postseason hunt come September and I do like the idea of adding more importance to winning your division. The only problem with this applies to this year since the format of six 5-team divisions won't take effect until next season. While we've added more importance to winning your division, there is still one division with six teams (NL Central) and another with four teams (AL West). This makes absolutely no sense to me as an AL West team will be given a huge advantage when it comes to getting that first-round bye. For this reason, I would have rather seen MLB wait another year for the second wild card.”

I totally get when Zach is coming from as I think the rush to add it this year was a little short-sighted. Part of me would just as much liked to see baseball do away with the Wild Card altogether rather than expanding them, as they have done. While it is kind of exciting that so many teams can call themselves contenders at this juncture, it will likely be much less exciting in September. Part of me longs for the days of real pennant races, something that younger fans sadly have never experienced. But that’s the purist in me talking, and I need to be realistic about this, which means accepting that we’re not going backwards in time anytime soon.

Lawr Michaels thankfully spoke to the Indians fan in me as he expressed excitement about his A’s: "I cannot believe the Athletics are in the hunt. It is a pleasant surprise, of course, and their pitching is good as always, but suddenly they have some pop, even from the corners. Opening up the wild card made this largely possible, so yay! Who knew?” I think I'm going to take Lawr's advice and just enjoy the ride this year, as long as it lasts. 

 

Chris Tillman made some noise just prior to the break with a dominating performance against the Mariners that once again put the former top prospect back on fantasy radars. Tillman if you recall was the other big piece along with Adam Jones in the trade that sent Erik Bedard to the M’s back in 2008. The 6’5” righty was considered to be an ace in the making, but in three previous stints he has failed to deliver on the promise that made him one of the top prospects in the game back in 2009. The biggest difference in his most recent start was an increase in velocity that saw his fastball back up around 95 MPH for the duration of that first start.

Apparently pitching coach Rick Peterson’s work on Tillman’s delivery is finally bearing fruit, and while it was just one start against the lowly Mariner lineup, if Tillman can manage to keep the added zip on his pitches, he has a much better chance at having more days like last week. He was sent back down to the minors after his start last week, but he will be recalled in time to start this weekend against the Tigers and Justin Verlander.

I grabbed Tillman last week in the CBS Analysts AL-Only league at the end of June when news of his impending call-up broke, so I was obviously very excited to see him flash stuff that he hasn’t shown in the majors the last few years. This is a league of very sharp and plugged-in owners, so you almost have to make moves on these types of players before they make a splash to have any hope of rostering them. However, Tillman is likely sitting out there in more than a few leagues and if his fastball is really back to stay, then he will be a pitcher that will be useful in 15 team formats.If you take a wait and see approach and Tillman goes out and dominates the Tigers this weekend, then you will likely see your chances of rostering the exciting 24 year-old vanish. Be proactive here and grab him now, then see what happens. He still will have to deal with the always tough AL East opponents and a tougher home park, but these are the types of arms you take chances on.

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Lorenzo Cain has finally been recalled from his extended rehabilitation stint, as will back as the starting CF as the Royals open their second-half against the White Sox this weekend. Cain was the breakout star of spring training, hitting .371 with power and speed, which led to his ascension up draft boards in March. Unfortunately, a groin injury suffered in the first week of the season put the expected breakout on hold. Things got worse during the initial rehab, when the speedy outfielder injured his hip flexor, which shelved him for the rest of the first half. The Royals are going to give Cain a long look in CF, despite the fact that prospect Wil Myers is tearing the cover off the ball and looks ready for the show himself right now. Cain was one of the key players acquired in the Zack Greinke deal a couple years ago, so the team needs to see what they have in him.

He made a lot of strides in his approach at the plate this spring, showing patience and pop, so those waiting on Myers to make a splash will have to wait a little bit longer I’m afraid. If you are in need of a speed boost in the OF, Cain obviously has the wheels to produce healthy stolen base totals when healthy, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that in his 14 rehab starts at AA and AAA, Cain has yet to attempt a stolen base. It doesn’t mean that he won’t begin running again now that he has made his way back to the majors, but it does show that the injuries he sustained have made him reluctant to push that aspect of his game, and as such you need to temper your expectations when it comes to the number of swipes he will provide in the short-term.

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The Boston Red Sox have already had a season’s worth of drama in the first half of 2012. Despite the bevy of injuries as well as the inconsistent play of slugging first basemen Adrian Gonzalez, the Sox are still positioned to make a serious run at a Wild Card berth in the second half. Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford are both expected to make their returns from rehab assignments and it doesn’t take much analysis to see that if these two former All-Stars can return and prove to be healthy and productive the entire offense will benefit as a result. I am more bullish on Ellsbury making an impact in the second half than I am on Crawford, but there is no doubt that both players have the ability to produce at elite levels when healthy. The Sox have employed a revolving door of players in the OF this year while waiting for their return and the lack of production has been evident.

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While Crawford and Ellsbury owners will finally get to see their stars return to the field, Evan Longoria’s owners are still left waiting for their injured superstar to make it back from the torn hamstring he suffered back in April. It has been a series of ups and downs, setbacks and frustration for the stellar third basemen. The problem right now is that he hasn’t resumed baseball activities since shutting down his last rehab attempt in June. All you can do if you own him is wait, but it’s not looking like he’s going to be back anytime soon.

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The Indians got DH Travis Hafner back just prior to the break after he missed about 6 weeks with a knee injury. For a team desperate for some power in the lineup, he is a welcome addition. The Tribe simply doesn’t have the assets to go out and make any impact additions at the trade deadline, so any help they get in their quest to remain in the AL Central race will have to come from within the organization. Hafner will likely get hurt again at some point, and he isn’t an everyday player anymore, but he can still be useful in AL Only leagues before he gets hurt again. Grady Sizemore is also continuing his lengthy rehab, and the team is hopeful he can return in August for their playoff push.

The player to keep an eye on in Cleveland coming out of the break is 1B/OF Russ Canzler. The Indians need to add some right-handed bats to the lineup if they are serious about making a run at the White Sox. They have such a lefty heavy lineup that they make things much easier on opposing bullpens late in games. Canzler has been hitting well in AAA, and the injury to Lonnie Chisenhall could be the the opening he needs to finally get a chance with the big league team as he can play a little 3B in addition to the OF and 1B. He’s worth a stash in AL Only leagues in hope that Cleveland finally gives him a look.

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Back in March I made my predictions for the upcoming season over in the Forums. I not only picked the Los Angeles Angels to win the AL West outright, I tabbed them to win the AL Pennant and the World Series. After starting out slowly in April, and watching the Texas Rangers sprint out of the gate early on, the Angels have righted the ship and entered the break at 48-38, 4 games behind the Rangers in the West. They are leading the pack of teams in the hunt for the Wild Card berths and once again look like a team that will make noise in October.

Mike Trout’s arrival was the turning point for a team that was floundering in April. The rookie outfielder was the most exciting player in the league in the first half and his play has energized the entire roster.  Albert Pujols’ early struggles seem to be in the rear-view mirror, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he goes on a tear coming out of the break.

The battle between the Rangers and Angels with be one of the biggest storyline’s for the American League in the second half, and it looks like the two teams with once again go head-to-head at the trade deadline in a quest to bring in the missing pieces to their respective puzzles. The Angels reportedly are making a big push for Zach Greinke, while the Rangers seem to have set their sights of Cole Hamels. The Rangers likely have a better chance at pulling off a big trade, with their bevy of prospects, but the Angels will not be passive in their quest to return to the World Series.

Yesterday marked the 65th anniversary of Larry Doby’s debut with the Cleveland Indians in 1947. Coming just eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers, Doby would become the first African-American ballplayer in the American League when he entered a game against the White Sox as a pinch-hitter. Today, to commemorate the anniversary, the Indians will pay tribute to Doby by renaming a street that runs alongside Progressive Field in his honor. Eagle Avenue between East Ninth and Ontario, will be renamed as Larry Doby Way after Friday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Any discussion about Mr. Doby invariably includes the requisite reference to the Jackie Robinson, a fact that I have once again proven to be true. Doby did not get near the attention that Robinson did in 1947, partly due to the fact that by the time he made his debut many in the media didn’t seem as interested in replaying a story that had already been told, even though for those fans in American League cities, it was Doby, not Robinson who be the first African-American ballplayer they would see play in the majors leagues. It was one thing to be the first to do something as Robinson had; it wasn’t quite as exciting to be the second.

The other fact was that while Robinson came in and had an immediate impact as an everyday player in Brooklyn, the 23 year-old Doby spent most of his first year in the majors as a pinch hitter. In fact, he only made one start in 1947 and that was the second game of the double-header that was played after his historic debut earlier in the day. It was a tough year for Doby on the field as well as off, as he hit a paltry .156 in 29 games with two RBIs. Unlike Robinson, Doby would have to fight his way into the starting lineup.

Doby often recounted how he was in the South Pacific when he first heard the news in 1945 that Jackie Robinson had been signed to a minor league contract by Branch Rickey. Up until that point, Doby had not really considered pursuing baseball as a career. He was also a standout basketball player, attending Long Island University on a basketball scholarship. His intention following the war was to return to his hometown of Paterson, NJ and continue his education to begin a career as an educator and coach. Upon hearing about Robinson, Doby decided that he would dedicate his time to baseball, and after his stint with Navy was up, Doby returned to the States in 1946 and rejoined the Newark Eagles, the team he had played with as a teenager before the war.

He was the star second basemen, and teamed with SS Monte Irvin to form one of the most talented double play combinations in Negro League history. They used to say that the only thing that got through the two of them in the infield was wind. That season saw his team win the Negro League World Series against the great Kansas City Monarchs. Doby hit .341 that season and trailed only the great Josh Gibson for the league lead in homeruns. He was off to another fantastic start in 1947, hitting over .400 when the great Bill Veeck came calling with a ticket to Cleveland and the major leagues.

The biggest problem facing the promising rookie when he arrived in Cleveland, outside of the obvious societal ones, was the fact that the Indians had two future Hall of Famers entrenched in their infield. Lou Boudreau was the SS, and player-manager and Joe Gordon was the incumbent second basemen. Veeck, who became a kind of father figure to Doby, told him to be patient, that he had the talent to be successful and the team would find a way to get him a regular position the following year. Veeck had heard that when Larry entered the clubhouse on that day 65 years ago, ten of his teammates refused to shake his hand, or even acknowledge his presence. He spent the rest of the year working to remove most of the offenders from the roster.

Doby endured much of the same kind of harsh treatment from opposing players and fans as Robinson did. People spat at him from the stands and on the ball-field. He would often talk about the loneliness he experienced that first year, due to the fact that he had to stay in different hotels and eat in different restaurants than his white teammates.  Again, while Robinson gets most of the credit for what he went through his first year, Doby likewise faced similar obstacles with grace and dignity.

The following year Doby was finally given a chance to win a starting job, albeit at a position he had never played previously: centerfield. He quickly adapted to tracking fly balls instead of grounders, and his innate natural athletic ability began to shine through. The Indians won the pennant that year, and their last World Series title over the Boston Braves. Doby led the team with seven hits in the series, including a game winning home run against Johnny Sain in the pivotal Game 4 victory. While Robinson had been the first African American to play in the majors, in 1948 Doby had achieved some firsts of his own. He had become the first African American to hit a home run in the World Series, and in winning the series became the first of his race to win championships in both the Majors and the Negro leagues.

In 1949, Doby would make the first of seven straight trips to the All-Star game. With Joe DiMaggio on the downside of his career, Doby was ready to step into the void and stake his claim as the premier defensive CF in the league for the next few seasons. He would collect a few more “firsts” in the coming years, becoming the first African-American to win a home run crown in the Majors with 32 in 1952. Two years later in 1954, he led the league in home runs again and became the first African American to lead the American League in RBI’s.  He finished second to Yogi Berra in the MVP race that season, helping lead the Indians to 111 wins and another World Series against the New York Giants.

Doby would continue on as a player until injuries took their toll. He ended his 13 year career in 1959. He later became a coach and eventually, the second black manager in the majors, when he succeeded Bob Lemon to become coach of the Chicago White Sox. Lemon had been a teammate on that historic Indians team in 1947, and one of the few players that Doby singled out as having “treated me like a human being”. They had become life-long friends, so it was somewhat bittersweet to take the job when Lemon was fired. Lemon was then hired by the Yankees, taking the job from Billy Martin, and won the World Series that year. Doby inherited an injured and struggling ballclub, and was replaced the following year. He never got a chance to manage again.

One of the great injustices was how long it took baseball to recognize the achievements of Larry Doby. In 1994, with the Opening of their new stadium, the Cleveland Indians finally decided to retire his number 14. Then in 1997, as the major leagues honored Jackie Robinson by retiring his number across the league, some writers finally focused in on the fact that Doby had faced many of the same injustices and difficulties that the Dodger great had. Subsequently, the All-Star game that year, played in Cleveland, was dedicated to Larry Doby in honor of the 50th anniversary of his historic achievement. He was on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. The fanfare leading up to the event had helped finally shine some light on Doby’s illustrious career and his rightful place in baseball history. The following year the Veterans committee voted to induct him into the Hall of Fame, a well deserved honor long overdue. His plaque reads: "Exceptional athletic prowess and a staunch constitution led to a successful playing career after integrating the American League in 1947. A seven-time All-Star who batted .283 with 253 home runs and 970 RBI in 13 major league seasons. The power-hitting center fielder paced the A.L. in home runs twice and collected 100 RBI’s five times, while leading the Indians to pennants in 1948 and 1954. Appointed manager of the White Sox in 1978, the second African-American to lead a major league club. Played four seasons with Newark in the Negro National League. Following player career worked as a scout and major league baseball executive."

In addition to the street renaming tomorrow, there will also be an official unveiling of the new Doby stamp, which will be issued July 20 in Cooperstown, New York. Doby is part of a Baseball Legends stamp release. The others players being honored are Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Willie Stargell. 

For more information about the stamps visit www.usps.com/playball or http://stampproducts.com/playball/larry-doby/

With the All-Star game just around the corner, writers all around the web are throwing out their opinions, lists and “ballots” for this year’s team. Since I hit on a bunch of this year’s early stars a couple weeks ago, I decided instead on singing the praises of those players we are patting ourselves on the back for drafting, I would instead focus on the biggest disappointments from the first half of 2012. Think of them as the All-Stars of underachiement and injury, those players that make you want to scream like Kevin Kline after he opens the safe in A Fish Called Wanda. While I do touch on those hit by the injury bug, they don’t get penalized as much as players who have stayed healthy and made us suffer their lousy stat lines week after excruciating week. 

Catchers: Carlos Santana, Kurt Suzuki

Santana was highly touted by yours truly coming off his 27 home run 2011 campaign, but so far 2012 has been a bit of a nightmare. He’s battled nagging injuries and missed two weeks with a concussion. His batting average is down to .219, his power is down and now it looks like he’s battling a bad back. Add it all up and you have one of the biggest disappointments from the first half.

Coming into the year, Suzuki had settled into a niche as a second catcher who would play every day and provide some cheap power. Instead, the bottom has fallen out this year as he has yet to homer this year and is hitting a career worst .210 which has led the A’s to finally relent and call up top prospect Derek Norris.

Dishonorable mention: Alex Avila, Victor Martinez, Chris Iannetta

First Basemen: Adrian Gonzalez, Eric Hosmer

I think it’s safe to say that Gonzalez has been the biggest non-injury bust of this year’s first round picks. Lord Zola called it in a Roundtable discussion before the season and was spot on in predicting a regression was coming. But even our fearless leader didn’t predict the power falling off a cliff and the average tumbling into the .260’s.

Hosmer has fallen prey to the sophomore slump, and hasn’t come close to delivering the stats that people were hoping for when they pushed him up draft boards this spring. A solid June has his owners still holding out hope that a big second-half is on tap, but the step up to elite status will have to wait until 2013.

Dishonorable mention: Albert Pujols, Adam Lind

Second Basemen: Howie Kendrick, Dustin Ackley

I will admit that I bought into the hype that Pujols’ arrival was going to help propel Kendrick up another level from last year’s promising season, putting him on the cusp of joining the elite ranks at a bargain price. Instead he has regressed, with a 55/14 strikeout-to-walk ratio crippling his OBP leading to a drop in stolen bases as well as a demotion in the batting order. Add in the fact that the increase in power he showed last year has vanished and you just get more disappointment.

The big preseason debate was Kipnis or Ackley and as the season approached it looked like Ackley was the one to get. While Kipnis has exceeded expectations, Ackley has struggled, striking out 67 times in 69 games. While he has stolen a few bases and scored runs, his power hasn’t materialized and his .242 batting average has been a drag. If you chose him over Kipnis, it only makes it more frustrating.

Dishonorable mention: Jemile Weeks, Ryan Raburn

Shortstops: Alexei Ramirez, Erik Aybar

Ramirez has been a major disappointment for anyone who banked on him delivering his usual 15/15 production. While the speed has remained, he has one measly home run to date. He’s been hot of late, so maybe better days are ahead in the second half.

Aybar joins Kendrick on the squad with an equally slow start to the 2012 campaign. If you drafted Aybar to be your starting SS, you were banking on getting stolen bases, a bunch of runs and even a little pop. His 5 stolen bases are way off his pace of last year and his 1 home run means he’s unlikely to match last year’s output there as well. A recent hot streak has his average up to .250, so like others on this list, he has nowhere to go but up.

Dishonorable mention: Jhonny Peralta, Sean Rodriguez

Third Basemen: Kevin Youkilis, Mark Reynolds

The year got off to a bad start, with his back flaring up before the season even started. That was followed by his manager calling him out in public and a DL stint which led to rookie Will Middlebrooks rendering him expendable. His trade to the White Sox should give owners some hope for a rebound, but needless to say, it’s just as likely that he’ll get hurt again.

If you drafted Reynolds, you did so knowing the downside involved. You knew his crappy batting average would be the price you would pay for all those home runs. So what do you have to show for holding your nose and picking him? Six home runs and tons of strikeouts, and quite possibly a guy you already cut bait on.

Dishonorable mention: Michael Young, Evan Longoria

Outfielders: Desmond Jennings, Alex Gordon, Brennan Boesch, Peter Bourjos, Jeff Francoeur, Eric Thames

This is a motley crew full of various forms of disappointment. Jennings has struggled to build on last year and a knee injury which landed him on the DL in May slowed him on the base-paths. After hitting 10 home runs in 63 games last year, he has only 3 in the first half to go along with a dreary .239 batting average. Gordon has followed up last year’s breakout with a maddeningly inconsistent first half. His 5 home runs and 3 stolen bases are way off last year’s 23/17 pace. Boesch was a popular breakout candidate who has failed to take advantage of hitting in front of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Bourjos struggled mightily and lost his everyday job leaving his power/speed potential buried on the bench. Francoeur has reminded us all again not to pay for a career season. He also likely has the Royals asking themselves why they chose him over Melky Cabrera. Thames won the starting job in one of the most potent lineups in baseball and then forgot how to hit. Now he’s in AAA trying to remember.

Dishonorable mention: Brett Gardner, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Carp, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford

Designated Hitter: Delmon Young

Yeah, you knew I was going to have to include the cover boy from this pre-season on this list. He was one of the guys I hyped this year, and he has been one of my biggest disappointments this year.  Much like Boesch, he has yet to deliver on the promise he showed in the Detroit offense last year and the career year I predicted for him isn’t coming.

Starting Pitchers: Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester, Matt Moore, Dan Haren, Justin Masterson, Doug Fister, Francisco Liriano

This may be more my list of starters than yours, but hey it's my list after all and all of these guys have been less than I hoped for. I'm running long here so we'll just bunch all of these guys together as one big inconsistnent, frustrating bunch of so-called "Aces" that have failed to deliver the goodies we were banking on.

Dishonorable Mention: Michael Pineda, Scott Baker

Relief Pitcher: Jordan Walden

Thanks for the one save you bum.

Dishonorable Mention: Mariano Rivera, Andrew Bailey, Joakim Soria

Find me on twitter @ryanpcarey 

Yesterday’s arrival of the Summer Solstice marked the official start of summer, meaning the days will be getting longer as well as hotter.  For me the advent of summer always holds another layer of meaning as it pertains to fantasy baseball. It reminds me that it is time to re-focus myself on my various teams and remind myself not to fall into the trap of slacking off on my managerial duties. As the years have passed and the number of teams I own has multiplied like rabbits in heat, this has become even more important and challenging.

I don’t know about you, but June brings a host of distractions to my world that often leads to my fantasy pursuits getting pushed into the background. School is ending, which brings parties and concerts and gatherings. My daughter’s birthday arrives every year on June 15th, right before Father’s Day, which means time spent with family and friends and not in front of my computer screen pouring over the latest batch of statistics. Add in other major sporting events, like the NHL and NBA playoffs, which may or may not cause you to take your eyes off the fantasy baseball prize and it’s possible you may hit a little “speed-bump” on your way to fantasy glory.

Let’s face it, much like the real game that we derive our pleasure from, the fantasy baseball season is long. It requires time and energy to be successful, and battling the malaise that can set in at different points in the season is a challenge for anyone who partakes in this hobby. You no doubt see signs of this in your own leagues. The everyday chatter from pre-season and early season action has likely slowed down considerably. Owners that have gotten off to slow starts may have already packed it in for the season, turning their attention to the leagues that they are still in contention in.

I personally make it a point to never give up or concede defeat in any league I am competing, especially this early, but I would be lying if I said that those leagues where I am struggling get the same attention as those that I am in contention. Still it doesn’t take that much effort to make sure you have a legal lineup each and every week, and at the very least, that is something that anyone who plays our game should try to adhere to. If you have a team you’ve been neglecting, it’s time to get back on the horse and make sure you are fulfilling the bare minimum that is expected of you. Trust me; your league-mates will appreciate it.

If you need to give yourself short-term goals to shoot for, so be it, just don’t ever be a quitter, especially in a league you compete in year after year. You want those titles to mean something, and that means staying involved and making sure everyone has to earn every point they get in the standings. That is the way you should want it to be whether you are in first place or last, because when you are in first and riding high, you want all the help you can get from those teams at the bottom. It only makes sense that when you find yourself in a less than desired position in the standings that you play your role for that season.

Some of my more memorable seasons and teams are not those that won championships, but rather those zombie teams, that were left for dead around this time, only to rise from their graves to make some serious second half noise. Often these teams come up short, but sometimes dragging a team up from last place to say a third place money finish is a much more challenging and fulfilling experience. If you think about it for a second it makes sense as those teams that are struggling or beset by injuries offer a whole host of challenges and lessons that you as a fantasy player should take advantage of trying to solve.

For example, two of my worst teams this year came in places that I expected to perform better. One of them is the Subscriber’s Forum League, which I am serving as commissioner in as well. Not only did I not draft particularly well for this league, I also was racked by injuries that have been tough to overcome. Still, my role as commissioner means I can’t tune this league out. I have to stay connected and involved simply because I need to make sure the transactions get run each and every week. I also want this league to continue on and grow in popularity, so I will continue to try and keep it fresh and fun for those involved.

My other underperforming team is in one of Perry Van Hook’s early season leagues. This team has perhaps one of the worst offenses I have ever drafted. There are no trades, so there are no easy fixes or short-cuts. Bad drafting and injuries really hurt in this league. It helps that everyone in this league knows their stuff and stays involved. No one wants to finish last and I see everyone still making moves and setting their lineups.

In closing I just want to leave everyone with one important thought to hang onto. We as humans learn much more from our mistakes than we do from any other method. Failing and then examining and understanding the reasons why will put you on the road to future success. So hopefully this can act as a gentle kick in the pants to get you back into the game and to not overlook the opportunities for fun and experimentation that your struggling teams can provide. You can’t and won’t win every year, but your odds of winning in any year will only increase if you make a point of exploring not only why you won, but why you didn’t. Good Luck and remember have fun.

For the past couple of weeks Greg Morgan has been talking about how to approach mid-season leagues over at the NFBC. His articles got me to thinking about some of the players who have emerged so far this year and as such are likely to be hot commodities in these drafts, easily costing more than they did before the season. The challenge of course is to try and decide if you think players such as these listed below will keep up their hot starts, because for many of them, that means you will have to draft them much higher than your mind will tell you to. I have to admit, both reading Greg’s article and writing this one myself has kind of given me the urge to possibly try my hand at a mid-season league for the first time. I am very intrigued at seeing how differently the players come off the board, and in turn which names tumble as others rise. Who knows, maybe we’ll just play around and have a little fun in the Forums with a mid-season mock draft or something. In any case, here is my list of surprising stars to start the year

C - A.J. Pierzynski – I highlighted Pierzynski in the preseason as what I have viewed him as for the past few seasons, an underrated veteran backstop that you target late in drafts because he wouldn’t hurt your batting average. I was able to secure his services in more than a few of my leagues this year using that same old reliable strategy and so far it has paid off in spades as the 37 year-old is in the midst of a career season.  His 11 home runs and 40 RBI’s are tops at the position for American League catchers and his .292 average and 31 Runs trails only Joe Mauer among everyday options.  Despite drafting him in a bunch of places, I actually cut him in the Forum Subscribers league on May 13, when Jesus Montero gained C eligibility. Since then he been unconscious, hitting over .350 with 6 homers, 19 Runs and 19 RBI’s.

1B – Mark Trumbo – It took a little while for Trumbo to stake a claim to consistent playing time early in the season, but those owners who took a chance on him have been rewarded with his fantastic first half. His 14 HR’s have him on the path to surpassing last year’s 29, and his batting average is a surprising .329. He’s even chipped in 4 stolen bases and has basically been the player people thought they were getting when they drafted Eric Hosmer early in drafts. Considering he only hit .254 last year, his average is likely to tumble a bit as the season progresses, but his power is for real and the Angels will keep finding ways to keep his potent bat in the lineup. He’s logged 8 games at 3B, which has given him added flexibility in many leagues which is always a plus.

2B – Jason Kipnis – I am an unabashed Kipnis fan, and it thrills me to no end to see him having a breakout performance so far this season. He is the top rated second baseman in the AL thus far, with 10 home runs, 40 RBI’s and 15 stolen bases. The last number is the obvious eye-catcher, as it has him on a pace to steal 40 bases, which would be way more than anyone, myself included, predicted for the emerging star. While his production isn’t a total surprise, to see him out-producing established stars like Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia and Robinson Cano illustrates both how good he has been and the value of speed in fantasy.

SS – Mike Aviles – Aviles was a member of the All-Underrated team in March as a sneaky late round pick who had multi-position eligibility and would be hitting in a potent lineup in Boston. He has more than lived up to whatever price you paid to acquire him with a terrific April and solid May making him the second most valuable shortstop in the league behind only Derek Jeter. His 37 RBI’s are tops at the position and he smacked 8 homers and swiped 7 bases as well. He’s cooled off a bit since the calendar turned to June, and there is a definite chance the magic could be started to wane. While he should still retain enough value to be a strong MI the rest of the year, he is a player you may want to dangle in trade talks to see what you can get in return.

3B – Edwin Encarnacion – E.E. also made my All-Underrated team and here is what I feel was the key sentence in that write-up: “He has always had power; it’s just a matter of him finding the AB’s.” Well, he has found those AB’s and the Blue Jays have found another slugger to pair with Jose Bautista. Encarnacion has already matched last year’s 17 home runs, driven in 44, scored 34 runs and added 6 steals. He is one of the steals of the year and for where he was likely drafted, possibly the value pick of the year. I wish I had taken my own advice and drafted him somewhere this year, it just seemed like every draft I was targeting him in this year, someone liked him just a bit more. Congrats if you own him, enjoy the ride the rest of the way.

OF – Adam Jones – Jones was likely the highest drafted player on this list, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t belong here. He is the breakout player of the year so far, and has finally blossomed into the superstar that the Orioles had hoped he would become when the acquired him in the package of players from Seattle for Erik Bedard back in 2008. He showed a glimpse of what was to come this year in 2011 and if you targeted him after the top options were off the board, you have gotten first round production at a bargain price. He has delivered across the board production batting .306 with 18 home runs, 44 runs, 38 RBI’s and 9 stolen bases.

OF – Mike Trout – I was able to secure Trout in one of my many leagues this year, and that was on my Razzball Experts squad. I took a chance and stashed him on my bench, hoping he would get the call at some point. Well, he got the call earlier than we all expected and has been nothing short of extraordinary since then. He has been a revelation for the Angels, as his speed and tenacity has helped lead the Angels’ surge back up the standings. I don’t think anyone thought he’d be this good this soon, especially after his struggles last year. He has stolen 16 bases already, showed some pop in his bat with 6 home runs and is hitting a robust .341. He’s been so good; people are starting to talk about him as a serious MVP contender.

OF – Alejandro De Aza – The speedy OF turned his season around in May, and hasn’t looked backed since. He has 13 steals on the year and has scored 44 runs as the White Sox primary leadoff man. He has also managed to keep his average above .300. He has been a real pleasant surprise for those who gambled on his speed upside late in drafts. He should continue to steal bases and score a bunch of runs at the top of one of baseball’s most potent lineups.

UT – Josh Reddick – I didn’t want to leave Reddick off the list, so we will give him the UT spot. Of all the names on the list, Reddick is the one who may have gone undrafted. He has emerged from the logjam in the Oakland outfield, to become a must start in all leagues. You have to think that Boston would like to have a do over on the trade that sent him over as the key piece in the package for Andrew Bailey. His power has been a nice surprise as his 14 homers gives him a chance to hit 30 this year.

DH – Adam Dunn – He’s baaaccckkkk! Dunn has put last year’s disaster behind him by smacking 21 home runs so far. He still has a batting average you don’t want to look at, but if you gambled on the rebound, well you must be happy today. I drafted him nowhere this year, so I don’t have a stake, but hey good for him and good for you if you took a chance. I certainly could use his power on more than a few of my teams. Man, I just also realized how many White Sox there are on this list, which doesn’t make me so happy as an Indians fan.

RHP – Brandon Morrow – Morrow came into the season slightly underrated (yes he made the team in March) mainly because he had disappointed slightly in 2011 with an ERA of 4.78 and a WHIP of 1.28. He had the K numbers, and that is why you drafted him, but he has harnessed his control this year delivering a 3.03 ERA and a WHIP of 1.00. Unfortunately he just landed on the DL with an oblique strain that will put his breakthrough season on hold for the time being.

LHP – Chris Sale – If the season ended today, the lanky lefthander might very well win the Cy Young. He has 8 wins, 76 K’s to go along with an ERA of 2.049 and a WHIP of 0.924. It seems like just yesterday that he was briefly moved to the bullpen in the wake of some elbow discomfort. Fantasy owners were glad to see him back starting again, because since his return he’s been brilliant. After a rocky first start back, he has reeled off 5 straight dominating starts, including his masterful 15 K performance on May 28. He’s likely going to come up against an innings limit at some point this year, but until then he’s going to keep racking up K’s and winning games for the resurgent White Sox.

RP – Jim Johnson/Fernando Rodney – Both these guys deserve to be mentioned as both have been nothing short of stellar to start the year. Johnson was a guy I touted as a great guy to target as a potential third closer. Well, I obviously didn’t see the Orioles being nearly as competitive as they have been so far, but Johnson has 19 saves and has locked down a job many thought he had a tenuous hold on coming into the season. As for Rodney, he has taken advantage of the injury to Kyle Farnsworth and racked up 19 saves of his own to go along with a sparkling ERA of 0.94 with a WHIP of 0.76. To say that those are the best numbers of this journeyman’s career would be an understatement. Farnsworth is almost ready to return, but it will be as the set-up man now.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanpcarey

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