Nava helping stabilize Red Sox's depleted outfield and season
Daniel Nava has been productive in Boston leadoff spot without Jacoby Ellsbury
After three years away from game, Tom Wilhelmsen has become Mariners closer
Manager Fredi Gonzalez ssees Andrelton Simmons as a possible answer at short
This week's look under the radar finds a Red Sox flash in the pan doing well in an unexpected second chance, a possible new closer in Seattle, a new era at shortstop for the Braves and a spot starter in Milwaukee.
It's amazing that the Red Sox are in the thick of the AL East race given the state of the outfield. No fewer than seven Sox outfielders have landed on the DL, including the entire projected starting group of Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury and Ryan Sweeney. All told there have been a dozen players line up in the outfield this season so far, which matches last season's total and doesn't include Crawford or top prospect Ryan Kalish, neither of whom have made their season's debuts.
Of all the stopgap measures employed by Bobby Valentine, perhaps the best has been Nava. A veteran of 60 games with Boston in 2010, he made a big splash with a grand slam in his first at-bat. He spent the entire '11 season at Triple A Pawtucket and didn't even receive an invitation to big league camp. Since his recall due to the rash of injuries he's hitting .303/.444/.513 and has driven in 18 runs, most of which have come while occupying the leadoff spot for the first time. Starting in July there's going to be a crunch of bodies in Boston's outfield, and while Nava's showing has earned him a spot, the numbers game will work against him as Ellsbury, Crawford, Sweeney, Cody Ross are all guaranteed places on the roster when healthy. Complicating things even further is the Kevin Youkilis/Will Middlebrooks logjam. Nava is a solid pickup now for AL-only owners; barring other unforeseen setbacks, his stint in a prominent position has only a few weeks left. In the meantime, he's one of the more valuable outfielders readily available in most leagues.
When Brandon League was removed from Seattle's closer role last week it opened up a great opportunity for fantasy owners who guessed right on who his replacement would be. Those who thought it would be Hishashi Iwakuma were rewarded with two saves, albeit fluky ones (one of the three-inning variety and another as the finals reliever in a 12-inning game). For now, though, the right choice seems to be Wilhelmsen, a 6-foot-6, 230-pound right-hander with a 98 mph fastball and an incredible comeback story.
Wilhelmsen was sent for counseling twice by the Brewers after being caught smoking marijuana as a Milwaukee farmhand in '04, and finally called it quits in '05. After spending three years away from the game mainly as a bartender near the University of Arizona campus in Tucson, he mounted a comeback in '08 with the aid of his father. Signed by ex-Brewers assistant GM and current Mariners boss Jack Zduriencik in '10, he made the 25-man roster out of spring camp in '11, became the top setup man late in the year and is now the man who will get the call for saves on a regular basis. There's still a chance that League (five hits, one walk, five Ks, one earned run in five innings over four appearances since his demotion) gets the ball again. And the possible long-term option, lights-out youngster Stephen Pryor, has recently joined the staff after holding minor league opponents to just an 0.64 ERA and .086 WHIP in 28 innings earlier this season. At this time, Wilhelmsen should be owned by all owners who need a few extra saves.
Called up from Double A Mississippi, Simmons, 22, was thrown right into the teeth of the NL East pennant chase after replacing the disappointing Tyler Pastornicky, who had beaten him out for the starting job in spring training. However, since losing out at Disney World (partly due to a strained oblique), Simmons impressed with a .292/.372/.421 line with three home runs and 10 stolen bases, while committing just four errors in 235 chances. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has said that he sees Simmons as a possible permanent answer at short. Like most youngsters, there's no doubt that Simmons will find it difficult to adjust to the big leagues at first, but his speed is intriguing and worth a look in keeper leagues and in those with deep benches. With quality offensive middle infielders at such a premium these days, he's certainly someone to take a chance on.
You may have noticed an impressive performance from Fiers on Tuesday(against last week's subject, Nathan Eovaldi), when he held the Dodgers to just five hits and one run over seven innings in his big league starting debut. You may also have wondered why you hadn't heard much of him before. Well, Fiers isn't one of baseball's top prospects, doesn't have over-powering stuff but was needed to fill a hole created by Marco Estrada's trip to the DL. Drafted in the 22nd round in '09 out of Nova Southwest University in South Florida, Fiers, 26, uses guile to get hitters out, mixing in cutters, changeups and curves to keep hitters off balance. He seemed to master his craft last season following his promotion from Double A Huntsville to Nashville when he was a perfect 8-0 with a 1.11 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. He got a two-game audition with the big club in September but took a step back with a pretty pedestrian 1-3 record with a 4.42 ERA at Triple A Nashville this year. He took another step back in his second big league start, albeit a small one by losing to the Pirates, giving up four earned over five, with eight strikeouts. That high strikeout rate (9.6 per nine innings) gives him a chance to stick for the time being, but the NL is bound to catch up. For now, he's certainly someone to consider streaming this weekend against the punchless Padres.