It's the third week in July. It may just be time to acknowledge that Rondell White isn't the answer in your fantasy outfield.
The baseball season feels longer than a double feature of You, Me & Dupree and Paris Hilton's lecture on the Middle East to the Council on Foreign Relations, and yet we look up today and find ourselves nearly 60 percent of the way through 2006. Some of our teams are pretty good as presently constituted. Some are hoping for an injection of life from, say, a returning Derrek Lee, or a wounded-armed Eric Chavez. And some just kind of suck. For my part, I'm having a decent year, but as always seems to happen, I find myself having completely misjudged a couple of positions, and am suffering mightily in select spots. In fact, it might be time to do something drastic.
That's what I want to talk about today: I want to find at least one player at every fantasy position who probably isn't owned in your league, but who might be worth a season-altering flyer. I mean, after all, do you really need to hang onto Delmon Young in re-draft leagues? Is Rob Mackowiak doing any good collecting dust on your bench? Do you have any intention whatsoever of starting Shawn Chacon ever again? If you're ready to try and cleanse your palette at a stubborn fantasy position – say, shortstop or starting pitching – where success has eluded you all year long, and pick up a waiver-wire player who could change your fantasy fortunes, keep reading.
Catcher: Mike Napoli, LAA, 21.56 percent owned in Yahoo! leagues
A homer Saturday bumped this 24-year-old surprise to an OPS of 1.012 in 146 at-bats. The Angels had hoped and prayed that uber-prospect Jeff Mathis would've taken over the full-time catching job from Jose Molina by this time, but Mathis flopped in April (.103 batting average), and Napoli has quickly become a fan favorite. He's the clear starter on a light-hitting team, and as such usually bats as high as sixth in the Angels' lineup. There are warning signs: Napoli's BABIP is .357, while his overall batting average is .288, meaning it's possible he's been a bit lucky; adding to that theory is the fact that his line-drive percentage is only 14.7 percent (the light-hitting Molina is at 19.6 percent, while someone like Joe Mauer stands at 24.9 percent). But you can't argue with success and, as will be a theme in this article, we're looking for guys who can surprise. Would it be a surprise if Napoli continues on his current pace, and drills 25 HR on the year? Yes. But is it possible? Sure.
First Base: Mike Sweeney, KC, 31.76 percent owned in Yahoo! leagues
His days of wine and roses are far behind him, and he's been on the DL since May 2 with a bulging disk in his back. He hasn't begun any kind of rehab assignment yet, and the earliest he could possibly be back is mid-August. Hey, I never promised you a sure thing, did I? Nevertheless, I'm stashing Sweeney away in every league I can, for the simple fact that on the off chance he comes back healthy, he's still a very, very good hitter. Even at least five years removed from his best seasons, Sweeney is still capable of hitting .290 with a .860 OPS, and will hit in the middle of the lineup, meaning he won't be able to help accruing RBI. I'm betting most of the folks in your league have forgotten about him, but you shouldn't.
Second Base: Jose Castillo, Pit, 23.28 percent owned in Yahoo! leagues
Is it because people mix him up with the less-interesting Luis Castillo? Is it because we still wonder if he's actually got a locked-in spot in the Pirates lineup? Is it because he sucked to high holy hell in June? Regardless, Pittsburgh's starting 2B is out there, and I think he's worth grabbing. His numbers in May were ridiculous (.366 average, seven HR, 21 RBI), but since then he's hit .232 with only three HR and 19 RBI. Still, as Joe Randa works his way out of town and Freddy Sanchez locks up a long-term role in Pittsburgh's infield, Castillo is thought of as the long-term solution at 3B, with Sanchez moving to short. To me, that means he's a lock to get a ton of ABs the rest of the year, and it's not heresy to suggest he's headed for a season OPS over .800 and career-highs in every major offensive category. When he turns it around, and it'll come, Castillo will be worth starting.
Third Base: B.J. Upton, TB, 1.14 percent owned in Yahoo! leagues
In a much-reported-upon move, the Rays have finally moved Upton from shortstop to third, with the intention of bringing him up at the end of July for a two-month major-league audition at the position. As such, you should grab him now. He's been a prospect so long, it's hard to remember Upton's only 21 years old, and while he didn't set the world on fire in his 2004 call-up, he didn't suck at the plate, either. When he hits the bigs, I don't think Upton is suddenly going to hit .350, but I do think the Rays will let him run and run and then run some more, and this kid is fast. As in: fast to the tune of 44 steals in Triple-A last year, and 39 so far in '06. He's going to be a major fantasy asset in August and September, people.
Shortstop: Juan Uribe, ChW, 17.6 percent owned in Yahoo! leagues
After an awful April and May, Uribe had a crazy-strong June: .932 OPS, five HR and 20 RBI. Unfortunately, since then he's gone back in the crapper; his numbers for July include a .578 OPS and a .209 OBP. If you're considering picking up a different shortstop, it's likely because you're stuck under the magnificent crap-laden weight that is someone like Bobby Crosby or Clint Barmes, and if that's the case, Uribe is interesting. He's a lesser cog of a great offense, and no matter how he performs offensively, the White Sox need his defense, so he'll be in the lineup come hell or 0-for-50. It's worth noting that Uribe has a career .576 OPS in July, but that he picks it up to the tune of .702 and .938 in August and September, respectively. He was incredible last September as one of the primary reasons Chicago was able to hold off Cleveland: 1.020 OPS with seven dingers and 16 RBI. And I'll take a second-half guy like Uribe over a "Mr. June" like Crosby or a "Mr. Never" like Barmes.
Other Candidates: Stephen Drew (0.59 percent)
Time To Give Up On: Barmes, Barmes and Barmes
Outfield: Jeremy Hermida, Fla, 11.41 percent owned in Yahoo! leagues
Hermida bore the burden of being a potential Rookie of the Year about as well as Oprah bears the burden of holding up the canon of Western literature with her book club. Which is to say: not well at all. Hermida essentially missed the first two months of the year with an injured hip, and has shown little of the speed that made him a 30-30 candidate this March (he stole 28 bases in A ball a couple years back, and 23 at Double-A last year). Remember also that Hermida hit four HRs in his 41-at-bat audition last September, and has a grand total of three so far in 172 ABs in '06. Eesh. And despite the fact that his OPS has finally climbed above .800 thanks to a homer this past Sunday, I'd be lying if I thought Hermida's struggles were entirely over: including that dinger, he's got a total of two extra-base hits since June 30. But I've watched almost all his at-bats over that period, and the big lefty does seem to be putting a much better swing on the ball. There's a chance that the big breakout is coming, and if you're in dire need of outfield help, now's your chance to jump on board.
Outfield: Mike Cameron, SD, 28.18 percent owned in Yahoo! leagues
Cammy has been the ninth-best outfielder in fantasy baseball over the past month. Let me say that again: Mike Cameron has been so scalding hot over the past 30 days, only eight outfielders rate ahead of him in standard fantasy leagues: Carl Crawford, Raul Ibanez, Lance Berkman, Manny Ramirez, Scott Podsednik, Adam Dunn, Jermaine Dye and Chone Figgins. That's it, folks. Over that time, Cameron has gone .397 OBP, .630 SLG, 1.027 OPS, seven HR, 12 RBI, 21 runs and two steals. Incroyable! While it's foolhardy to assume Cameron will continue with this crazy pace, you can expect him to stay fresh all year, since he missed most of April with a strained oblique. With Adrian Gonzalez swatting, with Dave Roberts returning as the table-setter, and with the Padres seemingly committed to finding a replacement for Vinny Castilla at third, San Diego is going to make a run at another division title, and Cameron is a big part of that. I think he'll be a worthy fantasy starter in all formats for the rest of the year.
Outfield: David DeJesus, KC, 4.83 percent owned in Yahoo! leagues
For me, this percentage ownership is shocking. DeJesus missed two months with a bad hamstring pull, but since he's been back, he's played in 49 games and hit .309 with a .859 OPS, 21 RBI and 33 runs scored. He's just about the only good thing the Royals have going for them at the major-league level (though there are some good kid hitters coming), and as such, you can bet Kansas City won't mess with him much in the leadoff spot. I think it's only a matter of time before he figures out how to translate his very good raw speed into base-stealing (he's 5-for-10 so far in his limited '06 action), and I'm heartened by his increasing walk rate (10.6 percent this year, compared to 8.3 percent each of the last two) and also the improvement he's made in the past couple years in his line-drive percentages. Plus, owning him gives me an excuse to tell friends and family: "Sure, I'm crazy. Crazy for DeJesus!"
Starting Pitcher: Cole Hamels, Phi, 21.16 percent owned in Yahoo! leagues
All right, he's been brutal. After a scintillating couple of starts in the middle of May, Hamels has completely failed to inject the Phillies with any life, and it's all but over for Philadelphia. Hamels also totes with him a scary minor-league history of injury, including a back that's balkier than Jason Davis wearing a blindfold. But since a bout with tendonitis at the beginning of June, health hasn't been Hamels' problem; no, his problem has primarily been, y'know, getting rocked. Still, in most fantasy leagues, good starting pitching is long gone and hard to find, and Hamels has perhaps the most upside of any guy who's pretty much guaranteed to stay in the majors for the rest of the year. He still throws a nasty array of left-handed stuff, including a Zito-esque curve. Don't let a bad couple of months fool you into thinking this guy isn't still an extremely good pitching prospect. He's only going to get better in the second half.
Relief Pitcher: Fausto Carmona, Cle, 1.08 percent owned in Yahoo! leagues
There's simply no reason for the Indians to hold onto Bob Wickman for two months of emeritus pitching by the Lake. Wickman would look mighty fine setting up for a contender, and Cleveland needs to start thinking about next year, when I think Carmona will be their closer. He was very good in his debut as a starter in April, but got rocked and sent to the minors thereafter. Since his return, however, he's been recast as a middle reliever, and has evidently been much more focused and electric when he only has to think about each hitter once. After last season, I'd have sworn to you that Fernando Cabrera was the legitimate inheritor to the throne in Cleveland, but now it looks like Carmona could be the guy, and it could happen in a matter of weeks. Smart owners will pick up Carmona (three ER in 24.2 IP as a reliever) this very moment. (Before I finish, let me also say that Scott Linebrink, whom I mention below, should also be picked up, because there are rumblings that he'll be dealt to a contender – possibly Atlanta – where he'd inherit the closer's role immediately.)