Buzzing on Yahoo Sports:

MLB Skinny: Angel in the infield

I'm flying down to the Yahoo! Sports headquarters in Santa Monica early on Tuesday to meet up with the rest of the Yahoo! Sports fantasy writers, so I'm going to forego a lengthy lead-in this week as I literally have to get packin'.

Let's move on to our weekly trip around the diamond, starting this week with middle infielders – with the intent to give Howie Kendrick(notes) my highest endorsement. Read on …

MIDDLE INFIELD

In most competitive fantasy leagues, Howie Kendrick is not sitting available on the waiver wire. But he is still a freebie in 27 percent of Yahoo! leagues. And considering a pedigree that includes a .360 batting average in more than 1,600 minor league at bats and a .305/13/82/64/10 roto line for his past 118 games at the major league level, that he can still be had in more than a quarter of Y! leagues is hard to fathom.

Because of injuries to Erick Aybar(notes) and Maicer Izturis(notes), Kendrick has hit leadoff of late, where he has clubbed two home runs in four games. Kendrick has 18 home runs in 104 games at the Triple-A level and has produced a HR/FB rate the past two seasons for the Angels that is roughly double the rate of his first three seasons in Los Angeles, so the thought of a 20-home run breakout campaign this season is, at least, plausible.

Kendrick typically takes off like a rocket in the second half of the season – his career .323 post-break BA is nearly 50 points higher than his pre-break mark (.276). Currently ranked No. 12 in the Y! game among 2B-eligible players, I wouldn't bet on more than 4-5 from that group outperforming him for the remainder of the season.

Here's my top 5 of the 15-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Carlos Guillen(notes) (.893 OPS, 3 HR, 12 RBIs in 17 games in June)
2. Sean Rodriguez(notes) (Saw the upside in his 15-game hit streak, and now the downside comes – one hit in past 20 ABs)
3. Mike Aviles(notes) (.341, 6 RBIs, 9 R in past 10 games)
4. Neil Walker(notes) (Has hit in 18 of 24 games since his call-up)
5. Alcides Escobar(notes) (Speed is starting to emerge – 3 SBs in past 8 games)

CORNER INFIELD

Now that Lance Berkman(notes) has officially entered "Is this the beginning of the end?" discussion territory, I like him as a "buy-low" commodity. His current OPS (.724) is 172 points lower than his previous single-season career low mark. He's 34 years old and he's never really shown much motivation to shed his softball physique. So, yeah, it's reasonable to assume that he's hit that prime years-ending slippery slope. Even Berkman understands if that is the current prevailing perception. Said Berkman:

"I'm 34. I'm not having a great year. Who knows how many more years I've got left or what my production's going to be? As a slugger, you get into your mid-to-late 30s, start struggling, and then it's like you might be done. I don't blame somebody for thinking that."

Unfortunately, he's hit the skids at a tough time for Houston, hoping to get a decent return for its first baseman on the trade market – Berkman has a contract buyout option for 2011. And with Berkman having trade veto power and a willingness to relinquish it for only a top contender, the Astros are likely looking at maybe two to three teams that would be viable trade partners and one of them, the Angels, might be problematic as Berkman has already went on the record as saying he'd rather go east than west and would really have to think long and hard about going to Los Angeles.

The Yankees are the team most often linked to a Berkman deal, and certainly a DH spot within New York's formidable lineup could be the kind of move that would spark a big turnaround in Berkman's season. But there's at least some reason to believe we'll see better days soon from Berkman, with or without a deal.

Let the 34-year-old David Ortiz(notes) be the cautionary tale for writing off an aging slugger too soon. I'm guilty of suggesting that we should stick a fork in Ortiz earlier this season in this forum. In my case against Ortiz, I pointed to a bunch of his declining peripheral stats. But in looking at Berkman's statistical profile, the decline in those key metrics aren't nearly as apparent as it seemed for Ortiz back in early May.

And, in fact, a sluggish start is not unprecedented for Berkman. On this date in '07, Berkman wasn't sitting much better – .258, 8 HR, 38 RBIs, 34 R – than where he currently resides. He went on to hit over .300 with 17 home runs over the final two months of the season, rendering his early struggles moot.

I'm not suggesting we'll see a repeat of '07, but now might be a good time to take a flyer on Berkman if he's sitting on the waiver wire in your league (which he is in roughly a quarter of all Y! leagues). Or, in deeper leagues, maybe you pitch a low-ball offer to a Berkman owner. Because, at this point, a change of scenery and/or the relief that comes with the passing of the trade dealine and/or a move to New York could be the spark that Berkman needs to salvage his season.

Staying in Houston, the Astros just called up third baseman Chris Johnson(notes), who owned a .932 OPS at Triple-A Round Rock at the time of his promotion. He's expected to bump Pedro Feliz(notes) to the bench, and if he shows any signs of the promise he was displaying at Triple-A, Feliz's days in Houston are likely numbered. But with only decent power and a suspect K:BB ratio, Johnson's only NL-only material for the time being.

Here's my top 5 of the 15-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Justin Smoak(notes) (2 HR, 8 RBIs over the weekend, and a .991 OPS in June)
2. Gaby Sanchez(notes) (Has been a model of consistency, and he's sporting a .981 OPS in June)
3. Kevin Kouzmanoff(notes) (Only Josh Hamilton(notes) has more hits in June)
4. Conor Jackson(notes) (Returns to Bay Area college stomping grounds and filling No. 3 spot in A's lineup )
5. Russell Branyan(notes) (He's the man for those with a strict power need: 40 HRs in past 161 games)

OUTFIELD

Some met my latest ranking of Colby Rasmus(notes) at No. 49 on the Big Board with raised eyebrows (to put it nicely). And I'll admit it was an aggressive stance to take. But here's my rationale:

1. He was a consensus top five '09 prospect, according to Baseball America, and his professional track record supports the idea of a 30/30 upside.
2. He keeps good company in the No. 5 spot in the Cards' lineup, cleaning up for Matt Holliday(notes), Albert Pujols(notes) and Ryan Ludwick(notes).
3. His BB% of 13.8 is 16th-best in the league and is exactly twice as high as his mark from last year's rookie season.
4. He's maintained a top 40 value in the Y! game for the past two months.

I was anxious to see how much my colleague Scott Pianowski deemed Rasmus' value to be worth in his latest Shuffle Up: Outfielders post, and it turns out we were fairly close in our valuations. I was also considering Torii Hunter(notes), Ben Zobrist(notes), Jason Heyward(notes) and Chris Young for final spots on the Big Board, and The Pianow-man has Rasmus right in the middle of that group, just behind Zobrist and Hunter and just before Heyward and Young. In fact, I felt more guilty about leaving Vernon Wells(notes) in the top 50 of my latest update, because if I'm being honest, I'm not sure I'd take him in the top 75 picks if I was drafting right now for the rest of the season. And looking at Scott's OF list, he agrees. So, while both Rasmus and Wells have hit a rough patch of late, Rasmus has a much better chance of surviving the next Big Board update.

Here's my top 5 of the 15-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Carlos Guillen (See above)
2. Conor Jackson (See above)
3. Pat Burrell(notes)(Back in NL where he hit 29+ HRs five times – hitting fifth for SF, worthy of a dice roll) 4. Austin Kearns(notes) (I remain skeptical, but he's a heart-of-the-order regular with some power)
5. Seth Smith(notes) (Not a bad roto platoon option – .933 OPS against RHP, typically sits against LHP)

CATCHER

Chris Johnson wasn't the only Astros prospect called up on Sunday. The team's top prospect, Jason Castro(notes), also received a ticket to Houston. A Stanford product, Castro has moved quickly through the Astros system since the team plucked him in the first round of the '08 draft. As a pro, he's displayed very little power, with just 16 home runs in just shy of 800 career at-bats. But he has done a good job of managing the strike zone – 32 BB, 34 K at Triple-A Round Rock this season – and hitting for average – .287 BA in the minors. He was only hitting .265 for Round Rock, and he may not be a good bet to hit better than that for the Astros the rest of the way this season, but at least the team is planning to make him the starter behind the plate, and that should be worth a little something in NL-only formats.

Four (Nick Hundley(notes), Ronny Paulino(notes), John Jaso(notes), Matt Treanor(notes)) of the top 11 catchers in the Y! game for the past month are owned in 10 percent of leagues or less. As far as top-end talent, this has been a down year for the position. But I don't recall it ever being so stocked with readily-available short-term help. No doubt, it's making it tougher and tougher for Matt Wieters(notes) owners to stay the course.

STARTING PITCHER

In the Yahoo! Friends and Family League, we use the default max innings pitched limit of 1,250. It's an easy limit to reach and about half the league is ahead of pace – the league is projected at a combined 333 innings ahead of pace, which works out to an average of about 24 innings per team. I'm sure many leagues out there are dealing with a similar situation.

In the F&F league, you practically can't give pitching away. Fellow Yahoo! Brad Evans recently offered me Cliff Lee(notes) for Prince Fielder(notes), and I promptly rejected it. Even in an unlimited innings pitched set-up, I wouldn't sell that low on Fielder. And I'm not meaning to slight Lee with that comment, because his stud status is undeniable, it's just that power comes at a much higher premium than pitching, and this year that seems more obvious than ever.

I did a quick accounting of how many pitchers ranked among the top 200 in the Y! game this year compared to the past two years. In '08, there were 76 such pitchers. In '09, it jumped up a bit to 82. And currently, there are 92 pitchers ranked among the top 200. The pool of viable pitching talent is expanding, and that fact combined with a tight IP limit contributes to the devaluation of pitchers.

I'm actually 10 innings behind the innings max pace, which isn't a bad spot to be as the price for pitchers like Lee start falling even further. In fact, Evans shopped Lee to Chris Liss, asking for Billy Butler(notes), a much friendlier deal than he proposed to me, in my opinion. Liss is 55 innings behind pace and pulling one point in four of the five pitching categories, so he's in the best position in the league to execute a sweetheart deal for a top starter. This deal seemed to fit that description, but Liss balked at the offer. Perhaps he feels that if he waits a bit longer, prices will fall even further. And I'm almost certain he'd be correct to make that assumption.

Here's my top 5 of the 50-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Trevor Cahill(notes) (Been waiting for the Ks, and they've finally arrived – 7.7 K/9 in four June starts)
2. Jason Hammel(notes) (Has been the No. 11 pitcher in roto since May 15th)
3. Kris Medlen(notes) (Since May 5th: 4-0, 3.53 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 34 K, 9 BB, 51 IP)
4. Clayton Richard(notes) (Top 40 pitcher in roto since April 30th)
5. Brandon Morrow(notes) (1.73 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 19 K, 26 IP in his past four starts)

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