Jason KipnisOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJason Kipnis hopes to improve upon his .252 career batting average after the All-Star break.

The fourth middle infielder chosen in ESPN average live drafts entered Tuesday as the No. 43 middle infielder on the Player Rater. Yes, Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis has certainly been a disappointment, perhaps a bit overrated as well as a third-rounder (24th overall), but hopefully his Tuesday performance in which he hit a pair of singles and stole two bases is what turns his season around.

Kipnis has defied the odds before, notably in the stolen base department, where he wasn’t much of a factor in the minor leagues. Then he swiped 61 bases his first two full big league seasons. I spoke to Kipnis at the All-Star break in New York last season about a potential 30-homer, 30-steal season, then he struggled to hit for average and power the final two-plus months, just like the preceding season. Will that change in 2014? Well, Kipnis is 27 and we’ve probably seen his best, but how about some perspective: he averaged 15.5 home runs and 30.5 stolen bases in 2012-13, and there isn’t a single player currently on pace to reach those numbers in 2014. And Kipnis is, again, a middle infielder. As with myriad others chosen in the first five rounds that haven’t delivered expected results, fantasy owners have to hope track record counts for something. We’ve seen better play from Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce, Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Jose Reyes and others of late. Kipnis should be next.

Mark Teixeira and Brett GardnerGetty ImagesMark Teixeira has surprised, while Brett Gardner may be the best value among Yankees hitters.

A mere five players hit more than the 34 home runs outfielder Alfonso Soriano blasted last season, and of the 14 players who reached the 30-home run mark, none registered more than the 18 stolen bases he did. So why did Soriano simply stop hitting and running the first three months of this season? Call it old age (he’s 38) combining suddenly with a complete lack of plate discipline, if you will -- which I don’t really buy -- but the 14th-round pick in ESPN ADP was truly awful to the point that the New York Yankees designated him for assignment over the weekend, basically handing the right field job to 40-year-old Ichiro Suzuki, who celebrated with a trio of singles in a 5-3 victory in Cleveland on Monday night.

I own Soriano in a really deep league with really different rules than most, and other than his being an embarrassingly poor draft pick, let’s say the outfield pool there is pretty bereft of talent. I considered Suzuki as a replacement, but I couldn’t find enough reasons to invest. Age is one factor, but there’s not even a hint of power left and probably not enough in the base-stealing department to make a difference. Plus, I don’t think he’ll hit near .300 for much longer, which means it’s downhill from here. Suzuki stole 20 bases last year in way too much playing time, and ultimately one would presume the contending (somehow) Yankees are going to upgrade at right field, since it’s pretty clear Carlos Beltran is having trouble just standing up at this point, relegating him to designated hitter duties. I just cannot recommend Ichiro in a 10- or 12-team league. I actually think Soriano, presuming he lands a job soon (Texas Rangers? Boston Red Sox?), can still matter more the rest of the way.

Regardless, here are general thoughts on current Yankees hitters, for buy/sell purposes, I suppose:

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Encarnacion/VottoUSA TODAY SportsEdwin Encarnacion and Joey Votto both appear to be DL-bound.

Fantasy owners had a legitimate -- in theory -- decision to make a few months ago if looking at drafting first basemen in the second round. Paul Goldschmidt and Chris Davis were off the board, leaving, essentially, Edwin Encarnacion, Prince Fielder and Joey Votto available. I ranked Encarnacion in my first round actually, with Votto nowhere close -- I did like Fielder, mostly -- but few could have expected the turn of events that binds them today, because each is headed to the disabled list for a quad injury.

Encarnacion, 31, has bashed 26 home runs and ranks just outside the top 10 for all options on the Player Rater, while Votto, 30, has six home runs and comes in at No. 358 on the same Rater, after Yangervis Solarte, Rubby De La Rosa and Jeurys Familia. Really, there’s no comparison and yep, that was a pretty big decision fantasy owners had to make back in March. Now it’s decision time again, in a way. Do you count on these guys the final two months of the season, or move on?

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The excellent and somewhat expected performances by San Diego Padres right-hander Tyson Ross and Miami Marlins right-hander Tom Koehler on Wednesday got me thinking about other hurlers who fantasy owners might rarely think about, but should because home cooking generally tastes pretty good. Some otherwise average pitchers, depending on ballpark and a comfort level impossible to measure, really thrive in home games, like Ross and Koehler.

Ross tossed a three-hit shutout against the Cincinnati Reds Wednesday, striking out nine against nary a free pass, and his home ERA stands at a stupendous 2.08 with a 0.94 WHIP. On the road, you don’t really want Ross. Then again, most Padres pitchers thrive at spacious Petco Park, where the team ERA is 2.66, second only to the Washington Nationals. San Diego's road ERA is 3.97, middle of the pack.

Koehler was also an obvious play -- as noted in this video recorded Tuesday -- against a weak Philadelphia Phillies lineup, and he delivered six shutout frames and a victory, lowering his home ERA to 2.75 with a WHIP of 0.98. Ross and Koehler aren’t worth much on the road, just like several (or more) of the following names. But I figured why not point out some of the readily available pitchers -- owned in fewer than 10 percent of ESPN standard mixed formats -- featuring interesting home/road splits, just in case the mere mention or sight of their name reminds you that there's value here. Every start counts!

[+] EnlargeKyle Gibson
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesKyle Gibson is a pitcher to activate when he's at home, but keep him out of your lineup when the Twins are on the road.
Kyle Gibson, Minnesota Twins: He doesn't help much in strikeouts, and that's true of his work at Target Field as well, but among pitchers with 40 or more innings at home this season, only Julio Teheran of the Atlanta Braves and Andrew Cashner of the San Diego Padres -- guys you use everywhere -- have an ERA better than his 1.54.

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 James Shields AP Photo/Jim MoneJames Shields was touched up for five runs in five innings, and has a 4.93 ERA since May.

Kansas City Royals right-hander James Shields is putting his fantasy owners in quite a spot, as Tuesday evening was the sixth time in eight outings the top-20 starting pitcher from draft day and long-time reliable had permitted four or more runs in game. Based on his track record and the preseason investment, nobody would cut him. But like Detroit Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander and Cincinnati Reds right-hander Homer Bailey, the frustration boils and owners are left to ponder how to react when there’s little that can be done except show patience. This is, after all, the No. 63 starting pitcher on the Player Rater.

Shields threw 113 pitches over five innings in his shortest outing of 2014 Tuesday, allowing nine hits and two walks at Minnesota, not exactly a top offensive squad, especially with Eduardo Nunez leading off, Chris Parmelee hitting third and Trevor Plouffe fifth. But this is a theme with Shields, who claims he isn’t hurt. A longtime workhorse on pace for his eighth consecutive season of considerably more than 200 innings pitched, Shields, as with Verlander, hasn’t seen great change in his peripherals. In his case velocity isn’t down. Shields posted a 2.03 April ERA with 41 strikeouts in 40 innings, but since then his ERA is 4.93. That’s hardly an ace, and in a pitching-rich fantasy environment there are myriad options to replace him with.

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Chicago Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta entered Monday at Fenway Park winless in five starts against the Boston Red Sox, with a 5.90 ERA and 1.58 WHIP. This certainly might have led a concerned Arrieta fantasy owner to bench him, citing history, which obviously didn’t turn out to be the right call when he came within four outs of a no-hitter. Still, those who endured Arrieta when he was a promising prospect with the Baltimore Orioles don’t recognize this new version, and for good reason: He’s better, and it looks pretty legit. The last fellow to take no-hit bids into the seventh inning of consecutive outings was Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Dave Stieb back in 1988.

[+] EnlargeJake Arrieta
AP Photo/Charles KrupaJake Arrieta was applauded by the Fenway faithful after carrying a no-hitter bid into the eighth inning.
Arrieta allowed a Stephen Drew single with two outs in the eighth inning, and he was done after 120 excellent pitches, striking out 10 with only one walk. He accrued strikeouts with various weapons, the fastball that hit 94 mph even in the final inning, the cutter, the curveball and the changeup. We’ve discussed in recent weeks in this space and on the Fantasy Focus podcast how Arrieta’s been throwing his new, refined cutter -- it looks and acts like a slider, frankly -- nearly a quarter of the time, and hitters are doing nothing with it. Arrieta took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of his last outing, and then even further Monday. Arrieta owns a 1.81 ERA after 11 starts.

The final June numbers for Arrieta are tough to believe, with a 1.14 ERA in five starts, 0.79 WHIP and 38 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings. Things can’t continue to this degree, but we all said that about Atlanta Braves right-hander Kris Medlen a few summers ago and, of course, they did. Arrieta is a pitcher with a new pitch and a new approach, but his 1.95 FIP and 2.48 xFIP tell us he’s very much for real. His walk rate is also way down from last year, when he introduced the cutter into his arsenal, but not this much. Arrieta didn’t throw the cutter during his Orioles days -- the organization banned it -- but the Cubs have no such concerns. For now, everyone’s winning, except the hitters flailing away.

Ultimately, fantasy owners want to know if they can rely on this fellow, and the answer isn’t so simple.

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Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is scheduled to be activated from the disabled list to face the Colorado Rockies on Monday, and figures to be in the lineup in left field, hitting anywhere from ... well, why bother to guess? Rookie manager Matt Williams had Harper for 22 games in April, and he hit second and sixth the most, but also fourth, fifth and seventh. It doesn’t matter. Harper’s thumb injury is healed and this is the same guy predicted for immediate stardom, a second-round choice by ESPN average draft position (ADP) ready to carry fantasy owners. Activating him this week isn't enough. Trade for him where possible, because he’s every bit the top-20 guy he was months ago.

Detractors will eagerly point out that Harper hasn’t exactly taken the Mike Trout route to statistical wonder in his two-plus seasons, and yes, that’s fair. Harper is 21 years old, and for him to be regarded as a top-20 fantasy option, he’s really got to produce. Starting Monday, he shall do just that.

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Brian DozierBob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsBrian Dozier, one of this year's biggest surprises, is actually on pace for a 30/30 season.
It’s not easy as it used to be to finish a baseball season with more than 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Nine players achieved the feat last season, 10 the year before and 12 in 2011. Basically, the trend of five-category fantasy options continues to dwindle each season, and while we’re not quite at the midpoint of the 2014 season, a mere seven players have reached double digits in these counting categories, and they're the only ones on pace for 20/20. You want 30/30? It’s Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier on that pace, and he’s all alone. Sure, everyone picked that one!

Of course, after blogging about Texas Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo on Thursday, it’s even more clear that this trend not only isn't helping fantasy owners, but it makes the players who consistently hit for power and steal bases so much more valuable. Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout wouldn’t be the first overall pick if he stopped running. Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen wouldn’t be a consensus first-rounder, as Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun no longer is, if he stopped running. Anyway, let’s point out the valuable players who have achieved 20/20 status in recent seasons and analyze the ones on pace to do so this year, and others who seem as though they could make a run, so to speak, for it.

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Phillies/RangersAP Photo/Jim CowsertShin-Soo Choo is batting a career-worst .247 and hasn't stolen a base since early May.

There really doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with Texas Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo that patience, health and luck won’t fix, so for all his fantasy owners wondering why he’s apparently stopped hitting, running and to an odd extent walking, don’t panic. Well, worry about the running part to some degree, but the point is, this terrible June he’s having will be ending in a few days, and he remains a player who can help us win leagues. Hopefully it’s not a terrible July, as well.

Choo, a fifth-round choice in ESPN ADP and near-top-10 outfielder, enters Thursday having hit a meager .147 in June, despite slapping a few hits in Wednesday’s 8-6 loss to the Detroit Tigers. I've caught more than a few of Choo’s at-bats over the past week, and he’s been more aggressive in swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, and he’s not really driving the ball, which makes me think it’s not only a change in approach that perhaps he and manager Ron Washington have altered due to his new No. 3 lineup slot, but he’s also still dealing with a sore left ankle, the same one that has bothered him since April. Choo rarely goes more than a week without drawing a walk, but that’s the deal currently. As one of the pre-eminent walkers in the game, he also boasts three 20-homer, 20-steal seasons in the past five years. Just consider some of the odd things going on with him statistically:

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Tim Lincecum Jason O. Watson/Getty ImagesTim Lincecum needed only 113 pitches to toss a perfect game against the Padres Wednesday.
Let’s get two things out of the way right away, and I assure you I have no reason to be biased either for or against San Francisco Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum or the woeful team he no-hit Wednesday, the San Diego Padres:

• Sell high on Lincecum, if that’s even possible. Fast. The no-hitter is hardly the start of something great. The guy wasn’t owned in even 40 percent of ESPN standard leagues entering the day.

• Start pretty much every pitcher against the Padres’ lineup.

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Most times that I’ve talked to a baseball player about the potential effects a position change will have -- or is having -- on them at the plate, they’ve looked at me like I was an alien from outer space. In other words, although these guys are human beings and have feelings and all that, they tend to separate their work in the field from what they do with the bat. I ask the question not expecting some new answer -- among the people I’ve asked over the years include Ryan Braun, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Billy Hamilton, and I spared Joe Mauer in March because he laughed at others who asked -- but because perhaps one day an athlete will admit that there is a mind game at play, and both the MLB teams that employ them and the fantasy owners that rely on statistics should know better.

Boston Red Sox youngster Xander Bogaerts was dropped to the No. 7 spot in the struggling lineup for Tuesday’s game in Seattle, and he responded merely with a single in four at-bats. Bogaerts has told reporters the switch from shortstop, where he was doing awesome, to third base is no big deal. I believe him! I’m a huge Bogaerts fan and think he’ll be a fantasy monster in two years and a league building block in time. However, the numbers tell us he’s either in a massive slump that might have happened anyway, or it’s pure coincidence he’s hitting .296 with a .816 OPS at short, and .167 with a .522 OPS through 84 plate appearances at the hot corner. I’m still investing in Bogaerts, and think he'll hit at least .280 this season with 15 home runs. The best is yet to come, though he’s been a popular drop recently in standard leagues. Bogaerts’ OPS while at shortstop, incidentally, is among the top-5 at the position among qualified hitters.

Then there’s Cleveland Indians walker/slugger Carlos Santana. He transitioned from a catcher/first base hybrid over to third base this spring, when the organization had mostly given up on Lonnie Chisenhall; Santana appeared competent enough defensively. He didn’t hit well, though. Chisenhall really got on a roll, and now it appears Santana is mainly a first baseman and occasional designated hitter. Is this why the talented switch-hitter is now hitting? I haven’t seen anyone ask Santana if defensive responsibilities at third base affected him at the plate, but what athlete, in retrospect, would admit that? They’re supposed to be strong and impervious to outside distractions, right? Santana homered among his four hits in five at-bats Tuesday, and also drew a pair of walks. I’ve never given up on him, as a strong walk rate and unlucky BABIP have been obvious signs of future success, and now he’s hitting .371 in June with a 1.190 OPS. In April and May, he hit .151 and .167, respectively. Add them up and it’s not .371. Oh, and Santana is hitting .129 at third base and .397 at first base with more power. Coincidence?

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St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams played in 52 games before hitting the disabled list in late May with a calf injury, and in that span, he hit a mere three home runs. Adams was getting many singles, beating defensive shifts, but it was hardly what the Cardinals or fantasy owners expected, and it placed Adams in a precarious spot for his return; if outfield prospect Oscar Taveras really hit well in his absence, Adams certainly risked losing his place in the lineup. Alas, Taveras did not hit, was sent back to Triple-A Memphis, and a new, rejuvenated Adams came back, apparently ready to bash again as he did at times in 2013; in 11 games since returning, he’s hit five home runs, including the two he mashed in the Cardinals' 8-0 win over the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on Monday night.

[+] EnlargeMatt Adams
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMatt Adams' bat has come alive since he returned from the disabled list. But will retain value after Oscar Taveras is brought back up?
Adams remains a risky dynasty league target, for he’s a one-dimensional slugger with poor plate discipline and an inability to hit left-handed pitching consistently, and he’s not exactly Keith Hernandez with the glove. Adams hit 17 home runs in limited duty last season, and he was certainly capable of improving on that total if opportunity allowed it, but Taveras is the superior prospect and boasts immense upside. Perhaps at some point we’ll see it. For now, we’re seeing Adams achieve what he didn’t do the first two months of the season, changing his approach and providing the power his team (and ours) really demanded. He not only homered twice against the Rockies, but one was off left-handed pitcher Franklin Morales, and combined with a two-run single and homer earlier, it gave Adams an impressive six RBIs; that's 14 in his 11 post-injury contests.

The Cardinals are desperate for power; entering Monday they're tied for last in the majors with the Kansas City Royals with a mere 42 home runs, and unlike last season, when the Cardinals weren’t power-proficient either, they’re not scoring many runs. Last season’s Cardinals were third in baseball in runs scored, benefiting from an unsustainable performance with runners in scoring position -- being clutch, if you will, which is certainly not a practical skill -- and predictably, that changed. But still, they’re not even close to last year’s homer pace, which was 27th in baseball. A healthy and productive Adams, if he keeps hitting, is critical to the lineup and would surely affect when or if Taveras gets his next call to return to the majors.

I’m neither buying low nor selling high here; the lure of Taveras still remains, and Adams isn’t going to be hitting .328 for much longer if he ignores any sense of plate discipline, hacking away to either poke singles the other way or drive fly balls to right. Adams has drawn six walks all season, only one since his return. This is more like a .270 hitter when the BABIP normalizes, and the Cardinals really should sit him all the time against lefties, since he entered the week hitting .156 off them (.363 against right-handers).

He is a platoon first baseman, but like Toronto Blue Jays lefty slugger Adam Lind, who also enjoyed his Monday from a power perspective, there is great value in that. We don’t want these guys facing tough lefties and harming the batting average. In daily leagues we know they’ll hit right-handers, and for standard roto formats we’d like their batting average high.

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Jose Bautista, Brett LawrieGetty ImagesJose Bautista's (left) injury may wind up being minor, but Brett Lawrie's has him headed for the DL.

Injuries are often the great equalizer in the standings for real teams and the fantasy versions, and Sunday’s unlucky squad was the Toronto Blue Jays. Several key offensive pieces of the AL East leaders missed the end of the 4-3 loss in Cincinnati and at least one of them figures to miss considerable time.

Let’s start with the most valuable option; slugging outfielder Jose Bautista left in the third inning with left leg/knee tightness after running out a bunt attempt, and an MRI is pending. For now it doesn’t sound so serious, which is important since Bautista entered Sunday’s action as the No. 17 option on the ESPN Player Rater, among the leaders in the power categories, though he has been awfully quiet the past few weeks. For now we hold our collective breath Bautista, who missed 124 games the previous two seasons with various injuries, is just fine because his absence is not only a real bummer but could also affect first baseman/cleanup hitter Edwin Encarnacion, currently the most valuable Blue Jay on the Rater. If a disabled list stint is warranted, among the outfielders with power, playing well of late and available in more than half of ESPN’s standard leagues include J.D. Martinez of the Detroit Tigers and Steve Pearce of the Baltimore Orioles, and if you need speed it’s James Jones of the Seattle Mariners. Outfield isn’t so deep; Brock Holt of the Boston Red Sox is actually owned in more than 50 percent of leagues.

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The art of the fantasy trade keeps evolving 

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
James Shields and Corey Kluber Getty ImagesWould you prefer steady James Shields or the emerging Corey Kluber on your team?
With Eric Karabell on a well-deserved vacation this week, we've got a collection of guest bloggers filling in. Jim Bowden batted leadoff Monday, Keith Law had the honors on Tuesday, Tom Lasko stepped in Wednesday, and Scott Spratt took over Thursday.

We finish up the week with Todd Zola, who looks at some evolving attitudes toward player evaluation, especially when it comes to making trades.

SUBJECT: A Farewell to Arms

Hey everyone -- looking to deal starting pitching for a hitting upgrade or a couple of lesser starting pitchers. On the block are James Shields and Corey Kluber. Shoot me a note if interested and we can discuss?

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Bogaerts/SpringerUSA TODAY SportsGeorge Springer and Xander Bogaerts may see their average drop due to increased defensive shifts.
With Eric Karabell on a well-deserved vacation this week, we've got a collection of guest bloggers filling in. Jim Bowden batted leadoff Monday, Keith Law had the honors on Tuesday and Wednesday was Tom Lasko's turn.

Thursday, we're joined by Scott Spratt of Baseball Info Solutions, who fills us in on the impact of the increase in defensive shifts in MLB, and which players could be impacted most by the strategy.

If you’ve watched any baseball this season, then you’ve probably noticed the increase in defensive shifts. Baseball Info Solutions began tracking shifts in 2010, and as recently as three years ago, they were a niche strategy. Since then, the number of shifts has nearly doubled each of the past two seasons, and this season is on pace to nearly double the total from 2013, as well.

In 2011, only a handful of progressive teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays shifted even 100 times in a year. Now, teams like the Rays are more the rule than the exception. In fact, every team in baseball is on pace to exceed 100 shifts on balls in play this season. The Houston Astros have already set the record for most shifts by a team in a season with their 655 shifts to date, and it is June 19. The previous record was 595 shifts, set last season by the Baltimore Orioles. Five other teams are on pace to break the old record, as well.

Fantasy owners have already become used to players like David Ortiz and Chris Davis being shifted against, but 30 home runs provide quite the tonic for the loss of a handful of potential ground ball hits for those players.

However, the dramatic increase in shifts in baseball is not just the result of more teams shifting the same old batters. Instead, teams are using batted ball tendencies to shift more players and more types of players, and the ones who continue to pull their balls in the infield have already seen declines in their batting averages because of it.

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