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June 15, 2008

Fantasy Focus

Anticipating Moves

by Jeff Erickson

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In many deeper leagues, it's hard to find players on the waiver wire that are both skilled and getting playing time. In AL Tout Wars, a 12-team AL-only league, there are currently only 12 hitters on the waiver wire who have gotten an at-bat in the last 14 days, and two of those players have been sent back down. We're left to bid on the likes of German Duran, Miguel Cairo, Oscar Salazar, and a few backup catchers. Tout Wars doesn't allow owners to bid on minor leaguers as part of the free agent process, further tightening the available player pool. Whenever a team calls up a prospect that isn't already owned, a bidding war generally ensues in the next FAAB period, so long as the potential for playing time exists. Hence we've seen major battles for the services of Brandon Boggs and Jeff Larish, among others. It's not a pretty picture.

Not every league, however, has such tight free agent procedures. Many leagues, such as my 11-team AL-only home league, allow for speculative bids on minor leaguers. In these leagues, such speculative bids can really pay dividends, especially when the free agent pool is otherwise tight. You'll not only get a talented player, but you'll get him presumably at a much lower cost than you would if you waited until he gets called up.

The downside to this practice is pretty obvious. Sometimes that player doesn't get called up until September, if at all. If you've got a small reserve roster, it's pretty costly to use up that spot on a player who won't play, especially if you have a slew of injuries. It makes for a series of hard choices on who to hold onto and who to cut, or bite the bullet and have a dead spot on your active roster if you're really hamstrung by injuries. Going back to my AL league as an example, we have three reserve spots and no DL, and I was left holding the bag with injuries to Philip Hughes, Jorge Posada, Hank Blalock, and Clay Buchholz, all while holding onto Francisco Liriano in anticipation of his eventual return. Using up a reserve slot on a speculative play just wasn't an option there.

We'll assume for the sake of this article that you do have some roster flexibility, and suggest a few speculative plays, honing in on some of the potential selling teams around the trade deadline.

Seattle Mariners

Potential Callups: One of the maddening aspects of the Mariners' collapse this year is their handling of Jeff Clement. He didn't hit well in his first trial with the team, but he was given a grand total of 15 games and 48 at-bats to show his wares; his .167/.286/.250 line with 20 strikeouts was painful to watch, but it's readily apparent that's not even near enough of a sample size to judge him. His demotion might have been acceptable under the guise of wanting to "win now" if the Mariners' alternatives were any better than Richie Sexson, Miguel Cairo and Jose Vidro. It's hard to fathom how they could be any worse off using Clement in both the short- and the long-term. Since his demotion, Clement has continued to rake at Triple-A Tacoma, hitting .356/.475/.718; there is nothing more that he can accomplish there. When the M's finally concede that they won't contend in 2008, look for Clement to get another chance. Check your league's position requirements--he's only played four games at catcher this year at the major league level--as in many leagues, the minimum requirement for qualification is five games. They've already called up Wladimir Balentien and Jeremy Reed, though the two often alternate with each other. Eventually, Vidro has to go, which will either create playing time for Clement, or allow for both Balentien and Reed to play, with Raul Ibanez moving to DH, where he rightfully belongs.

Meanwhile, while the offense has been abysmal, the starting pitching for the Mariners has been nearly as bad. In particular, the bottom three spots in the rotation have all disappointed. Measured by Pitcher VORP, Carlos Silva (-5.8), Jarrod Washburn (-6.4), and Miguel Batista (-9.1) have been the three worst active pitchers on the staff. R.A. Dickey is replacing Batista in the rotation beginning this weekend. It doesn't look like such relief is in sight for Washburn or Silva; Washburn is signed through 2009, and Silva is in the first year of his four-year deal. Furthermore, there aren't any obvious replacements ready at Triple-A Tacoma, at least not right now. Ryan Feierabend has been on the DL since May 17, but had a 2.15 ERA in his first eight starts. When he gets healthy again, he could get a shot, if the M's decide to bite the bullet on Washburn's contract or trade Erik Bedard.

Potential Trade Targets: The Mariners are in a particularly tough spot here, having just traded away the farm to get Bedard this offseason. They weren't able to ink him to a long-term deal, so it's entirely possible that they'll look to trade him rather than risk not re-signing him. Besides Bedard, there are precious few trade chits left. J.J. Putz is on the DL, Adrian Beltre's wrist injury makes him damaged goods, and Richie Sexson's trade value has evaporated. It's possible that Raul Ibanez could draw some interest, but his defense has deteriorated so badly that most other teams will view him as a DH. The one player besides Bedard that could bring in a big prospect haul is Ichiro Suzuki, but such a trade is unlikely given how much marketing value is in his contract.

Potential Job Losses: There really should be a reckoning with the Mariners, and it should go much deeper than hitting coach Jeff Pentland. Will the axe fall on GM Bill Bavasi and/or manager John McLaren? Arguably it should, before the Mariners start the reconstruction process. Whenever that process starts, Vidro, Sexson, and Washburn should all lose their starting roles. Sexson is already splitting time with Cairo, making for a brutal timeshare at first base.

Kansas City Royals

Potential Callups: Billy Butler is an obvious candidate. Since he was sent to Triple-A Omaha, all he's done is hit .377/.441/.679 with six walks and three homers, two more than he hit with the Royals before the demotion. The walks are noteworthy too--Joe Posnanski has already flogged the Royals appropriately for the entire team's lack of patience at the plate, so I won't belabor the point. Mike Aviles is already up and has taken over the starting shortstop duties, at least for this week. One player unlikely to get the call anytime soon is Ryan Shealy, who is hitting only .229/.311/.444 at Omaha. In fact, if they're looking to address their first base woes, Kila Kaaihue down in Double-A Northwest Arkansas probably is a better fit. In the unlikely event that they trade an outfielder, such as David DeJesus, Shane Costa probably would get his annual callup. The one pitcher at the upper levels who's somewhat interesting is Daniel Cortes, but an April quad strain has limited him to 43 1/3 innings so far--he'll need more time before he's a serious option.

Potential Trade Targets: There aren't too many obvious candidates here. Jose Guillen just signed a three-year deal before this season; the length of his contract and his recent arrival on the team makes a trade unlikely. Mark Grudzielanek is the most likely to get dealt to a team needing an injury replacement at second base. He's 37 and a free agent at the end of the year, and he's not that expensive. He won't draw much in return, but he's the one player that the Royals wouldn't mind dealing who would also have some value.

Potential Job Losses: If the Royals don't trade Grudzielanek, at some point they are going to have to consider parting with one of their three reserve middle infielders (Tony Pena Jr., Esteban German, and Alberto Callaspo). Pena or German seem like the most likely players that they'd move. They've already dismissed Brett Tomko from their pitching staff; next in line could be Jimmy Gobble.

Washington Nationals

Potential Callups: The Nationals are fortunate to have a number of near-ready starting pitchers at Triple-A Columbus in the event that they need a fill-in. They've had to utilize that depth on multiple occasions already: Garrett Mock, Mike O'Connor, and Tyler Clippard have already gotten major league action this year. They haven't yet had to turn to Collin Balester, who might be the best prospect of the bunch. Look for the turnstiles to keep revolving there. Most of their upper-level hitters of any note are already with the big league club, the latest to join them being Kory Casto, who got the call when Ryan Zimmerman went on the DL. Most of the best prospects in the organization, however, reside in the lower levels. Don't look for the likes of Chris Marrero or Michael Burgess to get a significant opportunity in 2008.

Potential Trade Targets: Nick Johnson's latest traumatic injury temporarily eased the logjam at first base, but either he or Dmitri Young should be made available if/when Johnson returns. The Nats would like to deal either Ronnie Belliard or Felipe Lopez, but as is the case with Mark Grudzielanek, there needs to be some sort of market created first. Chad Cordero would have been in this space prior to his shoulder woes this spring, and might have been one of the bigger names on the market. He's a free agent at the end of the year, but now because of his injury his trade value has all but disintegrated.

Potential Job Losses: Austin Kearns' elbow injury was conveniently timed, in that it allowed for manager Manny Acta to play Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, and Wily Mo Pena all at the same time. Alas, no one has hit (nor has Kearns) so far. The Nationals' top priority the rest of the way should be to decide what they have in each of those outfielders, and figure out which ones to move. Odalis Perez might be hitting the DL and could ultimately be the sacrificial lamb for one of the Columbus starting pitchers.

Baltimore Orioles

Potential Callups: While Matt Wieters is the best prospect in the organization, he's probably not going to get the call anytime before September, if at all. The O's have been adamant that it would take "a special set of circumstances" for him to reach the majors this year. To that end, they've resisted calls to even just promote him out of High-A Frederick to Double-A or higher, despite his dominance (.351/.449/.594) there. That doesn't mean that the cupboard is bare. The one impact hitter who is a decent bet to get promoted is outfielder Nolan Reimold, who has recovered from a slow start at Double-A Bowie to have a nice May and currently has an 875 OPS. He's going to need an injury or a trade before he gets that shot.

On the pitching side of the ledger, the Orioles have already given rotation jobs to Garrett Olson and now Radhames Liz, finally dispatching with Steve Trachsel. Two names that you should file away are Double-A starters Chris Tillman and David Hernandez. Tillman came over in the Erik Bedard deal and has been fantastic, going 7-1 with a 2.78 ERA and 67:33 K:BB in 64 2/3 innings. His relatively high walk rate may slow down any urges to promote him, but that's been mitigated by him allowing only three homers. Like Tillman, we'd like to see Hernandez walk fewer batters, but he's also struck out an eye-popping 78 batters in 64 1/3 innings.

Potential Trade Targets: The Orioles are better positioned than the other teams listed here to improve themselves at the trade deadline. The one aspect hurting them is that the rest of the league knows that they're already rebuilding and need to trade away their veterans, but that didn't stop GM Andy MacPhail from extracting full value in the Bedard deal. The most obvious trade candidate is Brian Roberts--he's the one "must-trade" player that they have. Beyond Roberts, they should at least test the trade winds to see what George Sherrill might bring them--relievers traditionally have been among the easiest players for non-contending teams to deal during the last few seasons. Ramon Hernandez also figures to be a pretty obvious trade candidate, given his expiring contract and the eventual arrival of Wieters. Finally, Aubrey Huff might be hard to deal because of his lack of defensive value and the one year remaining on his contract, but once again, the O's at least owe it to themselves to see if there's any value to extract on the trade market.

Potential Job Losses: Besides the likely trade targets, 36-year-old Melvin Mora should be looking over his shoulder. Scott Moore hasn't been hitting well since trying to play through a sore knee at Triple-A Norfolk, but if he ever heals and catches fire, the O's might just feel the urge to give him a shot. They've cut most of the dead weight from the rotation already, but Brian Burres isn't really considered a future member of the rotation--he's more of a filler, and could easily be shifted back to the bullpen if they want to give one of their young pitchers a whirl.

Jeff Erickson is the Senior Editor at RotoWire, and the host of XM Radio's "Fantasy Focus." He can be reached here.

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