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Closing Time: Will Middlebrooks, don’t look back; Jeff Samardzija grows up; Dale Thayer shakes in San Diego

Scott Pianowski
Roto Arcade

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New Hero in The Hub (US Presswire)

Today, we enjoy Will Middlebrooks. In a short time down the road, the Red Sox are going to have an interesting decision to make regarding the kid . . . and incumbent third baseman Kevin Youkilis.

The Red Sox summoned Middlebrooks, their top-rated prospect, to the big leagues in the middle of last week and the results have been a smash. Middlebrooks collected three hits (including two doubles), a walk and a stolen base in his first two starts, and since then he's turned up the power stroke. He crushed a grand slam over the Monster Seats in Sunday's bizarro loss to the Orioles, then he had a pole-to-pole hitting clinic Monday at Kansas City (two homers to opposite sides of the park, plus a ringing double to dead center field). Have a look at the tape, see what you make of it.

No one should be that shocked that Middlebrooks has hit the ground running: he was Baseball America's No. 52 prospect before the year, and he had a dynamic month at Triple-A Pawtucket (nine homers, .333/.380/.677) before the call-up. Obviously it would be foolish to expect him to be a star all season - four games isn't much of a sample - but his talent is out there for all to see. His ownership level has jumped to 26 percent in Yahoo! leagues over the last week.

Here's the elephant in the room: what happens when Youkilis comes off the disabled list? And one follow-up question: what will it take for fantasy owners to trust Youkilis again?

Youkilis is currently disabled with a back injury, and he battled quad and groin problems in April. There was a laundry list of ailments last year, too: hip, back, hamstring, foot, ankle, hand, leg. Thumb surgery came into the picture for 2010. Medical residents in Boston are required to study Youkilis for at least one term.

Youkilis was a productive player in the first half of 2011 (.285-52-13-62 over 83 games), but he's been an utter mess since then. His final 37 games of 2011 were a nightmare: .199/.314/.346, with 32 strikeouts over 136 at-bats. He didn't play after Sept. 15. His swing was MIA back in spring training two months ago (.195/.353/.220, nine strikeouts in 41 at-bats), and obviously he didn't do anything in the real games (.219/.292/.344, 20 strikeouts in 18 games).

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This is the big one (Getty Images)

At what point does an injury-prone player become someone who simply isn't worth the hassle? Youkilis is 33 and he hasn't topped 491 at-bats since 2008. I'm in two smaller-than-standard mixed leagues that have transaction caps, and in both of those leagues Youkilis is sitting on the waiver wire, unclaimed. No one wants to waste a valuable pickup on Fred G. Sanford (have a seat next to Grady).

I'm obviously not a decision-maker in Boston, and I can't know for sure how Youkilis feels. But in situations like this, I prefer to follow the momentum. My instincts tell me that Middlebrooks logs more at-bats than Youkilis over the rest of the season, and I also feel strongly that Youkilis won't be back with the Red Sox in 2013. Heck, I wouldn't be stunned if the team tried to move him in the middle of the summer, with his walk year approaching.

In the meantime, let's enjoy this Middlebrooks story while we can. There's plenty of room left on the bus. For all of the foibles with the 2012 Red Sox, this is still an offense that can hurt you (155 runs, fourth in the majors); you want to be invested here if you can.

If you haven't let Jeff Samardzija into your Circle of Trust by now, you're an impossible grader. The long-haired hurler has been terrific in four of his six starts this year, including victories over the Braves and Cardinals (the top two scoring clubs in baseball) over the last six days. I don't understand the 38-percent ownership tag for Samardzija; it should be twice that. Have a gander at how he shut down the Braves on Monday night. Pretty pictures.

It's all about throwing strikes with Samardzija, because the rest of the stuff lines up nicely. He's striking out better than a batter per inning, and he's generating a swinging strike 12.7 percent of the time. His average fastball gets into the mid-90s, and he has a positive grade on his slider, cutter and splitter. If he can keep throwing strikes consistently, this has breakout season written all over it. His next turn comes at Milwaukee on the weekend. It's not too late, gamers — this is a story worth investing in.

• Doug Fister's return to action was a walk in the park, seven creamy-smooth innings at Seattle (4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 3 K). Fister collected 10 ground-ball outs and threw 51 of 73 pitches for strikes. He also worked at a brisk pace, a lesson many young pitchers would be wise to emulate. He's at Oakland on the weekend, another favorable slot.

Alas, Fister didn't get a win for his trouble: temporary closer Octavio Dotel couldn't find the strike zone in the ninth innings (two walks, one wild pitch, one ringing double from Jesus Montero) and the Mariners stole the game with a three-run rally. It was stunning to see Dotel unravel like this because he was outstanding in his first 11 appearances, but it happens to everyone now and then. Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit will be ready to go Tuesday, if needed.

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Meet Dale Thayer (USP)

If you wanted to remake Bull Durham and center it around a relief pitcher, Dale Thayer's career would give you a strong head start. The 31-year-old journeyman has collected 173 saves in the minors over the last 10 seasons, but he only had 30 big-league innings (and one handshake in The Show) before Monday night.

San Diego's entire bullpen was excellent in the victory over Colorado, with four hurlers working 3.2 innings of hitless relief. Situational lefty Joe Thatcher struck out one man in the sixth, Brad Brach followed with four outs (three on strikeouts) and Luke Gregerson worked a tidy eighth (10 pitches, one strikeout). But the game was still in the balance come the ninth, with a one-run lead to protect.

Thayer came through with a 1-2-3 inning, though there were some dicey moments. He fell behind Troy Tulowitzki 3-1 before inducing a groundout, and Todd Helton crushed a pitch to deep center that might have been a homer in other parks. A routine Michael Cuddyer ground out ended the game.

Manager Bud Black has been playing the committee card since Huston Street got hurt, so all we can really do is speculate. Andrew Cashner's wild ride at the end of Sunday's game likely slots him at the bottom of the three-man cycle, and Gregerson probably rests in the middle after working the eighth Monday. You know how it rolls in this save game: if you convert today, you normally get the tomorrow's chance, too. If you had to pick one non-Street reliever for San Diego handshakes right now, Thayer is the only logical move to make. He's only owned in two percent of Yahoo! leagues as Closing Time goes to press.

If you enjoy watching a power lefty mow through a lineup, Clayton Kershaw should be at the top of your much-see list (especially when Vin Scully is on the call). But it's interesting to note the other two lefties who are doing work on the Dodgers staff, a couple of soft-rock southpaws who know how to upset timing and collect strikeouts.

Chris Capuano was one of the promoted themes in our Monday High 5s, and now let's stop and appreciate veteran Ted Lilly. The veteran southpaw rolled up his fourth victory in five starts on Monday, working six sharp innings against the Giants (4 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 6 K). Curious for some scouting tape? Here are the Pictures of Lilly.

Lilly's fastball barely registers on the gun: he's at 87.5 mph for this year and 88 mph for his career. But he's excellent at location that pitch exactly where he wants it, and he augments it with a wide repertoire of stuff (slider, curve, change). Lilly's managed to strike out 7.66 batters per nine innings over his career, and he's quietly proven to be a WHIP master as well (last three years: 1.16, 1.08, 1.06). I'm probably going to steer Lilly away from the extreme hitter parks - his recent win at Colorado to the side - but otherwise, this is an outstanding commodity to have for the middle of your rotation. Sometimes the boring old veteran is your best friend on draft day. Dial him up for his weekend turn at home against Colorado.

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