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Dear Mr. Fantasy: Ups and downs of young players

Senior Fantasy Writer
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I never bought into the idea of the sophomore slump. I'm not sure I do even now.

Like the freshman jinx or senioritis, it seems like just a convenient excuse for a genuine problem. If you're in over your head or just plain don't care anymore, that's all there is to it. Don't blame it on bad luck or imaginary pathogens.

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And if you suddenly can't hack it after taking the league by storm as a rookie, well, maybe you weren't all that good in the first place.

So this "sophomore slump," then, is actually just a regression to the mean for the rookies who clearly exceeded their pedigrees after reaching the majors. It doesn't apply to the ones genuinely regarded as top prospects coming up through the minors -- you know, guys like Eric Hosmer, Brett Lawrie, Dustin Ackley and Dee Gordon.

Yeah ...

Why is my 2011 championship team with 15 returning starters from last year doing so poorly? Among the underachievers are Dustin Ackley, Eric Hosmer and Jemile Weeks. -- @CVSE7EN (via Twitter)

SW: I'll take some of the blame here. Guys like Hosmer, Lawrie, Ackley, Weeks ... I hyped them to the hills coming into the season. Same goes for Matt Moore and Jesus Montero, who are technically rookies but who also impressed in their debuts last year.

And I had good reason for it. They all profile as perennial All-Stars -- well, all but Weeks, maybe -- and had already shown that kind of ability against major-league competition. They had experience, and young players tend to progress with experience. Any further progression, and they'd be superstars.

But by assuming their good numbers last year meant they already had this major-league thing figured out, I ignored a whole heap of history that suggests it's never quite that simple.

Just look at last year's sophomore class. Buster Posey and Jason Heyward were the two most impactful rookies just one year earlier, and both were about as highly regarded as prospects get coming up through the minors. Yet both bombed last year, costing their owners high draft picks and delivering next to nothing in return. Granted, injuries deserve much of the blame in both cases, but considering neither has quite recaptured his rookie form even when fully healthy this season, doesn't it stand to reason that the two might have delivered a little too much too fast?

And they'd hardly be the first of their kind to do so. Troy Tulowitzki's OPS dipped by about 100 points as a sophomore before he ultimately became all that he became. Hunter Pence's sophomore season still stands as his worst -- and his rookie season his best. Chris Young has yet to repeat his 32 home runs from his first season. Jeff Francoeur broke through with a .300 batting average and .884 OPS as a rookie and has mostly gone downhill since.

All were top prospects when they arrived in the majors, and all achieved instant success. But none progressed the way you'd expect.

That's not true in every case, of course. Ryan Braun, who had the biggest rookie season in recent memory in 2007, has performed like a superstar ever since. Hanley Ramirez took the expected step forward as a sophomore in 2007. Ditto for Evan Longoria in 2009. Brian McCann's sophomore season still stands as far and away the best of his career. So what gives?

The point here isn't to scare you away from sophomores or to suggest they're all disappointments waiting to happen. The most talented players are the ones most likely to put up big numbers, no matter how many years they've been in the league. The point is that a partial season of data doesn't always reveal how a player fits in with the rest of the league, and for sophomores, given the presumption they'll improve, it can be especially misleading.

Even for the players themselves. If they come in and succeed right away, maybe they start to believe all the good things people have been saying about them over the years and get a little complacent. Maybe the rest of the league adjusts to them before they get a chance to adjust back. Yes, it's all part of the learning process, but that's precisely the point. Presuming a sophomore has it all figured out undermines how difficult it is to perform at the major-league level. That may seem obvious to some, but in a year like this one, when seemingly everything that can go wrong has for the sophomore class, it's worth the reminder.

Of course, you, sir, didn't fall into that trap. You didn't draft those players but kept them in a league where just about every worthwhile player is kept. You made the right choice -- they're talented players who you'll probably want on your team for years to come -- but as is the case with a major-league team relying on younger players, you'll take your lumps with them.

The good news is that just because they've let you down so far doesn't mean they'll stay down all season. In most cases, that talent will show itself sooner or later.

Should I trade Eric Hosmer and Hiroki Kuroda for Anibal Sanchez? -- @lionsbutter (via Twitter)

SW: And that's what you need to remember when assessing these underachieving sophomores. True, this deep into the season, you really couldn't classify them as anything other than disappointments. They've put you in an early hole, and according to where you drafted them, that never should have happened. But just because they're disappointments doesn't mean they're lost causes.

The talent is still there, and you've already seen it on display against major-league competition. When they make the necessary adjustments, you'll see it on display again. Because their potential value remains high, they should still fetch plenty in a trade. If not, then you want to make sure you're on the buying end and not the selling end of the deal.

So are you getting enough for Hosmer here? According to draft averages, he was most likely your sixth-round pick, and though he no longer has the value of a sixth-rounder, I still think enough of him, with his extremely low BABIP and improved home run and walk rates, to take him over the average ninth-rounder, which is where Sanchez was drafted in standard Head-to-Head leagues.

Of course, that assessment doesn't take into account how much value Sanchez has gained since the start of the season, maintaining his terrific strikeout rate of a year ago to emerge as a legitimate frontline pitcher in Fantasy. His rise combined with Hosmer's fall has closed the preseason gap enough that if I needed pitching or was in such a deep hole that I could no longer afford to wait on Hosmer, I'd probably make the deal.

Kuroda is just a throw-in. His early-season struggles in his move from the light-hitting NL West to the heavy-hitting AL East have made him droppable in some shallower leagues, and at age 37, his upside isn't high enough that I see him making a significant impact even if he does bounce back.

Would you trade Martin Prado for Ben Zobrist in a Head-to-Head points league? I have Brandon Phillips at second base and Jose Bautista at third base no matter which way I go, so the deal mostly just impacts my utility spot. -- Matthew Chenevert (via e-mail)

SW: Prado's recent hot streak has helped remind people just how valuable he is when he's hitting over .300. His doubles power and run-scoring potential at the top of the Braves lineup add up in points leagues.

But he's still no Zobrist. Zobrist is a perennial 20-20 threat. Prado will be lucky to go 15-10. Zobrist walks upward of 80 times per year. Prado's career high is half that. Prado may have the edge in batting average, but Zobrist has the edge in everything else that matters in Head-to-Head leagues, which makes him the better bet for your utility spot.

And there's another consideration here. Bautista has navigated his cold start. He seems to be on the other side of it now and is back to being a stud. Phillips' numbers have been lagging all season and have been on a fairly steady decline since his breakout 30-30 campaign in 2007. I'm not saying Phillips is done or anything, but if you asked me which one is safer, my choice would be Bautista, and it wouldn't be close.

If nothing else, I'd prefer Zobrist just as an insurance policy.

Who will have a better year: Kevin Youkilis or Will Middlebrooks? -- @sancarlosbrad (via Twitter)

Most Traded Players (as of 5/23)
Player # of trades
1. Albert Pujols, 1B, Angels 635
2. Tim Lincecum, SP, Giants 621
3. Mark Teixeira, 1B, Yankees 467
4. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Royals 454
5. Dan Haren, SP, Angels 424
6. Roy Halladay, SP, Phillies 389
7. Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals 380
8. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Red Sox 369
9. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals 365
10. Nelson Cruz, OF, Rangers 355

SW: It might be a moot point now that the Red Sox have opted to go the mad scientist route, keeping both Youkilis and Middlebrooks in the lineup (at first and third base, respectively) and moving first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to the outfield. But in Fantasy, you might have to decide between the two anyway, and if that's the case, I would, with some hesitation, choose Youkilis.

Yeah, the early returns this season haven't been so great, but he's been a stud for too long for me to give up on him after only 70 at-bats. It's not like he's suddenly ancient at age 33. The injuries are becoming more common, yeah, and may be having some effect on his numbers, but he still has .900-OPS potential when all is right for him.

And the move to first base might be exactly what makes everything right again. It's less demanding physically, which should limit the wear and tear on his body and might explain why his decline began in the first place. Last year was his first back at the hot corner, let's not forget, and it was also the first year in his entire career that he experienced a drop in OPS -- and by more than 100 points.

I'm by no means a Youkilis apologist. I acknowledge he may be done. But I'll take the possibility he's not over the possibility Middlebrooks sustains his current pace.

I like Middlebrooks' upside and everything, but his .581 slugging percentage is higher than that of Edwin Encarnacion, who's currently on a 48-homer pace. Plus, the rookie has 24 strikeouts compared to only three walks. When pitchers begin to exploit his aggressiveness, his .297 batting average figures to take a hit.

How big of a hit? Enough that I don't expect him to be a top-12 third baseman from this point forward. Top-15, maybe, but not top 12.

I got an offer today for Trevor Bauer -- the best one I've gotten so far. The other guy would send me Eric Hosmer, Taijuan Walker and Yordano Ventura for just Bauer. What would you do? -- Trav Alcaraz (via Facebook)

SW: More Hosmer talk. Lucky me.

Look, I think the world of Bauer. I pretty much wrote him a love letter in the most-recent Reality Check , and I'm convinced he'll be a high-end contributor as soon as he reaches the big leagues. But thinking long-term, if the talent is more or less equal, I'll always favor the hitter to the pitcher.

It's a matter of minimizing risk. Pitchers get hurt all the time. They're required to throw a baseball harder than their arms were made to throw anything, and as a result, their arms often break. If it's just the elbow that breaks, the pitcher loses a year, but if it's the shoulder, his career is in serious jeopardy. And with a smallish pitcher like Bauer, who stands at 6-feet-1, the risk is only amplified.

Granted, hitters get hurt too, but their injuries are rarely as predictable or severe. They more often come back within the same season, and when they come back, they're fine.

That argument is pretty cut-and-dried, really, so the bigger question is whether or not Hosmer's talent is more or less equal to Bauer's. I say it is. His pedigree, batting eye and minor-league track record suggest he'll be a consistent .300 hitter, and considering how much power he's already shown at age 22, he likely has a few 30-homer seasons in his future as well. He's a potential first-rounder in his prime, and in Fantasy, that's as good as it gets.

Of course, since you're also getting an elite pitching prospect in Walker, who I recently listed among my top 10 prospects for dynasty leagues, and a riskier but still high-upside arm in Ventura, this deal seems like a no-brainer regardless. You get to have your cake and eat it too.

Lucky you.

I'm wondering about Nolan Arenado. Are the Rockies waiting for a certain date to bring him up so that he doesn't reach arbitration too soon? And if they are, is there a certain day when that happens? -- Ken Stanley (via e-mail)

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SW: I know, right? With all the other prospect talk recently, Arenado has kind of gotten swept under the rug. Bryce Harper and Mike Trout are both up and running, but all you ever hear about now is Trevor Bauer. And if not him, Anthony Rizzo. And if not him, Dylan Bundy. What happened to the guy who was sure to be starting at third base for the Rockies by midseason?

Their projected third baseman coming into the season was Casey Blake, for Pete's sake, and with Chris Nelson recently going on the DL with a wrist injury, they're now on to Plan C and Jordan Pacheco. If they ever had justification to promote their top prospect, this is it.

So why isn't he here yet? Better yet, why is no one even talking about him?

Your concern about arbitration is a valid one. If the Rockies promote Arenado too early, they risk him gaining Super Two status, sending him to arbitration a year earlier and presumably costing them millions of dollars. Unfortunately, there isn't a magic date for when that happens. Players who make their major-league debuts this season will be candidates for Super Two status after the 2014 season. The 17 percent of those players with the most service time at that point get the early arbitration year. We can't know which players will have the most service time over a three-year period until we wait the three years to find out, which means the Rockies won't know for sure if they waited long enough to promote Arenado until 2014. A lot can change between now and then, obviously, so you can bet they'll be holding out as long as possible.

And right now, he's not exactly forcing their hand.

That's the biggest issue here. As much of a need as they have a third base and as much as he seems like the long-term fit there, his performance at Double-A Tulsa so far has left a bit to be desired. His .303 batting average is great and all, but he has only three home runs after breaking out with 20 at Class A Modesto last year. And again, that's at Double-A. He hasn't even reached the highest rung of the minor-league ladder yet, and already he's running into problems.

Maybe it's not such a big deal -- he had a good showing in the Arizona Fall League, after all, and minor-league numbers are notoriously difficult to gauge -- but I can't help but wonder if the power drought is a result of him losing 20 pounds this offseason in an effort to become more agile at third base. I mean, he's only 21. For a man who's still growing, that's a lot of weight to lose.

At this point, I wouldn't hold my breath on Arenado. The Rockies are showing no desire to rush him, and even if they did, I'm beginning to doubt how effective he'll be when he arrives.

Someone just dropped Bud Norris in a league where strikeouts are worth one point, wins are worth seven and quality starts are worth three. I have Brandon McCarthy, who is on the DL. Should I make the switch? -- @EdPurchaseIV (via Twitter)

SW: Those point values are standard except for the strikeouts, which are normally worth only half a point. And that one little change might make all the difference for me.

Statistically, strikeouts are the one advantage Norris has over McCarthy. His control isn't as good, and he isn't as accustomed to pitching deep into games. But when it comes to strikeouts, he's one of the best in the bigs.

Plus, he's quickly closing the gap on McCarthy in those other areas as well. His walk rate of 2.8 per nine innings is by far the lowest of his career -- low enough that it's no longer even a liability for him -- and as a result, he's throwing fewer pitches, which means more six- and seven-inning starts, which means more wins. Norris may not be as polished as McCarthy, but if these early-season trends continue, he'll be the better Fantasy option.

And really, because he's the one who's actually healthy and pitching right now, he's probably the preferred choice in mixed leagues regardless of the way his season unfolds. The short-term advantage mitigates the long-term risk.

I've been offered Dan Haren for either Brandon Morrow or Jeremy Hellickson. Should I make the move, and which should I offer in return? -- Mason O'Donnell (via e-mail)

SW: For Hellickson, I'd make the deal without a second thought. For Morrow, yeah, I'd probably still do it, but only after I stayed up all night reading every piece of information I could find on both Haren and Morrow to make sure I could still live with the decision even if it blew up in my face.

The bottom line is I still believe in Haren. I know his velocity has been down this season, which has his Fantasy owners concerned, but I don't think it's the reason for his recent rough patch. His strikeout and walk ratios are almost exactly the same as they were in his first 14 starts as an Angel in 2010, when he posted a 2.87 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, so the stuff he has is still good enough to make him effective.

Plus, his struggles only encompass his last three starts. He had a 2.17 ERA in his previous four, going seven-plus innings in three of them. He only got one win out of it, which is probably why he's so far down in the Fantasy rankings, but he figures to have better luck in the future.

That said, I also believe in Morrow. He always had ace stuff, so a breakthrough season isn't such a surprise given the way he's been able to whittle down his walk rate to a respectable number while steadily building up his innings over the last few years. And though his strikeouts were lacking early, he's back to averaging 10.8 per nine innings over his last five starts.

The main reason I give Haren the edge is track record. He's been more or less an ace for the last seven years, and at age 31, I don't think he's going to land too far from that group again this year. Morrow's start is encouraging, but he's a relative unknown. He has yet to put together a 200-inning season while Haren is a lock for 220 every year. That could make all the difference right there.

As for Hellickson, he's good and all, but as was the case during his rookie season, he's just not getting enough strikeouts to rank among the frontline pitchers in Fantasy.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott White at @CBSScottWhite . You can also check us out on Facebook or e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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Player News
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(12/26/2014) Free-agent infielder Rafael Furcal will miss the winter league playoffs after suffering a torn hamstring, according to ESPN Deportes. 

The 37-year-old Furcal struggled with injuries last year, playing in just nine games. He hit .171 over 35 at-bats with Miami. Furcal went on the disabled list two separate times with hamstring issues last season.


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(12/26/2014) Yankees pitcher Hiroki Kuroda will return to pitch in Japan next season, confirms CBSSports.com Baseball Insider Jon Heyman. A Hiroshima newspaper was the first to have the report.

The 39-year-old Kuroda spent seven seasons in the United States. He posted a career 3.45 ERA over 1319 innings. After spending the first four seasons of his career with the Dodgers, Kuroda joined the Yankees. He remained with the organization for three seasons, but made sure his contract went year-to-year so that he could return to Japan when ready. Kuroda plans to continue his baseball career in Japan, and will pitch for the Hiroshima Carp next year. 


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A Hiroshima newspaper reported Kuroda will return to Japan next season, ending a seven-year run in the United States. The 39-year-old posted a 3.71 ERA over 199 innings with New York last season. Kuroda had signed one-year deals the past couple of offseasons so that he could return to Japan when ready.


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Report: RHP Hiroki Kuroda heading back to Japan
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(12/26/2014) Veteran right-hander Hiroki Kuroda is heading back to Japan, thereby ending his career with the Yankees, per various reports.

Kuroda, who will be 40 years old in February, pitched seven seasons in the major leagues, including the last three in the Big Apple. He finished 2014 with an 11-9 record and 3.71 ERA.


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(12/26/2014) The Astros have outrighted left-hander Darin Downs to Triple-A Fresno after having cleared waivers. 

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Nationals taking chance on 2B Dan Uggla
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(12/26/2014) Second baseman Dan Uggla, who has spent most of his recent years creating a breeze at the plate, has signed a minor league deal with the Nationals with a spring training invite.

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Runzler compiled a 3.30 ERA and fanned 53 in 46 1/3 innings at the Triple-A level for San Francisco last season before bolting to Japan.


 
 
 
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