June 2010

Giants rookie hurler is no Bum

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There hasn’t been a quieter season debut of a Top 10 prospect than when Madison Bumgarner took the hill for the Giants on
June 26.  Maybe it’s because Bumgarner is
old news after a miniature-sized cup of tea in September of last season.  Or maybe Stephen Strasburg has soaked up all
the hype available for starting pitchers at the moment. 

Or maybe — in fact, very likely — it’s because no one knows
what to say about the enigmatic 20-year-old right now.   

Bumgarner had about as solid an outing as you
could ask for from a youngster making his second career start.   He tossed seven innings, limiting the Red
Sox to just five hits and a walk while striking out five.  The only damage came on two long balls over
the first two innings — a solo shot and a three-run blast– after which he put
up five scoreless frames and retired 16 of the last 17 batters to face him.   He kept
Boston hitters off-balance all afternoon with a slow curve hovering in the low
70s and an impressive mid-80s slider.

What continued to confuse the
heck out of scouts and analysts is that Bumgarner’s fastball continually came
in at 90 mph that day (except for an adrenaline-aided first inning when he was
dealing at 91-92), which echoed his Minor League performance earlier this
season.  This is what is preventing analysts from making a true big-league projection for the kid.

A prominent feature that led the southpaw
to be ranked as the No. 6 prospect in all of baseball to begin 2009 was heat
that consistently lived in the mid-90s. 
He posted a 15-3 record, 1.48 ERA and 164 Ks in 141 2/3 innings at
Class A in 2008, leaving scouts and fantasy experts alike drooling and
projecting him as a future ace.  He was
equally effective the year after in the Minors, going 12-2 with a 1.85
ERA.  However towards the end of ’09, Bumgarner’s velocity began to drop, resulting in just 69 Ks over 107 frames
after a promotion to Double-A.

He entered Spring Training 2010 with similar velocity issues,
throwing about 88-90, which resulted in a drop in his prospect
status.  The 6-foot-4 hurler countered that with a
very solid, though not eye-popping, performance at Triple-A, compiling a 7-1
record this season with a 3.16 ERA and 59 Ks in 82 2/3 innings.  That was enough to earn him a call-up to the
Majors, but apparently not enough to crank up the hype machine.

So what’s to make of this talented young lefty who
currently holds the fifth spot in the San Francisco rotation?  It’s probably time to adjust
expectations.  This kid is good, there’s
no question.  Dealing in a pitcher’s park
in the offensively challenged NL West with one of the best pitching coaches in
the game, Dave Righetti, tutoring him, Bumgarner is in a great position to be successful.  Righetti has tamed the “stuff” of Jonathon
Sanchez, and resurrected Barry Zito’s career (both left-handers), so a talent
like Mad Bum shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. 

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While Bumgarner may no longer be a huge strikeout threat or
post Cy Young-caliber stats, he should be a very solid starter at the Major
League level, even this season.  You’ll want
him in fantasy leagues over other heralded blue chips like fellow southpaw and
Top 10 prospect Brian Matusz, or recent callups like Jake Arrieta, Brad Lincoln,
and Andrew Oliver. 

If Bumgarner can keep the ball on the ground and improve on
a 10-10 ground ball-to-fly-ball ratio in start No. 1, there’s a good chance he’ll
post an ERA in the mid-high threes with adequate complementary numbers across
the board.  If all goes according to
plan, he’ll have three upcoming road starts against the Rockies, Brewers and
Nationals, which will be a nice test.  If
he passes that, you won’t want to wait on any experts’ projections to grab
him in all fantasy formats.

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Time to accept it: Pat Burrell is back

I will not enjoy one second of writing this post.  However, the fact that Pat Burrell is suddenly
raking as the Giants everyday left fielder needs to be addressed.  

I am reluctantly buying into the reemergence of the Greatest
Mets Killer of All Time, thanks to San Francisco rescuing him from the waiver
wire on June 4.  After going deep on
Thursday, Burrell is now averaging a homer every 12.75 at-bats with his new
club.  He’s batting .314, with four long
balls, 10 RBIs and a .987 OPS in 17 games as a Giant. 

Part of the reason Burell is one of my least-favorite
players of all time (other than 42 homers in 536 career at-bats against the Mets), is
also part of the reason I am on board with believing his revival is
legitimate.  He’s notorious for having
some character issues, and part of that is the fact he needs to be seriously
motivated to perform. 

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Rewarding him with a big contract clearly has a negative
impact on his motivation.   After putting up a gaudy .282-37-116 line as a
25-year-old in 2002 — his best career season to date — the Phillies reasonably
though they had a budding star on their hands and rewarded him with a lucrative
six-year, $50 million extension.   Bad move. 
Lacking the drive to land big money, Burrell suffered through an embarrassing
.209-21-64 campaign the very next season.

He proceeded to labor through five up-and-down seasons in
Philly, getting just enough incentive from the desire to be served in local
bars and not have things thrown at him on the field by the Philly faithful to
put up respectable power numbers.  In his
last season with the team, a contract year, Burrell launched 33 homers, coincidentally
the highest total since his previous contract year.

This led the Rays to inexplicably reward him with another
hefty contract.  Didn’t they learn?  After signing a two-year, $16 million deal in
2009, Burrell fell flat on his face in Tampa Bay.  Playing in a mostly empty Tampa Bay stadium after getting used to raucous sellouts in
Philly could not have had a good impact for a guy who needs to have a fire lit
under him to perform.  Struggling to
adjust to American League pitching, dealing with injuries, and not having the
Mets to pad his numbers 19 times a year, he posted a .221-14-64 clip last campaign.  

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Character issues — not his bat — had to have been the reason the Rays
sent Burrell packing on May 15 despite owing him about nine million dollars,
considering Tampa is not some big-market franchise who can sweep bad contracts
under the rug easily.  A 2-for-25 slump
through sporadic playing time in early May was a convenient excuse to let him
go and claim he was washed up.  In actuality, Burrell drove in 13 runs in just 59 at-bats in April — about a 117-RBI pace
over a full season — so it’s not like his performance had been so
terrible. 

So now Burrell’s back in the National League with a fresh
start at age 33, playing in front of a packed house again every day and batting
in the fifth slot for a contender.  We’ve
already seen the wonders a change of scenery can do for other 33-year-olds this
season in Troy Glaus and Burrell’s new teammate Aubrey Huff.   Burrell is healthy, and still clearly has
pop left in his bat.

Also, it’s important to consider that Burrell has been a strong second-half producer.  He has more career RBIs in July
and August than any other months, with August also being his favorite month to
go deep. 

So now would be a good time to grab Burrell while he’s available in virtually all leagues and expect solid
power production the rest of the way.  And here’s
the biggest supporting argument for that suggestion:  He’s about to finish out
the last three months of another contact season.

To ‘Z’ or not to ‘Z’?

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Right now Carlos Zambrano is available in over half of
Yahoo! leagues.  After an impressive
seven-inning, one-run, eight-strikeout gem against the Angels on
June 20, lots of fantasy owners are probably debating whether or not to scoop
him up.  While it can’t hurt to take a
flier on the starter-turned-reliever-turned-starter again, a closer look at his recent performance might serve as a red flag for his future.

 

First of all, reports of Zambrano’s revival after being
reinserted into the rotation have been a bit premature.  The right-hander’s 3.09 ERA in four outings since his return to starting is a little misleading, as three of the five
runs he allowed to the A’s on June 15th were unearned.  Unearned runs can’t hide an unattractive 1.50
WHIP, the result of allowing over a hit per inning and walking an erratic 12
batters.

 

Zambrano also appears to be a different pitcher than he was in his highly entertaining heyday.  When Big Z was at his best — such as in a complete-game
shutout last September and when he fired a no-hitter the September prior — he dealt
primarily an overpowering four-seam fastball hovering around 94-96 mph while mixing in a
high 80s changeup and a mid-80s slider. 

 

That is nothing close to the repertoire of Carlos Zambrano
circa 2010.  Since his return to the
rotation, the majority of pitches he’s thrown have been a sinker that averages
around 88-90.  His four-seamer is down
around 91, and his slider now sits in the low-80s. He’s almost ditched the
changeup completely, because with the decreased velocity of his fastball, there
isn’t enough of a change to fool opposing hitters. 

 

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Now for some optimism: 
Zambrano’s sinker helped him induce eight groundballs compared to four
fly-balls against the Angels.  This is
encouraging. The 29-year-old’s two best seasons in the bigs — when he rang up a
30-14 record with a 3.04 ERA from 2004 to 2005 — were the only two years he
compiled a groundball-to-fly-ball ratio above one (1.10).  If he can reinvent himself and master the
sinker, he could end up becoming a quality starter with a decent ERA.  However the WHIP will probably remain high
and an eight-strikeout performance will likely become an anomaly. 

 

If all stays according to schedule, Zambrano will
have a
tough stretch of opponents over his final four starts before the
All-Star
break.  He’ll take the mound at U.S.
Cellular Field against the red-hot White Sox (winners of 10 out of 11)
on June
26. He’s then set to square off against three of the top-six
run-producing
offenses in the National League — at home against Cincinnati,
in Arizona and in Los Angeles. 


So if you’re desperate for starting pitching and you want to
grab the former Cubs ace go ahead, but expect a bit of a bumpy ride.  Zambrano’s fiery and volatile personality
doesn’t fit the profile of a control guy who pitches to contact.  He’s just not Big Z without the mid-90s heat
that blows people away.

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Sorting through the prospects, finding Neil Walker

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Don’t feel bad if you’ve overlooked Pirates rookie second
baseman Neil Walker.

He’s used to it.

The hype-machine has never been used on the 25-year-old. His Minor
League performance wasn’t documented by many fantasy columnists and his
big league debut wasn’t highlighted on SportsCenter.  He doesn’t have a catchy name like Starlin or
Buster or share the namesake of a famous musician or hit 500-foot home
runs. No one has proclaimed him the
savior of a franchise or projected him as a future Hall-of-Famer.

But despite the lack of pizzazz and fanfare that other recent call-ups have gotten,
Walker may end up being the most useful all-around fantasy player of the bunch when
all is said and done this season.

After drafting the local kid as a catcher with the 11th
overall pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, even the Pirates didn’t treat
Walker with complete respect. In 2007,
the Bucs moved him from his natural position behind the plate to the hot
corner because Ronny Paulino and Ryan Doumit blocked his path to the Majors.  Despite being voted as the best defensive
third baseman in the International League in 2008, Walker was given the boot
from that position as well because of the presence of Andy LaRoche and phenom
Pedro Alvarez. 

Despite being shuffled all around the diamond, Walker
continued to improve with the bat. Increased plate discipline led to a
break-out season in 2010. In 168 at-bats with Triple-A Indianapolis this year, the
switch-hitter posted a .321-6-26 clip while stealing 10 bases and scoring 25
times.  He smacked an impressive 18
doubles, which contributed to a .560 slugging percentage to go along with a
.392 on-base percentage. 

Walker has translated that success to the bigs, putting up a .292-2-9 clip with two steals and 13
runs scored in 96 at-bats since being called up on May 25. The Pirates were impressed
enough to send Akinori Iwamura packing and Walker now has second base and the two-hole in the
Steel City all to himself.  After
blasting his second homer and scoring twice in a 2-for-4 effort on June 17 —
his second two-hit game in three days — it’s time to start giving Walker a
little hype of his own.

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Walker is older and has had more Minor League seasoning than
any of the highly-touted phenoms who have been promoted of late. He might also be more ready to contribute immediately in the Majors. Michael Stanton
still strikes out a ton, Carlos Santana has no protection, Buster Posey’s power
stroke isn’t fully there yet and Starlin Castro looks over-matched at
times. Fellow Pirate Alvarez hit just
.277 in Triple-A this season. Even if he is legit, the slugger can only help Walker in Pittsburgh’s lineup. Walker is also the only one of
these studs who does damage on the basepaths.

At a second-base position riddled with underachievers
thus far (Chase Utley, Howard Kendrick, Brian Roberts, Gordon Beckham) and fast starters who are running
out of magic (Kelly Johnson, Ty Wigginton), Walker may be well-worth taking a
flier on.  He has the potential to put up a .290-10-40 line with double digit steals the remainder of the year.  

Walker, who also has third base eligibility, is available in 95 percent of Yahoo! leagues. But that negligence should come as no surprise. 

Forever Young?

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Delmon Young was teetering on the brink, on the edge, on whatever. Pretty much, he was about as close as one can get to officially being stamped with the dreaded “bust” label.  After being drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 2003 First-Year Player Draft, Young trudged through three-plus underwhelming seasons with the Rays and Twins while averaging a measly 11 homers and 67 RBIs per 500 at-bats. 

You couldn’t blame the Twins when they signed Jim Thome heading into the 2010 campaign; a cut in Young’s playing time seemed both inevitable and justified.  It appeared they were all but  conceding the fact they’d made a colossal error by shipping ace Matt Garza to the Rays in exchange for the underachieving outfielder in ’08.  

 

When Young bursted out of the gate with two homers and seven RBIs in this season’s first week, experts scoffed and were proven right when Young finished April batting .222.  Mixed-leaguers still yawned after a nice little .313-3-18 line in May, virtually ignoring Dmitri’s brother in all leagues. 

But now, Young’s raking has reached the point where everyone has to start paying attention.  Over his last 17 games, Young is batting .377 with four homers and 20 RBIs.  He currently has an 11-game hitting streak, during which he’s gone deep thrice while driving in 14 runs.  The 24-year-old is on pace for 22 homers, 111 RBIs and a .500 slugging percentage, all of which would far surpass career highs. As would a .295 average, 41 doubles and a .833 OPS.

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Some guys are just late bloomers.  See Jayson Werth, Raul Ibanez, Marlon Byrd, Brandon Phillips.  Young really isn’t that late, and is well ahead of most of those guys’ career paths.  It’s also very possible the “blooming” is a result of a brand new outlook.  Young melted off 35 pounds in offseason, and his before-and-after pictures are startling enough they could be in a Nutrisystem commercial.  He truly looks like a different guy, and even sports a new head shot with an ear-to-ear grin to ensure his cantankerous tag of yesteryear is a thing of the past.

Another part of Young’s new outlook is increased plate discipline, which is probably the most encouraging aspect of his emergence.  After averaging an even 100 whiffs per 500 at-bats with a rough strikeout rate of 20.0 during his first four seasons — a pretty unforgiveable number for a player who doesn’t hit homers — Young is on pace to fan just 60 times in 2010 with a strikeout rate of just 11.6.  And while a 38-walk pace is still pretty slim, it would be a career high, as well. 

Not many fantasy owners have caught on yet, as Young is still owned in just 19 percent of Yahoo! leagues.  So it’s time to admit that we all wrote off Delmon Young a little too soon, and start giving him some just due credit.

Probing Paulino

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Astros right-hander Felipe Paulino has been garnering a lot of attention with some blazing heat and a string of strong starts.  Although he’s been flying off the shelves in mixed leagues, I still don’t trust him.   So after an eight-inning, two-run gem in Colorado on Wednesday night, it’s time to see what this guy is all about.

Observing the 26-year-old Paulino , you find a lot of comparisons to fellow Dominican, Bartolo Colon.   They share similar stocky (put nicely) body types, but Paulino is noticeably larger at 6-foot-2, 270 pounds.   Like Colon in his heyday, Paulino is mainly a fastball-slider pitcher, routinely dialing the heat up to 97 mph while mixing in a high-80’s breaking ball.   Also, like Colon, Paulino struggled mightily in his first full season before showing prolonged flashes of brilliance in year two.

Over his last five starts, Paulino has dominated to the tune of a 1.75 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP, with opponents hitting just .194 off him.  He’s gone eight innings in each of his last three outings, permitting a total of just three earned runs.   No one goes deep off him, as he’s allowed just two long balls all season.

This is all very impressive, and it’s hard to deny it being worthy of a flier in mixed leagues.  But don’t go nuts;  I see plenty of rough patches in Paulino’s future.  This is because there’s another, less flattering comparison you can draw with Paulino, and that would be to Diamondbacks right-hander Edwin Jackson.  A similarly talented 26-year-old, Jackson also throws 97 with a strong slider, but has been quite the enigma throughout his career.  The thing that has plagued Jackson, which also appears to be a flaw of Paulino’s, is a fastball that comes in a little too straight.  No matter how fast a pitcher can deal, a Major League hitter will make solid contact if it comes in on a line. 

As a result, you see bouts of inconsistency, which no pitcher exemplifies more than Jackson.  In 2009 he pitched to a stellar 2.52 ERA and .212 opponents’ average prior to the All-Star game, then labored to a 5.07 ERA after the break while opponents batted .290 off him.  This season he’s allowed at least six earned runs three times, while also blanking opponents three times, leading to a sub-par 5.38 ERA and 1.40 WHIP.  Wild unpredictability like this is probably what you can probably expect from Paulino.

Control issues have also been one of Felipe’s major bugaboos throughout his professional career, and are yet to go away.  In 87 Minor League games, Paulino averaged 4.3 walks per nine innings.  This resulted in an uninspiring 4.07 ERA and 1.38 WHIP over his Minor League career, with a 21-23 record.  The hefty hurler currently sits among the baseball’s Top 5 in free passes, and even during his hot stretch he’s posted a BB/9 of four.  It’s going to be virtually impossible for Paulino to avoid future struggles as long he’s dealing with this wildness.

Another thing the guy has going against him is the light-hitting Astros lineup.  Houston is third-to-last in the Majors in runs scored, and second-to-last in batting average.  Knowing this, it’s no surprise that Paulino has just one win to show for his recent emergence after starting out 0-6.

 He also has a tough stretch of upcoming games.  He’ll travel to KC to face the Royals on June 15 — who are surprisingly second in the American League in batting average — followed by two scheduled outings against a scary Rangers’ offense.

So sure, go ahead and grab Paulino, and hope to ride out this current hot streak.  But don’t say you weren’t warned if he blows up soon and kills your ERA and WHIP for the week.

Catching on at the top

This has not been a particularly good year for men behind the plate.  The RBI leaderboard for backstops is filled with journeymen, led by John Buck and Rob Barajas, with Miguel Olivo and Chris Snyder rounding out the Top 5.  Of the Top 12 Yahoo! ranked catchers heading into the season, eight of them have either succumbed to injury or disappointed greatly in their performance.   The current Top 12 based on performance thus far is an uninspiring list of limited upside, including guys like Ronny Paulino and Nick Hundley.  There is one guy on that list, however, whose name leaps out with intrigue, and that would be Rays’ under-the-radar rookie John Jaso.

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Jaso turned heads on Sunday to the point of whiplash, with a monster five-RBI outburst that included a double, a home run and a stolen base.  He boosted his average to .307 on the year with three long balls and 24 RBIs in just 101 at-bats.   This is all very impressive, but those numbers won’t get anyone much more excited than Paulino or Hundley.   Here’s the kicker: Jaso was batting leadoff on Sunday.  For the Rays.  The third highest-scoring team in baseball. 

With Jason Bartlett hurt (and proving 2009 to be a fluke prior to the injury), the Rays have been searching for a leadoff hitter.  So Joe Maddon decided to give his 26-year-old catcher a shot, and for good reason.  The guy can flat-out get on base.  Jaso had posted a .410 on-base percentage heading into Sunday, and it now sits at .423.  In 620 Minor League games, the former 12th round draft choice posted a .378 OBP along with a .290 average. 

While OBP is irrelevant in most fantasy leagues, it directly relates to runs scored, especially when a guy is batting atop a highly-potent lineup.  If Jaso can continue to put up anything close to those OBP numbers, he’s sure to stick at leadoff and score runs in bunches, with guys like Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena driving him in regularly.    

While the 97-RBI pace is a bit over the head of the lefty batsmen, Jaso did show flashes of respectable power in the Minors with highs of 14 homers and 71 runs driven in.  In 32 at-bats with runners in scoring position he’s batting an impressive .344.  Sunday’s show of speed was also impressive, but he’s probably not the next Jason Kendall, so don’t expect a ton in the stolen base department. 

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With Dioner Navarro batting .202 and Kelly Shoppach being, well, Kelly Shoppach, Jaso shouldn’t have much trouble wrestling away the Rays full-time catching role.  If his defense proves unsatisfactory behind the plate, he could also fill Tampa’s void at designated hitter, where he started on Sunday.  He may be on his way to a belated breakout season a la teammate Ben Zobist in 2009.  So if you’re sick of watching hyped prospects like Geovany Soto or Matt Wieters go 0-for-3 every day, why not give John Jaso a shot?

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Hurler

In case you hadn’t heard enough about the Tigers lately due to some play involving their star first baseman wanting a piece of some history-making action and intercepting a routine grounder to second which set off a series of events that evolved into one of the more compelling controversies in years …I decided I’d give them some more attention. 

It seems as though almost every member of the Tigers roster has made waves in the fantasy world this year for one reason or another, as the team has been written about ad nauseum.   Well despite all this, one notable name from the past has managed to fly under the radar in Detroit while reemerging as a fantasy force over the last month.  His name is Jeremy Bonderman and you can find him at your local waiver wire in 88 percent of Yahoo! leagues.

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Bonderman struggled through just 81 2/3 innings from 2008-2009 due to Thoracic outlet syndrome, which as you obviously already know consists of

“A group of distinct disorders involving compression at the superior thoracic outlet that affect the brachial plexus (nerves that pass into the arms from the neck) which may be caused by  movement of the clavicle and shoulder girdle on arm movement or by abnormalities or enlargement of the various muscles surrounding the arteries, veins, and brachial plexus.”

 
Indeed, Wikipedia. Indeed.. 

 

No matter what you can make of that, it sounds like a pretty awful thing for someone who uses his arm to throw a really hard spherical object for a living to deal with.  Rangers catcher Jason Saltalamachia currently suffers from the same condition and couldn’t even throw the ball back to the pitcher this season.  But somewhat miraculously, Bonderman has recovered and is looking good as new.

 

In 35 innings since May 1, the right-hander has pitched to a stellar 1.80 ERA with a 1.17 WHIP and 27/9 K/BB ratio.  His last start, a solid eight-inning performance against the Indians on June 1, was his longest outing since July of 2007.  After struggling with his velocity over the last couple years, Bonderman’s sinking fastball has been popping around 92-93 mph consistently, getting stronger as the season has progressed.    As a result, the number of groundballs he induces have been increasing, culminating in a 1.24 groundball-to-fly-ball ratio over his last two starts.  This is what you want to see from a starter whose most successful season in the bigs undoubtedly came in 2006, the only year his GB/FB ratio eclipsed one. 

 

You may be amazed to learn that Bonderman is still only 27-years-old, probably because he pitched his first full season at the tender age of 20 over 1,000 innings ago way back in 2003.  This may also explain why he’s experienced a myriad of arm injuries, including elbow issues in 2007.  (Side note: after observing Bonderman’s plight, wouldn’t you think the Tigers would be treating 21-year-old Rick Porcello and his current 5.25 ERA a little differently?)  

 

Anyway, the unquestionably talented and formerly productive Bonderman finally appears back to full strength and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to achieve his potential.  In that banner year of 2006, he won 14 games and struck out 202 batters, which gives you an idea of what he’s capable of.  His ERA probably won’t get much better than the high threes, but should be lower than that when pitches against the Royals on Sunday who’ve scratched out just 14 runs over their last six games.   

 

So grab him before then, because thanks to Jim Joyce, Miguel Cabrera, Austin Jackson and a bunch of other Tigers hoopla, it’s likely no one else will.

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