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Reality Check: Wounded warriors find their way back

Senior Fantasy Writer
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The second half is a time for new beginnings, for stepping out of the four-day break refreshed, renewed and ready to right all the wrongs of the first 3 1/2 months.

Which for some players simply means playing again.

Yes, many of the ones you've been stashing for weeks on end are back, the midseason checkpoint once again serving as a logical return date for anyone suffering an injury of medium severity.

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And most of them have already made their returns known in Fantasy. Jacoby Ellsbury, a consensus first-rounder who played only a week before dislocating his shoulder in mid-April, Matt Kemp, who was far and away the best player in Fantasy before his hamstring troubles began in mid-May, Andre Ethier, his partner in crime who had earned must-start status himself before straining his oblique in late June, Nick Markakis, who was showing more pop when he broke his hand in late May, and Lorenzo Cain, a preseason sleeper who never had a chance to become anything more thanks to a torn hip flexor in early May, all have three-hit games to their credit in the few days since returning. Even Marlins speedster Emilio Bonifacio, a player highly regarded for his versatility, at least has a stolen base to his credit. He was on pace for 80 of those before spraining his thumb in late May -- an injury that ultimately required surgery.

Needless to say, the Fantasy owners who stashed those six are patting themselves on the back today, their patience and foresight rewarded with high-end production (or at least the potential for it) at a time when it's almost impossible to find on the waiver wire.

Then, there's the guy who stashed Lance Berkman.

It's not like it was a bad idea. Berkman was a top-10 first baseman and top-12 outfielder in Fantasy last season, rebounding from an injury-plagued 2010 to produce his usual .300 batting average and 30 home runs. And it's not like his production was lacking when he tore his meniscus in mid-May. By all the data available to us, he's more or less the same player as last year. Still, his situation is different. While all those other six go back to their usual positions to put up, hopefully, their usual numbers, he, uh ... well, perhaps you should hear it from him.

"I shouldn't be playing ahead of any of the guys we have out there," Berkman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during the All-Star break.

But ... he's capable of a .300 batting average and 30-plus homers every year. Those players don't just grow on trees, right?

For the Cardinals, they do, and no other player embodies that idea more than Berkman's direct replacement: Allen Craig.

Craig, unheralded in the minors despite hitting .308 with an .888 OPS in parts of seven seasons, hit .315 with 11 homers and a .917 OPS in 200 at-bats as a part-timer last year, following it up in the NLCS and World Series with a .296 batting average, four homers and 1.147 OPS. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that he returned from his own knee surgery this offseason to hit .297 with 13 homers and a .947 OPS in 185 at-bats as a replacement for Berkman.

And if those numbers are no surprise for him, then logically speaking, they're also a realistic expectation for him. And if those numbers are a realistic expectation for him, then how could you justify removing them from the lineup?

You can't. Berkman knows it as well as anyone, which is why he made it easy for the Cardinals by forgoing a rehab assignment, which would have prepared him for an everyday role, and opting instead for the one approach no one ever takes after a two-month absence.

"I'd rather work my way back in at this level," he said.

What does that look like? A spot start here, a pinch-hit appearance there -- in short, a bunch of part-time at-bats.

By his own doing.

It's probably not as unselfish as it sounds. With Craig batting fourth or fifth every day and delivering big hits seemingly every day, Berkman probably saw the writing on the wall and thought, "Why waste time in the minors if I'm destined for spot duty anyway?" Or maybe, hoping for one last shot at the postseason at age 36, he recognizes that the Cardinals probably won't get back in the race without Craig in the lineup.

Again, Berkman is perfectly capable of delivering numbers like the ones he did last year, but at his age, coming off knee surgery and only two years removed from a career-worst season, is that really the most-likely scenario? If in a best case he'll do what Craig is already doing, isn't Craig the better player? That's not always the deciding factor in these situations, especially when the better player is making less money. The coaching staff feels pressure from the front office. The fans and media can't stop asking questions. All in all, it's a mess. Fortunately, Berkman's decision to rehabilitate his knee in the majors gives the Cardinals a built-in excuse.

"I don't think [Berkman] is ready to go out and play nine innings five straight days. Getting Craig at-bats I don't see as a problem," general manager John Mozeliak told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

How convenient.

Of course, no one is saying Berkman won't play at all. Spot starts are part of the plan, as we saw Sunday. At times, the Cardinals might even start him alongside Craig, who is also capable of playing left field, right field and, in a pinch, third base. Because the Cardinals have All-Stars at those three positions, though (Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and David Freese), that's hardly an everyday solution.

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No, first base remains the most logical place for Craig to play, which means Berkman will spend a fair amount of time on the bench.

The timeshare isn't an ideal scenario for either player, but I'm sticking to the idea that Craig will be more of a hindrance to Berkman than the other way around. A player like Berkman, who's prone to cold stretches and accustomed to everyday duty, faces an uphill battle with his newfound role. As long as Craig continues to deliver, as he has in every role at every level to this point, the dilemma will quickly fade for the Cardinals.

Perhaps now, amid the hype of his return, is the ideal time to shop Berkman. It's certainly the right time to talk to your league's Craig owner, who's probably fearing the worst.

In the now ... A look at how recent events have impacted certain players' Fantasy value

Tyler Colvin, 1B/OF, Rockies: So what if Colvin had another good game? He still doesn't play enough to matter in Fantasy, right? Um, you might want to check that game long again. Between left field, center field, right field and first base, Colvin has started 14 of the team's last 15 games. Kind of puts that .337 batting average and those 10 homers over his last 26 into perspective, right? With Todd Helton now on the DL with a hip injury -- the kind that could be a deathblow for 38-year-old like him -- Colvin should have even more starts coming his way. He homered 20 times in 358 at-bats for the Cubs in 2010, so the power is certainly legit, and considering he's batting .283 with an .833 OPS away from Coors Field and .304 with an .876 OPS against left-handed (i.e. same-handed) pitchers, his numbers aren't warped by ridiculous splits. He's simply a 26-year-old coming into his own in an extremely favorable hitter's environment. Ignore him no more.

James Shields, SP, Rays: If you've played Fantasy long enough, you've seen the high-end players bounce back from slow starts often enough that you pretty much always expect it to happen. But at some point, patience can become as much of an impediment as impatience, and we've about reached that point with Shields. It's not like he's another Adrian Gonzalez, with a track record so pristine that you have to assume he'll fall in line with it eventually. Remember 2010? It's not like he's another Ian Kennedy, with enough good starts mixed in with the bad that you can't help but still trust in the talent. For Shields, the hits just keep going up and up and up, and we've seen it from him before. Apparently, his stuff is on such a tightrope that if his location is less than perfect, he gets pounded. I'm not suggesting you drop a guy whose name carries so much value, but maybe you shop him and take what you can get.

Norichika Aoki, OF, Brewers: Aoki is a fine role player who can make an unexpected contribution in Fantasy from time to time. At least, that's what his ownership percentage of 39 would have you believe. In actuality, he's pushing every-week status in mixed leagues. Since taking over as the Brewers' regular right fielder on May 21 -- a move made possible by Corey Hart's shift to first base, which was made possible by Mat Gamel's season-ending knee injury -- Aoki is the 16th-highest scoring outfielder in Head-to-Head leagues, fueled by a .292 batting average, four homers, 11 steals and .812 OPS during that stretch. No, he doesn't stand out in any one category, but as is often the case for overlooked players, his on-base ability and extra-base pop fills in the gaps to create a complete player. It's basically what Shane Victorino has done all these years. Aoki may not save your team in a Mike Trout sort of way, but chances are he's better than one of the outfielders you're currently starting.

Ubaldo Jimenez, SP, Indians: Oh, that Jimenez ... always teasing us with his high-end arsenal. No, it's not what it once was, but with an average fastball velocity of 92.4 miles per hour, good for 21st among right-handed starters, it's still more than good enough to get the job done. That is, if he throws strikes with it. For a three-start stretch in June, he looked like he had finally figured that part out, walking just three batters en route to a 2.75 ERA. But in his four starts after that, he allowed four walks, four walks, four walks and one walk.. He maintained a low ERA during that stretch, lulling the less-observant into his trap before springing it Saturday by allowing eight earned runs in 2 1/3 innings ... to go along with four walks. In other words, more of the same for Jimenez, who has mostly been a headache in Fantasy since his near Cy Young 2010. He's OK in the right matchups, but he's a marginal type in mixed leagues.

Casey McGehee, 1B/3B, Pirates: Remember when McGehee was regarded as a top-12 third baseman in Fantasy? Ah, those were the days ... way back in 2011. Yes, it was just last year people were drafting him for that purpose, and understandably so. He was coming off a 23-homer, 104-RBI campaign with the Brewers. A down performance last year confined him to a reserve role and eventually reduced him to signing with the Pirates. But those Pirates have been hitting well lately, and their decision to start McGehee has been a big part of it. McGehee initially got hot as a reserve, batting .304 with six homers and an .891 OPS over his last 29 games, but between the corner infield spots, he has now started eight straight. The Pirates' lack of star power gives them little incentive to sit McGehee, which is all the more reason for you to look into him as at least a stopgap option in Fantasy.

Down the line ... A brief update on some of the minor-leaguers who have caught the attention of Fantasy owners

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Matt Harvey, SP, Mets: As unexpected contenders, the Mets have every incentive to fill out their starting rotation with pitchers who are, you know, good. So with Dillon Gee down for the year with a blood clot in his right shoulder, a top prospect like Harvey is actually in the discussion to take his place. In fact, manager Terry Collins called Harvey's Monday start at Triple-A an audition for the opening with the big club on Saturday. Harvey tends to get overshadowed in the Mets system by ace-in-waiting Zack Wheeler, but he's a high-end prospect in his own right, his mid-90s fastball contributing to more than a strikeout per inning at Triple-A. Though his 1.31 WHIP there suggests he won't be an ace right away, he could make a Jarrod Parker-like impact in the second half.

Adam Eaton, OF, Diamondbacks: Perhaps the Diamondbacks wouldn't even be entertaining the possibility of trading Justin Upton if not for Eaton, who has taken the minor-league world by storm with his .381 batting average between Double- and Triple-A. That's not a misprint. It's actually gotten better since his promotion to Reno, where he's hitting .391 in 327 at-bats. He's not just a one-trick pony either. His keen batting eye (.465 on-base percentage between the two stops) and elite base-stealing ability would make him an ideal leadoff hitter for a contender otherwise lacking one, and he even has some pop, as his .537 slugging percentage shows. Even without an Upton trade, the Diamondbacks have to be looking for an excuse to get Eaton in their lineup. NL-only owners should have him tucked away for that day.

Javier Baez, SS, Cubs: Baez -- the ninth-overall pick in last year's amateur draft -- was held back to start the season, but you'd never know it looking at his numbers. In only 145 at-bats at Class A Peoria, he already has eight homers and 16 steals to go along with a .331 batting average. His bat speed was compared to Gary Sheffield's coming out of high school -- which is about as good as it gets -- and so far, the numbers have only backed it up. At age 19, he's not looking at a September callup or anything, but his talent will move him quickly up the ladder. For Fantasy purposes, he's not far off from the elite duo of Jurickson Profar and Manny Machado among shortstop prospects.

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 e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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Player News
Jean Segura hits first homer in win
by Chris Towers | CBSSports.com
(1:31 am ET) Brewers shortstop Jean Segura's bat is showing signs of waking up, as he homered for the first time in a 5-2 in over the Padres Wednesday.

Segura took Tyson Ross deep in his first at-bat, riving in three runs with a shot to left field. He finished the game 2 for 3 with three RBI and one run scored in the win.

Segura is still hitting just .247/.273/.341 as he tries to work his way out of a season-opening slump. He has five RBI and 11 runs scored, but has been caught stealing on four of his nine stolen base attempts. 


Yadier Molina extends hitting streak with three-hit game
by Chris Towers | CBSSports.com
(1:26 am ET) Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina extended his hitting streak to 14 games Wednesday, and he didn't leave much doubt. Molina reached base safely in each of his trips to the plate, finishing 3 for 3 with a pair of doubles and a walk. He also drove in one run in the 3-2 loss.  

Molina is now hitting .36/.398/.557 through 20 hgames, with three home runs, 11 RBI and 10 runs scored. 


Matt Carpenter finding his way
by Chris Towers | CBSSports.com
(1:23 am ET) Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter was almost constantly on base Wednesday, in a 3-2 loss to the Mets. Carpenter reached four times, with three singles and a walk to his credit, though he scored just once while going 4 for 5.

 A recent three-game hitting streak has raised Carpenter's average to .296, and he carries a .392 on-base percentage and .346 slugging percentage as well through 22 games. 


Andrew McCutchen homers in third straight
by Chris Towers | CBSSports.com
(1:20 am ET) Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen has caught fire, homering for the third straight game Wednesday against the Reds.

McCutchen put together his third multi-hit game in a row to go along with the homer, a solo shot in the third inning of a 5-2 loss. He finished the game 2 for 4 with one RBI, one run scored and one walk.

As recently as Sunday, McCutchen was hitting just .243 with only one home run. He now has four homers on the season, and is hitting .298/.423/.536 in 84 at-bats.  


Kenley Jansen settling back in
by Chris Towers | CBSSports.com
(1:16 am ET) Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen continued to turn his season around Wednesday, recording his fourth save in a row in a 5-2 win over the Phillies.

Jansen retired the Phillies in order for the save, striking out one batter and ending the inning on 14 pitches. He has tossed four scoreless outings in a row, lowering his ERA to 3.46 for the season, with 24 strikeouts in 13 innings of work. He is 8 for 10 on save chances. 


Cole Hamels takes tough-luck loss in debut
by Chris Towers | CBSSports.com
(1:11 am ET) Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels did not look particularly rusty at all in his season debut Wednesday, though he took a tough loss as the Phillies fell, 5-2 to the Dodgers.

Hamels allowed two runs in six innings of work, one in the second and one in the fifth, limiting the Dodgers to six hits, four of which were singles. He struck out five and walked just one, while throwing 55 of 86 pitches for strikes.

Hamels showed few lingering issues following his recovery from a shoulder injury, and will likely have his pitch limit lifted in coming starts. His next start is scheduled for Tuesday against the Mets. 


Zack Greinke makes history in win
by Chris Towers | CBSSports.com
(1:06 am ET) Dodgers starting pitcher Zack Greinke continued his stellar work Wednesday against the Phillies, as he moved to 4-0 in a 5-2 victory.

Greinke limited the Phillies to just two runs on five hits in seven innings of work, and he etched his name into the record books with the start. According to Elias Sports Bureau, this was Greinke's 17th straight start allowing two or fewer earned runs, the longest streak since 1900. He struck out 11 and walked just one en route to the win.

Greinke is 4-0 through five starts, with a 2.45 ERA. He has struck out 40 batters while walking just five in 29 1/3 innings, and will try to keep his strong play up in his next start, Tuesday against the Twins. 


Adam LaRoche shows no problems with quad
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(1:03 am ET) Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche was back in the lineup Wednesday against the Angels, after missing the team's previous game with tightness in his quad. He showed no lingering effects from the injury, extending his hitting streak to seven games by going 3 for 5 with a walkoff RBI single in the 5-4 win.

LaRoche is off to a strong star to the season, hitting .315/.419/.479 in 73 at-bats, with three RBI and 12 home runs.


No lingering effects for Dee Gordon
by Chris Towers | CBSSports.com
(12:59 am ET) Dodgers infielder Dee Gordon was not in the lineup Wednesday against the Phillies, but the shot he took to the head late in the team's previous game was not the reason why.

Manager Don Mattingly told MLB.com he was simply giving Gordon a day off to rest, and was feeling no ill effects after hitting his head on an infielder's knee Tuesday. 


Chad Billingsley shut down five to seven days
by Chris Towers | CBSSports.com
(12:56 am ET) Dodgers starting pitcher Chad Billingsley had a platelet-rich plasma injection in his right elbow Tuesday, in an effort to alleviate tendinitis in his flexor tendon. He will be shut down five to seven days to let the injection take effect according to MLB.com, and will then resume a throwing program.

There is no timetable for his return to action after this latest setback from Tommy John surgery. 


 
 
 
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