- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
I'm reasonably confident that the measly dollar I spent in a recent mixed-league auction on Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts was worth it. However, I really do have no degree of reasonable confidence as to whether Roberts will play in 20 games or 140 games this season. I'm rooting for him, for more important reasons than just fantasy baseball, but honestly, do you think even he knows what's going to happen this year?
But I had to crack a few smiles as Roberts singled twice and scored a run in Baltimore's 7-4 victory in Tampa Bay on Tuesday, because at least he's out there playing. He could have had three hits, but Rays third baseman Evan Longoria took a hit away from him on a diving play. Roberts, formerly one of the top middle infielders in the game over a six-year stretch, used to be a high-steal guy with double-digit-homer pop, including that magical, unrepeatable April 2005, when he bashed eight over the wall. Since a terrific 2009, he has dealt with myriad physical issues and has barely played. Even while Roberts was having a strong spring, not only seeing regular at-bats -- no Oriole had more -- but also hitting .310 with five walks and three stolen bases, it was tough to muster realistic optimism. However, if you want to talk about comeback stories, this is one to watch.
"It was fun," Roberts told reporters after Tuesday's game, in which he batted ninth and certainly looked like his old self. "Not that you forget how fun baseball was, but when you are out for such a long period of time, sometimes you forget what the atmosphere and energy is like and just the joy of playing the game. So it was great."
Roberts is owned in just 8.0 percent of ESPN standard mixed leagues, and at this point there's no reason to call that number too high or too low. We just don't know. Orioles manager Buck Showalter inserted Roberts into the No. 9 lineup slot, and not solely because lefty David Price was on the mound (Roberts is a switch-hitter). Showalter has said he wants to decrease the pressure on Roberts, but he also has a high-OBP option leading off in Nick Markakis. It's certainly possible that Roberts moves up in the order, though, since I can't see 20-year-old third baseman Manny Machado hitting second regularly against right-handed pitching, even though he's a future star.
I'm hoping Roberts stays healthy, and one would presume the skills he used to boast are still there. The few times I caught Roberts on TV in March, his swing looked fine, his wheels looked fine, it appeared to be the same guy, just with that one very important asterisk of having played in a total of 115 games over three seasons. And let's be clear, this was one game Tuesday. Baseball is a daily grind, and Roberts is 35 years old. It would be great if he could hit 10 home runs, steal 30 bases and play in 140 games, but let's not go there yet.
Ultimately, what Roberts used to do when he was a top-50 overall option is not, I believe, a reasonable comparison starter for what he would do if healthy this year. Not yet. In addition, what Roberts did -- or didn't do -- at the plate last season, when he hit .182 in 66 at-bats, tells us nothing. This is new territory. There are 15 second basemen owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues, and another seven ahead of Roberts in terms of fantasy popularity. For now, I'd still leave Roberts on free agency and own the likes of Jeff Keppinger, Omar Infante and even Gordon Beckham, none of whom I'm particularly enamored with. I want to believe, but give me a week or two before I can believe in Roberts, and even that seems like way too soon.
Speaking of Orioles, the underrated Jason Hammel allowed a Ben Zobrist home run and little else through five innings, when he may or may not have started to tire. It's tough to tell. Hammel is owned in only 9.2 percent of ESPN standard mixed leagues, which seems low based on his 2012 numbers. Forget about what Hammel did -- or didn't do -- as a member of the Colorado Rockies. Last season with the O's, he brought a new, big-boy strikeout rate of nearly one per inning, kept the ball down and avoided home runs. It all looked legitimate to me. I don't even assume his knee problems will trip him up. I see a borderline top-60 fantasy starter, someone who can whiff 175 hitters if he makes 32 starts. As such, his ownership should probably be higher.
Box score bits (AL): Well, that Yu Darvish guy looked pretty good, eh? Darvish, who I predicted months ago would be a Cy Young Award contender, was an out away from a perfect game Tuesday. But he's already owned in all leagues. I think the Houston Astros have some intriguing pieces to watch, but they're going to strike out a lot. Alexi Ogando is a wise spot-start addition for Wednesday against the Stros, though I do feel it's a bit early to be spot-starting pitchers. ... I saw some of what Cleveland Indians right-hander Justin Masterson did in Toronto, but I still don't trust him. He's hittable and walked 88 batters last season. Lefties eat him up. I'd leave Masterson on free agency. Unless he's facing the Astros, of course. ... Mike Morse homered twice off right-handed pitchers Tuesday, one an opposite-field blast. He has 30 more homers left in him.
Box score bits (NL): Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Marco Estrada fanned eight batters over five otherwise messy innings Tuesday, allowing nine hits and four runs. The K's are for real, but if the home runs are, as well, you can expect an ERA around 4.00. ... That's two more hits for St. Louis Cardinals No. 2 hitter Matt Carpenter. I continue to enjoy his work on a handful of my fantasy teams. He's no fluke. The update on David Freese (back) is that he could return Monday; Carpenter would move to second base. ... Cards shortstop Pete Kozma launched a home run to center field Tuesday, but it came off the embarrassing Heath Bell. Does it still count? Don't get enamored with Kozma, who hit .223 in Triple-A in 2012. ... Joaquin Arias started at first base for the San Francisco Giants, but don't fret, Brandon Belt owners: He was battling the flu. Don't drop him yet!