Eric Mack
Monday May 23rd, 2011

Fantasy teams are about to get a lot stronger, but the question will be how much stronger?

While we are officially finishing off the second month of fantasy play, the early round star power of Chase Utley (knee), Josh Hamilton (broken arm) and Nelson Cruz (groin) are slated to return Monday night. The question isn't whether you need to be starting these guys right away, but how much can you expect of them?

The third-most studly of this trio, Cruz, is the one that looks the most ready to dominate right away. The most studly, Utley, is the one you really have to temper expectations on.

Cruz completed his rehab assignment Saturday night, homering in all three games in Triple-A. He is going to go right into the Rangers' starting lineup as the left fielder, sending the likes of Chris Davis, Endy Chavez and Craig Gentry to the bench or minor leagues.

Hamilton is the one of the trio being rushed back before he is fully ready, perhaps. He has had just 18 at-bats in his rehab assignment, going 2-for-11 (.182) in his last, three-game stop in Triple-A. Returning from a broken arm is just six weeks is a little quick. He will be DHing initially for the Rangers.

But it is Utley for whom we have waited the longest and most anxiously. His age and chronic nature of his injury, though, has to cause you to lower your expectations for him. Utley is no longer a .300-30-100-100-20 infielder and the No. 1 second baseman to have.

The modest starts of second-base stars Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler notwithstanding, Utley is more of a No. 5-10 producer among fantasy second baseman now. Let's project his two-thirds of a season numbers to be around .285-15-70-70-5 because he is now: 1. At the back end of his prime; 2. A chronic injury risk; and 3. Has had a couple years of declining production.

He will also need more days off than he has ever gotten, if the Phillies want to attempt to keep him healthy for the games here on out. After hitting .281 in 32 Class A at-bats on his rehab assignment, the Phils will give him some ample rest periodically, but his bat is still good enough to start in all leagues immediately at the weak second-base position.

Two-thirds of Utley, Cruz and Hamilton is still enough to jump for joy, if these injury-prone fantasy stars can stay healthy that long ...

A week ago we called the Orioles' Zach Britton the front-runner for the AL Rookie of the Year. Well, Michael Pineda had something to say about that in Fantasy Week 7 (May 16-22). Pineda won both his starts, struck out 16 and walked only one while allowing just five hits in 14 innings. In a week littered with two-start pitcher options, it was a rookie who outdid not only all the aces starting twice, but all the hitters, too. Asdrubal Cabrera and Kevin Youkilis had solid weeks, but nothing on the level of Pineda or even James Shields on the heels of a 13-strikeout, complete-game shutout. Only a loss kept the resurgent ace from bettering Pineda and being the first two-time player of the week honoree.

Past players of the week: 6. OF Jose Bautista, TOR; 5. SP Francisco Liriano, MIN; 4. 2B Ben Zobrist, TB; 3. SP James Shields, TB; 2. SP Dan Haren, LAA; 1. SP Jered Weaver, LAA.

OF Matt Holliday (quad), Cardinals -- He will miss some games this week but he isn't going to the DL. Start him at your own risk. Jon Jay and Allen Craig should get more at-bats in the early part of the week if you play in an NL-only daily league.

OF Jason Heyward (shoulder), Braves -- Struggles and shoulder woes have slowed the promising early-20s outfielder immensely in what was supposed to be a breakthrough season. Instead, he is broken down and on the DL for some rest. Right field figures to be a platoon between recently hot hitters Eric Hinske (vs. RHP) and Joe Mather (vs. LHP). Hinske is the one more intriguing in mixed formats because the likelihood of more at-bats from the left side.

OF Shane Victorino (hamstring), Phillies -- His loss is Domonic Brown's gain. Brown didn't get off to a great start this week, but he should come into more at-bats and production as the days move along. Victorino is out until at least June and might not miss much more than the minimum time. Brown should be here to stay, though.

C Joe Mauer (leg), Twins -- Mauer is finally ready to play in extended spring training games this week, so it shouldn't take long for the Twins to usher him back to real action, even if it comes as a DH initially. Mauer has a chance to return to fantasy lineups before June, which is just eight/nine days away.

3B David Wright (back), Mets -- The back fracture wound up requiring a DL stint, and the Mets have no reason to rush him back to action. Expect them to be overly cautious and give him a month. Justin Turner moves over to third, while Ruben Tejada gets some time at second and Daniel Murphy remains active in Ike Davis' place at first. A Davis return should keep Murphy in the lineup at second or third and send Tejada back down. Murphy or Turner can be useful stopgaps in deeper leagues.

3B Ryan Zimmerman (abdominal) -- It looks like Zimmerman could be nearing some baseball activities and game action in the next couple of weeks. It could make him a candidate to return earlier than mid-June now.

SP Josh Johnson (shoulder) -- A sore shoulder has landed him on the DL, but it shouldn't be anything more than a function of rest for a hard-working arm. The Marlins are still hoping he can return for a June 1 start, which might only leave him out of fantasy lineups for this upcoming scoring period.

OF Grady Sizemore (knee) -- He is hoping to return from the DL next weekend. He could be a solid start in all formats for Fantasy Week 9 (May 30-June 5). The Austin Kearns and Travis Buck platoon will be sent to the bench, making them worthless outside of deeper AL-only leagues.

SP Tim Hudson (back) -- The Braves sent phenom Julio Teheran back to Triple-A, so when Hudson needed some time off for his sore back, they are going to go with Mike Minor up from Triple-A. Sit Hudson in Fantasy Week 8 (May 23-29), but he could return for a start in early June. Minor is expected to get a couple starts and some good outings can keep him here. Minor is a legit sleeper in mixed formats immediately.

The most-added players:

1. OF Ryan Ludwick, SD 2. 2B Justin Turner, NYM 3. SP Jason Vargas, SEA 4. SP Vance Worley, PHI 5. OF Michael Brantley, CLE

Ludwick has surged back into the fantasy spotlight, albeit not to the level he reached at age 29 with the Cardinals in 2008. He is a viable starter in any format when he is going well, but you have to figure this is a mere hot streak and not a market correction to his previously lofty standards. Worley made two starts successfully for the Phillies' stacked rotation earlier this season and now looks like he will be a two-start sleeper for Fantasy Week 8 (May 23-29). Vargas is scorching into a two-start week, so he is a useful stopgap, too. Turner and Brantley might be showing they belong in the majors leagues and the starting lineup, but they are more fringe players in fantasy while they are going well.

The most-dropped players:

1. SP Daisuke Matsuzaka, BOS 2. RP Vicente Padilla, LAD 3. SP Brandon McCarthy, OAK 4. SP Brian Duensing, MIN 5. 2B Mike Aviles, KC

The first three are injury related, which has become the norm for that trio. They are not worth owning in mixed leagues without DL spots, so you can cut them now. Duensing looks like he could be pitching his way back to the bullpen, which would open up a starting opportunity for Kevin Slowey. Consider Slowey a sleeper addition in deeper leagues after his gets over his current stomach ailment. Pitching prospect Kyle Gibson could be intriguing this summer, too.

The most-scouted players:

1. SP Worley, PHI 2. OF Brantley, CLE 3. 2B Howie Kendrick, LAA 4. OF Ludwick, SD 5. OF Matt Holliday, STL 6. 2B Turner, NYM 7. OF Andre Ethier, LAD 8. 2B Chase Utley, PHI 9. OF Todd Frazier, CIN 10. OF Carlos Quentin, CHW

While Utley returns Monday, Kendrick, Holliday, Either and Quentin have injury questions right now, but they are must-starts in most formats when active. The rookie Frazier is getting his call-up to the Reds and he could become a full-time outfielder for that contender in that bandbox ballpark immediately. That makes him a sleeper addition in deeper formats, especially NL-only leagues. The depth on the Reds roster and the depth of outfielders in fantasy make him no sure thing to make him an instant fantasy hit, though.

Eric Mack rounds up the fantasy baseball movers and shakers every Monday of the season at You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.