Back when I was a teenager, summer meant camping. The local day camp operated out of a high school building, but every Wednesday a dozen or so of us intrepid individuals would board a barely operating mini-bus and our counselor would drive us to whatever no-frills campground happened to be close to a main attraction such as Hershey Park or Mystic Seaport.
We'd unpack our tents and sleeping bags and stay there until the drive home on Friday. Sometimes, we'd get lucky and there would be an onsite pool or an air-conditioned arcade. Other times, the accommodations were little more than an area "slightly less rocky" than the general surrounding area. We never knew what we would encounter until we were there.
One particular week, I remember the bus pulled into the campground and suddenly Barbara Tocker exclaimed in excitement, "Monkey bars! Excellent!" Apparently, when the pickings are slim, you look for anything to give you hope that the next few nights will not be the worst of your life.
Now that the trade deadline has passed in ESPN standard fantasy leagues, to improve your pitching staff you're going to have to board that mini-bus to the waiver wire in hopes that you might discover something there that gives you the slightest reason for hope. Unfortunately, most of the pitchers not on rosters at this point are of the Erik Bedard variety; losing records and high ERAs abound.
Still, amid the rubble, if you look past the win-loss record and ERA to quality starts and strikeouts-per-nine-innings rates, there are a few sets of monkey bars that stand there, towering above the rest of the pack, just begging you to delight in their excellence, or at least the promise of something a little bit better than sharp rocks digging into your spine as you struggle to make it through the rest of the night.
Here are a few names to consider adding to your pitching staff from those owned in less than 75 percent of ESPN standard leagues, along with Tim Lincecum (who we include here to inspire optimism in his owners). These are the pitchers with losing records and ERAs above 4.00 who have the most quality starts on the season with a K/9 rate above 8.0:
Nelson Cruz, OF, Texas Rangers: Since Aug. 1, Cruz has hit .325 with three home runs and an OPS of 1.004. More impressively, he's kept his strikeouts-to-walks ratio at a very palatable 1.2, far better than his season-to-date rate of 2.86. He even stole a base on Sunday, indicating that the sore back that forced him to leave Friday's game is no longer of consequence.
Allen Craig, OF/1B, St. Louis Cardinals: Even with sore ribs keeping him out for a game last week and slowing him down in the next, Craig still put up 25 fantasy points for the scoring period. He's batting .318 for the month, with eight of his 14 hits going for extra bases. With an RBI every 4.73 at-bats this season (fourth among all hitters with at least 300 plate appearances) it's hard to deny his value.
Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks: He's hit .370 with 14 RBIs over his past 14 games, and even with an 0-for-13 funk in the middle of this past week he still ended up with 18 fantasy points. Maybe he hasn't walked all month, but he has made the most of his time on base with two steals and five runs scored. If he was able to survive this past week's mini-slump, the next few weeks should be stellar.
Chris Sale, SP, Chicago White Sox: Not only has Sale won three straight starts, but he has been mowing down opposing hitters in the process, recording 24 strikeouts in his past 21 innings. Believe it or not, Sale is tied for third in all of baseball in terms of OBP against (.268), which for a points league pitcher elevates his value into the same neighborhood as Jered Weaver and Justin Verlander.
Eric Chavez, 3B, New York Yankees: Playing time is the only concern here as manager Joe Girardi insists on giving Casey McGehee some starts at third base. All Chavez did in his four games in Detroit this past week was to hit two home runs and score six runs and drive in five. Even from a platoon situation that kind of production makes you stand up and take notice, so as long as the southpaws stay away, Chavez has incredible per-at-bat bang for the buck.
Manny Machado, SS, Baltimore Orioles: Four games, against the Kansas City Royals no less, do not a career make. However, the initial impact of Machado's call-up cannot be denied. Five runs scored and seven RBIs to go along with three home runs ranked the rookie No. 13 overall for the week and first at his position after one series. The sky's the limit!
Jay Bruce, OF, Cincinnati Reds: Bruce is hitting just .223 in the second half of the season, and after a 2-for-20 week that included a two-day "hiatus" to get his head on straight we're not jumping for joy simply because he managed to hit one out of the park on Sunday against Brooks Raley. Since May 28, only one scoring period has seen Bruce post more than 20 fantasy points. He has a long way to go to earn back our trust.
Albert Pujols, 1B, Los Angeles Angels: Every hitter has an off week, but after hitting .424 with six home runs and 13 RBIs two weeks ago, the 1-for-23 (.043) week that followed was a huge surprise. His next six games are against two teams he's struggled against this season: Cleveland (.238 in 2012) and Tampa Bay (.182). Nobody is saying that Pujols has to be benched, but this season has proved that even The Machine needs to be turned off for a bit to recharge his batteries.
Brett Jackson, OF, Chicago Cubs: For every Manny Machado, there's a Brett Jackson. After going 2-for-4 in his debut on Aug. 5, Jackson spent the next five games suffering through a 1-for-16 fiasco of a week that included 11 strikeouts. It's just another reason why you shouldn't always rush to the waiver wire after one game from a "can't-miss prospect." Often times there are a lot of misses before everything clicks.
Johan Santana, SP, New York Mets: Santana returned from the disabled list and immediately served up eight earned runs in 1 1/3 innings against the Atlanta Braves, marking his fourth straight negative-point outing. The Mets are almost obligated to continue to throw him out there to increase his offseason trade value, so in addition to his status as a "monkey bars" pitcher there's reason to believe he still might turn his bus around.
Adam Dunn, 1B, Chicago White Sox: With Paul Konerko sidelined because of a concussion, Dunn will have to play first base on a regular basis until Konerko returns. That's not a good thing as his 2012 numbers actually get worse when he has to field grounders as well as swing the bat. Dunn is batting .197 with only 0.5 RBIs per game as a first baseman this season. Plus, he now has gone 13 games without a home run.
Anibal Sanchez, SP, Detroit Tigers: Do you think Sanchez is regretting this whole "changing leagues" thing? In his last three starts with Miami, he had 43 fantasy points. In his first three starts with Detroit, he's now at minus-6, thanks to a 7.80 ERA and a puny 1.43 K/BB rate. The DH has gone 4-for-7 with four RBIs in his three AL starts. Think he's missing the pitcher's spot in the order?
TOP 100 OVERALL PLAYERS
Note: AJ Mass' top 100 overall players are ranked based on statistics that have already been accrued in ESPN standard points formats and should be used as a supplement to the ESPN Player Rater.