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MLB Skinny: When the rubber meets the road

I've said before, I'll typically wait a month before I start future tripping about my struggling early and mid-round players. Well, it's been a month, which means it's time to decide if April showers will indeed bring May flowers, or if the rainy days will continue. In one of my leagues, I've reached that point with both David Ortiz(notes) and Ben Zobrist(notes), among others. For my take on those two, and many others, read on:

CORNER INFIELD

At the corner, only Evan Longoria(notes) is coming off a better fantasy week than what David Freese(notes) put together (.462, 3 HRs, 11 RBIs). He's 21 percent owned in Yahoo! leagues. I talked about him as a deep league grab a couple weeks ago. Now I'm elevating him into 12-team territory. Seriously, there's at least a handful of first- and third-base eligible players that are owned in more than half of Yahoo! leagues that I'd kick to the curb in favor of Freese – Todd Helton(notes), Casey Blake(notes), Mark DeRosa(notes), Adrian Beltre(notes), for example. Freese, who ranks 23rd in the league with a .944 OPS, is hitting both lefties and righties and he's doing it regularly from a batting order zip code that neighbors Albert Pujols(notes) and Matt Holliday(notes). There's enough depth at the corner spot to ditch one of the players I mentioned above for a bright spot like Freese. If Freese tails off to the point that you have to cut him loose, there'll be somebody else to jump to when that time comes – like an Aubrey Huff(notes), Justin Smoak(notes), Adam Rosales(notes), Troy Glaus(notes), etc.

Speaking of Aubrey Huff, he's a guy I've been behind since the spring and I remain steadfast in my support. He's coming off a week that was nearly as impressive as Freese's (.364, 3 HRs, 6 RBIs). Like Freese, he's owned in well under half of Y! leagues (10%) and because of his recent surge and spot in the heart of the Giants' order, you can't convince me that hollow batting average types like Helton and Beltre are more deserving of a roster spot.

What to do with the .159-hitting, 51-percent owned David Ortiz? Well, he hit two home runs on Saturday, which is encouraging. But encouraging enough to keep him over the likes of Freese and Huff?

I posed this question to my colleagues Andy Behrens and Scott Pianowski, and compared their answers with mine. Both had Freese as the top option, which is in line with my thinking. I have Huff very close to Freese, but I think the 3B-eligibility gives Freese the advantage, something that Behrens also made mention of in his comments. Both Behrens and I also had Huff No. 2 and Ortiz last of the three. Pianowski went Ortiz and then Huff, but neither received a glowing endorsement. Here's Pianowski's exact quote:

"For me, Freese definitely first. Then it's death by drowning or death by hanging. I'd go Ortiz second only since he's in a great environment if he gets fixed. But I think there's also a good chance he's toast, and as a Boston fan, I hate watching him come up in a key spot now."

Pianowski's, of course, being a bit dramatic. In deeper leagues and/or dire circumstances, you often have to make the "drowning" or "hanging" decision. We rarely get to live entirely in the lap of luxury. So, back to Ortiz. I look at him and I see a player that has endured bad starts for years and has always turned things around, even last year when things started every bit as poorly as this year has. But I also see a player that is striking out at a career-high clip (36.5%), hitting groundballs at a career-high level (40%), continuing a downward trend against fastballs (this is his fourth straight year of a decline in fastball productivity), and he's no longer playing every day. And none of those issues were nearly as pronounced when he was struggling out of the gate last season. This tells me that there's more reason for concern this time around.

Here's my top 5 of the 5-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Troy Glaus (finally breaking out of slump and sits in No. 5 spot in the lineup)
2. Conor Jackson(notes) (expected DL return of May 7)
3. Adam Rosales (decent pedigree, he's hot right now and has MI-eligibility)
4. Lyle Overbay(notes) (.324 in past 12 and has management's vote of confidence)
5. Andy LaRoche(notes) (no power here, but plenty of hits and Pedro Alvarez(notes) is struggling at the moment).

MIDDLE INFIELD

If you're struggling at shortstop, patience isn't just a virtue, it's a reality. In the nightmare that is my 14-team Yahoo! Friends and Family League, I have only Jhonny Peralta(notes) to man the position. Looking at the Yahoo! player ranks, there's only 14 shortstops currently ranked in the top 250 in the game – Peralta's at 891. My best waiver wire replacement options are Yuniesky Betancourt(notes), Cristian Guzman(notes) and Omar Infante(notes). Pretty bleak. I mentally explored some potential trade offers, but I realize a deal to upgrade to even a Rafael Furcal(notes) or Elvis Andrus(notes) level is going to cost an arm and a leg given the dearth of quality depth at shortstop. At least Peralta is showing signs of life – 10-for-26 (.385) with a HR in his past seven games – so perhaps things are finally starting to look up. But this is just to say, all you Alexei Ramirez(notes) owners, I feel your pain. Just keep in mind, Ramirez hit .214 in April last season and then hit above .280 in every month thereafter. (Note: And since I started writing this column, he's gone 2-for-3 with a home run through seven innings against Kansas City).

One of my personal favorites, Jason Donald(notes), is tearing up the International League at the moment. Donald owns a .971 OPS and has 7 SBs for Triple-A Columbus. A former top 5 prospect of the Phillies, Donald was traded in the Cliff Lee(notes) deal and spent the remainder of the '09 campaign dealing with a bad back. But he's clearly getting his mojo back and the timing is excellent considering that Indians second baseman Luis Valbuena(notes) is stuck below the Mendoza Line. Donald has been playing second base for Columbus, as opposed to his usual shortstop, and he's been getting strong reviews for his defense, thus far. With the Indians in a full blown youth movement and falling back in the AL Central race (now at 5.5 GB), Donald probably won't have to wait too long for a call if he keeps up his torrid pace. Obviously, he's only a deep league consideration, but an intriguing one at that.

A couple weeks ago in the Skinny, I said I'd rather own Orlando Hudson(notes) than Alberto Callaspo(notes) because of where each hailed from in the batting order. This is shaping up to be a pretty good battle, with Hudson (109) sitting five spots ahead of Callaspo (114) in the Y! ranks. I'll stick with Hudson as my choice, but Callaspo getting bumped from No. 6 to No. 5 in the lineup pretty much puts this back to a coin flip matchup. Certainly, I don't think Callaspo deserves to be owned in 20 percent more leagues (45% to 25%) than Hudson. It comes down to whether you value the RBIs or the Runs from your 2B spot (and I guess because it's rarer to get RBIs from that spot, I can live with Callaspo being a bit more owned than Hudson). But, for the record, in the past 10 days, only Ryan Theriot(notes) (22) and Austin Jackson(notes) (20) have more hits than Hudson (17) in all of baseball.

Ben Zobrist has gone 95 at-bats without a home run this season. After the same number of ABs last season, he'd already pocketed 8 HRs. A perusal of his numbers at FanGraphs shows a 7.9% drop in FB% from last season and an 8.8% percent increase in swings at pitches outside the strike zone (O-Swing%). Such an increased rate of swinging at balls from someone with Zobrist's excellent plate discipline suggests that he is pressing, and his comments a few days ago confirm that.

Said Zobrist, "You want to get on the board as soon as possible, and I think you can't focus on that, otherwise you start pressing. Right now, what I'm just trying to do is get back to a good approach at the plate. I've hit balls hard; I just haven't gotten one to get some good backspin on it yet to have the right kind of trajectory for a home run."

In addition to wanting to notch that first home run of the season, Zobrist just recently signed a five-year contract extension, which likely adds to his eagerness to please. If anyone is selling Zobrist for less than 85 cents on the dollar, I'd get in on that deal.

The Pianow-man put out his Middle Infield dollar values today (Shuffle Up and Deal). And after dealing with production of the upcoming Yahoo!/Pro Football Weekly Fantasy Football Guide 2010 magazine these past weeks, I'll have time to make my first in-season update to the baseball Big Board – look for that on Friday.

Here's my top 5 of the 5-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Adam Rosales (same as above)
2. Reid Brignac(notes) (Be it stealing even more PT from S. Rodriguez or getting dealt before the break, future looks bright)
3. Mike Aviles(notes) (Old man-crushes die hard, besides his competition is Yuniesky Betancourt, Willie Bloomquist(notes) and Chris Getz(notes))
4. Luis Castillo(notes) (bitter pill to swallow, but you know you'll get respectable BA, some SBs and Runs)
5. Ryan Raburn(notes) (A roll of the dice, but the power potential is very intriguing)

OUTFIELD

I've talked about Brett Gardner(notes) (53% owned) in the past, so I won't belabor the point. But he really needs more love in Y! leagues. I'd rather have Gardner than Nyjer Morgan(notes) (64%), Austin Jackson (58%), Rajai Davis(notes) (60%) or Scott Podsednik(notes) (60%), if that means anything to you.

Florida's top prospect, Mike Stanton(notes), made a surprisingly strong push for a major league roster spot in spring training. And he certainly hasn't gone quietly into the minor league night. He hit his 13th home run for Double-A Jacksonville on Monday, giving him nine home runs in his past nine games. SunSentinel.com has a good story about the merits of moving Stanton up to Triple-A first before his seemingly imminent Florida arrival.

Here's my top 5 of the 5-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Conor Jackson
2. Nate Schierholtz(notes) (He was my Hail Mary breakout candidate this spring and I like what I'm seeing lately: .375, 6 doubles past 9)
3. Scott Hairston(notes) (past 138 games: .266, 21 HRs, 74 RBIs, 58 Runs, 14 SBs)
4. Travis Snider(notes) (Has struggled mightily, but for someone with his power breakout potential, the 3 doubles and 2 HRs in his past four games has my attention)
5. Ryan Raburn (Another speculative power play)

CATCHER

John Buck(notes) and Rod Barajas(notes) each hit three home runs in the past week to pace the position. Neither are exciting long-term fantasy options. If I had my choice of the two, I'd take Barajas. But these two players aren't really that different, even if Barajas is owned in 20 percent more leagues than Buck (25% to 5%). With continued regular playing, both are bottom-of-the-order, .240 types with decent (15-20 HRs) power. Lump Arizona's Chris Snyder(notes) into this group too, except his playing time goes away when Miguel Montero(notes) comes back. Inevitably, the question that many will want to know is whether I would rather have Jake Fox(notes) than those other guys. And my answer is, yes. Remember, Fox (owned in just 3% of Y! leagues) hit 29 HRs and maintained a 1.034 OPS in 99 career games at the Triple-A level. He also started the season 0-for-11, so his progress since then (.270 in past 15 games) is still masked by the early-season slump. Since there's so much more floor than ceiling with the Barajas, Buck, Snyder types, you really should see if you can catch some of that Fox upside. There'll always be a bottom-of-the-order, .240 type to fall back on if things don't work out.

Obligatory Carlos Santana(notes) update: Cleveland catcher Lou Marson(notes) has four straight multi-hit games, raising his average from .088 to .224. That should take some of the heat off the Indians management to promote Santana, who leads the International League with a .461 OBP. While Marson is heating up, he's only got about a month left before Santana arrives if we're to believe the team is waiting for the point at which they can call him up without it counting as a year of service time on his arbitration clock.

Here's a take on Wilson Ramos, from a Cleveland Plain Dealer blog that looks to a future in which Ramos, the Twins' No. 2 prospect according to Baseball America, and Santana will be doing regular battle within the AL Central. As the story states, Ramos became the first Twin since Kirby Puckett to collect four hits in his MLB debut. He might be the most intriguing immediate play of anyone mentioned in this Catcher section, at least until Joe Mauer(notes) returns.

STARTING PITCHER

As a Mariners fan, I've seen plenty of the head-scratcher that is Doug Fister(notes), AL ERA leader. I can take on his 1.29 ERA and 0.80 WHIP right now in the Friends and Family League if I want – he's available. In fact, at 34-percent ownership, he's available in a lot of Y! leagues. The lack of strikeouts (16 in 35 IP) doesn't help his cause, nor does the lack of a track record. FanGraph's David Golebiewski has a nice inside-the-numbers take on whether we're to believe his success or not. I'll just add that I do believe his fastball, which he throws nearly 80 percent of the time despite rarely reaching 90 mph, does play up because of his size (6-foot-8). And because of his great control, ground-ball lean, superb defense behind him and forgiving home park, there's reason to believe he can be an acceptable ratio guy. I don't think he needs to be gobbled up in Y! leagues, but I'm not so sure I'd be hanging on to struggling low-K pitchers with bigger brand names like Rick Porcello(notes), Joel Pineiro(notes) and Ben Sheets(notes) over Fister, either.

Got a chance to watch a lot of Colby Lewis(notes) in his latest outing and, man, was he dialed in (nine innings, three hits, no runs, no decision vs. the Mariners). It was the third time in his past four starts that he whiffed 10 batters. I'll be honest, I took a lot of the preseason talk about how he'd gone to Japan and learned how to pitch with a grain of salt. If now wish I hadn't. Admittedly, the Mariners are an offensive embarrassment that Lewis has now beaten twice, but Lewis looked like a puppet master in his latest turn against the M's, beautifully mixing and locating his pitches. It will be interesting to see if Lewis can sustain something close to his current level once the American League develops a book on him. But consider this: he already has three 10-K games, a mark that was bested by just Tim Lincecum(notes), Zack Greinke(notes), Justin Verlander(notes) and Jon Lester(notes) last season.

Skipping the minors all together, rookie Mike Leake(notes) walked 12 batters in his first two major league outings (13.2 IP). But in his past three outings, he's combined for just four walks in 20 IP. Liberally mixing five quality pitches – he throws them each at least nine percent of the time – he's been the fifth-most extreme ground-ball pitcher among starters this season (59.3%). He's one of the few starters owned in fewer than 50 percent of Y! leagues that I'd give more than a spot-start contract to in a 12-team league.

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