This column marks the end of relative sanity for The Skinny. Major League Baseball rosters expand in a few days, and pro football kicks off shortly after that. If baseball pennant races are hitting the stretch run, we've reached the stress run for fantasy owners. One day you're trying to make heads or tails of the Cleveland running back situation, the next you're asking yourself if Boof Bonser might have some keeper value in your (very) deep AL-only league. Thankfully the weekend on the diamonds was fairly quiet, allowing me to track the relevant comings and goings in relative peace:
WEEKEND UPDATE: Need-to-know info from the past few days
- The Oakland A's traded for Jermaine Dye on July 25, 2001, and the slugger proceeded to carry the team into the postseason on his back, driving in 59 runs in 61 games. When Billy Beane finalized the acquisition of another right-handed bat in mid-July this year, nobody was calling the new arrival the next Dye. No, when Jay Payton came over from Boston, A's fans were expecting Ron Gant-type numbers, not their next savior. Chalk up another win for Beane. Since nobody appears to be paying attention, here's an update: Payton had two hits Sunday, four hits Saturday, his 11th homer with Oakland Thursday and three more base hits Wednesday.
It's nice to see that the East Coast bias that is so prevalent in the national media also carries over into fantasy leagues. Payton has more homers than Albert Pujols in the past month and only five players can top his total of 24 RBIs in the same span. Yet Payton is owned in just a quarter of Yahoo! leagues. His run total also ranks in the top 25 and his .303 average isn't too shabby. It's time to suspend disbelief and jump aboard. Beane was right on this one. Further evidence of a bias: Robinson Cano remains owned in close to half of all leagues despite his .188 average in August. Oakland's Mark Ellis homered for the fourth time in five games Sunday and is hitting better than .345 for the month, yet he barely registers in Yahoo! leagues. It's a shame, really.
- Continuing my own West Coast bias for this week's column: the Giants made big news over the weekend when they announced that Matt Cain would be recalled from Triple-A to start Monday against Colorado. A power pitcher with a matching wild streak, the 20-year-old could be of interest to those managers who lost out on the Felix Hernandez sweepstakes. At Fresno, Cain was 10-5 with a 4.39 ERA and he led the Pacific Coast League with 176 strikeouts in 145-plus innings. His best pitch – no surprise – is a fastball that can top out in the high-90s. Downside? Control issues. He walked 40 in 86 innings to close 2004 and continued the trend this year with 73 free passes in 145 innings. Not exactly a confidence builder for a rookie making his MLB debut.
Thankfully, Cain won't arrive with the hoopla that surrounded Hernandez' debut. Fantasy owners (those of us on the west coast, anyway) can sit back and enjoy Monday's start before passing judgment on this prospect. Since the Giants still have an outside shot at making a run at the division title, you can bet club brass thinks this kid is ready. What was looking like a lost fantasy season in San Francisco is suddenly showing impressive results at any unlikely position. Jason Schmidt is pitching like his old self, Noah Lowry went 4-0 with a 0.57 ERA in August and even Kevin Correia has been solid of late. A strong debut by Cain could make visions of life after Bonds a little more tolerable for Giants fans.
- It's hard not to do a double-take when checking the top fantasy performers at the second base position. Sure, nobody is going to throw back Jeff Kent of Alfonso Soriano, but who saw Chase Utley, Ron Belliard and Jorge Cantu coming? Belliard had another typical weekend for the Indians. He hit a grand slam Thursday and then homered again Friday before settling for single base hits on Saturday and Sunday. Over the past month only Cantu (26 RBIs) can match Belliard's output of 22 RBIs among 2B-eligible players. Go back another month and you'll see that the 30-year-old has four homers, 31 RBIs, 22 runs scored and a .279 average in his past 49 games.
Cantu is still the sleeper of the year with 22 homers and 90 RBIs and Utley may have more long-term fantasy upside, but Belliard is probably the most valuable of the group right now. Why? Because he's available. Through Sunday, he remained a free agent in close to two-thirds of all Yahoo! leagues. Rickie Weeks is unquestionably the sexier player to own in keeper leagues, but if you're tuning up your roster for a stretch run this year, you're better off with Belliard over Weeks, who is hitting just .236 since July 1.
BARGAIN BIN: Top players available in 50 percent of Yahoo! leagues
- B.J. Upton, SS, TB
Upton isn't guaranteed a September call-up, but if he gets it, you can bet there will be a fantasy run on this kid. His minor league numbers that matter in fantasy leagues: .306 average, 17 homers, 70 RBIs, 43 stolen bases. The one number that is keeping him from the majors is one that wouldn't register in your typical league: 50. That's his error total through Sunday. But hey, he's fresh off some one-on-one tutelage with Ozzie Smith, so you never know. If he does get the call and you do need steals, don't hesitate.
- Joe Blanton, SP, Oak
Blanton stumbled a bit in July, but he was relatively error-free in August. If it wasn't for a lack of run support, his record for the month would have been much better than his already respectable 3-0 mark. In six August starts he posted a 0.95 ERA with a WHIP of 1.08 and 26 strikeouts in 38 innings. He was almost as dominant statistically in June when he went 5-1. He'll face a tough road test at Los Angeles his next time out, but Blanton has a 1.93 ERA in two starts against the Angels this year.
PROSPECT WATCH: Top players down on the farm
- Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Was (ETA – Sept. 1)
The left side of the Washington infield has been terrible – with both Cristian Guzman and Vinny Castilla mired in slumps. Could Zimmerman be the savior? The 2005 first-round draft pick played third base at Virginia and has been sharpening his skills at shortstop with Double-A Harrisberg. He can hit, too. Zimmerman had a pair of knocks Sunday to raise his average to .323. Club officials love this guy, and the Washington Post recently reported that he would have been promoted already if not for a recent run of injuries to pitchers. Best-case is that he plays enough to earn middle-infield eligibility and keeps displaying the stroke that has been dialed-in since he was swinging the aluminum in the spring.
- Scott Baker, SP, Min (ETA – Promoted Sunday)
Baker is back in the big leagues – probably for good this time. The Twins recalled the 23-year-old righty Sunday and will start him Monday in place of Joe Mays, who was banished to the bullpen after losing eight of his past nine decisions. Though he's not in the same class as prospects like Nelson Liriano or Matt Cain, Baker is an intense competitor who has proven himself at the Major League level. He has a 4-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a WHIP right around 1.10 in 24 starts this season (two with Minnesota). He may not repeatedly mow down the side like Felix Hernandez, but he has the command and demeanor to avoid blow-ups that most rookies are prone to.
MARKET MOVERS: Charting player values
Matt Murton, OF, Chi – Murton did the bulk of his damage this year at West Tenn, where he hit .342 with eight homers and 18 stolen bases in 78 games. Expect to see more of him in a Cubs uniform once Chicago comes to grips with the fact that they are out of the pennant chance.
Aaron Boone, 3B, Cle – Boone has .250 in his sights, which says a lot when you consider where he's coming from. He homered and stole a base in the same game for the first time since April on Sunday, and is now hitting .313 in August.
Bernie Williams, CF, NYY – The Yankees may have confiscated his glove when they acquired Matt Lawton from the Cubs, but that hasn't stopped Williams from producing at the plate. He had two homers Friday and three RBIs Sunday to give him 20 RBIs in his past 16 starts.
Ty Wigginton, 3B, Pit – Since re-joining the Pirates after Jose Castillo's season-ending injury, Wigginton has gone 7-for-18 with six RBIs in six games. He hit .294 with 14 homers and 52 RBIs in 72 games with Triple-A Indianapolis.
Scott Downs, SP, Tor – Roy Halladay will not be back this season and Ted Lilly probably won't come back next year, so the Jays have good reason to give Downs a long look as a starter. In his past four appearances, Downs in 2-1 with a 1.75 ERA.
Kameron Loe, SP, Tex – Loe will likely remain in the Texas rotation after pitching five shutout innings to earn a win Friday against Minnesota. The 6-foot-8 righty has been dominant at times for the Rangers this year.
Victor Diaz, OF, NYM – Diaz cooled off with the rest of the Mets batters against San Francisco, but for the month he's still hitting a respectable .305 with four homers and 11 RBIs in 15 games.
Jayson Werth, OF, LAD – Werth's going to get a shot at leadoff – which means his recent run of stolen bases could continue well into September.
Zach Duke, SP, Pit – Even before a sprained ankle sent him to the disabled list, the Pirates were considering shutting the rookie down for the season. The lefty has already surpassed his career-high total for innings pitched.
Oliver Perez, SP, Pit – In two Triple-A rehab starts, Perez has allowed nine runs on 13 hits in just over five innings of work. No word yet on whether the clubhouse sustained any damage.
Yahoo! Experts League Update
The Skinny experienced an "I'm still carrying this guy" moment Monday – and finally cut loose slap-hitting catcher Jason Kendall in favor of the suddenly hot again Brandon Inge. It won't matter in the battle for league supremacy, but there is office pride at stake near the middle of the pack.