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MLB Skinny: Shifting gears

Thankfully, we've reached that point in the season when teams no longer have to worry about the arbitration ramifications of calling up top prospects, and you can expect to start seeing names like Michael Stanton(notes), Stephen Strasburg(notes) and Pedro Alvarez(notes) pop up in MLB box scores in the coming weeks. With the prospect glass ceiling lifted, it's time to start turning our attention in fantasy to players that might be jumping teams and leagues between now and the end of July – the trade deadline.

Here are just some of the names you can expect to see emerge (if they haven't already) in upcoming swap talks: Roy Oswalt(notes), Paul Konerko(notes), A.J. Pierzynski(notes), Cliff Lee(notes), Corey Hart(notes), Luke Scott(notes), Lance Berkman(notes), Jose Guillen(notes), Chris Davis(notes), Heath Bell(notes).

That's just a taste of what is already brewing, and there'll be other big names thrown into that mix as more teams realize that they have no chance to contend in 2010. Until then, let's take another weekly stroll around the diamond.

CORNER INFIELD

Kendry Morales(notes) owners looking to replace the home run hole created when the Angels treated Morales like a bounce house after his walkoff home run on Saturday night may want to take a gander at Russell Branyan(notes). For his career, Branyan has averaged 34 home runs for every 505 at-bats. Last season, he hit 31 home runs despite missing the entire month of September. This year, coming off a back injury, he's already falling back into his traditional pace, hitting 6 HRs in his first 95 ABs of the season. (Note: make that 7 HRs in 99 ABs as he hit another bomb while I was writing this column). With a regular gig, it's safe to expect Branyan to deliver the power goods. The rub, as everyone knows, is the batting average. He's at a .234 mark for his career, and he's never hit higher than .257 in a season in which he's had at least 100 ABs. Still, viewed from purely a home run perspective, you can't go wrong with a healthy, steadily-employed Branyan. He's a poor man's version of Adam Dunn(notes) – but not as poor as Yahoo! league ownership numbers would indicate (Dunn 92%; Branyan 6%).

Not that it would rock his fantasy value too much, but there's been some speculation that Paul Konerko will be a trade target for the Angels now that Morales is out. Given the White Sox's struggles, this is a move that makes a lot of sense.

Would you be worried about the season-long sustainability of a player with a career-worst K/BB rate and a BABIP roughly 100 points higher than his career mark? Such is the case with Nick Swisher(notes), and you can put me in the skeptical category. The last time Swisher was sitting as pretty on June 1 as he is this year (.317, 9 HR, 28 RBI, 34 R, .960 OPS) was in '07 (.305, 9 HR, 32 RBI, 26 R, .970 OPS). That season, he wound up producing a line of .243, 13 HR, 46 RBI, 58 R over the final four months. Swisher has legit 25-30 HR power but, if I were a Swisher owner, I'd be shopping him around in hopes of finding someone who is buying into the batting average.

Here's my top 5 of the 5-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Lyle Overbay(notes) (Since May 14th, only seven CIs have been better in fantasy, and one of them – Morales – is done for the year.)
2. Neil Walker(notes) (Soon-to-be 2B-eligible; former Pirates top prospect had .951 OPS at Triple-A before recent promotion; an upside roll of the dice)
3. Conor Jackson(notes) (Still willing to invest in his talent, but have to move him down just like D-backs did – dropped from No. 2 to No. 7 in the lineup)
4. Daric Barton(notes) (Serviceable production hitting regularly out of the No. 2 spot in A's lineup)
5. Mike Sweeney(notes) (Old, injury-risk? Sure, but in this crowd, actions speak louder – 1.004 OPS in 16 games in May)

MIDDLE INFIELD

Alcides Escobar(notes) is turning things around at the plate, and that could bode well for his steals total. Thus far, he's attempted a mere three steals, this despite the kind of speed that enabled him to compile 42 steals in 109 Triple-A games last season. Hitting mostly out of the No. 8 spot has been one of the issues for Escobar's low SB attempts total, as the pitchers that follow him in the order are typically on sacrifice bunt auto-pilot. But with Escobar stroking the ball of late (.316 in past 16 games), we're starting to see the rookie shortstop bounce around the lineup a bit, moving between the No. 7-9 spots in the order. Anything that gets him out of the No. 8 hole will be a boon for his steals value in the long run. With the batting average turnaround underway, now's a good time to give Escobar (12% owned) another shot.

Here's my top 5 of the 5-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Carlos Guillen(notes) (Will have a "2B" designation next to his name when owners wake up on Wednesday)
2. Reid Brignac(notes) (Has started past 6 games, hitting .350 in that span – trip to DL for hammy injury possible for SS Jason Bartlett(notes))
3. Mark Ellis(notes) (Weekend warrior: 6-for-10, HR, 4 RBI, 2 R)
4. Jason Donald(notes) (Asdrubel Cabrera's forearm injury has opened up an everyday opportunity – future .275, 15/15 type)
5. Adam Rosales(notes) (Serviceable production would look better at SS – needs 3 more starts or 5 more games there to gain eligibility)

OUTFIELD

The wait for Pedro Alvarez's arrival garners most of the prospect attention in Pittsburgh, but Jose Tabata(notes) – the team's No. 2 prospect according to Baseball America – is expected to follow right behind Alvarez en route to the Pirates in the coming weeks. And Tabata, who paces the International League with 20 SBs and ranks second in Hits (62) and third with 34 runs, is somebody who should be on the radar of fantasy owners. Pittsburgh has generated the second-lowest batting average (.201) out of the leadoff spot, and Tabata would be a viable option to takeover there. Andrew McCutchen(notes) was recently moved into the top spot in the order, but Tabata could bump him back into a better run-producing role.

I suggested in the May 16 Closing Time feature that it would be a good time to buy into Jason Kubel(notes). He'd just come off a game-winning grand slam against Mariano Rivera(notes) and he had started to heat up at a similar time last season. Since that write up, Kubel is hitting just .244 in 12 games, but he has three home runs (all in the past week) and only Corey Hart has more than Kubel's 15 RBIs among outfielders. Kubel is owned in just half of Yahoo! leagues, so there's still a chance you can get in on what should be a solid next four months for Minnesota's designated hitter.

In case you haven't seen it, Andy Behrens offers some insight into how the Marlins' outfield situation might shake out when minor league sensation Michael Stanton arrives. The Cliff Notes version is that Stanton is now expected to arrive in early June and his arrival is bad news for Cameron Maybin(notes) or Chris Coghlan, or both if they are forced into a platoon. But if you read into the quotes coming from manager Fredi Gonzalez, especially this one from a week ago about Maybin &ndash "He's making some terrific adjustments at the plate. His defense has gotten better. You have to give (outfield coach) Dave Collins a lot of credit for his defensive improvement." – you get the sense that Coghlan could be hit hardest. Maybin has four home runs in his past 12 games and keeping him in centerfield arguably gives the team its best defensive outfield look.

Here's my top 5 of the 5-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Carlos Guillen (see above)
2. Milton Bradley(notes) (Hits in the middle of order and has eight RBIs in 11 games since his early May hiatus)
3. Scott Hairston(notes) (Return from DL imminent – 23 HR and 14 SB in past 148 games)
4. Conor Jackson (see above)
5. Lastings Milledge(notes) (.269 May not terrible and he typically gets stronger as the summer progresses)

CATCHER

With Buster Posey's(notes) promotion to San Francisco this past weekend, it's all about Carlos Santana(notes) now. The Indians are past the arbitration window and, to hear reliever Jensen Lewis(notes) tell it, Santana is a pure joy to work with from a pitcher's perspective. So the only thing that seems to be holding up Cleveland is its desire to win the Anthony Rendon (Rice, 3B) lottery for the 2011 MLB amateur draft – Cleveland is chasing only Baltimore and Houston for that honor. In all seriousness, though, if you want to take manager Manny Acta at his word – "It's not a secret that we have a few guys in Triple-A that we want to take a look at in the second half" – we won't see a Santana call-up for another 4-5 weeks.

Jorge Posada(notes) owners will get their veteran catcher back on Wednesday, when he'll be activated from the DL (foot) in time to face the Orioles. Hang tight if you are riding the Francisco Cervelli(notes) train (.320, 23 RBIs) as Posada is expected to DH a considerable amount at first as a way to limit the physical impact to Posada while keeping Cervelli's hot bat in the lineup … In more catcher-returns-from-the-DL news, Arizona's Miguel Montero(notes) could return from his knee injury by this coming weekend. He's hitting in extended spring training games this week and if he passes the catching tests later this week, he'll be back in Arizona promptly thereafter. Molina owners should start thinking about making the switch to the 47-percent owned Montero now.

STARTING PITCHER

Anibal Sanchez(notes) is a top 10 starter in fantasy for the past month and has a Quality Start in seven of his past eight outings. His ridiculously low 1.5% HR/FB rate – 1 HR allowed in 62.1 IP – is unsustainable, but Sanchez is inducing a healthy rate of groundballs and his K/BB rate is a career-best 2.13. Sanchez has been doing serious damage with his slider – based on pitch value, only Colby Lewis(notes) has been more successful with his slider than Sanchez. No doubt, that pitch has helped land him among the top 25 in O-Swing%, which measures how often a pitcher gets a batter to swing at a pitch outside the strike zone.

Here's my top 5 of the 50-percent (and under) crowd:
1. Ted Lilly(notes) (He's not winning, but his starts are getting progressively better)
2. Ian Kennedy(notes) (Solid ratios and his K total has been impactful)
3. Anibal Sanchez (See write-up above)
4. Max Scherzer(notes) (14 Ks in his 5.2 IP return from Triple-A is worth a test drive)
5. Brett Cecil(notes) (Excluding a May 14th vs. Texas, he's 5-1 with a 2.45 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP in 7 starts)

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