If there has been one overarching theme to the 2014 MLB season so far, it’s been players missing time. Whether it’s been because of (asinine) draft pick compensation rules, attending the birth of one’s child (goodness me was that David Murphy-related ‘controversy’ farcical), or as in the vast majority of cases, due to injury, far too many players have been off the field, their absences spoiling the game we all love.
The month of June is off to a promising start however. After the spate of Tommy John surgeries necessitated in April and May, as far as I’m aware, we’ve now gone three days without one being announced (It’s my understanding that Chris Withrow of the Dodgers was the last player to have been announced as going under the knife). Even better, a host of players are making their returns this week – all carrying some relevance. Let’s break them down quickly;
– Stephen Drew, who was only absent by his own/Scott Boras’ doing after turning down a qualifying offer over the winter, finally made his season debut for Boston last night, going 0-2 with a walk in a defeat to the Cleveland Indians. Having played in the minors since May 21st having finally signed a pro-rated contract for around $10 million this year, the left-handed Drew batted eighth in the Red Sox lineup and instantly slotted in at shortstop, pushing Xander Bogaerts to third base, and with both Mike Napoli and Mike Carp out, the surprisingly effective Brock Holt across the diamond to first. While there were certainly more ideal landing spots out there (Detroit have a more glaring need, and less infield competition), landing back in Boston can only be considered a good thing for Drew. Sure, he probably could have gone to the Mets, but their stinky offense and the Wilpon Quagmire of Financial Despair (H/T to Jonah Keri) would likely have ensured a less than happy tenure in Queens. He won’t be anything special for the Sox, but in need of some stable production, he’ll fill a role nicely – the same attitude with which he should be approached in terms of fantasy pick-ups. He’ll be a stable middle infielder, a low-upside, high-basement type, perfect for a team ravaged by injury or simply short of middle infield depth. Just don’t expect Drew to be a savior, both in reality or fantasy.
– Jose Abreu on the other hand, woah boy. This fellow’s return might be make-or-break for your fantasy squad. After two weeks on the disabled list and a couple of simulated games at U.S. Cellular Field, the Cuban slugger, who even after being out since May 18th still led the White Sox in home runs (15) and RBIs (42), was activated in time for the start of a three-game set against L.A. at Dodger Stadium. With no DH hole to be stashed in, Abreu jumped right back into the thick of things playing first base, and picked up where he left off at the plate, muscling out a two-run shot off of Clayton Kershaw in his second at-bat, Chicago’s only runs of the game. And this was after being struck in the chest by an overthrown ball while stretching during pre game warm-ups! The Sox have been treading water without him, but with the AL player of the month for April back in the mix, they could yet put a run together in the disastrous AL Central for second-place behind Detroit. He should immediately be back in fantasy starting lineups too, though it will be worth paying attention to whether he perhaps gets a day of rest from playing the field at some point in this interleague series.
– Elsewhere, Josh Hamilton is slated to make his return to the Angels lineup today in a game against the Astros, in which first base prospect and recent contract signee Jon Singleton will also be making his debut for Houston. Hamilton has been out since April 9 with a torn ligament in his left thumb having (rather rashly) slid into first base headfirst, but was hitting .444 with two home runs in the tiny sample size prior. His return will likely spell trouble for the 42-year-old Raul Ibanez, who has been god-awful in 2014, though I’d be concerned if you were starting him in your league anyway. Hamilton should probably reside on your bench for at least a couple of days while you evaluate his return; thumb injuries can be tricky, and Hamilton is prone to streaks even when fully healthy. Resting him is probably the safe play, unless you don’t have any other viable outfield options. Of course, slotting Mike Trout straight back in after he missed Sunday’s game with back stiffness is a no-brainer.
– Stay away from Yordano Ventura though! After a disastrous May 26th outing in which his velocity noticeably dropped and he was forced to exit in the third inning, the 23-year-old flamethrower dodged the Tommy John bullet and was instead diagnosed with “lateral elbow discomfort.” After successfully completing a bullpen session, Ventura will be thrown back in on Thursday to face the Cardinals in the Battle For Missouri. In addition to his prior inconsistency, not only do I dislike the match-up, but I’m worried about Ventura’s long-term outlook; elbow injuries don’t normally solve themselves this quickly, especially ones which cause such an appreciable velo decline. Though he’s officially returning, don’t be surprised if Ventura heads straight back to the trainer’s room in a month or so.
– Aramis Ramirez is back in the Milwaukee lineup tomorrow after sustaining a strained left hamstring on May 13. He’ll be able to DH too, given how the Brewers are visiting Target Field for an interleague series. A notorious slow starter, Ramirez should be a more than viable third base option the rest of the way should he avoid re-aggravating that hammy… Andrew Cashner, after an elbow scare, is scheduled to rejoin the Padres’ rotation on Saturday against the Nationals. Unless you’re in absolute need of gaining ground over the weekend however, it’s probably best to let this one play out with the hard-throwing righty on your bench however… Ryan Zimmerman should be appropriately settled back in to the Washington lineup by then – the 29-year-old has been cleared to return on Tuesday after breaking his thumb on April 12th. Where he’ll play however, remains intriguing; the right-hander has been playing left field during his rehab stint at Potomac, so Ryan Zimmerman: ML Outfielder might be a thing now… In obligatory Reds news, Joey Votto (quadriceps) is nearing a rehab assignment, and Mat Latos threw 4 2/3 scoreless innings in his latest Triple-A start. He should be back next week.
Finally, there appears to be some resolution in the nation’s capital. After saying on Sunday that Ryan Zimmerman merely had inflammation in his right shoulder, not structural damage, and that he expected the 29-year-old to remain at the hot corner for the remainder of the season, new Nationals manager Matt Williams admitted to 106.7 The Fan FM on Monday night that his third baseman actually has an arthritic shoulder, and might soon see time at first base if the move were to keep him off the DL.
Williams’ admission came off the back of another ghastly throwing error by Zimmerman in the fourth inning of Saturday night’s game against the Atlanta Braves, an errant toss that allowed Andrelton Simmons to reach on what was an otherwise routine grounder, a run to score on the play, and the floodgates to open; Stephen Strasburg would allow another run in the frame on a Julio Teheran single and four more in the fifth, knocking him from the game as the Nats fell to their 15th loss to the Braves in their last 21 games against their division rivals.
That particular play on Saturday was a microcosm of the struggles Zimmerman has experienced since undergoing major shoulder surgery in November 2012. Previously an excellent defender – he averaged 11.1 UZR per year between 2007 to 2010, winning the NL Gold Glove award in ’09 – Zimmerman’s fielding value had already dropped off from its Evan Longoria/Adrian Beltre-like peak to a more league-average level during 2011-2012, before falling off a cliff last year; his horrific 2013 mark of -14.0 UZR in 1245.2 innings wasn’t far off the -16.8 number put up by the statuesque Miguel Cabrera, the loopy throws resulting from his sidearm motion frequently pulling Adam LaRoche off the first base bag – and occasionally putting the first couple of rows of spectators in danger too. Playing shallower in order to shorten his throws to first didn’t help his rating much either; as Davey Johnson picked up on last year, Zimmerman’s taking a couple of strides closer to the batter has severely diminished his range, allowing more ground balls to get by than ever, and additionally dragging Ian Desmond further over from short.
Within a couple of years then, the Nationals have witnessed their star groundball-vacuum become a complete defensive liability. It’s not like the Nats can simply bench Zimmerman either. Since becoming the first player the Nationals took in the draft after the team relocated to Washington, chosen out of the University of Virginia with the fourth overall pick in 2005, he has been the rock of their lineup, collecting two Silver Slugger awards on his way to a career .286/.352/.477 triple slash line. Throw in his six-year, $100 million contract extension – signed after an injury-shortened 2011, but only kicking in this past week – which will lock him through his age-34 season too, and it’s clear Washington aren’t about to declare Zimmerman simply a sunk cost.
All things considered, there’s never been a greater time to move Zimmerman to first base; positional incumbent Adam LaRoche isn’t the player who the Nats re-signed after a monster 2012, and is in the last year of his contract. Anthony Rendon played third in college, so could feasibly slide around from second. Danny Espinosa, benched last year in favor of Rendon, could ably fill in at the keystone. On days facing lefties, such a construction might actually be an improvement given how Espinosa has hit southpaws better than LaRoche (he has a .258 average, .332 on-base percentage and .450 slugging percentage as compared to LaRoche’s .244/.300/.429 line).
Yes there are downsides to such a plan – the team would be dreadfully thin in terms on infield depth, LaRoche would be wasted, and there would be extra pressure on Zimmerman’s bat at the less physically-, but more statistically-demanding position of first – but at this point, after putting off such a move last year, the transition is long overdue. . Putting his shoulder, and therefore his bat, and thus the $100 million still owed to him, back at third is a recipe for disaster – and not just for those fans behind first. Even with the ascension of Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond, not to mention the addition of Jayson Werth, the Nationals still need Zimmerman; though he might not be the franchise cornerstone of a couple of years ago, he is still a vital part of their offense – and someone crucial to their chances as a postseason contender.
Williams’ words today then mark a welcome recognition of an inconvenient truth. Whether he follows through in committing to such a less-than-ideal situation remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure; the ticket holders behind first base will be grateful if he does.