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MLB Skinny: Smorgasbord

It's a great week to be a fantasy sports player if you enjoy musical chairs. The final week before the MLB trade deadline has aligned perfectly with the opening week of a condensed NFL free agency period following the new CBA agreement. While several hundred NFL free agents scramble to secure a paycheck for '11 and beyond, MLBers like Carlos Beltran(notes), B.J. Upton(notes), Colby Rasmus(notes), Carlos Quentin(notes), Hunter Pence(notes), Michael Cuddyer(notes), Aramis Ramirez(notes), Ubaldo Jimenez(notes), Hiroki Kuroda(notes), Heath Bell(notes), and many others, will be subjected to daily trade rumors leading up to the Sunday trade deadline. If you fashion yourself a baseball/football fantasy combo plate, you're sure to have a lot of fun this week. Enjoy the ride!

You can count on next week's Skinny to deal with at least some of the post-deadline aftermath. But until then, let's take a look at some of the players that have recently caught my attention for their on-the-field exploits:

CORNER INFIELDERS
Jay gawking –> Edwin Encarnacion(notes): Among corners owned in less than 20 percent of leagues, Encarnacion is the one I find most intriguing. With 11 runs scored, a batting average near .300 and three stolen bases, Encarnacion ranks among the top 20 contributors in fantasy over the past couple weeks. For the season, his .270 Well-Hit Average (tracked by Inside Edge) ranks 27th among those with at least 250 ABs (Albert Pujols(notes) is 28th). And for his career, he's never hit less than nine home runs after the break. Doubles have been plentiful for Encarnacion this season (23), but of late the long ball has re-entered the equation (5 HRs in past 24 games), lending credibility to another push towards double-digit HR returns in the second half. Manager John Farrell recently lauded Encarnacion for his play both in the field and at the plate of late, further cementing his place as a regular hitting in the middle of the No. 4 offense in the league.
Casey at bat –> Casey McGehee(notes): Chipper Jones(notes) (just activated off the DL); Ty Wigginton(notes); Pedro Alvarez(notes) (who hit 13 home runs after the '10 break and was just recalled from Triple-A); Danny Valencia(notes); Encarnacion … there's at least five third basemen owned in less leagues than McGehee who I'd prefer to take my chances with right now. Among those with at least 250 plate appearances at the hot corner, only Chone Figgins(notes) and Juan Uribe(notes) have a lower OPS than McGehee's .586 mark. We give players like Adam Dunn(notes) a lengthy leash when they struggle because there's a proven track record of substantial returns. McGehee has but two and half seasons as a regular and his most noteworthy contributions have been a .301 batting average in '09 that was supported by a .330 BABIP, which sits 24 points higher than his '10 mark and 69 points higher than his current mark. The other standout number was his 104 RBIs from '10, a stat that is largely dependent on external factors. McGehee's power has proven to be modest for a corner infielder (and extremely sub-par this season) and he has no speed impact. Considering the limited upside you're chasing, there's simply no reason to cling to McGehee – he's still owned in half of Yahoo! leagues – while he suffers through what has been a season-long slump.
Royal returns –> Eric Hosmer(notes): Few prospects this season garnered more pre-callup buzz than Hosmer, so it's a little surprising to see his Yahoo! ownership rate sitting under 50 percent (42%). His 162-game pace through his first 68 MLB games is .277/21/95/71/10, not too shabby for a veteran let alone a 21-year-old. Hosmer has improved his K/BB rate in each of his three months with KC. He has a .881 OPS in July, and produced a May clip of .836. I would consider that kind of production his norm and the homerless dry spell in June to be the exception. And if that's the case, you can make a strong argument that Hosmer should be owned in favor of most of the corners currently residing in the 85 percent owned and under territory, including teammate Billy Butler(notes) (84% owned)
MIDDLE INFIELDERS
Life in the fast lane –> Ryan Roberts(notes): With 13 home runs and 13 SBs, Roberts was one of the bigger fantasy surprises of the first half. At the peak of his early-season production, his effort landed him a spot in most fantasy leagues and he remains owned in 70 percent of leagues despite a disturbing downward trend. In his past 71 games, he's hitting just .228. In 10 games since the break, he's hit .172 and has not stolen a base. Of late, Arizona has started to sit Roberts against right-handed pitchers. In the past month, Roberts has been outproduced by 19 other 2B-eligible players. I've always liked Roberts from a reality standpoint, where his grittiness and utility skills are endearing. But it would be a mistake to cling to him in fantasy leagues with the idea that he's something much more than that.
A flick of the switch –> Gordon Beckham(notes): After hitting below the Mendoza Line in April, Beckham has hit a respectable .277 since, including marks north of .300 in May and July. Many jumped ship early on Beckham and despite signs of a turnaround, he's still available in more than half of Yahoo! leagues. Beckham struggled out of the gates in '10, as well, but he's closed out the last two seasons in fine fashion, sporting at least a .833 post-break OPS in '09 and '10 – both years finishing among the top 10 2B in second-half OPS. If you need 2B help, now is not a bad time to give Beckham another chance.
Future's so bright … –> Dustin Ackley(notes): I'm sure to be accused of a Seattle bias in the comments for talking about Ackley yet again, but his ownership rate of just 36 percent in Yahoo! leagues pretty much forces my hand. Among those with at least 100 ABs, Ackley ranks 25th in the league in Inside Edge's Well-Hit Average (.279). His 162-game average through his first 30 games is .297/22/81/70/11 and he's already settled into the No. 3 spot in the M's lineup. I'd put Ackley in a Neil Walker(notes)/Howie Kendrick class of fantasy 2B, both owned in just shy of 90 percent of leagues.
OUTFIELDERS
Deeper sleeper –> Chris Denorfia(notes): Teammate Cameron Maybin(notes) has been the talk of fantasyland as the top offensive roto contributor over the past two weeks and, considering his ownership rate of 38 percent in Yahoo! leagues, he deserves the attention. But Maybin is now dealing with a sore hip, which will likely afford Denorfia some extra at bats in the short term. And, if Ryan Ludwick(notes) is traded, as expected, Denorfia would be in line for regular duty. Denorfia, who has hit .278 with 14 home runs and 18 steals in his past 508 ABs, is a rare Padres hitter that isn't adversely affected by Petco Park. And he holds his own against both right-handed and left-handed pitching. For those in deep leagues, he's a sneaky pickup right now as he's owned in just one percent of leagues.
Big fish –> Logan Morrison(notes): A slip in health (foot) and batting average have contributed to a plunging ownership rate for Morrison, who can be had in 52 percent of Yahoo! leagues. He joins Mark Trumbo(notes) and J.P Arencibia as the only players in the league with at least 15 home runs to be available in at least 40 percent of leagues. Morrison's plate discipline has lapsed in June and July, which has contributed to his batting average decline. But his approach at the dish is hardly cause for long-term concern as his pitch recognition skills were something that he was lauded for when he arrived in Florida, and he opened his Marlins career with a 62:51 K-to-BB ratio in his first 299 ABs. Regardless of when Morrison's patience comes back online, he's proving that he can still make an immediate impact for your fantasy squad. Morrison leads all hitters with 23 RBIs in July and ranks 13th in the league with five July homers.
PITCHERS
Smoking –> Cory Luebke(notes): While Luebke is deservingly climbing the Yahoo! ownership charts, he can still be had in 62 percent of leagues. This despite the third-best WHIP (0.91), 15th-best ERA (2.65) and sixth-best K/9 rate (9.7) among starters with at least 60 innings pitched. Luebke also has the second-best On-Base Average allowed (.243), behind Justin Verlander(notes). And, perhaps most encouraging, he's been even better on the road than he has at his pitching-friendly Petco Park home. Luebke is still throwing like a reliever, as he relies heavily on a fastball/slider combo. But his numbers have been too good to worry about a future injury or the league figuring him out eventually. Add him now and cross those other bridges if/when they arise.
Deserving of a closer look –> Edward Mujica(notes): Mujica has been the 17th-most valuable fantasy reliever this season and is top-four among non-closers. Manager Jack McKeon recently announced that Mujica would be next in line to close should Leo Nunez(notes) be dealt. Mujica leads the team in wins (8) and ranks fifth in the league among those with at least 40 IP in K/BB ratio (6-to-1). In recent years, Mujica has really started to lean on his split-fingered offering, and it has been the most valuable splitter in the league this season, according to FanGraphs. Owned in just seven percent of leagues, Mujica can make a case for fantasy employment based on his middle relief work to date, but it's the potential for post-trade deadline saves that necessitates an immediate add at least until we see how things play out before Sunday's deal deadline.
CATCHERS
Shuffle play –> Jarrod Saltalamacchia(notes): Salty is the obvious "Shuffle Play" at the catcher position. Since May 15, he's hitting .287 with seven home runs, 22 RBIs and 24 Runs, landing him just outside the catching top 5 in fantasy for that span. His .882 OPS in July is third among catchers with at least 40 ABs this month. His .945 June mark also landed him in the top three for that month. Among those owned in 11 percent of leagues or less, no backstop is offering a better product than what Salty is selling.
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