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Friday 26th May 2017

Even after finishing with a 90-72 record, I considered 2013 a disappointing season for the Cincinnati Reds if for nothing else than I picked them to win their division. Based on that, the current year is an even bigger disappointment as they are languishing in fourth place in the National League’s Central Division, two games below .500 and six and one-half games behind the division leading Milwaukee Brewers.

While six and a half games out of first place doesn’t seem like much of a deficit with four months left in the season, there is more to the Reds’ situation than meets the eye. For starters, their home park isn’t very friendly to the team as they are barely playing break even ball there. Life on the road isn’t any better either with a losing record away from Cincinnati and home cooking. The move from Dusty Baker to Bryan Price hasn’t achieved the desired effects.

There are some big problems on the offensive side with the team batting just .241 overall and .248 at home, which is below the league average. The two top hitters are both catchers – Devin Mesoraco (.347) and Brayan Pena (.283) – a problem with some of the more recognizable names on the team. Todd Frazier is leading the team with 11 home runs, which is about half his projected total for the season. The nine homers that Mesoraco has already jacked puts him way ahead of pace for his projected season total of about a dozen. Even at this torrid pace, it’s still hard to believe he’ll actually wind up with the 25 or so total prorating would put him at.

The big name on the team is obviously Joey Votto. But his big name hasn’t translated into big stats for his fantasy owners. The 30-year-old Votto currently has a slash line of .257/.410/.449, which is well below his three-year average of .313/.437/.521. Battling a quad injury since May 16, the first baseman has only managed six home runs. Making matters potentially worse for the Reds and Joey’s fantasy owners is the just announced news from General Manager Walt Jocketty, who said it was a strong possibility Votto could be playing at less than 100 percent for the rest of the season. With that statement, the Cincinnati GM pretty much squashed any chance of getting full value for Votto in a fantasy league trade.

Adding to the Reds’ woes has been outfielder Jay Bruce. With a three-year average of 32 home runs, Bruce has added to the power deficit in Cincinnati with a meager three on the year. Granted, while he could be a very streaky hitter, the current long ball total only projects to eight for the year compared with an average of 32 for each of the past three seasons. Since the season is now one-third done, Jay will have to get really streaky over the final four months to come close to the three-year average in dingers. The 11 home runs by Frazier are more than Votto and Bruce combined. Chris Heisey, Ryan Ludwick, Brandon Phillips and Pena all have a higher OPS than the right fielder. This isn’t to say that they’ve been good, just that Jay has been that bad. Anyone putting stock in 27-year-old players having magical years have so far only pulled a skunk out of their hat with Bruce.

When looking at Jay Bruce’s OPS, even Billy Hamilton has a higher mark on the year. Yes, this is the same Billy Hamilton that some were saying wouldn’t last past the first month or so because of his lack of skill in getting on base. They said "Yeah, he can run, but you can’t steal first base." Those who didn’t listen to the naysayers have been rewarded for their faith in the speedster to the tune of 22 stolen bases. While a .256 BA and .293 OBP won’t reap any batting awards, it’ll be enough to keep the 23-year-old Hamilton in the lineup and doing what his owners drafted him to do – steal bases. Further, if Cincinnati continues to struggle offensively (they are the third worst in the NL at scoring runs) and Hamilton continues to get on base anywhere near the rate he currently is, he will be given the green light any time he gets on and his fantasy owners will reap the rewards.

Things certainly haven’t played out the way the Reds and their fans had hoped coming into 2014. With most of their prospects needing more time to develop in the Minors, there isn’t much hope of reinforcements coming this year - certainly no one to immediately replace the likes of Votto or Bruce. The current year is slipping away and if Cincinnati is to make any noise in their division, their hitters need to wake up and start hitting. Everyone having a Reds’ player on their fantasy team certainly hopes the prince awakens sleeping beauty soon.

After writing last week about players I thought are good buy low candidates, I was asked by some league mates and acquaintances which players were on the opposite side of the spectrum – those that were at their peak value and due for a tumble. I wasn’t planning on broaching this subject but after the questions thought it was something that actually made sense. Kind of combining yin with yang; or Buffalo with wings.

So now the question is which players do I choose? In some regards, this is a more difficult list to put together. Not so much because many of the players are not any good and clearly playing over their head, but because some of them are good – and even very good – players who their owners don’t want to admit may experience any extent of a fall from grace.

One of the first things we heard when we became fantasy owners, however, is to buy low and sell high. But it’s often hard to avoid falling in love with players and to consider the glory days won’t last forever when the players should actually be nameless, stat producing pawns to be moved wherever and whenever they suit us best. Sometimes, that’s on the opponent’s side of the board. If it helps assure the accumulation of the most stats across the categories and a title in the long run, anything goes – as anathema as it might seem.

Choice number one on my list to seriously consider jettisoning would be none other than current National League batting leader Troy Tulowitzki. The thing isn’t that the Colorado Rockies shortstop stinks; quite the opposite. He is clearly the premier player at his position in all of baseball and his owners should use that to their advantage. The 29-year-old is on pace to play in 152 games (which would be the most since 2009) and get over 500 at-bats (which he hasn’t done since 2011). He’s not the picture of health and is usually dealing with some kind of injury which costs him time. So far in 2014, he’s only missed four games, and the odds are that won’t hold up over the rest of the season. While a .373 batting average and 14 home runs are very easy to take, there are some things to at least consider if not worry about. First, the former Rookie of the Year winner is a career .299 hitter. Second, Tulo owns a career .323 BABIP, and at .384 presently is over 60 points higher than that. Third, a career ISO of .220 is currently off the charts at .338. Toss his name out there and see what kind of king’s ransom he could reap in return.

The next name on my list is Chase Utley of the Philadelphia Phillies. The second baseman is currently sporting a .333 batting average – a lofty number he hasn’t seen since 2007. The 35-year-old is also on a pace to play in 152 games and accumulate 605 at-bats, numbers he hasn’t had since 2009 and 2008, respectively. The batting average is being fueled by a gaudy .375 BABIP which most certainly will correct. The biggest thing that concerns me is the four-time Silver Slugger award winner has a degenerative knee condition in both legs and at his present age doesn’t project to getting any younger. We’ve likely seen the best from the five-time All Star.

The third name that immediately came to mind when I was considering this topic is the Milwaukee Brewers’ Kyle Lohse. In fact, he was involved in a trade in one of my leagues where I just had to resort to my rough draft to e-mail off my thoughts on him. And basically, that is he’s just, well, Kyle Lohse. This is not to say he’s not a serviceable pitcher, but I don’t believe he’s what we’ve seen so far this year. On the surface, his 1.08 WHIP and 2.92 ERA isn’t out of line with his 2012 season-ending numbers, but that came after the tutelage of pitching coach Dave Duncan for five years. Nobody’s accused Brewers’ pitching coach Rick Kranitz of being an identical twin of Duncan. When you look deeper into Lohse’s performance, he still only possesses an 89 mph fastball and is throwing the same types of pitches for pretty close to the same amount of time he’s thrown them for the past six seasons – there hasn’t been a new pitch added to bolster his arsenal. Therefore, a K/9 of 7.18 shouldn’t be projected forward when his career average is a 5.7/9 mark.  When the strikeouts start to drop (and I believe it’s certain they will), everything else will regress upwards. Play up the increase in K rate and see what you can get in return.

This is not nearly a complete list but just a few players that stick out to me as trade bait. Again, sometimes it’s hard to part ways with the current batting leader, but we need to look at everyone on our roster in the light of how we can improve our team. After all, even the Belle of the Ball has some hidden pimples.

Struggling players is nothing new to baseball. As long as teams have been going out on a diamond and competing – whether it be professionally or at an amateur level – there have been players on those teams who go through slumps. Players go through slumps all the time during the season and it’s always what it is – just a slump. But the funny thing about baseball is when a slump occurs at the beginning of the season, it’s not a slump. Rather, it’s called a bad, or slow, start.

Never mind the vernacular – it’s still a slump and that’s what fantasy players have to get into their heads. That being said, there are still slumps that I want a part of and slumps that I don’t. The ones I don’t are those I think will last most, if not all, of the season with little hope of improving. Those players I do want a part of are those I feel are most likely to turn something sour into something very sweet. These are also called buy low candidates and are the kind of players many of us are trying to acquire at this point.

So who are my buy low candidates? Funny you should ask…

One guy I would love to have on more teams is Pedro Alvarez. Now things haven’t been totally bad for the Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman as he does have eight home runs and four stolen bases at this point. But this is where the art of creative trade talk comes in. Point out things like his ISO is down 80 points from last year; batting average is down three years in a row; slugging percentage is over 100 points below last year. Steer clear of the fact his OBP is over .300 or that his BB% and K% are 52% and 29% improved, respectively. Granted, it still might be a hard sell, but someone’s bound to get him for less than full value.

The next player may come as a surprise since he was listed first in my NL Un-Picks (pans) write-up back in March. He is none other than Yonder Alonso of the San Diego Padres. Alonso has a rather ugly .193 batting average but a BABIP of .214 is rather unlucky also and better days are ahead. He has struck out slightly less than last year and already has the same number of doubles and half as many stolen bases. I’m still sticking to my “I want power at the corners” mantra, but the 27-year-old first baseman should help in the batting average department going forward and could be gotten for pennies on the dollar or as a toss in as part of a trade. Either way, I feel he’ll make a good replacement for an injured first baseman or as a corner man in an NL-only league.

Just to Alonso’s right on the infield is second baseman Jedd Gyorko. The second-year player is experiencing a sophomore slump so far. On the good side of things, he does have five home runs, although they’re coming at a pace a little more than half as good as 2013. The 25-year-old is seeing slightly more fastballs than last year but a good deal fewer curveballs and changeups, giving way to more sliders. The pitchers have obviously adjusted and Gyorko is having pitch recognition problems and now he needs to adjust. With a BB% identical to 2013 and K% just slightly higher, the issue is a BABIP of .186, which is driving his .163 batting average. A correction should be on the way. I was a believer coming into the season and still am.

Every team needs a jack of all trades and Martin Prado has been the darling to fill the bill the past few years for fantasy owners. However, the Arizona Diamondback has fallen on tough times this year. After averaging 12 home runs the past three seasons, the 30-year-old Prado has yet to hit his first in 2014. Pitchers are throwing him virtually the same kind of pitches but Martin is striking out at almost double the rate of 2013. BABIP is not an issue – he’s just not making contact at the same percentage. Maybe playing on an abysmal team is taking its toll (Arizona has the second-worst record in the NL and has only won six games at home – the lowest in the Majors). The Diamondbacks have shown the willingness to part with players such as Justin Upton, Adam Eaton, Ian Kennedy and Trevor Bauer and with new Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa in the fold, look for more of the same as he tries to re-stock the minor league system. Prado’s contract has him earning $11M/year through 2016 and he could be a prime candidate to be moved. A change of scenery could help and eligibility at second, third and the outfield in many leagues makes me a buyer. As far as I’m concerned, there are still plenty of miles in the tank and the cost per gallon should be attractive.

There were more than a few people touting Homer Bailey as a possible Cy Young candidate coming into 2014 after he showed some improvement in 2013. But a 1.58 WHIP and 5.44 ERA have tempered that talk quite a bit. Still, Bailey is worth targeting. While striking out slightly fewer batters and walking a bit more, the 28-year-old right-hander’s bugaboo has been a .348 BABIP and 1.58 HR/9 mainly pitching in the Great American Small park. Homer’s velocity is still there and he can’t continue being this unlucky with balls in play. Out of all the players listed, Bailey will certainly command the most in return, but he should still be gotten at a discount in many places.

While these players might not have been targets entering the season, the fact that they are playing poorly makes them attractive targets now as their prices certainly are better than they were during draft time.

Every spring, fantasy baseball players across the land are preparing for another season. Projections are pored over; position battles are analyzed; final rosters are digested – all this to be as prepared as possible for the draft season and to try to get a leg up on the competition. Due to commitments to family and jobs, most of us don’t have an unlimited amount of time to devote to this preparation so must get the most accurate information possible committed to memory as best as possible. After the draft, thoughts turn to how good the team is and look forward to the inevitable Yoo-Hoo shower after the season ends.

Depending on league size, however, teams only have a one-in-X chance of winning and most owners feel the same going into the season. After all, it’s their team and no one wants to admit defeat before the season plays out. Then the games begin and the truth of team composition starts to come to light.  There are cold and hot starts to deal with. A star player begins the season 5-for-40 while a lesser player gets 17 hits in the same number of at-bats. Punch and Judy hitters all of a sudden are home run hitting machines while soft-tossing pitchers have seemingly evolved into the next Bob Gibson.

As if this isn’t hard enough to overcome, next come the injuries. The best laid draft plans are laid to waste as important cogs start to go down with all sorts of injuries from hangnails to muscle pulls to broken bones. But the injury that causes the most concern year in and year out is the dreaded ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction; better known as Tommy John surgery. This medical procedure was pioneered by former pitcher Tommy John and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974. After the surgery and lengthy rehab, John went on to win 164 more games over 14 years. Thus, Tommy John surgery (as it came to be known) revolutionized the medical landscape and prolonged the career of countless major league players.

Even though many players are having the surgery and are able to go on to play quite a bit longer, it is very disconcerting for a real or fantasy team to learn that one of their pitchers has succumbed to a torn elbow ligament and is now done for the rest of the season at the very least. This year hasn’t been any different; in fact, the pace of players falling victim to this injury is happening at an alarming rate.

To date, the list of players requiring Tommy John surgery is: Cory Luebke, Luke Hochevar, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Jarrod Parker, Patrick Corbin, Bruce Rondon, David Hernandez, Cory Gearrin, Bobby Parnell, Matt Moore, Josh Johnson, Ivan Nova, Pedro Figueroa and A.J. Griffin. Prospects Miguel Sano and Jameson Taillon – who figured to be important parts of their teams this year - have also undergone the procedure. And now we are waiting on word that Jose Fernandez will also require the surgery. That’s a total of 18 players to date compared with nine at this point last year.  At this point, the pace is slightly ahead of 2012, when 17 players had Tommy John surgery and a total of 46 underwent it by season’s end.

The numbers are staggering and anyone who has some of the more prominent names on this list has had a huge hole to fill – especially the latest name to pop up from the Miami Marlins. It is almost impossible to replace a player of this caliber without some kind of major trade. But this is what we have to deal with as fantasy players. It just seems that every other day we get word of another casualty and it’s back to the drawing board. It is frustrating and severely tests the mettle of general managers – both real and fantasy.

So as the season progresses, many of us will keep our fingers crossed and hope the fickle finger of fate doesn’t point in our direction. For me personally, it’s too late to try to duck. Hopefully, you’re having better luck.

One doesn’t have to look far at all to find some underperforming players – fantasy or real life – after a little over one month into the season. Jedd Gyorko and Pablo Sandoval are hitting under the Mendoza line; David Wright, Domonic Brown and Matt Carpenter have as many home runs as Billy Hamilton – one each; Will Venable, who was supposed to steal 20-plus bases, hasn’t swiped one yet while getting caught three times. On the pitching side, Homer Bailey has an ERA of 5.36; Matt Garza, Alex Wood and Michael Wacha have a combined six wins and 11 losses while Matt Cain, Francisco Liriano, Cole Hamels, Wandy Rodriguez and Jeff Samardzija have yet to record a victory among them. Then there’s the injury parade – 17 National and American League pitchers have had their season end so far due to Tommy John surgery compared to 19 for all of 2013.

But the news isn’t all bad for 2014. There have been players over performing. Charlie Blackmon is batting .362 and has seven home runs and eight stolen bases; teammate Nolan Arenado is hitting .329 with six home runs; Tom Koehler and Alfredo Simon have ERA’s below 2.00; Francisco Rodriguez has 14 saves.

There’s one player, however, who really piques many people’s interest, including mine. He was very much hyped, didn’t live up to the hype, wasn’t given much playing time, was up and down between the Minors and Majors and had an average draft position much closer to 300 than 100 or even 200 going into this season. So far this season, though, he’s certainly rewarded those that drafted him. That player is Dee Gordon.

All the Los Angeles Dodgers’ infielder has done is bat .341 with five doubles, three triples and one home run, score 19 runs while driving in ten and steal 20 bases while being caught only three times – an 87% success rate. The 26-year-old has accomplished this while batting leadoff and moving from shortstop to second base.

Yet there are those who are crying fluke or unsustainable. The naysayers will point to a BABIP of .404 and say the sky is soon to fall. While a .404 BABIP is certainly a concern and does flash the caution – correction coming light, there are some changes to Gordon’s peripherals that suggest the correction might not be of the earth-crashing variety.

A strikeout rate of 15.8% is his lowest since 2011, when he hit .304 with an 11.6% rate. At the same time, his BB% (4.5%) is down considerably from 2012 (6.1%) and 2013 (9.4%) but is higher than the 3.0% he put up in his best hitting season of 2011. Gordon is being helped by being more judicious at the plate, swinging at only 29.8% of pitches outside the strike zone – a rate that has gone from 39.7% to 34.4% to 33.8% respectively in 2011, 2012 and 2013. At the same time, Dee’s contact percentage on pitches inside the strike zone is at 94.9% - the highest of his career. Gordon hasn’t been helping pitchers get ahead of him either. He’s laying off the pitches outside the zone and making the pitchers come to him with a career high of 53.9% of offerings now inside the strike zone. First pitch strike percentage of 61.7% has decreased from 71.2% in his rookie season. The former fourth-round pick is making pitchers work more slowly (hence, arguably less comfortably), increasing the average time between pitches by almost three seconds since he broke into the league.

When he makes contact, Gordon is hitting line drives at a 22.9% rate (tied for the best of his career) and ground balls 58.3% of the time (second best of his career). Combined with an 18.8% fly ball rate (also the lowest of his career), the speedster is doing what he needs to do to utilize his best asset. The results are an infield hit percentage of 14.3 and bunt hit percentage of 55.6 which are, again, career highs (bunt hit percentage more than 20% higher).

So while there could be a BABIP correction coming, Dee Gordon has changed his approach and is doing the exact things he needs to do to be successful – avoid pitches outside the zone, hit line drives, beat the ball into the ground or bunt, and run like hell to first base. Once there, he is wreaking havoc on the basepaths and has been the catalyst for the Dodgers' offense. For these reasons, I am still very much bullish on Dee Gordon and think he will continue his success and will look to add him to my roster wherever possible.

With the end of April, the first full month of the season is now behind us and the standings are starting to take shape. This is not to say that things will remain as they are for the duration. In fact, a good bet would be that the end of the season playoff picture will be quite a bit different from the present.  But we’re starting to get a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of individual players and teams, as well.

The division that is the most interesting at this point (to me, anyway) is the National League Central. There were quite a few people who thought the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates would pick up where they left off last year. That isn’t the case at this point, though. St. Louis just avoided a sweep by the Milwaukee Brewers by taking the final game of the series last night. The Cardinals are currently four and one-half games out of first with a 16–14 record. Their offense was a big reason for their success in 2013 as the Redbirds led the league in runs scored. Pitching was also a strength as St. Louis was near the top of the league in ERA, strikeouts and BAA. Results have been mixed so far, with the team still near the top of the league in pitching but in the bottom half in hitting.

The Pirates haven’t been nearly as fortunate, as they sit mired in fourth place in the division, eight and one-half games behind the top spot. After a rainout Wednesday night, Pittsburgh’s record remains at 10–16. The Bucs had a winning record both at home and on the road in 2013 but are below .500 no matter where they are playing now. Offense wasn’t particularly stellar for Pittsburgh in 2013 as they hovered near league average. Pitching, on the other hand, was a strong suit as the Pirates were near the league lead in many categories. No one was better than the Bucs in finishing off games, as they led the league in saves. 2014 finds Pittsburgh in the bottom third of the league in offense and the pitching that did them so well last year has betrayed the team in 2014, as they sit near the bottom of the league in many categories.

The Cincinnati Reds made the playoffs in 2013 as a wild card team and were monsters at home, winning at a .612 clip. Home hasn’t been as friendly to the Reds in 2014 as they hold a losing record after the Chicago Cubs bumped them off last night. It was a balanced attack last year with the team being strong both offensively and pitching-wise. Both sides have turned around for 2014 with the Reds near the middle of the pack now.

The Chicago Cubs are, well, still the same team – a winning percentage that was second to last in the league in 2013 and ditto for 2014. Cubbies fans are still hoping Theo Epstein can do for the North Siders what he did for the Boston Red Sox and bring home a championship after a century of frustration.

Then there’s the Milwaukee Brewers – Bud Selig’s former team. The Brew Crew disappointed many last year with a losing record (14 games under .500) and a fourth place finish, 23 games behind St. Louis with the whole Ryan Braun mess. Turn the calendar ahead one year and the Brewers are not only leading the National League in winning percentage, but all of baseball with a 20-9 record. Offensively, 2013 found Milwaukee pretty much at the middle of the pack. Manager Ron Roenicke has his team performing slightly better in 2014 at the plate. Last year’s pitching was a bit below league average and the team really struggled in the strikeout department, where only the Colorado Rockies recorded fewer punch outs. The 2014 version has the team near the top of the league – a dramatic 180-degree turn around.

The starting rotation is virtually the same as 2013 with Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta, Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada returning. The big addition was the acquisition of Matt Garza through free agency. This group is second in ERA and BAA and first in Quality Starts and WHIP. Even if someone doesn’t like these categories per se, it’s certainly better to be near the top than the bottom.

With the exception of Garza, all the members of the starting rotation have a WHIP under 1.15 and an ERA below 2.90. Even closer Francisco Rodriguez has gotten into the act, going a perfect 13-for-13 in save chances with no runs allowed in 16 innings pitched.

Is this group overachieving a bit? You could certainly argue that, even though there were predictions of better years for Peralta and Estrada. But they are doing this with Matt Garza still not hitting his stride and underachieving. To be honest, I was skeptical of Gallardo returning to previous form and the strikeouts haven’t been lower in his career. There are also some concerns with an elevated strand rate and low BABIP that could correct themselves.

Lohse is striking out hitters at a rate he never did before, and that certainly could regress. But he is stranding runners and maintaining a BABIP within the levels of the past few seasons. Peralta and Estrada were predicted in many circles to take a step forward this year and the 24-year-old Peralta was one of my sleeper picks for 2014.

While the jury is still out on the 2014 Brewers, they are showing they can win, and winning is contagious. When a team gets that feeling, it’s harder to convince them otherwise the longer they win. I look for the Brewers to cool off at some point but think they will remain winners for the rest of the year. It will be very interesting to see just how much they actually believe it themselves.

It always takes awhile for things to settle down in a new baseball season. That’s why we’re always preaching patience with fantasy squads. But things are even more unsettled this season. For one thing, it seems like every other player has gotten hurt and there should be a MASH unit outside each ballpark.

Many a player got a big scare this week when the Atlanta Braves’ closer elite Craig Kimbrel came up with shoulder soreness. It's one thing for a pitcher to have an elbow injury that requires Tommy John surgery since the success rate nowadays is in the 80 percent range of a pitcher returning to play their trade at a level comparable to pre-surgery. It’s a totally different story, however, with shoulders as the success rate for a pitcher returning to any semblance of previous performance after shoulder surgery tops out at about 50%. It figures something like this would happen a mere week after I was extolling the virtues of owning one of the top closers rather than those in the second and third tiers. But the 25-year-old threw 15 pitches in a side session Wednesday and proclaimed the shoulder was good to go. That’s little solace for me though as Kimbrel isn’t an orthopedic physician and he admitted that he’s had problems with the shoulder since spring training began. This is obviously a situation that will require close monitoring.

Out on the west coast, the Los Angeles Dodgers have lost the services of first string catcher A.J. Ellis to knee surgery that will keep him sidelined until at least the middle of May. Tim Federowicz has gotten the bulk of the work behind the plate so far for the first-place Dodgers but only has one hit in five games since being recalled a week ago Tuesday. Drew Butera isn’t much of an option as the 30-year-old is only hitting .183 for his major league career.

The Miami Marlins' Jacob Turner was placed on the 15-day DL last week and a subsequent MRI showed a shoulder strain. The Marlins' young starting pitcher was able to throw Tuesday off flat ground and was scheduled to throw again Wednesday. Depending on how that goes, he could proceed to throw off a mound this weekend.

After losing closer Bobby Parnell to season-ending Tommy John surgery, the New York Metropolitans got a scare when their right fielder Curtis Granderson crashed into the outfield wall and hurt a combination of his knee, forearm, and ribs. He is unofficially considered day-to-day and could return at the end of this week. Further complicating things, centerfielder Juan Lagares was placed on the DL after pulling his hamstring. He is eligible to return the end of April. As if that wasn’t enough, starting pitcher Jenrry Mejia suffered a blister on his throwing hand during Tuesday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He should have a throwing session Friday that could determine when he might be able to return. The Mets are hoping the 24- year-old will miss one start at most. Bartolo Colon allowed nine runs in five innings last Sunday to the Los Angeles Angels and blamed the horrible performance on a bad back. He is still supposed to make his next start this Saturday against the Atlanta Braves but this bears watching.

The Washington Nationals lost third baseman Ryan Zimmerman for four to six weeks with a broken thumb he sustained while sliding back into second base on a pickoff attempt. He joins catcher Wilson Ramos (wrist surgery) and outfielder Denard Span (concussion) on the sidelines. Phenom outfielder Bryce Harper is day-to-day with left quad tightness.

Jose Tabata pulled a Curtis Granderson as he slammed into the outfield wall during the Pittsburgh Pirates' game with the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday. He will be examined on Thursday for a possible concussion after which he could be put on the 7-day DL.

The Cincinnati Reds’ Mat Latos was already on the DL with a knee injury when he was scratched from a rehab start a week ago Tuesday due to elbow irritation. He had continuing discomfort in a bullpen session last Friday and his activation from the DL on Monday was postponed. A subsequent MRI revealed no structural damage and rest, not surgery, is the prescription. The 26-year-old starting pitcher won’t throw for the next couple weeks.

Brett Anderson of the Colorado Rockies was taken out of last Saturday’s start against the San Francisco Giants after he hurt his throwing hand during an at-bat. An X-ray the following day revealed a broken finger and the 26-year-old southpaw was placed on the DL and will miss four to six weeks.

Usually, pitchers kind of take it easy when at the plate, but Joe Kelly of the St. Louis Cardinals apparently doesn’t subscribe to that approach. He injured his left hamstring attempting to run out a bunt and had to be removed from the game. He will return to St. Louis Thursday to have the strain evaluated and graded before the team decides if he will miss any time.

The injuries are certainly piling up but I want to take a quick look at a couple players for a different reason. After pooh-poohing Tim Lincecum last week, The Freak had a no-decision in pitching five strong innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers Tuesday. The lanky right-hander only allowed one earned run in five innings on five hits and no walks. He also struck out five as he lowered his ERA from 9.90 to 7.20 on the season. Tim did, however, allow another home run and his total now stands at five on the young season. His fastball velocity is still down below 90 MPH and I’m still not buying.

The other player I want to look at is Lincecum’s teammate Brandon Belt. The first baseman was everyone’s darling (I was heavily invested) when he first came up and it didn’t look like he would meet expectations. The 25-year-old had a mini-breakout last year when he batted .289 and cracked 17 homers.  Belt is hitting .293 so far this year but has already hit five home runs in 57 at-bats. While he obviously won’t continue this pace, it looks as though Brandon might live up to some of what was expected of him. The one thing that concerns me at this point is he has a 17:2 K:BB ratio in 13 games. He will need to be more judicious at the plate if this early success is to continue to any extent.

We are now in the second full week of the season and while still a relatively small sample size, we can just start to get a feeling for individual players and assess where the year might take them. Or at least where we hope the season will take them and, thereby, our fantasy fortunes with them. Some of these will be good places and others will be not so good. But the game would be boring if everyone performed the same and everybody won. It’s our job to try to ascertain who to believe in and who to treat as a pretender.

Entering this year, there were many a pretender in the closer ranks in the National League. Out of 15 NL teams, only seven closers have what I would consider a safe hold on the job and are likely to keep it long term. That is less than half the teams in the senior circuit. This list would include Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, Steve Cishek, Jonathan Papelbon, Jason Grilli, Sergio Romo and Trevor Rosenthal. It also would have included Aroldis Chapman if he hadn’t taken a screamer off his head on March 19. Unless you are playing in a super shallow league, there aren't many safe closers to go around. As if we even needed it, Chapman’s injury is further proof that this is a very tenuous position in many fantasy lineups.

Out of the seven relievers previously listed, Kenley Jansen has had some problems even though he has two saves and eight strikeouts, walking nearly a batter an inning and allowing more hits than innings pitched. Jonathan Papelbon was blown up in a game at the Texas Rangers in which he surrendered three earned runs, four hits and two bases on balls in one-third of an inning. That game was sandwiched in between two good appearances, in which he didn’t allow a hit, walk, or run and struck out a batter each time. Sergio Romo has allowed one home run in two innings, which has inflated his ERA, and Trevor Rosenthal had one bad appearance out of four.

The bottom line is out of the seven safe closers, only three of them have acceptable performances with Kimbrel clearly in a class by himself so far. Over the past years, I’ve listened to many experts say how it was wise to wait on closers because they were so volatile. And to be honest, I subscribed to that theory for awhile. But then I got burned with too many second and third tier closers and waiting for that closer-in-waiting or the next guy to get the job only to be beat to him in FAAB or as a free agent pickup, so I've changed my stance. I am now very willing to pay for the top guys, and to that end, I own Atlanta’s closer in half of my leagues, including the CBS Analysts NL League and a NFBC Draft Champions League.

As I was gathering my thoughts for this week’s piece, I was reading through the past week’s postings by my Mastersball brethren and was very interested in Todd Zola’s essay from April 3 where he talks about the same thing about two-thirds down. I certainly don’t think I stumbled onto some contrarian strategy before the esteemed Lord Zola but felt good about myself that he was of the same mindset.

How many of you were feeling pretty lousy about the start to the season that Ryan Braun has had? After his first four games, the 2014-reinstated Milwaukee outfielder was hitting a robust .150 with zero extra-base hits. Combine that with the reports of a recurring thumb injury that had to do with a nerve issue that was causing the former MVP much pain and problems gripping the bat, and quite a few owners were getting panicky. The fact that he missed two games was only compounding the anxiety. Then comes Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies in which the 30-year-old Braun smashed three home runs and had seven RBI. As a Ryan Braun owner, I have to admit that I was a little uneasy before that game and definitely felt some relief afterwards. This is something I think we’ll be keeping an eye on for the rest of the season, and many owners will be on the edge of their seat as a result – myself included.

The Los Angeles Dodgers' Matt Kemp certainly has had his share of injuries over the past couple of years. As a result, his stock has dropped in many drafts as owners were very leery of acquiring the former MVP runner-up. I did take the plunge in one league as I was able to roster him at a discount. The outfielder doesn’t have a good batting average to this point, but I’m encouraged by the fact that he has averaged a run scored and RBI through his first four games with two home runs.

Tim Lincecum has been on my pan list for the past two years, so I didn’t want to pile on by including him in this year’s version as well. I know there were some analysts in the pre-season that were predicting a return to some form of previous versions of The Freak, but I wasn’t buying. Not many in the aforementioned CBS Analysts NL League were buying either as the price was only ten dollars. The strikeouts are still there, but so are the home run tendencies and the diminished velocity. I’m not optimistic for a turnaround this year either.

That’s about it for some random thoughts…there are three late games; time to watch some baseball.

Draft month is now behind us and the real opening day finally arrived even as the last vestiges of winter still had a stranglehold on part of the country. It was with excitement that fantasy players eagerly checked the box scores to see the first returns of real baseball games. Some owners were pleasantly surprised and yet others were lamenting the performance of the players they drafted. I don’t have to tell you it’s a marathon, not a sprint, yet it never hurts to say be patient – especially when there have been too many calls in my estimation to SiriusXM shows from fantasy players asking if they should trade or drop a slow starting player.

It’s not always as simple as looking at the box score, however. One has to perform due diligence in researching the underlying reason or reasons for bad games. In today’s age of statistical overload, there are many resources a fantasy player can use to get the information that is needed as opposed to the dark days of fantasy when the only places to turn to were beat writers and broadcasters. Obviously, that was before the dawn of Sabremetrics and any other metrics you can think of that we have at our disposal in this advanced fantasy age. Sometimes, we just have to swallow a bad performance and other times it’s just plain bad luck.

In many drafts, Clayton Kershaw was obviously the first pitcher off the board. He lived up to his draft position by pitching very well in the Dodgers' first game of the season down under in Australia and his owners were thinking ahead to another dominating season. Those hopes were dashed a mere four days later when it was announced the 26-year-old ace would miss his next start with inflammation in his back, and the news got exponentially worse when he was placed on the DL a few days after that. Initially, it was expected Kershaw would miss only a game or two, but that has changed since he was shut down after resuming throwing at the end of last week. Understandably, Los Angeles is going to be extremely careful with their star, who will be on a rehab program for two to three weeks. Since Don Mattingly said Kershaw would need some minor league rehab starts before returning, the best current estimate for his second start of 2014 seems to be the second or third week of May at this point. That would subtract about ten starts from his season total, which would be a very big hit to his real and fantasy teams since not only would they be missing his production but would have to replace those stats with something of much lesser quality.

Moving across the country, we get to the Big Apple, where the New York Mets were playing host to the Washington Nationals. When you’re facing a team in the Mets that finished 22 games out of first place and 12 games behind you in the final 2013 standings and you have your ace going to the mound, you’d think your chances would be pretty darn good for an overpowering performance. However, that’s not how things worked out for Stephen Strasburg and the Nats even though Washington pulled the game out in ten innings. The hard-throwing right-hander tossed six innings, allowing four earned runs even though he only surrendered five base hits and two bases on balls, including a 424-foot bomb off the bat of Andrew Brown. His velocity was down from last year, but it is much too early to make any claims of this being a trend. After allowing all four runs in the first two innings, the 26- year-old settled down and was lights out the rest of the way with seven of his ten strikeouts coming in innings 3-6. It would seem that this was just a case of Strasburg not hitting his stride early in the game and he should be fine going forward.

Moving just across the diamond on the same day brings us to Bobby Parnell of the Mets. After being given the closer’s role in 2013, Parnell’s season was cut short at the end of July due to a herniated disc in his neck that eventually required September surgery. The 29-year-old reliever was again anointed the Mets’ closer for 2014 and entered the same game in which Stephen Strasburg allowed four earned runs in the first two innings – opening day. With a one- run lead, he blew the save, allowing the tying run to score. The velocity on his pitches was down during the spring and was during this game as well. It was reported the following day that he had tightness in his forearm and a visit to a doctor revealed a partially torn MCL in his right elbow. The right-hander will rest the arm for a few weeks in the hopes that rest will take care of the problem, but the threat of season-ending Tommy John surgery is a definite possibility. After touting Parnell as one of my sleepers just one week ago and personally owning him in a couple leagues, the likelihood of Parnell being a personal fail is quite high.

These are just some of the examples of what makes fantasy so utterly frustrating and alluring at the same time. Frustrating in that we have to deal with the unknown injury factor as we go through our drafts and the games start. Alluring in that if we manage our way through the injuries and poor performances, the gratification of having a successful fantasy season is that much greater.

So we’ve gone through picks and un-picks. So what’s left? Sleepers, what else? The term normally means players who many people don’t expect anything from and so they come out of nowhere to be pretty solid fantasy producers. Not necessarily at the top of the list, but someone who is very useful at the price they came at. Usually, these are guys that can be gotten late in a draft or for a few dollars in the end game. But I’m not limiting my definition to those guys. I’m thinking of any player who could surprise and outperform their cost. So without further adieu……

Travis d’Arnaud – Yeah, he’s had injuries the past couple of years. Yeah, he’s struggled offensively in the big leagues. But the New York Mets backstop is still one of the top catching prospects in the game. You don’t get traded for two different Cy Young Award winners if you’re chopped liver. Due to the injuries and offensive struggles, the 25-year-old d’Arnaud can be gotten later in your draft or for a fraction of what the top catchers will cost you. He’s shown he can hit for average and power in the Minors and could be a cheap source of home runs in NL-only leagues. If he gets the plate appearances, he could surprise with near 20-home run power.

Ryan Howard – Whoever thought a one-time MVP could be called a sleeper? Well, maybe not in the traditional sense of the name. But the Philadelphia first baseman is coming off two very disappointing seasons in which he hit a total of 25 home runs. He used to hit almost that many in half a season and is only two years removed from 33 jacks. The past two years and the fact the hefty Howard is now 34 years old could signal a buying opportunity. Sluggers oftentimes have a resurgence in their career and I’m thinking 2014 could be Ryan’s year.

Taylor Jordan – The Washington Nationals’ Jordan has been battling Tanner Roark for the final starting pitcher spot. Even if Taylor doesn’t get the nod out of spring, keep an eye on him. He pitched well in 2013, his major league debut, and his penchant for inducing many ground balls was evident – well over 50% of the time. While not a strikeout machine, the 25-year-old has a hard breaking slider that results in a lot of swings and misses. If he can generate more swings and misses with his fastball, his K/9 could improve. Combine that with very good control (only 11 bases on balls in 51 2/3 innings) and we could have the makings of something special for very little cost.

Devin Mesoraco – With Ryan Hanigan traded and Dusty Baker now gone, Mesoraco is the catcher for the Cincinnati Reds in 2014. It was only a few years ago that he was in the top-15 prospects in baseball. The 25-year-old doesn’t strike out excessively and exhibited the ability to hit some home runs in the Minors. He was limited by a .269 BABIP in 2013 and a slight improvement here should put his batting average in acceptable range for a catcher. Toss in a chance at maybe 15 home runs and I’ll take that for a couple dollar investment.

Chris Owings – The Arizona Diamondbacks' shortstop situation is still unsettled with Didi Gregorious and Owings battling it out. Gregorious had the position in 2013 but turned it into a competition with a .229 batting average after the middle of May. Meanwhile, Owings hit .330 with 12 home runs and 20 stolen bases at Triple-A Reno and got a chance at a call-up late in the year, batting .291 over 55 at-bats with two stolen bases. While Didi is considered the better defender, the 22-year-old Owings is considered the better hitter and can play both middle infield spots. While he may not be projected for many plate appearances at this point, there is a lot of talk about Gregorious being traded, which would open the door wide for Owings.

Bobby Parnell – The closer for the New York Mets didn’t pitch after the month of July last year due to a herniated disc in his neck that required September surgery. As such, he’s not in the top group of closers for 2014 and he will be priced accordingly. Further in his favor is he doesn’t have much in the way of anyone supplanting him in the ninth inning spot with Jose Valverde and Vic Black behind him. The cost for 25 saves shouldn’t be high coming off injury and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him approach 30 saves.

Wily Peralta – It was a tale of two seasons in 2013 for the Milwaukee Brewers’ Peralta. In the second half, he lowered his ERA from 6.00 to 3.05, increased his K/9 from 5.1 to 7.3 and lowered his hits against from 11.4/9 to 7.5/9. While his 7.5 K/9 isn’t great, the 24-year-old showed much more potential in the minor leagues and does have some heat in a 95 mph fastball. He has shown improvement in his control this spring, walking only four while not yielding a home run. If he can keep that up (and I think he could), Peralta will better his 11-win 2013 campaign.

Pedro Strop – After the trade from the Baltimore Orioles to the Chicago Cubs, Strop was a different pitcher. The reliever had a 7.25 ERA with a 9.67 K/9 pre-Cubs and a 2.83 ERA and 10.80 K/9 post-Cubs. With a fastball that touches 96, the 28-year-old Strop has the tools to punch out hitters. With only Jose Veras ahead of him in the bullpen, I believe Strop will be in line for a good amount of save chances entering 2014. All it will take is a Veras implosion or trade, and I think either is pretty likely.

I’m putting my money where my mouth is as I already own a few of these players and will almost certainly own more of them before draft season is finished.

Last week, I looked at some players I like in the National League for fantasy purposes this year. This week, it’s only fitting that I look at some players I don’t want on my teams. However, I’m going to refrain from the usual moniker of something you cook in because I just don’t want to use it. The downside of that is I’ve never been accused of being very creative so I’ll just go with what seems to be popular these days. I’ve seen so many commercials about zombies and the like so I’m going with Un-Picks, as in the un-dead. Enough of that, on to the Un-Picks.

Yonder Alonso – When I think of the prototypical first baseman for my fantasy teams, I think power. Bases emptying, wall clearing, and awe inspiring power. Well, the 26-year-old Alonso has none of that. Since he only hits about one home run every 60 at-bats, that projects to around ten for the season.  The handful of stolen bases I’ll get isn’t nearly enough to make up for the power void. I’ll pass and look for a decent average elsewhere.

Rex Brothers – Although he is being touted as the heir apparent to LaTroy Hawkins, the 26-year-old Colorado Rockies relief pitcher is off my radar this year. Sure, he can strike out hitters to the tune of a little better than one per inning; he also allows too many base runners at this point in his career to depend on as a closer. And allowing base runners in Coors Field isn’t a good thing any time. Since he’s not even going to have a full-time closing gig, at best he’s a third closer for me in mixed leagues and a low-level second option in NL-only play. He might turn out to be a good one; it’s just not going to be this year.

Curtis Granderson – I’m not sour on “The Grandy Man” (as John Sterling called him) because he’s with the cross-town rival New York Mets now. I actually soured on him when he was a part of my beloved Yankees. He had a very good year in 2011 with 41 home runs and 25 stolen bases but followed that up with 43 home runs and ten stolen bases the next year and only seven home runs and eight stolen bases last year, albeit in an injury-filled season.  Also working against the 33-year-old outfielder is he is now 33 and his batting average has gone from .262 to .232 to .229 as more and more teams employed the shift against him and he was powerless to solve it. He seemed to try to hit the ball through or over the shift every plate appearance and that led to his strikeouts going from 169 to 195 to 69 in only 214 at-bats last year. Now that he doesn’t have the comfortable confines of Yankee Stadium’s right field fence to aim for anymore, things could get much worse.

Zack Greinke – The righty throwing Greinke had one of the best years of his career in 2013. Was it the move to pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium? Time will tell but I’m not going to be one to find out most likely. While everyone will be spending the type of draft pick or SP1 dollars for a repeat of last year, I don’t think it’s going to happen. I’m not saying I don’t like the 30-year-old, just that the price will be too high for me and won’t be justified by the ROI.

Chris Johnson – Another corner infielder without much pop; strike one. Doesn’t run to make up for the lack of power; strike two. A .321 batting average that was fueled by a gaudy .394 BABIP that surely will regress; strike three, you’re out.

Brandon McCarthy – He came into the big leagues with a lot of fanfare way back when and I was one of those weighing the band wagon down. But in eight major league seasons, the now 30-year-old starting pitcher has only had two seasons with an ERA under 4.00! Both of those seasons were in Oakland, which is friendlier to pitchers than Texas or Arizona. I know wins are finicky but you would think he’d have at least one season of at least ten victories? Nada. Add in all the injury risk and I'll pass.

Justin Morneau – Some people are touting a move to Coors Field and a bounce back in the power department. Color me skeptical. I’ll take a chance rostering the now 33-year-old as a corner man but not as my primary first baseman. Name recognition and the move to the thin Colorado air will most likely push the asking price too high for me and the chance of one errant pitch or hard bump on the field ending his career means I won’t be an owner.

Pablo Sandoval – Despite quite a bit of heft, another corner infielder that doesn’t hit for much power. Do you sense a trend here?

Dan Uggla – There was a time that I was very willing to roster a light batting average hitting middle infielder who could mash 30-something bombs. But now the average is at or below Mendoza line territory and the home runs have shrunk to maybe 20 - if you’re lucky. Too little to absorb the batting average hit – just plain ugly in my eye.

B.J. Upton – Playing in Atlanta with his brother was supposed to rejuvenate his career and push the elder Upton to unleash his potential. Instead, 2013 turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for the 29-year-old as he finished with a .184 batting average, nine home runs and 12 stolen bases. I’m not willing to pay to find out if he rebounds at all and am not betting he will. It won’t (can’t?) be as bad as last year or will it? Do you feel lucky punk?

That’s it for my NL Un-Pick list for this year. Hopefully, I won’t be forced into owning many of these characters.

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