Wednesday April 1st, 2015

There’s a reason why drafts and auctions should be conducted as close to the start of the regular season as possible. Anyone who spent a high pick on Anthony Rendon, bought Koji Uehara or Justin Verlander, or took a flier on Javier Baez understands that now. The injury bug went away for a while after claiming a handful of pitchers early in the spring, but it has returned in the final week before the regular season to throw a wrench into some fantasy owners’ best-laid plans.

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The middle infield has been particularly hard hit recently, by a couple of injuries and one surprise demotion that wasn’t quite so surprising. The biggest one, of course, is Rendon’s balky knee. This had been bubbling beneath the surface for about two weeks, ever since Rendon first injured his knee in a game on March 9. At first, the Nationals believed that Rendon would need just a few days of rest. When the soreness didn’t dissipate and an MRI revealed a sprained MCL, it was still believed that rest and treatment would get him back on the field before Opening Day. Surely, no one expected that he would pay a visit to the fabled Dr. James Andrews, and yet that’s exactly who Rendon saw earlier this week.

Rendon, the Nationals and his fantasy owners, received both good and bad news from the visit with Andrews. Anytime you invoke the name of the dark lord of baseball injuries, the grim reaper with whom a visit is usually followed by a season-ending prognosis, it’s not a good thing. Luckily, however, Andrews confirmed the team’s diagnosis of a sprained MCL that requires rest and treatment, but not surgery; a third opinion confirmed that on Tuesday.

The Nationals are telling a fantasy owner all he or she needs to about Rendon with their recent lineups. On Tuesday, Yunel Escobar played third base, with Danny Espinosa slotting at his natural second base position. At full strength, the Nationals will use Escobar at second and Rendon at third. Even in the best-case scenario, it appears Rendon will miss Opening Day, and likely start the season on the DL.

Just about 40 miles to the north, another team already knows it will be without a key infielder for the first two weeks of the season. The Orioles have announced that shortstop J.J. Hardy will begin the year on the shelf because of a shoulder injury. Hardy and second baseman Jonathan Schoop collided on Friday when the shortstop dove for a grounder. Buck Showalter intimated that the injury isn’t too serious, and that Hardy is expected back by May.

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Finally, the Cubs sent what could turn out to be the most star-studded minor league infield off to Triple-A earlier this week. Two of those players, Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, were always expected to begin the year at Iowa. Bryant will be with the Cubs before you know it, and Russell could be up later this season, though he’s not expected to make a major impact on the big league club until 2016. The third member of the triumvirate, Javier Baez, began spring training as the favorite to be the team’s starting second baseman on Opening Day. Instead, he’ll get some more work in the minors as he strives to cut down on his long swing, improve his plate discipline and hitting approach, and make more contact, allowing him to realize his limitless potential.

By now, the story with Baez is well known. He has long been compared to Gary Sheffield because of his bat speed, and can put a ball into orbit just like Sheff could in his heyday. Unfortunately, you can’t send a ball rocketing into space if you don’t hit it first, and that has been an all-too-familiar problem for Baez. He stuck out in more than 40 percent of his plate appearances with the Cubs last year. This spring, he fanned 20 times in 55 trips to the plate, en route to a .173/.218/.231 slash line.

The expectation is that Baez won’t be in the minors for long. After all, even with his strikeouts, he has proved about all he can at Triple-A. The demotion will be more about him finding a way to refine his approach and increase his contact rate. Joe Maddon loves his talent, as well as his glove, and will give him plenty of leash once he’s back in the majors. Still, that’s not much comfort to fantasy owners who took a shot on him in their already-conducted drafts.

What is an owner of one of these three players, especially Rendon, to do for the next few weeks? Here are some potential replacements at second, shortstop and third who can get you through the month of April.

Arismendy Alcantara, 2B, Chicago Cubs: You can read an extended case supporting Alcantara as a potential top-10 second baseman here. In short, he has an intriguing power-speed combo, and is going to play a ton, especially with Baez in the minors. He may pick up third base eligibility as well, as he’s expected to play some hot corner before the Cubs promote Bryant.

Rougned Odor, 2B, Texas Rangers: Odor logged 417 plate appearances for the Rangers last year, belting nine homers and stealing four bases. He’s going to be the team’s everyday second baseman this year, and has legitimate 15-15 potential. He’s all of 21 years old, so there’s a lot of room for growth, here. Even if he hurts you in batting average or OBP, the counting stats will be part of his profile.

Marcus Semien, 2B/3B, Oakland A’s: Semien made his way west from Chicago as part of the deal that landed Jeff Samardzija with the White Sox. He earned a promotion after posting an .882 OPS with 15 homers in 87 games with Triple-A Charlotte last year, and could be an easy 15-10 player with a full season’s worth of plate appearances this year. What’s more, he’s going to play short for the A’s, and will soon add that eligibility in all fantasy leagues.

Micah Johnson, 2B, Chicago White Sox: We discussed Johnson in our piece on hitters prospects, but it bears repeating that he’s going to play every day for the White Sox. The 24-year-old brings 20-steal potential to the table, though you probably don’t want to count on him for too long, unless you’re in a very deep league.

Brad Miller, SS, Seattle Mariners: Miller has yet to take off in the majors the way his minor league numbers suggested he might, but he can be a short-term fix for Hardy owners. He did hit 10 homers in 411 plate appearances last year, so he can replicate what Hardy owners expect out of him in the power categories on a monthly basis. There’s also the potential that something clicks for him this year.

Wilmer Flores, SS, New York Mets: If you’ve been reading our fantasy baseball preview this year, you know that Flores has become sort of a pet player of mine this spring. There’s no doubt that he has the potential to hit 20 bombs, something few shortstops can do. If any low-end shortstop jumps up a tier or two this year, it’s going to be Flores.

Luis Valbuena, 3B/2B, Houston Astros: Valbuena put together two quietly effective years with the Cubs, totaling 4.8 fWAR thanks to a fair amount of pop and willingness to take a walk. He had 16 homers and a .341 OBP in 547 plate appearances last year, and will have a key spot in an improved Houston lineup. He’s widely available and my recommended fill-in at third base in the short term.

Nick Castellanos, 3B, Detroit Tigers: Castellanos struggled for most of his rookie year, but this is a 23-year-old with a solid minor league track record and decent pop. All things considered, a .259 batting average and 11 homers isn’t a bad look for a player in his age-22 season, especially when you consider that he had a 28.5-percent line-drive rate.

Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B, Cleveland Indians: Chisenhall finally started to shed the Quadruple-A label last year, hitting .280/.343/.427 with 13 homers in 533 plate appearances. He did a ton of that damage in a two-month stretch from May through June, hitting just .218/.277/.315 after the All-Star break. If Rendon is back by the end of April, however, you won’t have to count on him for long. He can be a good source of counting stats across the board in Cleveland’s strong lineup.

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