Camp notes: Where to draft Cole Hamels

March, 18, 2009

So I've got good news and bad news for you. Which do you want first?

What's that, you say? You want the bad news first? So grim, you are; must have already had your draft and are terrified of bad news. Well, here it is: Cole Hamels is a long shot to make his Opening Day start, reports the Phillies' official Web site.

Cole HamelsTim Heitman/US PresswireCole Hamels already has a couple of long stretches of missed time with elbow injuries in his career.
So what's the good news then, you might ask? Well, fortunately for Hamels, the MRI (and dynamic ultrasound) he underwent Tuesday revealed no structural damage to his left elbow, the one in which he has had inflammation for weeks. The specific diagnosis: inflammation in the posterior lateral aspect of the elbow.

Hamels told the team's Web site that he experiences tightness in that elbow every spring, but typically it subsides within a week or two. That it lingered beyond that point this year put his status into question, and now the team will approach his health cautiously, letting Hamels dictate how quickly he's ready to proceed.

As for that timetable for recovery, Hamels received an anti-inflammatory injection Tuesday, and is expected to resume his throwing program Thursday. If that approach is successful, he might be able to pitch in a minor league or Grapefruit League game early next week. Unfortunately, the reason for his doubtful Opening Day status is that he was only up to the low to mid-50s with his pitch counts before the examination, and two or three more spring starts might not provide enough for him to get that number at or above 100.

So how should fantasy owners proceed with drafting Hamels? Chances are the Phillies will be as conservative as possible with their ace left-hander, especially since he missed almost the entire 2004 minor league season with elbow issues and spent nearly a month on the disabled list with a left elbow strain during his 2007 sophomore season. A two-week, season-opening disabled list stint is possible, and at the very least, Hamels' owners (or prospective owners) should expect a one- or two-start absence.

Hamels is currently being tabbed the No. 6 starting pitcher in ESPN live drafts, but with news of his injury, it might be an appropriate plan of action to drop him behind Jake Peavy, Dan Haren, and perhaps behind No. 9 Roy Oswalt as well. Be aware, though, that might amount to only a one- or two-round drop, perhaps as little as 15 to 20 spots.

Still, stay tuned, because Hamels' health should be closely monitored looking forward.

• The news Tuesday was more promising for another elite, a left-handed starter who calls the National League East his home: Johan Santana tossed four innings of six-hit, two-run baseball against minor leaguers. He struck out five batters and didn't allow a walk while throwing 56 pitches, and reported no problems with his elbow. Newsday reports Santana's velocity was in the 87- to 89-mph range, but at his current pace, barring a setback, he shouldn't have any problems bumping that up a notch while getting his pitch count up to regular-season standards. Chances are, he'll be the Mets' Opening Day starter, meaning he again belongs in your top two starters overall, probably No. 1.

• KSLG 1380 AM in St. Louis reports that with three weeks to go in spring training, Jason Motte, and not Chris Perez, is the current leader in the race to close for the Cardinals. In the event Motte retains that status, Perez most likely will be sent to Triple-A Memphis, partly because the more experienced Josh Kinney would be kept around as a set-up man. At this point, treating Perez like the clear top guy in your closer ranks seems foolish, though all three relievers do warrant consideration as NL-only late-rounders. Don't be surprised if the Cardinals have multiple pitchers manning that role the entire year.

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• According to that same report, top prospect Colby Rasmus will be on the Cardinals' Opening Day roster, in which case it's a virtual certainty that he'll be the team's starting left fielder. Chris Duncan owners (or prospective owners) take note; his value stands to take the biggest hit. I'm not one of the biggest Rasmus fans around, because his batting average took a hit in each jump up to Double- and Triple-A, which suggests to me an adjustment period need be expected. However, it's important to remember that he has managed double digits in homers and steals in each of his three full professional seasons, including his miserable 2008. It's unclear whether Rasmus would be an everyday player or not -- I'd call keeping him around to play sparingly (one to two times a week) a foolish decision -- but his stock will soar with news he'll be on the team. Consider him a mid- to late NL-only pick and a mixed-league sleeper since it's hard to imagine him not playing at least three or four times a week, though again, I'd be concerned about a possible adjustment period.

• Expect to see Brett Myers' draft stock rise in the upcoming days, after he tossed 5 2/3 shutout innings of seven-strikeout baseball Tuesday against a Reds lineup comprised of mostly regulars (OK, regulars and Ryan Hanigan). Myers, an enigma for much of his career, did breeze through the second half of 2008 plus playoffs with a 3.35 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 16 starts, rescuing what initially seemed like a lost season. He's certainly worth more than his current No. 48 ranking among starting pitchers in ESPN live drafts, perhaps as many as 10 spots higher at his position.

• It seems like every member of the Brewers' bullpen is battling some sort of health issue this spring, and now you can toss the team's closer onto the pile; the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Trevor Hoffman has a strained right oblique. It's considered only a minor thing, but manager Ken Macha does have a minor concern that Hoffman needs to pitch on consecutive days before spring training ends. There's plenty of time for that, but let's not forget that the guy is 41 years old, so rehabilitation might not be as quick for him.

As to who might close should Hoffman miss regular-season time, Carlos Villanueva struggled mightily Tuesday, allowing five runs on five hits in 1 1/3 innings. After the game, Macha expressed his displeasure to the team's official Web site, though in criticizing his reliever, he did offer some insights as to the team's ninth-inning emergency plan.

"I'll talk to [Villanueva], maybe talk to [pitching coach] Billy [Castro] and see what our plan of attack is," Macha said. "With Hoffman down, I asked Billy, 'Who's your closer if he can't go?' He answered, [Villanueva]. I said, 'Well, he hasn't had any good outings this spring.' Now you have to look at what your alternatives might be."

Not that Villanueva should be written off yet, but statistically speaking, Mark DiFelice (5 IP, 0 ERs, 6 K's) might find himself in the mix for a set-up role at his current pace.

• Exhibit A in the case against heavily weighing spring statistics: Cliff Lee was pummeled for 10 runs (nine earned) in 2 2/3 innings Tuesday, bringing his spring ERA to 18.90. He admitted to the Indians' official Web site afterward, though, that he was merely working on his fastball location, doing the kind of tinkering that is often common with pitchers in March. Generally speaking, when veteran pitchers have a disastrous outing like this, you shouldn't fret unless there's evidence an injury was responsible.

• The Rangers face a Friday deadline to decide whether to place Andruw Jones on the major league roster. According to the team's official Web site, Marlon Byrd's quick recovery from knee surgery and standout spring make it unlikely the decision will be in Jones' favor. Byrd has 10 hits in his past 20 at-bats and is batting .364 (12-for-33) for the spring, but even with that performance he might not crack a Rangers outfield that probably will have David Murphy in left field, Josh Hamilton in center and Nelson Cruz in right on Opening Day. With Jones gone, Byrd, Cruz and Murphy would become safer AL-only selections, but Jones' rebound potential would take a hit losing the prospect of hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark helping his cause in 2009.

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Hunter Pence left Tuesday's game with a bruised left knee he suffered awkwardly sliding into home plate, though he told the team's official Web site that he has merely a "bone bruise" and that his early exit was "precautionary." Check the Astros' lineups the next few days, though, to ensure it's nothing more significant.

Max Scherzer's Cactus League debut was both rocky and brief; he was pounded for five runs (one earned) on three hits while recording only two outs Tuesday. The Arizona Republic reports that his velocity was down -- 91 to 93 mph from his usual mid-90s -- and he fell behind in the count to nearly every hitter. Still, that's to be expected to an extent from a pitcher who missed as much time as he has due to shoulder problems. Fortunately for Scherzer, he can be slotted in as the team's fifth starter, meaning he won't be needed until April 14, giving him plenty of time to get up to speed. Fantasy owners shouldn't downgrade him based on this outing unless he fails to show much improvement in his next turn; if he doesn't, then Yusmeiro Petit might be a candidate to take that fifth-starter role.

• Exciting news: Sidney Ponson signed a minor league contract with the Royals on Tuesday, fresh off his solid performance in the World Baseball Classic (4.00 ERA in two starts). He'll actually get an opportunity to compete for a rotation spot, which is more a statement about the Royals' lack of alternatives than it is an endorsement of his talent. Perhaps AL-only owners can find streaming value in Ponson if he makes the team, but this is a signing that probably shouldn't excite the fantasy masses.

Mariano Rivera made his Grapefruit League debut Tuesday, tossing a perfect inning, including eight of 11 pitches for strikes. He has made a smooth recovery from offseason shoulder surgery and looks entirely safe to select as a top-three fantasy closer.



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