MLB Skinny: After the fall

Of course, the big news of the new week was that Albert Pujols(notes) is expected to miss the next 4-6 weeks with a forearm injury. This development was especially tough considering that, after a slow start, Pujols was finally delivering like a consensus No. 1 overall pick should – his 10 home runs in the past 30 days were second to only Michael Morse(notes) (yes, that's right, Michael Morse).

Colleague Andy Behrens addressed Pujols in our Roto Arcade blog, ranking Seattle's Justin Smoak(notes) as the best available 1B replacement among those available in more than 50 percent of Yahoo! leagues. And I concur with his Smoak nomination. The Mariners' sophomore produced a .900-plus OPS in April and is above .900 for June. He's more than capable of another half-dozen home runs with solid run production (especially if Ichiro(notes) stays hot and Dustin Ackley(notes) gets bumped up the lineup) while Pujols is on the mend.

Of course, Smoak isn't an available option for all our Pujols owners, so let's start this week’s diamond tour with another potential Pujols replacement part:


Swimming upstream (with a paddle) –> Freddie Freeman(notes): In terms of his plate discipline, Freeman is an odd duck. He's one of 34 regulars that see at least 4.0 pitches per plate appearance. But his 22:2 June K-to-BB ratio is downright ugly. And a closer look at the numbers reveals that pitches seen are not always a great indication of patience. As FanGraphs Mike Axisa points out, Freeman is in a select group of players that don't see a lot of strikes in the zone and swing at a healthy amount of pitches out of the zone, which helps explain his K:BB struggles of late. But the good news is that he's stinging the ball when he does make contact, as he's one of nine regulars in the league with at least a 30.0 LD% in June. Freeman has produced three hits in one of every five games over his past 35-game span after failing to collect three hits in any of his first 34 games with the Braves. He's maintained a batting average above .300 since the beginning of May. If you dove in on Anthony Rizzo(notes) when he was promoted, which I warned you against a couple weeks ago, Freeman is a solid, widely-available fallback option who is much further along the learning curve than Rizzo. And if you are an unfortunate Pujols owner without a Smoak card to play …

Forecast: Sunshine –> Adrian Beltre(notes): With a current top 70 ranking in the Yahoo! game, Beltre hasn't been so bad in his first Texas tour. But it could be so much better. Beltre ranks fifth in the league in at bats with runners on base, but his .223 BA in such situations is lowest among anyone that ranks in the top 30 in that category. The good news is that Beltre has a well-established track record for heating up in the second half, where his career OPS (.830) is 75 points better than his pre-AS break split. And things are currently trending in the right direction as he's hit .320 in his past 13 games after opening June in a 4-for-21 mini-slide. Health permitting, I still think Beltre is an excellent candidate to finish with something like a .280, 30 HR, 110 RBI line.

Make the move –> Ty Wigginton(notes): This should be the final call on Wigginton (although it probably won't be), who can technically be slotted with corners, middles or outfielders in this column given his extensive position eligibility. Manager Jim Tracy has stuck with Wigginton at 3B through a rough stretch to open June, but for the past 30 days, Wigginton has placed a solid No. 97 in the Y! game for that span. Don't be scared off by mentions of an Ian Stewart(notes) return from Triple-A. Sure, Stewart is enjoying a June HR binge (7 HRs in 14 games) in the video game environment of the PCL. But Stewart has struck out 37 times in 116 ABs for Colorado Springs, he's suffered through two hamstring injuries this season and he's a career .227 hitter against lefties. Even if he does return to Colorado soon, he can hope for no better than a platoon role given his shaky health and production. Wigginton should have no problems playing regularly the rest of the way, and there's really no reason someone with his track record of 20-plus HR seasons to go with serviceable BA totals should be available in more than 75 percent of leagues.


(Three) Tools of the trade –> Alexi Casilla(notes): Injuries, not ability, have been the biggest impediment in Casilla establishing himself as a consistent top-of-the-order contributor. He has respectable on-base skills and the speed to make an impact in stolen bases with regular playing time. After opening the season with a .167 April, which is in line with his career April mark, Casilla has hit .308 in 41 games since. And he's tallied seven steals in his past 22 games, contributing to a No. 53 ranking in Y! over the past month. He's eligible at both MI spots and is available in more than 75 percent of Y! leagues. Among the widely-available BA/SB/R plays at MI, I'd take Casilla over Alcides Escobar(notes) and Dee Gordon(notes).

A star is born –> Dustin Ackley: After watching him in his first three games with Seattle, it seems only a matter of time before the M's will move Ackley up to No. 2 in the order, a spot that has produced just a .195 batting average for the team, thus far. I heard someone on the M's broadcast of the Phillies series mention his hitting style and ability to square up a pitch as reminiscent of Wade Boggs, and I can definitely see where one would draw that comparison. According to Inside Edge, he had six well-hit balls in his first 11 ABs, three falling for hits, including a home run, a triple and a single off Roy Oswalt(notes) in his first MLB trip to the plate. Ackley has been snapped up in a third of Yahoo! leagues, but it should be at least double that number. If anything, he deserves more love than 39-percent owned teammate Chone Figgins(notes).

Call waiting –> Jason Kipnis(notes): It's likely that Kipnis will follow Ackley as the next big middle infield callup. Assuming the Indians' move of Orlando Cabrera(notes) to 3B works out alright, Kipnis' path to second base in Cleveland becomes clear. Kipnis ranks sixth in the International League in Total Bases and ninth in SLG% (.508). He's also stolen 10 bases without being caught.

Power play –> J.J. Hardy(notes): I've never been accused of being a strong Hardy supporter, but it's hard not to get behind his June hot streak (.369, 6 HR, 16 games). Hardy's HR/FB rate of 13.1% is in line with his marks in Milwaukee from '06 to '08 but he's currently hitting fly balls at a 46.9% clip, which is nearly 10 percent better than his career average. That definitely lends credibility to his recent power surge, and more encouraging is his career batting average post-break of .282, 29 points better than his first half mark (.253). It's also worth mentioning that his Well-Hit Average, according to Inside Edge, ranks 14th in the league among those with at least 100 ABs. When it comes to power at the SS spot, Hardy makes a strong case for top 5 consideration.


Point(s) of interest –> Roger Bernadina(notes): Last season, there were only 10 players in the league that hit at least 15 home runs and stole at least 25 bases. It's a number to consider when evaluating the merits of Bernadina, who has homered in three of his past four games and is looking at regular playing time until around at least the All-Star break, and definitely longer if he keeps up anything close to his torrid June pace (.918 OPS). In his past 161 games for the Nats, Bernadina has hit 15 home runs and stole 24 bases, making him the most attractive of those outfielders owned in five percent of leagues or less.

On the radar –> Jon Jay(notes): Although he has only modest power and speed, Jay has hit in the neighborhood of .300 at every level. Playing full-time, which he's likely to do while Pujols is out, Jay should deliver the kind of production that fantasy owners were expecting from Oakland's David DeJesus(notes).

Double flush –> Vernon Wells(notes): Even with three home runs in his past six games and seven in his past 30, you won't get a Wells endorsement from me. In those last 30 games, he hasn't recorded an extra-base hit besides his home runs, crazy considering he was 10th in the league in doubles last year (44) and that he's one of the most prolific doubles hitters of his era. According to Inside Edge, he has the lowest Quality AB% (accounting for well-hit outs, hits, HBP and sacrifices) among any hitter with at least 100 ABs.


Target acquisition –> Ted Lilly(notes): Available in nearly 40 percent of Y! leagues, Lilly is someone I'd target if available. He's walking people at the lowest rate of his career (1.77) and he's inducing swings at pitches out of the zone at the highest clip of his career (33.1%). Lilly has been strong in the second half in recent seasons, going 18-10 with a 3.17 ERA and 227 K in a combined 244 IP post-break over the past three seasons.

Quality is Job 1 –> Mike Leake(notes): Among the under 20-percent owned crowd, I'm happy to be an advocate for Leake. He's getting positive results from each of the five pitches he throws, his best pitch being a cutter that he's throwing nearly three times as often as he did last season. His K/9 rate of 6.43 is mediocre, but it's a half-K better than last season while his BB/9 rate has shriveled from 3.19 in '10 to 2.27 in '11 – and he's walked more than one batter just once in his past 10 outings. Of Leake's 11 starts, nine have been Quality Starts, giving him a .82 QS% that sits seventh among all qualified starters.


Shuffle play –> A.J. Pierzynski(notes): Not much has changed with Pierzynski over the years. His power is trending down, but he's still among the best bets at the catcher position to produce 450-500 ABs at a .280 clip. In the past month, Pierzynski has hit .330 and 11 of his 13 doubles have come in his past 31 games.And, for what it's worth, he's hit at least .299 in each second half the past two years. For those playing the catcher shuffle, he's the play.

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