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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
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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