Camp notes: Injury to Wells a bad omen
Only twice in seven full seasons in the major leagues has Vernon Wells finished as an above-average fantasy outfielder, and his bid to make 2009 one of those seasons took a hit with the news Monday that he could miss most of spring training with a hamstring injury. Sure, regular-season games don't occur in spring training, but fantasy owners should care. The Blue Jays center fielder injured the same left hamstring last season and missed a month, which certainly didn't aid him in returning to top production levels. The thing is, what do people expect from Wells? The past two seasons, he's averaged 18 home runs and 79 RBIs. He's batted .300 twice in the past five seasons, and in the other seasons, he went .272, .269 and .245. Further, he's stolen more than 10 bases only once, back in 2006. Add it up, and I'd call Wells one of the more overrated players in fantasy. Sure, he can be productive, but people keep drafting him as if he's a lock for 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 10 steals. We rank Wells No. 30 among outfielders and in the top 100 overall, but surely this news should lead owners to be cautious and drop him down a bit. Hamstring injuries can dog players for more than a month.
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• The Nationals haven't had a very good public relations month, learning recently that one of their top prospects, known as Esmailyn Gonzalez, is actually four years older and not named Esmailyn Gonzalez at all. Then, the Adam Dunn signing seemed an odd one for a franchise not likely to contend. However, the news that disgruntled Odalis Perez was released because he failed to show up for spring training is a step in the right direction. Perez, 31, is neither young nor particularly effective, and the Nationals would be better served avoiding the controversy of him demanding more money and the embarrassment of him stealing a rotation spot from youngsters with upside, like Jordan Zimmerman. Perez made 30 starts in 2008 and wasn't going to be fantasy relevant in 2009 anyway. Maybe he will catch on with another team, but for fantasy purposes, it will be the proverbial tree falling in the forest. Keep an eye on Zimmerman and possibly Garrett Mock and Colin Balester, among others.
• Potential Pirates third baseman Andy LaRoche has been limited so far with back spasms, and he admitted to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he didn't stick to his offseason exercise plan. LaRoche has fallen far and fast from when the Dodgers, and fantasy owners, considered him a rookie of the year candidate due to his power potential and strong plate discipline in the minors. Then LaRoche hit .166 in 76 games in 2008. If LaRoche either struggles again or can't stay healthy, the Pirates could accelerate the Pedro Alvarez era, and that surely would interest fantasy owners. It's more likely the Pirates would give Ramon Vazquez the third-base at-bats, and Vazquez did bat .310 off right-handed pitching with the Rangers in 2008.
• The Cubs have an open competition for the fifth starter's job, at least (hey, with Rich Harden the No. 4, anything can happen), and Jeff Samardzija will get the first shot to make an impression, as he's scheduled to start Wednesday's spring opener against the Dodgers. Samardzija is contending with Sean Marshall, Aaron Heilman and Chad Gaudin for one spot, with Marshall the leader for now. As for Harden, the Cubs' Web site reports he is a week to 10 days behind the other Cubs starters as he deals with a sore shoulder. If Harden is healthy, a rotation spot is assured. Color me skeptical about his health, though.
• In other Cubs rotation news, Carlos Zambrano will have his innings closely monitored this spring, but it's just precautionary. Zambrano says his right shoulder is fine and physically it's the best he's ever felt in spring training. Zambrano isn't scheduled to pitch in a spring game until next week.
• Our long national nightmare is over: Felix Pie cleared up his visa issues in the Dominican Republic and should arrive in Orioles camp Tuesday. Pie seems in line to start against right-handed pitching, at least, in left field, but the Orioles do have other options, notably with Luke Scott and Ty Wigginton, proven everyday players who can handle that position. It's a pretty important camp for Pie, who could help fantasy owners by stealing bases.
• The Cardinals have a vacancy at second base, forced when Adam Kennedy (now in the Rays' organization) was abruptly released, and outfielder Skip Schumaker has a legit shot to win the job. Schumaker led all National League players in batting average against right-handed pitching, and while he doesn't offer much power or speed, hey, he can hit .300 in a smart platoon. The Cardinals have some actual second basemen in camp, including slick-fielding Brendan Ryan, who won't see spring action this week as he deals with wrist tendinitis. Joe Thurston also is in camp. Fantasy owners might not care about Schumaker, but if he wins the second-base job, it could accelerate the Colby Rasmus era, and fantasy owners are definitely watching that situation. The Cardinals also have an opening at third base as Troy Glaus recovers from shoulder surgery, and rookie David Freese is expected to win the job. Outfielder Joe Mather is working out at third base to give the team another option.
• There doesn't seem to be any room in the Boston rotation for Justin Masterson, but he's being treated as a starting pitcher in the spring anyway. Masterson, who was 4-3 with a 3.67 ERA in nine starts as a rookie and boasted a 2.36 ERA in 27 relief outings, will follow Tim Wakefield in Wednesday's game against the Twins. While Masterson thrived in a relief role and could be next in line for saves should something happen to top closer Jonathan Papelbon, he'd have more value as a starter. For now, the Red Sox have Brad Penny, John Smoltz and Clay Buchholz auditioning for the final rotation spot.
• Power alert! Mariners second baseman Jose Lopez has come to camp with added muscle in his upper body. He says he's not trying to hit for more power but wants to hit the ball harder. Lopez figures to hit in the middle of the Seattle lineup, and it's possible his 17 home runs in 2008 were just the beginning. Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu says shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt will get first shot at hitting second in the batting order, following Ichiro Suzuki, and with Lopez presumably hitting third.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.