MLB Skinny: Believe the hype

I had the pleasure of watching both of Stephen Strasburg’s(notes) first two major league starts this past week. And all I can say is: believe the hype.

His fastball consistently (always) sits in the high 90s and moves like a Trac-ball, his curveball elicits wobbly knees from opposing hitters at a frequency rarely seen at the major league level and his motion is free, easy and repeatable.

We may only see another 12-14 starts from Strasburg because the Nats are looking to limit his innings, but I’d be surprised if he’s not among the top half dozen starters in the Y! game for that span. I look at Adam Wainwright(notes), who is the No. 3 pitcher in the Y! game after 13 starts this season, and I can easily imagine Strasburg being as valuable over his next 13 starts – maybe the ratios will be slightly higher, but Strasburg’s strikeout advantage should make up for that.

I think it’s natural to want to fight the Strasburg hype machine – and I think if I was being honest, I’d admit that I was kind of hoping that he’d get his hat handed to him by Pittsburgh in his debut. But there’s really no reason to hate here. Strasburg is not brash. And there’s no front-runner distaste at play – he’s pitching for an underdog, a team that has lost more than 100 games each of the past two seasons.

So, if you aligned yourself with Steve Phillips a few weeks ago, I’d suggest you quietly switch allegiances. Because Strasburg is special, and you should unabashedly enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts. Because you never know how fleeting the experience will wind up being (see Prior, Mark).

Alright, I apologize for the Strasburg pile on, but I couldn’t help myself. Let’s move on to our weekly trip around the diamond.

CORNER INFIELD

Gaby Sanchez(notes) had to fight back hot-shot prospect Logan Morrison(notes) this spring to earn the Marlins’ first base job. He wasn’t the sexy choice, but he deserved the gig given his experience advantage and strong March effort. And after two and a half months as the top dog at the 1B corner, Sanchez should get a pat on the back.

The book on him is that he profiles more as a doubles hitter at the major league level, but the 26-year-old rookie has seven home runs already, including three this month. He’s now hit 25 home runs in his past 556 professional at-bats, all at the Triple-A level or above. And he’s maintained a batting average above .280 and a solid 86:66 K-to-BB ratio during that span. The aspect of his game you really have to appreciate given that this is his first real opportunity is how consistent he’s been.

He’s produced a .260-plus BA and a .400-plus SLG% in each month of the season, and he’s done his best work when it matters most – .315 BA with runners on base compared to .248 BA with the bases empty.

Sanchez’s efforts have some giving him serious thought for NL ROY honors. Said manager Fredi Gonzalez about that possibility:

“I wouldn’t put it past him. He’s one of those guys that the more you see him play, the more you appreciate him. If you’re a scout and you come in the wrong three or four days, you’re going to say, ‘Well, this guy, he’s not one of those guys.’ But if you let him play 140-160 games, he’s going to be one of those guys who puts the numbers up.”

Sitting near the top of the Marlins’ order, Sanchez should continue to provide serviceable four-category production for fantasy owners, and at just seven percent owned in Y! leagues, he’s vastly underappreciated. Give me Sanchez over more highly employed corner commodities like David Freese(notes) (.383 BABIP), Todd Helton(notes) (power is gone, folks, all gone), Ike Davis(notes) (trending the way you’d expect a rookie to trend), Casey Blake(notes), and Mark Teahen(notes) (his ownership numbers still baffle me).

Alex Gordon(notes) owns a 1.128 OPS in 38 games for Triple-A Omaha. But don’t expect to see him in Kansas City soon. Said Royals manager Ned Yost:

“I don’t want to bring Alex up here right now if he’s not going to play. And we’ve got enough outfielders with [Rick] Ankiel coming up, and that’s going to create another player to put in the mix. To me, he’s better off down there playing every day until something opens up.”

Gordon’s reputation in fantasy looms larger than it should. He’s a bit like Jeremy Hermida(notes) that way – injury-prone; struggles especially against lefties; owners have a hard time letting go because of the tantalizing minor league pedigree.

You won’t hear any impassioned call-up pleas from me in regards to Gordon, like you did with catcher Carlos Santana(notes). Gordon has had 1,200-plus at bats at the major league level, and a .744 OPS to show for it. The Royals are wise to give him a heaping spoonful of Triple-A at bats during his conversion to the outfield. He needs the work and the confidence boost. If you are one of the 15 percent holding on to Gordon in Y! leagues, I’d advise you just let it go, man. If it’s hype and minor league pedigree you desire, go grab the seven-percent owned Pedro Alvarez(notes) instead – at least he’ll soon be donning a major league uniform.

More on Pedro Alvarez: Andy Behrens offers this blog post on the likelihood that the Bucs’ top prospect could be hearing from Pittsburgh this week.

Here’s my top 5 of the 15-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Justin Smoak(notes) (5 K’s on Sunday not withstanding, has .965 OPS in June)
2. Gaby Sanchez (See write-up above)
3. Kevin Kouzmanoff(notes) (.436, 3 HR, 11 RBIs during 14-game hitting streak)
4. Russell Branyan(notes) (He’s the man for those with a strict power need: 39 HRs in past 159 games)
5. Conor Jackson(notes) (Picking it up: .303, HR, 4 RBIs, 5 R, SB, 4 BB, 1 K in past 10 games)

MIDDLE INFIELD

Sean Rodriguez(notes) was overdue for a breakout. He entered this season having mashed 51 home runs in 175 career games at the Triple-A level while sustaining a batting average of nearly .300 (.298). But, as of late May, he’d hit at the Mendoza Line with a ridiculous 94:21 K-to-BB ratio in 112 games at the major league level – an even sillier rate of 42:5 this season. R.J. Anderson at FanGraphs has this interesting take on the unusual manner in which Rodriguez compiles such a lofty K rate.

Despite the horrendous K:BB ratio, Rodriguez is finally tasting some success in the majors, riding a 14-game hitting streak currently that includes three home runs, 11 RBIs, 11 runs and two stolen bases. It’ll be interesting to see what the Rays decide to do when SS Jason Bartlett(notes) returns from the DL on Wednesday given how well Rodriguez and Reid Brignac(notes) have played this season. Bartlett was hitting just .231 when he went on the DL and the Rays have been the No. 5 offense in the league in runs scored in the month of June with Bartlett on the bench. Given manager Joe Maddon’s convoluted explanation for why Bartlett wasn’t activated from the DL on Monday (making a rehab start for Triple-A Durham instead) you get the sense that he’d rather not have to figure out how to deal with his overflowing depth chart. Said Maddon:

“I’m more concerned about dehydration (with Wednesday’s game in Atlanta) and the fact he’s going to go from not playing at all to playing nine innings under those circumstances. So I thought, if he could build into it for two days, really test himself in a manner that by the time he plays for us, he’s going to be comfortable playing nine innings and I’m going to feel comfortable playing him nine innings, and that’s exactly how I explained it to him. So once I gave him that explanation, he was good, and I think it works out well for him and us.”

I expect Brignac to lose the most playing time in the near-term with Bartlett back, at least until Rodriguez’s torrid bat starts cooling off. But ultimately, you would think the Rays might seriously consider dealing one of these guys. Because they are all deserving of regular playing time.

Here’s my top 5 of the 15-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Carlos Guillen(notes) (.957 OPS, 8 RBIs in 11 games this month)
2. Sean Rodriguez (See write-up above)
3. Mike Aviles(notes) (He’s got a .290-plus bat and we should ultimately start to see a bit more power and speed)
4. Reid Brignac (.286 or better in every month and went 5-for-9 over the weekend, but playing time about to get trickier)
5. Clint Barmes(notes) (Has walked in five straight games; 16th among MI with 31 RBIs)

OUTFIELD

Put me in the “sell” camp when it comes to Vernon Wells(notes). It’s not his current 2-for-18 slide that has me concerned, because that’s a meager sample size. But his recent skid does continue a downward trend – 1.113 OPS in April, .822 OPS in May, .795 OPS in June. And Wells’ least productive months in his career are August and September, so the track record doesn’t support a big rebound. I’m also leery of a career-high 19.7% HR/FB rate (career average is 12%) despite the third-lowest FB% (37.1) of his career. In addition, Wells is showing us his inner Vladimir, swinging at pitches outside the strike zone at a 37.7% clip, 11th-most in the league and a 11.9% increase over his career rate (25.8%). All of this would have me nervous if I were a Wells owner. If I could deal Wells for a “struggling” outfielder like Carlos Lee(notes) or Carlos Quentin(notes) or Jason Kubel(notes), and get a sweetener thrown in as well, I’d be all over it.

Here’s my top 5 of the 15-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Carlos Guillen (See above)
2. Sean Rodriguez (See write-up in MI section)
3. Jose Tabata(notes)(Batting leadoff and speed already making an impact – 2 SBs in first four games)
4. Austin Kearns(notes) (I’m still skeptical, but he’s a heart-of-the-order regular with some power)
5. Milton Bradley(notes) (Confidence at plate starting to show up and five steals in June)

CATCHER

Ronny Paulino(notes) is the No. 7 catcher in the Y! game for the past month as he’s seen extra work with John Baker(notes) dealing with a sore elbow that has been slow to heal. In fact, there’s not a whole lot of optimism in regards to a near-term return for Baker, meaning Paulino will continue to log regular time. And while he doesn’t offer much power, he’s a .280 career hitter who has handled both lefties and righties reasonably well during his career, so his .303 batting average isn’t a complete aberration. He’s the only catcher ranked in the top 10 at the position in the Y! game that is available in less than 33 percent of leagues (he’s at eight percent). If you need help at catcher, Paulino’s worth at least a spin around the block.

STARTING PITCHER

Until a solid seven-inning effort against Toronto this past Thursday (7 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 7 K), Wade Davis(notes) was seemingly doing his best to pave Jeremy Hellickson’s(notes) road to Tampa. Hellickson, the Rays’ top pitching prospect is 8-2 with a 2.50 ERA and a 79:19 K-to-BB ratio at Triple-A Durham. Davis, meanwhile, sports a 6.57 ERA and 1.65 WHIP in his past seven starts after opening the season 3-1 with a 2.79 ERA through his first five outings. Teammate James Shields(notes) has been nearly as bad as Davis in that span, and worse of late (20 ER in past 15.2 IP), but if anyone’s spot is endangered by Hellickson, it’s Davis. The Rays staff prides itself on the starters going deep into games. Says David Price(notes), “If you only go six innings, you’re going to get made fun of.” And if that’s the case, Davis has been taking a beating, having pitched more than six innings just three times in 12 starts. As is the case with the Rays’ middle infield, something’s ultimately got to give. Because Hellickson is deserving of his shot and the Rays are in a dogfight in the AL east and can’t afford to let Davis continue give up walks and runs while taxing the bullpen.

Here’s my top 5 of the 50-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Ted Lilly(notes) (Seven straight quality starts, including a near no-no, and K rate has shot up in June)
2. Brett Cecil(notes) (No. 3 pitcher in Y! game for the past month)
3. Ian Kennedy(notes) (Solid ratios and his K total has been impactful)
4. Clayton Richard(notes) (In addition to 2.71 ERA, has a better K/9 rate than Matt Cain(notes), Ricky Nolasco(notes) and Johan Santana(notes), among many others)
5. Brandon Morrow(notes) (Huge K upside and on a run of three quality starts in which he’s walked just six in 20 IP)

Brandon Funston is a Yahoo! Sports fantasy expert. Follow him on Twitter. Send Brandon a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jun 14, 2010