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MLB Skinny: Baseball in bloom

Brandon Funston
Yahoo Sports

Baseball is in full bloom. And for fantasy owners, it might not get any better than this.

We've passed the arbitration window for top prospects, and now the roto game gets to enjoy the added punch of players like Buster Posey(notes) and, come Tuesday, already mythological figures Stephen Strasburg(notes) and Michael Stanton(notes).

The 2010 amateur draft got underway on Monday, which means that we can expect the "When will the Nats promote Bryce Harper?" questions to start pouring in as soon as he launches his next 500-foot home run.

We're also just seven weeks away from the MLB trade deadline, which means plenty of juicy new rumors to chew on each day from now until the end of July.

And finally, there's still four months of the regular season remaining, so there's still hope (and time) for those struggling fantasy owners to make some bold moves and turn things around.

If you're a baseball fan that resents the steady encroachment by fantasy football as the summer progresses, this is a time to pause and soak up baseball in all its glory.

And, while you're doing that, why don't you join me on a weekly trip around the diamond.

CORNER INFIELD

Pablo Sandoval(notes) hasn't been terrible, but I think we all expected him to be much better than his current No. 250 ranking in the Yahoo! game.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy recently dropped Sandoval to No. 8 in the batting order for a game as a message to the portly one that he needs to start being more selective at the plate. However, his contact numbers show that he's not really chasing balls out of the strike zone at a much higher rate than he was a year ago and he's making the exact same percentage of contact overall (82.6%). Sandoval's on pace for about half of last season's total of 25 home runs, and his batting average (.283) is nearly 50 points lower than his '09 mark of .330. But it's at least worth noting that his line through June 6, 2009 (.301, 4 HRs, 24 RBIs, 21 runs, 2 SBs) is not that much different than where he sits at this point in 2010 (.283, 4 HRs, 23 RBIs, 26 runs, 2 SBs).

June turned out to be a huge month for the "Kung Fu Panda" last season, as he clubbed eight home runs and hit .394. Like this season, Sandoval's HR/FB rate was dragging well below seven percent through May before shooting up to 24.2 in June and not dropping below 9.8 percent in any month thereafter. A positive sign for another Sandoval recovery is his steady stream of doubles – eight in his past 17 games. With a healthy 12 home games remaining this month (Sandoval has been killing it at home for a long time) and not one team on the schedule with a staff ERA of under 4.00, I'm banking on Sandoval getting things turned around in June once again.

The Mike Carp(notes) era has begun in Seattle. How long it lasts depends on how Carp performs. But Seattle has told Casey Kotchman(notes) that he might as well invest in a seat cushion for the time being because Carp is going to get an extensive look at first base.

Said manager Don Wakamatsu, "Right now, we're going to give him (Carp) an opportunity to play. I brought Casey in and we talked. It gives Casey a chance to maybe work on some things and continue to try to get his swing to where he feels comfortable with it. But right now, we're giving Carp an opportunity to play."

This move has AL-only intrigue, but is probably not going to move the mixed league needle. But, you never know. There's something to be said for a player with some power getting an everyday shot, and Seattle had him at No. 5 in the order on Monday in his 2010 debut. Carp was hitting .250 with 10 HRs in 50 games at Triple-A Tacoma before the promotion.

Here's my top 5 of the 15-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Justin Smoak(notes) (As mentioned here a couple weeks ago, he was ripe for a turnaround – 1.343 OPS in first six games of June)
2. Edwin Encarnacion(notes) (Has seven home runs in past 17 games and he typically heats up the batting average through the summer)
3. Russell Branyan(notes) (38 home runs in his past 150 games, including seven in his past 24)
4. Lyle Overbay(notes) (He's been holding steady for a while now – .315, five home runs in past 23 games)
5. Daric Barton(notes) (Serviceable production hitting regularly out of the No. 2 spot in A's lineup)

MIDDLE INFIELD

Now that Ben Zobrist(notes) has successfully removed the home run collar, it's time to turn our attention to Yunel Escobar(notes), who I've always had a soft spot for. Admittedly, he doesn't have the power upside of a Zobrist, but his HR/FB rate showed a nice upward trend in the past three seasons (7.9% to 9.1% to 10.1%), culminating with a serviceable total (for a SS) of 14 round-trippers last season. Given his ability to handle the bat and that he was entering his prime age 27 season, I pegged Escobar as having a decent shot to push the 20 home run barrier in 2010. That's not going to happen, obviously, but at least we are starting to see some of his bat skills show up of late. In his past eight games, Escobar is stinging the ball at a .516 clip. Because of his early struggles, including a DL stint for a groin injury, Escobar's Y! ownership has dipped to roughly half of all leagues. But this is not a powerless .250 hitter. If you need a shortstop, don't let those season totals scare you away.

If you would have asked me a couple weeks ago, I would have said things looked irrevocably dire for Jose Lopez(notes). His batting average was orbiting Planet Mendoza and he frequently appeared overmatched by even mediocre fastballs. He couldn't have looked any further from the 25 home run, 96 RBI breakout player from a season ago. But, just like I mentioned above with Sandoval, it's easy to remember the sum of a player's previous season without very clearly recalling the splits that made up that sum. Looking back again to a year ago at this time, Lopez's line looked like this: .227, 5 HRs, 29 RBIs, 21 runs, 0 SBs. That's not a far cry from where he sits today (.242/4/24/18/3). And in the past 10 games, he's hitting .366 with three home runs, seven RBIs and eight runs.

While Lopez has finally started to break loose, it hasn't really meant much to Seattle in the standings, as the team is 4-6 in its past 10 games – dropping it eight games back in the AL West. If getting swept at home over the weekend against division foe Los Angeles didn't push management to officially become a seller at the deadline, I think they are very close to cashing in their chips. And Lopez is a player that they've been interested in moving for quite some time. Safeco Field is a brutal place to make a living if your are a right-handed hitter with pop. And a move to any of the league's current contenders would have to be viewed as a positive for Lopez.

Here's my top 5 of the 15-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Freddy Sanchez(notes) (Career .301 hitter is on fire with a 10-game hitting streak)
3. Mike Aviles(notes) (He's got a .290-plus bat and we should ultimately start to see a bit more power and speed)
2. Alcides Escobar(notes) (Hitting ninth should improve his speed impact, although he's yet to attempt an SB from there in seven games)
4. Carlos Guillen(notes) (Hitting in close proximity to Miggy affords nice RBI opportunities – six RBIs in his past seven games)
5. Neil Walker(notes) (Has hit the ground running in the No. 2 spot in the Bucs' lineup – .939 OPS in first 11 games)

OUTFIELD

Luke Scott(notes) has been a top 50 player in the Y! game for the past month, hitting .367 with seven home runs in that span. And he's only owned in 20 percent of leagues. With a salary of more than $4 million dollars this season, there's a pretty good chance that Scott will be aggressively shopped on the trade market. And considering the O's have scored the fewest runs in the league, going elsewhere is not likely to be such a bad thing for Scott – especially if it were Atlanta or the Los Angeles Angels, two teams ranked in the top 10 in runs scored who could be in the market for what Scott has to offer. As a side note to any potential Scott suitor, bat Scott in the No. 6 spot. For his career, Scott owns a .961 OPS (867 ABs) batting sixth but is no better than a .765 mark from anywhere else in the order in which he's logged more than two at bats.

Garrett Jones(notes) was a second-half darling of the fantasy community last season. But the roto crowd soured on him in May when he was sitting on a .224 batting average and just four home runs 11 days into that month. Lately, though, we're starting to see Jones get his groove back, as he's hit three home runs in his past five games.

Said Jones, "I'd say I'm starting to feel more comfortable right now, waiting for my pitch and driving it, kind of the way I was early in the season."

Jones, available in 45 percent of Y! leagues, is on pace for 23 home runs and 101 RBIs. But, as mentioned, he looks (and sounds) more confident of late. If he's floating free in your league or being shopped around, now's a good time to buy back in.

Here's my top 5 of the 15-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Delmon Young(notes) (On pace for 19 HRs and 105 RBIs, and he's never hit below .297 in the second half)
2. Seth Smith(notes) (Career OPS of .872 and getting close to regular playing time now that Dexter Fowler(notes) has been demoted)
3. Scott Hairston(notes) (Sometimes leadoff, sometimes cleanup hitter has gone 24 HR/14 SB in his past 152 games)
4. Carlos Guillen (See above)
5. Andres Torres(notes)/Fred Lewis(notes) (Take your pick; Sure, they're journeymen, but they're getting the job done with a regular gig atop the Giants/Blue Jays order )

CATCHER

Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro just needs to bite the bullet and call up Carlos Santana(notes), regardless of how much work his throwing needs – supposedly Shapiro's main reason for keeping him on the farm. Because Santana was switched from a third baseman/outfielder to catcher early in his minor league career, he's had a long developmental path in the minors and he's now 24 years old. Most position players with his kind of bat would have at least received a taste of big league pitching by now – heck, outfielders Jason Heyward(notes) and Michael Stanton are only 20 and they've already arrived. The Indians act like they are perfectly willing to let Santana reside at Triple-A for the summer, meaning that his first legit shot at a major league job would come in his age 25 season. That's just extremely unfair. Santana has had three-and-half years of minor league instruction at catcher and you can't convince me that another couple months behind the plate at Triple-A is going to be significantly more beneficial to his career than just letting him play in a low-stress setup with a team in Cleveland that is 11 games back in the standings and not burdened with expectations for immediate success. Pittsburgh's Ryan Doumit(notes) has thrown out just four of 51 base stealers this season. Bengie Molina(notes), who San Francisco wouldn't dare mess with for the sake of starting Buster Posey's major league career, has thrown out less than 18 percent of base thieves. Former Cleveland backstop Victor Martinez(notes) has been only slightly better (19 percent). Point is, not everyone occupying a major league backstop job is throwing laser-guided missiles down to second base. Santana can learn in Cleveland just as much as he can at Triple-A. In fact, with Sandy Alomar on Manny Acta's staff in Cleveland, he can probably learn more.

Owners in deeper leagues might want to consider Alex Avila(notes). Detroit manager Jim Leyland is looking for increased offensive production from the bottom part of the order and has committed to giving the left-handed hitting Avila more playing time.

Said Leyland, "I'm going to try him a little more for awhile to get a little more thunder at the bottom of the order. I will not forget about Gerald Laird(notes)."

But Laird is hitting .154 and owns a career OPS of .659. Avila at least offers the hope of some upside at the plate – the 23-year-old hit .267 and 17 home runs in a combined 122 games between Double-A and Detroit last season.

STARTING PITCHER

Aroldis Chapman(notes) allowing seven runs to Triple-A Pawtucket in 2.0 IP on Monday was a bit of a blessing for Cincinnati brass. Before Monday, Chapman was averaging more than 10 Ks per nine innings for Louisville with a 3.42 ERA, and with Strasburg making his MLB debut on Tuesday, many have started to question when the Reds will follow suit with their prized pitching prospect.

Reds GM Walt Jocketty has been non-committal to a timetable, saying recently, "We still don't have a real need here. We'll see how he progresses but it's not going to really hurt him to stay down there pitching and working on things to get better."

Of course, how much of a need the Reds have at starter is open for debate. The starting rotation has produced a 4.29 ERA, but rookie Mike Leake(notes) (2.22 ERA) is the only Reds pitcher to start a game this season with an ERA under 3.97. I have a feeling if Chapman gets back on track quickly after this latest rocky effort, he'll find his way to Cincinnati by the All-Star break. In fact, Chapman could be called up to fill in for Leake, writes Reds beat reporter John Fay. With Leake already over the 70 IP mark, Fay concludes that the Reds will look to keep the rookie Leake under 180 IP – he's on pace for 211. A potential solution would be to use Leake sparingly this summer, with Chapman a possible substitute, so that Leake will be able to give fully again in September. It's a developing situation worth paying close attention to if you're a Leake owner. In fact, with a 2.22 ERA to advertise, there's probably not going to be a better time to shop Leake.

Here's my top 5 of the 50-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Brett Cecil(notes) (Excluding a May 14th outing vs. Texas, he's 6-1 with a 2.26 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP in 8 starts)
2. Ted Lilly(notes) (He's produced five consecutive quality starts, but no wins because of horrific run support)
3. Ian Kennedy(notes) (Solid ratios and his K total has been impactful)
4. Clayton Richard(notes) (In addition to 2.87 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) (Given his huge K numbers, you have to jump on the heels of back-to-back quality starts )

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