When Roy Oswalt first signed with the Rangers late last month, I wasn't sold on stashing him away in shallow mixed leagues. My reasoning at the time was that it wasn't worth wasting a roster spot on him for a couple of weeks when there were plenty of comparable or better starting pitchers who could contribute in fantasy leagues right away. Now that Oswalt is poised to make his Rangers' debut Friday against the Rockies, I'm still not sure he's a must-own. And this has nothing to do with his shaky outings in the minors.
Oswalt, who turns 35 in August, is coming off a year where he was limited to 23 starts due to two stints on the disabled list with a chronic back condition. And while he posted a perfectly useful 3.69 ERA last season for the Phillies and continued to limit walks, he also saw a decline in velocity while posting the lowest strikeout (6.02 K/9) and swinging strike rates of his major league career. Those trends already present reason for skepticism, but he will now be pitching full-time in the American League for the first time in his career and at the most hitter-friendly ballpark in the majors, to boot.
I'm not telling you to ignore Oswalt completely. With the Rangers' powerful offense behind him, he should be a decent anchor for a mixed league staff. But here's a fair warning to keep expectations in check.
Anthony Rizzo 1B, Cubs (Yahoo: 13 percent owned, ESPN: 5.2 percent)
The wait is almost over. The Cubs played Bryan LaHair in right field this week, which is the biggest hint yet that Rizzo's promotion to the big leagues isn't far off. Also important: the calendar. Starting today (Thursday, if you're reading this late), the Cubs have waited just long enough to ensure that Rizzo will become a free agent following the 2018 season as opposed to 2017. Sure, the 22-year-old first baseman stumbled in his first taste of the big leagues last season, but his numbers with Triple-A Iowa this year are simply eye-popping. He should be owned on pure potential alone in mixed leagues that are 12 teams or deeper.
Justin Masterson SP, Indians (Yahoo: 46 percent owned, ESPN: 44.8 percent)
After getting off to a miserable start this season, Masterson has turned things around in dramatic fashion. The 27-year-old right-hander entered June with a disappointing 5.14 ERA, but he has allowed just four runs over his last four starts, lowering his ERA down to 3.98 for the year. This includes three straight starts of at least seven innings and one run or less allowed. His improved command is a big reason for the recent rebound, as he has walked just six batters over his last six starts after handing out 34 free passes over his first nine outings. There shouldn't be any hesitation to pick him up in most formats at this point.
Carlos Marmol RP, Cubs (Yahoo: 49 percent owned, ESPN: 43.7 percent)
He's back. Marmol has regained the Cubs' closer role over the past week, which is more a sign of how bad their bullpen is than anything else. The erratic right-hander hasn't blown any save chances yet, but his numbers since returning from the disabled list (4.32 ERA and 10/7 K/BB ratio over 8 1/3 innings) are hardly inspiring. Anybody who is getting regular save chances should be owned in mixed leagues, but Marmol remains one of the more volatile fantasy properties out there. One of his patented meltdowns could ruin your entire week. So have fun with that.
Brandon Belt 1B/OF, Giants (Yahoo: 24 percent owned, ESPN: 26 percent)
Last week I mentioned Ike Davis in this space, but another young first baseman has shown signs of breaking out recently. Belt homered in three straight games last week and is hitting .333 (15-for-45) in 16 games this month. While the power hasn't really been there until the past week or so, the 24-year-old first baseman still owns an impressive .796 OPS for the year thanks to his patient approach at the plate. With Aubrey Huff on the disabled list and Brett Pill in the minors, there's nothing standing in the way of Belt playing every day. At least for now. The "Baby Giraffe" should be owned outside of shallow mixed leagues.
Dillon Gee SP, Mets (Yahoo: 13 percent owned, ESPN: 6.9 percent)
Well would you look at that? Gee is growing up before our eyes. After allowing two runs over 7 1/3 innings in a win over the Orioles on Wednesday night, the 26-year-old right-hander has a 4.27 ERA and 83/25 K/BB ratio in 90 2/3 innings over his first 14 starts. While the ERA is only slightly better than what we saw last year, it doesn't tell the whole story. His strikeout rate is up, his walks are down and his ground ball rate is up. Gee could be quite a find the rest of the way if he keeps up those trends and his home run to fly ball rate normalizes a bit.
Jon Jay OF, Cardinals (Yahoo: 16 percent owned, ESPN: 18.5 percent)
The Cardinals gave Jay a few weeks off to nurse a lingering shoulder injury and it appears to have done the trick. The 27-year-old center fielder is 3-for-7 with a home run and a triple over his first two minor league rehab games with Triple-A Memphis and could be back in the Cardinals' lineup as soon as this weekend against the Royals. He had 36 extra-base hits (10 homers) and eight stolen bases in 455 at-bats last year and was hitting .343 with two homers, eight RBI and four stolen bases through 27 games this season prior to the injury, so he should be plenty useful in deeper mixed leagues upon his return.
Joaquin Benoit RP, Tigers (Yahoo: 20 percent owned, ESPN: 4.9 percent)
There's a short-term opening in the Tigers' bullpen this week, as closer Jose Valverde suffered a sprained right wrist and is expected to miss a few days. Phil Coke earned a save in his place Tuesday night against the Cardinals, but Benoit should be the target here in mixed leagues. The 34-year-old right-hander has a 2.12 ERA over 161 relief appearances dating back to the start of 2010, including a 1.99 ERA and 44/13 K/BB ratio over 31 2/3 innings this season. He's a pretty safe pickup if you need to vulture for a couple save chances.
Zack Cozart SS, Reds (Yahoo: 29 percent owned, ESPN: 36.8 percent)
Cozart's rookie campaign has been a mixed bag, but he's on a pretty nice roll recently. The 26-year-old is hitting .333 (24-for-72) this month, including nine multi-hit games. It would be nice if he drew more walks and he hasn't run as much as I thought he would, but he's currently tied for third among fantasy shortstops with 40 runs scored and tied for 10th in home runs with seven. He's plenty useful in deeper mixed leagues, especially if you're currently fishing for a replacement for Troy Tulowitzki.
Francisco Liriano RP/SP, Twins (Yahoo: 29 percent owned, ESPN: 13.6 percent)
It's safe to say that Liriano remains one of fantasy baseball's biggest enigmas. The 28-year-old left-hander allowed just one run over 6 2/3 innings in Wednesday's win over the Pirates and now holds a 2.67 ERA and 35/12 K/BB ratio over 30 1/3 innings in five starts since rejoining the Twins' starting rotation at the end of May. That's one way to boost your trade value. We'll obviously need to see a lot more before declaring that the old Liriano is back, but most fantasy owners can afford to take a chance on his considerable upside.
Shopping at the five-and-dime:
(Players owned in less than 10 percent of Y! and ESPN.com leagues)
Seth Smith OF, Athletics (Yahoo: 7 percent owned, ESPN: 8.7 percent)
Smith was batting just .217 entering play on June 6, but he's hitting .432 (19-for-44) with three homers and 12 RBI over his last 14 games. Only Aaron Hill, Jose Bautista, Joey Votto and Trevor Plouffe have a higher OPS (1.173) this month among players with at least 50 plate appearances. I was worried that his production would suffer after leaving Coors Field behind, but his home/road splits were pretty even last year and he actually has an .893 OPS at O.co Coliseum this season compared to a .780 elsewhere. Smith isn't going to play much against left-handers, so he's best utilized in a daily leagues, but he should continue to do enough to warrant ownership in deeper formats.
John Mayberry, Jr. OF/1B, Phillies (Yahoo: 6 percent owned, ESPN: 3.4 percent)
Mayberry was largely irrelevant in fantasy leagues over the first two months of the season, but something has finally clicked for him recently. After collecting just two homers and 12 RBI over his first 145 at-bats, the 28-year-old has four homers and 10 RBI in just 24 at-bats over his last six games. Most who drafted Mayberry as a potential sleeper this season dumped him on the waiver wire after his slow start, so he's still widely available in most formats. With his eligibility between first base and the outfield, he's a pretty useful player to have around in deeper leagues.
Lorenzo Cain OF, Royals (Yahoo: 7 percent owned, ESPN: 2.3 percent)
After a couple stops and starts, Cain is finally on the comeback trail. The 26-year-old outfielder originally went on the disabled list with a groin injury in mid-April, but he suffered a torn hip flexor during a rehab assignment and is just making his way back now. Acquired from the Brewers as part of the Zack Greinke deal back in December of 2010, Cain was considered a sleeper in mixed leagues this spring due to his speed and modest pop. Jarrod Dyson hasn't exactly thrived in his absence and top prospect Wil Myers is likely bound for a corner outfield spot, so Cain should get an extended look in center field once he's finally healthy.