Like Francisco Liriano, Florida's Josh Johnson burst onto the major-league scene as a rookie in '06 (12-7, 3.10 ERA, 133 K, 157 IP) and then had his '07 season wiped out by Tommy John surgery. Unlike Liriano, though, Johnson has made his way back to professional baseball's highest level this month. While the fantasy world has waited with bated breath for Liriano's return, Johnson quietly made his '08 debut on July 10 (5 IP, 3 ER, 6 K, 0 BB) and then followed it up on Sunday with 6.2 innings of two-run ball – for those who are wondering, his fastball was clocked regularly in the mid-90s.
So far, only three percent of Yahoo! leagues have deemed his return worthy of a roster spot, while more than 40 percent of said leagues own the rights to Liriano's Triple-A numbers. It's understandable that Liriano is garnering more attention. But Johnson probably deserves more love. Said Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez about Johnson's return, "We [improved] from within. For us, that's a CC Sabathia kind of trade." He went on to state that he feels Johnson will only get better and better as the season progresses.
Gonzalez may be looking at this return with rose-colored glasses, but it still seems that perhaps a little more attention should be paid to an imposing (6-foot-7) young pitcher with K per inning stuff (167 K in 196.2 career innings). I'm taking the plunge with my miserable Yahoo! Friends and Family League squad, replacing one Johnson – just traded Randy Johnson to Andy Behrens for Salomon Torres because I never seem to be able to beat him or Craig Falzone to any recently-named closers in free agency – for another. I figure, when you have little left to lose, gamble heavy on upside. And Johnson definitely has that.
Alright, let's take a look at who's been making noise early in the second half of the season:
BARGAIN BIN: Top players available in 50 percent of Yahoo! leagues
• Mike Aviles, KC, 2B/SS
I know, I know, we've been down this road already. But, honestly, I just don't get the indifference that much of the Yahoo! fantasy community seems to have for Aviles. He's owned in just 23 percent of Yahoo! leagues despite the fact that he's riding a 10-game hit streak. He's also ranked No. 9 among all middle infielders in per game fantasy value this season. He's demonstrated throughout his minor league career that he can hit with good pop and also can run a little bit. Since I've mentioned Aviles here not too long ago, I could have opted to go with someone else in this space. But I can honestly say that there isn't a hitter available in 50 percent of leagues or more that I would rather own. And it just feels necessary to reiterate the value he brings to the table one last time.
• Scott Baker, Min, SP
Baker inched closer to 50 percent ownership (47 percent) in Yahoo! leagues after holding Texas to two hits and a run in eight innings on Sunday. It was his seventh quality start in his past eight outings. Since last season's All-Star break, Baker has posted a 3.35 ERA and a 4.3:1 K-to-BB ratio (137/32) in 182.2 IP. With a stellar 1.09 WHIP and an impressive 76 Ks in 91 IP this season, Baker now sits at No. 110 in the Yahoo! game. In 12-team mixed leagues, there's really no reason he should be sitting among the pool of free agents. If you need help stabilizing your WHIP, look no further.
PROSPECT WATCH: Top players down on the farm
Gio Gonzalez, Oak, SP (ETA – late August)
The 22-year-old Gonzalez has caught fire at the right time for Triple-A Sacramento. While Oakland has dealt starters Rich Harden and Joe Blanton in the past few weeks, Gonzalez has reeled off four consecutive starts in which he pitched at least six innings and allowed one earned run or less. In his past 46.1 IP, he's fanned 59 batters and allowed just 22 hits. The silky-smooth lefty offers two plus pitches – mid-90s fastball and a big, biting curve – in addition to a changeup that is still in the development stages. His biggest remaining hurdle is his control (53 BB/110 IP), but it's hard to believe Gonzalez won't get his first opportunity with the A's within the next few weeks.
MARKET MOVERS: Charting player values
Edwin Encarnacion, Cin, 3B (59 percent owned) – Encarnacion is riding an eight-game streak in which he's hit .464 with four home runs, six RBIs and seven runs. Don't let the .265 BA scare you away. Encarnacion has hit .293 in each month save a May slump in which he hit .172. He was strong after the break last season, hitting .309 with 10 home runs. It's not hard to imagine the talented 25-year-old finishing with 30 home runs and a batting average over .280.
Austin Kearns, Was, OF (1 percent owned) – Remember him? Activated on July 3rd after spending roughly a month-and-a-half on the DL with a sore right elbow, Kearns is hitting .366 (15-for-41) in his past 11 games. He's also contributed two homers, 10 RBIs and nine runs in that span.
Delmon Young, Min, OF (72 percent owned) – A three-game layoff in late June was apparently the antidote for Young's poisonous bat. Up to that point, Young was hitting just .275 with a mere one home run in 276 at bats. In his 75 at bats since, he's hitting .387 with three home runs, raising his batting average 24 points in the process.
Edgar Gonzalez, SD, 2B (2 percent owned) – The 30-year-old rookie, filling in for the injured Tadahito Iguchi, is tied for the league lead with eight hits post-break. In fact, since June 10th, Gonzalez is hitting .328 with five home runs, 17 RBIs and 19 runs in 134 at bats.
Luke Scott, Bal, OF (9 percent owned) – Add Scott to the list of players that were in dire need of an All-Star break recharge. Scott went into the break on a 3-for-37 (.081) slide. But he's returned from the layoff red-hot, hitting .538 with three home runs, six RBIs and four runs in four games.
Scott Hairston, SD, OF (6 percent owned) – Since the 4th of July, Hairston is 17-for-38 (.447) with six home runs, nine RBIs and 11 runs. His 11 extra-base hits this month trail only Troy Glaus (13) and Justin Morneau (12).
Bronson Arroyo, Cin, SP (45 percent owned) – Since posting an epically atrocious line at Toronto on June 24th (1 IP, 11 H, 10 ER, 3 HR), Arroyo has won four consecutive starts – 4-0, 2.88 ERA, 15 K, 25 IP. He's picking up a lot more ground ball outs in July, which is an encouraging development for someone who has yielded the eighth-most home runs this season (19).
Nick Blackburn, Min, SP (15 percent owned) – The Twins rookie has held opposing hitters to the third-lowest July OPS (.477) among starters. His ERA for the month sits at 1.74 after three starts.
John Lackey, LAA, SP – Lackey allowed three earned runs just once in his first nine starts this season. But, he's allowed at least that many runs in each of his three July starts. In fact, in 18.2 IP this month, he's allowed 28 hits and 14 earned runs (6.75 ERA) despite a stellar 18:4 K-to-BB rate. Don't expect the slide to continue.
Kosuke Fukudome, ChC, OF – Fukudome has just 12 hits in his past 67 at bats (.179) and has struck out 23 times during that span. In his past 21 games, he has just one home run and three RBIs.
B.J. Upton, TB, 2B/OF – Upton is hitting just .188 in 13 July games. And, over his past 31 games, he's collected just four extra-base hits (1 HR) and six RBIs.
Carlos Gomez, Min, OF – The Twins' leadoff hitter has yet to steal a base in 15 July games. He's also hitting .167 this month after posting a June clip of .236. He remains owned in two-thirds of Y! leagues because of his 21 SBs and 52 runs, but in his past 47 games he hasn't done much of either – 4 SBs, 23 runs.