Matthew Pouliot

Strike Zone

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AL Notes: A Hughes Conundrum

Sunday, April 10, 2011

I'm starting up with the notes columns again. Unlike past years, I won't be going team-by-team all of the way through the league, at least not initially. I'll still be dividing up the leagues, with the AL getting posted on Sunday morning and the NL going up Sunday evening.

I'm also trying to provide more notes on twitter, though they do tend to come in bursts. I'll do my best to provide answers to fantasy questions over there.

American League Notes

- Reacting to Manny Ramirez's sudden retirement, the Rays opted to call up Casey Kotchman rather than turn to Desmond Jennings and make Johnny Damon a regular designated hitter. The decision came as no surprise, but it was still rather disappointing. Before the Rays added Ramirez and Damon, I had Jennings projected to steal 30 bases as the Rays' likely left fielder. If the team decides to hold him out long enough to prevent him from becoming super-two arbitration eligible after 2013, then we won't see him until the beginning of June. However, right now, I think an early May callup is a bit more likely.

In the meantime, Ramirez's at-bats will go to Sam Fuld and Kotchman. All spring long, it looked like Elliot Johnson might be a nice source of cheap steals on the Rays, but instead it's Fuld with four steals in the early going. With no power to speak of, he isn't anything more than a fifth outfielder in truth. The Rays will ride the hot hand for as long as they can, though.

Putting Kotchman at first base and Dan Johnson at DH also upgrades the Tampa Bay defense, though not as much as the alignment that has Fuld in left field and Damon at DH. For that reason, Kotchman will probably sit more often than not in the short-term. That will change if Johnson doesn't heat up over the next week or two, so Kotchman is worth having stashed away in AL-only leagues.

- The White Sox are already looking at a closer controversy after Matt Thornton gave up five unearned runs in blowing his second consecutive save opportunity Friday. There were two errors in the inning, so it was hardly all Thornton's fault. Still, things could get ugly if he were to blow another save this week. With Thornton getting the day off, Chris Sale picked up a save Saturday, though not before he gave up a homer to Tampa Bay's Felipe Lopez in the ninth. I still think Thornton is going to be good for 30 saves this year, but if he doesn't turn it around in a hurry, Sale is a definite threat to replace him. I would recommend buying Thornton if there are any easily panicked owners out there. For all his reputation as a gunslinger and a hot head, Ozzie Guillen has never been quick to pull the trigger on role changes.

- I'm very concerned about Phil Hughes' early struggles. The velocity isn't there right now, and he's struck out just one of the 33 hitters he's faced. Reports say it's a lack of arm strength and not an injury issue. But he's nowhere near his 2010 form: he was throwing 88-90 mph against the Red Sox, well down from his usual 91-94 mph. He hit 92 mph on the gun just once all day. I'd suggest benching him in AL-only leagues as well as mixed leagues this week. It's not necessarily time to panic and sell, but he's also not a buy-low candidate, not unless he rediscovers some velocity against the Orioles.

- With three homers and two steals already, Russell Martin appears back as a top fantasy catcher. I already regret ranking him 13th at the position. Right now, I'd put him seventh overall and fifth in the AL behind Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, Carlos Santana and Jorge Posada.

- There isn't a lot to say about Boston's 1-7 start. The offense is going to be great. The rotation could be overrated, but I remain a Clay Buchholz fan and I don't think John Lackey is going to collapse. Lackey isn't likely to be much of a mixed-league starter at any point, but he'll likely pitch well enough to win 13-15 games while getting some of the best run support in the league.

- AL-only leaguers in need of an injury replacement on the pitching side should consider the newly promoted Alfredo Aceves. He'll be a candidate to vulture several wins in middle relief once the Red Sox start hitting.

- In part because of Jeremy Guthrie's brush with pneumonia, the Orioles opted to send down Brad Bergersen and promote journeyman Chris Jakubauskas to start Sunday. Guthrie is now scheduled to go Tuesday. While it's nice to see Jakubausksas get another chance, he's going to have a very difficult time surviving in the AL East.

- The disabled list is just a pit stop for Scott Kazmir (back, shoulder) on his way to getting released by the Angels. Matt Palmer will step into the open rotation spot, but he's likely to struggle, even after altering his delivery in an effort to induce more grounders.

- I like the idea of grabbing Alex Gordon in mixed leagues, though not at the expense of an established star off to a slow start. Gordon probably won't hit for a high average all year long, but he has the power to deliver 22-25 homers and he likes to steal bases. He could be just solid enough to survive as a fourth or fifth outfielder in shallow leagues.

- The Twins are going to pay for not bringing in a legitimate utilityman to play behind Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla. With Nishioka out 4-6 weeks because of a broken leg, they'll try to get by with Luke Hughes and Matt Tolbert at second base. Hughes offers intriguing power, but he belongs at third base, not second. Tolbert has no real major league skills. Hughes is worth picking up in AL-only leagues, but the Twins should try to do better. The Indians would part with Luis Valbuena in return for a decent prospect, and the Mariners would likely pay most of Jack Wilson's salary in a deal.

- Joe Nathan is doing a nice job of keeping it together so far, even though he's working at 89-92 mph, rather than his usual 92-96 mph. With his velocity down, he's relying more on his slider and curveball with encouraging results. I really thought the Twins would have to open up with Matt Capps in the closer's role, but now it looks like Nathan will continue to get the job done. I don't expect that he'll be as much of an asset in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts as usual.

- Ryan Raburn has done nothing wrong so far, but he could stand to lose some playing time against right-handers with Brennan Boesch off to such a hot start. The Tigers won't sit Magglio Ordonez or Victor Martinez with any regularity, and since Alex Avila is off to an excellent start, giving Martinez more time behind the plate wouldn't make a lot of sense. That leaves Raburn as the likely victim with Boesch forcing the Tigers to play him versus most righties.

- Jake Fox hit 10 homers this spring, but he didn't make his first regular-season appearance until the Orioles finally gave him a start behind the plate in the second game of Saturday's doubleheader against Texas. Considering that Fox went 0-for-4 and Baltimore lost the game 13-1, it seems safe to assume that Fox won't be in there again Sunday. Fox probably does have his uses as a part-time first baseman and designated hitter, but he's not going to do the Orioles any good as a backup catcher, particularly since manager Buck Showalter is afraid to use him as a pinch-hitter without a third catcher on the roster. My guess is that Fox eventually makes his way to another AL team. It can't happen soon enough for those who drafted him in AL-only leagues.

- Zach Britton, called up weeks earlier than expected because of Brian Matusz's injury, suddenly looks like the AL Rookie of the Year favorite after moving to 2-0 with 7 2/3 scoreless innings against the Rangers on Saturday. Pitching in the AL East and in Camden Yards will take a toll, and I don't expect he'll end up being very useful in mixed leagues over the course of the season. Still, it's worth trying to catch lightning in a bottle with him for the short haul.

- Seattle's Franklin Gutierrez (virus) could return at the end of the week. Michael Saunders is off to a slow start at the plate, so he'll almost certainly head to Triple-A when Gutierrez is activated.

- The Blue Jays are expected to get Frank Francisco (shoulder) back late in the week, but there won't be any reason to rush him right back into the closer's role. Jon Rauch could be good for saves for at least the rest of the month.

- Brandon Morrow (elbow) will make one more rehab start Tuesday. If that goes well, he should be activated to pitch Sunday.

- Kevin Kouzmanoff's strong spring may buy him another week or two, but Andy LaRoche was just as impressive during March and has actually managed to carry it into the regular season by going 4-for-9 with a couple of doubles. Kouz, meanwhile, is 5-for-27 with one extra-base hit and his usual no walks. I'd like to see the A's give LaRoche a shot. There's hardly any guarantee that it'd be an upgrade, but they'd still have Kouz to fall back on.

Matthew Pouliot is the Executive Editor of and has been doing the site's baseball projections for the last 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @matthewpouliot.
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