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FANTASY FARE: Middlemen are making their mark

Among the many early-season surprises of 2019 is the rise of the middle infielder as a fantasy force. Considering that second base and shortstop are two positions where some major-league teams will punt offence for defence, it’s interesting that so many of middlemen are off to great starts.

Heading into Saturday’s play, 12 of 30 starting second basemen and 10 of 30 shortstops are hitting .300 or better. By comparison, just five first basemen, three third sackers and three catchers are hitting that well. In the outfield, where there are three times the number of starters, 21 are at .300 or higher. That’s 23%, still well short of the 37% of middle infielders.

Setting the standard for the middle infielders is a surprise: White Sox’s Tim Anderson. A former top prospect, he leads the majors with a .488 batting average, going 20-for-41, while chipping in with two homers and five steals. Yes, many other players will go through similar hot streaks this season, but this one jumps out because it’s the first. And it’s so unexpected. Anderson has both speed and occasional power (26 bags, 20 HRs last year, both career-highs), but his lack of plate discipline has soured his fantasy value and even threatened his starting role. His .281 OBP last year ranked 134th out of 141 MLB regulars, dropping his batting AVG for the third year in a row to .240. He swung at pitches outside the strike zone 40.3% of the time (10th worse mark in the majors) and made contact at only a 58.3% rate, again among baseball’s worst.

So, why the turnaround? A notorious free-swinger, he has been a little more selective in the batter’s box, swinging at more pitches in the zone and fewer outside of it and has reduced his first strike percentage from 64% to 53%. But he again has walked only once and his .581 BABIP suggesting a significant regression is on its way.

♦ Do you know what you DON’T want in your fantasy lineup at the moment? Right-handed platoon bats playing for teams in the Central Division of either league. In the NL, four of five Central teams currently deploy all right-handed rotations. So, with the large number of games they play against each other over the course of a season, the chance of a right-handed batter getting a start is minimal. The only Central team with a lefty starter is the Cubs, and they have two in Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels. Same story in the AL where the five teams are currently sending out 21 right-handed starters and just three southpaws — Chicago’s Carlos Rodon, plus Tigers’ Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris. Overall, both leagues currently combine for 107 righties and 38 lefties. That’s 74%, which is about 8% more than in previous years.

♦ Veteran 2B Ian Kinsler looked to be in a favourable fantasy situation when he signed with the up-and-coming Padres last December. The only red flag was that the Pods still had one eye down the road on their dynamic, young double-play combo of Fernando Tatis Jr., and Luis Urias. But at 36, Kinsler was obviously fine with keeping a spot warm until both kids were ready. His playing-time potential dodged its first bullet when, in a surprise move, Tatis made the opening-day roster while Urias, who was expected to start at short, was demoted. But Kinsler’s .167 AVG to start the season prompted the team to recall Urias this past week and suddenly the future at Petco Park was here. In the five games since Urias’ recall, the two kids have each sat out once, Kinsler three times.

♦ Miguel Cabrera’s early .261 AVG is passable but his power stats, the ones that fuel his fantasy stock, are virtually non-existent so far — zero homers and three RBIs. The promising news, however, is that his 50.0 hard hit rate is a career best.

♦ Nowhere is the diversity of the new-look MLB bullpen more apparent than in Philadelphia, where the Phillies are going with a four-man — yes, four — closer committee. Hector Neris, Seranthony Dominguez and Pat Neshek each have one save for the Phils so far and they are not even the one who was expected to lead the way. That would be David Robertson, who has scuffled in the early going. We should also point out that the Orioles are actually deploying five relievers in the closing role. But as they figure to win about half as many games as the Phillies, it’s almost not worth investing in any of them for the few save opps they’ll each find themselves in.

WAIVER WATCH: With fantasy rating out of 5

Daniel Vogelbach
1B/DH, Mariners
* *
Since the team returned from Japan, waiver-wire darling has been on a tear, going 12-for-26 with 6 HRs and 11 RBIs — noteworthy because, in three years as an M’s part-timer, he managed just 127 ABs and a .197 AVG. Those numbers, a .400 BABIP and the fact he’s still sitting against lefties are all legitimate reasons to be skeptical. However, he has cut his K%, upped his BB% by 5% apiece and his exit velocity is among the best in MLB right now. Plus, with Jay Bruce struggling to get on-base early on, ‘Vogey’ is worth riding for now.

Merrill Kelly
SP, Diamondbacks
* * *
A surprise addition to the rotation after a rough spring, the 30-year-old rookie righty — who is back after four years in Korea, where he was that league’s top pitcher last season — has allowed four ERs over his first 14 innings, while striking out 12 and walking two. He’s been aided by a .194 BABIP but has developed a promising four-pitch repertoire, including a 94-mph fastball.

Jesse Winker
OF, Reds
* * *
In an all-too-familiar case of early-season over-reaction, Yahoo owners bailed on the promising youngster after he batted just .103 over his first nine games. Since then he has gone 4-for-10 with two 2 HRs and 4 RBIs, which is more representative of his previous two years’ body of work — a tick under .300 with 14 HRs in 400 ABs.

HOT AND NOT: Starters so far this season

Joe Musgrove PIT
0.00 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, 9.0 K/9
Tyler Glasnow TB
0.53, 0.82, 21 Ks, 3-0
Matt Shoemaker TOR
0.92, 0.71, 19 Ks, 3-0
Luis Castillo CIN
0.92, 0.66, 25 Ks, 2 QS
Brad Keller KC
2.45, 1.09, 23 Ks, 4 QS
Max Fried ATL
0.00, 0.66, 2 W, 5.9 K/9
Collin McHugh HOU
2.65, 0.88, 11.6 K/9
Shane Bieber CLE
1.80, 0.67, 2 QS
– – – – – – – –
Chris Sale BOS
9.00, 1.54, 5.5 K/9
Aaron Nola PHI
6.46, 1.43, 1 win
Carlos Carrasco CLE
12.60, 2.50. 15.3 K/9
Walker Buehler LAD
8.25, 1.50, 6.7 K/9
Stephen Strasburg WAS
5.40, 1.38, 1 win
Zack Greinke ARZ
7.16, 1.41, 1 win

WEIRD SPLITS

Khris Davis homers: 10
Chris Davis hits: 0

INJURY UPDATES

Mike Trout (groin) won’t play this weekend in Chicago, but could be back early this coming week … Clayton Kershaw makes his first 2019 start on Monday, replacing Hyun-Jin Ryu who takes his place on the IL with a strained groin … Alex Bregman (hamstring) has been out since Tuesday but isn’t likely to land on the IL … Brian McCann (hamstring) and David Dahl (abs) are expected back by Tuesday … Mike Clevinger’s severe back strain will keep him out until July … Francisco Lindor will try running the bases Saturday but is still looking at a late-April start to his season … Out a few days with a sprained toe, Nicholas Castellanos should be back this weekend … Billy Hamilton has a mild knee sprain … Max Muncy is day-to-day with a sore finger … Look for Todd Frazier (oblique) to make his season debut this week … Gregory Polanco (shoulder) begins his triple-A rehab stint on Saturday … Rougned Odor came down with a sore knee on Friday.

(All stats are up to and including Friday)

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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