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By the Numbers: Shifts in Fantasy value

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As the calendar flips to May, it's useful to remember that just about anyone can get hot or cold for a month. At this time last year, both Mark Reynolds and Dexter Fowler had eight home runs, and Lorenzo Cain and Nick Hundley were batting in the .320s. Meanwhile, Alfonso Soriano had all of six extra-base hits (only one of which was a homer) and Martin Prado was hitting a measly .217.

Not every unexpected early performance is a fluke, though. Evan Gattis' early-season power surge proved to be legitimate, as he hit 15 home runs in 278 at-bats after pounding six of them in April. Owners who waited for B.J. Upton to overcome his early-season slump had to suffer through several frustrating months before realizing he wasn't turning his season around. While it's ideal to wait another month or more to re-establish how we value players, you may need to make some roster moves now, before you miss your chance to make a statement in the standings.

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Not many players have made a sufficiently dramatic shift in their performance and underlying skill stats to move the needle significantly in my rest-of-season rankings. Given that most everyday players have made only about 120 plate appearances, changes in their stats would need to be extreme in order to justify a big move in the rankings (barring a change in health status). The following 10 hitters have all at least created the appearance of a major change in Fantasy value, but not all deserve to be valued differently than they were a month ago. I'll take an in-depth look at three hitters who do, in fact, appear to be more valuable than they were on opening day and three who seemed to lost value. I will also spotlight four hitters who, despite surprising early-season stats, seem to be pretty much the same players they were before this season.

This analysis isn't going to help you if you're trying to assess pitcher value, but sit tight, because I will address that in my next column. In the mean time, this column just may help you to avoid a sell-high or buy-low that you could regret in the weeks to come.

Note: All stats are current for games played through Tuesday, April 29.

Hitters with Increased Value

Charlie Blackmon, OF, Rockies: Starting out the season with a 2 percent ownership rate in CBSSports.com leagues, few would have guessed that Blackmon would be universally owned within a month. That's exactly what has happened, but can we trust Blackmon's progress? At least in terms of his contact skills, we probably can. He didn't strike out much in the minors, and while his 7 percent strikeout per at-bat rate could easily rise, there's no reason to think he will revert back to last season's 20 percent mark. Blackmon is also proving himself to be a reliable line drive hitter, following up last season's 31 percent rate with a 25 percent rate. It's highly conceivable that Blackmon could approximate last season's .309 batting average over the remainder of this season's games (assuming some regression to his .373 BABIP), leaving him with an average around .325 for the full season.

While Blackmon should continue to help with batting average and steals, his early season power looks a little questionable. All five of Blackmon's home runs have come at Coors Field, and if he were enjoying a true power surge, you would think we would have seen some evidence of it on the road. In away games, Blackmon has just an .061 Isolated Power, and he will be unlikely to maintain an otherworldly .435 Iso at home. He's not going to be the next Andrew McCutchen, but Blackmon just might be a poor man's Jacoby Ellsbury who is a must-start in Rotisserie leagues.

Justin Morneau, 1B, Rockies: Blackmon isn't the only Rockie who is wildly outperforming his draft position. Expectations for Morneau were dampened after three years of disappointing power output, but he has opened 2014 with six home runs in April after hitting 17 over the entirety of last season. The fact that he is doing this without a decrease in ground ball rate (Morneau has actually increased it by three percentage points) is impressive, but we have to give park factors their due. Three of Morneau's home runs have come at Coors Field, and he has also hit one each at Chase Field and PETCO Park, which have been good home run parks for left-handed batters.

In the three-plus seasons that Morneau played his home games at Target Field, he was a much better power hitter on the road, so maybe all he needed was a change of venue. Morneau is currently a top five Fantasy first baseman, but his batting average and doubles rate are sure to cool off, as he surely won't maintain a .235 BABIP on flyballs. However, he should hit for a high enough average with sufficient home run power to be a must-start in leagues with a corner infield spot.

Miguel Montero, C, Diamondbacks: On the heels of a disappointing 2013 campaign, I left Montero out of my top 12 catchers heading into this season, but he currently ranks second among catchers in standard Head-to-Head value and 10th in Rotisserie value. As with Blackmon, the key to Montero's success has been a dramatically reduced strikeout rate. He's been inconsistent in his frequency of contact during his career, but he's never been close to his current 11 percent strikeout per at-bat ratio. However, the rate at which he is making contact when he swings (85.1 percent, according to FanGraphs.com) is not radically higher than his rate from 2009 (82.3 percent).

At age 30, Montero might still have the mid-to-late career power boost that befalls many catchers, but at the very least, owners in Head-to-Head points leagues should value Montero as a must-start option due to his superb walk-to-strikeout ratio.

Hitters with Decreased Value

Starling Marte, OF, Pirates: Even during his prospect days, Marte had questionable plate discipline, and he was exposed in his 2012 rookie season, when he struck out in 30 percent of his at-bats. He appeared to be making some gains early in 2013, but he struck out in 49 of his 142 post-All-Star break at-bats. Marte's difficulties have continued into this season with 37 Ks in his first 105 at-bats. While Marte gave us some hope of a high batting average to go along with 30- or 40-plus steals, his averages in the .250s both as a rookie and in the second half last year are probably better gauges for what to expect going forward.

Initially, I thought Marte would be a top 20 Rotisserie outfielder this season, but looking at the bulk of his major league track record, I'm concerned that he might not crack the top 40. He's looking more and more like Michael Bourn with double-digit home run power.

Brad Miller, SS, Mariners: As Miller shot up through the Mariners' minor league system, he looked like a future points-league favorite, posting good walk-to-strikeout ratios with a good amount of pop for a shortstop. Miller's 2013 rookie season was mildly encouraging, given his 17 percent strikeout per at-bat ratio and .154 Isolated Power, but a 7.2 walk rate was something I figured he would improve over time. Instead, Miller has started 2014 off with a 2-to-26 BB/K ratio and a .174/.211/.326 slash line.

Miller has made only 90 trips to the plate, which would normally be far too few to panic, but Miller's performance has been extreme enough to justify a rankings downgrade. He has taken an already-low 3.55 pitch per plate appearance ratio from last season and reduced it to 3.33. Given Miller's limited exposure to the upper minors, his unexpectedly impatient approach in the majors is particularly troubling. Because of the potential for much better performance, it's too early to drop Miller, but he shouldn't be starting now, and he also shouldn't be a buy-low target.

Billy Butler, DH, Royals: After Butler saw his power numbers dip in 2013, he seemed like a strong candidate to bounce back and reclaim the 20-homer potential he showed in previous seasons. He even demonstrated in 2012 that he could flirt with the 30-homer mark, knocking a career-high 29 home runs. Butler has failed to reverse a creeping ground ball rate, and it has actually exploded this season, rising from 54 to 64 percent. To put that in perspective, Butler has hit 50 grounders so far and only 14 flyballs and 14 line drives. That doesn't bode too well for the expected power rebound.

With such a high grounder rate, Butler's .032 Iso (three extra base hits, all doubles) is looking like it's more the result of too little power and not the result of bad luck, though his owners can expect his .276 BABIP to rise at least a little. Butler has been trending in the wrong direction strongly enough and long enough that he should be benched, and in standard and shallow mixed leagues, he's not beyond dropping.

Hitters with Unchanged Value

Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Dodgers: Part of Gonzalez's early-season power outburst has likely resulted from his seeing a lot of pitches in the strike zone -- 49 percent, according to FanGraphs.com. Even though Gonzalez is getting plenty of good offerings, he is chasing pitches out of the zone at a career-high 39 percent rate. If he starts to get pitched around more often, Gonzalez could see an abrupt end to the surging Iso rate (.333) that eight April home runs and doubles have brought him.

Gonzalez may look due for an upward rankings adjustment, but I still view him as the 12th-ranking first baseman in Head-to-Head leagues and 13th-ranking first baseman in Rotisserie leagues.

Brett Lawrie, 3B, Blue Jays: Even though Lawrie is batting just .192, he is the 12th-ranked third baseman in standard Rotisserie and Head-to-Head formats, as six of his 19 hits have been home runs. Lawrie's power has also helped him to knock in 20 runs. Given that Lawrie is showing the most power he has had since his 2011 rookie campaign and he is starting to turn around a BABIP that was just .125 three games ago, he may look like a legitimate value-gainer.

However, like Gonzalez, Lawrie is chasing pitches at a much higher rate than he has previously, even though he is getting more than half of his pitches in the strike zone. Lawrie should continue to improve his batting average as he gets more hits on balls in play, but if he gets fewer good pitches to hit going forward, he may be putting fewer balls in play. With limited batting average upside and reduced power, Lawrie could easily continue to fall outside the top 20 at his position, just as he did last year.

Matt Kemp, OF, Dodgers: Because Kemp is batting only .221 with eight RBI and nine runs, he is falling outside the top 50 outfielders in Fantasy value. While his 34 percent strikeout per at-bat ratio is definitely not good, frequent Ks haven't prevented Kemp from being productive before. Even more problematic than the strikeouts is Kemp's .143 batting average on ground balls. While he is not the speedster he once was, he should be able to hit at least .200 on grounders. And Kemp has retained enough speed to garner three stolen bases, so he can still help in the category.

One area where Kemp is already succeeding is power-hitting, as he has four home runs and seven doubles. With more singles to come along with his extra-base hits, Kemp will start scoring runs, and improvement in his .176 batting average with runners in scoring position will bring more RBI. I have him ranked as a top 15 outfielder and still have confidence that he will finish among those ranks at season's end, as long as he can stay healthy.

Brian McCann, C, Yankees: Though he has struck out only 12 times in 85 at-bats, McCann is languishing with a .224 batting average. He's been light on walks, so he is getting on base at a .267 clip, but given that he is still working long plate appearances -- 4.00 pitches on average -- he could increase his walk rate as he piles up more trips to the plate. He could also increase his batting average and OBP by increasing his .229 BABIP. It's almost bound to rise given how low it is currently, but a 49 percent flyball rate is playing a role in depressing it.

Owners shouldn't root for McCann to hit fewer flies, as it would hurt his power numbers (though it remains to be seen if he will), and so far he's close to a 20-home run pace. With just a slight increase in power and run production and a likely improvement in batting average to come, McCann can get back into the top 10 of catchers, even though he currently sits outside the top 20. There is a lot of bunching among the No. 2 catcher-types, and it wouldn't take much for McCann to leapfrog them.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Al at @almelccbs .

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Player News
Phillies not giving up yet on Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:26 pm ET) Phillies pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is set to begin the second year of a three-year, $12 million contract in the minors after he was demoted to the minors on Sunday. However, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is not ready yet to call Gonzalez's contract a mistake.

“We don’t know (if it was a mistake) yet,” Amaro said, per CSNPhilly.com. “We’ll know when it’s all said and done. I was asked the same question about Pat Burrell. When we won the World Series, did we regret it?

“It’s disappointing that Miguel hasn’t gotten there. But it’s not the end of the world yet. We’ll see. We’ve still got time. We’re hopeful he can step it up. If he can’t, he can’t.”

Gonzalez was hit hard this spring. He gave up 25 hits, including five home runs, in 14 1/3 innings.

“His stuff and his location just wasn’t good enough to make our club,” Amaro said. “The stuff wasn’t there. He wasn’t throwing well enough to make our club.

“The ball is coming out of his hand better, a lot better than it was last year, but it’s just not there right now. Hopefully it can get there at some point.”


Cardinals add Carlos Villanueva, place Jaime Garcia on DL
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:24 pm ET) The Cardinals have purchased the contract of pitcher Carlos Villanueva and placed pitcher Jaime Garcia on the 15-day disabled list with a left shoulder injury, the team announced Monday.

Garcia had been delivering an great performance this spring, posting a 3.86 ERA and 13:3 K:BB ratio in 9 1/3 innings, but suffered a setback in the last few days. He said Sunday he has been dealing with fatigue and soreness. Garcia will likely pitch in extended spring training in preparation for his late start to the regular season.

Garcia was in the mix to serve as the team's fifth starter before his setback, but that role will likely fall to either Carlos Martinez or Marco Gonzales.

Villanueva has surrendered six earned runs in 11 innings while striking out 11 batters and walking two this spring.


White Sox sign James Baldwin, release J.D. Martin, Joe Savery
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:16 pm ET) The White Sox have signed outfielder James Baldwin and released pitchers J.D. Martin and Joe Savery, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

Baldwin was a fourth-round pick of the Dodgers in 2010 and hit .217/.292/.414 with 14 home runs, 43 RBI and 28 stolen bases in 374 at-bats with high Class A Rancho Cucamonga last season.


Indians reassign Jerry Sands to minor-league camp
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:12 pm ET) The Indians have sent outfielder Jerry Sands to minor-league camp, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reports.

Sands has done a fine job this season, hitting .316/.381/.421 with one home run in 38 at-bats, but has lost out on the competition for a bench spot.


Dodgers 3B Juan Uribe (illness) back in lineup Monday
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:10 pm ET) Dodgers third baseman Juan Uribe returned to the spring lineup Monday against the Diamondbacks after sitting out Sunday due to an illness. Uribe is batting .225 (9 for 40) through 16 spring games.

Marlins' Jarred Cosart set to return to mound Wednesday
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:02 pm ET) Marlins starting pitcher Jarred Cosart is scheduled to start Wednesday's spring game against the Nationals, according to The Palm Beach Post. He threw a bullpen session Sunday after being scratched from his last spring start due to a blister on the middle finger on his right hand.

Cosart is 0-2 with am 8.49 ERA in four spring starts.


Cubs option Javier Baez, reassign Kris Bryant, Addison Russell
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:59 pm ET) The Cubs cut three of their key young players from major-league camp Monday, optioning infielder Javier Baez to Triple-A Iowa and reassigning third baseman Kris Bryant and shortstop Addison Russell to minor-league camp.

Baez was initially expected to open the season as the team's starting second baseman after racking up 213 at-bats in his rookie season in 2014. He hit just .169/.227/.324 with nine home runs, 20 RBI and five stolen bases last season but also struck out 95 times. Baez struggled to make an impact at the plate this spring, collecting just nine hits in 52 at-bats while striking out 20 times.

Bryant has been one of the best hitters in either spring-training league in 2015, going 17 for 40 with nine home runs and 15 RBI. He is expected to make his major-league debut during 2015. Russell, the biggest name from the trade that sent Jeff Samardzija to Oakland last season, hit .324/.359/.486 with one home run in 37 spring at-bats.

With Baez and Bryant out of the picture, the Cubs will likely choose between Arismendy Alcantara, Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella for playing time at second base and third base.


Mets acquire left-handed reliever Alex Torres in trade with Padres
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(12:53 pm ET) The Mets acquired left-handed reliever Alex Torres from the Padres on Monday. The Padres acquired pitcher Cory Mazzoni and a player to be named later in the trade.

The Mets have been trying to fill the void in the bullpen due to the absence of left-handed reliever Josh Edgin, who will miss the 2015 season due to Tommy John surgery.

Torres arrived in San Diego last January in a trade with Tampa Bay. He went 2-1 with a 3.33 ERA in 70 relief outings for the Padres in 2014. He is 7-4 with a 2.55 ERA over three MLB seasons.

Mazzoni is 24-12 with a 4.11 ERA over four seasons in the minors. He has mostly been used as a starter in the minors (53 starts, 12 relief appearances).


Indians option OF Tyler Holt to Triple-A Columbus
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:47 pm ET) The Indians have optioned outfielder Tyler Holt to Triple-A Columbus, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reports.

Holt made his major-league debut last season and went on to hit .268/.307/.296 while also striking out 25 times in 71 at-bats. He was 11 for 42 with one double, one triple and three stolen bases this spring before being sent down.


Reds announce cuts Monday, release veteran Paul Maholm
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(12:46 pm ET) The Reds made another rounds of cuts Monday, which included the release of veteran pitcher Paul Maholm, who was competing for a spot on the pitching staff this spring.

Other moves Monday included optioning pitcher Pedro Villarreal to Triple-A Louisville, as well as reassigning pitcher Nate Adock, infielder Ivan De Jesus Jr., infielder Irving Falu and catcher Kyle Skipworth to minor-league camp.


 
 
 
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