AL Waiver Wire:  Week 3

Vernon Wells| Los Angeles Angels| OF| ESPN: 27 percent ownership, Yahoo! : 38 percent ownership
YTD: .243/.264/.471
Oliver rest of season p[rojection: .249/.293/.435

Amidst the jokes and ridiculing of Wells’ albatross of a contract, it is easy to lose sight of the fact he hit 25 home runs in 2011, and that fantasy owners aren’t footing the bill. He had basically no value beyond the power, hitting .218, but a bump to his average this season could make him a solid fourth or fifth outfielder in large mixed leagues. The power has returned this year, as he has four home runs in 68 plate appearances, and—wouldn’t you look at that—his average is up to .243. He won’t win a batting title with that average, but it is palatable, and his high line drive rate suggests there is some upside for average.

Many anxious Mike Trout owners are waiting for him to patrol the outfield for the Angels instead of the Salt Lake Bees. That time will come some time in 2012, but it isn’t a slam dunk it will come at Wells’ expense. Peter Bourjos is off to a wretched start, and while he’s a far superior defender to Wells, he is also a young player with options remaining. Bourjos was also a popular name in trade rumors last July, leaving open another possible path to playing time for Trout should he be dealt.

In short, don’t assume Wells is a place-holder who will see his playing time reduced to nil in the near future. Owners in need of a little thump in their outfield could do worse than turning to Wells.

Recommendation: Should be owned in all large mixed leagues and AL-only formats.

Matt LaPorta| Cleveland Indians| 1B| ESPN: 0 percent ownership, Yahoo! : 0 percent ownership
YTD: .364/.427/.667 (Triple-A)
Oliver ROS: .253/.320/.419

LaPorta’s hot start, which translates to an MLE of .317/.376/.554, coincides with an ice-cold start at first base for free agent acquisition Casey Kotchman. Kotchman has an ugly .140/.234/.263 slash in 65 plate appearances this season. He has had some bad luck with a .128 BABIP, but for a player who relies on a stellar glove and high batting average to offset his lack of typical first base pop, his current line is well below acceptable. He is currently mired in an 0-20 slump, and has been benched in two of the last four games in favor of Jose Lopez. It may not be much longer before the team decides to take another extended look at LaPorta.

LaPorta has proven he can hit Triple-A pitching, but the onus is now on him to prove he’s more than a Quad-A masher. There are 1,008 reasons to question whether he can hit major league pitching. In that number of plate appearances, he has a career line of .238/.304/.397.

Now 27, LaPorta isn’t likely to get many more chances. He was considered a polished college hitter with thump when he was drafted, and he remains a hitter with raw power that he has failed to translate fully to the majors. If this trip to Columbus was the one that turned the light switch on, LaPorta can be an asset to fantasy owners in home runs. He makes enough contact to think that he won’t be a total drag in batting average if he has truly figured it out. I remain skeptical, but he could be the next late bloomer story, and is worth keeping tabs on in highly competitive large mixed leagues and AL-only formats.

Recommendation: Should be added to watch lists, but not necessary to stash.

Brad Eldred| Detroit Tigers| UTIL| Not available in ESPN or Yahoo! player pool
YTD: .388/.444/1.013
Oliver ROS: .364/.416/.969

If LaPorta would be a late bloomer breaking through the ceiling of Quad-A hitter at age 27, what would that make Eldred, who is 31 and a veteran of 3,840 minor league plate appearances? I’m not sure what that would make him, but if it results in fantasy production, who cares?

Eldred is a large man, and will be restricted to designated hitter duties for the Tigers. It should come as no surprise his calling card is power. He has 240 round trippers in his minor league career, which prorates to 37.5 home runs per 600 plate appearances. He has seen time in the majors in three seasons—27 plate appearances in 2010, 47 in 2007, and 208 all the way back in 2005. That’s not much of an opportunity to prove to prove his bat could stick.

In that limited time he was able to show off plus thump, hitting 15 home runs with a .215 ISO in 282 plate appearances. Unfortunately for him, his plus power came with a penchant for striking out (36.5 percent strikeout rate), and not enough patience (5.7 percent walk rate).

He’s getting another look in no small part because the Tigers have struggled to get production from their designated hitters. That said, he’s also earned a call-up thanks to crushing International League pitching. He has drilled 12 home runs, and has a .610 ISO in 86 plate appearances, and his slash translates to an MLE of .364/.416/.969. Suffice to say, he’s a hot bat, and he’s locked in.

The Tigers may simply be hoping to cash in on that while it lasts, but that’s no reason to completely dismiss him in fantasy games. He’s not going to sustain his current level of play, and there’s a good chance that he’ll fall flat on his face. However, owners in large mixed leagues and AL-only formats who are hurting in home runs should take a gamble on Eldred. It remains to be seen where he’ll slot in the lineup, but somewhere in the five-to-seven range is a safe guess. That would plant him behind OBP machines Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, which will lead to opportunities to drive in runs.

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

Because he’s not available in either ESPN or Yahoo! league player pools, he’ll likely be only utility eligible when he is added. That hurts his flexibility, but if his power plays well enough to offset his strikeout rate and keep him in The Show, he’ll be worth tying up a utility spot for.

Recommendation: Should be added by power starved owners in extremely large mixed leagues and AL-only formats after he clears waivers, or for a late waiver priority/$1-3 FAAB bid.

Luke Hochevar| Kansas City Royals| SP| ESPN: 1.9 percent ownership, Yahoo! : 9 percent ownership
YTD: 4.98 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 3.32 BB/9, 6.65 K/9, 42.2 percent GB
Oliver ROS: 4.39 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 2.9 BB/9, 6.1 K/9

This is my way of reminding you that Hochevar is under-owned. I’ve spouted off plenty about the skills gain he showed after the All-Star break last year, but an ugly line in his second start of the season has probably led to questions about whether they were real.

That question is reasonable given Hochevar’s lackluster results in the past, but I’m inclined to continue to believe in his breakout that began last year. The ugly start isn’t as bad as it appeared, something I addressed in depth in the comment section of the year’s first Jeff Niemann| Tampa Bay Rays| SP| ESPN: 4.5 percent ownership, Yahoo!: 10 percent ownership
YTD: 4.11 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 2.93 BB/9, 9.39 K/9, 51.2 percent GB
Oliver ROS: 4.10 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 2.8 BB/9, 6.7 K/9

Niemann is the “other guy,” in a talented Rays rotation that gets plenty of fantasy love. He doesn’t have fantasy ace potential, but he quietly gets by as a low-four ERA guy who fills up the strike zone (which helps his WHIP), induces ground balls at a solid rate, and strikes out batters at a hair below league average rate. When he is on, he does all three things a pitcher has the most control over: throwing strikes, missing bats, and determining batted ball type, even better. He’s following up a season, 2011, in which he posted his best xFIP in promising fashion.

He’s using a five-pitch mix to miss bats at a high rate thus far. He’s throwing a four-seam fastball, sinker, slider, curveball, and change-up according to his Brooks Baseball player card. Four of his five pitches are getting batters to miss at a significantly higher rate than that of his pitching contemporaries. The only one that isn’t doing so is his curveball, which has been effective by getting looking strikes at a high rate, and coaxing ground balls often when the ball is put in play.

If he continues to rack up strikeouts at a higher rate than his career mark, limit his free passes, and keep the ball on the ground, he’s got a shot to post an ERA in the mid-to-high-3s. He has produced a better than league average WHIP each of the last three seasons, and is backed by an offense that ranks eighth in runs scored thus far, something that bodes well for his chance at earning wins. All-in-all, there is a lot to like about Niemann, and he is grossly underrated, and under-owned.

Recommendation: Should be owned in all large mixed leagues and AL-only formats, and some shallower formats for favorable matchups.

Matt Thornton| White Sox| RP| ESPN: 16.9 percent ownership, Yahoo! : 40 percent ownership
YTD: 0.93 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 0.00 BB/9, 7.45 K/9, 55.2 percent GB
Oliver ROS: 3.10 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 2.6 BB/9, 9.6 K/9

My favorite to lead the White Sox in saves at season’s end remains Addison Reed, whom I wrote about during the first week of the season. Reed should be owned in all but the shallowest of leagues for his ability to help in ERA, WHIP and strikeout in the short term, and saves in the long term.

However, should the club remove Hector Santiago from the closer role, something Robin Ventura doesn’t appear ready to do just yet, Thornton will probably get the first crack.

Thornton put a brutal April behind him last year to finish with a stat line that falls in line with the bulk of his White Sox career. He remains a power southpaw who has success by following a simple formula of throwing tons of mid-to-high-90s fastballs. He has yet to walk a batter this season, but has hit one. He’s getting ground balls at a high rate.

Considering it is Santiago’s whiplash-causing home runs that have created this potentially fluid closing situation in the first place, keeping balls in the yard by keeping them on the ground is a desirable trait for Thornton to possess. Owners in need of saves, or even owners looking to dump a non-rosterable player for an asset, should add Thornton in the hopes of one more Santiago implosion opening the door to Thornton closing ballgames.

Recommendation: Should be owned in all large mixed leagues and AL-only formats, and most shallow formats.

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