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First pitch in Fantasy already upon us

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Even though there are still several days of exhibition games left, Fantasy owners and baseball fans in general are about to get treated to some actual major league baseball games that count. A week before the Cardinals and Marlins kick off the rest of the regular season schedule on April 4, the Mariners and Athletics will meet up in Tokyo for a two-game set. Not only do both contests count toward the teams' regular season records, but in many of our Fantasy leagues -- including all of the free ones using Rotisserie formats with drafts prior to Wednesday -- the stats will count as well.

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Scott White has already covered the Fantasy implications of these games for hitters in Fantasy Week 1 (March 28-April 8), but this early series will have an impact on Fantasy pitching staffs, too. Most importantly, these games will take what would otherwise be a five-day Fantasy scoring period and stretch it into 12 days. Instead of there not being any two-start pitchers in Week 1, there could be as many as four.

Here's an overview of who will toe the slab in Tokyo, who won't and how it will matter in Week 1 and beyond.

Mariners

Starting pitchers

1. Felix Hernandez: King Felix will get the opening day nod Wednesday, and after a nine-day hiatus he will start the Mariners' first game back in the U.S., also against the A's. Though he failed to match the success of his 2010 Cy Young season last year, Hernandez is still a solid No. 1 starter for all formats. He would be a must-start anyway, but as a two-start option in Week 1, there is absoultely no reason to sit him in any league.
2. Jason Vargas: Vargas will get the start this Thursday, but he has not been penciled in for his second start of the year just yet. If he performs well in Japan, he could follow Hernandez again for the rotation's next cycle, which would put him on the mound against Oakland on April 7. That would make Vargas one of four two-start pitchers in Week 1. While he isn't always a viable start in standard mixed leagues, with the possibility of two starts he is worth a shot as a back-of-the-rotation option.

Rest of the rotation

3. Blake Beavan: The Mariners seem to have a thing for contact pitchers with good control and Beavan is practically the prototype. Though he will not start, Beavan will be on the active roster for the Japan series. He is merely an AL-only option but because he stands to pitch some innings out of the bullpen or maybe even get a start at Oakland instead of Vargas, owners in those formats should consider making Beavan active this week.
4. Kevin Millwood: Owners in all formats can bench Millwood in Week 1, as he will not be on Seattle's active roster for the Japan series and is unlikely to start in Oakland. Millwood had a nice comeback late last season with the Rockies, but he may just be keeping the seat warm until either Danny Hultzen or James Paxton is ready to make the leap from the minors later this year. For now, he is a low-end option for AL-only owners.
5. Hector Noesi: While Jesus Montero has received far more attention, Noesi was also an important piece received from the Yankees in exchange for Michael Pineda and minor-league pitcher Jose Campos. He fits the low-strikeout, low-walk mold that Beavan and Vargas typify, though he has a little more strikeout potential than either of them. In future weeks, Noesi could have some appeal in mixed leagues with the right matchups, but he will be inactive in Japan and is unlikely to start in Week 1.

Closer

Brandon League: League will reprise the closer's role that he took on last season. The sinkerballer relies more on ground balls than strikeouts to keep his ERA and WHIP low, but ultimately, he has the goods to be an effective closer. While his low K-rate makes him a borderline choice in standard mixed leagues, he is worth a start in Week 1. With four games against a light-hitting Oakland squad, League has a decent chance of notching multiple saves.

Key set-up and middle relief options

Shawn Kelley: Recovered from elbow surgery that limited him to 10 appearances in 2011, Kelley will fill a set-up role to start the season. He can help with strikeouts and holds, so Kelley is worth owning in deep leagues that use non-closers. He could also have some longer-term value should the Mariners deal League at some point this season. The team may have an incentive to do so, as League will become a free agent after the 2012 season.
Tom Wilhelmsen: After seven years away from affiliated ball, Wilhelmsen was one of last season's feel-good stories. He fared so well in his first major season that he is in a position to vie with Kelley for set-up duties in 2012. Wilhelmsen profiles as a future closer, but for now, he is merely an option in deep AL-only leagues.
Hisashi Iwakuma: The 30-year-old competed for a spot in the M's rotation this spring, but for now his future is in the bullpen. Opposing hitters batted .358 against Iwakuma this spring, so his first exposure to hitters since arriving from the Japanese Pacific League was not a pleasant one. He could have some value down the line if he becomes a starter, but Iwakuma could face a long road to get to that point. He also will not be on the active roster for the series in Tokyo.
Erasmo Ramirez: Ramirez didn't come to spring training with the profile or pedigree of prospects like Hultzen, Paxton or Taijuan Walker, but unlike the members of that trio, Ramirez walked away from camp with a big league roster spot. A starter by trade, Ramirez will move into the bullpen to start the season. If all goes well there, it could be Ramirez, and not Hultzen or Paxton, serving as the team's sixth starter and filling a rotation spot when a need arises.

Athletics

Starting pitchers

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1. Brandon McCarthy: Like Hernandez, McCarthy will start his team's first game in Japan as well as in the U.S. He didn't have a great spring (4.63 ERA), but given his overall performance last year, McCarthy should be trusted in standard mixed leagues this season. He certainly had the Mariners' number in 2011, posting a 1.99 ERA and 0.70 WHIP in four starts. With two starts against Seattle in Week 1, McCarthy is a must-start to begin the year.
2. Bartolo Colon: As quickly as Fantasy owners warmed up to Colon after his initial success last season, they grew distrustful of him as he struggled through a difficult second half. Many of Colon's problems last year were tied to his tendency to allow homers, but he gave up a disproportionate number of those at Yankee Stadium. Having moved out of that venue and out of the AL East, Colon should see fewer balls leave the park this season. He could be worth trying in standard mixed leagues again, and if nothing else, he is worth using as a two-start pitcher in Week 1.

Rest of the rotation

3. Tommy Milone: Milone may be a soft-tossing southpaw, but the higher up he rose in the minors, the more his strikeout rate grew. That won't necessarily hold in his first full major league season, but he has succeeded at every level due to sharp command. His penchant for inducing pop-ups ought to play very well at O.co Coliseum, known for its spacious foul territory. He should be a solid contributor in AL-only leagues and could be an option in deeper mixed leagues, especially during home stands. Forget about Milone for Week 1, though, as he will not be on the active roster in Tokyo and is unlikely to pitch at all.
4. Tyson Ross: With the A's stockpiling young arms this offseason, Ross slipped under the radar of many Fantasy owners early on in spring training, but he emerged quickly as a strong rotation candidate. In fact, he has surfaced as the team's No. 4 starter. Ross' time in the majors was cut short last year by shoulder and oblique injuries, but he was impressive over the 36 innings he pitched, curbing his tendency to issue too many walks. Owners can bench Ross for Week 1, but he should remain active in AL-only formats beginning with Week 2.
5. Graham Godfrey: The A's won't need a fifth starter until April 17, but for now, it appears Godfrey has won the job. That would put him in line to make his first start in Week 3, but the A's could decide to replace him with Jarrod Parker or Brad Peacock before then. Keep an eye on Godfrey's status, as he could be useful as a low-end option in AL-only leagues.

Closer

Grant Balfour: A's manager Bob Melvin took his time naming a closer this spring, but Balfour came away as the squad's ninth-inning man. Balfour has only 10 saves in his career, but he has done everything possible as a middle reliever to earn a shot at closing. The A's may not score many runs, but they may not allow many either, and the potential for frequent close contests could make Balfour a surprisingly popular reliever in standard mixed leagues.

Key set-up and middle relief options

Brian Fuentes: If experience alone qualified a pitcher to close, Fuentes would have won the job running away. Given his plunging swinging strike rate in recent years, it's not all that surprising that Melvin opted to go with Balfour instead. Fuentes should be able to pick up some holds, but unless he can start whiffing more batters again he won't be especially useful even in deeper leagues.
Fautino De Los Santos: The hard-throwing De Los Santos was in the closer's hunt for awhile, but he will go back to a middle relief role. If your team needs strikeouts and can afford to take a hit in the WHIP category, De Los Santos is your guy. However, he can be very wild, so even in deeper leagues that use middle relievers, explore all of your options before using him.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Al Melchior at @almelccbs . You can also e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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Player News
Rangers 1B Mitch Moreland won't play spring games until next week
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(12:36 pm ET) Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland will run the bases on Tuesday, and won't seen any spring games until next week, according to the Star-Telegram. Texas is taking a cautious approach with Moreland in camp after he underwent ankle surgery last June.

The 29-year-old Moreland hit .246/.297/.347 over 167 at-bats last year.


Blue Jays' Gibbons yet to settle on closer, could use committee
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:34 pm ET) Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said Tuesday that while Brett Cecil has the ability to close, he might not serve as the team's closer, the National Post reports.

"He could do it. He might not. It might be somebody else," Gibbons said.

The manager also raised the possibility of using multiple closers.

"It could be one of those deals where one night he might be closing, the other night he might have to come in at the end of the seventh or eighth inning," Gibbons said.

Despite the face that Gibbons hasn't deemed Cecil his closer, he did praise his pitching ability Tuesday.

"He’s got some overpowering stuff," Gibbons said. "He’s a lefty and I don’t think there’s a better curveball out there. He can throw it for strikes, he can bring it down low in the zone and bounce it for a strikeout. That’s kind of his go-to pitch. He doesn’t rattle. He’s pretty confident and calm when he’s out there."

Cecil went 2-3 with a 2.70 ERA, 76:27 K:BB ratio and five saves in 53 1/3 innings in 2014. He owns a 11.1 career K/9 rate in relief.


White Sox's Geovany Soto feeling good at the start of spring games
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(12:23 pm ET) White Sox catcher Geovany Soto said he is feeling good after being limited to 78 games the last two seasons due to injuries. He missed time in 2014 because of arthroscopic surgery on his left foot and a torn meniscus in his right knee.

"I love where I'm at," Soto said, per The Chicago Tribune. "My legs feel great. My whole body feels great. I'm just anxious to get started and show these guys what I can do, hopefully stay healthy and break camp."


Dodgers' Mattingly: Hyun-Jin Ryu's (back) next step will be BP
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(12:22 pm ET) Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told reporters that starting pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu came out of Monday's bullpen session "fine," and that his next step will likely be throwing batting practice, according to SB Nation.

Ryu is dealing with a back injury, but has been throwing the last couple of days without pain. At this point, Ryu remains without a timetable for his first spring game. He went 14-7 in 2014 with a 3.38 ERA and 139 strikeouts in 152 innings pitched last season.


Hinch: Astros 'likely' to use seven-man bullpen in 2015
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:15 pm ET) Astros manager A.J. Hinch indicated that the team is likely to use a seven-man bullpen this season, leaving two spots open for competition this spring, the Houston Chronicle reports.

"Likely," Hinch said of a seven-man bullpen. "There’s always a chance that (changes) depending on how the schedule plays out, and there’s always a debate on how many pitchers to carry during interleague. Now interleague is pretty much year round, so I mean, in a perfect world with our roster, it’s likely to carry a seven-man ‘pen. If we feel like we need an extra pitcher or injury happens, there’s different ways to shape our roster, then we will, but likely 12."

The two open spots will likely be filled by a left-handed pitcher and a long reliever. The competition for the second lefty in the pen likely comes down to Kevin Chapman and nonroster invitees Joe Thatcher and Darin Downs. The long relief role has a broader list of candidates, including Alex White and Asher Wojciechowski, who will prepare both as starters and relievers.

"We’re going to stretch out a lot of our guys," Hinch said. "Some of them are because they’re competing in that fifth starter spot, some of them are bullpen guys. Will Harris is going to throw multiple innings. Obviously (Sam) Deduno has been a starter in the past, he’s in a competition for the fifth man spot. Wojo, White, those guys are going to need to, going to plan for the season on both fronts, whether it’s a starter or reliever. But we’re preaching multiple innings. It’s important if you have a seven-man bullpen that you have a couple of guys that can get four, five, six outs if needed and be a bridge to the rest of the bullpen."


Rangers' Tolleson: 'I'd like to be that bridge' between starters, closers
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(12:15 pm ET) Rangers pitcher Shawn Tolleson told reporters he would like to become the link between the starting rotation and back-end relievers Tanner Scheppers and Neftali Feliz this season, according to the Dallas Morning News.

"I would like to be that bridge," Tolleson said.

Tolleson led the club with 71 2/3 innings of relief last season. He pitched more than one inning 20 times and held left-handed hitters to a .282 on-base percentage.

"He's got the skill set to be one of those that we use in the latter portions of the game," manager Jeff Banister said. "He seems to love the competition."


Nationals faced with tough decision regarding Michael Taylor
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(12:10 pm ET) The Nationals are faced with a tough decision when it comes to outfield prospect Michael Taylor, who appears to be on the cusp of being ready for a regular role at the major-league level.

A major issue is playing time since the Nationals have a starting outfield of Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Denard Span. Taylor would be a solid fourth outfielder, but having him coming off the bench is not ideal for his development.

“It’s the same age-old decision that must be made regarding guys that are just on the cusp of being big-league ready and everyday players,” manager Matt Williams said, per NatsInsider.com. “And a question of depth on your team, too. … It’s a question of depth on your team, it’s a question of how much playing time they’re really going to get, and are they better served staying in the minor leagues and getting those at-bats until their opportunity arises. But Mike’s close. He’s really close.”


Nationals' Aaron Barrett: 'I'm ready for a full season'
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(12:06 pm ET) Nationals pitcher Aaron Barrett worked on strengthening his shoulder and legs in the offseason to improve his longevity throughout the entire season. Barrett admitted he wasn't used to a full major-league schedule, which contributed to him feeling "tired" in the middle of his rookie season.

"I'm ready for a full season," Barrett said. "Last year was a long season for me. It was my first year up. I had a lot of appearances, a lot of warm-ups and stuff like that. I think that is part of the process of coming up and working on that. I did as much training as I possibly could for this year."


Daniel Descalso brings versatility, playoff experience to Rockies
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:06 pm ET) Rockies infielder Daniel Descalso is ready to fill the role of versatile veteran who can play second base, third base or shortstop as needed, the Denver Post reports.

"I'll be ready for whatever comes my way," Descalso said Monday. "It's been a while since I've played just one position for any length of time, so I've worked hard to reach a comfort level at all three spots. I have an idea of what it takes to stay sharp."

Another factor that piqued the interest of the Rockies this offseason was his postseason experience, as he has played in 44 postseason games and won one championship.

"All of that factored in quite a bit," manager Walt Weiss said. "I think we sometimes underestimate the value of that — guys that have played in big games, pennant races, and have won a World Series. Those types of players are valuable, and that's a big reason why we brought Danny in here."

Descalso has made 110 starts at second base, 91 at third base and 88 at shortstop in his five-year career, seeing at least 100 appearances at all three poitions. He hit .242/.333/.311 in 161 at-bats last year with the Cardinals.


Francona: Jason Kipnis likely to make spring debut this weekend
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(12:02 pm ET) Indians manager Terry Francona said Tuesday second baseman Jason Kipnis (hand) will likely make his spring debut this weekend, per MLB.com.

 
 
 
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