Here's the latest from the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues:
• Whenever there is closer news fantasy owners always show a bit more interest. One of the few unsettled closer situations involves the Cubs, with three pitchers -- or more, if one includes Ryan Dempster -- apparently in the running for saves. In a weekend interview with TV station WGN reported in Tuesday's Chicago Tribune, Cubs manager Lou Piniella said that Bob Howry is the favorite for the role, ahead of Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol. Of course, this can change on a moment's notice, but the fact Piniella mentioned Howry this way is surprising. Fantasy owners seem to believe Marmol, based on his 1.43 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 59 games, would thrive in the role. Few believe Wood can remain healthy long enough for him to matter. Howry does have 65 career saves, however, and if he were to win the job, fantasy owners would have to take it seriously. Piniella did stick with Dempster long enough for 28 saves, despite the fact he was one of team's least effective relief pitchers.
• The Los Angeles Times reports Juan Rivera will work out at first base this spring, hardly a vote of confidence for lefty-hitting Casey Kotchman. Rivera missed all but 14 games in 2007 while recovering from a badly broken leg. In 2006 he hit .310 with 23 homers and 85 RBIs, and certainly the Angels could use that kind of pop in their order to protect Vladimir Guerrero. Plus, if Guerrero spends more time at designated hitter, as has been discussed, Rivera will need to be more versatile. Rivera, who has never played first base in seven major league seasons, had an impressive .970 OPS against left-handed pitchers in 2006. Kotchman didn't hit any home runs against lefties all of his breakout 2007. Something to keep in mind if you really like Kotchman. This could work out the way Marcus Thames took at-bats from Sean Casey in Detroit last year, and would make Rivera a nice dollar gamble at the end of auctions. This would also negate potential Robb Quinlan contributions.
• Milton Bradley told the Rangers' Web site that he is ahead of schedule in his recovery from knee surgery and expects to be ready for Opening Day. Fantasy owners, of course, are well aware this guy has never hit 20 home runs, knocked in 70 runs or stolen 20 bases in any season. Only once in eight seasons (for five teams) has Bradley played more than 101 games. "I've had no setbacks," Bradley said. "We're taking it with baby steps, but I'll be ready by the end of March." Wonderful, the team's cleanup hitter might be ready for April, but based on his history, fantasy owners better have depth. I'd just avoid the guy all together, personally.
• According to Danny Knobler of Mlive.com, Tigers manager Jim Leyland doesn't intend to let Carlos Guillen play any shortstop this season when Edgar Renteria needs a breather. This doesn't mean much for fantasy owners now, but certainly will in 2009, for those in keeper leagues. Shortstop is far more scarce than first base in fantasy, and Guillen is the team's everyday first baseman. He retains his shortstop eligibility in 2008, but if Leyland's words ring true, not beyond.
• According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Mariners are not interested in free agent outfielder Shannon Stewart. Well, good for them! Stewart is hardly an elixir to save a team's outfield, though his 2007 was arguably his best fantasy season since 2002, with No. 5 outfielder stats of 12 homers and 11 steals. Mariners manager John McLaren wants the team's fourth outfielder to come from within, be it Jeremy Reed, Mike Morse or Wladimir Balentien. If you're thinking of drafting Brad Wilkerson, for example, be aware that if Balentien makes the team, he would warrant more than just fourth outfielder status. It's more likely Balentien starts the year at Triple-A. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays are rumored to want Stewart. If the Matt Stairs re-signing wasn't tough enough, this is more bad news for Adam Lind.
• Odalis Perez has found work, getting a minor league deal with the Washington Nationals. Even in the deepest of NL-only leagues, Perez does not come recommended. Of the 99 pitchers who have thrown at least 250 innings since 2006, Perez ranks No. 98 in ERA (5.87), opponents' batting average and opponents' slugging percentage. Look elsewhere for fantasy help.
Hunter Pence will run through a wall for fantasy owners. Or make that run through a sliding glass door in the bathroom of his spring training home for fantasy owners. Pence is a very attractive fantasy option based on his terrific rookie season, and his missing the next week of spring training is no big deal, but note he has had injury problems in the past, notably his recurring right wrist issues. Hopefully Pence is not brittle, and this won't be an ongoing problem, knock on wood. Er, glass.
• Maybe Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria is the next superstar at third base, or maybe he's not ready for 500 big league at-bats. If it's the former, and Longoria has a big spring and makes the roster, get in early for keeper leagues. If Longoria needs more seasoning, the Rays apparently have options. The fact they have this many options makes one wonder if they expect they'll need them. Troubled Willy Aybar was acquired from the Braves, former Dodgers prospect Joel Guzman could fit in to the picture (if he can handle third base, which is no lock), but the veteran presence for the Rays could be Eric Hinske. A lefty hitter who would be best used in a platoon role, Hinske hit .293 with a .528 slugging percentage against right-handed pitching in 2006. The Rays don't have him on the 40-man roster yet; he's a nonroster invite, but he can play third base and can still hit. Then again, Longoria could make this situation moot.
• White Sox speedster Jerry Owens tells the team's Web site he can steal 65 bases if given a full-time role. This kind of information makes fantasy owners drool, but there's only one problem. Well, there are two. First, he doesn't have a full-time role, not with Carlos Quentin possessing better baseball skills and being acquired from Arizona to play left field. Two, Owens hasn't shown the ability to get on base enough to run that much, and as Joey Gathright fantasy owners are well aware, players can't steal first base. Owens hit .267 as a 26-year-old rookie, with a .324 on-base percentage, and he has even less power than Juan Pierre. It wouldn't be a shock if Owens accumulates 350 at-bats, but the White Sox would be better off aiming for an outfield of Quentin, Nick Swisher and Jermaine Dye. Fantasy owners should take Owens late, and not at all if he's not starting.
• As our pal Tim Kurkjian pointed out in his Tuesday story on ESPN.com, former two-time MVP Juan Gonzalez is in Cardinals camp, and he still has his power swing. Fantasy owners got their money's worth from Gonzalez back in the day, but those days are long past. Gonzalez, now 38, hasn't played since 2005, and that year he batted just one time for the Indians. It's hard to see how Gonzalez will matter in fantasy, but then again, a year ago who thought Rick Ankiel would be the starting center fielder? The one positive Gonzalez has going for him is opportunity; the Cardinals seem eager for someone to step up in their muddled outfield picture.
Eric Karabell is an ESPN.com senior writer, specializing in fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He is a two-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association writer of the year.
You can e-mail him here.