MLB Skinny: Livin' large in LA

Roughly three weeks into the season, Rihanna-free Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp(notes) is the top player in the Yahoo! roto game, leading the league in steals and batting average while delivering a healthy return in the other 5x5 categories. Sure, a large dose of luck has helped him get out to such a rockin' start, but don't discount the stability provided by new manager Don Mattingly, who has cemented Kemp into the cleanup spot in the lineup, after previous manager Joe Torre had him hitting in eight different spots in the lineup last season and all nine spots the previous season. On and off the field, clearly there is less for Kemp to think about. And his focus seems to be clearer, if only judging by the small sample size we've seen thus far. His declining success against fastballs has turned back in a positive direction and he's drawing walks at almost double his career pace. There's no reason to get skittish about Kemp's torrid start. When he's at the top of his game, top 10 production should be the expectation given his blend of age and talent.

Alright, let's jump over the white line and see what else jumps to mind across the diamond this week:


Wood gathering –> David Freese(notes): In leagues where Freese is sitting on waivers (which is half of Yahoo! leagues), owners clearly haven't considered a few things. Most importantly, it's that Freese makes consistent, solid contact (which is why he's hit .300-plus at every step of his pro career) and that he's following Albert Pujols(notes), Matt Holliday(notes) and Lance Berkman(notes) in the batting order, none with a career OBP below .389. In that setup, Freese is, and will continue to be, an excellent source of RBIs. And you have to assume that, with a career minor league SLG% well above .500, Freese's power will continue more on the level we've seen thus far in '11 (2 HRs in 15 games) as opposed to the meager rate of '10 (4 HRs in 70 games). Don't let the lack of power and health of last season cloud your current thinking. Freese is a definite must-own in standard 12-team mixers.

Catching fire –> Garrett Jones(notes): Most of us can still remember Jones' magical '09 streak that included 19 home runs in a 59-game stretch. So we shouldn't take any signs of life from him lightly. This past weekend, Jones definitely showed a heartbeat with a 6-for-10, 2-HR showing at Cincinnati. He's also walked five times and fanned just once in his past four games. Said Jones, who recently returned to a more compact swing, "It's all starting to come into place and feel better. I feel like I'm using my hands a lot better. I've hit some balls well the past few days, and I'm just going to try to keep that going, keep that consistent." Jones is just 11 percent owned in Y! leagues, making him an intriguing flyer for those with power needs. We know what the upside can be, and it's a small price to pay to see if he can rediscover past glory.

Utility vehicle –> Michael Cuddyer(notes): Thanks to a slow start, Cuddyer is available in roughly 40 percent of Y! leagues. Those who dropped him may want to quickly reconsider. Cuddyer is one start away from qualifying at second base. Admittedly, 2B isn't depth-starved, but this is a player that hit 32 home runs just two seasons ago – uncommon power for the middle infield. Once the Twins start to get healthy again, Cuddyer should be a valuable MI commodity. True, he lacks a HR or an RBI to this point, but he's been an unlucky 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position. And in his past six games, he's hitting .320 with two doubles (his first extra-base hits of the season).

Sever all ties –> James Loney(notes): Considering that he hit at the Mendoza Line after the break last season and has always been a gap hitter at a position that is a traditional fantasy power source, it's surprising to see Loney still owned in three of every 10 Yahoo! leagues. FanGraphs has pointed out that he's struggling more than ever with fastballs and getting the ball into the air. If you still own Loney, swap him out for a newer 1B model like Justin Smoak(notes) (18%), Matt LaPorta(notes) (12%) or, heck, even cross-basin neighbor Mark Trumbo(notes) (4%), to name just a few – even the Dodgers seem to be warming to this idea, having just called up Jerry Sands. Really, Loney isn't the kind of player that can burn you badly if you cut him loose, so any alternative pickup is justifiable.


Point of interest –> Orlando Cabrera(notes): The 36-year-old veteran is tied for fifth among MI-eligible players in combined RBIs (11) and Runs (10). At this stage in his career, he's hard to take seriously. But it should be noted that he's hit .280-plus in four of the last five seasons. And, because he doesn't walk or strike out often, he puts a lot of balls in play. That's a good setup from the No. 6 spot in a lineup that has scored the sixth-most runs in MLB through its first 15 games. As long as Cleveland is contending in the AL Central, I'd expect the Tribe to continue to go with Cabrera over future-is-soon options like Jason Kipnis(notes) or Cord Phelps. For now, consider Cabrera a middle-class version of Placido Polanco(notes), and certainly viable in deeper mixers because of his SS-eligibility.

Still going down –> Chone Figgins(notes): Two-thirds of Yahoo! leagues currently employ Figgins on a league roster. But you have to wonder if the potential 30-40 steals is worth it. Last season, after Figgins turned around a slow start with a decent second half, he still clocked in at just No. 283 overall in the season-ending Yahoo! rankings. It's interesting to note that after he was one of the most productive hitters in the league against fastballs in '09, he dropped to sixth-worst in that department last season and currently ranks ninth-worst among regulars in '11. With his apparent declining bat skills entrenched in the league's worst offense, it's really hard to justify his ownership numbers … especially when he isn't even doing the one thing (1 SB) that you are keeping him around for in the first place.

Tipping the scale in his favor –> Jed Lowrie(notes): It's hard to miss the writing on the wall in regards to the future of Boston's shortstop position. Clearly, Marco Scutaro's(notes) days as a regular are numbered. You can't keep a good man down for long, and Lowrie has been tearing it up in Beantown since last season, hitting .310 with 10 home runs in 65 games since the '10 All-Star break. Lowrie's got a good eye and solid contact skills, and his power is developing and should be at least adequate for middle infield purposes. If he can cozy up into a regular spot in this soon-to-erupt lineup, he could yield very nice dividends for fantasy purposes the rest of the way. As colleague Scott Pianowski suggests, now is the time to buy.


Man of steel –> Carlos Gonzalez(notes): CarGo has encountered plenty of on-field issues this season, but he's yet to encounter kryptonite. Through 15 games, he's ranked the No. 35 player in the Yahoo! game. That may be a bit below where he was pegged in preseason drafts after finishing as the top player in Y! last season. But it's very impressive when you consider that his GB% has spiked to a career-high level (54.3) and he's delivered the most negative (runs above average) value on fastballs, even worse than James Loney! It's heartening to know that even when he's struggling to get into mid-season form, CarGo still can deliver like a rock star or, well, a super hero.

Finding his way out of troubled waters –> Jay Bruce(notes): The peripheral numbers make a pretty good case for what's ailing Bruce. He's swinging at more pitches than ever before, especially out of the strike zone. He's hitting fly balls at a greater rate than ever before. And he's got the lowest LD% in the league (2.6). Based on those numbers, I whole-heartedly agree with Howard Bender's (FanGraphs) assessment that Bruce has gone overboard swinging for the fences. That said, he took major strides this past weekend, going 6-for-13 with two home runs. Hopefully this is a sign of Bruce changing his approach from what we saw up to that point.

Shopping for outfield help –> Chris Coghlan(notes): Among outfielders in the 90 percent availability neighborhood, Coghlan is my favorite. He's maintained a near-.300 batting average (.298) in his first 922 ABs in the majors and he's starting to show some speed utility – 11 steals in his past 105 games. If he sticks as the Marlins leadoff hitter (and there's not much reason to think he won't), there's real potential for a .290 BA, 90-plus runs and 15-plus steals. That's not spectacular, admittedly, but from the widely-available crowd, you should be satisfied with solid, especially if you're a disgruntled Austin Jackson(notes) owner.


Adding a tool to the belt could be huge –> Michael Pineda(notes): Among starters, Pineda's average fastball of 95.5 mph leads the league. Not surprisingly, in terms of runs above average, no starter's fastball has been more effective. But he'll have to develop his changeup, which he has throws just 10 percent of the time, if he's going to continue his early success when he starts facing teams for the second and third time. That'll mostly benefit him against left-handed hitters, as his power fastball/slider combo should be good enough on its own to handle most righties. But a mature changeup may ultimately be what allows him to reach an elite level. A very good start for the rookie, though, especially considering he's pitched on the road in two of his first three starts, and he's faced three of the top six run scoring teams in the AL. As an M's fan, I'm giddy.

What goes around, comes around –> Aaron Harang(notes): We figured that Petco Park would help resurrect Harang's career, but so far it's been even better than was imagined. A look inside his 3-0, 1.50 ERA start shows that he's throwing more changeups than ever before and he's pushed his slider use back up to the 25 percent level, where he was at in '06 when he won 16 games and fanned 200-plus. The slider has been his best pitch, by far, and it'll be tough for him, given his age and mileage, to be able to keep up the usage pace. But all four of his offerings have been positive, thus far, and he's quickly moved himself past the rental class of fantasy pitchers.

Streaming –> Rick Porcello(notes): Now is a fantastic time to test drive Porcello. He's coming off 6 IP, 1 ER no-decision at Oakland and is slated to face Seattle in each of his next two starts. The Mariners rank last in the league in batting average (.214) and SLG% (.311).

Point of interest –> Matt Garza(notes): Hang in there on Garza. He leads the league (among starters) in ERA-FIP (5.08) and BABIP (.474), but is third in K/9 (12.05), 12th in K/BB ratio (5.0) and is generating a healthy amount of ground balls. There's plenty to believe in despite the mostly ugly numbers where it counts for fantasy owners.


Climbing the (depth) chart –> Hank Conger(notes): Finally, it appears Mike Scioscia is moving away from the Jeff Mathis(notes) Experience. While Conger has easily outhit Mathis, it's the rookie's defensive chops that motivated Scioscia to bench Mathis in favor of Conger in three of the past four games. Conger has a solid plate approach and has been a .300 hitter in his 400-plus games at the minor league level. And, as a starter, he has 15-HR potential. In deeper leagues, he's definite flyer material.

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