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May 17, 2007

Fantasy Focus

Changes of Scenery

by Jeff Erickson

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Back in February, I did a segment for ESPNews about players that could be potentially valuable if only they had a change of scenery--they were players with useful skills, but stuck in the wrong organization. Some of these guys were slated to make the team's major league roster, others were buried in the minors. These aren't merely prospects waiting for their turn--say, someone like Ryan Braun on the Brewers--but rather players that could contribute right now but are blocked by their respective teams' personnel decisions. Let's review some of those players, and add a few new ones.

Erick Aybar : In another organization that wasn't so rich in middle infielders, Aybar would be a much bigger prospect. With the Angels, he's stuck behind Howie Kendrick and Orlando Cabrera, and will soon be behind Brandon Wood. Injuries to Chone Figgins and Kendrick have given Aybar more playing time than initially expected, but when Kendrick returns next week, Aybar will return to a backup role. There's concern about so much of his offensive value being tied into his batting average, and that his ability to hit for average hasn't carried over to his major league performance. Some of that can be attributed to his shifting back-and-forth between Anaheim and Salt Lake last year. Aybar's speed is what makes him so attractive from a fantasy perspective--he's stolen no fewer than 32 bases in each of the last three minor league seasons.

Jason Botts : Once Sammy Sosa signed with the Rangers and demonstrated that he'd be capable enough to DH for them, Botts was doomed to spend a third consecutive season in Oklahoma City. He's been a little unlucky over his career--last year he earned a callup after hitting .309/.398/.582 and looked like he might get a lot of big league playing time. It didn't work out that way--he suffered a back injury fairly quickly after getting the call, and then got buried on the bench. Later, back down in the minors, he suffered a broken hamate bone. Botts isn't much of a defensive player, so his utility to most teams is limited. He also had a poor spring and April, which contributed to his getting passed over by Victor Diaz and now Kevin Mahar when the Rangers needed to replace injured veterans Frank Catalanotto and Brad Wilkerson. Botts is starting to hit a little better now, and his on-base and power skills still could be useful for the right team. With a nice break, he could grow up to be Jack Cust someday.

Shin-Soo Choo : The Indians contracted a case of proven veteran-itis this offseason, going out and signing both David Dellucci and Trot Nixon, effectively blocking Choo. That's a shame, because Choo is capable of producing at nearly the same level as Dellucci or Nixon, perhaps with a little less power but with better defense, and for a fraction of the cost. Choo hit well for the Tribe last year in a limited trial, but he'll need multiple injuries among the club's starting outfielders to get a shot at regular playing time for the Indians this year.

Brooks Conrad : On the final day of the season, the Astros were still alive in the NL Central race, but were facing John Smoltz and the Braves. Behind in the eighth inning, needing to get a baserunner while down two runs, who did they turn to as a pinch-hitter? It wasn't Conrad, who led all of the minor leagues with 79 extra-base hits; he didn't even merit a callup when rosters expanded in September. No, instead they went with the great Brad Ausmus. Talk about going out with a wimper. Conrad isn't the only second baseman blocked by the Astros' quest to fulfill Craig Biggio's personal goal of reaching 3,000 hits--he has Mark Loretta and the recently demoted Chris Burke for company. Conrad isn't particularly young (he turned 27 in January) or toolsy, but in a fair world he'd get the same sort of opportunity that was granted to Dan Uggla by the Marlins last year.

Eric Hinske : Hinske fits the profile of a number of players on this list. He's capable of hitting for good power, draws his share of walks, but also strikes out a lot, and plays on the left edge of the defensive spectrum. Because of the strikeouts and his restrictions afield, these players are not always fun to watch, and it's easier for managers to find ways not to play them. Hinske has gotten only 34 at-bats this year, stuck behind a regular Red Sox lineup where he has really no place to play. Before the Blue Jays traded him, Hinske posted an OPS of 865 in 224 plate appearances, but also struck out 49 times. Like a few other guys on this list, he'd represent an immediate upgrade for a team like the Reds, who are rolling out the two-headed monster of Scott Hatteberg and Jeff Conine at first base.

Fred Lewis : In spring training Lewis was behind not just the regular Giants starters in the outfield, but also Todd Linden and Jason Ellison, with Ryan Klesko also theoretically able to play the outfield as well. Ellison is now gathering dust on the Mariners' bench, Linden has been designated for assignment, and Lewis is up and getting a lot of playing time in the wake of Dave Roberts' elbow injury. Giants hitting prospects are often like Astros prospects--even their young players aren't so young. Lewis is already 26, and was back for his second year at Triple-A Fresno before his being called up. He offers a lot of doubles power, plus the speed to turn some of those doubles into triples. I'm admittedly biased in his favor after seeing him play in the Arizona Fall League last November, where he was one of the better players on the field. Lewis now has his opportunity; if he's still available in your NL-only league (and that's doubtful following Sunday's performance), grab him.

James Loney : By signing Luis Gonzalez and re-signing Nomar Garciaparra, the Dodgers left themselves with no place to play Loney, who got sent down after hitting .414 in spring training, and that after he hit .284/.342/.559 in 102 at-bats with the Dodgers last year. Loney expressed his frustration after the demotion this spring, and it appears that has carried over to his performance at Triple-A Las Vegas so far. Garciaparra is signed through 2008, so there's seemingly only a faint light at the end of the tunnel for Loney, who just turned 23 in May.

Chris Shelton : It's aggravating when Shelton's career is described solely in terms of his 10-homer April last year, as every April flash-in-the-pan is compared to him. Yes, Shelton tailed off badly after his torrid April, but it's not as if that one month was the only time he's been productive at the plate. In 2005, after a midseason callup, Shelton hit .299/.360/.510 with 18 homers in 388 at-bats. By at least one measure, Shelton was the Tigers' second-best hitter that year. That may be damning with faint praise, but it was also good enough for 75th in the major leagues in VORP. In other words, Shelton may not be a star, but he's also been pretty useful. Contrast that with the man who replaced Shelton, Sean Casey. Casey is hitting .237/.296/.298 on the season, even worse than his putrid performance from last year. At least according to BP's VORP numbers, Casey has been the Tigers' least valuable hitter, both this year and last. Admittedly, Shelton isn't hitting well for Triple-A Toledo this year, but, like Loney, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt given how frustrating it must be for him to be back down in the minors in the first place.

Marcus Thames : When the Tigers traded for Gary Sheffield, it spelled the end of Thames' run as the regular DH, and that despite his hitting 26 homers and slugging .549 last year. Unlike Shelton, at least Thames is with the major league squad, albeit with considerably less playing time. There's no argument here that Thames should start over Sheffield, but to the Tigers' credit, Thames has started playing against lefties ahead of Casey at first base.

Ryan Theriot : When the Cubs signed Alfonso Soriano, Mark DeRosa, and Cliff Floyd this past offseason, I thought Theriot wouldn't get a chance to build on his remarkable second-half performance in 2006. Clearly, Lou Piniella deserves a little credit for recognizing Theriot's ability at the plate, or at the very least, Cesar Izturis' lack thereof. With DeRosa now hurting, there are now two different avenues for Theriot to find his way into the lineup. He's certainly one player on this list that does not need a change of venue right now. Perhaps now our attention should switch to Matt Murton?

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