Fantasy: Painful Beginnings

The nice thing about the beginning of the baseball season is that every team can hope. Nobody has been eliminated from the playoffs, doomed to a losing season or relegated to the basement.

At the beginning of the season, teams coming off sub-par seasons like the Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers can win their first two games and make everybody wonder, even if it’s just for a few days or weeks, if this season might be different.

Unfortunately, even a hot start can be soured by an unfortunate injury, and that’s exactly what happened to the Tigers. After roughing up the defending AL Cy Young award winner in a 7-0 win to open the season, Detroit kept on rolling with a 7-3 win in game two.

However, they played most of that second game without their best hitter, Dmitri Young. Young walked in the first inning and then broke his right leg trying to avoid a tag on what ended up being a double play. The immediate word is that he’ll miss up to six weeks.

Obviously, that’s a huge blow to the Tigers and it’s a huge blow to your fantasy team if you had Young. Last year, the first-time All-Star hit .297 with 29 home runs and 85 RBI, and most people expected him to put up similar numbers this season. The fact that he qualified as a third baseman in many leagues only enhanced his value.

Young’s absence will also have an impact on any other Detroit hitters you might have on your team. The Tigers have been able to put up 14 runs in their first two games, but that wasn’t going to continue forever even with Young in the lineup.

The Tigers have used the same lineup in each of their first two games: Alex Sanchez, Fernando Vina, Ivan Rodriguez, Dmitri Young, Rondell White, Carlos Pena, Carlos Guillen, Bobby Higginson and Eric Munson.

Having a worse hitter batting cleanup probably won’t dramatically affect the top three hitters in Detroit’s lineup, but it certainly won’t help either. White and Pena will likely each move up a spot in the order, where they might benefit from more RBI opportunities or they might suffer from losing a high OBP hitter in front of them.

Don’t let their presence at the top of the lineup fool you, Sanchez and Vina are not good at getting on base. Sanchez is batting first because he’s really fast and Vina is batting second because he’s a middle infielder. Apparently, baseball introduced a rule stating that you have to use a middle infielder in the top two of your lineup because only six teams have played games without putting a middle infielder there this season.

So, while White moves into the cleanup spot, he now only has one good hitter batting ahead of him instead of two. Ultimately, his fantasy value probably won’t change too much with Young out of the lineup.

The big question is who will replace Young in the lineup. After Young got hurt, Greg Norton replaced him. If Norton plays most of the games in Young’s absence, he won’t have much fantasy value. Norton has hit 26 home runs in his last 572 at-bats, but those at-bats came as a member of the Rockies and he hit just .252 in that time.

Another option to fill in for Young would be Craig Monroe, who hit .240 with 23 home runs in 425 at-bats last season. That may not look much better than what Norton did over parts of the last three seasons, but keep in mind that Monroe’s home park was a haven for pitchers while Norton’s home park was the best offensive park in the majors.

Monroe isn’t going to be a good fantasy player, but if he’s getting consistent playing time, he could be a decent fill in if you’re desperate for an outfielder or utility player.

Young’s the best player to go down since the season started, but he’s not the only cleanup hitter to get hurt. In the first game of the season, Cleveland first baseman Ben Broussard left with a sprained left ankle that’s expected to sideline him for 7-10 days.

The loss of Broussard isn’t really that big a deal since he’s a marginal first baseman anyway. If you’re team is seriously going to suffer from Broussard being out for a week, then you’re either in an extremely deep league or you need more help than I can give you.

What it does mean is that both Coco Crisp and Alex Escobar should be in Cleveland’s lineup for the next week or so instead of having to split time in center field. So, if you’re looking to pick up some extra steals early in the season, you can safely pencil Crisp into the lineup for now.

There is, however, one other reason I wanted to mention this injury. When it became apparent that Milton Bradley would be traded, I said that either Broussard or Travis Hafner would likely take over as the cleanup hitter. I was right, but I really expected it to be Hafner.

So, where did Hafner end up if he wasn’t the cleanup hitter? Seventh, where he went 3-for-5 with two solo home runs. Surely, with the Indians losing yet another cleanup hitter and Hafner having such a good game, he would get to hit fourth now. Nope. Not only was Hafner not batting fourth in Cleveland’s second game, he wasn’t even in the lineup.

I’m very high on Travis Hafner and his first game this season did nothing to change my mind about his abilities. However, if he doesn’t get to play almost every day and hit in the middle of the lineup, he’s not going to come close to reaching his full fantasy potential. Hopefully, the Indians will realize what they should be doing with him soon.

Meanwhile, the Tigers and Indians between them haven’t even suffered half of the early injuries to AL Central teams. After winning their season opener in 11 innings, the Twins went out and put their fans even more on edge the next day. The Twins improved to 2-0, but it took them 15 innings, two two-run comebacks and 19 stranded baserunners to do so. In the meantime, there may have been some heart attacks in Minnesota due to the following chain of events.

In the bottom of the fourth inning, rookie catcher Joe Mauer left the game with an injury. In the top of the fifth inning, phenom starting pitcher Johan Santana left the game with an injury. And in the top of the 13th inning, Gold Glove centerfielder Torii Hunter left the game with an injury.

The injuries to Mauer (mild left knee sprain) and Hunter (strained right hamstring) don’t seem to be very serious. Both are listed as day-to-day, and you should probably take them both out of your lineup until you hear that they’re good to go again. Neither one’s good enough that you should risk taking a zero for the possibility that they’ll play.

Santana left with spasms in his left (pitching) forearm and his status is not known at the moment. He could very well be fine and ready to make his next start without problem. However, it has to be at least somewhat concerning that Santana has technically had to leave each of his last two starts after four innings with arm problems.

Many people, especially Twins fans and anybody who drafted him for a fantasy team, are expecting great things from Santana. It’s worth remembering, however, that Santana is only 25 years old and has yet to make even 20 starts or pitch 160 innings in a season. He’ll need to prove he can make 30 starts and pitch 200 innings to reach the heights that are expected of him.

Of course, if you want to look on the bright side of things, at least these players have a reason for the question marks currently surrounding them. Mike Mussina was supposed to be the only non-question in the Yankees rotation, but after two starts against the Devil Rays, Mussina is 0-2 with an 11.00 ERA and 2.56 WHIP. In nine innings, he’s allowed 11 runs on 19 hits and four walks with just three strikeouts.

Now, even great pitchers can struggle on occassion early in the season, and it’s entirely possible that Mussina has been suffering the effects of flying halfway around the world and back again. However, he is 35 years old and if you want to wait until he has at least one good start before putting him back in your lineup, I wouldn’t really blame you.

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