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Sunday 26th Mar 2017

Everyone knows the baseball season is very long.  (That’s certainly not a big, ground breaking revelation).  During the course of the season, just about every team winds up with holes that need to be filled due to injury or trade or just poor performance.  Sometimes, these holes are filled by a shrewd acquisition by management to bring in a more than serviceable replacement.  Other times, they are filled through the team’s own farm with a top prospect at the position.  There’s even the spaghetti approach where a team keeps bringing up farm players or free agents in a revolving door way to see if something sticks.

Many of these substitutes don’t work out.  We see players who are long past their prime and really should have retired, prospects that just aren’t quite ready or don’t live up to the hype, and Quad-A type players who show us again that they will be nothing more than Triple-A performers.  But sometimes teams (and we) get surprised by someone who steps up and plays a big role for a club for a long stretch in the year or just the month of September (who doesn’t remember Shane Spencer?)

Once in a while that player goes on to play a significant role for the team for a number of years – they get their chance, grab hold of it and don’t let go.  It might be that highly touted prospect or someone not as high on the prospect chart.  But usually we don’t really know what to make of them or how they’ll play out until they are here for awhile.  Sure, teams and fans have high hopes, but the road to the major leagues is littered with broken down wrecks.

Fans and fantasy players don’t like to dwell on those replacements that didn’t make it as they might have cost the team a playoff spot or fantasy title.  But the stories are long (and usually exaggerated a bit) about the fantasy owner who was an astute genius to pick up what turned out to be one of the year’s biggest surprise free agents.  A closer look at a few of these free agents is warranted.

Patrick Corbin – Corbin was one of the top pitching prospects in the Los Angeles Angels system in 2010 when he was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for starting pitcher Dan Haren.  But he took a back seat to starter Tyler Skaggs who was a bigger prospect.  The 23-year-old Corbin is a left-hander who can throw his fastball near 91 MPH and who struck out nearly a batter per inning throughout his minor league career.  He was called up to replace Josh Collmenter in Arizona’s rotation at the end of April.  The southpaw has appeared in 18 games, starting 13 of them.  Although he only has five victories to go along with seven losses, Corbin has pitched fairly well with a 1.28 WHIP and 4.19 ERA in his rookie campaign.  Corbin’s 7.64 K/9 is good but he walks only 2.41/9 and has a nice 3.17 K/BB ratio.  He projects to be a solid rotation cog for many years.

Mike Fiers – Fiers was called up at the end of May to replace an injured Marco Estrada for the Milwaukee Brewers.  At 27 years old, he isn’t really a prospect anymore and was thought by many to be a bottom of the rotation or long relief type.  The right-hander only throws in the high 80’s but has a delivery that fools batters and is striking out better than one per inning.  Fiers has appeared in 19 games thus far, starting 18 of them for the Brew Crew.  He has been pretty successful, winning nine games while losing seven.  With a 1.18 WHIP and 3.05 ERA, he has been a boon for both Milwaukee and his fantasy owners.  A solid 2.49 BB/9 and 3.70 K/BB rounds out the package.  Although he hasn’t come with the high pedigree of a top prospect, Fiers has been extremely valuable and should have a pretty good career now that he’s been given the chance.

Adam Eaton – No, not Adam Eaton the pitcher turned hitter.  Another player who wasn’t considered one of the Arizona Diamondbacks' top prospects, Eaton was projected to be a fourth outfielder type.  But that was before he hit .300 in Double-A Mobile in 11 games and then .381 for Triple-A Reno in 119 games.  One of the main things that punched his ticket to the big leagues was his impressive plate discipline – walking almost as many times as he struck out.  The 23-year-old is also a burner, stealing 38 bases in 48 attempts – a 79 percent success rate - while at Reno.  That makes up for his lack of pop, which is understandable since at five-foot nine-inches and 180 pounds, he’s on the small side.  Eaton has started off well, batting .357 in six games.  While he has only swiped one base so far, he’s making his presence known, scoring an average of one run for every game he’s played.  Given his nice plate discipline, Eaton should at the very least be a good platoon player in the major leagues (being a left-handed hitter he’s on the better side of a platoon) with a chance to be an everyday player if he continues to be judicious with the bat.

Here we are entering the last month of the marathon known as the Major League Baseball season.  The division races are gelling more with the Washington Nationals holding a seven and one-half game lead in the East, Cincinnati Reds holding an eight and one-half game lead in the Central, and San Francisco Giants holding a four and one-half game lead in the West.  With the composition of the teams, I don’t foresee any changes at the top of the divisions.

The two wild cards, however, are still up for grabs.  Right now, the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals are in while the Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers are out.  But the wild card race isn’t limited to just these four clubs.  There are many teams out there itching to play the role of spoiler and some are already at it.

The San Diego Padres have just finished taking two of three from the Dodgers, who were playing at home at a time when they couldn’t afford to drop any games to a team ten games below the .500 mark.  San Diego is obviously relishing their role as they did the same in defeating the Braves two out of three games the week prior.

Other teams are getting in on the act as well.  The Colorado Rockies won the middle game of a three-game series against the Braves.  The New York Mets joined the ranks of spoiler, defeating the Cardinals once in a three game series.  Even the Houston Astros succeeded in not losing every game in a series when they beat the Pirates once out of three games.  While one game might not sound like a big deal, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh don’t have a wild card playoff spot sewed up just yet.  These are the teams they all have to make sure they are beating every time out.

The old adage is split with the teams in your own division and win two-thirds of the games outside your division and you’ll win your division title.  That can be applied here as well to a certain extent.  The more games a team loses against these lesser teams (or spoilers) the more they have to win against their direct competitors.  While this all sounds very fundamental and obvious, the point is these teams must make hay against the lower teams and prevent them from taking the role of spoiler.  But the time is fast approaching when these particular wild card contenders won’t be facing each other head-to-head anymore and will need to take care of business against anyone they happen to be playing.

In fact, each of the four wild card leaders only face one of the other three one series each the rest of the way.  Atlanta finishes the regular season with three games at Pittsburgh and St. Louis has four games at Los Angeles next week.  Clearly, if any one of these teams sweeps the other they will be in the driver’s seat.  If they don’t sweep and split or win two out of three, then the wild card race will remain close and the team that wins the majority of their games will be in.

Looking at the schedule of the four wild card contenders, Atlanta has one other series against a team with a winning record besides Pittsburgh, that being three games at home against Washington.  This gives them six out of eight remaining opponents with losing records.

St. Louis has three games each against Washington and Cincinnati to close out the year besides the four games at Los Angeles.  The Cardinals have five opponents out of eight remaining with losing records.

Likewise, Pittsburgh has five opponents out of their remaining eight with losing records, with three games in Cincinnati next week before finishing out the year with three each at home against the Reds and then Atlanta.

Los Angeles has the toughest road of the four with only three of their remaining eight opponents having losing records.  They travel to San Francisco this week for three games before St. Louis comes into L.A. for four games.  The series against the Cardinals is immediately followed by three games at Washington and three games at Cincinnati.  The Dodgers then finish out the year with three games at home against the Giants.

None of the four wild card leaders have a significant advantage with home-field advantage.  Atlanta and Los Angeles have three of eight series at home while St. Louis and Pittsburgh each have four of eight series at home.  The Braves and Dodgers have winning records at home and away while the Cardinals and Pirates have identical home winning records but each has a losing record on the road.

We are winding down the season and the race to the playoffs is certain to be filled with excitement for some and disappointment for others.  Each year, some team rises out of the depths to play the role of spoiler.  It is the job of each of these teams to make sure they aren’t the club whose season is spoiled.

We heard rumors from the middle of last week of a blockbuster deal between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox.  At the time, the rumors seemed pretty improbable considering the centerpiece would be none other than first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.  The rumors got louder until it was announced that a deal was in fact consummated this past Saturday.  When it was over, we obviously learned that Gonzalez would indeed be heading to the left coast.

On the Dodgers side of the equation, they would be picking up starting pitcher Josh Beckett, outfielder Carl Crawford, and infielder Nick Punto and some cash along with Gonzalez.  In return, the Dodgers gave up infielder Ivan DeJesus, first baseman James Loney, starting pitcher Allen Webster (one of Los Angeles’ top prospects), and two players to be named later, reportedly starting pitcher Rubby De La Rosa (coming off Tommy John surgery) and outfielder Jerry Sands.

From the Dodgers' perspective, they are getting the power hitting first baseman they had been coveting for a long time in A-Gon.  Beckett gives them another arm to bolster the starting rotation since it is pretty obvious Ted Lilly won’t be riding to the rescue this year.  Crawford, out with ulnar collateral ligament replacement himself, is out for the rest of this year and most likely a good portion of 2013.  Punto will serve as a utility player for Los Angeles.

The trade paid immediate dividends for the Dodgers as Gonzalez smashed a home run deep over the right field wall in his first at-bat for his new team in his new home ballpark.  That immediately put him ahead of Loney in the number of home runs each has hit in Dodger Stadium.  Adrian didn’t get another hit that game but came back the following day with two more hits, starting him off with three hits in nine at-bats for Los Angeles.  Things were looking very good on the surface.

Under the surface, however, things weren’t as rosy.  Gonzalez went hitless in his next two games, both at hitter-friendly Coors Field.  Beckett started his first game for Los Angeles on Monday (also at Colorado) and allowed three earned runs on seven hits and three walks in five and two-thirds innings.  But he did also strike out six Rockies.

From the Dodgers’ point of view, they had to make another move to bolster their offense since only four teams in the National League have scored fewer runs than they have this year and none of them are remotely close to making the playoffs.  Since winning their first game after the trade, however, Los Angeles has lost three games in a row, scoring a total of six runs in those games.  Included in that stretch was a 10-0 whitewashing at the hands of Cy Young candidate Jeff Francis (granted, he only pitched five innings in that game).

Adding Adrian Gonzalez would seem to be the answer to the anemic Dodger hitting since he sports a .294 career batting average and has four seasons of over 30 home runs in the past five.  However, Gonzalez has a career .212 batting average at Dodger Stadium with only six home runs, albeit in only 47 games.  On the positive side though, left-handed hitters do better than right-handed hitters in Los Angeles and Dodger Stadium doesn’t suppress home runs as much as Petco Park does – Adrian’s home the four years he hit over 30 balls over the wall.

Obviously, it remains to be seen how this trade will play out and the final grades won’t be in until Gonzalez, Crawford, and Beckett finish their Dodger careers.  But the fact that this ownership is willing to make a deal of this magnitude, take on the salary that they have in all their deals this year, and absorb the risk of the trades they made bodes very well for Dodger fans.  The message to this point is clear – they want to win and are willing to go to whatever lengths to accomplish that goal.

It has been an entertaining baseball campaign thus far.  We’re now down to about twenty-five percent left in the 2012 regular season – roughly six weeks of games in the race for the playoffs.  Virtually all of the trades have been made and for the most part teams will make due with the players they now have in their own organization.  There will probably be some call-ups as teams decide they need some help to get over the top.

The playoff picture in the National League is taking shape but still far from decided – especially with two wild card teams.  The teams with the most breathing room at this point are the Washington Nationals (it’s surprising to say this based on their history) with a seven game lead over the Atlanta Braves and the Cincinnati Reds with a seven and one half game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates (also a surprise).

The Nationals have 39 games remaining, 22 at home and 17 away.  Washington actually plays a little better on the road than at home, being 13 games over .500 in Washington and 18 games over .500 away from the nation's capital.  There is still talk of them at least partially shutting down ace Stephen Strasburg going down the stretch.  Look for them to skip starts and/or limit his innings but not totally shut him down given the position they are in.

The Reds have 38 games remaining with 18 home and 20 away.  Unlike the Nationals, they play significantly better at home, where they are 19 games over .500 compared to seven over .500 on the road.  Cincinnati is getting good pitching, having allowed 468 runs to opponents in 2012, which is the third lowest total in the NL.  A big difference has been Aroldis Chapman, who has saved 30 of 34 chances while striking out a massive 112 hitters in 61 innings – a rate of 16.5 K/9!

The National League West is much more up for grabs with the San Francisco Giants currently clinging to a one and a half game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The Giants have 39 games remaining with 20 at home and 19 away.  They are nine games over .500 playing in front of their home crowd and four games over .500 in their opposition’s ballpark.  Los Angeles has 38 games left to play with 21 of them being in front of their own fans and 17 on the road.  The Dodgers are six games over .500 at home and four games over away from home.  The Dodgers and Giants face each other six more times in the regular season with each having three games at home, and these could be the deciding games.  This race would have been virtually over already if Tim Lincecum was the old Tim Lincecum, but he hasn’t been this year and I don’t expect him to all of a sudden morph into that guy.

The wild card is a race between five teams – the Braves, Pirates, and Dodgers as well as the St. Louis Cardinals and Arizona Diamondbacks.  Atlanta is in the driver’s seat with 70 wins.  Pittsburgh and Los Angeles both have 67 while St. Louis has 66 and Arizona the long shot with 62.

Atlanta has 39 games remaining with 16 in Atlanta and 23 away.  The Braves have played marginally better on the road, being ten games over .500 there compared to seven games better than break even in their own park.

Pittsburgh also has 39 games remaining with 21 at home and 18 away.  The Pirates play significantly better at home, where they are 14 games over .500 while three games under .500 away from home.

The Cardinals have 40 games left to play – 17 at home and 23 away.  St. Louis also plays quite a bit better at home, where they are 12 games over .500 while two games under .500 playing on the road.

Arizona has 39 games left with 22 being at home and 17 on the road.  The Diamondbacks also prefer home cooking, being three games over .500 when they sleep in their own beds and two games under .500 living out of a suitcase.  They are looking for a bump and have called up prospect Tyler Skaggs to pitch this week and hopefully give them that bump.

The playoff race has been and will be very exciting with the addition of the extra wild card spot.  Keep an eye on the chess match each team plays as they try to find the right moves that could earn them a postseason berth.  Some of those moves may also result in fantasy championships for those paying close attention.

So the non-waiver trade deadline has passed, you’re in a NL only league outside of first place and you’re saying I didn’t get what I needed at that time so all is lost.  After all, the waiver wire has long ago been picked clean of any warm body.  Well, not so fast.

There are still trades that could be made to bring players over from the American League that could help NL fantasy players.  Historically, there aren’t the volume of trades that are made pre-waivers but there have been trades that registered more than a slight bump on the Richter scale.  However, many times you don’t need an 8.9 sized deal to affect the outcome of a race.  Often enough a 4.5 sized tremor is enough to jumble things up in the standings.

It didn’t take too long for one of these tremors to happen in 2012 as catcher Kurt Suzuki was acquired by the Washington Nationals from the Oakland Athletics just a couple days after the deadline.  The 28 year-old will play pretty regularly for the Nationals and can certainly help in all two catcher leagues and many one catchers leagues.  Suzuki won’t help much in the power department and, while his average has slipped this year, has historically hit for a decent average for a catcher.

While there are sure to be more deals of this sort, trades aren’t the only place to look for roster help.  Clubs will start bringing up players to see what they can do at the major league level, especially those teams that are out of the running.  Not all of the call-ups will stick on the big stage, but some will and, even if they are up just a couple weeks at a time, could provide the difference in a category or two.

One example of these call-ups was the Chicago Cubs bringing up outfielder Brett Jackson and third baseman Josh Vitters.  The 22 year-old Vitters was a high first round pick in 2007 and doesn’t have much standing in his way at third base – he just has to show some production to stick for a while.  Vitters can help with batting average and has more than enough power to hit the ball out.  He will even surprise with a stolen base occasionally.  Jackson hasn’t started out well with only two hits in 11 at bats and has eight strikeouts already.  He is two years older than Vitters at 24 and can hit for a fair average with some decent homerun power.  One of Brett’s assets is his speed, with 27 stolen bases in 106 AAA games this year.  But you know the old adage – you can’t steal first base. At the same time, Tony Campana and his 26 stolen bases were optioned out to AAA.  If someone in front of you had Campana and you managed to pick up Jackson, it’s a double win as they lose and you gain.

The Milwaukee Brewers traded away Zack Greinke and, in return, got standout shortstop prospect Jean Segura from the Los Angeles Angels.  The 22 year-old started in AA Huntsville for the Brewers but was called up and could see significant playing time the rest of the year.  The shortstop can hit the occasional homerun but his biggest contributions will be a pretty good batting average and outstanding speed on the bases.  Segura isn’t just fast; he knows how to steal bases – being successful on close to 80 percent of his attempts.

It’s not only big name prospects that get a chance to show something at the major league level.  Milwaukee pitcher Mike Fiers is an example.  He is hardly a prospect at age 27 but has been up since the end of May and has pitched a lot better than in the minors.  Fiers has six wins against four losses with an ERA of 1.80 and a strikeout per inning.  It’s too late to pick him up in leagues but this is the kind of player you have to be ready to roll the dice with if you’re looking to make up some ground.

When you ride the waiver wire merry go round this time of year, it usually comes down to throwing a lot of spaghetti against the wall to see if something sticks.  If you’re in chase mode, there isn’t much else you can do.  But you have to be very alert, with your ear to the ground listening for the slightest hint of who might be bringing up whom.  It is imperative to pay very close attention to injuries to get the jump on your competition for the services of the next call up.  The bottom line is all is not lost.  It’s not easy and takes a lot of work and research but many times persistence and due diligence pays off with a league title.

The non-waiver trade deadline is always full of wish lists, high hopes, and dashed dreams.  Inevitably, there are winners and losers.  Some of the last minute deals work out the way a team has scripted and many don’t.  After all, there can only be one World Series Champion and that is the goal of every team looking to add the final pieces of the puzzle.  The ultimate winner is the team left standing at the finish of the Fall Classic.  The deadline has now passed and the trades came fast and furious right at the end for both leagues.

The division leaders in the National League at the deadline are the Washington Nationals, Cincinnati Reds, and San Francisco Giants.  The Nationals are being chased by the Atlanta Braves but Washington didn’t pull off any late trades while the Braves did.  Atlanta picked up pitcher Paul Maholm and outfielder Reed Johnson from the Chicago Cubs.  Maholm certainly isn’t in the category of Cliff Lee (who wasn’t traded at the deadline) but he enables Atlanta to replace Tommy Hanson in the rotation in the short term and keep Jair Jurrjens out of the rotation in the long term while providing health insurance for the fragile Ben Sheets.  Johnson gives the Braves some outfield depth with the benefit of being able to play all the fields defensively.  The thirty-five year old will be best suited as the right-handed part of a platoon for his new team.  While this isn’t a blockbuster trade, it’s the kind of deal that could make the Braves’ whole better than the sum of its parts.  Atlanta is winners while Washington is losers by virtue of their inactivity at the deadline.

The Cincinnati Reds are up by a few games over the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Cincinnati made one deal picking up Jonathan Broxton from the Kansas City Royals.  Broxton, who served as the closer for the Royals, will be setting up closer Aroldis Chapman for the Reds. Pittsburgh was one of the busiest teams on the final open trade day.  In one transaction they picked up right-fielder Travis Snider from the Toronto Blue Jays.  The twenty-four year old will start out with regular playing time unless the Pirates are forced to send him back to the minors as Toronto was earlier in the season.  Pittsburgh got Gaby Sanchez from the Miami Marlins in another deal.  Sanchez has been pretty brutal this year and was demoted to Triple-A by Miami but is coming off back to back 19 HR seasons with the Marlins in 2010 and 2011.  In a third trade, Pittsburgh came up with Chad Qualls from the New York Yankees.  Qualls will provide some right-handed bullpen depth.  Combined with the acquisition of Wandy Rodriguez last week, Pittsburgh came out winners at the end of the day.

The West is the closet race in the NL with the Giants hanging onto a slim one game lead over the Dodgers.  Los Angeles consummated a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies in which they landed outfielder Shane Victorino.  The thirty-one year old gives the Dodgers a playoff veteran and a top of the order hitter to replace Dee Gordon who stole a lot of bases but had trouble getting on base before he dislocated his thumb.  Victorino could play either center or left field and manager Don Mattingly has said he will man left field for Los Angeles.  The Dodgers also acquired Brandon League from the Seattle Mariners for a bullpen that has had its problems.  He should fare well pitching in the NL West and not having to face the hitters of the Los Angeles Angels or Texas Rangers anymore in the regular season.  Not wanting to be seen as playing favorites, the Phillies also made a deal with San Francisco sending outfielder Hunter Pence to the west coast.  Pence gives the Giants some much needed offense and can steal a base as well as hit a ball out of the park although his power will be hurt away from the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park.  Along with the addition of Hanley Ramirez a week ago, the Dodgers are clear winners at the deadline.

So who is the overall winner of the most improved award in the NL?  As much as I’m impressed with the fact that Pittsburgh made some big time deals (not to mention they’re in the position to make big time deals), the overall winner has to be the Los Angeles Dodgers getting some much needed offensive help and a proven leadoff hitter.  But, as always, time will tell who the real winners (and losers) are.

Teams have been back in business and business is starting to get really tough.  And it’s not going to get any easier for many teams as the second half gets under way in earnest.  There’s about a week to go in August then the last two months of the regular season.  Just over ten weeks to go.

The divisions have the San Francisco Giants in the West and Cincinnati Reds in the Central both with two and one half game leads while the Washington Nationals in the East are in the lead by four and one half games.

Chasing them is the rest of the teams in the National League with a realistic chance of making a run for the playoffs.  The Atlanta Braves behind the Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals behind the Reds, and Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks following behind the Giants.  Those teams will be looking for reinforcements coming down the back stretch while those in front will be searching for help to hold off the contenders.

Washington got Drew Storen back from the disabled list.  He shores up the bullpen but the Nationals won’t put him back in the closer role just yet as Tyler Clippard is filling that role and Storen is still working his way back from missing the first half with a sore elbow.  With Clippard struggling lately Drew could be back saving games sooner rather than later.

The Houston Astros have made the biggest splash by volume dealing away Carlos Lee, Brett Myers, Brandon Lyon, and J.A. Happ among others.  Lee was the one trade the team made to an NL team with the Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox being the beneficiaries of Houston players in the American League.

Then, not wanting to be left out, the Pittsburgh Pirates of all teams, made a big statement by acquiring Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros.  This move certainly puts Cincinnati and St. Louis on notice in the Central Division that the Pirates aren’t going to go away – they are in this for the long haul.  Rodriguez will join a Pirates rotation that is doing quite well with James McDonald and A.J. Burnett anchoring things.

This trade is big for a couple reasons. First, for Houston to be in the position to make this kind of deal this late in the season and secondly, Pittsburgh taking on potentially $12 million dollars in salary for a player.  According to rumors, Pittsburgh isn’t done making a big splash.  They are still rumored to be looking to add a big bat and had been mentioned in deals involving Carlos Quentin, Hunter Pence, and Justin Upton.

With so many teams looking to make the playoffs, there certainly are a lot of conversations going on between front offices.  All the contending teams would certainly like to make a move to bolster their chances but it’s all going to come down to what is the asking price and what are the willing to pay.  If the will and means are there, there are some interesting players who might be available.

After just dealing Hanley Ramirez to the Dodgers, The Miami Marlins are said to be still open to listening to deals for Josh Johnson.  The fish already have dealt Anibal Sanchez so the possibility of making other deals is certainly there.  Johnson has been pitching well and could be the kind of arm to push a team over the top.  Hanley will provide a good boost to the Dodgers, though he has been a little disappointing the past year and a half in Miami but he has the power and speed potential to make a big difference in a playoff race.   No word yet if Hanley will play shortstop or third base. Nathan Eovaldi and a prospect join the Fish. Along with Jacob Turner, Eovaldi should form a formidable 1-2 punch for Miami going forward.

The Philadelphia Phillies are still trying to put together a long-term deal for Cole Hamels but nothing has been finalized.  If a deal can’t be hammered out then Hamels is the kind of pitcher who could make a huge difference not only for getting a team to the playoffs but for going deep into them as well as he’s been one of the best pitchers this year.

Other players the Phillies could possibly trade are the aforementioned Pence and Shane Victorino.  It seems obvious that Philadelphia realizes its window has closed and will be trying to deal off much of their talent in an effort to re-tool.

The Chicago Cubs are said to be willing to deal either or both of Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster.  They, along with the Phillies’ Hamel and Milwaukee Brewers’ Zack Greinke, comprise a very strong group of pitchers that could be a game changer in the playoff picture.

Chase Headley of the San Diego Padres could be making an address change as well as Stephen Drew of the Arizona Diamondbacks although Arizona has a tough decision to make regarding being in or out of the playoff race going into the trade deadline.  If they feel they are out then Drew and Upton could be on the block although it is hard to think they will give up on their star right-fielder.

These are a lot of big names that have been rumored to be available.  While some of these names are only rumored to be dealt you know the adage – where there’s smoke there’s fire.  But the fact is there are many more big names being tossed about than in years past and it seems that this could be the year that teams really could find the help they are looking for.

We’re at the point in the season where teams are going to look to assess their situation and decide if they are buyers or sellers.  Some of them are obvious – the Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, San Diego Padres, and Colorado Rockies will be sellers while division leaders Washington Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, and San Francisco Giants will be looking to shore things up.

With the addition of a second wild card team in each league this year, more teams are in the hunt for the postseason.  Teams like the Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, and Los Angeles Dodgers have a realistic chance of making it while the Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers, and Arizona Diamondbacks are on the bubble.

There are about a dozen days left until the non-waiver trade deadline and things could get very interesting.  Some very tough decisions will be made by team executives as they first decide if they’re in or out then decide who to trade and who to trade for.

Just as the MLB trade deadline is fast approaching, the trade deadline in many fantasy leagues will also be approaching and fantasy owners will be in the same boat as their real life counterparts.  They will be taking stock of where they are in the standings and analyzing the categories to see where the realistic chance of gaining points lies.  After this is ascertained, the process of identifying the players that could help and what their owners will want to complete a trade will begin in earnest.

Of course, everyone will want the obvious choices – the Andrew McCutchen’s, the R. A. Dickey’s, and the Ryan Braun’s of the world.  While they certainly could help any fantasy team going down the stretch, they will also demand the most value in return.  In keeper leagues, players of this caliber will require the best of future considerations in return and in single-year leagues you will have to part with talent of equal value.  In either case, the purchase price will be lofty.

So how do you acquire the players you need without breaking the bank?  One way is to look at categories that are more closely contested where a second or third tier player instead of one at the top level could move you up.  Identify a couple categories where this is possible and you could possibly get more bang for your buck.

Another way to tackle this is to look at those players on the disabled list.  If the player has been out for awhile, their owner may be tired of carrying them on their roster for so long and you might get them at some kind of discount.  Even if they’ve only been on the disabled list a short time, that in itself might be enough to sway an owner to pull the trigger on a trade that is to your advantage.

There are many players that could fit the bill – especially in an NL-only league where it might not take much of an improvement at a position to move the category needles.  Some hitters to consider are:

Jonathan Lucroy – The catcher has a fractured right hand and could return at the end of July or beginning of August.

Dee Gordon – The speedy shortstop has a torn thumb ligament that required surgery.  He could be back near the end of August.

Jayson Werth – Nationals' outfielder had a fractured left wrist and could return within the next two to three weeks.

Todd Helton – Colorado first baseman has been sidelined with a hip injury and might return in the next week or so.

There are many more pitchers to consider:

Jonny Venters – The relief pitcher had elbow discomfort and is scheduled to return the last week of July.

Shaun Marcum – The Brewer has been out with elbow tightness and may return in August.

Jaime Garcia – Cardinals' starter had shoulder impingement and is slated to be back in August.

Chad Billingsley – Dodgers' starting pitcher out with elbow inflammation could be back in a week or so.

Ted Lilly – Another starter for Los Angeles; out with shoulder inflammation, could return in one to two weeks.

Frank Francisco – Mets' closer sidelined with an oblique strain could be back in early August.

Drew Storen – Nationals' closer has been out with bone chips in his elbow. His return could be any day now.

Andrew Cashner – Padres' pitcher out with a lat strain should be back by mid-August.

Jhoulys Chacin – Colorado starting pitcher had an injury to a nerve in his chest and may return in mid-August.

Any of these players could help a team down the stretch and it’s certainly worth the while to kick their tires instead of going right out and purchasing the biggest car on the lot.

Another home run derby and All-Star game is completed.  Prince Fielder, now with the American League, won the home run derby for the second time – a feat only he and Ken Griffey Jr. have done.  Then a day later the National League came out on top in the All-Star game itself with an 8-0 whitewashing of the AL stars – only the eighth time in 83 games there has been a shutout.  The NL now holds a 43-38 record in the mid-summer classic with two ties.

It certainly was a National League affair in the sweltering 90 degree game time heat.  More specifically, it was a San Francisco Giant affair as Melky Cabrera had two hits in three at bats, smacking a homerun, driving in two runs while also scoring two and walking away with MVP honors.  The fleet-footed Pablo Sandoval chipped in a triple in three at bats with three RBI and one run scored.  Giants’ players wound up with five of the eight NL RBI in the game.  Matt Cain picked up the victory with two innings of work allowing one hit and striking out one.

Matt Holliday, Ryan Braun, and Dan Uggla each added an RBI to round out the scoring for the senior circuit.  Chipper Jones added a single in one at bat in his last All-Star appearance.  Cabrera and Braun were the only players on either side to have a multi-hit game while NL pitchers held the American League to only six hits while striking out seven.

With the victory, the NL has now secured home-field advantage in the World Series for the third year in a row (see last week’s version of this column for my thoughts on that).  Now that the festivities are over, players will start making their way back to their teams after the mini-vacation and real games resume this Friday.

With the start of those games, the second half of the fantasy season will also get under way and owners will be trying to figure out which players will perform at a high level and which will fizzle out.  I will take a look at some players going forward.

Tim Lincecum – I’ve spoken about “The Freak” on other occasions this year and nothing has changed.  Lincecum is still freaky horrible and I don’t want any part of him.  The velocity is still down and he’s still getting beat up like an old George Foreman punching bag.  His last two starts each lasted three and one third innings first against the Washington Nationals then the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Lincecum allowed first seven earned runs at Washington then six earned at Pittsburgh and only struck out a total of five hitters.  He will not be on any of my teams in the second half.

Cliff Lee – It’s almost impossible to comprehend Cliff Lee going all the way to Independence Day before getting his first victory of the season.  But that’s exactly what’s happened this year, although not as a result of pitching poorly.  In fact, the peripherals are pretty close to what they were last year and the velocity is nearly identical.  Cliff Lee will be someone to target for the second half if you need pitching help and the wins will come.

Zack Greinke – Greinke is quietly having a fine year with nine wins under his belt but isn’t getting a lot of attention since Milwaukee isn’t doing that well.  The whip is right in line with 2011 and the ERA is half a run better.  Zack is throwing as hard as last year and even though the strikeouts are down some he’s right at one punch out per inning.  There are trade rumors around so now might be the time to acquire him before the price gets even higher.

Cole Hamels – If you don’t already own him, the price is going to be steep for this Cy Young contender.  Hamels wasn’t supposed to be the best pitcher on a team that could run out Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in front of him.  But he has turned out to be just that.  Philadelphia is supposed to be open to the prospect of re-signing the 28 year old but there are still indications they would trade him.  Further complicating matters is word that Cole wouldn’t consider a contract extension with a team he was traded to as he would like to hit the free agent market.  But for 2012 and a fantasy team he will be gold the rest of the way no matter what happens.

Ryan Braun – Talk about silencing your detractors.  There isn’t even a whisper of the performance enhancing controversy anymore.  Braun has let his bat do the talking and it’s talking real loud.  Last year’s MVP is on pace for bettering 2011’s numbers in homeruns, RBI, and runs scored which certainly puts him in contention for another MVP.  If you own Ryan you can either sit back and enjoy the ride as he leads you to a fantasy title or collect a king’s ransom by trading him.

Andrew McCutchen – One doesn’t normally think of a Pittsburgh Pirate as someone to target for a fantasy team.  But this is a different Pirates team and McCutchen a different kind of player.  Still only 25 years old, he has an obscene .362 batting average and is on pace for over 35 homeruns and 120 RBI.  I don’t see him slowing down much the rest of the way.

Ted Lilly – He’s still not expected back until around the end of August but Lilly is the kind of guy I like to gamble on.  He always seems to fly under the radar, not getting much fantasy attention, but you can normally count on what he’ll provide you.  If your waiver wire has pretty much been picked over, see if you can pick up the 36 year old who will be pitching in quite a few good parks in the NL West after he comes back.

We’re only about a week from the mid-summer classic known as baseball’s All-Star Game.  The game is entertaining and I will most likely watch most of it like I usually do.  However, I’m not a fan of what Bud Selig has done with it since the 2002 game in Milwaukee ended in a tie – namely, the World Series home field advantage goes to the team from the winning league.  Yeah, yeah Bud.  You had to make sure you didn’t have the same result as 2002.  You had to make sure the players really cared about the game.  You had to make sure the managers managed it as if it was the World Series.  You had to make the All-Star game relevant again.

Well, in my opinion, you don’t make the players really care about the game unless you pay them for it.  Many players nowadays only seem to be motivated by money.  Not like years ago when the motivation was dislike for the other league and just wanting to beat them in an exhibition game the players actually cared more about than the fans.  If you don’t want to actually pay them then let baseball open up its huge coffers and donate $100,000 to the charity of choice for each player on the winning team.

Declaring that the winning league would get home field advantage for the World Series was a cheap ploy to try to incentivize the players, coaches, and managers.  There are still players on each squad every year from teams that don’t have a realistic chance of getting to the playoffs, never mind the World Series.  What will they care about who gets home field advantage?

Then there’s the fact that this negates all the hard work that a team does during the year to get as good a record as possible.  The home field advantage for the World Series was something to really strive for.  It was something the fans really looked forward to if their team had the better record going into the Fall Classic.  It was something a city had to look forward to – the possibility of an extra day’s revenues for their overall economy including more money for vendors and workers.  All that has been taken away from the team, fans, and city they represent for an exhibition game in the middle of the season that less and less people really care about.  The team with the best record entering the World Series should have home field advantage, period.  Bud has done some good things in his tenure but he sure botched this one up.

I’ll get off my soapbox now and compare the MLB All-Stars to my fantasy All-Stars for the National League.

Catcher – Buster Posey won the voting and has been solid batting .300 with ten homeruns, 42 RBI and 32 runs scored but Carlos Ruiz is my fantasy All-Star with a .354 batting average, 12 homeruns, 44 RBI, and 39 runs.

1B – Joey Votto got the fan’s nod and mine as well batting .352 with 14 homeruns, 47 RBI, and 50 runs scored.

2B – Dan Uggla’s .231 batting average, 11 homeruns, 43 RBI, and 52 runs won out over Aaron Hill’s .301 average, 11 homeruns, 38 RBI, and 36 runs.  Hill added seven stolen bases to Uggla’s zero.  My fantasy All-Star is Hill.

3B – Pablo Sandoval and his .302 BA, six HR, 25 RBI, and 26 R was deemed more worthy than David Wright and his .351 BA, ten HR, 54 RBI, 54 R and eight stolen bases.  Not in my book.  David Wright the fantasy All-Star hands down.

SS – Rafael Furcal is certainly a good story for older guys like me but his .275 batting average, five homeruns, 32 RBI, 53 runs scored, and nine stolen bases is trumped as my fantasy All-Star by youngster Starlin Castro who has hit .291 with six homeruns, 40 RBI, 38 runs scored and 16 stolen bases.

OF – Voted in were Melky Cabrera (.352 BA, seven HR, 39 RBI, 53 R, ten SB), Carlos Beltran (.304 BA, 20 HR, 63 RBI, 49 R, seven SB), and Matt Kemp (.355 BA, 12 HR, 28 RBI, 30 R, two SB in only 36 games).  My fantasy All-Stars are Andrew McCutchen (.360 BA, 16 HR, 54 RBI, 52 R, 14 SB), Carlos Gonzalez (.338 BA, 17 HR, 58 RBI, 59 R, 10 SB), and Ryan Braun (.309 BA, 23 HR, 58 RBI, 52 R, 13 SB).

P – I don’t have an issue with the pitching staff as a whole as they were selected.  Matt Cain, R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Lance Lynn, Wade Miley, Aroldis Chapman, Joel Hanrahan, Craig Kimbrel, Jonathan Papelbon, and Huston Street are all All-Star worthy.  But for my fantasy All-Stars James McDonald, Chris Capuano, or Zack Greinke would make the team over Lynn or Miley.

Well that’s it for my All-Stars and ranting about the real game.  Enjoy it and the break and I hope the Home Run Derby doesn’t ruin any of your players for the second half.

What a difference a year makes.  Look at our own lives.  There might be a few years running when everything is the same.  We have the same job, same friends, same likes and dislikes, same neighbors.  But rarely do all the things in our lives keep the status quo.  Inevitably, something changes.  The change could be small or it could be wholesale.  That is what life is all about.  Things go in cycles.

Baseball is no different.  There are cycles of ups and downs.  Players rise to the top, peak, and then fall off as others assume their role.  Teams aren’t exempt from this series of cycles.  Some teams are better at restocking and staying relatively competitive while others aren’t as good and spend many more years being inept.  Rarely does a team spend more than a handful of years at the top before their collective talent peaks and starts to fall off as another team rises at the same time.

The National League East of 2012 is a perfect example of this changing of the guard.  The Philadelphia Phillies have had a good run recently finishing first every year since 2007.  2011 was their best year of the run as the Phils finished with a 102-60 record.  On the surface, things looked good for Philadelphia coming into 2012.  They still had the core of their team intact, especially their devastatingly dominant starting pitching anchored by the troika of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels.  There were some problems with the offense, namely the injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley entering the season.

One of the problems with the offense is they are aging.  The average age of their active roster is 32.6 years.  If you include Utley and Howard they don’t get any younger.  But they need Chase and Ryan to come back and perform near the level they are capable of if they hope to get above .500 – never mind win the division again.  The offense is doing better but they are still scoring fewer runs than they allow which isn’t a good recipe for success.

On the pitching side, Philadelphia isn’t doing much better considering the expectations coming into the season.  With the big three starters and adding Jonathan Papelbon as closer, it was thought the team would dominate on the strength of their arms as they have the past couple of years.  But things haven’t materialized as the team drew it up before the season started.  The Phils are sitting in the middle of the NL with an even 4.00 team ERA.  This is not only below the NL average it is also below the American League average which is shocking.  The team leads the league in strikeouts but is in the bottom half of Batting Average Against. In comparison, 2011 they led the NL in ERA at 3.02 and were second in BAA with a .240 mark, 25 points lower than 2012.

The average age of the active pitching staff is 28.7 years.  This doesn’t include Halladay, who is currently on the disabled list.  Their five regular starting pitchers have an average age of 30.2 years.  Hamels is performing the best of the bunch and has ten victories on the year.  In contrast, Lee is still looking for his first win of the season as we approach the end of June and has one more start in the month to try to change that.  You could have gotten tremendous odds on that in Vegas.

This is a team that hasn’t had a lot on their side to this point in the year and they are getting a little long in the tooth.  There have been many hurdles for them to overcome but good teams find a way to make it happen.  That hasn’t been the case for the Phillies as of this point in 2012.  But they need to find a way to make their own breaks or the whole season will soon be lost.

On the other side of the coin is the Washington Nationals.  This is a team that has been used to being the doormat of the league, not just the East Division.  The last time the Nationals had a winning season was 2003 when they were still the Montreal Expos.  Since coming into existence in 1969, the Expos/Nationals have had only 17 seasons of at least .500 ball out of 43.  Losing has come too easy to this team.

But things are different so far in 2012.  Washington is leading the East Division with a 42-30 record, three and one half games ahead of the Atlanta Braves and eight ahead of the defending champion Phillies.  This is a team that is equally comfortable playing on the road as it is at home – six games above .500 for each.

This team is young – the average age of active hitters is 27.5 and active pitchers is 27.9 years.  While young, they still have a good blend of experience on the team as well to give them balance.  But they are playing as if they have much more experience.

For everything that is going wrong with the Phillies, it is going right for the Nationals.  They have had injuries – most notably to Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos, and Drew Storen – but have overcome them as if they are a much more seasoned team.  As touted as the Philadelphia pitching staff has been, it is the Washington pitching staff that leads the National League with the likes of starters Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Edwin Jackson – a group that doesn’t have nearly the experience as Philadelphia’s.

But the thing that makes the Washington Nationals stand out for me and contrasts them with the Phillies is the way they play.  While I haven’t seen every game of both teams, I have seen and heard enough of them to know that the Nationals are playing like they are hungry.  They are playing with an intensity and fire inside of them.  They are playing as if they are tired of all the years of losing.  And that is what will make them winners in the long run.

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