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In this week's Value Picks for the up-the-middle positions, we welcome back a few players who have returned from the DL within the last week and might show some interest to mixed-league and single-league owners. In the meantime, some of our regulars in our VP portfolio continue to ride hot streaks, but how much longer can they last?


Hank Conger, Los Angeles Angels (<1 percent ESPN / 22 percent CBS)
Conger and perpetual fantasy nightmare Jeff Mathis split playing time last week, both receiving 13 PA exactly. Neither player hit well, but that is not the reason for the demotion of Conger. He is still a speculative pick at this point, at least until Mike Scioscia realizes he is a superior player to Mathis and gives him his rightful playing time, but at this point there are better AL-only options returning from the DL this week.

Chris Snyder, Pittsburgh Pirates (<1 percent ESPN / 10 percent CBS)
Snyder is also a victim of a playing time crunch leading to a loss of his spot on the VP list. He ceded some playing time this week to Ryan Doumit, and though the two are in something of a platoon, Doumit's switch-hitting capabilities allow manager Clint Hurdle to throw him against righties instead of Snyder if he so chooses. Snyder is still a decent choice in NL-only leagues, but right now VP waves goodbye to him and focus on other players.


J.J. Hardy, Baltimore Orioles (17 percent ESPN / 44 percent CBS)
Hardy came off the DL on May 10 and has been on an absolute tear this past week, hitting .400/.444/.640 to kick off his return from injury. This has led to a spike in additions by mixed-league owners who are interested in someone to plug into their hole in shortstop or middle infield.

Hardy's .355 BABIP is fueling his early hot start, but there are good signs going forward for his prospects in mixed fantasy leagues. His strikeout and walk rates are not anomalous when compared to his career and projected marks, even with the small 45-PA sample with which we are dealing. Outside of his BABIP, his power has also risen in the small sample, but it is not so far off of his career .169 mark that it could not be explained by a little luck and a move to a friendlier hitting environment. As I mentioned in December when the Baltimore Orioles initially acquired him:

Particularly intriguing about the move is the change in HR park factor. Patriot's five-year regressed factors have Camden Yards inflating home runs by eight percent (after accounting for home team players playing only half of their games in the park), while StatCorner's park factors have Baltimore's park inflating dingers by upwards of 20 percent. These two factors should combine to get Hardy over the 15 HR mark, which would put him in decent company; only nine shortstops hit the 15 HR mark in 2010.

Expecting more than 15 home runs and a .260 batting average from a waiver wire middle infielder would be asking a lot, especially given the current hitting environment. Among shortstops with at least 50 PA through 2011, the guys ranked 12th through 20th have TAv similar to Hardy's PECOTA-projected .258 mark. Among those players are names such as Jimmy Rollins, Robert Andino (whom Hardy deposed upon return), Alex Gonzalez, Tyler Greene, and Alexei Ramirez, and only two of those are projected at or above Hardy's level for the rest of 2011. He may not last through the rest of the year healthy (CHIPPER has him as a medium risk to miss more time), but he is guaranteed the full-time job while he remains healthy and should be a decent low-end power option for mixed leagues.

Daniel Murphy, New York Mets (4 percent ESPN / 14 percent CBS)
I have advised players from staying away from the second base situation in Queens, but with injuries and underproduction by key players in the middle infield (owners of Hanley Ramirez, for one), mixed-league teams could be looking for some help, and Murphy provides one thing that other waiver wire options may not be able to provide: permanent playing time. With Ike Davis's injury, Murphy has been called upon to play first base on a full-time basis. The lack of viable depth on the Mets roster means that Murphy is most likely a mainstay, and playing time is king when it comes to finding replacements along the waiver wires.

As for performance, I mentioned Murphy in the past and said that he is decent at avoiding the strikeout and has average power. For a first baseman, that would be bad, but for a second baseman, that fits the bill just fine. Murphy will not excel at any one thing, which is why he is owned in so few leagues to start the year even though he has a firm grasp on a job in New York. But from a waiver wire second baseman, how much more do you need than playing time and a projected .271/.327/.407 line? He is a low-end option in mixed leagues but a more than viable NL-only candidate if available.


Jamey Carroll, Los Angeles Dodgers (10 percent ESPN / 17 percent CBS)
Jamey Carroll continued to be Jamey Carroll this week, hitting .360/.407/.400 and scoring four runs for the Dodgers. The only thing changing on the horizon for him is his position on the depth chart, as incumbent starting shortstop Rafael Furcal has begun his minor league rehab stint and should be ready by this week, and manager Don Mattingly is hopeful that third baseman Casey Blake can return to the team by May 20. Both players would eventually occupy starting lineup positions that Carroll could play, leaving him in his previous role as utility infielder. His performance right now (.319/.380/.382) would not warrant a demotion, but the Dodgers would certainly have a logjam with him, Blake, Furcal, and Juan Uribe fighting for three positions.

Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals (14 percent ESPN / 48 percent CBS)
Espinosa tantalized owners amidst a bad .045/.160/.182 week with his fourth homer of the season, and also stole his third bag of the season. He is still striking out and walking at about his major league career rate, but that BABIP is bound to reach a normal status and thus pull his batting average decently above the Mendoza Line. Right now, fantasy owners are advised to hold onto him and expect good things to come as his rates stabilize and his batting average undoubtedly increases.

Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee Brewers (7 percent ESPN / 33 percent CBS)
Lucroy's ownership jumped after a .500/.526/1.000 week including two home runs, five runs scored, and nine RBI. Lucroy has not displayed this sort of power for a while, so it is not likely to last—neither will his still-too-high .387 BABIP. But as was mentioned the last two weeks, you could do worse on the waiver wires than a catcher resembling 2010's John Jaso. Continue to hold on Lucroy's status.

Wilson Ramos, Washington Nationals (3 percent ESPN / 27 percent CBS)
Ramos's expected regression to the mean on his BABIP has brought him down hard and fast, and he is bordering on NL-only value at this point. The good news is that his current batting line (.267/.333/.419) is not unfathomable given his preseason projected line (.257/.283/.375), so we should not see too much of a fall from here on out. He has still maintained a more passive plate approach that has led to more walks and strikeouts, and the power stroke has still been somewhat present despite the BABIP slide (four doubles in 46 PA since April 27). He is on the watch list, however.


Justin Turner, New York Mets (<1 percent ESPN / 5 percent CBS)
Ike Davis's injury opened up the door for Justin Turner, but David Wright's lower back stress fracture may have held it wide open. Turner is expected to take over at third base, with Ruben Tejada taking over at second. However, Turner qualifies at second base and is more likely to fit NL-only leagues at that position, though the flexibility of qualifying for both positions down the road may be of some help to fantasy owners. Turner is an otherwise completely unexciting hitter, a career .309/.373/.443 hitter in the minors who does very little in the way of home run bopping (38 homers in 2202 minor league PA) or base stealing (45-for-64, a 70 percent success rate in the minors). This is what I said of him this past offseason:

From the minor league numbers, Turner appears to be very similar to [Brad Emaus] in that he has below average power and doesn't excel in any other major categories. He has less of an eye at the plate, but still can limit strikeouts enough to muster a decent AVG. I'd put both of them on the same boat.

The above analysis still stands, but for an NL-only league, a .260 batting average and a full-time gig is enough to earn you some attention. Snatch him up while he remains available after a hot .308/.357/.436 start.


Jayson Nix, Toronto Blue Jays (<1 percent ESPN / 3 percent CBS)
Nix returned to the Jays on Monday and while he did not immediately reassume the role of regular starting third baseman, one has to imagine he will get his shot soon enough. Since Nix went on the DL, replacements Edwin Encarnacion and John McDonald have hit .212/.246/.318 and .189/.239/.333 respectively. Meanwhile, Nix was hitting .240/.370/.422 before heading to the DL. Something tells me he will get his shot at third base soon enough, meaning you can pencil him in for decent playing time at second base or middle infield, since he qualified for those positions last season with Cleveland.

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