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MLB Skinny: Cut to the Chase

Chase Utley(notes) made his much-anticipated return from the DL on Monday night. He finished the night 0-for-5, failing to get involved in the Phillies 10-run explosion against Cincinnati. But he did drive two balls to deep center, and he didn't show any noticeable issues with his gait when twice he was thrown out at first base on ground balls.

I paid a pretty penny for him in the NL LABR League back before the seriousness of his injury was fully revealed. So, I like many, welcome his return. I'm expecting manager Charlie Manuel to give him some regular days off – the two will meet before every game to discuss how he's feeling – but it's encouraging that Utley played four straight care-free games on his rehab assignment, which finished up on Saturday, and then was in the Phillies lineup on Monday. Utley believes it's possible that future surgery can be avoided. For the first time since mid-March I'm actually feeling somewhat optimistic about Utley.

Alright, let's take a look at some of the other developments that grabbed my attention this past week:

CORNER INFIELDERS
Keeping the faith –> Billy Butler(notes): If you were to hold a re-draft today, you'd likely be able to land Butler for much cheaper than he cost you in spring drafts. First basemen like Gaby Sanchez(notes), Justin Smoak(notes) and even teammate Eric Hosmer(notes) have grabbed a lot of buzz love, and I've heard some claim that they'd now prefer those players to Butler. I'm not completely sure yet where I stand on that, but I certainly haven't discounted Butler much at all. Despite modest numbers (ranked No. 226 in the Y! game) through nearly two months, Butler has been consistently stinging the ball. According to Inside Edge, Butler ranks in the top 10 in the league in both Well-Hit Average and Quality ABs (which accounts for well-hit outs, hits, walks, HBP and Sacrifices). Home-run power is still an issue with Butler, but he's hit plenty of balls to the wall (be they doubles or deep fly outs). And, for his career, his Slugging Percentage is higher in July, August and September than it is in any of the first three months of the season. He may only finish with 18-20 home runs, but he's a bankable .300 hitter who should finish solidly in RBIs as his .233 mark with runners on base normalizes.
Virus detected –> Adam LaRoche(notes): We know better than to sweat LaRoche's sub-Mendoza Line BA – he hits 50 points better after the All-Star break for his career. But it's fair to sweat his sore left shoulder. He took a trip to the doctor's office on Monday to get a second opinion on his labrum, and a 15-day DL stint was the result. It was thought he'd be able to play through the season and then have surgery in the offseason. But LaRoche felt the shoulder issue was affecting his swing, even if the pain wasn't always evident. "Adam is basically saying ‘It doesn’t hurt [swinging], but I can’t believe I’m missing these pitches,’ ” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. ” ‘Maybe it’s something there not allowing me to get to the ball’ and so we’ve got to explore that.” Michael Morse(notes), who hit his third home run Monday night, becomes much more interesting now, as he'll likely take up first base duties full time while hitting closer to the middle of the order. After a very slow start, Morse has turned things around.
Powering on –> Mark Reynolds(notes): Reynolds' BB rate has jumped to 17.7 percent in May (8.4 in April), and he's finally starting to see some positive results at the dish. In his past nine games, he's hitting .273 (which is like .300 grading on the Reynolds curve) with 2 HRs, 2 SBs and a double in each of the past four games. He's still only hitting .127 at his new Camden Yards home, which has been a very generous park offensively over the past few years. But you have to be encouraged with Reynolds' trend towards more patience, and I'm expecting his power to kick into high gear soon.
MIDDLE INFIELDERS
Craig's list –> Allen Craig(notes): I'm listing Craig in the middle infield section because he's now one start away from accruing 2B-eligibilty in the Y! game, where he's owned in just two percent of leagues. It's time to beat the rush, and grab Craig now. This is especially a no brainer move for owners of Ryan Raburn(notes) (30% owned)), Juan Uribe(notes) (DL; 35%) and Sean Rodriguez(notes) (14%). The fact that St. Louis is willing to run Craig out at second base despite his defensive limitations speaks to its desire to have his bat in the lineup. He produced 40 home runs and a .928 in 778 Triple-A ABs combined over the past two seasons. He produces solid K/BB rates and currently ranks 21st in the league in Quality AB% (among those with at least 50 ABs). Among the 2B-eligible crowd, only Howie Kendrick(notes) is currently rocking a higher OPS than Craig, and it's very close (.908 to .907).
Positive signs –> Aaron Hill(notes): There have been some encouraging signs since Hill's return from the DL at the beginning of May. He has six doubles in his past 10 games, and just five strikeouts in the past 11 games after tallying 15 Ks in the previous 19 games. Hill has averaged 31 home runs the past two seasons. He's yet to hit his first bomb of '11, but he's currently hitting line drives at a solid 21 percent, the second-best rate of his career. Some of these doubles should start turning into home runs. If his fly balls were leaving the park at the same rate as the past two years, he'd have 4-5 home runs at this point (in 29 games). Hill's been cut loose in roughly 40 percent of Y! leagues. I'm not a Hill owner, but I'd be inclined to afford him a little bit more leash.
Who's laughing now? –> Alex Gonzalez(notes): I was forced to pay $11 in the NL LABR league for Gonzalez because one owner emptied the bank to acquire the top three NL shortstops (Tulo, HanRam and Reyes) and that created a feeding frenzy at the position as everyone else scrambled to acquire what little talent remained. Even so, I was still mocked pretty heavily by my competitors for that purchase. But, after finishing as the No. 7 SS in the Y! game last season, Gonzalez currently ranks in the top 10 among SS in combined RBIs and Runs, and he's fifth in HRs (5). The batting average is where you expect it to be (.254), which you can live with given the solid counting production outside of steals. In terms of Y! ownership, Gonzalez is owned in 36 percent of leagues, right in the same neighborhood as Omar Infante(notes) and Juan Uribe, both players that went for $15-plus in LABR, and I'd go Gonzo in that crowd.
On the radar –> Justin Turner(notes): Turner's RBI streak ended at seven games after he was held hitless on Sunday. But the streak landed him in the Mets record book, and he ranks as the RBI leader among middle infielders over the past two weeks (12). Turner has been playing third base with David Wright(notes) out and needs just one more start there to qualify in Y! leagues. He's a 10-15 type in terms power and speed upside, he makes good contact, doesn't strike out often and has been a .300 hitter over 400-plus games in the minors. Said Mets scout Wayne Krivsky, who had a hand in acquiring Turner in Cincinnati, Baltimore and New York, "Justin is the kind of guy that when you see him every day, you really appreciate how well he can play the game. He's a heady ball player and managers love him. He can hit to all fields and he plays very well defensively at a few positions." Turner's playing time might get squeezed when both David Wright and Ike Davis(notes) return from the DL. But until that happens, Turner is a worthy stop-gap solution at MI. And he's someone to keep tabs on for later if the Mets start to purge their roster before the trade deadline.
OUTFIELDERS
On the rise –> Cameron Maybin(notes): It sure seems like Maybin wasn't given a fair shake in Florida. In his past 156 games, spanning his age 22-24 seasons, Maybin has hit .252 with 16 HRs, 88 Runs and 16 SBs. He's on a 17/24 pace this season with the Padres, and he's been the 16th-best OF in the Y! game over the past two weeks, thanks to a couple of back-to-back four-hit games at the beginning of that span. Maybin still has work to do in the K/BB department, but his current rate is better than it's ever been in his short career – he's drawn a very respectable 17 walks. Among the 30 percent owned and under crowd, I don't think there is a player I'd rather own right now, with the exception, perhaps, of Domonic Brown(notes).
On the move? –> Ryan Ludwick(notes): If the Padres are sellers this year, as is expected, saving a few million dollars by purging Ludwick makes a lot of sense from a San Diego perspective. And getting Ludwick out of Petco Park would be welcome news for fantasy owners. Ludwick has hit just .214 at Petco in his career, and he has a .805 road OPS this season compared to .679 at home. Ludwick is a worthy pickup right now, as the outfield RBI leader for the past two weeks (14) is available in 57 percent of Y! leagues. But if he's traded, depending on where he lands, he could become a lot more interesting – his 162-game average in St. Louis prior to his San Diego arrival was .280, 28 HRs and 101 RBIs.
Sands of time –> Jerry Sands(notes): After a rough start to his major league career (2-for-18), Sands is starting to show some positive signs. He went 4-for-4 on Sunday to close out a trip to Chicago to face the White Sox, where he hit his first MLB home run the day before. Sands posted a 13/4 K-to-BB rate in April, but has just six strikeouts compared to eight walks in May. Given his impressive spring and his 35-HR campaign in the minors last season, there was some buzz surrounding Sands' call-up back in April. But that faded fast, as Sands is owned in just two percent of Y! leagues. It's not unfathomable to think that Sands could hit 15-plus home runs and steal another 6-8 bases the rest of the way. He's still someone worth keeping a close eye on.
Turning the light on –> Curtis Granderson(notes): In his past 91 games, Granderson has clubbed 30 home runs – which coincides with hitting coach Kevin Long's complete overhaul of Granderson plate approach last August. Granderson hit 30 home runs for Detroit in '09 and he's hitting more fly balls than ever before (53.1% rate is seventh in MLB), so it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that Granderson clocks in among the HR leaders, even if the actual number (16) makes you scratch your head. Many are asking if he's a good sell-high candidate. From what I've seen of Granderson deals of late, overpaying for what he's done doesn't seem to have taken hold just yet – but I'm guessing it's only a matter of time. The best one-for-one deal I've seen of late is Granderson for Ryan Howard(notes), and I'd definitely advise a Granderson owner to make that deal. Granderson doesn't run much for the Yankees and his batting average is sub-par, and likely to remain that way given the high rate of fly balls and strikeouts, so selling him off for a proven top 30 commodity makes plenty of sense to me.
PITCHERS
Reasonable doubt –> Jair Jurrjens(notes): I don't have anything against Jurrjens, but he's a widely-owned pitcher (81 percent) that I'd be fearful of going forward. According to Inside Edge's Well-Hit Average, Jurrjens has the 10th-highest rate among starters (.298). His K/9 (5.2) is the 25th-worst among starters and a K lower than his career rate. With an average fastball that has fallen below 90 mph, Jurrjens is inducing a lot of contact (86% rate is 19th-highest among starters) and there's very few starters of this ilk that are worth owning in a standard Yahoo! default set-up. If I were a Jurrjens owner, I'd be shopping him hard.
Hammer time –> Erik Bedard(notes): Bedard was in prime form at San Diego on Friday, shutting out the Padres over eight innings, fanning nine. The usual "it's San Diego" caveat applies, of course, but it was still interesting to hear the Bedard spin from Padres catcher Rob Johnson(notes) in the game's aftermath. Said the former Mariner, "I haven't seen him throw like that since the very beginning of 2009." Johnson described Bedard's curveball as a "hammer" and Bedard struck him out by offering him up four straight "hammers" in a row. In his past four turns, Bedard is 2-0 with a 1.33 ERA and a 24/4 K-to-BB ratio in 27 IP. He also hasn't allowed a HR in that span. While he seems to be turning a corner that's pointing him back toward respectability, fantasy owners should consider him strongly for employment. Since his rise in Baltimore, it's been health, and never poor performance, that has been his downfall. And health is not a concern at the moment.
Turning the beat(down) around –> Chris Carpenter(notes): It's understandable to want to start writing off a 36-year-old pitcher who opens the year with a 4.88 ERA through his first 10 starts. But Carpenter's rough start appears to be more about bad luck than diminished skill set. First off, he's throwing all of his pitches harder than last season or his career average. He has a BABIP of .338 – his BABIP in all of his full seasons in St. Louis have clocked in below .280. His FIP (3.81) is more than a run lower than his ERA. Frankly, there's nothing in his profile that is so abnormal as to suggest it may be the root of his problems this season. Carpenter's schedule sets up nicely for the next couple turns, as he'll go to San Diego and then he'll return home to host San Francisco. Those are the two lowest scoring teams in the NL. If things don't like brighter after facing the California squads, then let's talk.
CATCHERS
Shuffle play –> Jonathan Lucroy(notes): I mentioned Lucroy in this space a few weeks back, mostly because of his ability to make consistent contact and maintain a solid batting average. He's back in this space because he's been the hottest fantasy catcher of the past two weeks, and power has been part of the equation – three home runs in his past nine games. Lucroy did pop 20 home runs in 129 games in Single-A in '08. But the slugging percentage took a nose-dive as he worked his way up the ranks to Milwaukee. If he can maintain a 15-HR pace, he stands a good chance of finishing as a top 10-12 backstop because of his ability to hit for average.
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