The weather isn’t the only thing that heats up in mid-June. This is the time when a majority of fantasy owners get serious about their teams. The standings have stratified, and it’s become clearer who is going to be competing for a championship and who will be stuck in the second division. As a result, those trade feelers you sent out a month ago have suddenly started blossoming into actual offers, as everyone looks to get a jump on their competition in the race to acquire the stars (or prospects) who best fit their needs.

Part of the process of deciding who to trade and who to keep is deciding whose first-half numbers are for real, and whose are about to do some major regressing to the mean. If you’re in the title hunt, chances are you got there with the help of one or more surprise contributors, whether it was Brian Roberts or Brian Moehler. Cashing in those players at the peak of their value for a more established performer doesn’t require much thought, even in a keeper league. But what do you do with the borderline cases, the perennial semi-prospect who finally broke through or the former A-list superstar who hasn’t been bad, but doesn’t seem to have fully recovered from the woes of recent seasons? Those are the players who keep you up at nights, staring at the ceiling fan as it provides a visual counterpoint to your thoughts (or at least reminds you of how great Mickey Rourke was, back in the day.) “What if he gets hurt? I should trade him. But what if this is the year he doesn’t get hurt? I should keep him. But then what if…”

While I can’t dig into every insomnia-inducing player, hopefully these examples will give you the tools you need to finally reach a verdict on the others.

Nick Johnson

Fantasy owners have been waiting for a good season from Johnson for a long time now, and so far in 2005 he’s delivered, cranking out an outstanding .335/.451/.541 line with eight home runs, 38 RBI and 38 runs scored. The main difference, of course, has been his health; after missing a combined 155 games the last two years due to various ailments (hand, back, ground ball off the face) Johnson has seen action in all but one of the Nationals’ contests this season, and as a result has finally gotten a chance to capitalize on his potential.

Can he keep it up? It seems unlikely. While he’s stayed in the lineup this year he’s still been hurt, already having battled through a slight knee injury and some sort of chest pain/panic attack that has yet to be fully explained. For most players, the occasional small injury is par for the course; for Johnson, it feels like two bullets dodged. His value is probably at its peak, especially in a keeper league in which his salary was suppressed in the auction by his checkered history.

Recommendation: Johnson is a perfect player to trade for better, or at least safer, assets. He could keep up his current pace, but his perceived value is almost certain to be higher than what he’ll actually provide for the rest of the year.

Adam Eaton

Like Johnson, Eaton is someone who seems like he’s been on the verge of a breakout his entire career. An impressive 22-year-old rookie in 2000, he underwent Tommy John surgery in mid-2001 and missed almost the entire subsequent season. A couple of up-and-down years later, he finally seems to have found the form he showed flashes of back before TJ paid him a visit, posting a 9-1 record, 3.18 ERA and 61/23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 79 1/3 innings.

A quick look at Eaton’s peripherals shows some interesting development:

Year    ERA   K/9  BB/9  HR/9   OAV
2003   4.08  7.18  3.34  0.98  .246
2004   4.61  6.91  2.35  1.26  .266
2005   3.18  6.92  2.61  0.79  .259

Conventional wisdom says it takes two seasons for a pitcher to regain his control after Tommy John surgery, and that’s exactly what Eaton’s peripherals show, as he chopped just about a full walk off his rate in 2004, and has kept most of that gains so far this year. His strikeout rate has been amazingly steady over that time, and his batting average allowed hasn’t been particularly erratic either. The only real point of improvement has been in his home-run rate, but given his home park’s tendencies, 2004 seems more like the Petco Park anomaly than 2005 does. Fewer home runs (and, to be fair, a higher percentage of unearned runs allowed) is enough to explain the ERA drop.

Recommendation: Eaton’s ERA was too high last year based on his numbers, anyway. While he might give some of the improvement back, there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason to think he’s going to turn into a pumpkin. Eaton looks like a keeper.

Marcus Giles

The first half has not been kind to Giles or his owners. Expected by most people to be among the best middle-infield run producers in the NL, Giles has instead collected just 15 RBI in 56 games, while seeing his batting average fall off 40 points from the standard he’d set for himself the last two years.

From a fantasy perspective, the worst number for Giles hasn’t been those 15 RBI, or the .273 batting average though; it’s been Rafael Furcal‘s .280 OBP. Furcal and Giles are fixtures at the top of the Atlanta lineup, and with Furcal not getting on base at all Giles simply hasn’t had enough RBI opportunities to accomplish what was expected of him. When you actually notice the absence of Mike Hampton‘s bat in front of you every fifth day, you know things are bad, and that’s the situation Giles has found himself in this season.

Recommendation: If you can get value for Giles based on his name and reputation, you should probably pull the trigger. It doesn’t look like Furcal is going to get the time off he needs to heal his shoulder any time soon, and Bobby Cox doesn’t have any other obvious options for the leadoff spot (or to replace Giles at #2 and move him down in the order, for that matter). Giles could go on a Barry Bonds-like tear, and all he’d have to show for it is some solo home runs.

Mark Mulder

When the Cardinals dealt a significant part of their future to Oakland for Mark Mulder, they thought they were getting one of the A’s fabled “Big Three,” a top-of-the-rotation starter that would be the perfect complement to St. Louis’ awesome offense. So far though, Mulder has been anything but. His seven wins are nice, but just about anyone could win games with a modern day Murderer’s Row providing the run support. Mulder’s 4.30 ERA and 50/25 K/BB in 83 2/3 innings are decidedly un-ace-like, though, and given last year’s similarly disappointing results, his owners (from William DeWitt Jr. on down) have to be concerned.

Is there anything in the numbers to provide some hope?:

Year    ERA   K/9  BB/9  HR/9   OAV
2003   3.13  6.17  1.93  0.72  .259
2004   4.43  5.58  3.31  1.00  .264
2005   4.30  5.38  2.69  0.75  .276

Mulder’s steadily declining strikeout rate (and with it, the steadily rising OAV) is the biggest concern, but Mulder is doing a better job keeping the ball over the plate and in the park than he did in 2004. His numbers for May alone (3.72 ERA, 6.75 K/9, 2.79 BB/9, 0.70 HR/9, .264 OAV) were almost vintage.

Recommendation: While looking at a single month is almost begging the question, it seems clear that Mulder still possesses at least most of the skills that made him a Cy Young runner-up in 2001. If you can get him at a discount price from his currently frustrated owner, he could provide some solid value over the second half of the season. At worst, you know he’s going to get some wins.

Next week: AL quandaries.

Erik Siegrist is a beat writer for RotoWire, covering the Marlins, Nationals and White Sox. He can be reached here.

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