Closing Time: In Tampa, versatility is spelled with a 'Z'

Tampa's Ben Zobrist doesn't masquerade behind a black mask, swashbuckle his way with a rapier through bumbling adversaries or engage in regular make-out sessions with Catherine Zeta-Jones. But, like Zorro, the ultra-versatile commodity continues to brand pitchers with a Z.

Because he's eligible at multiple positions (SS, OF), Joe Maddon's "Zorro" (or "Zorilla" per the skipper) has been an early season hero for owners seeking power at middle infield. Smothering grounders Sunday at short – his sixth start in the Rays' last eight games – he clubbed his third homer, collecting RBIs No. 8 and 9, since April 12. Once considered a mediocre prospect with minimal pop in the Astros organization, the 27-year-old is quickly proving his 12 homers in only 198 at-bats (HR per 16.5 at-bats) a season ago weren't an anomaly. Buddy Holly is a staunch believer:

"That is really what sets him apart," Maddon said, "and why you would even consider him as a starter now at some point in his career because of how he's begun to hit the ball and hit for power."

Given his useful glovework at multiple positions, advanced strike-zone knowledge (11.2 BB% in '08) and brimming confidence, Zobrist will continue to log starts at a variety of spots, but mostly in right with Matt Joyce languishing at Triple-A. If his current role expands, and Maddon routinely pencils him into RBI-friendly positions (6-7 spot), he could undergo a production spike similar to Mark DeRosa last year. His BA will be marginal for shallow leaguers, but the possible 20 HR, 70 RBI yield would be very fruitful for managers in formats (14-teams-plus mixed) where waiver resources are exhausted.

If you're a deep leaguer unhappy with sluggish starts by Alexei Ramirez, Mike Aviles or Stephen Drew, Tampa's noble swordsman, who is owned in only two-percent of Y! Plus leagues, is the perfect short-term stopgap.

Randy Johnson's buy-low door slammed shut Sundayas The Mullet tossed seven brilliant innings of one-hit ball (10:3 GB/FB). He walked two and punched out seven. Run support will be an ongoing issue, but when the 45-year-old brings his 'A' game, hitters still cower in fear. Injury risks and occasional blips aside, he'll be one of the finest No. 4 starters in 12-team mixed leagues this season.

New York's Brett Gardner hit leadoff for the third time this season. The speedster is only batting .244, but if Joe Girardi continues to place him atop the Yanks order, his runs and steals production should be plentiful, especially when A-Rod returns.

Todd Coffey, a buzz-worthy closer prospect once in the Reds organization, protected the Brewers' two-run lead against the Mets over 2.2 innings racking his first save since 2006. He hasn't allowed a run in 17 straight appearances with the Brew-Ha-Has.

It appears Ken Macha will continue to employ a committee approach until Trevor Hoffman is activated from the DL, possibly as early as Friday. The major's all-time saves king will do his best Gallardo impersonation and start for Triple-A Nashville on Tuesday. He is also expected to work in relief for the Sounds on Thursday. If everything goes off without a hitch, "Hells Bells" could be thundering over the Miller Park loudspeakers soon.

Readers seduced by the Noise's prophetic words about Ricky Romero reaped major reward as the former 2005 first-rounder tossed seven stupendous innings against the A's. He conceded just four hits and posted a 6:2 K:BB split. It was his second win of the season. With three quality starts under his belt (vs. Det, at Min, vs. Oak), the still widely available southpaw is someone that deserves a roster spot in all 12-team mixed leagues. However, keep in mind that although young pitchers with a quality pedigree can look dynamite early in the season, they typically will experience an ineffective phase due to the distribution of advanced scouting reports. In other words, if Romero's stellar outings persist through June, he's destined for great things.

In the near-term, consistent laudable performances should be expected, but if his value leaps to outlandish levels, it would be wise to auction him off to the highest bidder.

Overshadowed by Emilio Bonifacio's torrid start is the recent performance of the "Toy Cannon" Cody Ross. The pint-sized Popeye went 3-for-4 against Washington, launching his third homer of the season. Including Sunday's performance, the outfielder has 11 RBIs in his past five contests.

Although he blasted 22 bombs in 461 at-bats last season, Ross was overlooked in many mixed drafts. Considering he's seeing regular action, a surge in power totals is possible. His aggressive dish demeanor (25.6 K%) will cause prolonged dry spells, but with 470 at-bats, a 25-80 campaign can't be ruled out. Due to his pop-in-bunches reputation, he's an excellent short-term buy even in 12-team mixed leagues.

Amazingly, little used shortstop Ramon Santiago is the pacesetter at his position in total RBIs (11). Sunday afternoon, the Tigers infielder went 2-for-3 with five RBI against Seattle. Analyzing the historical record, the switch-hitter offers minimal pop, but should be labeled a moderate buy in extremely deep mixed and AL-only formats given the surge in playing time. He'll split time with Adam Everett, but with 350-plus at-bats, 45-55 RBIs are attainable.

Chan Blow Park's days in the Philadelphia rotation are numbered. After notching an uncharacteristically spectacular 23:2 K:BB split in spring training, the worthless starter has compiled an 8.68 ERA in two appearances. Torched for four earned in five innings Sunday against San Diego, Park may soon be removed in favor of top prospect J.A. Happ.

The rookie southpaw, who pitched three terrific innings of relief Sunday (3 HA, 1 BB, 2 K, 0 ER), has a rich minor league track-record. Last season at Triple-A, the 26-year-old tallied an impressive 10.1 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 in 135 innings. Because he's a flyball pitcher, Citizen Bank's unfriendly dimensions could cause him to suffer from gopheritis, but he's definitely has a Gavin Floyd-like aura about him. Deep mixed leaguers should keep him in the crosshairs.

This is not an injury blog: B.J. Upton was pulled early after feeling tightness in his quad. Joe Maddon expects him to be ready to suit up Tuesday against Seattle. … Stephen Drew missed his second straight game due to hamstring tightness. He's considered day-to-day but may not reappear until late in the week. … Brian McCann may be forced to the DL due to a plaguing case of blurred vision and uncomfortable dryness in his left eye. His backup, David Ross, went 2-for-4 with a homer and three RBI in McCann's stead. … Yunel Escobar lounged in the clubhouse spa, sidelined by a strained abdominal muscle. He hopes to play early this week. … The Sultan of Sideburns Joe Mauer will likely begin a rehab assignment by the end of the week. His tentative return date is May 1. … Jay Bruce, bothered by a bruised right hand, told the Cincinnati Enquirer he'll be "fine in no time." He'll likely trot out to right in Chicago Tuesday.

Quick Hitters: Zach Duke returned from the Crab Nebula, surrendering 12 hits and six earned in six innings. As discussed in this week's Noise, he has to locate his pitches almost flawlessly to be effective every time out. … Glen Perkins again worked deep, posting his third straight eight-inning performance. He has allowed a miniscule four earned in 24 IP. … Mike Cameron clocked his fourth homer this season, a solo shot off Nelson Figueroa. Inevitably his current .316 BA will plummet under .250, but a 28-80-75-18 campaign is reachable. … Matt Kemp is a certified beast. After Sunday's 3-for-5, 5-RBI effort he has 14 RBIs on the year and is currently riding a 13-game hit streak. He's destined to earn a spot in the 30-30 club this year. … David Ortiz's epic swoon extended Sunday as the popular early round pick went 0-for-4 with 2 Ks. He now has six more strikeouts than hits on the year. Bench him until he applies a thick coat of Rust-Oleum. … Rick Porcello confounded the Mariners over seven superb innings, yielding just one earned with three strikeouts. It's amazing he can't yet enjoy PBR legally. … Nice bounce back game for Jon Lester against the O's (7 IP, 0 ER, 4 HA, 2 BB, 9 K, W). A 16-game winner in '08, his ERA will drift south of 4.00 shortly. … Quality debut for Houston rookie Felipe Paulino. The 25-year-old righty hurled six shutout innings against Cincy, striking out six. Sidelined by shoulder bursitis last season, he notched an eye-catching 8.84 K/9 at Double-A Round Rock in '07. Take the plunge NL-only managers.


Images courtesy of Associated Press

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