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Saturday 21st Oct 2017

One of my favorite TV characters in the late 1960’s was Gomer Pyle from the Andy Griffith show and Gomer Pyle, USMC. I’m sure even those who were still just a twinkle in their daddy’s eye have heard his famous “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise” at some point. I still recall my grandmother laughing heartily each time Pyle blurted it out to Sergeant Carter. It’s pretty fitting that this phrase comes to my mind when reflecting on the 2013 Atlanta Braves.

To be honest, I didn’t think the Braves would finish any better than second place in the National League East, behind the Washington Nationals and, possibly, the Philadelphia Phillies. I realize we’re still only about 40% into the season and many things can happen, but I’m still surprised Atlanta is doing as well as they are. To be sure, their success is magnified by the heretofore surprisingly weak performances by both the Nationals and Phillies. But there are things that they are doing positively that are making big contributions to their place in the standings.

In 2012, Atlanta finished with 94 wins and a .580 winning percentage. They are only doing slightly better than that with a 39-27 record and a .591 winning percentage that puts them on pace for 96 wins. The big surprise for me is I felt they overachieved in 2012 and now they are duplicating that in 2013. The Braves could potentially be even better than that if the team can win some games on the road, where they were 11 games over .500 last year but currently two games under the break even mark this season. Things are much better at Turner Field, where the team is 14 games over .500 in 2013 as compared to 15 games over in 2012.

One of the things propelling the Braves this year is their power surge, which to be honest, I didn’t expect at all. In fact, I predicted off-season acquisition Justin Upton to have a harder time hitting home runs in Atlanta as opposed to the desert of Arizona. In 2011 and 2012, the outfielder hit about two-thirds of his home runs each year at home in Chase Field. Upton is still hitting long balls about 50 percent of the time at home in 2013 – a good amount more than I thought he would – and he is on track to hit 35 total.

But Justin isn’t the only one contributing to the home run binge. Second baseman Dan Uggla is back to his old ways after struggling to a 19 home run season in 2012. His 13 round trippers this year put him on track for a season total of 32 – something we’re much more used to. Brian McCann has chipped in with seven from the catcher position; B.J. Upton and Freddie Freeman have launched six each; Jason Heyward and Juan Francisco both are at five. Golly, even Andrelton Simmons has five, this after the Braves hit only four from the shortstop position in all of 2012.

But the biggest surprise for the Braves in the power department has been outfielder Evan Gattis, who is still a rookie despite being 26 years old. Gattis has pounded out 14 home runs for Atlanta, which would potentially give him 35 for the year. I don’t know anyone who projected anything close to that for him.

As a team, Atlanta hit 149 home runs in all of 2012, which was below the league average. They are currently at 89 for 2013, which is best in the Majors, and if they continue to put balls over the wall at this pace, they will finish 2013 with 218 – 46% more than their 2012 total.

While Nike was fond of saying "Chicks dig the long ball", Shazam!, the Braves are digging it too.

We all have players that are underperforming and giving us fits when we see their statistics each day. If we can’t actually watch the games and see how they do or look at the live scoring from our league’s website, we anxiously peruse the box scores in anticipation of that big breakout. Sometimes we are rewarded with our patience in sticking with a player when they finally have a good game and the player uses that game as a springboard to salvage what has, up until that point, been a horribly disappointing season.

Then there are those instances when a good game turns out to be an anomaly and the bad season continues as we are ultimately fooled. We have to decide after the encouraging game if we now have the real deal or the game is just fool’s gold.

One such player is the San Francisco Giants' Tim Lincecum. His owners have been suffering through another bad season where he has been nowhere near the Lincecum of his Cy Young years. His owners were teased his first start of the season with zero earned runs in five innings and four strikeouts.  But hidden in the weeds was lurking a sinister monster in the form of seven bases on balls. In his next two starts, he gave up six and then four earned runs. Tim then had another game in which he did not allow an earned run. Maybe this was the start of something good. But then he reeled off a stretch of three games in which he allowed a total of 12 earned runs in 19 innings.

Then another game of zero earned runs in seven innings and maybe, just maybe, this would be the impetus to a run of good games. But The Freak fooled his owners again, going on another three-game stretch where he allowed 15 earned runs in 16 1/3 innings. We now come to June 4 against the Toronto Blue Jays and the 28-year-old surrenders only one earned run in seven innings with six strikeouts. Not surprisingly, Lincecum’s four wins came in the three games he allowed no earned runs and the recent game against Toronto. In his other starts, he has five losses and three no decisions.

So what are we to think of the latest act of heroism? Personally, I’m not thinking much of it. One of the reasons is the two-time Cy Young Award winner is still issuing free passes at the rate of 4.00 per nine innings pitched. Secondly, the velocity is still down about four mph from his heyday. Thirdly, his strand rate continues to drop and is now at 66.4% from a career high of 78.5% two years ago.

Another player having a disappointing season is Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies after winning a combined 31 games the past two seasons.  Going into Wednesday night, the 29-year-old Philadelphia ace had only recorded one win against nine losses and his ERA is more than two runs higher than it was in 2011. Hamels was coming off a game against the Milwaukee Brewers in which he allowed six earned runs in only five innings. It was getting to the point of almost accepting a bad outing was coming each game after a month of May in which he lost all six games he started.

Then the calendar turned to June and the Miami Marlins came to town. Cole pitched a superb game, going seven innings and only allowing one earned run on four hits while striking out a season-high 11 batters in notching only his second victory of the season. But, again, let’s not put too much into one game as it still was against the worst team in the big leagues. In fact, Miami’s winning percentage is a full 100 points lower than the second-worst team.

Hamels is striking out one batter per nine innings less than last year while allowing just under one walk per nine more than in 2012, and his velocity is actually the highest it’s been since 2010. Home runs allowed is at its highest level since 2007 and his strand percentage is 11.2% lower than it was in 2012.

If it matters, I’m slightly more bullish on Hamels returning to form than Lincecum but he still needs to show me quite a bit more. While a fantasy owner always wants to hang his hat on the latest big game as proof of a turnaround point for a bad season, remember that one game doesn’t a season make.

Bully hitting and manage pitching. You lived by the mantra throughout your drafts yet something hasn’t exactly worked out according to plan and you’re lower in the standings than you envisioned. I certainly can relate to that in some of my leagues. Last week, we looked at pitching (or the lack of it) in what we thought of as the top tier of hurlers coming into this season. This week, it’s only apropos we take a look at some of the hitters that have betrayed their owner’s confidence in them.

From the viewpoint of a standard 5x5 league, it would seem intuitive that batting average would be a good indicator of how a player fares overall.  Generally speaking, the higher a player’s average, the more opportunity he would have for driving in and scoring runs as well as stealing a base. That covers four of the five categories. The one category that shows some evidence of running contrary to this is home runs, as we see with players like Adam Dunn and Carlos Pena, for example, who historically hit quite a few home runs despite a low batting average. When they hit the ball, it tends to go a long way.

But fantasy owners try to shy away from having more than one batting average drain on their team so as not to give away the category. The Atlanta Braves, however, didn’t seem to mind adding B. J. Upton to a team that already had batting average challenged Dan Uggla and it has translated into Atlanta being in the bottom third in the league as far as batting average is concerned. But they, as well as fantasy owners, knew about Upton and Uggla’s struggles in this department. We’re more concerned with the guys who were supposed to do much better.

Enter Ike Davis of the New York Mets, one of the biggest disappointments of this young season. Even though he hit only .227 in 2012, he had a bout with Valley Fever that some attributed to a very slow start and the low average. To that extent, there were many who expected a good year out of the 26-year- old first baseman on the strength of a power surge in the second half of 2012. But right now, Davis is hitting a paltry .152 with only four home runs and there is talk of the Mets demoting him. He is on a pace for 13 home runs on the season after being projected for 25-30 plus. Not exactly what his owners were looking for when they drafted him.

The catcher position is historically thin as far as offensive production goes but one player fantasy owners have come to expect much better than average results from over the past few years is Miguel Montero of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The 29-year-old has blossomed into a pretty consistent offensive force behind the dish, batting .294, .266, .282 and .286 since 2009 with 16, 9, 18, and 15 home runs, respectively, over the same period. To this point in 2013, however, Montero is hitting .190 with only three home runs, which puts him on track for a disappointing nine-home run season.

Next on the list of disappointments is Milwaukee Brewers' second baseman Rickie Weeks. Even after a subpar 2012 in the batting average department (.230), we’ve gotten used to the 30-year-old veteran hitting at a .260-.270 clip with a minimum of 20 home runs and mid-teens stolen bases. But Rickie is only hitting .179 with three home runs and four stolen bases, putting him on a pace for only nine home runs and 12 stolen bases. After averaging 65 RBIs over the past three seasons, Weeks’ ten at this point would give him a season total of only 32 from someone who was expected to be in the top-tier at his position in fantasy production.

At 35 years old, Miami Marlins' outfielder Juan Pierre is getting a little long in the tooth but was still expected to be a fantasy force of sorts in 2013.  While not a big run producer or home run hitter, Pierre was expected to provide a batting average cushion as well as scoring runs and stealing bases. In other words, get on base and let his legs do the talking. While he has been stealing bases and will finish with over 40 if he continues his current pace, an expected average in the .290 range has only been .222 to this date. Pierre will also finish about 20 runs short of his three-year average of 78. So an expected three-category contributor will only turn out to be a one-category producer. This is especially troublesome for those who rostered Pierre to help mitigate the low average of a Dan Uggla type who will provide a good amount of power.

One thing these four highlighted players have in common is a very low BABIP – Davis .211, Montero .230, Weeks .250 and Pierre .245 – so there is some hope that luck will swing their way and help move them in the right direction. With the exception of Montero, all these players have seen an increase in their strikeout rate year-to-year. Davis’ has gone from 24.1% to 33.3%; Weeks’ from 25% to 29.7%; Pierre’s from 6.2% to 9.7%. Montero’s rate has fallen from 22.7% to 20.1%.

While fantasy owners are suffering through early-season slumps with these four, there are many crossed fingers that they will turn their seasons around. I, for one, am more confident Pierre will be able to accomplish this than the other three due to the fact his strikeout rate is significantly lower and legging out more hits would help translate to a batting average improvement. But, as we like to say, that’s my $.02 worth and your mileage may vary.

It is obvious that we try to build the best team possible during the draft. It is also pretty obvious that you really can’t win your league on draft day but you can lose it, or at least have a very bad season. There’s also been much talk on this site as well as other outlets concerning the strategy of bullying hitting and managing pitching. Yet no one likes to come into the season with a staff full of number threes and fours.  Most every fantasy owner would like to have an ace for their staff coming out of their draft or auction.

The one NL-only league I am in this year is the CBSSports.com Analysts League. The one pitcher I wanted that I was able to get (this is an auction league) was Clayton Kershaw. The Los Angeles Dodgers' ace had a rough stretch in April where he gave up eight earned runs in three games, losing two of them. He has been very good since then, allowing only three earned runs in the next five games. In fact, he leads the league with a 1.35 ERA, and his 72 strikeouts put him among the NL leaders.

In the same league, fellow Mastersball contributor Ryan Carey came away with the Washington Nationals’ Jordan Zimmermann as his ace and the 26-year-old has done well by Ryan, ranking third in the league with a 1.62 ERA and seven wins in nine decisions.

I’m also in two NFBC leagues that are mixed leagues. In one, I drafted Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers and Gio Gonzalez of the Nationals as my two big starting pitchers. While I’m doing well with the American League’s Darvish, Gonzalez has left a lot to be desired with a 4.01 ERA and only three wins out of five decisions in nine games started. In the second NFBC league, I managed to draft Adam Wainwright (who I was very high on for this year) and Cole Hamels (who I was also big on). Wainwright has a 2.38 ERA, six wins and three losses in ten starts, and 69 strikeouts to only six walks.  Hamels, however, has been a major disappointment with a 4.45 ERA, one win and seven losses in ten starts. The Phillies’ southpaw has alarmingly issued 24 bases on balls so far this young season after only allowing 52 all of 2012 and 44 all of 2011.

Look at the top ranked starting pitchers coming into the season, and quite a few of them are having serious problems or are not performing to the level that their fantasy owners (or their team fans, for that matter) expected. In addition to Gio Gonzalez and Cole Hamels, other top starting pitchers not doing as well as their owners expected are Ian Kennedy - 4.70 ERA and only two wins; Roy Halladay – 8.65 ERA, only two wins and fresh off shoulder surgery; Matt Cain – 5.12 ERA and only three wins; Tim Lincecum – 4.70 ERA and only three wins (although not so much a surprise considering his performance last year); Yovani Gallardo – 4.50 ERA and only 43 strikeouts after four successive seasons of striking out a batter per inning; Dan Haren – 5.54 ERA, continuing 2012’s downturn instead of bouncing back; Stephen Strasburg – pitching well despite only two wins, five losses, and a K/9 about 2.50 less than 2012 in his second year back from Tommy John surgery.

On the opposite side of the coin are guys like Patrick Corbin – 1.44 ERA and seven wins without a loss; Shelby Miller – 1.74 ERA and five wins in living up to his top prospect label; Matt Harvey – 1.93 ERA and five victories without losing a game; Scott Feldman – 2.19 ERA and four wins; Travis Wood – 2.24 ERA and four wins. The list goes on and they are certainly not household names to the extent of what was expected going into the season. It seems as though the starting pitching world has been turned on its ear to a large extent (including the American League) and we, as fantasy owners, have a lot of work to do so far this season to keep our pitching numbers to the level we thought they would be going into the season.

The 2013 Major League Baseball season is approximately 25% in the books. A look at the National League divisions show us the three leaders are the Atlanta Braves in the East, St. Louis Cardinals in the Central and San Francisco Giants in the West. I still believe at least two of these divisions will end differently with the Washington Nationals and Cincinnati Reds ending on top in the East and Central, respectively. Washington will be buoyed by their pitching and Cincinnati by their hitting.

In the East, the Philadelphia Phillies are hanging around, three and one-half games out, but the shoulder injury to Roy Halladay along with his ineffectiveness when he was in the active rotation could be too much to overcome. The New York Mets are now six and one-half games back despite the heroics of John Buck’s ten home runs and Matt Harvey’s unblemished win/loss record and 1.44 ERA. The Miami Marlins, as predicted by many, bring up the rear and are now 11 games behind without much hope at all of doing anything positive.

The Central division has the aforementioned Cardinals and Reds in the top two positions but they are still followed closely by the surprising Pittsburgh Pirates, who are only three and one-half games behind. No one offensive player is standing out for the Pirates – not even Andrew McCutchen (five home runs and nine stolen bases) at this point, but they are getting pretty equal contributions across the board from Russell Martin (six HR), Pedro Alvarez (six HR), McCutchen and Garrett Jones (five HR). The same can be said for the starting pitching where Wandy Rodriguez (four wins), A.J. Burnett (three wins), and Jeff Locke (three wins) lead the team. Where the Bucs are getting a standout contribution is from closer Jason Grilli, who now has a league-leading 16 saves without a blown save. Grilli has only allowed two earned runs in over 17 innings of work and is tied with the legendary Mariano Rivera (who is on his farewell tour) for the most saves in the big leagues.

Over in the West division, things are a bit more up in the air. San Francisco has a one-half game lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks and are two games up on the Colorado Rockies. The Diamondbacks are sixth in the NL in runs scored with Gerardo Parra (26) and Paul Goldschmidt (25) leading the team. Goldschmidt is also flashing his power as he leads the team and is among the league leaders with ten home runs. On the pitching side, Arizona is third in the league in ERA at 3.50 with two surprises leading the way. Patrick Corbin is a perfect six wins and no losses with a 1.52 ERA while Trevor Cahill is also undefeated with four wins and a 2.70 ERA. The Rockies are back to their pre-humidor ways, leading the league in runs scored and only one home run behind the Braves for the top spot in the NL. Colorado is getting home run contributions in bunches from a number of players – Carlos Gonzalez (9), Troy Tulowitzki (8), Dexter Fowler (8), Michael Cuddyer (7) and Wilin Rosario (7) – although the neck injury to Cuddyer will put a crimp in things. On the pitching side, I am more heavily invested in the duo of Jorge De La Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin than most and have been a bit surprised but satisfied to this point. Chacin has three victories and a 2.70 ERA while De La Rosa has four victories with a 2.98 ERA. I don’t expect them to continue this ERA pace but what’s already in the books can’t be changed.

On the individual side of things, Justin Upton leads the league with 13 home runs followed by Carlos Beltran, Bryce Harper, John Buck and Paul Goldschmidt with ten each. Besides Buck, the two real surprises are Anthony Rizzo with nine home runs already and, believe it or not, Yuniesky Betancourt of the Milwaukee Brewers with eight. While Betancourt might not hit another home run the rest of the season, he has already exceeded anyone’s projection in this category and the eight are already in the books. You already got your money’s worth if you picked him up as a short-term replacement.

Carlos Gomez, much maligned for his batting average over the years, leads the league with a .365 mark. But if you’re looking to buy, beware of his ridiculously high .431 BABIP. Teammate Jean Segura is second in the league with a .349 average but is also due for a correction with a .376 BABIP. Rounding out the batting average top-five are Adrian Gonzalez (.349), Yadier Molina (.336) and Joey Votto (.327).

The three you’d expect to be the National League stolen base leaders are just that, with Segura (13), Juan Pierre (12) and Everth Cabrera (12) on top. Brandon Phillips surprisingly leads the league in RBI at 34 while Shin-Soo Choo leads the NL with 33 runs scored.

Looking at pitching, Clayton Kershaw and Shelby Miller are tied for the NL lead with a 1.40 ERA. Matt Harvey (1.44), Patrick Corbin (1.52), Jake Westbrook (1.62) and Jordan Zimmermann (1.69) are all below a 2.00 ERA.  Zimmermann leads with seven wins while Corbin and Lance Lynn are close behind with six each. A. J. Burnett has the top spot in strikeouts with 72 followed by Kershaw (67), Jeff Samardzija (64), and Harvey (62). There are a dozen starting pitchers who are striking out better than a batter per inning, led by Burnett at 11.57/9.

There’s still plenty of time to go and many of these leaders will change over the course of the rest of the season. But poring over stats is one of the unique things about baseball and fantasy players. There are so many interesting ways of dissecting players and teams, and it’s hard to tell during the year whether in the end the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts or the sum of the parts will be greater than the whole.

Closer – one that closes; especially: a relief pitcher who specializes in finishing games. Sounds simple but it isn’t as easy as that. If it was, every closer in baseball would have 40 saves and an ERA under 1.00 by the end of the year. But they don’t. And because of that there might not be another position that causes as much angst for real life baseball managers than the closer and, by extension, managers of fantasy teams as well.

Every year, there are some closers that lose their job because of injury or non-performance. As a result, there are fantasy owners who either pay a lot for the top guys thinking they’re a much surer investment, pay less for the lower guys thinking there’s too much volatility to even spend on the top guys or even avoid the position altogether. So how are some closers doing just over a month into the season?

Last year’s poster boy for closers – Craig Kimbrel – is having another very good year. While his ERA and WHIP are up and strikeouts per nine are down, he is still striking out better than 12 batters per nine and has converted nine of ten save opportunities so far. Normally a drop of almost 25% in a pitcher’s strikeout rate would send up red flags, but there was almost no place for Kimbrel to go after last year but down. His fastball is still almost at the same velocity it was in 2012 and there’s no hint of injury, so remaining an elite closer for the remainder of the year is as much a lock as anything in baseball.

J.J. Putz is having a tough year so far. The 35-year-old’s ERA and WHIP are a good deal higher than last year’s while his K/9 is up by 1.3 despite a fastball one mph slower than 2012. The really bad news, though, is J.J. has four blown saves to go with his five converted chances – only one fewer than all of last year. As someone who invested in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ closer, I hope he turns things around before he is replaced.

The Chicago Cubs are the perfect example of the bad things that can happen to a closer. Carlos Marmol started the season with the role but lost it due to just plain sucking. Kyuji Fujikawa got the job next and eventually lost it to Kevin Gregg because of an injury. I still think Fujikawa (who was a very good reliever in Japan) winds up with the most saves on the team by year’s end.

Originally, the Cincinnati Reds were going to use 2012 closer Aroldis Chapman as a starter but dumped that plan. The Cuban defector and his 97 mph fastball have picked up where they left off last year, as he has six saves in six chances so far. Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall shouldn’t see many chances to finish a game.

Even though his velocity is down and, as a result, strikeouts are way down, Colorado Rockies' closer Rafael Betancourt is having a good year with an improved ERA and WHIP to go along with eight saves in as many chances. But beware the .167 BABIP, which is .141 points lower than last year and is certainly rather lucky. Betancourt is a candidate for correction.

Jose Veras just isn’t that good a closer but does it really matter who the Houston Astros have in the role?

Brandon League of the Los Angeles Dodgers has eight saves under his belt with one blown save. But with an ERA of 4.09 and only striking out 3.27 batters per nine, look for Kenley Jansen to get a good number of saves before the season is finished.

The Miami Marlins’ Steve Cishek has pretty much doubled last year’s ERA to 5.25 despite striking out a batter per inning. At 93 mph, his fastball is up a bit from 2012 but he is only stranding 64% of the runners that get on base. Unless someone jumps up from nowhere, Miami doesn’t have many options to finish out games, so Cishek should continue getting chances even though the road will be bumpy.

John Axford was the main closer for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2012 but it wasn’t pretty. And it hasn’t been pretty in 2013 either with an 8.44 ERA. 30-year-old Jim Henderson is closing now and is a perfect 6-for-6 in save chances. He should continue to get the majority of the opportunities to close, at least for the foreseeable future.

The New York Mets are relying on Bobby Parnell to finish games but he is only 2-for-4 at this point. When Frank Francisco comes back from the DL, the Mets will have to decide who will get the save chances or if the role will be split. Neither gives their owners a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Jonathan Papelbon has been pretty darn steady as closer for the Boston Red Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies. 2013 has been more of the same for the nine-year pro, as he has saved four out of four. But keep an eye on him as there are some things of concern – fastball is 1.6 mph slower and a .171 BABIP.

With the trade of Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox, the Pittsburgh Pirates turned to Jason Grilli as their closer for 2013. The 36-year-old has responded very well and, with 11 saves already, strikeouts galore, and stellar ratios, he has so far been arguably the best closer in all of baseball.

Although he is a perfect 5-for-5 in save chances, there are concerns with Huston Street of the San Diego Padres. His ratios are up considerably and his strikeout rate is down considerably – not a good combination for fantasy or real life success. He had a very fortunate .192 BABIP in 2012 but that has experienced a correction to .280 so far this year.

The San Francisco Giants turned to Sergio Romo to close out games this year and he has picked up where he left off last year. Everything on his line looks good and he has 11 saves already.

Edward Mujica wasn’t supposed to be the closer for the St. Louis Cardinals but with the injury to Jason Motte, the team turned to him.  He has been a pleasant surprise, perfect in six save chances. His K/9 is up from last year but keep an eye on that .189 BABIP as a correction could pop up.

Rafael Soriano did a superb job filling in for the injured Mariano Rivera for the New York Yankees in 2012 and is doing the same for the Washington Nationals this year. The 33-year-old has seven saves in eight chances and has pitched well for the Nats. If he continues pitching this well, Soriano will hold onto the role although he might lose a save here or there to Drew Storen.

This is where we’re at with closers so far but I’m sure there will be many changes before the season ends. In other words, the same old-same old.

Part of the allure of baseball is the length of the season. In the dog days of summer when not much of anything is happening in the sports world, baseball is there. When your favorite team is home, you can go to the ballpark and experience all the sights and sounds that are a major league game. And when they’re not home, you can either catch them on the radio, conventional TV, or MLB.TV. On any given day, you can throw some dogs or burgers on the barbeque while kicking back to watch any of a number of other games available to you.

Another attraction of baseball is that with a season so long, there are always things that happen that either defy conventional logic or wisdom or just outright surprise all who witness them. There’s always Jose Bautista of 2010, Ian Kennedy of 2011 or the Washington Nationals of 2012. These anomalies sometimes wreak havoc with some fantasy owners while making others look like a genius. Even though this season isn’t even a month old, there are some things that are causing fantasy players to either scratch their head or reach for the aspirin bottle. Now a look at some of them.

With the success of the Washington Nationals in 2012, there were many (including myself) who were expecting them to take another step this year. But at this moment, they are only in third place in the NL East, five games behind the Atlanta Braves. In 2012, Washington led all of baseball with a +137 run differential while at this point in 2013 they have a -19 run differential. The main culprits have been Stephen Strasburg (11 earned runs against), Gio Gonzalez (13 earned runs against) and Dan Haren (15 earned runs against), who have only combined for three victories in 13 starts to this point. I definitely expect Strasburg and Gonzalez to turn their season around and pitch to how they were expected while I’m not as confident with Haren.

The Central division of the National League is the tightest in baseball with only one and one-half game separating the top four teams – the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers. The Cards and Reds should be the teams that fight it out for the division while the Bucs and Brewers fade as the season ages.

The Colorado Rockies look like the Rockies of old in the West division as they lead the league with 115 runs scored and a .283 batting average. It’s not a case of the Coors Field humidor not working, however, as there’s less than a run per game difference in their scoring at home vs. on the road and they’ve hit more home runs away from Coors Field in fewer games.

Chris Johnson is leading the NL with a .397 batting average after years of .308, .251 and .281 with the Houston Astros and Arizona Diamondbacks – two favorable home ballparks for hitters. He had benefited from an injury to Freddie Freeman but now that Freddie is back, Chris will probably be in some kind of playing platoon with Juan Francisco.

After a disappointing power output of 17 home runs in 2012, Justin Upton leads the major leagues with 11 round trippers to this point in 2013 even though Atlanta isn’t known as the hitter's paradise that the Arizona desert is. The younger of the Upton brothers is also batting .316 but with 23 strikeouts in 21 games to date, so the average could be in jeopardy of dropping quite a bit. Another red flag is the left fielder only has 16 RBIs despite the 11 home runs as the Braves as a team aren’t getting on base - hitting at only a .250 clip.

In the CBSSports.com Analysts League (NL version), John Buck went for $3. That is turning out to be the steal of the draft (at least for the catcher position) so far as the New York Mets' backstop is batting .271, is tied for second in the league with seven home runs and leads the NL with 22 RBIs. His start has the Metropolitans feeling a bit better about the injury to Travis d’Arnaud, who is sidelined until at least the second week of June with a broken foot.

Jason Grilli of the Pittsburgh Pirates wasn’t expected to be one of the safest bets for saves in the NL this year, but that is exactly what is happening. The 36-year-old leads the league with nine saves and hasn’t allowed a run while appearing in 11 games. Grilli also has 16 strikeouts in 10 innings while only allowing three hits and four bases on balls. With Mark Melancon as the main option to close other than Jason, his job should be safe for the duration of the year.

Tied for the NL lead in wins is the New York Mets’ Matt Harvey. The second year starting pitcher has four victories in five starts without a loss. The 24-year-old has a dazzling 0.69 WHIP and 1.54 ERA with 39 strikeouts in 35 innings pitched. He won’t continue at this pace for the entire year but should be a very good option for the first half of the year at least. I’d be a little careful after that because he hasn’t pitched over 169 innings in a season.

The Colorado Rockies’ Jhoulys Chacin is among the league leaders with a 1.46 ERA. He is currently on the DL with a back strain but, with a 3-0 record over four outings, he has been one of the big reasons why Colorado has gotten out to a fast start. Admittedly more bullish on Chacin than others, I still think he will be a good fantasy play for the year and have put my money where my mouth is as I own him in multiple leagues, including the NFBC.

This is just a handful of things that many of us didn’t expect for the season, and there will undoubtedly be many more surprises in store as the year unfolds.

One doesn’t have to look far to find the teams with the best and worst record in major league baseball. One doesn’t even have to look past the National League. In fact, one doesn’t even have to look past the National League’s East Division. There, the Atlanta Braves are three and one-half games up on the second place Washington Nationals while the last place Miami Marlins have a three game lead on last place.

These are a couple of teams obviously going in opposite directions. The Braves have been a mild surprise (at least to me) with a record of 12 wins and only two losses. Atlanta is winners of nine of their last ten games and lead all of baseball with a .857 winning percentage.

Miami, on the other hand, is languishing with a record almost exactly opposite Atlanta’s with three victories and twelve losses for a miserly .200 winning percentage. The Marlins are losers of eight of their past ten games.

A look at the Braves shows they are batting .259 as a team, which is only slightly above the National League average. They are, however, leading the league with 25 home runs. Despite the home runs, Atlanta still has only scored a total of 68 runs for the season – good enough for only slightly above the middle of the pack in the NL.

Leading the team in hitting is Chris Johnson, who is currently batting at a .409 clip. His average is pretty empty, though, as he only has six runs scored and five runs batted in to go along with a lone home run on the year in 44 at-bats. The 28-year-old has been mainly manning first base with Freddie Freeman being on the disabled list.

Close behind Johnson is left fielder Justin Upton with a .333 batting average. He is doing his best to prove the Braves did the right thing in trading for him as he leads the NL with eight home runs. There’s a little concern, though, because Justin only has a total of a dozen RBIs on the year.

The rest of the Braves, though, aren’t hitting much of anything with Evan Gattis at .262 and Andrelton Simmons at an even .200 the only regulars at or above the Mendoza Line. Dan Uggla is at .163, B.J. Upton at .140 and Jason Heyward at .128. So it’s pretty obvious the Braves aren’t doing it with hitting.

On the pitching side, Atlanta is far and away leading the league with a 1.77 ERA – almost a full one and one-half runs lower than the next closest team. Their batting average against is a league leading .206 and the 25 earned runs they have allowed is just a little more than half the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 48. Of the pitchers who have started a game for Atlanta, only Julio Teheran has an ERA higher than 2.50 and he has allowed nine of the team’s earned runs against. Tim Hudson is next with five, then comes Kris Medlen with three, Mike Minor with two, and Paul Maholm hasn’t allowed any earned runs. Neither has closer Craig Kimbrel.

Then we have the Miami Marlins. They are hitting .209 as a team, the lowest in the NL. Amazingly, the Marlins have only hit a total of three home runs in their 15 games played – one each by Greg Dobbs, Justin Ruggiano, and Adeiny Hechavarria. Yes, Giancarlo Stanton still hasn’t hit a home run and, even more incredibly, has only scored one run and doesn’t have any RBI on the season (but does have 12 strikeouts in 30 at-bats). Placido Polanco (.333) and Dobbs (.261) are the only regular players hitting above .250 at this point.

The Marlins’ pitching is equally ugly, allowing opposing hitters to bat a combined .273 and compiling a 4.11 ERA. Starting pitchers Jose Fernandez (0.82), Kevin Slowey (2.04) and Ricky Nolasco (3.86) along with reliever Mike Dunn (2.45) are the only pitchers on the entire staff who have an ERA lower than 4.00. The bullpen has been wretched with closer Steve Cishek carrying a 6.75 ERA and Chad Qualls and Jon Rauch both sporting 5.40 ERAs. Miami is the only team in the entire major leagues that hasn’t recorded a save yet in 2013.

I knew things were going to be bad in Miami this year, but I didn’t think they would be as bad as it is now. It’s sad to see that the fans in South Florida will have to put up with another dismal season on the field and poor management from a professional sports team’s front office.

On a side note, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Zack Greinke underwent surgery to repair his left collarbone that was broken in the bench- clearing brawl with the San Diego Padres. Greinke is expected to miss two months with the injury. Carlos Quentin, who was hit by a Greinke pitch and subsequently charged the mound, taking down the pitcher, was suspended eight games as a result of his actions. In my opinion, it’s high time MLB institutes a rule that if a player causes another player an injury as a result of doing something against the rules, that player is suspended the same amount of time as the injured player misses. It will only be then that players might stop and think before doing something that could potentially lead to another player being injured.

Anyone familiar with Texas Hold’em Poker knows the best hand to have before the flop is pocket aces and the worst is seven/deuce unsuited. In between are a lot of other combinations of hands. Some are just eh while others are pretty good and you wouldn’t mind going to battle with them. When you start with the seven/deuce unsuited, your mindset is you expect to lose, or, at the very least, you expect to fold and hopefully weren’t in the big or small blind so don’t have any money at stake. The fantasy equivalent would be starting your team with Wade LeBlanc and Jeff Locke on your staff – your odds of winning aren’t very good.

Pocket aces are a different story. Not only do you expect to do well, you expect to win most of the time. In poker, your odds of winning with the biggest starting hand possible are better than 80 percent. The problem is your odds of being dealt this hand are less than one-half of one percent. So when you have the big cards, you’re feeling very good about your chances. The fantasy equivalent of pocket aces would be starting your team with Stephen Strasburg and Matt Cain on your staff – your odds of winning are outstanding.

But it doesn’t always work out that way. Inevitably, at some point in the season, your grand plan of pocket aces winds up going up in smoke. That, as they say, is why they play the games. Even though we can feel good when our aces take the ball for the day, there are still going to be games during the season when the unthinkable happens and you not only don’t get a win in your column, but sometimes insult is added to injury and your ratios take a beating as well. That has happened quite a few times already this very young season in the National League.

Last Wednesday, Roy Halladay went up against the Braves in Atlanta. He did well in striking out nine batters in the 3 1/3 innings he lasted but surrendered five earned runs on six hits (including two home runs) and three walks. That equates to a 2.73 WHIP and 13.64 ERA on the day for his owners. Ouch.

The fantasy gods then all came together on Sunday to create the perfect storm for fantasy mayhem as Stephen Strasburg, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain all had nightmare games for their owners. Strasburg faced the Cincinnati Reds on the road where he managed 5 1/3 innings in which he struck out five but allowed six earned runs on nine hits and four walks, providing his fantasy owners a 2.45 WHIP and a 10.18 ERA for his efforts.

Hamels was at home to start against the Kansas City Royals – surely something good would come out of this matchup for his owners. But Cole didn’t read the script and lasted only 5 2/3 innings with only two strikeouts, nine hits and four bases on balls, all of which led to eight earned runs. The resulting line score for his owners for the day was a 2.32 WHIP and 12.86 ERA.

Matt Cain was home to face the St. Louis Cardinals later in the day. Surely he would fare much better for his fantasy skippers than Strasburg and Hamels before him. But not this day. When the smoke had cleared, Cain was in the showers after only 3 2/3 innings in which he struck out two and allowed nine earned runs on seven hits and two walks. Amazingly, he allowed as many runs as runners he put on base. His fantasy total for the day was a 2.50 WHIP and a ghastly 22.50 ERA!

As if this wasn’t enough damage, Roy Halladay came back on Monday and presented his owners with another abysmal outing as the Phillies hosted the New York Mets. This time, Doc lasted four innings and struck out three but allowed seven earned runs on six hits and three walks, equating to a 2.25 WHIP and 15.75 ERA. For the season, he now has zero wins and two losses with a 2.45 WHIP and 14.73 ERA – certainly not the start expected by those who drafted him.

As bad as all this damage was, the prize for the most carnage on the season in a single game goes to Mitchell Boggs, replacement closer for the St. Louis Cardinals’ injured Jason Motte. Boggs lasted one-third of an inning, allowing six earned runs on two hits and four walks for a 20.00 WHIP and 180.00 ERA!!! I happen to be one of the lucky Boggs owners.

All this serves to show you that even if you start with pocket aces, you still lose almost 20 percent of the time. In and of themselves, they won’t guarantee you to win the tournament. It’s the cards you hold and how you play them in all your other hands that usually determines the outcome.

You’d be hard pressed to tell it’s baseball season in some parts of the country, at least in the New Jersey/New York area. Normal temperatures for this time of the year are in the upper 50’s to low 60’s during the day and low 40’s at night. But this year we have only had one really nice day in the upper 50’s and nighttime temperatures are routinely in the 20’s. It has been such a bad winter in some parts that a prosecutor in Ohio sought the death penalty in an indictment for Punxsutawney Phil for misrepresentation of early spring. If you watched the New York Yankees/Boston Red Sox game Wednesday night in the Bronx, you might have mistaken Boston shortstop Jose Iglesias for an Eskimo.

But at least baseball is back. And it’s only a matter of time that the weather cooperates and an ice cold adult beverage will taste very good watching a game at the ballpark instead of a hot chocolate. I will be attending my first game of the year next Wednesday when me and my BFF (can a 54-year-old have one of those?) head to Fenway Park in Boston, where we will be sitting on top of the Green Monster watching the Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles. I have seen a good number of games in Boston over the years but this will be my first time in the monster seats. But enough about the weather and the American League - on to the National League.

As is the case in fantasy baseball, standings at this time of year mean absolutely nothing. Case in point is the New York Mets are undefeated and tied for first place in the NL East. So are the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals. I don’t expect this from the Mets or Braves as we get deeper into the season but I do from the Nationals. They are my favorite to go to the World Series representing the senior circuit this year.

Just as there are three undefeated teams, there are also three NL teams still looking for their first victory of the season – Miami Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies, and San Diego Padres. The Phillies should win a good number of games and San Diego will win their share but Miami might not. OK, I’m just kidding. The Marlins will win some games too and have a few guys I like for fantasy this year in Juan Pierre, Justin Ruggiano, and Giancarlo Stanton.

Being a Yankee fan, I like to make fun of the Mets, but even they have some players I like for my fantasy team like…Ike Davis. Well, at least one anyway.

Some interesting National League facts:

Besides being unbeaten in their first two games, Washington also has not given up a run on the season. They are the only team not scored upon in either league. On the other hand, the Nationals have only scored five runs themselves.

The Mets and Colorado Rockies have produced the most offense in the Majors with each having scored 19 runs. The Rockies have done that in three games while the Mets have accomplished it in only two games. The San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers have each allowed 19 runs, the Padres in two games and the Brewers in three.

Nationals closer Rafael Soriano has two saves in two chances this year. Bet the ranch he won’t finish 2013 with 162 saves. On the other hand, closers Mitchell Boggs of the St. Louis Cardinals and Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds each have appeared in two games without registering a save.

Clayton Richard of the San Diego Padres has allowed seven earned runs – the most in the league. Teammate Edinson Volquez is close behind with six earned runs. Not hard to figure out why the Padres haven’t won a game yet.

Aces Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies have each allowed five earned runs and have a 13.50 and 9.00 ERA, respectively, for their fantasy owners.

Heath Bell of the Arizona Diamondbacks is sporting a WHIP of 15.00 and ERA of 81.00 after allowing four hits, one walk, and three earned runs in only 0.1 inning of work.

A.J. Burnett of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Matt Harvey of the Mets lead the league with ten strikeouts each. Harvey’s came in seven innings while Burnett only needed 5.2 innings.

The Braves’ Freddie Freeman leads the league with a .714 batting average with five hits in seven at-bats. Gerardo Parra (a player I like a lot this year) is batting .556 with five hits in nine at-bats. Close behind are John Buck of the Mets, Miguel Montero of the Diamondbacks, and Bryce Harper of the Nationals, each with a .500 average.

Freddie Freeman leads the league with six RBIs followed by the Phillies' Chase Utley with five.

David Wright of the Mets and Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates each have two stolen bases to lead the NL. Put that ranch on the line again that McCutchen will out-steal Wright for the year.

Troy Tulowitzki, Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gonzalez of the Colorado Rockies each have two home runs. So do Justin Upton of the Braves and Harper of the Nationals. Both of Fowler’s and Harper’s have been of the solo variety with each having no other RBIs.

A Tale of Two Uptons – Justin is batting .286 (2-for-7) with two home runs, three runs scored, three RBIs, two walks and four strikeouts.  Teammate and brother B.J. Upton is batting .000 (0-for-8) with five strikeouts. I am a Justin believer (though not as much as the Arizona variety) and a B.J. non-believer, even before the season started.

Joey Votto is hitting only .143 with one hit in seven at-bats but has a .455 OBP with four walks to go with the lone hit.

A bunch of players known for having speed (Juan Pierre, Carl Crawford, Angel Pagan, Denard Span, Eric Young Jr. and Carlos Gomez) are a combined 0’fer in stolen bases.

All this makes for some interesting fantasy results so far.

It’s almost here – Baseball 2013 is just around the corner.  This will be the last big weekend of drafts and auctions before the games start for real.  Pitchers and catchers started reporting back on February 10 and position players on February 13 when the weather was pretty frigid across much of the country (oh, the weather is still pretty frigid across much of the country).  The first spring training game was February 21 and there has been a myriad of games, split squads, and position battles to prepare for the upcoming season.

Despite all the training and working out, injuries are inevitable and all fantasy players hold their breath and hope none of their players winds up getting hurt and losing any time before contests start in earnest.  I’m going to take a look at some of the more significant injuries team by team and how the club will make due without the player for the time he is out.  Again, this isn’t an all-inclusive injury list but rather those that could potentially have a significant fantasy impact.

Arizona Diamondbacks:

Dan Hudson – The big right-hander had Tommy John surgery last July and isn’t expected back until sometime after the All-Star break.  Patrick Corbin and Randall Delgado are competing for the spot with Corbin seemingly having the inside track.

Adam Eaton – The base-stealing outfielder has an elbow strain and the date for his return ranges from the last half of April until the beginning of June.  A.J. Pollock will see extra at bats as Cody Ross could also start the year on the DL.

Atlanta Braves:

Brian McCann – The catcher has a shoulder injury and will be out until at least the middle of April.  Evan Gattis and Gerald Laird will share catching duties until McCann returns.

Brandon Beachy – Still recovering from Tommy John surgery, Beachy won’t return until most likely early July at the best.  Julio Teheran will fill out the starting five while Beachy is still recovering.

Chicago Cubs:

Matt Garza, Scott Baker – Garza has a strained lat and will begin 2013 on the DL without a definitive date for his return.  Baker, recovering from Tommy John surgery, will also start the season on the DL and miss at least the month of April.  The Cubs rotation will consist of Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman, Travis Wood, and Carlos Villanueva to start the season.

Ian Stewart - The season will start with Stewart on the DL – a place he’s more than familiar with.  Luis Valbuena will start in his place at third base.

Cincinnati Reds:  The Reds don’t have any definitive, significant injuries at this point.

Colorado Rockies:

Jorge De La Rosa – The southpaw has tightness in his pitching forearm and, although considered day-to-day, could miss some time at the start of the season although that isn’t a foregone conclusion at this point.

Los Angeles Dodgers:

Hanley Ramirez – The shortstop tore a ligament in his right thumb that required surgery to repair and is slated to be out until at least the middle of May.  Luis Cruz will man shortstop in his stead while he is out with Juan Uribe filling in at third base.

Miami Marlins:

Logan Morrison – The first baseman had knee surgery in September that he is still recovering from and will miss at least the month of April.  Casey Kotchman will receive most of the time at first base while Morrison is out.

Milwaukee Brewers:

Corey Hart – The thirty-one year old is on the DL after knee surgery in January and isn’t expected to return until sometime in May.  Alex Gonzalez will be his primary replacement during his absence.

Mat Gamel – The bad luck continued for Gamel as he tore the ACL in the same knee for the second year in a row.  Gamel is on the 60-day DL and will miss the entire 2013 season.  Corey Hart was his replacement but now it’s the aforementioned Gonzalez.

New York Mets:

Johan Santana – He is nursing a shoulder injury and will start the year on the DL and will likely miss all of April.

Frank Francisco – Sidelined by elbow inflammation, Francisco should start the regular season on the DL.  Bobby Parnell will fill the closer duties to start the season.

Jenrry Mejia – The 23-year old has elbow inflammation and won’t appear in a regular season game until at least the second week of May.

Philadelphia Phillies:

Carlos Ruiz – Suspended for 25 games due to a second test that showed positive for amphetamines, Ruiz will be out until the very end of April.  Erik Kratz will be his primary replacement during this time.

Delmon Young – Still hobbled with pain from a micro fracture in his right ankle, Young will start the season on the DL and won’t see major league action until sometime at the end of April.  Domonic Brown will get the start in right field with Laynce Nix and John Mayberry, Jr. sharing the left field duties.

Pittsburgh Pirates:

Jeff Karstens – Will start the year on the DL and currently there is no timetable for his return.

Francisco Liriano – The left-hander has an injury to his non-throwing right arm and will start 2013 on the DL with a return likely at the end of April.

Charlie Morton – Recovering from Tommy John surgery, Morton will start the year on the DL and is expected back in either May or June.

San Diego Padres:

Cory Luebke – Still on his way back from Tommy John surgery, Luebke will not return until at least the beginning of June.

Yasmani Grandal – While nursing an inflamed tendon in his finger, the catcher has a 50-game suspension to serve after testing positive for a performance enhancing substance, effectively keeping him sidelined for most of the first two months of the season.

Chase Headley – The third baseman will start 2013 on the DL and miss at least the month of April with a left thumb fracture.  Jedd Gyorko will fill in during his DL stint with Alexi Amarista playing second.

Logan Forsythe – Originally slated to take over third base for the injured Headley, Forsythe will now be DL bound with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.  There is no timetable for his return.

San Francisco Giants:  The World Series champions don’t have any significant injuries at this point.

St. Louis Cardinals:

Chris Carpenter – Has nerve irritation in his right shoulder that forced the team to place him on the 60-day DL.  The 37-year old’s career might be over.

Jason Motte – The Cardinals’ closer has a partially torn flexor tendon in his right elbow and will start the season on the DL.  Mitchell Boggs will get the first chance to close in his place.

David Freese – Fighting a lower back problem, Freese is on the DL to start the year.  Ty Wigginton will replace him at third base.

Rafael Furcal – On the DL after Tommy John surgery, the shortstop will be out for several months and will be replaced by Pete Kozma initially.

Washington Nationals:  No significant injuries at this time.

Here’s the full list of anticipated pitching matchups for opening day:

Miami/Washington – Ricky Nolasco & Stephen Strasburg

San Diego/New York – Edinson Volquez & Jon Niese

Chicago/Pittsburgh – Jeff Samardzija & A.J. Burnett

Colorado/Milwaukee – Jhoulys Chacin & Yovani Gallardo

San Francisco/Los Angeles – Matt Cain & Clayton Kershaw

Philadelphia/Atlanta – Cole Hamels & Tim Hudson

St. Louis/Arizona – Adam Wainwright & Ian Kennedy

In the one interleague game between the Angels and Cincinnati – Jeff Weaver & Johnny Cueto

Enjoy opening day!

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