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.
1. OF Ryan Ludwick, SD
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.
1. SP Daisuke Matsuzaka, BOS
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.
1. SP Worley, PHI
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.