Notes: Lux, Cole, Gore and More

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I wasn’t particularly worried about Zack Wheeler after his first start; his velocity was down two mph from 2021, but he was still building up after his minor shoulder issue this spring. His second start Sunday against the Marlins was considerably more discouraging. He couldn’t seem to locate, and instead of seeing his stuff bounce back, his velocity decreased further; his average fastball was 94.4 mph, down from 95.0 in his debut and 97.1 mph last year. It was enough to make one wonder if there’s more going on in his arm than has been revealed. If things aren’t better next time out against the Brewers this weekend, I’ll be in something close to panic mode.

National League notes

- While he settled for three strikeouts against the Braves, MacKenzie Gore’s debut Friday was largely encouraging. Gore mostly threw fastballs, even though he has four legitimate pitches. None of the 20 non-fastballs he threw were put into play, though they also generated just one missed swing. His fastball was consistently in the mid-90s, topping out at 98.5 mph. There’s reason to think he’ll be a factor in mixed leagues if he sticks in the rotation. However, with Mike Clevinger (knee) and Blake Snell (groin) both set to return before long, it’s still rather likely to be a short stay the 23-year-old left-hander.

- Gavin Lux missed Tuesday’s game with back tightness, but he’s been even more impressive this year than his .276/.405/.483 line suggests. His hard-hit rate is in the top five in baseball, and while he’s somehow collected only one homer, he’s already hit four balls at least 390 feet. It’s going to be hard for him to claim a place at the top of the loaded Dodgers lineup, but if it does somehow happen, he could wind up as a top-five second baseman this year. Even as a No. 9 hitter now, I’d put him in the top 10.

- Even though Brian Snitker had some nice things to say after Monday’s game, the Braves pulled the plug on Huascar Ynoa yesterday, sending him down after two starts in which he gave up 10 runs in 6 2/3 innings. It seems premature, but the Braves weren’t sold on Ynoa this spring, even though he was quite impressive in 17 starts last year (4.05 ERA, 100/25 K/BB in 91 IP). While many pitchers have dealt with diminished velocity and spin rates to begin the year, Ynoa was sitting right where he did in 2021. I imagine he would have turned it around, and perhaps he’ll get that chance in a few weeks. In the meantime, Bryce Elder will likely stick in the fifth spot.

- He’s still hitting a modest .216/.362/.405, but Christian Yelich is looking better by the series. Now that some of those hard-hit balls are starting to be driven in the air, rather than into the ground, I’d currently place him 50-60 spots higher than I did when I had him 102nd in the preseason top 500.

- Drew Smyly was one of my favorite picks a year ago in Atlanta, but he never found his groove and I pretty much wrote him off for this year after his velocity dipped in the second half. His velocity has been no better this year in Chicago, but he’s adapted by cutting way back on the fastball usage and throwing cutters and curveballs 70% of the time. In two starts, he’s yet to give up a run in 9 2/3 innings. He’s struck out just five batters, but almost all of the contact against him has been weak and much of it has been on the ground. I don’t expect that it’ll last forever, but I think he makes sense as a mixed-league pickup for now.

- I figured Oneil Cruz would get a lot of outfield time in Triple-A, but so far, he’s started nine of his 10 games at shortstop. It suggests he’s in line to replace Kevin Newman in Pittsburgh at some point. Cruz can’t get much better at shortstop. It’s really impressive that he’s as adequate as he is. Sure, there are refinements possible, but he’s 6-foot-7 and getting a little thicker by the year... even as experience makes him better, age will make him worse. Right field still might make more sense for him, and the Pirates have an extremely obvious need there (Cole Tucker is getting most of the playing time at the moment). But if the team wanted him to break in there, he’d presumably be playing more.

- New Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol decided this spring that he wanted Dylan Carlson leading off, and it seems that it’s going to take more than a .158 average and one walk in 43 plate appearances to change his mind. I was rather skeptical about Carlson, at least for the short term, based on his rather awful hard-hit rate last year. This year, he’s been far worse; his 15.1% hard-hit rate is half of last year’s 30.7% mark, which was 11th worst among qualifiers then. He’s yet to barrel a ball. He’s not a guy I’d currently suggest dropping in mixed leagues, but I would suggest to Marmol that he drop him in the lineup and go back to Tommy Edman leading off.

- If Didi Gregorius lands on the IL with his hand contusion, Alec Bohm will be worth at least a short-term pickup in mixed leagues. The Phillies would certainly seem to be better off without Gregorius in the lineup anyway.

American League notes

- Between the expansion of left field and the addition of a humidor, Camden Yards has been death to flyballs this year; just three homers have been hit in 464 plate appearances at the park. Both of the ones hit by the Orioles came off the bat of Cedric Mullins, who only has power to right field and thus, from a home run standpoint anyway, was essentially unaffected by the change in dimensions. It was obvious that the Orioles’ right-handed hitters would pay a price because of the changes, but it looks like it will be even more severe than expected. Trey Mancini is probably going to be completely useless in mixed leagues. I had Ryan Mountcastle 124th in my top 500, which was about 50 spots lower than I placed him prior to the announcement about the ballpark changes. I’d push him at least another 50 spots lower now. Mullins should still be OK, but he’s probably not going to be very strong in runs or RBI.

- I was down some on Jose Abreu this year, mostly because he’s 35 and getting to an age at which his average could really begin to slip. Superficially, it’s looking like a good call to this point; he’s hitting .212 with one homer and four RBI in nine games and his 27% strikeout rate would blow away his career high. On the other hand, Abreu has a ridiculous 99-mph average exit velocity. He already has six barrels and 16 hard-hit balls. Statcast has him with an xSLG of .802, compared to his actual .364 mark. Even the strikeout rate seems like a bit of a fluke; he’s swinging less than he usually does, putting him into deeper counts, but he’s missing a little less than usual. I don’t know that he’s a buy-low possibility at this early point, but I’m higher on him than I was a couple of weeks ago.

- Julio Rodriguez is off to a fascinating start, what with his .143 average and 61% hard-hit rate. 11 of the 18 balls he’s put into play have left the bat at over 98 mph, with three exceeding 110 mph, but his hardest contact has been on the ground and he’s yet to leave the yard. He’s also swinging and missing a whole bunch. Still, he’s showing enough promise on contact to give hope for a solid rookie season, and even if he doesn’t hit as well as some predicted, the potential for 20-plus steals should keep him relevant for fantasy purposes.

- The Guardians lineup situation remains quite interesting. I feel sort of bad for Bobby Bradley, who was written in as a starter over the winter, only to essentially lose his job after two games because of the emergence of Steven Kwan and Owen Miller. Also abandoned was the plan to give Amed Rosario considerable time in the outfield, which was going to open up shortstop for Andres Gimenez. With Kwan in left, Rosario has been a fixture at short and Gimenez and Miller are splitting time at second. Miller is winning out there at the moment, though he just landed on the COVID-19 IL.

Josh Naylor made his return to the lineup at first base on Friday, though he played right field the next night. Naylor at first base is the right call for Cleveland, as I see it. Oscar Mercado, getting much of the time in right, has been another interesting surprise for the Guardians, though in spite of his impressive power so far (three homers, nine RBI), he’s hitting just .188 with no walks in 32 plate appearances. He’s not an option in shallow leagues yet, but he has the potential because of his speed.

Miller has been ridiculous, going 14-for-28 with two homers and seven doubles. He was getting the bat knocked out of his hands after arriving in the majors last May, though he finished better. His peripherals this year have been great. Especially nice is the 90% contact rate. I don’t think he’s an All-Star, but he seems fairly legit, and I’d hold on to him in shallow leagues for now. It’s just too bad he’s not really a factor on the basepaths.

- He’s only serving as a 29th man in a doubleheader, but Gabriel Arias is getting his first callup Wednesday. I think it’s Arias who the Guardians truly had in mind when they started looking at Rosario as more of an outfielder this spring. Arias isn’t a terrific fantasy prospect, since he’s not really a basestealer, but he has power and a very good glove. He projects as a fine major league regular, and depending on what happens with Rosario and the outfield situation, he could get the starting job as soon as June or July.

- Gerrit Cole losing the strike zone on a cold evening in Detroit doesn’t seem like a big reason for concern. His velocity has been fine. His spin rates are still down from prior to the sticky stuff crackdown last June, but they’re steady from where they were at the end of last year, after they rebounded some in August and September. He still figures to be elite.

- I promise not to write about Taylor Ward every week, but I do think he’s one of the better pickups out there right now. Since coming off the IL on Saturday, he’s hit in the top half of the Angels lineup in all four games. Part of that was because Mike Trout has missed the last two games, but it’s clear Joe Maddon is fond of him. He should hit for a solid average and ample power.

- I’d be annoyed about Josh Staumont getting save chances over Scott Barlow under other circumstances, but the fact is that Barlow’s velocity has been down significantly since the spring. On Tuesday, he threw just one fastball among his 13 pitches and it came in at 90 mph. In previous appearances, he had mostly hung around 93 mph, which is still two mph off from past years. Barlow has allowed just one run in 5 2/3 innings anyway, but he’s going to eventually run into issues if the velocity fails to come back. Staumont likely is the better bet at this point.

- While there’s good reason to hope it’ll be Jhoan Duran in time, Emilio Pagan should be the Twins’ closer for now. Tyler Duffey hasn’t impressed at all.