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MLB Skinny: Halfway Home

CLOSER HOT SEAT
CHICAGO CUBS HOT
1st Chair: Ryan Dempster
2nd Chair: Bob Howry, Scott Williamson, Will Ohman, Scott Eyre
Skinny: Dempster blew his fifth save since May 1st on Saturday against the White Sox, giving up a three-run jack to AJ.. Pierzynski with two outs in the ninth. After the meltdown a chagrined Dempster stated, ""I'm embarrassed I can't field a ground ball hit back at me. I'm embarrassed because I walked a guy to bring up one of their hottest hitters right now. I'm embarrassed because I hung a slider to him. I'm embarrassed for our team." With his confidence at a low, Dusty Baker turned to Howry in the ninth on Sunday, and he converted a shaky save in 1.1 innings. After the game, Baker made it clear that "as of right now, Demp's still the closer." Dempster will get one more shot but if a permanent committee move does occur, keep an eye on Scott Williamson. He has the most end-game experience of anyone outside Dempster with 55 career saves. However, with the Cubs dropping 15 of their past 19 games, owners hard-up for saves should not expect huge returns from anyone.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS HOT
1st Chair: Armando Benitez
2nd Chair: Jeremy Accardo
Skinny: Out since June 25th with a sprained elbow, Benitez was medically cleared to pitch on Friday, but Felipe Alou turned to the 24-year-old Accardo instead. Unfortunately, the rookie blew his first save in three chances, coughing up two earned on three hits in a third of an inning. Benitez returned to the closer's role the following night, nailing down a one-inning save against San Diego on July 1st. Alou has made it very clear that Benitez is the Giants franchise stopper and will continue to point his direction when healthy. Accardo is an undrafted former college shortstop that has spring-boarded through the Giants' minor league system after being discovered in the Alaska League in the summer of 2003. He has a good-moving 92-93 MPH fastball and showcases an aggressive approach. With an outstanding 35:10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 34.2 IP, Accardo is definitely worth keeping around. Benitez has pitched with a pre-existing elbow condition for years and it will likely sideline him again at some point this season.
ATLANTA BRAVES HOT
1st Chair: Undefined
2nd Chair: Jorge Sosa, Kenny Ray
Skinny: In his first week as the part-time finisher, Sosa allowed more earned runs (3) than saves tallied (2). Each time the uncontrollable walks machine takes the mound, Bobby Cox adds another doughnut to his morning diet. On June 28th, Ray blew his first save opportunity in two weeks, solidifying Sosa as the main contributor in the Atlanta stopper timeshare, for now. Despite the blip, I still believe Ray is the more refined of the two and will eventually get the lion's share of ninth-inning chances. Since joining the pen, Sosa's 3:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio is a clear-cut indication of why he stinks.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS HOT
1st Chair: Ambiorix Burgos
2nd Chair: Mike MacDougal
Skinny: After converting on six of his past seven chances, Burgos lit a dud in his first game in July serving up a Jim Edmonds homer in the ninth on Saturday. Rehabbing closer Mike MacDougal has pitched well in Triple-A Omaha, striking out one in a 10-pitch scoreless inning on July 1st. The Royals plan on using him this week in back-to-back games as a final test. If all goes well, look for MacDougal to be slowly worked back into end-game situations just after the All-Star Break. Available in 60 percent of Yahoo! leagues, MacDougal should be devoured if available. Even on a bad team, he could log 8-12 second half saves.
OAKLAND A'S LUKEWARM
1st Chair: Huston Street
2nd Chair: Justin Duchscherer
Skinny: In two of his past three outings, Street has failed to bring his 'A' game, giving up three earned and an uncharacteristic four free passes. Although struggling of late, Street's job is not in any immediate danger. If an injury or a string of tear-jerker outings were to plague him, look for Duchscherer to see some opportunities. Activated from the disabled list on June 23rd, the A's primary set-up man has two saves on the season and is sporting a gaudy 19:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19.1 innings.
The Fourth of July is a celebration of sweltering parades, processed meats, foreign-made explosives and the inevitable demise of the Chicago Cubs. It's not only the time that marks the beginning of the "wait 'til next year" chants on Chi-town's North Side, but also the mid-point of the fantasy baseball season. With prominent pigskin names like Manning, Alexander and Owens bantered about in holiday grill-side chats, many owners are faced with a perplexing forked road. To the right are opportunities, wealth, and championship aspirations. To the left, scantily clad cheerleaders, River Dance end-zone jigs and annoying Tom Brady commercials. What direction will you choose? Here are the news and notes that went yard over the weekend:

WEEKEND UPDATE: Need-to-know info from the past few days

  • On Saturday, juggernaut Alex Rios was placed on the 15-day DL with an infected shin. Fouling a ball of his lower left leg on June 25th, the breakout youngster was hospitalized last Friday due to excessive swelling and pain. The leg did not respond well to antibiotics and was drained. Blue Jays manager John Gibbons noted, "It will probably be a few days before he can even get on it. Hopefully it doesn't turn into anything worse." In regards to Rios' potential for the All-Star Game on July 11th, Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi suggested, "I think he'd still be able to go but not play." The talented outfielder will not return until at least mid-July.

Blossoming into one of the game's elite all-around producers, this is heart-wrenching news for Rios owners. The Blue Jays want to be cautious with the situation and will rest their prized outfielder until the infection is fully eradicated. For fantasy owners looking for an offensive upgrade, now is the perfect time to pitch an offer for his services to a fretful league member. Hitting a mediocre .264 in June, Rios could be acquired at a discounted rate given the recent injury setback and soured play. Showcasing improved plate patience with a 16:11 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his past 87 at-bats, he should continue to thrive at the dish despite the downturn. Expect finishing totals around: .300 BA, 27 HR, 100 RBI, 100 R, and 20 SB.

  • Oh how the mighty have fallen. Once considered the Blackbeard of the Pirates' future, Oliver Perez's freefall from fantasy grace is a painful reminder of why young pitchers are risky keepers. After tallying a sorrowful 2-10 record, 6.63 ERA and a toilet-hugging 51 walks in 76 innings, Perez was demoted to Triple-A Indianapolis on Friday. The once promising lefty commented, "I'm disappointed, but at the same time it's a good choice. Right now, it's hard to make changes here when you have problems. I have to go down and make everything fine. My mechanics and I have to be more relaxed in the game. Sometimes, when I walk somebody, I start to think a little bit too much." Pirates manager Jim Tracy added, "Our hope is he regains the consistency we're looking for. I firmly believe it's in the best interest of Oliver. It's a situation where we can get him in an environment where he can relax a little more."

Perez's problems are far more than command issues and mental demons. After watching several of his starts this season, his most blinding blemish is a significant decline in velocity. In 2004, Perez was clocked regularly in the mid-90s, occasionally blowing away hitters with 97 mph bullets. This year, his fastball barely registered 90-91 mph and regularly topped out in the high-80s, diminishing the intimidation factor. At 24, all hope is far from lost, unless he attempts to play footsy with a random laundry cart. For the 30 percent of you clinging to hope for this year, dump him. Even if he does return to the Majors this season, it could be in a bullpen role. An ardent supporter of Perez over the years, I feel as though he has cheated on me with WHIP killer Sidney Ponson.

  • Injury News and Notes: Blue Jays outfielder Vernon Wells has been out of the lineup since pulling a hamstring in Friday's win over Philadelphia. Toronto manager John Gibbons believes the injury is "not all that serious," adding, "We'll see how he is tomorrow (Monday). He'll be in front of his home fans in Arlington, so I know he'll be really anxious to play." Listed as day-to-day, it is improbable Wells will land on the disabled list. Keep him active … Oakland third basemen Eric Chavez has missed three straight games with a cornucopia of injuries. Listed as day-to-day with two sore forearms and lingering back stiffness, Chavez feels that, "Just making contact is a struggle. It's gotten to the point where it's frustrating. It's been frustrating, but I didn't know what it was and I was trying to play through it. Now we know, we'll treat it and get it out." The injuries have battered his batting average and usurped his power. In his past 10 games, he has 11 strikeouts and collected just seven hits. Deactivate him until he can regain full strength … Disabled since May 10th, Brewers starter Ben Sheets threw 64 pitches off the mound in a bullpen session on Saturday. Sheets noted, "I'm feeling really good. I've had some big strides. I'm not 100 percent but I'm pretty close." He should begin a rehab assignment shortly after the All-Star Break setting up a possible late-July return … Mets top hombre Pedro Martinez is scheduled to miss his next start due to an ailing hip flexor. "It was the same thing I had last year when I had a cortisone shot," Martinez said. Manager Willie Randolph was confident Pedro won't miss any additional time stating, "He's fine. I'm not concerned about it." Former Orioles top prospect John Maine will get the spot start.

BARGAIN BIN: Top players available in 50 percent of Yahoo! leagues

  • Jay Payton, Oak, OF
    Upset for being benched on June 25th, the 33-year-old vet has positively transferred his anger to the field, slapping 11 hits while driving in six runs over the past week. In June, he hit a red-hot .354 – the 10th-best mark in the AL – with 2 homers and 12 RBIs in 79 at-bats. With mental head-case Milton Bradley sidelined at least another 10 days with shoulder woes, he will continue to see regular playing time hitting sixth. A surging second half player in his career, Payton quietly posted 13 homers and 42 RBI after the All-Star Break in '05. As long as Ken Macha finds a spot for him in the lineup, 8-10 homers and 35-45 RBI cannot be ruled out over the remainder of the season. Rostered on a skimpy 5 percent of Yahoo! leagues, he is a great reserve outfielder to have in 12-team and deeper formats in case injuries surmount.

PROSPECT WATCH: Top players down on the farm

  • Tom Gorzelanny, Pit, SP, (ETA: Now)
    Recently recalled for the fledgling Oliver Perez, Gorzelanny is a hard-throwing lefty ready to plunder opponents in the Steel City. In his 2006 debut against the surging Tigers, Gorzelanny tallied a respectable 5 IP, 2 ER, 6 H, 3 BB, 6 K. Stockpiled with an arsenal that boasts a 95 mph fastball, sharp slider and the best change in the Buckos organization, many scouts project the 23-year-old to be a high-end No. 2 starter. Fine-tuning his game in Triple-A Indianapolis this year, Gorzelanny posted a swashbuckler line that would make Captain Jack Sparrow grin – 99.2 IP, 94 K, 2.26 ERA, 0.93 WHIP. Sporting a stellar 2.2 BB/9 rate in Indy, question marks surrounding his command have been silenced. He is a must add in NL-only formats and those mixed leaguers looking for a boost in Ks. As with any rookie starter, though, don't be alarmed by the ocassional bouts of inconsistency.

MARKET MOVERS: Charting player values

Nate Robertson, Det, SP – Possible illegitimate son of Todd Jones, Robertson's Fu Manchu has worked wonders, notching 10 quality starts in 16 games this season. Unload him now. He has a career 5.90 ERA, 1.52 WHIP and .301 BAA after the break.

Julio Lugo, TB, SS – Lugo has been a firecracker over the last week, totaling 11 hits, six runs and two steals. Raising his batting average 47 points since June 22nd, he is a Top-10 caliber shortstop. A .300 average and 15-20 steals are reasonable in the second half.

Jered Weaver, LAA, SP – Demoted two weeks ago, Weaver's stint in the minors was brief, as I expected. He returns to the mound on Monday in a clash of diaper dandies, facing Seattle's Felix Hernandez. Consider him a strong No. 3 starter in any format and a WHIP savior.

Aramis Ramirez, ChC, 3B – Glad to have Derek Lee back in the lineup, Ramirez fell a single short of the cycle on Saturday. Driving in a torrid eight RBIs in his past six games, Ramirez is in store for a monster second-half. Hitting only .255 on the year, you still might be able to pry him away for a brick of bottle-rockets.

Andre Ethier, LAD, OF – In the city of glitz and glam the former Oakland prospect is a rising star. Going 14 for his past 30 with seven RBIs, he has raised his average by nearly 40 points since June 21st and is beginning to see additional playing time. For those needing assistance in BA in larger leagues, give the kid a look.

Mark Hendrickson, LAD, SP – His Dodgers debut left a great deal to be desired, but the lanky Hendrickson should be a serviceable No. 5 starter in NL-only leagues. For those that use FAAB, a $12-$20 bid is not unreasonable. Expect a sub-4.00 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 6-8 wins over the remainder of the season.

Miguel Olivo, Fla, C – The Marlins backstop has been one dangerous fish, hitting safely in seven straight while driving in eight runs. Now hitting .291 on the season and on pace for 70 RBI, cast a line in shallow two-catcher leagues for his services.

Lastings Milledge, NYM, OF – Sent down to Triple-A Norfolk to make room for Cliff Floyd, Milledge will have to work on his bat and attitude in the minors before likely returning to New York in September. He hit just .233 with three homers and 12 RBI in 86 at-bats. Cut him lose in yearly leagues.

Aaron Boone, Cle, 3B – Let the Andy Marte era begin. Finishing with a batting average two points below the Mendoza line in June, Boone is mired in an abysmal 19 for 93 (.204 BA) slump. Boot him off your reservation.

Geoff Jenkins, Mil, OF – The keg has run dry for this Brewer. Jenkins has not homered in 37 straight games and hit a pathetic .224 in June. Despite the downslide, he is a second-half sizzler in his career. Buy low.

Yahoo! Experts League Update
A neck-and-neck battle rages at the top of the Y! Friends and Family league standings – the battle is for second place, however. While KFFL-Anderson, Y!-Funston and Y!-Romig fight amongst themselves, RotoWire_Liss continues to hold a lead of 20-plus points in the top spot. Hitters Albert Pujols, a re-surgent Carlos Beltran and pitchers Curth Schilling and Scott Kazmir have helped pave RotoWire_Liss' path. The latest pickups across the league include, Todd Hollandsworth, Jon Lester, Ronnie Belliard, Bob Howry and Jay Payton. Also, Y!-Lago traded closer Trevor Hoffman to KFFL-Wasserzieher for Jeff Francoeur.